Captain Edward Fearon


The King of Motueka

Times were turbulent when one of Motueka’s earliest Pakeha pioneers arrived to take up his newly-bought block of land. Edward Fearon had barely pitched his tent and made a start on clearing his section when the Nelson district was thrown into a state of panic, fearing an imminent Māori uprising following the Wairau Affray of 17th June, 1843. Motueka was an isolated spot, covered in thick bush, with sea access only, a large resident Māori population and only a very few other widely scattered settlers in the vicinity.  A former ship’s captain, well used to taking command and dealing with sudden crises, Fearon is credited with playing a significant part in calming local tensions. He went on to see the tiny settlement grow and prosper, and such was his influence and involvement in almost every aspect of the fledgling township’s affairs, that fellow residents half-jokingly dubbed him the “King of Motueka”.

Cpt Fearon
Captain Edward Fearon (1813-1869) Nelson Provincial Museum. W.E. Brown Collection, ref. 12084

The youngest son of Isaac Fearon, a London-based merchant and stockbroker, and his wife Elizabeth (formerly Baty nee Hodgson), Edward Fearon was born on 31 October 1813 at the family home on Shove Place, in the Parish of St John’s, Hackney, London.1 He was sent to school, but as a youth ran away to sea, where his abilities were soon recognised. He rapidly rose to become a master mariner in the British Mercantile Marine (the equivalent of today’s Merchant Navy) and in his twenties captained ships trading to North and South America, Cape Colony in South Africa and Australia.2

Mrs Fearon

Elizabeth Fearon nee Ward (1811-1901) Nelson Provincial Museum. Davis Collection, ref. 893

On 11 February 1840 Edward Fearon was married at St Olave Hart Street, London, to Elizabeth Ward, from Crediton, Devon. Straight after their wedding they set sail on the “City of Edinburgh”, a 365-ton barque on the London to Sydney run with Captain Fearon in command. Their honeymoon trip was cut dramatically short when the ship was caught in a cyclone as she approached Australia and wrecked off Settlement Point, Flinders Island, on 11 July 1840.3 Though left with only the clothes they stood up in, the ship’s company all survived and were returned to England by a ship which called in at New Zealand en route. The intrepid newly-weds were taken with what they saw of the country, and determined to return later as settlers.

Emigration to New Zealand
Having amassed a comfortable fortune during his successful career, Fearon retired from the sea and at the age of 29 emigrated to New Zealand. Accompanied by his wife Elizabeth and two of her brothers, John and Thomas Ward, he embarked on the New Zealand Company's ship “Thomas Sparks”, departing Gravesend on 27 July 1842. It was a fraught and seemingly endless voyage. The captain, Robert Sharp, was an alcoholic, prone to erratic seamanship and violent rages. On the night of 3 October 1842, he drove the ship on to Whale Rock off Penguin Island. As water poured in and pandemonium reigned, Captain Fearon proved the man of the hour, swiftly taking charge and restoring order. He had the pumps manned all night and in the morning the badly damaged barque came off the rock and limped into Capetown. It wasn’t until 26 February 1843 that the 30 hapless passengers for Nelson finally reached their destination.4 In the meantime Edward and Elizabeth Fearon had made a start on their family, with their first child, Elizabeth (Lizzie) Ludwig Fearon, being born during the outward-bound voyage on 22 December 1842. 

J.D. Greenwood

Dr J.D Greenwood (1802-1890) Drawing of "my dear husband" by Sarah Greenwood [ca 1852]. Alexander Turnbull Collections, ref. A-252-021

The Fearons settled at first in Nelson and soon became part of what counted as the upper echelon of Nelson society. They befriended new settlers Dr John Danforth and Sarah Greenwood, who arrived a month after them on the “Phoebe”. The Greenwoods decided to settle on Section 152 in Motueka. They were keen for the Fearons to join them there as neighbours, "for their mutual friendship and protection”, so on 2 June 1843 Edward Fearon bought Motueka Section 155 from Captain Wakefield, the New Zealand Company’s Resident Agent in Nelson.5  It was situated half a mile distant from and to the north of the Greenwoods’ and close at its eastern boundary to a tidal estuary. The Fearons’ 50 acre property was a mix of fern, flax-covered swamp and native bush, which he straightaway set to work clearing. 

