Monday, 5 December 2016

William Ellacott - An Almost Forgotten Early Otago Pioneer and South Seas Adventurer


A grainy but quite striking photograph
of William Ellacott, taken in the 1870's
[Source : "The Otago Witness", 20 Aug 1913]

A very interesting email contact this year with a relative of the now somewhat forgotten English born early Central Otago pioneer and South Seas adventurer William Ellacott piqued my interest in further exploring this gentleman's decidedly varied and seemingly quite fascinating life. Over his lifetime Ellacott had been crew on a sailing vessel to India, an early Central Otago gold miner, store keeper, ferryman, river rafter and lake shipper, a Queensland gold prospector, and latterly a South Seas Island cotton and coconut plantation owner and sea trader around French Polynesia before finally returning home to live out his twilight years in Devon England. The story of his surprisingly adventurous life turned out to be even more enthralling than I had originally envisaged. While this is a slightly longer blog it is well worth the read so grab a comfy chair.

We know that Ellacott worked much of his time in New Zealand in partnership with his good friend George Hassing. In his final years Hassing touchingly describes Ellacott as "my dear faithful old partner" while Ellacott endearingly refers to Hassing as "dear boy" and "Your old friend". But it is very evident that after sharing so many adventures in life and corresponding with each other till Ellacott's death in 1912, their friendship and mutual respect ran deep.

While we know that Ellacott kept diaries of his pioneering life in Central Otago during the 1860's and 70's, these diaries, despite Hassing's best efforts to ensure they were preserved for posterity, have mysteriously and most unfortunately disappeared but more of this later. My efforts to reconstruct Ellacott's life has therefore been somewhat frustrating and I believe he would have been more widely known had the diaries been extant or at least available for research and / or published.  

To have had Ellacott's day to day account of these early pioneering days would simply have been invaluable to modern researchers and historians. So of necessity this Blog is based on references from a number of secondary sources but primarily those of his good friend and correspondent, George Magnus Hassing, whom I wrote about HERE including a few newspaper reports. Hassing was latterly a very successful schoolteacher, a good friend of my Grandfather, and in fact taught my two Uncles and Aunt. He had a quite wonderful mastery of the English language which truly bring his stories and anecdotes to life. It is at least thanks to him that we know as much as we do about Ellacott's early life.



Taking to The Sea

William Ellacott, born 1836 at Hatherleigh in Devon England, took to the sea early in his life, as did (significantly as it would turn out) his brother John. The story of William's early seafaring life is unfortunately unknown. It was, however, as crew on the voyage of the clipper 'Pride of the Ocean' from London for Bombay [now known as Mumbai] India in the summer of 1857 that William Ellacott first met a Dane by the name of Niels [George] Magnus Hassing who would then become his business partner and lifelong friend.

The Indian Rebellion of 1857

In Bombay both Ellacott and Hassing visited the soldiers' barracks "and fraternized with the troops just returned from Cawnpore after the shocking massacre at that town". Thus they heard first hand reports of this dreadful event which is best described on Wikipedia. This was the time of the rebellion against the rule of the British East India Company, being now known as "The Indian Rebellion of 1857" but in fact continued to July 1859. This bitterly fought rebellion led to the dissolution of the East India Company in 1858, the country thereafter being directly governed by the Crown under the new British Raj. Ellacott and Hassing's personal views on the rights and wrongs of the atrocities and retributions at Cawnpore [Kanpur] are not recorded but this event proved to be a turning point in hardening British support against the rebels and their cause.

The Lure of a New Adventure in New Zealand

Both returning to London in 1858, Ellacott and Hassing then parted company, the former obtaining employment in the city while Hassing sailed out to New Zealand in February 1859. But obviously having already formed a strong bond, both continued to correspond with each other. And by this fortuitous meeting and correspondence there followed a new and quite different chapter in his life. The desire for further adventure evidently got the better of Ellacott after Hassings favourable accounts of New Zealand prompted him to leave England in 1861 and join the latter in search of new opportunities and adventures.

