Death On The Bridle Path

“…unusual fatigue, to which, in his praiseworthy endeavors to find a suitable spot on which to locate his family, the deceased had exposed himself…”     The Lyttelton Times    January 1851

John Williams was painfully aware that he, his wife Isabella and their 7 children only had a few days of grace at their first Canterbury lodgings at Room 2, Barracks B of the Lyttelton Immigration Barracks.  As the morning of the 18th December 1850 [other reports state it was the 20th] broke over Lyttelton, John ventured by himself into the township, heading towards the beginning of the Bridle Path.  It was going to be a hot dusty day.

One can only guess at the sights he may have taken in as he made his way across town.  Did he glance at the three Canterbury Association ships – the Charlotte Jane, the Randolph (on which the Williams had travelled on) and the Sir George Seymour – at anchor in the harbour? Did he look at the other settlers who had been less fortunate than him and had to sleep in empty barrels on the hillside or did he smile and wave as he strolled past a group of tents known as ‘The Charlotte Jane Square’ as many from that ship had decided to camp together as land orders were still being sorted?  Who knows…would love to know 😉

Maybe his mind had been too busy in thought for him to have taken in his surroundings.  He had been promised his own plot of land in a place called Market Place, now known to us as Victoria Square.  The sooner he could get his family up over the Port Hills and to their little slice of land, the better.  Set up a camp there first, and then erect a small baker’s shop with rooms upstairs where the family could live…yes, a small shop where he could be a baker again and earn his living.  But, as he had discussed with Isabella maybe in private or at a family meeting, he should go ahead and at least see what lay over the summit first.

Many other settlers had the same idea as John that hot day, just a week or so from Christchurch’s first Christmas.  Like John, they reached the summit exhausted but the curiosity drove them to stay on their feet, raise their hands up to block out the sun as they stared out over the Canterbury Plains.  Again, no one can guess what John thought as he stood there.  There really were only 2 ways to feel; either an eagerness to get the adventure started in this new world or the exact opposite, a deep dread of what was to come and the thoughts of ‘My Lord, what have we done?  What will become of us in this wilderness?’

It was when some of these other settlers were heading back down to Lyttelton that they came across a collapsed John Williams on the Bridle Path.  Rushing down to his side, it was soon realised that John was dead.  He was 40 years old.  It was later confirmed that he had suffered a stroke, most likely brought on by fatigue and heat stroke.  He was buried at Lyttelton Anglican Cemetery, certainly one of the first burials to take place.

You can imagine this sent the Williams family into disarray but many reports of the day say that Isabella showed great strength and kept her head.  Firstly, the family was moved on to Room 8, Barracks D, maybe to give them some more privacy and time to make a plan.  Fellow Randolph passengers, Rev. Edward Puckle (who also took John’s funeral) and Theodore Williams (no relation) came to the family’s aid, placing a fundraising advertisement in the Lyttelton Times.

In an unusual twist, the Williams were Scottish Presbyterians, not Anglican like the other Association settlers.  So maybe it was no surprise that the Deans brothers of Riccarton – who were also Scottish Presbyterians – stepped forward with an offer that the family come stay with them.  This move to Riccarton took place on the 15th January 1851 and it was here that Isabella made her plans for the future.  She wrote home to family in Scotland and asked them to send her money and goods that she could sell on.  During this wait on the family back home, Isabella made ends meet by selling yeast, with the help of her 16 year old son, John Williams Jnr.  The Williams finally made their move to their land at Market Place in 1852 and Isabella opened a drapery shop, sited near the corner of Colombo and Armagh Streets.  As Mrs. [Sarah] Popes was only a few doors down, I’m sure they were healthy competition for each other.  Isabella called her shop, the Glasgow House and at one time or another, all her children helped out behind the counter.

Isabella has been recorded down in Canterbury’s history as a mother who saw all her daughters – there were 5 of them – married to some of the most wealthiest and successful men in Christchurch.  Many of these weddings took place at the Glasgow House.  Isabella’s eldest daughter was Elizabeth and she married William ‘Cabbage’ Wilson who was a successful businessman in 1856.  Named Cabbage Wilson mainly because he wore a hat made of Cabbage Tree leaves (a gift from the Maori), he was also 1 of 3 other William Wilson’s in Christchurch.  He ran a few tree nurseries and then he delved in real estate, auctioneering and took an active interest in the Halswell Quarry as well as the trading vessel named ‘Rifleman”.

Over the next few years, Cabbage was elected to the Provincial Council. He was also the Chairman of the Municipal Committee that was responsible for the landscaping of the Avon River and the tree planting in Fitzgerald and Bealey Avenues. When the Provincial Government ended and the Christchurch City Council took over, William flowed with the change so well that he became Christchurch’s first Mayor.  I’m sure it was proud moment for Isabella to have one of her daughters as Mayoress of Christchurch.

In 1876, Cabbage’s world crumbled. He was serving his second term as president of the Christchurch Horticultural Society when he was accused of fraud. Not only did he lose his case at court, but Elizabeth had approached the authorities with claims of being beaten by Cabbage to the point that she was in fear of her life. A protection order was put against him and Cabbage fell from grace.  He never recovered face.  He is buried beside one of his sons in Linwood Cemetery.

Isabella died in 1882 and the Glasgow House was sold.  The money was divided up amongst the family.  Emily Williams, (her married name was Hay) who had been an infant upon the family’s arrival at Lyttelton, had been living with Isabella at the time of her death.  A widow herself, Emily received a little more from her mother as she had been a great comfort in Isabella’s last few years.

Isabella was buried in the Barbadoes Street Cemetery and proudly on her tombstone it states that she had earned the right to represent Christchurch by the use these three words “All Canterbury Pioneers”.

*photos taken by Chris and Annette Bulovic*

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