The Wairau Affray and its aftermath
The Wairau Affray of 17 June 1843, was the result of an ill-advised attempt to strong-arm Ngāti Toa chief Te Rauparaha into handing over his lands in the Wairau Valley to the New Zealand Company. The skirmish which followed led to the deaths of several Māori and 22 settlers, including Captain Wakefield himself. For some time Nelsonians lived in fearful expectation of a full-scale retaliatory attack. The alarm felt in Nelson was even stronger in remote Motueka, whose few resident European settlers (apart from small groups at outlying Riwaka and Lower Moutere) were clustered around the small harbour known as the Manuka Bush, at the end of what is now Staples Street.

Woodlands 1852

Greenwood farm [Woodlands] at Motueka, [1852]. Artist: Sarah Greenwood. Nelson Provincial Museum, Bett Loan Collection, ref. AC333

Local Māori were equally concerned about reprisals from the British, and Captain Fearon acted as a calming presence in the small community. On the 1 July 1843 he reassured readers of the Nelson Examiner that “the natives at Motueka are perfectly quiet and friendly”.6  However, over the next months there were some heated exchanges with Māori over disputed land claims. Reflecting continued anxiety amongst settlers, when Danforth Greenwood moved to Motueka around August 1843 and built a home called “Woodlands” at the seaward end of Tudor Street, it was designed as a defensible blockhouse, with an excavated refuge beneath and a stockpile of gunpowder.  (A second Greenwood home, also called ”Woodlands", can still be seen at 27 Tudor Street.)

Fearon, Greenwood and Thorp
Charles Thorp, a settler who had arrived in Nelson on the ship “Olympus” in 1842, moved to Motueka around 1848 and bought several sections on the road later named for him, Thorp Street. Thorp became not only a good neighbour and friend but also a relative-by-marriage on 11 April 1850, when he was married at St Thomas', Motueka, to Mrs Fearon’s younger sister Mary Ward. 

Charles Thorp

Charles Thorp (1820-1905). Friend, neighbour and brother-in-law. Nelson Provincial Museum Collection, ref. 11025

For many years this public-spirited trio of earliest settlers - Fearon, Greenwood and Thorp - would be at the heart of local society, giving freely of their time and talents to "the Village”, as the Motueka township was known, though the sorry state of its first roads in the wet also earned it the nickname “Muddy Acre”!   

Fearon was elected an inaugural member of the Richmond Cattle Fair in 1851. He served as member of the Nelson Provincial Council  for Motueka and Massacre Bay (now Golden Bay) from 1855-57 and always maintained a close interest in local politics. He was also a prime mover and Provisional Committee member when the Nelson and Marlborough Coast Steam Navigation Company was set up 1855. It purchased the paddle steamer “Tasmanian Maid”, which was used to carry goods and passengers between Nelson, Motueka, Collingwood, Wairau, Picton and across the Cook Strait to Wellington, one of the earliest of the small coastal steamers that revolutionized transport in the Nelson region. From 1861 Fearon served on the Motueka Board of Education for several terms and was appointed as well its representative to the Central Education Board in Nelson.

Civic duties 
A church warden at St Thomas,’ Motueka, from 1849 and a member of the Nelson Diocesan General Synod, Captain Fearon was always a generous benefactor to the Church of England. In 1844 he donated a piece of his land at the junction of today’s Thorp and Fearon Streets as the site for St Thomas Anglican Church and a churchyard burial ground. The church was moved to High Street in 1860, but although no longer in use, the cemetery remains on the original site and is now part of the Pioneer Historic Park.

