Sarah Mathew: a new assessment of her life as explorer, diarist and early Aucklander

Friday, July 3, 2015
Sarah Mathew

 Tessa Duder is a versatile New Zealand writer who has crossed the Tasman under sail, lived as an expatriate wife and written several books on Auckland. She has long been interested in  Sarah Mathew as an under-recognised figure in Auckland’s 175-year history. Here she tells us about a new assessment of her life as explorer, diarist and early Aucklander :

 "Why, in this 175th year since the founding of Auckland, should the name of Sarah Louisa Mathew be specially remembered – more than that, acclaimed as one of the first European explorers of the Waitemata, an accomplished diarist and for a time, Auckland’s ‘first lady’?  Indeed, she could be titled, ‘the mother of Auckland.’

Since I first read many years ago the story of the founding of Auckland as the capital of New Zealand on 18 September 1840, I’ve wondered why Aucklanders know so little of this event, probably unique among the world’s cities.  Settlements usually grow into cities haphazardly, from a tent pitched on a river bank or beside a harbour; what other city can claim a (mostly) amicable purchase of land from the indigenous locals, a flag being raised, Auckland proclaimed the capital followed by a toast and three cheers shouted for the monarch. Then, a spontaneous regatta and a party held that night on board by the officials sent to accomplish this task.  All on a beautiful spring day, crisp and sunny, the nearly uninhabited Waitemata harbour and brooding volcanic landscape at their best.  

The reason we know so much about this founding ceremony is due almost entirely to Sarah Mathew. As the devoted wife of Hobson’s first Surveyor-General, Felton Mathew, she  was on board the barque Anna Watson which brought Hobson’s officials to the Waitemata that September.  She came ashore to the headland named Point Britomart to be the only European woman in the group beside the flagpole toasting the Queen.  And she was the first ‘official’ wife to make her home in the capital, first in a tent, then a raupo hut and two years later, a pretty seaside villa.  Happily for us, she kept a Journal which describes 18 September in detail  (there was only a brief account in the Bay of Islands newspaper) and the struggles of the founding community in the next few years to establish a capital settlement.

A painting of the Anna Watson (which Sarah was aboard). The Founding of Auckland, by Maurice Forester, 1992, Presented to the Citizens of Auckland by the Artist, NZ Maritime Museum Collection

Sarah’s diaries, reminiscences and letters (from a subsequent return to Auckland 1858-62) are held by the Sir George Grey Special Collections of the Auckland Libraries. Most were returned to New Zealand in 1939 and featured in a centenary publication in 1940 edited by historian James Rutherford. Since then, they and Sarah have unjustly been almost forgotten. Her husband Felton Mathew is remembered as a street name in Glen Innes, and to those who know their early Auckland history as the creator of a visionary town plan much pilloried at the time and regrettably, never followed.

But Sarah, the well-educated daughter of London merchant family, deserves to be remembered not only as an unusually fine diarist and early resident in Auckland. With the Treaty of Waitangi signed in February, Hobson’s next task was to establish a capital. The Bay of Islands was unsuitable, so Hobson despatched Felton in the Australian revenue cutter Ranger to explore harbours to the south.

Sarah chose to accompany him in this 46ft lightly-armed vessel on a voyage which took in the uncharted harbours of Whangarei, Mahurangi and Waitemata, the Tamaki Estuary and the length of the Firth of Thames. Together, between April and June 1840,  they covered hundreds of miles on foot and by small ship’s boat: up rivers, up peaks, over rolling fern-clad hills and river plains.  They survived near disasters in winter squalls and no doubt, considerable discomfort on a 46ft craft with a crew of eight Australians, some probably ex-convicts.

Felton returned to the Bay of Islands convinced that the Tamaki area was the more suitable (more flat land, better access to wood and fresh water) but Hobson’s choice was for the deeper water of the Waitemata, the shoreline now buried by the Ports of Auckland reclaimed area.   

After the Ranger expedition, Sarah and Felton expected to settle in Auckland and contribute to its development. They had spent the 1830s in New South Wales, where Sarah also often accompanied Felton on field trips, and now saw Auckland where they would put down their roots.  But Felton was to be summarily demoted in 1842 from Surveyor-General to Chief Magistrate, and, after a return visit with Sarah to England in 1845 to secure employment with the Colonial Office, found himself back in Auckland and ruthlessly made jobless by the autocratic new Governor, George Grey.  Bitter and disillusioned, Sarah and Felton sold up, but got only as far as Lima, Peru, where Felton died of the tuberculosis probably caused by his many years’ surveying in rugged New South Wales and northern New Zealand.

Sarah travelled on alone around Cape Horn and made an unadventurous widow’s  life in England. In 1858 she returned to Auckland, to sell the town allotments and the 10,000 acres in the Thames area left to her by Felton.  Nearly four years later, leaving a colony restless with the racial tension that led to the land wars of the 1860s, she endured her third rounding of Cape Horn. In 1873 she wrote some splendid memoirs of her Auckland years (sadly only Extracts transcribed for the 1940 Rutherford publication survive), and died in Kent in 1890, aged 85.

Why, then, is her story, and the story of the September founding of Auckland, so little known?  First, the moving in 1842 of the anniversary regatta to January – logically, for a summer celebration centred around sailing, but also because Governor Hobson, a man not short of a sense of entitlement, favoured the anniversary of his own arrival in the Bay of Islands.   

Second, because much of the female experience of New Zealand settlement has still to be told.  Authors have recounted and analysed the events of 1840-45 from political, economic and male standpoints; through biographies and historical works we know a good deal about the early merchants John Logan Campbell and William Brown, about the officials, the churchmen, the soldiers, the newspaper editors, the lawyers, and a good deal less about the women who nurtured them and their families, often in thankless situations that were physically and mentally demanding.

The publication of my biography Sarah Mathew: Explorer, Journalist and Auckland’s ‘First Lady,’  on 18 September 2015 will contribute considerable new information to the story of two notable early Aucklanders  by the close re-reading (and, in some cases, the first transcribing) of Sarah’s journals and her Scrapbook held at the Auckland Library, along with contributions (family trees, images and much else) from three descendants, great-great-great-nieces tracked down in England and New Zealand".