William Harkness


The ideal settler

When William Harkness and his older brother, John, disembarked from the Thomas Sparks at Nelson on 26th February 1843, it was to be the beginning of a productive and profitable relationship for both William and the fledgling colony in which he had chosen to settle.

Harkness portraitWilliam Harkness. Image supplied by Helen Harkness
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Under the Wakefield Scheme, William at 31 was the ideal settler. He had the necessary capital to buy land and employ labourers, the professional and managerial skills to provide leadership and a willingness to be involved in the practical, everyday affairs of the settlement.

Well educated in his native Dumfriesshire, Scotland, where his father was a successful and comparatively wealthy man, William had been given a highly positive migrant's testimonial from the Church of Scotland. It spoke of “a good lad who always attended church and communion every Sunday.”

As a steerage (cabin) passenger he brought on the voyage a considerable number of books, some of which were later donated to the Mechanics’ Institute he helped establish in Richmond. He is also described as a “popular entertainer” with the other passengers, although it is unclear what form this took.

Before emigrating, William formed a trading company with a Scottish friend, Peter Graham, a licensed auctioneer, who sailed on the Lord Auckland. Together they set up a store and warehouse in Haven Road.

In 1845, two years after his arrival he purchased 50 acres (Section 83) bounded by Queen Street and extending to Beach Road in Richmond.  He was to farm here for 30 years. In the 1845 census he was listed as the farmer owner with 1 housekeeper and 3 farm servants. In the 1849 census he had 42 acres of cultivated land:  13 of wheat, 14 of oats, 10 of barley, 1 of turnips, 1 of garden, 1½ of tares and 1½ of potatoes and 8 acres in grass. His livestock included 9 horses, 5 cattle, 6 pigs and 35 sheep.  All this, at a time when the settlers in Nelson were facing widespread food shortages. 

His house in Richmond became the local village inn (he held a bush licence from 1845-1852) and was jokingly called the Star and Garter after a much grander London establishment.  It became an important social centre.  Meetings were held here:  the Oddfellows Lodge, the school committee, the Mechanics’ Institute and the Waimea Roads Board amonst others. Unsurprisingly, William became the unofficial local mayor.

Harkness IsabellaIsabella Harkness. Image supplied by Helen Harkness
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On 16th August, 1849, he married Isabella (Bella) McRae, the second daughter of George and Helen McRae of Pitfure, Wakefield at the home of the bride’s parents. According to the Examiner, it was a Scottish occasion.  There were 100 guests, the plaid was worn but there were no bagpipes.

William had married well.  Isabella was given 100 acres,  sections 105 and 107, in McShanes Road by her father. The couple named the property Parkburn after the Harkness family estate in Kirkmahoe, Dumfriesshire.  Here they were to bring up 8 children: 5 sons and 3 daughters.  Second son, William Dickson, was to take on the farm after his father and continue to farm there for the rest of his life.  He became the first farmer in the Nelson district to import registered Jersey cattle and was a foundation committee member of the Nelson A. & P. Association. He was a member of the first Richmond Borough Council from 1891-1901 and, for more than 20 years, from 1890 a member of the Richmond School Committee.

Three of William’s sons became professional men with careers in education.  Eldest son, Joseph George, was headmaster of Richmond Boys’ School and a member of the Richmond School Committee. He built “Hillcrest”, a grand two-storied house overlooking the town. He was a member of the Nelson Education Board, a Waimea County Councillor, chairman of the Richmond Town Board and MP for Nelson between 1889-93.

Third son, James Hamilton, was a master at Nelson College, Headmaster of the Bishop's School in Nelson, Headmaster of Reefton and Westport District High Schools, President of the NZEI, a JP, Freemason, lay reader in the Anglican church and Mayor of Westport from 1927-33.

William’s fourth son, George Alexander, also taught at Nelson College.  He became Headmaster of the Bridge Street School and the Central Boys’ School.  In 1893 he was an Assistant Inspector of the Nelson Education Board Schools becoming a Senior Inspector the following year, retaining the position until his retirement in 1921. Service in the church was at All Saints where he was church warden and lay reader from 1917-1928, and as Diocesan Synodsman from 1924-28.