A Happy Reunion

Hassing notes that he made his way from the West Wanaka Station up to Christchurch (a difficult journey of a few days) in the summer of 1861 "to greet the arrival of an old shipmate and subsequent business partner, the late Mr William Ellacott". This included walking the steep bridle-track over the Port Hills to reach the sea port of Lyttelton where Ellacott landed (the 2.7 km Moorhouse Railway Tunnel under the Port Hills did not open until 1867). As to which ship Ellacott arrived on is not recorded. It would have been a happy reunion with Hassing then spending "a week or so" in Christchurch, presumably with Ellacott.

Startling News

Hassing next relates that in August 1862 the Christchurch papers published a report that the prospectors Hartley and Riley had discovered a large quantity of gold on the banks of the Clutha river in Central Otago. Thereupon "my mate" [William Ellacott] rode "post haste" from Christchurch up to Waipara Station where Hassing was then working to inform him of "the startling news". Immediately packing his swag both men made their way back and over the Port Hills to Lyttelton where they left on a small vessel bound for Dunedin. We know from a published notice dated March 1863 that Ellacott had an unclaimed letter waiting for him in Christchurch. At this time we know he was in Central Otago so I wonder if he ever received it?

Gold Fever

Ellacott and Hassing found Dunedin to be bustling with activity with "hundreds eager to get away to the new [gold] rush". Along with four others who had sailed down the coast with them, they then left Dunedin by a small steamer for Waikouaiti. This coastal settlement north of Dunedin was a convenient point to head inland for the Dunstan goldfields via the Shag Valley. After procuring "tucker [food], tent and tools" at Johnny Jones' store "a merry, sanguine, and happy party of six" headed inland on foot.

A Merry Band of Men

The story of this long inland trek, being joined by others seeking their fortune on the goldfields so that the number now reached twenty five, would in itself make for an interesting blog.

Camping at Coal Creek on a beautiful calm evening dry manuka scrub was gathered to build a dozen or so great bonfires for boiling billies and cooking damper [flat bread]. With two men playing their cornets the camp resonated all evening to the sound of music and the singing of English, Scotch and Irish songs till after mid-night.

An amusing story is related of the soup served in pannikins at Mr WD Murison's Station on the Maniototo Station. The dish rag was hung by the "junior [partner]" over the crossbar in the chimney but later found to be missing. It was later retrieved from the soup pot and some asserted that it had added "a piquant flavour to the decoction".

And at "Mutton Town" the canvas store was run by a Jewish firm, "Levy & Co." which included one Philip Levy, later to be hanged as one of the notorious Burgess and Sullivan gang of Bushrangers.

Three to Four Ounces of Gold a Day

Obtaining Miner's Rights at a cost of £1 each from Vincent Pyke, the first Commissioner for the Otago goldfields, a suitable claim for six men (including Ellacott and Hassing) was found and marked off at Butcher's Gully which lies just to the south of Alexandra. The river wash averaged around half a penny weight to the dish. As Ellacott was the most expert at panning he was given this task. All the gold obtained from the claim was, for safekeeping, placed in a large cone-shaped rock rising about five feet above the river with a foot deep hollow in its centre, being on average about three to four ounces of gold a day for over a week. Some forty to fifty bags of auriferous [gold bearing] wash dirt off the river bank were carried up and stacked up by a steep bank bordering the claim and in anticipation of the river rising.

Disaster and Retreat

But one day a heavy rain set in and by the following day had caused the river to rise and eventually cover the rock where the panned gold had been stored. The next day the river was running at eight or ten feet above even this point and still rising. At this point the party of men, including Ellacott and Hassing, withdrew to the safety of Dunstan [Clyde] but not without having to ford the swollen Clutha well upstream and risking their lives by joining hands and endeavouring to ford it "though the foaming current reached our armpits". One person had earlier attempted to jump between two rocks but almost slipped to his death and a temporary bridge of manuka and flax broke its back and fell into the fast flowing river.  

Finding in Clyde that the two washing cradles they had ordered from Dunedin had arrived these were at least able to be immediately sold off for £10 apiece - around NZD$1,086.00 each in today's values. As reports from up the river were discouraging Ellacott and Hassing then decided to leave for Wanaka never again to revisit the scene of their ill-fated gold claim, all their hard work having been washed away in the great flood.


