The Picton volunteers


In early Pakeha settlement, the tradition of a voluntary military service was carried over from England, and a Volunteer Corps was formed in New Zealand, mainly because of the perceived threat from militant Māori. The volunteer groups were active in the North Island during the Land Wars, and a Picton Corps was formed in 1860 as a unit of the Marlborough Rifle Corps. 

Nineteen men were sworn in with Capt. C.W.A.T. Kenny, veteran of the Crimean War, as commander. Their splendid uniforms in scarlet and blue, with black silk lace trimmings, must have been startling! (Later photos show more appropriate military dress.)


William B. Esson in uniform, late 1860s. Picton Historical Society

Shooting matches were often held between different groups, followed by dinner, and there was an annual military ball. Several of Picton’s early mayors took active roles in the corps, which later became known as the Waitohi Rifles.

There was some excitement in 1868, when news came from Havelock that the Pelorus Māori were ‘showing signs of uneasiness’, and ‘a native disturbance was imminent.’ Fifty Volunteers apparently stood ready, but nothing came of it.

In the first days of November 1881, 20 Picton Volunteers and the same from Blenheim and Spring Creek, boarded the Government vessel Stella to cross the Strait and proceed to the ‘front’, while crowds cheered and the band played God Save the Queen. The ‘front’ was the Government attack by 640 soldiers and nearly 1000 volunteers on the peaceful village of Parihaka on 5 November 1881. They were met by singing children offering them bread. Marlborough needn’t be proud of that contribution.

The main activities were shooting matches and social gatherings, but when the South African War started in 1899 and volunteers were called for (to fight in the British Army), New Zealand sent 6,500 men, mostly from the various Volunteer units around the country. I can remember my grandfather, who was of that vintage, singing, ‘We’re soldiers of the Queen, my lads, we’re here for England’s glory, lads…’

khaki girls

The Picton Khaki Girls, complete with rifles, March 1900. Miss Hallet (Captain), Instructor Arthur Clinch. Picton Historical Society

During this war, women’s volunteer groups were encouraged, mainly to help with fundraising. Members were recruited from leading families, with an emphasis on physical appearance! Picton was an early starter in this, and the Picton Volunteers Women’s Corps was formed, popularly known as ‘Khaki Girls’.

The Waitohi Rifles contested enthusiastically in drilling and shooting events, training camps and Easter manoeuvres with other groups. A solemn church parade was held in Picton when Queen Victoria died in 1901, with the Holy Trinity Church bell tolling, and later attendance at the Proclamation of King Edward VII.

The Volunteer system ended in 1910 with the passing of the Defence Act, 1909. After that, all men between 18 and 25 had to register for Compulsory Military Training, and all schoolboys in cadets, a system which lasted until 1972.

This story was first written by Loreen Brehaut for the Seaport Scene. Updated August 2020

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