Tommy Cass knew life’s ups and downs. By the time he was surveying the 33,000 acres that would become the Deans’ future rural station of ‘Homebush’ in 1851, Tommy had earned the respect and admiration of all those around him. You get the feeling that he walked along with a great confidence and self knowledge that few would argue with him.
Tommy was born in 1817 in Yorkshire. Born with the gift for numbers, his career path never strayed far from mathematics. He studied architecture and surveying where after 3 years, he ventured into the world with qualifications for both. Coupling his budding interest in the new colony of New Zealand, Tommy got a job as an Assistant Surveyor with The New Zealand Company. He set sail for Auckland in 1841 and ultimately would face his first of life’s great curve balls.
The ‘Rupert’ in which Tommy was a passenger wrecked itself on the Cape of Good Hope. He barely escaped with his life which was all he had now in the world. He finally reached New Zealand and began his surveying career in Auckland, Bay of Islands and finally feeling like he was playing with the big boys, surveyed the township of Kororareka as the boss man.
In 1844, the New Zealand Company cut costs and Tommy among many others found himself without work. So, he decided to test his sea legs as a sailor and went to work on the government ship ‘Victoria.’ There he would witness the brutal conflict with the Maori at the time, including the sacking of Kororareka (which I’m sure felt quite personal) and the capture of Ngai Toa’s infamous Chief Te Rauparaha (author of the Haka) on the waters of Cook Strait.
In 1846, Canterbury experienced its first robbery. The Blue Cap Gang had pretended to be swaggers looking for employment and during a few days of work at Purau at the kindness of the Greenwood brothers, they had scoped the bay and learnt of other such targets such as the Deans’ brothers at Putaringamotu (Riccarton). After pulling off a successful robbery, the gang found no luck with the Deans’ who had received word and had armed themselves. For 3 days, the gang laid in wait in what we know as Riccarton Bush but they made no move. They travelled south by foot and were arrested in Otago. They were to face trail in Wellington and it’s on the ‘Victoria’ that the criminals were transported north.
In 1847 we find Tommy back in England, taking on The New Zealand Company for compensation for his loss of employment. Instead he finds work with The Canterbury Association and sets sail for Canterbury. Joining other well known surveyors such as Captain Joseph Thomas, Charles O Torlesse and Edward Jollie, Tommy immediately doesn’t seem to fit in. Taking on the Canterbury Plains on his own, he wanders the area of Lincoln and Lake Ellesmere, taking little part in the surveying of Christchurch, Sumner and Lyttelton. When Chief Surveyor Joseph Thomas leaves under a very dark cloud just after the arrival of the First Four Ships, Tommy finds himself as the Chief Surveyor.
It’s around this time that Tommy settles down with the Deans’ brothers and becomes a well known face around Riccarton. He would be present when an assault takes place between two Riccarton employees, resulting in the first court hearing in Christchurch, upstairs in the land office. Called as a witness, he would give his testimony to none other than John Robert Godley – Canterbury’s Founder – who was acting as Judge.
Care-taking over Riccarton – as John Deans was away in Scotland to marry Jane – was Mrs. Mary Williams. Riccarton was just a few months without John Deans when Mary’s husband suddenly died after a short illness. Of course, Mary was thrown into disarray but with all the courage of the pioneer women at their best, she bravely strides on as manager, Tommy Cass by her side as support…and so much more.
When John and Jane Deans arrive back in Christchurch in 1853, Tommy is half way through building a new home for the new widow. In 1856, he finally pops the question and Mary Williams becomes Mrs. Thomas Cass. They are to have no children but Tommy adopts Mary’s son as his own.
Tommy’s last hurrah into history was in 1864 when he sends budding surveyor, Arthur Dudley Dobson into the Alps to discover the best route to the West Coast. A new road was needed as Gold Fever had struck the region. In spite of harsh critics amongst the ranks, Tommy had complete faith in his young employee and Arthur’s Pass makes history. Bad Asthma finally pushes Tommy into retirement from surveying in 1867 and he returns to England as an immigration agent.
Just a year later, the Cass’ are back in Christchurch and sort of fade into history. Though the later years of life, the family are devoted members of St Michael’s and All Angels. Mary dies in 1885 and Tommy lives on with his stepson.
Tommy dies in 1895 and is buried with Mary and her first husband at Barbadoes Street Cemetery, next door to his good friends, the Deans.
Tommy is remembered today in the naming of Cass Bay, Cass Peak, Cass Street, Cass River and Cass, the town ship.