Captain Joseph Thomas (1803 – ?)

Captain Joseph Thomas is easily the most forgotten man in Christchurch’s history.

Born in 1803, Joseph was educated at the Royal Military College – so naturally he spent the beginning of his working life in the Army. He served in India and the West Indies, retiring in 1830. He travelled to South America where he developed a love for surveying and engineering. On his journey back to England, he collected together his drawings and sketches – which were eventually published.

In 1840 he was employed by The New Zealand Company to survey Port Nicholson (Wellington) for future settlement. He also explored the Wanganui, Hawke’s Bay, Wairapa and Otago. While in England in 1847, he endorsed these areas for the emmigration of the Irish. The following year he returned to New Zealand, this time to survey the Port Cooper and the Plains (Lyttelton and The Canterbury Plains) for The Canterbury Association.

He surveyed from August 1849 to March 1850. After getting consent from New Zealand’s Governor, Sir George Grey, and Bishop Selwyn – he proposed where Christchurch, Lyttelton and Sumner were to be – choosing the two latter names himself after two members of The Canterbury Association.

What is largely unknown that is Joseph had set his eyes on the head of Lyttelton Harbour for Christchurch. The main focus at this time in history was that a city have a nearby port. Needing 4000 hectares for his city, he soon changed his mind and looked to the plains.

On the 22nd of August 1849, Joseph drew a map of Putaringamotu (Riccarton) – showing the layout of the Deans’ farm buildings, gardens, orchards and paddocks. He issued them with a Squatters Licence with a warning that a settlement was coming and they would have to move. The same message was given to the Hays at Pigeon Bay and the Rhodes Brothers at Purau. The families fought for their land and won.

For the previous seven years, the Deans brothers had been paying rent to the Maori – £8 a year for 33,000 acres – basically 9.6 kms (six miles) from Riccarton Bush out in a full circle. It is amazing to think that the Deans had been renting from the Port Hills to the Waimakariri River as their farm. The Canterbury Association would not honour the agreement with the Maori and told the Deans to move. After months and months of negotiations, the Deans were rewarded with 400 acres (from their unused land ownership in Nelson and Wellington) of Putaringamotu plus 33, 000 acres out at the Malvern Hills – Homebush 😉

With £20,000 in his back pocket, Joseph imported timber, carpenters and used Maori road gangs. Immigration barracks were built, housing for the Canterbury Association Agents and Sumner Road was started but then the money ran out. Work was halted on the 14th March 1850. When John Robert Godley arrived a month later, Joseph learnt that the job that had been promised to him was given to Godley. He packed his bags and returned to England. He fades away into history, no one even knowing the year he died.

He was not well liked by other surveyors – Godley blaming the debts of the new settlement from Joseph’s ‘exceeding instructions’. None the less, we have the central Christchurch layout thanks to Joseph. On his first map, its shows Hagley Park and Ridley (Cathedral), Market (Victoria), Cranmer and Latimer Squares.

*image courtesy of http://www.wikipedia.org *

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