Quail Island Gets A Feminine Touch

I can’t say whether Elizabeth Watts-Russell was one of those who laughed when the Ward brothers – Edward, Henry and Hamilton – chose Quail Island as the place to set up their farm.  The brothers were well aware of the giggles happening around Lyttelton as they prepared to make their move.  Edward – the eldest – took great comfort from his old school chum and Canterbury Association surveyor Charles Orbin Torlesse whose instant reply to the crazy Quail Island move was that they ‘…would be crazy not too’.

Crazy or not, I’m sure the Wards noticed Quail Island from the deck of the ‘Charlotte Jane’  – the First of our First Four Ships – as she dropped anchor on that historic day in 1850.  From his journal entries, Edward was watching Quail Island long before he spoke of it.  But no doubt, the following day following him stepping ashore, he was amongst the excited crowd that witnessed the arrival of the ‘Sir George Seymour’ – the third of our First Four Ships – and was soon acquainted with two of its passengers, a Mr. and Mrs. J.C. Watts-Russell.

Edward seemed especially taken with Elizabeth Watts-Russell, writing that she was “…such a charming person, just after my own heart.  Passionately fond of Ireland, but devoted to her new country”.   So it should come as no surprise that they were invited to dine at the Ward’s Quail Island farm.  But what a mission that would have been!  Rowing by hand across the Lyttelton Harbour just to have dinner was not for the faint hearted –including the climb up to the farm – but Elizabeth managed and history has her recorded as the first European woman to have stepped on Quail Island shores.  It appears that this fact didn’t escape Elizabeth either.

To mark the occasion, she planted some Larch seeds.  She had also been promised a kitten but it is not recorded whether the kitten was collected on this visit.  As J.C. Watts-Russell became Port Victoria’s (Lyttelton) Magistrate and Edward served on the bench with him, the families did see quite a bit of each other.

Tragically on the 23rd June 1851, just over 6 months after the arrival of the ‘Charlotte Jane’, the brothers had planned to host a picnic on their farm.  Among their expected guests were John Robert Godley (the founder of Canterbury and co-founder of the Canterbury Association) and his wife Charlotte.  The party rowed across to Quail Island, all looking forward to their day out when they discovered a very worried Hamilton at the Wards’ Cottage.

Edward and Henry had left the previous day to collect firewood from the main land and had not returned.  Hamilton had expected them back hours before.  With haste, the men of the party went to search for them in their boat – soon discovering Edward drowned in a nearby bay, the firewood scattered along the beach.  Henry was not discovered for another 4 months.  To say that the new colony of Christchurch was devastated by the news would be a serious understatement.

Hamilton grew up and bought into a brewery. It was founded by Archer C. Croft who opened the business in 1854. When Archer sold out to Hamilton in 1862, the business became known as Ward’s Brewery and the name remained. Hamilton sold the business in 1881 – by then it was the biggest brewery in New Zealand – to Henry Lee. The Ward’s Brewery would keep going for just over 100 years, closing down in 1955. Ward’s Beer is now known as Canterbury Draught.

The Watts-Russell’s went on to settle down on their Christchurch land which they named ‘Ilam’ – now the suburb – building one of the finest homes in Christchurch.  The house became the centre of the Christchurch social scene – it was there that James Edward Fitzgerald thought up ‘The Press’ while he was dining there one evening.  Unfortunately this fine home was destroyed by fire in 1911.

During the late 1860′s, the Watts-Russell’s sold off their interests in New Zealand and returned to England.  They weren’t gone for long, soon returning to Christchurch.  In 1875 after a short illness, J.C died in his home at Cathedral Square.  In honour of her late husband, Elizabeth had a memorial window erected in the Christchurch Cathedral and at St Peter’s Anglican Church at Church Corner, Upper Riccarton.  He is also buried in the graveyard there.

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