28 November 2015

Writing to the New Plymouth colony

From a biography of early Taranaki settler Tom King, a discussion of the challenges and delays involved in communicating with the far-flung outpost in the 1840s:

'Maintaining connections across such distances was never easy, but New Plymouth was a particularly problematic destination. Financial difficulties forced the Plymouth Company to merge with the New Zealand Company, with practical implications. Few ships sailed directly to the new settlement (letters and goods were sent via Auckland or Wellington), and there were long gaps between sailings. Scanning the lists for a ship bound for the colony became a family pastime. Friends and family would alert Susannah [King, Tom's mother, in London] that a ship was at last heading south; a final letter would be hastily penned; and the bundle containing all the letters written in the interim would be speedily dispatched. But ships could take up to six months to reach the colony, so the treasured and eagerly read news was always old. The potato crop that Susannah hoped and prayed had been successful had long been eaten either by insects or the settlers by the time Tom read her words. And even when the ship arrived safely at Auckland or Wellington, delivery was by no means assured. Commenting on the 600 unclaimed letters reputedly stuck in Auckland, Susannah wrote 'it seems strange they cannot be conveyed to you'. For someone living in 19th century London, with its well-developed infrastructure and mail service, the situation in New Zealand was indeed difficult to comprehend. Susannah found it particularly frustrating. Having heard nothing from her son, she wrote:

'I hope you got all my letters / the first I know you did / the next I sent in Septr / 41 the next Sir Henry sent the middle of Novr I put a note in it / the next Mr Truby sent 26th March / we shall be so happy to hear from you / we have sent three Oxford newspapers'.

Susannah's words indicate the networks that operated even in the sending of a letter. She could either send a letter on her own account, or send one via Sir Henry, who undoubtedly paid the bill. Friends, even acquaintances, were pulled into service, not just in paying for the letter, but in the actual conveyance of the document. When one of her lodgers told Susannah of an acquaintance who was about to emigrate, she quickly gave the young man 'whose father is a Cheese Monger near the Bricklayers' Arms' a letter to deliver to Tom. Was the young man as quick to deliver as he was to accept?'

- Margot Fry, Tom's Letters. The Private World of Tom King, Victorian Gentleman, Wellington, 2001, p.26-7. 

Tom King came to Taranaki on the settler ship William Bryan, the first settler ship to arrive in New Plymouth. It also carried both my sets of ancestors: on my mother's side, Edward Tucker and family, and on my father's side, Richard Chilman. King was a good friend of Richard Chilman, and later married his sister Mary Chilman. King was also a member of the first New Zealand Parliament held in Auckland in 1853, and much of the book is devoted to his correspondence from that session to Mary back in New Plymouth. One of Tom and Mary's children was Frederic Truby King (1858-1938), who later attained considerable fame for his pioneering work in health reform and for founding the Plunket Society.

See also:
History: The Tuckers of Clive, 19 October 2015
HistoryThe arrival of an English mail, 26 January 2015
History: Old New Plymouth, 9 February 2014
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