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Sunday, March 30, 2014

Johnsonville NZ and Frank Johnson its founder


When I first started to consider that I might settle in Wellington, I looked at the map – and was surprised to find that there was a suburb called Johnsonville. It’s surely something of a good omen to find a place that carries your name.
And I have often joked [and sometimes even been taken half-seriously by a Maori Treaty claim consultant] that as a member of the Ngati Hone tribe, I was participating in a claim for wrongly sequestered land at Jo’ville.
So I have always felt a proprietary interest in this suburb, which though rather mundane in many respects, preserves some of the features of a small, pleasant free-standing town [including a lovely English-style church that provides a focus for the High Street].
Wellington has an extraordinary physical setting with the harbour being bordered on its western side by the steep cliffs and bluffs that mark the line of the massive and potentially deadly Wellington Fault. There is only one route in and out of the city [unique in my experience], as it is built at the end of a peninsula.
In the suburb of Kaiwharawhara, the single route forks – with the right-hand fork [State Highway 2] essentially following the line of the harbour [a very difficult route until the 1855 earthquake shifted the shore back and gave some leeway] and the left-hand fork snaking up the line of a formerly waterfall-interrupted stream hemmed by rocky banks – the Ngauranga Gorge [State Highway 1].
Connecting the embryonic settlement and port of Wellington with any kind of hinterland was a nightmare, as the line now followed by SH1 was broken and mountainous going north - until the wide sandy beaches beyond Paekakariki provided a highway and a stock route – while the line of SH2 ran first through the fertile Hutt Valley to then slam into curtain wall of the Rimutaka Mts.

And Maori were not slow to recognize that the settlers were at a disadvantage. The Maori Chief Te Rangihaeata of Ngati Toa fortified a stronghold or 'pa' at Porirua at the point where the ancestor of SH1 finally fought itself to the west coast. He considered the route [which had long been a Maori walking track] his ‘spine’ and intended to use his strategic leverage as a bargaining chip.
Johnsonville stands where the trek up Ngauranga Gorge finally levels out a bit – and some hundreds of acres of potentially cultivable land nestle themselves in a natural basin.

It was here in 1841 that Frank Johnson settled, developing a thriving farm on the burgeoning trade route. I had never given Frank much notice, simply absorbing the fact that he had first developed a saw-mill to treat the timber that he cut from the Bush.
An update on the history of Johnsonville has recently been published in one of our local newspapers, ‘The Wellingtonian’, see:

- so I decided that it was about time that I found out a bit more about Frank Johnson. And to my considerable surprise, I soon discovered that he was an interesting fellow who became a published author much respected in his final country of settlement, Canada.


The 1892 edition of the [American] Magazine of Poetry and Literary Review - edited by Charles Wells Moulton provides the following entry:
Frank Johnson was born September 2nd, 1810, in London, England. He had barely entered upon his third year when he was sent to a preparatory school at Hampstead. From thence having completed his eighth year, he was transferred to a classical school in London, where after seven years of training in Greek, Latin, French, Italian and mathematics, he was sent to Edinburgh University.

Here, however, his ambition to be an actor brought his studies in Edinburgh to a close. It was now that his naturally good constitution began somewhat to fail him, through too close an application to his self-directed studies, and with a view to recruit him, he was sent by his father, a medical practitioner, into Hertfordshire.
It was here that he betook himself to the study of the flora of the fields, and it was during his rambles in the lanes and wastes of Hertfordshire, that he familiarized himself with the poverty and struggles of the underpaid labourers on the soil, a familiarity which, some years afterwards, he turned to good account in his "Village of Merrow."

It was in his twenty- fifth year that, again with a view to thoroughly establish his health, and to wean him from his still lingering ambition to be an actor, his father proposed to him an extended course of travel, a proposition which was embraced with enthusiasm.
In less than a month he embarked in a small South Seaman, bound for a lengthened cruise in the Indian and Pacific oceans. It was thence that he acquired the terrible experience that enabled him to write his "Lashed to the Mizzen."

After a cruise of upwards of two years, unbroken by a single night on shore, Mr. Johnson, on the vessel touching at New Zealand, abandoned her and resided along with the cannibals, thirty miles up the Hokianga river, on the lookout for a chance passage to Australia, whence after a further detention, he embarked in a brig for Valparaiso, eventually reaching Buenos Ayres, by crossing with a guide the Andes and the Pampas.
This was followed by extensive travel in the leading countries of Europe. Thus far his life appears to have been one that few would have quarrelled with, but now the picture was about to change.

He invested quite a little fortune, bequeathed him during his travels by his grandfather, in the New Zealand Land Company's unfortunate Cook Straits Settlements. It would be a long story, but one by no means dishonouring to Mr. Johnson to show how, for upwards of eight years, the principal share in upholding the Port Nicholson Settlement, fell to him.
It must suffice to say, that after almost incredible trials and disappointments, he had finally to retire with the loss of two-thirds of his capital and fearfully worn, into the bargain.

After his return to England, he farmed for a few years in Pembrokeshire, whence at the suggestion of his then still surviving mother, he removed with his four boys to Lower Canada, now the Province of Quebec.
He is still living on the farm near Lennoxville, acquired by him some thirty years since, with his eldest son who looks after the cultivation of the land. He still continues to be a welcome contributor to the local press, and his writings are regarded with favour. As a citizen and colonist Mr. Johnson holds a high rank.

[Frank died at the age of 81 in Canada].


