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The Journal of George Hepburn
On his voyage from Scotland to Otago in 1850 with extracts from his letters written from Otago.
Edited by his Grandson, William Downie Stewart


THE first part of this small volume contains the journal of my grandfather, George Hepburn, who came from Fifeshire, Scotland, to Otago in the year 1850 in the sailing ship Poictiers.

The second part consists of extracts from letters written after his arrival in Otago and up to the time of his death, at the age of 81, on December 9th, 1883.

The chief interest of the journal consists in the vivid picture it contains of the hardships and discomforts of a seven months’ voyage in a ship of 756 tons.

It is true that the Poictiers was not one of the pioneer ships, for between 1848 and 1850 twelve previous emigrant vessels arrived at Otago; all being of smaller tonnage than the Poictiers. No doubt there are in existence accounts of these earlier voyages, but I do not know of any narrative which records the day-by-day events of life on a sailing ship of that period so faithfully and vividly as does this journal.

From time to time there crop up throughout the journal the strong national antipathies and prejudices of a Scotchman of those days against the English on his first contact with them after leaving his native country. This national hostility may amuse—but will not surprise—those readers who are familiar with the novels of Sir Walter Scott.

The Otago settlement was founded by the Free Church of Scotland. It is not surprising, therefore, that its first settlers were for the most part men of deep religious conviction and of a stern Calvinistic type. To some extent these characteristics reveal themselves in this journal. My grandfather’s passion for the strict observance of the Sabbath prompted him on the long voyage to act as a censor of the morals and behaviour of his fellow passengers. Nothing induced him to relax the rigidity of his strict code, whether the ship was running before a fierce gale or its passengers and crew were sweltering in the heat of the tropics. But the reader must not infer from these evidences of the stricter standards of by-gone days that my grandfather was a dour and sour-visaged bigot. He was a man of kindly and genial disposition, who loved hospitality, and welcomed festive gatherings in his home at Halfway Bush, near Dunedin.

The journal is also of permanent interest because of the early glimpses it gives of various New Zealand settlements—New Plymouth, Nelson, and Wellington—which were ports of call en route to Otago.

George Hepburn was born in 1803 in the Scotch town of Kirkcaldy, the birthplace of the famous economist Adam Smith. [In his Life of Adam Smith Lord Haldane says: "Kirkcaldy, or, as the name was spelt in the days of Adam Smith, Kirkaldy, is a manufacturing town on the north side of the Firth of Forth. From its peculiar characteristic of possessing great length without breadth it has for generations enjoyed the appellation of the lang toon.’ The inhabitants are of that shrewd hardheaded nature for which Fife is famous. Manufacture overshadows agriculture, and the general aspect of the place is that of Industry."]

At the time when with his wife and eight children he reached Dunedin, after a voyage of seven months, the settlement had already been in existence for two years. His letters give many interesting glimpses of the business, social, and religious life of the small community and of its steady growth and development up till the time of his death.

My grandfather was a member of the Provincial Council of Otago from 1855 to 1865, and for some time he served as Chairman of Committees in the Council. He also represented the electoral district of Roslyn in the fourth New Zealand Parliament from 1866 to 1868 as a supporter of the Stafford Ministry, but retired on the ground of ill-health.

The following extract from the Otago Witness of 15th December, 1883, gives some further particulars of his life which may be of interest to the reader.

The place of another of the old worthies of Otago has become vacant, thus still further narrowing the circle of the devoted band of early settlers who struggled hard against difficulties, which can neither be known nor appreciated by the present generation. On September 1st, 1850, Mr. Hepburn arrived at the Port of Otago in the ship Poictiers (Captain Beal) after a seven months’ voyage from London, being accompanied by his wife and a large family. Accustomed in his native land to indoor occupation, the prospects of making a living for his family and himself in the midst of his strange surroundings was not inviting. In Dunedin he saw no opening in the trade which he had at his finger-ends—there were already too many pursuing it for the small population. However, he did not give way to despondency and, although of not a robust constitution, he bravely faced the difficulty, and having secured a section of land at Halfway Bush he, with a will and with the help his young family could afford, tackled the arduous task of clearing the bush and making his ground yield out of its richness sustenance for his household.

Aboyt six months afterwards Mr. Macandrew arrived (1851) and, the services of a competent and trustworthy general manager and salesman being required, the position was offered to and accepted by Mr. Hepburn, and in this employ he remained until 1855 when, in conjunction with Mr. James Paterson, be purchased the business from Messrs. Macandrew and Co. and carried it on under the firm or style of Jas. Paterson and Co. for several years very successfully, until he retired to more private life. Even with all the comfort of metalled roads and different conveyances, the daily journey to and from Dunedin to Halfway Bush, especially in wintry weather, does not possess many attractions, so some idea may be formed of the pluck needed to perform the journey, seven days in the week, in all weathers, through bush, scrub, and swamp, with scarcely a track to guide his footsteps.

