In a Strange Garden: The Life and Times of Truby King
Truby king's parents were British settlers. His father Thomas arrived in Taranaki in 1841 at the age of twenty, not long after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.
Thomas King was not a typical migrant. Most people on the William Bryan were in cohesive family groups, mainly from Devon and Cornwall, many with young children. As a single man, Tom was rather isolated. Most passengers travelled below decks in dreadful confinement, while Tom had his own cabin on deck, at a cost of four times the usual passage.
He left behind a secure job, in charge of an office in the London Coal Exchange. His family were middle-class, his father a publican/ landlord, his mother an educated woman with some inherited wealth. Unlike most Victorian families, the King's was small. Tom had but one older sister who had married well. A relative of her husband's, page 20 Sir Henry Richardson, took an interest in young Tom, giving him a house when he left school. Life in overcrowded London could be oppressive, but it's likely that the King family lived well. Tom's father Thomas, fifty-one years older than his son, was not well educated. There is no record of any written communication with his son, but his mother Susannah's letters provided him with a much-needed link with home.
Emigrants were characterised as 'enterprising and independent-minded, looking forward to a society far more democratic ... a chance at last of sun and air, well away from the overcrowded and disease-ridden hovels.1 It's hard to know what motivated Tom to leave family, friends and a secure job for remote and unknown New Zealand. He arrived with £200, a reasonable education and in ill-health.
Tom joined the Plymouth Company, an offshoot of the New Zealand Land Company, whose purpose was to acquire land for settlement by migrants from Devon and Cornwall. Notwithstanding his youth, he was elected to the eight member Committee of Colonists at the meeting of intending colonists in Plymouth on 29 October 1840. The chairman reported that their first task was 'to secure for the colony the benefit of a Clergyman of the Church of England'." Principles and high-minded idealism were part of the package. 'The committee will also use every endeavour to establish the nucleus of a Literary Institution and Public Library . . . will also use its best endeavours to establish a Dispensary for the sick, and a Savings Bank.' Harmony between 'Settlers and Native Inhabitants' was also stressed in the wish-list, redolent with Victorian values and attitudes. Tom's joining up with Plymouth people was unusual, given that he was a London lad, and Plymouth was a day's coach ride away from his home. A possible explanation is that his mother's sister Kitty lived in Plymouth. Tom purchased land in Taranaki before leaving England. As with other migrant land 'purchases' of the time, it is questionable whether the land had been surveyed, or if he had title to it.
The five-month journey would have been challenging for the men, women and children, cows, pigs and rats inhabiting the steerage page 21 space below decks. The sailing ship of 311 tons had a crew of fifteen men and three boys. The passengers comprised 140, half of them children, all in a vessel of less than forty metres length with no more than two metres standing room below decks. Families were allotted communal berth space of only about a metre wide. Fortunately, the voyage was uneventful. Passengers enjoyed the luxury of dining on deck for half the time, which was infinitely preferable to eating, sleeping and trying to stay sane in cramped squalor below decks. In stormy weather they were confined below, the hatches battened down whether they liked it or not.
Food would have been palatable in the early part of the journey, but as time wore on, the provisions would have succumbed to heat and vermin. To combat the poor water, there was an imaginative selection of drink: 200 litres of lemon juice and 150 kg of sugar to mix with it, 10 bottles port wine, 10 bottles sherry, 1200 litres stout, 120 litres rum, 30 litres brandy. It sounds like a lot of alcohol, but on a 130-day voyage with pretty awful food, one wonders whether it was enough for the seventy bored and apprehensive adult passengers.
On arrival the settlers slept on the Taranaki beach, but the local Maori proved generous and raupo whares were constructed, reportedly for eighteen pounds each. These were crude dwellings, but would have been infinitely preferable to the constraints of shipboard life. One wonders what Victorian Englishmen and women made of this new country, with its high rainfall, 'natives' with whom they would have little empathy, and unfamiliar flora and fauna. Maybe the majesty of Mt Egmont, towering 2500 metres over Taranaki, brought lumps to some throats, or was it just homesickness?