Frank arrived in New Zealand on the 'Adelaide' March 7, 1840. On the ship passenger list he is listed as F.J. Johnson & wife [born Ann Meaton]. Two of his sons were born in New Zealand [Edgar and Alfred]
He chose lot No. 11 on the west side of Old Porirua Road, now Johnsonville Road, for his l00-acre country block and established a saw-mill there. It soon became known as Johnson's Clearing and later on as Johnsonville. Frank also bought Section 24, a mile further north, but this was cut up and the smaller parcels of land sold.

Johnson's Clearing is now bounded by Ironside, Moorefield, Johnsonville, Broderick and the Old Coach Roads.
Obviously, he worked hard but he had his problems with the local representatives of the New Zealand Company. As for his relations with Maori, he must have been reasonably well-liked and respected, as when jailed activist Henare Maroro sought vengeance or ‘utu’ in the form of one pākehā life for each year he had spent in prison, he chose Frank’s neighbour John Branks, murdering him and his three children with a native mere or axe.

One is tempted to read something of Frank’s experience with his fellow early Wellingtonians into his account of double-dealing and reciprocity denied in ‘Giles and Janey’ [though he does term it a ‘Canadian Tale’]. I find it fascinating in that it deals with that awkward transition in colonies from a kind of primitive communism of shared effort and mutual obligations to legalism and capitalism red in tooth and claw.
I’ll quote part of it to give you a taster:

[from ‘Giles and Janey’ or, ‘The kindly gentleman: a Canadian tale’]

And then the kindly gentleman, for such indeed he seemed,

More generous by far than ever I had dreamed.

Came, smilingly, assenting to all that I desired,

Nay, pressing my acceptance of things not then required,

Assuring me I needn't give a thought about the pay.

Till fortune, in a manner, flung some good chance in my way;

He'd never been a loser by a Homespun, as he'd said,

And he couldn't think, in my case, there was anything to dread.

My present wants supplied, I thanked him for his aid,

And homeward to my wife a joyful journey made.

"How kindly is the man — how Christian like," I said;

"What a gentleman will do, if only thorough bred!

Were fortune's fav'rites all but half as good as he,

How happy, Jane, throughout, this little world might be." '

A thousand times we blessed him, and when the night time came

My Jane and I together knelt — together did the same;

And never prayer from mortal heart sincerer went to heaven,

That if the man had still his faults, those faults might be forgiven.


So time ran on, the kindly man and I from day to day

Exchanging help, till he, in turn, some pounds had got to pay.

When Janey more than gave a hint she thought it time to settle —

Perhaps I thought as Janey did, but hadn't got the mettle.

I couldn't bear to press the man 't had been so good and kind,

As even he I heard at times a little was behind;

But still a something whispering that Janey was a’right,

I mustered all my courage up, as folks do when they fight.

And somewhat, to the counting house, less cowardly, I stole:

"A little, sir, will do me now — I don't, sir, want the whole? "

"The whole, my friend! — you strangely err — the whole's the other way :

I'm sadly out if you have not a pound or two to pay."

'Twas all in sorrow, not in shame, I gave a sudden start

When first I saw the kindly man was hollow in his heart.

"A pound or two to pay, sir! that never can be true ;

If figures, sir, mean anything, the pay must lie with you."


"My simple sir," he smiling said, "you do not understand,

You're in the Eastern Townships now — not in your native land!

All things are here quite different — with fruitless words dispense:

A pound is sixteen shillings here, a shilling fifteen pence;

In some, indeed in many ways, black almost rules for white;

It takes , I know, a year or two to see things in that light :

Be seated, Giles, time presses — still — a few mere moments wait,

I'll— r — look into the little thing — and — r — set the matter straight."

A bigly book, from leaf to leaf with studious face he turned.

When clear I saw at every leaf how less and less I'd earned;

There was int'rest in the first place, there was int'rest in the second,

And int'rest on the interest, Lord knows how often reckoned;

A something hard in every way — a famine price for flour-

To settle up all the somethings took nearly up an hour,

For I was sorely tasked t' unfold his figurifics.

One might as well at once keep counts in hieroglyphics.

Not that unschooled, he scribbled thus, more art than ignorance there,

Many a baffled brain, he judged, would back out in despair.

It saddened me to note the names, with mine, in such sharp quarters,

It made me think, and more than once, of Fox's Book of Martyrs,

How any man, it staggered me, could trust himself to slumber

With such a shaming record of dealings — without number.

Dishonesty and meanness disfigured every leaf;

"If this," said I," be lawful trade, let trader stand for thief."

Nothing that I had done throughout was entered at the rate

Agreed upon between us, or rightly as to date;

And everything delivered was posted at a price

That pointed to a memory anything but overnice.

In vain did I remonstrate, my temper scarce retained:

The hook alone knew anything — the book alone explained.

A hint at its authority seemed tantamount to libel.

Finally, like all emigrants, Frank had his moments of homesickness and nostalgia. His book ‘The Village of Merrow:  Its Past and Present’ covers the history and society of an English village that was close to his heart – Merrow near Guildford in Surrey. And he does his best in a poem to conjure the still warm air of a late summer’s evening, as the gloaming falls:

Merrow Churchyard by Moonlight

Now Dian’s  orb was hung on high,

And all so sunk in rest,

A stranger to the world had deemed

Its habitants were blest.

Who, with the sorcery around

Of a night so calm, so clear,

Could have borne to think that its least content

Could have ever known a tear?

A night indeed! -- so hushed, serene,

Scarce a dead leaflet stirr’d;

If, in the far, a cry, a chime,

Who would not such have heard.

The snowy moon that lives aloft

Seemed all alone to bide,

As if the only thing awake,

And watching all beside.

I could but think of day’s bright orb

Were made alone for light,

Man might have done without the sun,

For the sake of such a night.

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