When the Canterbury Association Management Committee were pulling together all the details of the upcoming immigration of roughly 700 settlers to Christchurch and Canterbury in 1850, every little detail had to be thought of and ironed out.  This included diet while on board.

It was agreed that every ship should have at least one sheep, one pig, one cow and 12 chooks on board.  The cow that belonged to the Association was to only be used by first class passengers with the onboard doctor being allowed to prescribe milk to the lower classes if medically required. 

Some of our settlers were lucky enough to have fellow passengers bring their own stock onboard.  These animals could travel for free as long as the milk was available for all to use.  And so, on the ‘Charlotte Jane’ and the ‘Sir George Seymour’, there were 5 cows amongst the other cargo, making the three month journey to New Zealand.  Sadly, for most of these historic cows, their only contribution to our new colony was to be done over those months at sea.

The first cow to perish was in the ownership of William Guise Brittan, the doctor/surgeon from the Sir George Seymour.  On 28th December 1850, she was discovered at the bottom of a cliff face, believed to have taken a tumble over the edge due to her weaken condition and Lyttelton’s rough, high, unforgiving terrain.  Brittan went on to be in charge of the land office and his house on Fitzgerald Ave – Englefield – has been in the news since the quakes cause insurance issues has kept this heritage gem from being restored.

The second cow was lost on 7th January 1851, after just being brought on shore from the Charlotte Jane.  She belonged to James Edward Fitzgerald, Canterbury’s future Superintendent and founder of ‘The Press’ newspaper.  Wife of Canterbury founder, John Robert Godley wrote home to England about the incident so I will let Charlotte tell you:

‘They brought out a very special cow that cost £35 at home and £50 before she got here, though they gave her free passage in one of those ships.  He was very proud of her, and had not five minutes in the house, before he was telling me all about her, and I, on my part, was warning him of a certain plant which grows here called toot (tu-tu, native), of which cows are excessively fond, and when they get to it after a long voyage they eat such a quantity that, in their weak state, it kills them; although it is excellent food for them in moderation, and at other times.  I told him how our friend Mr. H. Brown had landed four working bullocks, a month before, and how two die the next morning from eating it, and he was very much frightened, and, when she arrived on shore, full of plans for her protection.  After all, she was allowed to be out for the night eating what she pleased and died the next day, in spite of all they could do for her’.

The third cow also succumbed to the same temptation as Fitzgerald’s, dying of tutu poisoning on 17th January 1851.  This poor animal belonged to Henry Phillips who is remembered in the naming of Phillipstown although he owned many sections of land all over Christchurch.  His descendants still farm his Rookwood property in mid Canterbury and this is where he is buried, in their small private graveyard.

There are six different types of tutu in New Zealand and not all are endemic to us.  It contains neurotoxin tutin which brings on delirium, vomiting and eventually one just slips into a coma.  I have come across cases in my historic studies of people using tutu to commit suicide right here in Christchurch.

A much darker fate seemly awaited the fourth cow, with just a simple explanation of it being ‘…dashed to pieces …’ and sadly I have been unable to get a clearer picture of what actually happened.  Another tumble off a cliff perhaps or taken too by wild dogs/pigs – your guess is as good as mine.  Her owner, J.C. Watts-Russell went on to establish the farm of Ilam, most of his old farm land now belonging to the Canterbury University.

The only cow to survive well into the establishment of Christchurch was the beast belonging to the Ward family, brothers Edward, Henry and Hamilton arriving in Lyttelton aboard the Charlotte Jane.  Amongst the Ward’s other stock, she was made to walk across the shallows between the mainland and Quail Island, where the brothers had decided to build their home.  Sadly, Edward and Henry were to drown in Lyttelton Harbour in June 1851 while they were rowing to mainland to collect firewood.  Hamilton went on to become the owner of a brewery that we know today as Canterbury Draught although this business finished up in 2012.

Maybe it should come as no surprise concerning this last cow when you read Edward’s diary about her.  She sounded like a tough cookie:

18th November 1850

‘A curious accident occurred to me this afternoon.  One does not imagine themselves liable on board a ship to be tossed by a cow, but nevertheless such was the nature of my accident.  I had gone into the cow’s house and remained coaxing and petting her on the most affectionate terms – she licking me and pretending to be the best friend possible.  But when I climbed upon the partition to get in front of her, while kneeling thereupon with my rear exposed to her face, she, as if sensible of the extreme indignity, ripped up my right leg with everything upon it, including the skin, for about a foot in length.  I came down in rags and extreme terror for I thought that my thigh must have been cruelly laid open.  But when I got down to my cabin, behold it was only a scratch, and a torn trouser and shirt was the only injury done.  Great laughing at me for the accident by the cuddy folk to whom even this absurd accident is a godsend’.


*letter and diary enteries courtesy of “Letters from Early New Zealand” by Charlotte Godley and “The Journal of Edward Ward” by Edward Ward.*

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