The land that the Plymouth Company had purchased, sight unseen, proved to be difficult. Undulating, lumpy Taranaki terrain, an abundance of streams that were difficult to ford, and lack of suitable transport animals, made any attempt at dominance of this alien land a nightmarish proposition. Tom, the elfin clerk, must have been daunted. He was ill-equipped for this sort of experience. He had no wife or extended family to commiserate with. He probably wanted to go home. His letters paint a picture of an unconfident man.page 22
The first few years would have been hell; it is recorded that a plague of rats swarmed around the settlement in 1843, destroying anything edible. Tom sought solace with Richard Chilman and his family, who had been fellow cabin passengers, and had a whare erected in their garden.
The disputed issue of land ownership was the first problem for these early settlers. Tom had purchased 'one section of suburban land'3 which was to be balloted for on arrival. In 1842 Governor Hobson issued a proclamation 'prohibiting private European purchase of Maori land'.4 A commission was set up to establish pre-1840 land sales. The 28,000 hectares of land purchased by the Plymouth Company were eventually downgraded to 1400 hectares by the new Governor FitzRoy in 1844. This threw Tom into confusion. He was not cut out to be a labourer or farmer, and now had little land and insufficient funds, and thus little influence to attract a government position. He was homesick in an alien country, with few ideas and fewer options.
He decided to reinvent himself as a trader, exploiting the one asset he had — a patron back in London. Family friend Sir Henry Richardson was well-disposed to 'young Tom'. Henry allowed him credit of £1000 to purchase goods in London to sell in New Zealand. This was the shaky beginning of Tom the speculator and trader. It wasn't easy, because there was a six-month delay in getting orders to London and receipt of the goods. The credit afforded by his patron was however sufficient to begin. All Tom had to do was obtain the right goods, hope the ship arrived without incident, sell the goods and order more. This might be easy in the days of fax and phone, but was decidedly difficult when a letter took up to six months, in which time fashions could change and demand for goods diminish. To compound matters, he was not functioning well as a single man, and suitable partners were not easy to find. His letters home described a young adult struggling to establish himself in an alien environment.
By 1846 Sir Henry Richardson had lost enthusiasm for financial support of Tom's trading activities. New Zealand was in the doldrums, Tom was on the rocks. He moved to Wellington and took a job with a page 23 fellow-trader, but that didn't work out. His health, never robust, was variable. He proposed to Mary Chilman, sister of one of his fellow migrants. She had been enticed to join her brother in 1842, but did not succumb to Tom's charms until 1846. The extended courtship, recorded elaborately in many letters, suggests he was articulate and eventually persuasive. Mary was educated, and knew Tom as a family friend. Her health was also marginal, with rickets and tuberculosis featuring prominently, although this didn't prevent her living to ninety-three. Their courtship was protracted and did not initially win favour with the Chilman family. Perhaps Tom the trader was not good enough?
Eventually he won her over. With accumulated debts, ill-health and a disillusioned patron, he was not succeeding as a trader and may not have been the greatest prospect in the world. Their marriage was forged in friendship and trust against the backdrop of a young unstable country and foundering business ventures. Tom's ill-health and insecurity was not the stuff of a great and prosperous future. He contemplated returning to England or moving to Australia but compromised with Wellington. Things were bleak. He was an ill-equipped loser in a tough land. Mary represented companionship and a fresh start. They married in November 1846 and moved to Wellington shortly thereafter, precipitated by the prospect of a Maori uprising. Wanganui was said to be in a state of war, with 300 soldiers in the stockade and the Taranaki settlers in high anxiety. Tom, with a newly pregnant wife, built a house in Wellington and commenced work with one of his trading associates while continuing his own trading activities. He was out of his depth in the bigger milieu, where traders abounded. He lacked contacts, and above all, influence. This pond appeared to him too large and he was a small fish.
In time Taranaki became less turbulent, so Tom and Mary abandoned Wellington and returned to Taranaki in 1848, selling the Wellington house and using the money to buy a farm adjacent to Mary's brother, Richard Chilman. At this point Sir Henry Richardson died and it is unclear whether Tom settled his loan or used it to finance the next stage of his precarious career.page 24
Tom the tyro farmer, now aged twenty-seven and with a heavily pregnant Mary, began clearing land and learning the elements of pig and dairy farming. It was a precarious if self-sufficient existence.