The Clutha River meanders from Lake Wanaka in upper
centre down to Cromwell at lower right where it joins
the Kawarau River, 1888
[From my own collection]

The Clutha River Ferry and Store

Hassing confirms that earlier in 1863, in the midst of the rush of gold miners to the newly discovered workings on the Arrow River and with no means to cross the Molyneux or Clutha rivers above the Dunstan township, he foresaw the advantages of setting up a river ferry service. Establishing a "whale-boat ferry" at Albertown [Newcastle] with "hundreds of diggers, packers, and loading from Oamaru arriving daily, the venture was a most profitable one". It soon occurred to Hassing that Sandy Point some 10 miles below Albertown would be a shorter and more convenient crossing point.

The store and ferry at Sandy Point opened in March 1863 and was kept "well supplied" while also purchasing gold from the miners, I would assume the gold would mostly have been used as payment for goods purchased from the store as this was the common method of payment on the goldfields. After Hassing put up 100 posters along the route from the Dunstan near Cromwell there were 40 miners and pack-horses following him. This venture was "a most profitable one".

Hassing confirms that "In the latter part of that year [1863] my partner (Mr W. Ellacott) and I sold out to the Maori chief Patu, who, with his tribe, arrived from Maori Point, Shotover River, where they had struck it heavy and accumulated a little pile."

I am therefore assuming, and I believe correctly, that Ellacott had been his business partner right from the commencement of this ferrying and storekeeping enterprise. Hassing does refer to the fact that "[he] started the first boating and rafting, both in Lake Wanaka and the Upper Clutha [and that] my dear faithful old partner, W. Ellacott, joined me in the business."

Lake and River Rafting  

In 1865 Ellacott and Hassing took out a sub-contract to raft poles being used for telegraph and railway use by the Otago Provincial Government. With the poles being cut at the Makarora Bush at the head of Lake Wanaka these then had to be built into small rafts for floating down the Makarora River then made into larger rafts for rafting down the length of Lake Wanaka to Albert Town at the head of the Clutha River. Each pole would earn them 50 shillings, the poles then being handed over to Thomas Primate [a colourful Yorkshireman known as "Yorkey" who died in the Māori Wars in 1868] and fellow employees to then raft down the turbulent and dangerous Clutha River. While the Contractor had arranged for stores to be provided at Albertown payment was entrusted to be made upon completion.


A group of early Wanaka Pioneers including William Ellacott.
Taken outside Norman's Hotel at Albert Town, Lake Wanaka
in 1866 by Mr Rich, a travelling Photographer.
Back Row : (L to R) Henry Palmer, William Ellacott,
Joe D. Ross, Henry Norman;
Front Row : Robert H. Norman, Richard Norman,
AE Farquhar, William Waterson, James Isbell.
[Source : "The Otago Witness", 3 Oct 1906, p46]

Desperate Conditions on the Rock and Pillar Range

But when it was found in June 1865 that the contractor, one Mr Henry Hill, had drawn three quarters of the contract price and then filed for bankruptcy but could not now be found Ellacott, Hassing and Yorkey were forced, in the middle of winter, to head "post haste" over the snow covered Rock and Pillar Range for Dunedin in search of Mr Hill. The conditions over the range were so desperate that one poor waggoner stuck in the snow with a load of goods for the goldfields had committed suicide the night before by hanging himself from one of the bows on his wagon. Upon all three men reaching an accommodation house on top of the ridge it was found to be deserted but the group were able to light a fire, thaw and dry out, and boil a billy of tea.

A Loss of £400

Making it safely to the low country and arriving in Dunedin the party next day called on Mr James Prendergast, Solicitor. The latter promised to do all he could to recover what was owed, Hassing stating that he (assumedly jointly with Ellacott) was owed £400 [NZD$44,387.00 in today's values]. After extracting a retaining fee of one guinea each, nothing more was ever heard about the matter. It was later ascertained that Hill had landed safely in Peru South America and had made a fortune out of railway contracts, "a smart, but very unscrupulous man".    