Youngest son John Tinline (Jack) Harkness was the only son who broke with the education mould.  He became an accountant, a banker and auditor and a cricket and rugby player at provincial level.

Innovation was the keystone of William’s farming practice. In 1853 he imported a 3 horse-drawn Hussey reaping machine capable of cutting 2 acres of wheat in one hour.  A demonstration on the farm of William Gordon Bell at the lower end of Queen Street, was reported by the Nelson Examiner in February of that year. This was at a time when labour was short in the new colony and grain crops were still being  hand-cut with scythes.

Harkness homeThe Harkness family home. Image supplied by Helen Harkness
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On July 3rd 1846, John Waring Saxton records in his diary the use of William’s winnowing machine.  His ownership of a threshing machine is also recorded in the diary on 12th May 1845 and in the Nelson Evening Mail on 6th June 1877.

As well as owning the latest in farm machinery, William was also keen on having the best livestock.  He was a breeder of imported livestock and horses.  He raced his horses at the Nelson Turf Club’s race meetings with some success, notably a mare, Fair Helen in 1849 and a stallion, Patch, in 1851.  He was a shareholder and member of the first committee of the Richmond Cattle Fair Association, its first secretary in 1851 and director for a time.  It goes without saying that he was also a member and steward of the Nelson Agricultural and Horticultural Society and exhibitor at their shows.

William was also involved in church and community affairs. The Examiner records in July 1848 that he was a subscriber and receiver of subscriptions for the erection of a Presbyterian church in Nelson.  He was a member of the first jury to sit in Nelson on 1st October, 1844, and one of 25 gentlemen summoned to serve on the Grand Jury of Nelson on 19th April, 1845. The Richmond Cemetery Committee records him as a member as does the Richmond Jetty Committee to establish a regular water carriage service between Richmond and Nelson in 1849. 

One of his most important services was to the Richmond Education School Committee to which he was elected on 9th June, 1856 and where he served as its first secretary and often also as chairman.  He continued in this role almost continuously until 1886 when he no longer sought re-election at the age of 74 years.

Harkness graveGrave of Isabella and William Harkness in the Richmond Cemetery. Inscription reads In Memory of Isabella Wife of William Harkness Died January 31st , 1882. Aged 58 years. Also of William Harkness. Died September 12th, 1890. Aged 78 years
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With more buildings in the area, a need was seen for a local fire brigade. The Richmond Volunteer Fire Brigade was formed on 19th August, 1871 with William in the chair.  His two oldest sons also became committee members.

In the great constitutional debate of 1850,  The Examiner records on 21st December and again on 11 January, 1851, that William actively opposed aspects of the legislation. Speaking against the provision that the crown-appointed governor could be removed by a two thirds majority of the legislature, he humorously suggested that there would have to be four governors on hand: one in the colony, one on his way back to England, one on his way out and one in waiting.

In February 1863, William became the member for Waimea East on the Nelson Provincial Council, serving until September 1865. He was a decisive voter both for and against proposals and amendments of legislation.  He presented petitions on behalf of citizens and was, on occasions, chairman of committees.

William died in Hope on 13 September, 1890.  (Isabella had predeceased him 8 years earlier.)  They are buried in the family plot in the pioneer section of the Richmond Cemetery.  His obituary in the Nelson Evening Mail of 15 September describes him as an “active, vigorous, kind and generous Scotsman who took an intelligent interest in politics.”  Respected by his fellow citizens, he had become a man of some power and influence.

William's most worthwhile quality as an early settler, was his commitment to colonial life  He was no “absentee landlord”, that "Achilles heel" of Wakefield's scheme for colonisation, but one who desired to be fully involved in the life of the settlement. This required him to be an inveterate committee member but it was a small price to pay for the satisfaction gained from helping others, as well as himself, to establish a good life in a new country. 

Edward Gibbon Wakefield should have been proud.

2013. Updated May 2020

Sources used in this story

  • Harkness, Helen.  Access to information gathered about the family, photographs of William, Isabella, cemetery headstone and sketch of "Parkburn"

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  • William was the son of my great aunt. My grandmother lived with her parents in the infirmary lodge in Dumfries.The immigration continued in her generation to Canada and South Africa.

    Posted by Anne Rodgers, 12/03/2015 7:36am (9 years ago)

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