06 April 2009

The last sight of old Plymouth

On a recent visit to the West Country I stopped for a brief visit in Plymouth, the port from which the Tucker family emigrated to New Zealand in 1840.  I was intending to journey inland to the town of Calstock, where I believe Edward and Jane Tucker lived before their emigration, and where an outlying area of fields is still known as Tuckermarsh.  However, it quickly became apparent that my single day in Plymouth was not sufficient to allow a side trip to Calstock, because the trains only ran there every two hours and I had a train to catch later that day to Truro.  Still, I managed to hunt down a few details of the country they left in 1840, taking their children to a new colony on the other side of the world in the hope of a better life.

Edward and Jane were relatively old for would-be colonists: when their ship the William Bryan sailed on 19 November 1840, Edward was aged 50, Jane was 47 and they took with them seven children.  They had married on 8 December 1818 at St Andrew’s Church in Calstock, a mainly 15th-century church built on the site of an old Roman fort, their wedding taking place only a few years after the conclusion of the Napoleonic wars at the Battle of Waterloo (1815).  According to the family research of Emily J. Tucker, neither Edward or Jane was from Calstock (they are listed as ‘sojourner of the parish’ on the marriage certificate, despite Jane having been baptised in the same church on 1 December 1793).  Both signed the register with an ‘x’, although this does not necessarily mean they were illiterate – it was common at the time.  

Edward was born around 1790 at an unknown location.  After the birth of their first child George (about whom I only know that he was not aboard the William Bryan, but did later move to New Zealand because he is listed as dying in a place called Araperara).  At some point the Tuckers moved from Calstock to Tavistock, five miles to the northeast, because their second child William was born there in 1820.  The third and fourth children, Edward and Margaret, were both born back in Calstock in 1823 and 1825 respectively.  Five more children were born to the couple further west in North Hill on the edge of the moors between the years 1829 and 1839, indicating that North Hill was probably their last place of residence before they left England.

With so many children and a seemingly transient life, it appears likely that the Tuckers were unable to provide for their family needs on an agricultural or mining worker’s income.  (When Edward senior died in Auckland in 1855 his occupation was listed as ‘farmer’, so he probably plied the same trade in England).

The founding of the Plymouth Company of New Zealand provided the Tuckers with the opportunity to escape the poverty of life in Devon.  With a powerful patron in the 10th Earl of Devon, William Courtenay (1777-1859), the Plymouth Company managed to secure the funds necessary to send six colonising vessels from Plymouth to found the Taranaki settlement of New Plymouth.  Henry Brett, in his 1928 book White Wings (vol. II), noted that the Plymouth Company:

…was initiated at a meeting held in Plymouth on January 25, 1840, at which it was decided to raise £150,000 capital for the purpose of acquiring land in New Zealand and settling it with people from Devon and Cornwall. At the head of the company was the Earl of Devon, and associated with him were a number of prominent persons, several of whom bore titles. The names of some of these leaders are perpetuated in the streets of New Plymouth, such as Courtenay Eliot, Buller, and Pendarves. Great care was taken in selecting the settlers, many of them being of good yeoman stock.

(As an aside, it is interesting to note that the Earl obtained his title rather fortuitously, because the ninth Earl, also a William Courtenay (1768-1835), had no issue and was seemingly openly gay, and known as ‘Kitty’ to his family and friends.  The 10th Earl was his third cousin).        

Plymouth at the time the Tuckers departed was still an isolated part of England.  The railway did not arrive in town until 1848-49, and a telegraph connection was not established until 1852.  However, according to the Thomas’ Directory of 1836 (‘being an alphabetical list of the inhabitants of Plymouth’), which I consulted in the local history section of the Plymouth library, there were five or six Tuckers noteworthy enough to warrant mention:

  • Tucker, Mark – grocer / tea dealer, Frankfort Street
  • Tucker, Robert – lieutenant, Royal Navy, King Street
  • Tucker, William – grocer / tea dealer, Exeter Street
  • Tucker, William (as above?) – grocer / tea dealer, High Street
  • Tucker, Robert – baker, Looe Street
  • Tucker, William – shoemaker, Drake Street.

So perhaps Edward and Jane had relatives to stay with when they came down to Plymouth four years later in 1840 – but given the size of their brood, perhaps not!


The William Bryan was a 312-ton barque under the command of Captain McLean, and according to this website it was ‘built at Southampton in 1816. Originally owned by Messers Domett & England she was sold to Tullock & Company in 1844’.  The emigrants enjoyed an impressive send-off from Plymouth, according to the Cyclopedia of New Zealand, written in 1908:

Previous to the departure of the expedition, a dinner was given to the pioneer emigrants, who were chiefly from Cornwall, where Sir William Molesworth had made great efforts to induce a number of agricultural and mining labourers, who resided on his estates, or in their neighbourhood, to enter into the scheme. Much enthusiasm prevailed at the meeting, and each emigrant was promised a town section in the town of New Plymouth, on his arrival. The dejeuner took place on the 30th of October, and the Earl of Devon was in the chair. On the previous day the proclamation of the British sovereignty of the Islands of New Zealand had been published in London in the Government Gazette. Mr. Gibbon Wakefield was in London at the time, and, on hearing the important news, he immediately started for Plymouth by the mail coach, and arrived there during the least, at which he was called upon by Lord Devon to communicate to the assembly the intelligence he had brought from London.