Nothing Daunted

Nothing daunted, Ellacott and Hassing (who were evidently not entirely pennyless) visited the Dunedin Horse saleyards, high demand for the goldfields meaning that fresh stocks of horses were arriving weekly from Tasmania and New South Wales. The going rates were from £40 to £60 for a light hack to £90 to £120 for a light draught or pack horse. So, wishing to get a horse each to return to Wanaka, Ellacott wisely purchased  "a quiet animal" but Hassing's "had a rolling eye, and seemed rather fidgety".  Buying new saddles, bridles, and cruppers and ready to depart, Hassing was told the next day that his horse had thrown off a trooper at Tokomairiro the week before and kicked him to death. Dismissing this alledged "story" he soon found his horse to indeed have a propensity for bucking. While he succeeded in calming his bucking steed other subsequent riders did not.  

In early 1867 Hassing records that he headed off to the West Coast after gold had been discovered on the Buller River inland from Hokitika. It appears that Ellacott did not join the former on this occasion and the period through to 1874 is sketchy at best. Hassing states that he returned to Wanaka around 1869.

The 42 Ton Sailing Vessel "Eureka"

Hassing mentions in his published memoirs that when he returned from the West Coast he entered into an agreement with Mr Alfred Pinn [known as "Black Tom"] to build a sailing vessel, "The Eureka", on Pigeon Island. Pinn, "an expert ship carpenter", had already laid down the keel of the vessel on the north eastern bay of the island. As a partner in this new shipping venture, Hassing took up residence with Pinn on Pigeon Island stocking it with berry fruit bushes and 200 merino sheep. But there is no mention of our Mr Ellacott until May 1872 when "Ellacott & Hassings" 42 ton "Eureka" took part in a regatta on Lake Wanaka. "Eureka" won the "Round the Island" sailing race, came second in the one mile "Sculling Race", but last in the general "Sailing Race". "Mr Campbell's Wanaka" pulled by Messrs Russell, Ellacott, and Yeldon won the "Handicap Pulling Race". Ellacott was then 32 years of age.

Ellacott must have joined the partnership sometime after 1869, perhaps buying out Pinn's share or Hassing was just rather vague in his memoirs. Pinn is known to have moved to Perth in Western Australia but no date is given. So again, the loss of the diaries covering this period is unfortunate. In March 1873 Hassing and Ellacott were granted a license for a jetty site near Pembroke on Lake Wanaka (now known as Wanaka township) by the "Waste Lands Board". In 1874 Hassing confirms that, with Ellacott, they disposed of their Wanaka "shipping business" to Messrs Grant and Kelliher of Cromwell.

The Eternal Glorious Song of Birds

Ellacott recalled in 1907 that they had often called into Pigeon Island on Lake Wanaka, a seeming paradise of flowering shrubs and vegetation right down to the high water mark;

"...Then the eternal glorious song of birds - the tui, robin, mocking bird, kaka, and parrakeet - with the coo of the beautiful bronzewinged pigeon. I fancy now I hear the buzzing of their wings as they swooped about us heeding us destructive humans. Even the wood-hens, crows, and crested greebes helped to make it a perfect paradise.  

...it is a privilege that few have, to be able to look back upon such a time amongst such grand scenery - mountain gorges, peaks clad with eternal snow, glaciers, waterfalls, and the frequent roar of avalanches from Mount Aspiring. Nature in all its beauty and grandeur and the pleasant companionship of two old chums... 

Just think of it - how a baited hook thrown into the lake at night would for certainty have a 3lb or 4lb eel on it in the morning giving us a delicious breakfast. Well, I shall never forget my time on Lake Wanaka."

But literary pursuits in the area were evidently not neglected as a committee, including both Ellacott and Hassing, were elected in April 1871 with the very commendable aim of establishing a Public Library at Newcastle [later re-named Albertown]. Like Hassing, extant letters written by Ellacott show him to be an educated man with a good grasp of the English language and a keen sense of observation and expression.

