James Wynen


How James Wynen ended up in a Nelson hotel where he died in 1866 is a mystery.1 But the story of the ‘decent and respectable native of the Netherlands’2 (he was born in London 11 May 1807 to a Dutch immigrant father)3 is touched by tragedy.


James Wynen’s son, James Virtue Wynen, who died of consumption on 10 October 1861 at Wakefield, Nelson, late of London, aged 28.(23) Marlb. Historical Society - Marlborough Museum Archives

In 1839, Wynen came to New Zealand to buy land for a Sydney syndicate. He took up residence in Port Underwood and, like many European men of the time, lived with a Maori woman, who ‘proved to be a faithful and devoted helpmeet’.4 Rangiawa Kuika, a Ngati Toa chieftainess who was related to Te Rauparaha, was to be brutally murdered just a few years later.5 Samuel Ironside suggested Wynen and Kuika had been married, but this was probably an incorrect recollection on his part.

Wynen lived happily among local Maori at Kakapo Bay according to explorer Dr. Dieffenbach who wrote in September 1839: “the natives have just built a house for him…he occupies himself much with those people, whose disposition he praises very much and upon them, he exercises a happy influence.”6

The Reverend Samuel Ironside and his wife Sarah arrived in Port Underwood in December 1840 and held the first Christmas Day service at Wynen’s house. Ironside described the storekeeper as ‘about the only decent and respectable man on that (whaling) station’.7

Wynen gin bottle

One square gin (case gin) glass bottle c 1850s. Dutch. Diamond pontil mark. Pig snout. . Found at the Wairau Bar. Originally from the Wairau Bar Hotel, after they have been discarded they came up out of the mud after a flood in the Wairau river. 2007. Marlborough Museum & Archives

Wynen had married spinster Bethia Virtue in the county of Middlesex on 11 May, 1830 and the couple had one son, James Virtue Wynen who was born in August 1833.  Wynen remained legally married to his wife Bethia, whom he appears to have abandoned. She outlived him, dying in England in 1888.8 His son James arrived in Nelson 22 February 1861, aged 27, having not seen his father since being abandoned in England with his mother, at the age of five. Son James then died eight months after his arrival in New Zealand.9

Tragedy struck in December 1842. Wynen was rumoured to be wealthy and when he took one of his regular trips to Nelson, a fellow Port Underwood settler Richard (Dick) Cook murdered Kuika and their infant son.10 Wynen told the magistrates investigating the Wairau Affray that he had lived with a Maori woman who was related to Te Rauparaha, since dead, and that he had had two children by her. One is dead, the other is still alive, he said.11

Cook’s wife, Kataraina was the chief prosecution witness and said her husband was the assassin but, as his wife, she was disqualified from giving evidence and Cook walked free.12 This lowered Maori respect for Pakeha justice.13 After the Wairau Affray six months later, the chief Te Rangihaeata claimed one of the reasons he had killed Arthur Wakefield was because Richard Cook had not been punished.11

In about 1847, Wynen moved from Port Underwood, to the north side of the Wairau River mouth.13 At the time, the Boulder Bank was a primitive frontier settlement where bullock drivers, boatmen and whalers ‘revelled in drunken orgies’.14 A series of rough drinking houses, stores and wharves served the small sailing vessels which plied their trade exporting wool and importing supplies for the fledgling pastoral runs.15

Wynen operated a virtual monopoly in the Wairau, included shipping and receiving goods, a store, accommodation house and drinking shanty. Boats from Wellington and Nelson moored outside the Wairau River mouth and cargo was discharged into Wynen's whale boats and taken up the river to be stored at his large raupo warehouse located on the banks of the Omaka River, which he eventually converted into a shop.16

On the other side of the Wairau River mouth, Francis MacDonald operated a hotel and relations were strained between the two businessmen. Both were seeking liquor licences. Wynen told the authorities that he had gone to Wellington leaving a man named Smith in charge, who "...whilst I went to Port Nicholson took Margaret (Wynen's young Maori housekeeper) over to Budge's Public House, there made her drunk to insensibility since which she has been near Death’s door. This was done for an infamous purpose. The villain I have since learned received something for his services as pimp...”17

Wynen Kennedy

The Kennedy at Blenheim's first wharf, April, 1866- the year James Wynen died. One of the earliest shipping photographs showing the old port of Blenheim. The Kennedy is upstream of today's railway bridge on the Omaka (Taylor) River at Wynen's wharf. This was at the end of Wynen Street on the true right bank of the river.. Marlborough Museum and Archive

In December 1849, Wynen applied for a liquor licence, writing to Nelson’s superintendent that he wished to operate a respectable hotel: “The whole of our natives have become drunkards, and then as well as the drunken Europeans, come to my place to get sober.” He continued: “I look forward to murder, robbery and crime as inevitable if some restraint is not put upon the sale or gift of liquor to the natives.”18

Wynen Gold painting

Gold, Charles Emilius, 1809-1871. [Interior of the house or hotel of an early settler on the Wairau plain. The painting is  thought to show Wynen and his Maori housekeeper.] Wining's Wairau New Zealand. April 1851.. Ref: A-447-002. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/29942216

Scotsman, James Sinclair and his wife Christina arrived at the Boulder Bank in 1852 and soon headed up river to the junction of the Omaka and Opawa Rivers. With the bed of the Wairau Lagoons lowered by the 1848 earthquake, Wynen also saw an opportunity to establish a base inland, although his business at the river mouth continued until he sold it to Captain Samuel Bowler and his brother-in-law, Captain George Jackson in 1855.19

An 1851 painting is thought to show Wynen and a Maori woman sitting in a large fireplace in an early hotel on the Wairau Plains.20  Wynen also had a ‘Gin Palace’ at Beavertown made from red gin cases, which was notorious for the number of drunks to be found there. He would not do business on Good Friday, although he would offer a free drink from the gin bottle he always had with him.13

We know that Wynen’s rival, James Sinclair became very successful.21 But we don’t know when Wynen ceased to run his empire and left Blenheim. Did the demon drink combined with personal tragedy break him?