Children came at regular intervals. Mary was born in 1848, followed by Henry, Sara, then Newton, Truby, Herbert and finally Francis in 1862. In total Mary King would have seven children, spaced at two-yearly intervals.
For Tom, further opportunity came in the unlikely form of politics. He was 'invited' to represent New Plymouth at the first General Assembly, which had been established by the New Zealand Constitution Act of 1852 and provided for the appointment of a legislative council. He jumped at the chance for self-improvement and an opportunity to participate in the making of laws for the government of the colony. He was flattered at the invitation and enough of an intellectual and idealist to realise the importance of the opportunity.
Mary was unimpressed, fearing the consequences of enforced separation. Together with two other Taranaki representatives, Tom set out for Auckland, which was then the seat of government. Unlike many of his aspiring government colleagues, he was not a wealthy man, so the unpaid role would not have been easy. He was diligent, however, working in committees, playing the part of participation rather than a leadership role. To tell the truth, he was out of his depth. He missed his wife sorely but stuck doggedly to the task. His letters are an eloquent record, painting a compelling picture of a deeply private man removed from his wife.
My own Polly, I arn so very tired. We have been six hours tonight and I was 2 in Committee this morning. The debates were most animated and at another time would have gratified me. Still they have rendered endurable a certain number of hours. Wakefield has again been discomfited by 21 to 10. Were he out of the house we would soon get home. Of course we are progressing but at too slow a rate. The overland mail from Taranaki arrived yesterday and this morning I had the pleasure of receiving my darling's letter. Oh my love I do regret my absence ... I cannot blame myself for acting as I have. I was doubtful page 25 of the wisdom of leaving. I knew it would give pain to both and was yet anxious to serve Taranaki as well as I could. Now darling that I have greater experience I will abandon political life. I believe that I have assisted in doing good though in a very unostentatious way and with my first essay I am content. Hereafter my fond one I will live at home. I will enjoy the society of my wife and children and will strive to do my duty in a way that will not deprive us all of comfort . . . Good night my darling wife. I could write till tomorrow but the candle is waning and I must retire to my solitary couch when I would rather have a night of bliss and embraces from my darling wife . . . Good night my treasure. Another cruel day has gone.5
In communication with His Excellency the Governor and the General Government of New Zealand, and under die absolute necessity that exists for all women and children, without distinction, being as speedily as possible removed from New Plymouth His Honour the acting Superintendent will warn all those drawing rations to be prepared to embark for Nelson about the 1st proximo.
The remaining families, without distinction of rank, will be warned in alphabetical order, and must be prepared to proceed to Nelson on or about the same date. The Government having made arrangements for their reception at that place, and having agreed to maintain them there. Steamers will be provided for the above purpose.By Command
Mary King and her five children embarked on the eighty-ton paddle-steamer Wonga-Wonga as the sun was setting. The passengers were battened down beneath the hatches, packed sardine-like. The journey to Nelson was a nightmare with seas of monstrous proportions, the passengers arriving the next morning 'more dead than alive'.7 In truth, the women and children were unwilling refugees anyway, and after a trip of such awfulness, they were unhappy to say the least. Baby Truby, barely a year old, was suffering the effects of infantile diarrhoea, as well as seasickness, and nearly died. The doctor, Isaac Newton Watt, decided against 'bleeding', which was the accepted treatment for many illnesses, and opted for the 'mild' form of treatment, hourly purging with calomel and arsenic. At midnight Mary decided that the suffering of the child was such that the treatment should be discontinued after eight administrations of the purgative, so that he 'might die in peace'.8 Miraculously he survived. It is said that Frederic Truby's constitution never recovered from this page 27 treatment. Like his father, he was destined to be dogged with ill-health for the rest of his life. The long-term harm done by mercury and arsenic purgatives to the wellbeing of our tiny subject is a tantalising question that must remain unanswered.
Life in Nelson was appalling. The townspeople were kindly enough disposed to the Taranaki refugees, but conditions were poor, the families housed in primitive barracks with communal washing and eating facilities. The children were a problem. Mary in her letters noted, 'Our little Fred tires me very much. He gives way to such horrible fits of passion and being weak, of course, hurts himself.'9 Eldest daughter Mary was also unwell. She eventually died at the age of eighteen of tuberculosis, when Truby, her adoring brother, was eight.