St Thomas Motueka

St Thomas' Anglican Church in Thorp Street. Drawing of "Our little church at Motueka" [1850].by Sarah Greenwood. Nelson Provincial Museum. Bett Loan Collection, ref. AC325

This was the first of several such bequests Fearon made to the Motueka community  “Being”, as he said, “desirous of encouraging the mental improvement of the community among whom he resided", these included the gift in 1857 of a quarter-acre site (where the Motueka Memorial RSA Club now stands) cut from his Section 155 for a public library and reading-room known as the Motueka Literary Institution. This opened to great fanfare in January 1858, with an extensive programme  of celebrations, including a fête, musical festival, fireworks display and a ball. In lieu of a town hall,  the Institute also served as a multi-purpose venue for public meetings, talks, concerts, election rallies, as a polling place, and for sundry activities like collecting education and road rates and music and dancing lessons. A plaque at the entrance of the present Motueka Public Library in Pah Street commemorates Edward Fearon’s original gift.

Captain Fearon was a founding member of the Loyal Motueka Lodge of Oddfellows, established in 1850, and also gave land (the site today of the Abel Tasman Motor Lodge) for the Oddfellows’ Hall, which opened on Boxing Day 1864, another excuse for a good knees-up.7

Motueka Library Fearon

Commemorative plaque at the Motueka Public Library, 12 Pah Street, Motueka. Photograph A. McFadgen

Edward and Elizabeth Fearon’s family had grown with the additions of Mary (May) (1845-1901), Emma (1847-1913), John Hodgson (1849-1860), Sarah Frances (Fanny) (1851-1913), and Edward Fearon Jnr (1853-1880). Although both sons died young, three of the Fearons’ four daughters married, leaving many descendants - Emma to John Clervaux Chaytor of “Marshlands” near Blenheim, Mary to Richmond Hursthouse, for many years  M.P. for Motueka and the town’s first mayor, and Fanny to Fred Thomas, whose family owned the “Dehra Doon” estate at Riwaka, and still run an orchard and packhouse there under the name “Thomas Brothers”.

Among Captain Fearon’s descendants are two distinguished soldiers who both served with NZ armed forces: Major-General Sir Edward Walter “Fiery Ted” Chaytor, who commanded first the NZ Mounted Rifles, then the ANZAC Mounted Division in the Middle East during WWI, and Major-General Walter Babington ‘Sandy” Thomas, author and decorated WWII veteran, commander of 23 Battalion in Italy and later appointed Commander of British Far East Land Forces.

The Fearons built a large gabled homestead called “Northwood” where visitors were welcomed. Originally described as set back from the road (Thorp Street) in an open paddock, plantings over the years transformed it. A long, winding avenue of oaks, elms and poplars led to the house, which was surrounded by gardens. Later on those trees would be cut down and the drive straightened to form Fearon Street. The old house burned down in the late 1920s, but the homestead section was bought not long after by hop industry legend, Jeffrey “Mac” Inglis, who eventually built his own grand home on the same spot as the Fearons’ house (today 39 Fearon Street).8 He kept the name “Northwood,” which also became attached to the Inglis family business, “Northwood Hops”.

Watercolour Fearon House

"Northwood", the Fearon family homestead on Section 155, Motueka. [Date & artist unknown]. Motueka & District Historical Association, Kaye Emerre Collection.

In January 1849 Fearon was granted grazing rights to a 13,000-acre run in the lower Awatere Valley.  He named it “Marathon” and soon freeholded the property. Although the subject of envy - “Marathon” had more good flat land and low downs in proportion to its size than any other run in the Awatere - in truth Edward Fearon always found the position of absentee runholder a burden.  


Part of "Awatere Valley". Artist: John Kinder [January 13, 1872]. Te Papa/ Museum of New Zealand. Collections Online registration no. 2003-0036-1

Fearon enjoyed exploring, and had a small boat of his own which he sailed regularly to Nelson and Golden Bay. Early in 1860 he helped skipper the schooner “Gipsy” when she took John Rochfort’s expedition to the West Coast. She was taking in supplies for another party led by James Mackay Jnr, a Golden Bay resident and an old friend of Captain Fearon’s.9 The “Gipsy” anchored in the Buller River and Fearon accompanied Rochfort’s party on a tramp down the coast to the Mawhera (Grey) River, where they met up with McKay before setting out for home on 13 March 1860.