The Queensland Goldfields

Sometime in 1874 Ellacott then headed up north before sailing to Sydney Australia along with "a mate" whom he had become acquainted with in Auckland. Despite adverse reports of fever and dysentry, both decided to try their hand at "The Palmer", a Queensland goldfield. Travelling on the "Alexandra" and "after nearly being suffocated with stinks from horses, sheep, poultry, etc., on getting into the tropics" they landed safely eight days later at Cooktown. The pair now bought horses at £30 and £40 and equipped themselves for the journey of sixty miles to a creek where there had been a report of gold being found and ready for a new adventure; "You have to travel armed to the teeth, with as much tucker as your horse can carry, utensils, and the indispensable medicine chest or bag,... salts and quinine are never absent."

"15 Miles a Day with Pack Horses is Considered Big Work"

After "losing their nags [horses]" they "did not drop across them until the fifth day". Probably lucky as the native aboriginals had speared and eaten several horses. The diggings were found to be very poor with no water as the rainy season had not yet set in. So, with nothing to be gained by staying both headed off to "The Palmer" goldfields, travelling 10 to 15 miles a day but taking a spell during the hottest time of the day; "15 miles a day with pack horses is considered big work".

Fell Away to a Mere Skeleton

When about 50 miles from town Ellacott fell ill with fever but kept up with the party of men "by dint of severe struggling" with "no shanty [hut or accommodation] in 100 miles" and "fell away to a mere skeleton". At Palmerston, a real shanty town, every fourth man was sick or had been sick and deaths occurred daily. Prospecting in an area about 50 miles past Palmerston nothing of payable value was found but Ellacott fell ill again followed by his mate. Making back for Cooktown on the coast both sold horse, saddle etc at around half what they had paid as prices had fallen. After spending two weeks in a tent while both recuperated his mate left for the south in the steamer "Leichardt" and now "disgusted with the country". As at January 1875 Ellacott was still in Cooktown but advised "no one to come here, especially from New Zealand - the change of climate being too great.". And I doubt many made their fortune!

A South Seas Adventure

Ellacott now returned to "The Old Country" [England]. But after a short time spent with his English relatives and friends "he could not rest at home" and left for a visit to the United States. After visiting the "chief cities" he reached San Francisco where he unexpectedly met up with his eldest brother John (born 1833), the Captain and owner of the 62 ton three masted schooner "Hammonia" trading among the Pacific Islands. Captain Ellacott (known as "Captain John") appears to have led an equally interesting life, being based in Bora Bora in the Society Islands and marrying, in the mid 1860's, a native "well to do princess" from the island by the name of Esther Tahapia Maria Blackett.  Not having seen each other since childhood, this happy and fortuitous family meeting led to another great adventure and colourful chapter in Ellacott's life when he agreed to sail with his brother to Tahiti.

A Propitious Marriage

Arriving at Tahiti, Ellacott decided to remain ashore to explore the island while his brother John continued his trading cruise. It was at this time that Ellacott decided to make what would turn out to be a most advantageous visit to the island of Raiatea, some 234km distant, by a native vessel. Here he met an old gentleman, also a native of Devon, who, some 30 years previous, had married the daughter of an Island Chief. This elderly gentleman had but one daughter "a pretty half-caste" and touchingly, Ellacott fell in love and married her.

It was apparently not long after Ellacott's marriage that his wife's elderly father died and left his daughter and son in law William his large cotton and coconut plantation on Raiatea. Here Ellacott lived happily and prospered in trading copra etc for the next ten years before his native wife died. During these years William is noted as being now older looking but quite slim and with a big bushy beard.

The Great Comet of 1882

In 1882, William Ellacott, the "master of a small vessel trading in the Society Islands", reported sighting a great comet that "made [a] tremendous plunge round the sun, Sept 18 [1882]" This was 'The Great Comet of 1882' [Web link Here]. This very interesting reference at least proves beyond doubt that William also sailed the islands putting his seafaring and sailing skills to use trading his copra and cotton and no doubt other goods which would prove useful and profitable to himself and other island residents.

