Gleig’s Island ~ Quail Island

“Having reached the island which Quail Island rises to about 250 ft above the level of the harbour I landed at a shelly beach and ascended the hill in order to correct and complete my sketch. During my walk there I flushed several quail and from that circumstance I gave it the name Quail Island.”

So wrote Captain Mein Smith in 1842. Sadly, these quail that captured Mein’s attention so famously are our now extinct Native Quail, last seen in 1875.

Known to the Ngai Tahu as ‘Otamahua’ – a place where children collect eggs – it was a never a place of settlement. It was used to collect shellfish, bird’s eggs and flax.

When the Europeans arrived and explored the 81 hectare island, they came across day shelters and also ground ovens, used to cook the bird’s eggs, once quite a delicacy.

It was named Gleig’s Island after Rev. George Robert Gleig who was not only a Canterbury Association member but was also a part of the Management Committee. He was there at the very first meeting on the 27th March 1848 in London.

As we now know, the name didn’t stick!

King Billy – a little rock outcrop – was used to collect rocks that were shaped into tools.

The first Europeans that made Quail Island their home were the Ward brothers – Edward, Henry and Hamilton – who arrived in Lyttelton aboard the Charlotte Jane, the first of our first four ships. They purchased the island from the Canterbury Association and set up a farm.

Tragically on the 22nd June 1851, the Godley’s (Including John Robert Godley,the founder of Christchurch) amongst other guests arrived at Quail Island for a prearranged picnic with the brothers. They discovered a very worried Hamilton at home, his older brothers hadn’t returned from collecting wood, which they would do from the main land.

With haste, the men of the party went to search for them in their boat, soon discovering one of them drowned in a nearby bay, the firewood scattered along the beach. The other drowned brother was not discovered for months, his body suddenly appearing in one of the furthest bays near the Lyttelton Heads.

The new colony of Christchurch was devastated by the news. Hamilton went to live with the Godley’s in Lyttelton – as he was only 16 – until the arrival of another brother, Crosbie came to pass.

Prisoners from the Lyttelton Gaol were taken there for work detail, building the many stone walls and terraces that survive today.

In 1875, a quarantine station was opened, taking sick passengers from immigration ships before docking on the main land.  In 1879, orphans suffering from Diphtheria were even placed on this lonely island. Hoof stock off the arriving ships were also offloaded untill they passed their health checks.

In 1901, the Antarctic historical links began with an animal quarantine being set up. Captain Falcon Scott used Quail Island twice for this reason; the remains of the housing for the Samoyed and Husky dogs still mark the land. In 1910, the beaches were used for breaking-in and training the Manchurian Ponies that he would use on the ice.

Ernest Shakleton housed his Indian Army Mules there too before his trip to Antarctica in the 1920’s.

In 1907, a leper colony was built and 9 sick men made the place their home. Out of all 9 lepers, only 1 died, his lonely grave sits on the Discovery Walking Track and can be viewed by those on foot. Cared for by a single doctor and nurse, the lepers were moved on to Fiji in 1925.

In 1975, Quail Island was declared a recreational centre and placed in the care of the Department of Conservation.

36 species of forest birds and 19 species of coastal birds once made the Island their home. Out of those 55 species, only the Kingfisher, Grey Warbler, Fantail, Bellbird, Harrier Hawk and the Pipit are viewed there today. The Blue Penguin used to nest on the beaches but they haven’t done so since the 1980’s. The Banks Peninsula Tree Weta has been introduced just recently and are doing well.

On the western side of the island is the Ships Graveyard, the resting place for the following: “Queen la Plata’, ‘Mullingh’, ’Lyttelton’ ,’Frank Guy’, ’Walwera’, ‘Darra’, and ‘Belle Isle’. Some of these are still visible, some only with low tide. But the iron ribs of these vessels protrude from the sea with an all consuming spookiness.

The Otamahua/Quail Island Ecological Restoration Trust was established in 1998. This group plans to replant one third of Quail Island with native flora, reintroduce native fauna, acknowledge historical sites and encourage recreational use. The Black Cat Cruises operate daily ferry services to Quail Island during summer and a weekend service in winter.

*image of Quail Island from Lyttelton during the 1850’s courtesy of*
*image of Leper Colony courtesy of *
*image of Ships’ Graveyard courtesy of Tim Musson*

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