On September 22 1860, a report from the Magistrate’s Court in Nelson places him at the Wakatu Hotel earlier that month, where he claimed he was trying to help the publican deal with a drunken fight. Wynen pleaded not guilty to resisting arrest by a policeman but was fined £10 for a breach of the peace.22

James Wynen died aged 60 at The Fleece Hotel in Waimea Road, Nelson and is buried in St Paul’s churchyard, Brightwater.23

The photograph of Mr James Wynen

Over the years, the photograph of  James Wynen junior, reproduced at the top of this story, has been thought to be a photograph of his father, who’s story is featured here. But it seems that in fact there is no known photograph of Wynen senior. Marlborough Museum Archivist, Megan Ross shared this interesting insight into the difficulty of sourcing and naming photographs of the earliest European settlers. This 1946 letter is from Alistair McIntosh, editor of Marlborough: A Provincial History, published in 1940  to the editor of the Marlborough Express, Selwyn Vercoe, also a keen local historian:

"Prime Minister's Office, Wellington, 30 March 1946.

Dear Mr. Vercoe,
I have received your letter of 28 March and regret to inform you that I have NOT got a photograph of Wynen.
I was also told in 1939 that one existed and W.J. Elvey(sic) very kindly procured it for me from the Guard family at Port Underwood. I duly had it copied, I think by Gordon McCusker, but did not use it because I did not believe it was genuine. I would have given anything for a picture of Wynen but I just could not accept the story I was told and one just can't run the risk of being bowled out in a matter like this. My reasons for disbelief were, as I recall them as follows:-

(1) The original was in actual fact a photograph and I did not believe that this was technically possible at the date on which this would have been taken had Wynen been the subject.

(2) It was the portrait of a young man either in his late twenties or early thirties. This would have placed it in the 1830s or '40s.

(3) The dress, on the other hand, clearly placed the picture in the '70s, or thereabouts, and I concluded that while the picture may have been of a Wynen it must have been Wynen's son, who, I believe, did exist in London. Presumably he was born before his father came to New Zealand, and long before Wynen had his Maori wife at the Wairau Bay.

I very much regret that, owing to some accident or other, the photographs that I collected for the Marlborough book, disappeared shortly after its publication, and I don't think I can lay my hands on a copy of this particular specimen, but I will have a look and if I have it I will send it on to you. In any case, the original is with the Guard family at Port Underwood and Bill Elvey (sic) is the man who could procure it for you perhaps. Personally I still don't believe it is Wynen.
Scholefield is not in at the moment but I will get in touch with him later and see if he has anything. I know he shared my excitement at the time about securing Wynen's picture and was as disappointed as I was, and I think shared my views, when the article was not genuine when it turned up.

 Yours sincerely, A.D. McIntosh.

 S. Vercoe Esq.,

The Marlborough Express,
P.O. Box 31,

2017 (with additions by Elsbeth Hardie 2018)

Updated September 2020

Sources used in this story

  1. Tua Marina and Port Underwood (1974, October) Nelson Historical Society Journal, 3(1)
  2. Berry, K. (1986) Scrutiny on the county. Blenheim, N.Z.: Marlborough County Council, p 42
  3. Ancestry Library: Baptism of Gerard, James and Johanna Wynen, Dutch Church Registers, Austin Friars, London. 
  4. Buick, T.L. (1900) Old Marlborough or the story of a province. Christchurch, N.Z.: Capper Press, p. 240
  5. Mitchell, John and Hilary. Te tau ihu o te waka: a history of Māori of Nelson and Marlborough, p. 83
  6. McIntosh, A. D. (ed)(1977). Marlborough: a provincial history. Christchurch, N.Z. : Capper Press, p. 29
  7. Chambers, W.A. (1982) Samuel Ironside in New Zealand. Auckland: Ray Richards, p.112
  8. Ancestry Library: England Wales National Probate Calendar 1858-1966, 1888
  9. The Morning Post (London), 14 August 1833; The Colonist, 26 February 1861, p. 2;Death: Nelson Examiner, 12 October 1861, p. 4
  10. Buick,  p. 241
  11. Wairau Conflict Depositions (filed under) “Tua Marina Monument”, Archives New Zealand, Wellington, 1A/1/1870/3598; Ironside, Rev. Samuel, No V, The New Zealand Methodist, 10 January 1891, pp 2-3; 21 March 1891
  12. Buick, p. 243
  13. Andrews, J. (1989) Marlborough river transport of bygone days and some of the colourful operators. Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, 2(3)
  14. Buick
  15. Holdaway, B. (2016) The Wairau and its forgotten capital. Blenheim, N.Z.: Barry Holdaway, p. 52
  16. MacDonald, C.A. (2003) Pages from the Past: Some Chapters in the History of Marlborough (2nd.ed) Christchurch [N.Z.] : Cadsonbury Publications, p. 258-260
  17. J. Wynen, December 1849, Archives New Zealand R4310772
  18. McIntosh,  p. 154
  19. Holdaway, p. 56
  20. Gold, Charles Emilius, 1809-1871. Gold, Charles Emilius, 1809-1871 :Wining's Wairau New Zealand. April 1851.. Ref: A-447-002. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
  21. Stephens, J. (2009) Blenheim or the Beaver, on the Prow
  22. The Colonist (1860, September 25), p. 2
  23. Deaths (1861, October 11) Colonist,  p. 2

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McKinnon, M.  'Marlborough places - Blenheim', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand,  (accessed 11 October 2017)

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