Tom spent little time with the family in Nelson, commuting by precarious sea transport from Taranaki to Auckland, where his fortunes took a turn for the better. He was appointed to one of the nine Provincial Councils, as the member for the Grey and Bell electorate of Taranaki, with an assured income. He spent months at a time away from the family and became a JP, Provincial Treasurer and magistrate, cementing his position in society.
Eventually Tom, Mary and family were reunited in Taranaki after eighteen months of stressful separation. Their homestead was burned to the ground in their absence, so they took up residence in New Plymouth, near the corner of Dawson and Vivian Streets, in a big rambling house with a large garden and orchard. In 1861 Tom was appointed inaugural manager of the New Plymouth branch of the Bank of New Zealand. He remained with the bank for sixteen years. The house was spacious and well furnished. Tom's will reveals that he owned a piano, an extensive library and a collection of books that befitted a man of letters: three English, two French and one German dictionary suggested a multilingual crossword fanatic but it is more likely that he was simply a well-read man.
On his death, aged seventy-two, the Taranaki Herald would eulogise:page 28
We have lost another of our old Colonists, and one of the leading men of this place, by the death of Mr Thomas King. The colony may, perhaps have had more prominent men in the political arena; but, in less exciting spheres of social and political activity, Mr Thomas King has, during the last half century been amongst the very foremost . . . Since 1880 Mr King has occupied his time with local matters, being Chairman of several local Boards. He has always taken a great interest in the harbour works at Moturoa, and for the last 10 years has been Chairman of the New Plymouth Harbour Board ... Mr King has been a great reader in his time, and kept himself well posted in all affairs going on at Home and in the Colonies ... Mr King was universally esteemed and every sign of mourning was visible in town today. The banks and other commercial institutions had their blinds down, and flags at half-mast were to be seen in every direction. Dr Truby King (in charge of the Seacliff Mental Hospital near Dunedin), Mr Newton King (the well-known merchant and auctioneer of New Plymouth) and Mr Henry King (one of the successful farmers in Taranaki) are sons; and the wife of page 29 Mr. F. W. Marchant (Civil Engineer of Timaru) is a duaghter of Mr Thomas King.10
Not present were children Francis, who died aged eighteen months, and Mary and Herbert who both died of tuberculosis aged eighteen and thirty respectively.
So ended the life of Tom, the elfin, sickly young man who left an assured career in London to experience the hardships of Taranaki, a largely unsuccessful trader turned politician, bank manager and eventually revered public figure. From his letters we know him to be articulate, sensitive, and at times consumed by ill-health, but a caring husband and father. His will indicates that he was fair in his assignment of his estate, the value of which exceeded £13,000, a tidy sum for the time. The oldest son retained the farm; the estate was divided amongst the four surviving children, his wife receiving generous investment income. Tom appointed his three sons, Henry, Newton and Truby, as executors with the proviso that Truby should not be appointed should he be away from the colony of New Zealand at the time of Tom's decease. Truby was at Seacliff at the time, but curiously he 'disclaimed and renounced' the office of executor and trustee that the will conferred. Whether he was uninterested in money or just preferred to leave his fathers affairs in the hands of his older brothers in Taranaki is a matter for speculation.
Truby's mother, Mary, lived until she was ninety-three, remaining on good terms with Truby and his wife. Her pioneering contribution, putting up with periods of estrangement and bringing up a family in sometimes dreadful and unsettling circumstances, should not be understated; nor should any early influence on the sickly young Truby, which would have far exceeded that of his father Thomas.page break
1 J. B. Priestley, Victoria's Heyday (London: Penguin, 1972).
3 Margot Fry, Tom's Letters: The Private World of Thomas King, Victorian Gentleman (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2001), p. 52.
4 Ibid., p. 53.
5 Ibid., p. 196.
6 King, Truby King — The Man, p. 20.
7 Ibid., p. 22.
8 Ibid., p. 22.
9 Ibid., p. 23.
10 Obituary, Taranaki Herald, 29 April 1893.