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Forging Ahead: The Wilsons of Patumahoe, Pukekohe and Papakura

Shaping Our Country (Part III)

by Dr Michelle Ann Smith

Under a spreading chestnut-tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.

Week in, week out, from morn till night,
You can hear his bellows blow;
You can hear him swing his heavy sledge,
With measured beat and slow,
Like a sexton ringing the village bell,
When the evening sun is low.

In 1864 the Wilsons made a life-changing decision to emigrate to New Zealand from Ireland. By mid-May 1865 the family had arrived in Auckland in three separate groups. First to disembark was Luke, Mary Ann, and two children (their eldest son travelled with his grandparents). In January 1865 David and Annabella arrived on the Viscount Canning. David lied about his age, claiming he was 21 (although actually 19), and therefore old enough to emigrate. Knowing married men were preferred over single men, he had hurriedly married Annabella two weeks prior to sailing. As blacksmiths, Luke and David were skilled metal workers and were soon temporarily employed, by Harrison and Gash ironworks, on the Parnell over-bridge.2

David snr, wife Sarah, and grandson David arrived on the Dauntless in May 1865. Under the Waikato Immigration Scheme’s rules, David and Sarah were too old; by taking ten years off their ages, and claiming their grandson as their son, they were accepted. Daughter Mary Jane, husband Robert Tomlinson and their two children were also on the Dauntless. Before being reunited, tragedy struck. Sarah, and Mary Jane’s infant daughter, died at sea and Luke’s thirteen-month old daughter had died shortly after arriving in Auckland. Grief would have dulled the family’s excitement and anticipation of their new life. However, this may have been assuaged by the fact Annabella and Mary Ann were pregnant.3

Under the Scheme, David snr and Robert Tomlinson were allocated land near Patumahoe. While neither received the promised £15, to help with building a dwelling, the family tried to make the Patumahoe land sustainable but never permanently settled there. While blacksmiths were sought after in the colony, the recent influx of immigrants to Auckland meant a flooding of an already saturated employment market made worse by economic depression. Times were tough, and male members of the family took work, such as flax cutting, where they could find it.4

By 1870 Luke had established a smithy in Waiuku, before moving it to Pukekohe. In 1884 William and Robert Wilson took over the steadily growing business when their parents moved to Mt Eden. Eldest son, David, also moved to Mt Eden, where he set up his anvil and plied his trade for six years. In 1885 he married Annie Adams, daughter of Thomas Adams of Pukekohe, who arrived on the Maori in December 1864. They had nine children between 1886 and 1898. The last two were twins, and Annie died eight days after their birth. David, unable to cope, had relatives and friends assist in the children’s upbringing. In 1903 he married Ethel Woolridge who bore him five more children, including another set of twins!5

David and Annabella moved to Papakura in 1873, where David established his forge next to the Papakura Hotel. His father regularly helped out until his death from chronic bronchitis and asthma in 1881 (no doubt brought on from many years at the forge). By 1875 the Wilsons were joined in Papakura by the Tomlinsons. Following family tradition, there were ten Tomlinson and ten Wilson children, including another set of twins! Sadly, death was never far away – young Sarah Tomlinson drowned in a well and the Wilsons lost a twin, and a daughter, shortly after birth.6

The Wilsons were an integral strand in Papakura’s fabric and David accumulated property and land in the town. He owned the Pukekohe premises run by his nephews, and in 1902 established a smithy in Alfriston. By 1915, the business was specialising in ‘up-to-date tyreing’ methods, and advertising highlighted the Wilson’s longevity in the district, and their skills as agricultural and general blacksmiths, farriers, and coachbuilders. The blacksmith worked long, hard hours. During the 1890s Wilson’s smithy was kept busy making gum spears and tools for the hundreds of gum-diggers who flocked to the Papakura Flat. Horse racing at Glenora Park (Takanini) increased their farrier work during the early 1900s.7

Business was brisk, yet Town Board minutes show David owed rent and dog tax payments; ironic considering to his recent position on the Board. Perhaps he was too busy and forgot, or just hated paying such bills, as he became a habitual non-payer!8

Up to five men worked for David at any one time, making for a lively and noisy workshop. Sons, grandsons and nephews learned their trade under a watchful eye. The smithy became a hub where men gathered to get the local news, and while away the time in masculine company. When David hung up his leather apron his son Harry took over the business. A great favourite with the local lads, Harry let them take turns at blowing the bellows or striking at the hot iron on the forge.9 He married Mary Anne Walker, daughter of a Town Board member and Freemason; a suitable match joining together two well-respected Papakura families. They also produced a large family, and all, including the girls, went to secondary school.10

Freemasonry was an important part of life for the Wilson men, and a number of marriages were made through Lodge contacts. David jnr was a member of the Papakura Masonic Lodge, and held the position of Sitting Master. He was involved with the Papakura Town Board between September 1886 and March 1894, and elected Chairman between September 1888 and September 1890. A number of Wilsons trained racehorses and greyhounds, and visitors to the Papakura smithy were often greeted by the dogs, and even a horse, who spent their days in one corner of the workshop.11