It was a rainy November week when the William Bryan arrived in Plymouth for loading.  Dr Henry Weeks, the ship’s surgeon, recorded the loading in his diary:

At last the Wm. Bryan arrived, and shortly afterwards the day of embarkation. It rained in torrents and the decks were ankle deep in dirt. Boats and barges arrived at the ship's side with the emigrants and their luggage, some, poor things, in a most woeful plight. Each family had on the average about four children, making seventy in all. There were one hundred and forty-one steerage emigrants and how they possibly could be stowed away was to me a problem. Now just imagine a number of people, almost all strangers to each other, endeavouring to squeeze themselves and part of their things into little dark places called berths; grumbling all the while and expressing a wish to return; sailors swearing, pigs grunting, and children crying their little lungs out. What a treat this would have been for Hogarth's musician! Travelling indeed makes us acquainted with strange bedfellows.

The emigrants would have been transferred to the ship from the old port of Plymouth, known as the Barbican.  The old stone steps down to the water still remain, and these steps are surrounded with plaques commemorating the departure of a multitude of emigrants from the port (aside from the Taranaki-bound settlers, the Barbican was also the scene of the departure of the Mayflower to the New World in 1620 and the Tolpuddle Martyrs to the convict settlements in Australia in the mid-1830s). 




The William Bryan lay becalmed in Plymouth Sound for several days, and would likely have been visible to any nearby relatives wishing to wave goodbye from the headland known as Plymouth Hoe.  (On this site Sir Francis Drake is reputed to have played bowls before sailing out to defeat the Spanish Armada; there’s a Drake statue there now, and a bowling green).  Here’s a panorama view of the Sound from the centre of Plymouth Hoe, with the Barbican located down below the large war memorial on the far left.

Plymouth Hoe 27.03.09

When the William Bryan finally departed Plymouth, the last sight the emigrants would have had of Devon (assuming they were allowed on deck) would have been the Smeaton’s Tower – which was then the Eddystone Lighthouse.  Coincidentally, the tower they passed in 1840 is now secure on Plymouth Hoe – it’s the red and white striped tower in the panorama above and the photo below.  It was replaced in the 1880s and moved to the Hoe as a historic landmark.   



Finally, in one of those typically New Zealand coincidences, the William Bryan also carried my father’s family to the colony: Richard and Agnes Chilman, who were cabin passengers.  Richard Chilman found himself a job working for the commander of the colony effort, the naval architect George Cutfield, en route to New Zealand - the Cyclopedia of New Zealand (cited above) recorded that ‘on board were Mr. Richard Chilman, of London, who, on the voyage, was appointed clerk to Mr. Cutfield’. 

Mrs Chilman also had an eventful journey.  In the ship’s surgeon’s diary, the entry for 11 December 1840 reveals some collateral damage resulting from on-ship boredom:

11th. The man at the wheel saw a shark this morning. Don't think I shall repeat the bathing. Some dolphins have also been following in the wake of the ship but we cannot tempt them to taste our bacon on a baited hook. Mr. King having dressed himself in a bonnet and cloak of Mrs. Chilman's, immediately on his coming on deck to be introduced, a puff came and took the bonnet overboard. To complete the day's disasters, Aubrey flung King's cap overboard.

Mrs Chilman was also on the receiving end of a dousing in salt water on 28 December 1840 when the William Bryan crossed the line of the Equator, an old ship’s custom.

The Chilmans experienced the hard times that beset all of the early New Plymouth settlers.  In a republished extract from his diary dated 11 December 1841, he wrote:

All the circumstances seem adverse to us, and this settlement, which ought to be one of the most flourishing in New Zealand, threatens, through the shameful land jobbery (to characterise it by the mildest terms) in England by the Plymouth Company, to be abandoned at no distant date. When we consider that we might have had the very place chosen by the Nelson settlement where there are three ships now safely landing their cargo, it is enough to disgust us entirely with the whole affair. With regard to the Plymouth Company, it was openly stated during the selection of the town sites that a large sum of money remitted for purchase of some of those sections was returned to Halifax with the answer that they were all disposed of. Judge then, of our astonishment to find that when the “Amelia Thompson” left England the Company was holder of upwards of a thousand town lots, which with 200 for the natives, and 600 held by absentees, reduces the number held by actual colonists to less than 400 sections. These circumstances justify anybody in stigmatising the Company as being engaged in land sharking transactions, which will entail a heavy loss, perhaps ruin, upon all who have bought land.

By September 1842, the Cyclopedia reports, the Chilmans had ‘partly cleared and fenced a fifty acre section’.  By 1853, according to Puke Ariki, Chilman had improved his lot, having been appointed Provincial Treasurer, and in 1871 he returned to England to raise capital to exploit the ironsands of Taranaki.  A New Plymouth street was named after him too. 

For more details of Richard Chilman’s adventurous life, see this text (near the bottom of the page) from a volume entitled The Taranaki Pioneers, which was written in 1878. 

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