The Corlett Family

In the early hours of the 18th September 1850, the passengers of the ‘Sir George Seymour’ – the third of our First Four Ships – heard one of the distress calls that no one at sea wants to hear.  FIRE!

It is not reported whether the watch-keeper (name of the male passengers who strolled the ship on shifts) saw the smoke first or had luckily came across it when he did, but nonetheless, smoke quickly bellowed along into the rooms and corridors, sending our panicked settlers to the deck for fresh air.

Amidst the screams and cries, a double line of male passengers and crew were formed and buckets filled of water were quickly passed down the line.  Other crews members also quickly herded up the women and children, telling them to get back down under the deck in spite of the choking smoke.  They pointed to the barrels of oil, spirits and gunpowder that sat on deck and again insisted they go below the deck in which they did.

It was a great blessing that the fire was soon put out and little damage had been done.  A knocked over lantern seemed to have been the culprit.  A very apologetic father stepped forward, saying the lantern was his, he had been making a rice breakfast for his children and had no idea that he had knocked it over as he made his exit.  The whole ship was told sternly by the Captain to keep in mind about safety and if that didn’t get through, the sermon given by the Chaplin the following Sunday really drove it home.

One of the families that huddled together on the deck as smoke surrounded them was the Corlett family.  The father, Stephen – an agriculture labourer – and his eldest son John (who was 16) I’m sure were standing in the bucket queue with their hearts in their throats.  Jane, the mother, had the other 6 children with her, pulling them close to her in fright, leaning on her Christian faith to pull her family through and for the poor Corletts; their hard walk of faith was really just starting.

Just like many that poured out of our First Four Ships, the Corletts first settled down in Lyttelton.  They erected a tent and made the best of things.  Also, like many others, they had heavy goods that would need to be shipped into Christchurch via the Heathcote but this service cost just has much, and more, than their passage from England.  Stephen would have taken heart as he had already found work; it was just a matter of time while his employer – J.C. Watts-Russell – set himself up and the family was set.  Maybe thanks to their two working children – Mary Ann 20yrs & John 16yrs – the Corletts soon collected up the money needed and a date of their move was made.

Just before the family were due to move, the faith of the family was tested again as the Maori road gang made up of workers from Purau, Port Levy and Rapaki broke into a threatening Haka right in front of their tent!  It was a challenge to John Robert Godley over their pay and work hours which was different from their European counterparts.   Eliza Corlett, who was 8 at the time, remembered many years later that as this protest brought Lyttelton to a standstill, one could also hear every firearm in town being cocked for action.  Luckily it didn’t come to that.

And so the Corletts were ready for their move to Christchurch.  In June 1851, their worldly goods made the trip around the heads of Sumner, heading to the entry of the Heathcote via the Estuary.  Tragically, the family became a victim of the Sumner Bar and everything went into the sea.  Only a few trucks of clothes were able to be saved from the nearby New Brighton Spit.

I am guessing as J.C. Watts-Russell had yet to set up his Christchurch property of ‘Ilam’ – now the suburb – and the fact that they weren’t Anglican, the Corletts’ bad luck continued.  They were forced to make a dugout in the side of the Avon River bank with a weatherboard roof (that would collapse in the rain) that was held up by two posts.  Not only did rats steal food and other items, but their roof caught fire and had to be thrown into the Avon.

Just when things couldn’t get any worse, William Corlett died of Tuberculosis on the 28th December 1851.  He was only 14 years old and the outdoor living during a Canterbury winter proved to be too much.  John Corlett, the 16 year old son, soon followed his brother with the same condition.

Thank goodness that by 1853, things were on the up and up for the family.  Stephen, well settled into his Ilam job, was able to purchase 50 acres of his own and there he built a cob cottage.   He named his property ‘Capesthorne’ after the place where he last worked in England.  His driveway, off Riccarton Road, became known as Corlett’s Lane and we now know this as Curletts Road.   It seems that the ‘u’ of Curletts Road is a typo.  Those who named the road took the name of the ‘Sir George Seymour’ passenger list which was misspelt as Curlett and not Corlett.  Oops!

*please note, the attached image is not of the Sir George Seymour*

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