Keenly alive to his responsibility for the exercise of his religious duties, which were ingrained in him in youth and practised in manhood’s prime, he at once attached himself to First Church under the ministry of Dr. Burns, and on Sabbath, 16th March, 1851 having previously been elected thereto by the members of the Church, he was inducted as an Elder for the Halfway Bush district, and for several years he was also Session Clerk in the First Church congregation. (He had formerly been an Elder in the Free Church, Kirkcaldy.) He had for his colleague in the Deacon-ship the late James Marshall, who had in the Home Country been a Deacon of the Free Church of Falkirk, continuing in connection with First Church until the opening of Knox Church in 1860, when he was appointed as one of the interim Session in its formation. He remained in that position, and was the last survivor of its first Session. In both churches he zealously devoted himself to those labours in which his heart delighted.

The subsequent erection of Wakari into a separate charge, being in Mr. Hepburn’s own neighbourhood, received his warm support and active assistance.

The politics of the Province received from Mr. Hepburn a considerable amount of attention and, although not a "heaven-born orator," he possessed the rarer attribute of commonsense, and showed it as occasion required. In 1855 he was returned at the top of the poll as one of the representatives of Wakari District in the second Provincial Council, and continued a member for Wakari for several Councils, and for a considerable period occupied the difficult position of Chairman of Committees. The still higher position of a member of the Assembly was conferred on him in 1866, the constituency of Roslyn returning him as their member against two other candidates. At the close of the Parliament of 1871 [He resigned in 1868] he did not again offer himself for a seat in the House.

Warmly alive to the advantages of education, he gave his assiduous attention to the school requirements of his district, occupying the position of Chairman of the School Committee.

In editing these papers I have purposely refrained from any attempt to condense the narrative. It is no doubt true that on a prolonged sea voyage there is much that must appear trivial and monotonous, but after several perusals of the journal I reached the conclusion that only by reading the detailed day-by-day record can the reader appreciate the arduous and exacting nature of such a voyage. Moreover, the real charm of both journal and letters lies in the quaint and homely language and the artless simplicity of the style.

The papers were written by my grandfather without any idea that one day they would be published. Indeed they were found some years ago almost by accident buried away in a box in an old house in Scotland.

Hence my first plan was merely to render them available to the third and fourth generations of his descendants; but owing to their intrinsic historical interest I have ventured to think that they may appeal to a wider circle of readers.

I am indebted to Dr. Scholefield, Parliamentary Librarian, and to Mr. Alfred Eccies for references to various people and places; and to the Librarians of the Free Public and Hocken Libraries and the Secretary of the Early Settlers’ Association, Dunedin, for assistance in the selection of illustrations.


DUNEDIN, 28th November, 1934


It gives me great pleasure to announce the publication of a revised, enhanced edition of

The Journal of George Hepburn

Those of you who are familiar with William Downie Stewart’s 1934 edition (A5, 204pp) will know that it comprised two parts:

Part I: George Hepburn’s complete 1850 ship’s journal

Part II: “Letters from Otago.” William Downie Stewart selected some of letters George Hepburn wrote to family back in Britain from 1850 until his death in 1883. These were presented under topical chapter headings, rather than in chronological order.

+ + +

The 2010 edition (A4, 174pp) comprises 4 parts:

Part I: The ship’s journal (36pp)

Part II: The letters (39pp)

Parts I and II have been retained in the 1934 format with some minor editing plus additional footnotes and illustrations. A number of the greyscale illustrations Stewart included were taken from old paintings. These are now in full colour.

Part III: The previously unpublished letters and documents not used by Stewart (74pp).

Part III is a chronological transcription taken directly from the original letters. It retains Hepburn’s unique spelling, grammar, paragraphing, highlighting, underlining, superscripts, cross outs and other writing characteristics, insofar as this was possible to achieve when transcribing from handwritten 19th Century documents to a 21st century computer word processing programme.

Index: People, places, ships, events (7pp)

+ + +

Some features of the 2010 edition:

  • Provides a wider insight into the unique personality of George Hepburn
  • Gives intimate details of sad and joyous events which affected family life in early Otago
  • Records the growth of Dunedin from a small pioneer settlement to a thriving commercial centre of national importance
  • Describes how Hepburn and his wider family contributed to community, educational, church, political and business affairs
  • Doubles the content of the 1934 edition
  • There are 40 additional illustrations, many in colour
  • Examples of the original handwritten documents
  • Includes hundreds of footnotes explaining terms and identifying individuals, places and events
  • A comprehensive index has been added

+ + +

Editor: Donald Barrie Hutton, BA, Dip Ed, Dip Tchg. b.1938. Great great grandson of George Hepburn. Family Historian. Retired Education Review Officer, Secondary School Inspector, Guidance Counsellor, History Teacher.

+ + +

Initially, I am offering The Journal of George Hepburn (2010) to direct descendants at $NZ30 plus $NZ5 P & P. If you wish to obtain a copy please send a cheque (crossed) or money order for $NZ35 to me at the address below.

Mr. D.B. Hutton,
197 Highsted Road,
Christchurch 8051,
New Zealand

Note: If you live outside New Zealand we'd suggest emailing Don Hutton to get a quote as shipping to other countries will cost more.

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