Captain Fearon had every reason to feel confidence in the future, but ongoing difficulties with the management of his Awatere sheep run persuaded him to sell ”Marathon” in August 1866 to Joseph Dresser Tetley for £20,700 (the equivalent of around $2.2 million today) – all left on mortgage.10 Unfortunately the personable Tetley was a colonial con-man who left a number of men who had dealt with him facing financial ruin. In December 1868 Tetley skipped the country without having made any payment on ‘Marathon”, and leaving Fearon in a fix. He applied to the Supreme Court for the return of his run but was obliged to buy it back. Due to a slump in the prices of sheep and wool, Edward Fearon was unable to recoup his losses and became deeply despondent about his future prospects.

Captain Fearons gravestone at Pioneer Park

Captain Fearon's gravestone at Pioneer Historic Park, Thorp Street, Motueka. "Sacred to the memory of Edward Fearon. Died November 21 1869 Aged 56 years.Courtesy of MystikNZ at the Find A Grave website.

It came as a shock to all when  the Captain died suddenly in Nelson on 21 November 1869. Stress resulting from his “financial misadventures” was generally believed to have led to his death at the relatively early age of 56.  Did despair over his financial reversal and subsequent loss of face drive him to commit suicide? The circumstances are suggestive, but an apparent conspiracy of silence at the time makes this impossible to confirm. He was buried at the old churchyard cemetery on Thorp Street, in land he himself had gifted to the community.  Today the Motueka place names “Fearon Street” and “Fearon’s Bush” remain as a reminder of the magnanimous Edward Fearon and his family .

"The late Captain Fearon was one of the best known
of the early pioneers.
He landed in Nelson, but shortly after came to Motueka,
where he was looked upon as the "Village Father",
often being called upon to settle disputes in those days".11

Captain Fearon’s widow, Elizabeth, survived him by many years. She was 90 when she died at “Northwood” on 1 January 1901 after a long and eventful life, sustained to the end by her faith and family. She was buried alongside her husband and sons at the old churchyard cemetery on Thorp Street.

Note: Adapted from an article published on Anne McFadgen’s  Rustlings in the Wind blog about Captain Fearon and his family, in the context of Motueka’s development. Please refer to this article for further references and list of sources consulted. 2017

Updated August 2020

Sources used in this story

  1. Register of All Hallows, Bread Street, London. Baptisms, Register V, p 69
    1813 Dec.12. Edward son of Isaac (a stockbroker) and Elizabeth Fearon, late of this parish but now residing in Shove Place in the Parish of St John, Hackney. B. October 31
  2. Kennington, A.L. (1978) The Awatere: A  District and its People. Blenheim, NZ: Marlborough District Council. Ch. 4. The Awatere Sheep Runs, p 45.
  3. Loss of the “City of Edinburgh” at Flinders Island on 11 July 1840. (1840, 8 August) Sydney Herald, p 2
  4. Neale, June E. (1982) Pioneer Passengers: To Nelson by Sailing Ship – March 1842-June 1843. Nelson, NZ: Anchor Press. Ch. XIV Thomas Spark”, pp 111-115
  5. Allan, R. (1965). Nelson: A history of early settlement. Wellington, New Zealand: A.H. and A.W. Reed. Ch. VI, "Country Land" p  217
  6. Horrible Massacre at the Wairoo (1843, 1 July), Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, p 274
  7. Journal of the Motueka and District Historical Association (1989) Vol. 5  Motueka and District Historical Association. Motueka, NZ:  Motueka and District Historical Association. See: Loyal Motueka Lodge of Oddfellows, pp 11-14; Church of England Cemetery in Thorp Street, pp 20-21; Motueka Literary Institution, pp 33-47
  8. Mitchell, David (June, 1982) The Mac Inglis Story. Published as a 5 part series in the Motueka News section of the Nelson Evening Mail. Part 3, Lady in a Black Rolls-Royce
  9. Trip to the Rivers Buller and Grey. Extracts from Captain Fearon’s journal. (1860, 21 March) Nelson Examiner & NZ Chronicle, p 2
    See also: Explorations in the Middle Island (now the South Island), Mr James Mackay’s Account. (1905, 1 October) Ohinemuri Gazette, p 2
  10. Kennington, p 46
  11. Personal Items: Death of Miss Elizabeth Fearon (1907, 12 November), Marlborough Express, copy forwarded from the Motueka Star

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