Life at Riccarton before the Deans

Banks Peninsula whaler Edward Weller must have smiled to himself that October day in 1839.  Maybe he even waved goodbye to those members of the Ngai Tahu who had foolishly sold him Banks Peninsula and the greater part of the Port Cooper (Canterbury) Plains for an old whaler’s boat and a few items of clothing.  He and his brother, George ran a whaling station on the Peninsula’s most southern bay, Oashore (or to some Gashore) and had never dreamed of scoring such an easy deal over the land of Waitaha – the Canterbury Plains.

It didn’t take the brothers long to sell on some of the land.  They sold 7560 acres to Australian company of Blackett, Dodds and Davis and to a Rev. William Purves at 5 shillings an acre.  These two independent parties hired their own teams to head to New Zealand to work the land – Blackett, Dodds and Davis sending a fella only known as McGillivary and a James Herriot was sent over by the Reverend.  Even through very separate, the two parties decided to work together and on the 10th April 1840, they were standing on the beach of Oashore.  With two teams of Bullocks, drays full of supplies and farm equipment, a party of over 10 people began to make their way across the plains from Te Waihora (Lake Ellesmere).

Incredible thought,these people crossing the plains were amongst the first Europeans to walk Canterbury.  There is no doubt of the trouble the Bullocks would have had – making their way across the swamps – their weight alone would have caused them to sink on more than one occasion.  Where would they set up camp?  It would be wise to push on towards that group of trees in the distance – a place of shelter, timber, food and hopefully water.  That place was known to the Ngai Tahu as Putaringmotu – a place we know as Riccarton.

So we have James Herriot, McGillivary, Malcolm and Mary McKinnon and their infant daughter Mary Ann and also a couple only known as Shaw and ‘Whistling Tom’ Ellis.  It must have been a reality check for them to have watched their guides leave, their nearest neighbours now being the Weller Whaling Station at Oashore and William Barnard Rhodes at Red House Bay, close to Akaroa.

Whatever the party was feeling, they got to work building huts and Malcolm McKinnon took the historic title of working the ‘first plough on the Canterbury Plains’.  30 acres of land was cleared with wheat and potatoes being planted.  Every fortnight, the trip was made to either Ikoraki (the whaling station owned by Captain Joseph Price) or Red House Bay to purchase supplies.  Oashore had proved to be a too much of a rough place to do business with so was avoided unless an emergency.

It wasn’t long before the little Putaringamotu settlement was in debt.  The only beacon of hope the party held onto was the promise of other settlers arriving soon and that a ship of supplies was due any day.  But their world soon came crashing down as the Weller Whaling Station closed down, native rats kept attacking the crops and their supply ship sunk.  The isolation in itself would drive anyone crazy but they pushed on and ploughed a further 50 acres.

12 months into the adventure, news reached them that their land claim and the claim of the Wellers were invalid and hundreds of pounds that had been invested in the project was lost.  Everyone but the McKinnon’s packed up their belongings and left, some of the Bullocks and farm equipment being sold.   And so the McKinnon’s fought on alone, against the loneliness and the rats.  The final straw broke for this brave family when a deliberate fire threatened their very lives. They fled. It was March 1841.

What the McKinnon’s had thought was a personal attack proved to be a misunderstanding.  Fires had been lit at Lake Ellesmere to smoke out the eels and the Ngai Tahu had lost control of it.  The fire burned across the plains, heading straight towards Putaringamotu.

And so Putaringamotu fell quiet again, that is until William Deans spotted it from the shoulders of Jimmy Robinson Clough and George Duppa a few short months later.  A Scottish gentleman farmer with huge dreams, no one can blame William for choosing Putaringamotu over somewhere else.  There was a river, a ready supply of timber and most of all, land that already been broken and ploughed.  The rest is history.

But what became of the McKinnon’s?  By night fall on the day they fled Putaringamotu, they were camped out in a cave beside Wairewa (Lake Forsyth).  Malcolm had made the trip carrying the kitchen table over his head and the family only had a potato to eat between them.

I’m not sure what got into Malcolm’s head but at the loop of the Otakaro (Avon River) by the Christchurch Hospital, he buried all his remaining farm equipment in a hole in the Avon.  No one had ever found these items.  In details that aren’t clear, the McKinnon’s managed to catch a ride to Akaroa via a whaler’s ship where their Bullocks continued their journey by land.  They settled at the south end of Akaroa Harbour and ran a small farm for the next decade.  Malcolm also served the community as a Police Constable.

In 1852, they moved to Island Bay and again, ran a small farm from an abandoned whaling station.  They also made cheese and once in a while, a boat would dock at the beach and Malcolm would carry the heavy cheeses down to the water’s edge so it could be taken away and sold at market.  In 1860, after suffering from constant back pain, Malcolm hung himself – this most forgotten Pre-Adamite (a term used for those settlers that arrived before the First Four Ships) bowing out of the world without really securing his place in Canterbury’s history.

You know, no one holds a place in my historian heart like the Deans’ but my hat is off to Malcolm McKinnon who was the first break land at Riccarton and really did open the door for the Deans and the wonderful history that followed.

*photo of Riccarton Bush taken by Chris Bulovic*

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