The Saxton family


During his emigration voyage to New Zealand, John Waring Saxton compiled a workbook and diary, containing fifty pages of inventions and handy hints for new colonists. Looking through the book today, we can see that many of his ideas and contraptions are completely unworkable, but his idealistic enthusiasm for pioneering life is obvious. Unfortunately, he had no idea of the hardships to come. There is a plaintive little note at the end of the book, which he added in 1844, three years after he arrived: 'Commenced book full of dream of preparing for a new way of life wherein I should have become abundantly happy ... sad & bitter disappointment of every hope.' (1)

The Saxtons were one of the earliest European families to settle here, and it is thanks to the survival of many of John Waring Saxton's diaries and journals, accompanied by his vivid pen and ink drawings, that we know so much about their life.

The Saxton family emigrated on the advice of Joseph Somes, one of John Saxton's brothers-in-law. Somes was a wealthy shipowner, and a director of the New Zealand Company. Saxton recalls '...at my sister Caroline's wedding, Mr Somes, said looking significantly at me, as he talked about New Zealand, that anyone might do well there with £2000. I drank this in greedily but it was a fearful temptation ...' (2)

Saxton and his wife Priscilla, their five children, and Priscilla's mother Mrs Crumpton all left Gravesend for Nelson aboard the Clifford on 19 December 1841. With them was Saxton's brother the Reverend Charles Saxton, and his wife Mary. On board, the Saxton children made a model Toy Town, which is currently on display at Te Papa.

The Clifford arrived at Port Nicholson on 3 May 1842, and promptly ran aground. The passengers and crew had to wait for the rising tide to set the ship free. After a brief sojourn in Wellington, they sailed on to Nelson.

On 11 May 1842, the Saxton brothers went ashore to see the land they had bought, and learned that it was inaccessible from the coast. Saxton negotiated with Captain Wakefield to have the prefabricated house they had brought from England put up on his property in town instead (as part of the New Zealand Company scheme, the landowner received an acre in town and one hundred acres in the countryside). The family stayed on the Clifford while the house was assembled. Their troubles were just beginning: '21st May ... was informed . that my plank overlapping roof would let in the rain ... . I agreed with them to take off the roof already fixed, re-fix it, and shingle it over, at an additional cost of £27, a most mortifying discovery and most serious additional expense.' (3)

The family could not stay on the ship any longer, and had to move into their house before the sides were completed. Not long afterwards, part of the house was demolished by a landslide. Then Mary Saxton, wife of John's brother Charles, fell seriously ill and died.

By September, Saxton was also worried about his finances. He began trying to build a permanent, self-sufficient home for his family in Brook Street, but he was an artistic man, not a practical one, and nothing seemed to go right. His water buckets broke; their house was damaged by fire; rats and fleas kept them awake at night ... Priscilla Saxton and her mother were often sewing, cooking, and washing late into the night, and were constantly exhausted.

Finally the family moved into the Brook Street cottage. Three months later, in August 1843, Saxton's financial worries were eased by a letter from Joseph Somes authorising him to borrow 250 pounds and giving him another allotment of land in Stoke. With the money, the Saxtons improved their kitchen, built a fowl house, and employed a servant - a huge relief to them. Even in the face of all their difficulties, they had been anxiously trying to keep up appearances just as they would have done in England.

In November 1844, Saxton bought the New Zealand Company's old barracks and moved it onto his section at Stoke to use as a house. He named it 'Oaklands'. The surrounding farm was both hilly and swampy, but with the help of his sons, Saxton succeeded in developing it. By 1845, Saxton's home-grown vegetables were plentiful, and the family was eating well. Saxton describes one dinner: 'potatoes, artichokes, roast Tuis, as fat as butter, and a larger bird a crow which was dark coloured and had two wattles under the beak...' (4)

Life slowly improved for the family. The house at Stoke became more comfortable as Saxton's personal wealth increased. And the journal entries from 1850-51 describe an increasing number of social events, picnics, and musical evenings.

None of Saxton's journals written after 1851 survive. However, from local records we know that he was increasingly involved in civic affairs, and those of the Anglican Church. He served as treasurer of the Nelson Institute in 1845, and from 1853 to 1857 he was a member for Waimea South in the Nelson Provincial Council. Tragically, despite his increasing success, he suffered from recurring bouts of depression, and finally starved himself to death in 1866, aged fifty-eight.

Today, his descendants still live at Oaklands.

References

(1) Saxton, John Waring. (1841-1845). Diaries. Edited typescript. Manuscript: qMs-1758. Alexander Turnbull Library: National Library of New Zealand. Te Puna Matauranga o Aotearoa. 3 October 1844.

(2) Saxton, John Waring. (1841-1845). Diaries. Edited typescript. Manuscript: qMs-1758. Alexander Turnbull Library: National Library of New Zealand. Te Puna Matauranga o Aotearoa.

(3) Saxton, John Waring. (1841-1845). Diaries. Edited typescript. Manuscript: qMs-1758. Alexander Turnbull Library: National Library of New Zealand. Te Puna Matauranga o Aotearoa. p 7: 21 May 1842.

(4) Saxton, John Waring. (1841-1845). Diaries. Edited typescript. Manuscript: qMs-1758. Alexander Turnbull Library: National Library of New Zealand. Te Puna Matauranga o Aotearoa.

More information

Some of the following publications may be found on the Discovery Centre bookshelves, or in Te Aka Matua Library and Information Centre on Level 4. Photographs of Te Papa collection items may be ordered from Images on Level 4.

  • Charlwood, D E. (1981). The Long Farewell. Victoria: Allen Lane.
  • Macdonald, Charlotte. (1990). A Woman of Good Character: single women as immigrant settlers in nineteenth-century New Zealand. Wellington: Allen and Unwin and Historical Branch.
  • Simpson, Tony. (1997). The Immigrants: the great migration from Britain to New Zealand 1830-1890. Auckland: Godwit.



 

Self-portrait, about 1830
John Waring Saxton (1808-1866), England
oil on card
Courtesy of Jeff Saxton
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