Forced to leave the Islands

After a residence of 26 years on Raiatea Island Hassing then records that Ellacott, and much to the grief of the natives of whom "he was universally loved", became seriously ill forcing him to sell up and move to Papeete on Tahiti. It was here that the Doctors urged him to leave the island for a cooler climate. I can only imagine Ellacott had suffered a tropical illness, most likely malaria, being a frequent cause of ill health and not infrequent death to early Pacific Island Christian Missionaries.

Ellacott's Death in London

Ellacott, no doubt with a very heavy heart, returned to England about 1902 where he took up his summer residence at the family home in Exwick, North Exeter in Devon but spent the winters with his sister in London. It was in London that he died on the 24th February 1912 aged 75 years and is interred in Tooting Cemetery London along with his sister Ann. One source states that he died in Devon but I am more inclined to accept Hassing's account. The gravestone is extant and records that he was "A Trader and Planter on the island of Raiatea. Much honoured and respected by the inhabitants."

His home in Exwick, which he named "The Hermitage", had once been an old monk's priory. A relative still has the painting he made of it in 1908. The building, with it's long chimney, still survives and is now split into two smaller units. His relative wonders if William may have been inspired by the name of The Hermitage at Mount Cook.

Hassing wrote in 1923 that; "He was indeed a man of sterling quality and a true, faithful friend. We corresponded regularly from the time we parted till his death."

Of the early days Hassing also writes; "I only am left. Of the whole army of brave, hardy Wanaka pioneers of the early sixties, all but myself have now passed out. Such men are the true Empire builders. they now rest from their labours, but by their courage and exertions they have left the country better than they found it." [written around 1923]


George Hassing, a great friend and long time
correspondent of William Ellacott.
[From my own collection]

A Mysterious Disappearance

It was after his death that Hassing informs us that Ellacott's "early Wanaka diaries" were generously forwarded to him by William's younger brother Joseph Abel Ellacott of Exeter. The latter notes Hassing as "My dear old friend who was shipmate with my brother William, and afterwards for some years his partner in New Zealand", both keeping in regular contact until Hassing's death in 1928. Of the diaries. Hassing states that "these interesting reminiscent books I have deposited in the Otago Settlers' Library". And herein begins the mystery of the diaries for they have simply vanished.

The very helpful Archivist of Toitū Otago Settlers Museum in Dunedin, being the new entity now administering the archives of the afore-mentioned former institution, advised me that she had spent some considerable time searching their records for these diaries but without success. An accessions register does not appear to have been kept. The Upper Clutha Historical Records Society then advised me that they were aware of the missing diaries, having searched for them over 20 years ago. Likewise, the Hocken Library in Dunedin and the Lakes District Museum in Arrowtown have no record of them. While Hassing is quite clear in stating where he placed them this was some hundred years ago and their eventual fate appears to now be hidden in the mysteries of time. Were they simply borrowed at a later date and never returned? I have no reason to doubt Hassing's account of his placing the diaries in the former OSM Library.

Hassing, who died in December 1928, commendably did his best to ensure that this early and unique pioneering account was not lost to posterity. I believe that the diaries must be somewhere but how and why is for now unresolved. I have never had contact with any Hassing family descendants as to what records they may still hold themselves but I note a Gt Gt Grandson in Southland (unfortunately now deceased) made some genealogy inquiries in 2001. If anyone can help or can add further information about Mr Ellacott - or the diaries - I would be delighted to hear from you. I will amend this blog if (and hopefully when) any further significant information comes to hand.


Bibliography :

- "Pages From The Memory Log of G.M. Hassing", 1930 (from my own collection)
- "Papers Past" [National Library of New Zealand / Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa]
- "The Otago Witness", 6 Feb 1923
- McNab Room, Dunedin City Library
- Toitū Otago Settlers Museum Archives, Dunedin (Beth Rees)
- The Upper Clutha Historical Records Society (Mrs Margaret Thomlinson)
- "Origin of Celestial Species" by J. Norman Lockyer
- Personal family photographs (from my own collection)
- My grateful thanks to Mrs Priscilla Welch of Oregon USA (formerly of England and a descendant of William Ellacott)


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