Life was not always rosy and the Wilsons were affected by personal, social and political events. In 1896 the family suffered a huge loss when their two-storey residence was burned down. They escaped through a window dressed only in their nightclothes! Interestingly, the smithy never burned down, although the Hotel next door did, on numerous occasions. Two sons fought in WWI, with one invalided out. By 1916 the Papakura business was experiencing difficulties and Harry’s son, Gordon, was taken out of grammar school to assist his father. With a lot of hard work he turned the business around. In 1915, the firm advertised itself as Wilson & Son, with workshops in Papakura and Remuera. Gordon was called up for war service in 1941, and in 1942 the smithy was demolished and replaced by an engineering shop (Wilson & McKinnon) specialising in fixing farm equipment.12 The motorcar had superseded the horse and, in order to keep with the times, four generations of blacksmithing came to an end. For the children and grandchildren of David and Sarah, emigrating to New Zealand opened up a host of new opportunities. Those who did not follow the family trade became printers, butchers, railway employees, and even a jockey and a magician! In 1897 David’s son, David, was the New Zealand and Australasian Walking Champion. Harry’s son, Harold, was one time Town Clerk in Papakura, working tirelessly during the 1918 Influenza Epidemic while his brothers drove the sick to the makeshift hospitals.13 Community was important and everyone pitched in during difficult times.

The story told here will resonate with many who came out under the Waikato Immigration Scheme. Resilience, strength of spirit, and a sense of community allowed the Wilsons to deal with whatever life threw at them. In particular, they helped forge and shape Papakura’s development and progress over seventy years.

  1. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ‘The Village Blacksmith’, 1840. This is verse 1 and 3. 

  2. There is no definitive record for their date of arrival, but they were here by the time David and Annabella arrived on 21st January 1865. So rushed was the wedding, according to family sources, that David had no ring to give his new wife, so his mother gave him hers to use. Moreover, Annabella apparently only agreed to emigrate if she could take her ‘prized’ table with her. David was actually 19, but he managed to get away with putting 21 on his marriage certificate. Maureen Young, The Wilson Experience, Warwworth, 2012, pp. 117 and 120.  

  3. The Dauntless was the only ship out the three mentioned in this paragraph to be part of the Waikato Immigration Scheme. However, David’s two sons did get assisted passages to New Zealand. The cut-off age was 40. Both Mary Jane and Luke’s daughters were called Sarah. See: Wilson Experience, pp. 15, 19.  

  4. David snr was granted lot 6, Patumahoe and Robert was granted lot 8. was also granted land at Te Toro. Information at Archives NZ, Auckland. Family sources suggest David jnr and his brother-in-law, Robert took up flax cutting at Mauku in order to make ends meet. See: Wilson Experience, p. 120. 

  5. Wilson Experience, pp. 24-25. Mary Ann died in 1896. Luke remarried, but died in 1899. His second wife, Elizabeth Buttimore, also came out under the Waikato Scheme, arriving on the Bombay. Elizabeth was 20 years younger than Luke and they had a son together. David died in Taumaranui in 1926 – he was still working as a blacksmith. Wilson Experience, p. 36.  

  6. Wilson Experience, pp. 18 and 87. Sarah was the Tomlinson’s eldest child. She died in late 1865. Unfortunately, child drownings were not uncommon in nineteenth-century New Zealand. The newspapers are littered with references to such family loss.  

  7. Pukekohe and Waiuku Times, 19 January 1915, p. 1; 19 February 1915, p. 1. ‘Papakura Landmark: Wilson Family’s Record’, newspaper article no reference, October 1942; Wilson Experience, pp. 120-121. Papakura Flat is the flat area that now encompasses Porchester Road, Alfriston. Glenora Park was the stud farm owned by William Walters. Gordon had managed to outlast many other local blacksmiths through continued patronage from the Takanini racecourse and training centre.  

  8. See for instance: Papakura Town Board Minutes, 7 December 1896; 6 March 1899; 7 March 1904; 3 April 1905  

  9. David died in 1905 and Annabella in 1928. Harry died in 1941. Big Hats, Scent Pots and Old Joe: An Oral History of Papakura, Papakura, 1990, p. 21; Wilson Family’s Record’.  

  10. Wilson Experience, p.131. Harry and Mary Anne had 8 children. Secondary schooling for girls was uncommon at this time, therefore this shows the value harry and Mary Anne placed on education.  

  11. Wilson Experience, p. 121; ‘Wilson Family record’. Two of the greyhounds, All Red and Butterfly, ran off a final at an Avondale Plumpton meeting. I have not discovered a date for this, but it is likely to be in the late 1890s. 

  12. Wanganui Chronicle, 9 May 1896, p. 2; ‘Wilson Family’s Record’; Papakura Museum Archives; Wilson Experience, pp. 132, 135. Gordon was not happy at leaving school. In 1925 he joined the Papakura Volunteer Fire Brigade and served the town in this capacity until 1927.  

  13. Wilson Experience, pp. 133-136. Thanks also to Philip Mellsop for some if this information. 

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