Wellington's founding fathers

KIMBERLEY ROTHWELL
Last updated 09:29 10/02/2013

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Walk the streets of Wellington and you'll come across many familiar names. But who were these people and what did they do to deserve the honour? We track down the descendants of some of the settlers behind the street names.

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PLIMMER STEPS

From where his statue stands now, the view John Plimmer would have seen coming down the hill from his house would have been very different. Instead of a busy, bus-choked road and glitzy retail stores, Plimmer would have looked out at the "beach", as Lambton Quay was colloquially known then, and the harbour beyond it. He would have seen his land at Clay Point, now the corner of Lambton Quay and Willis St, which was sometimes impossible to get around at high tide, and Noah's Ark, the wharf and warehouse Plimmer built from the wreck of the ship Inconstant. It stood at what is now the corner of Hunter St and Customhouse Quay.

Born in 1812, Plimmer and his wife, Eliza, came to Wellington in October 1841, settlers drawn by the New Zealand Company. He started various businesses, including a limeworks and a brickworks, and in 1850, seeing the need for wharf and dock facilities to expand the city's infrastructure and economy, he created Noah's Ark, which bustled with activity. After the 1855 earthquake, Plimmer rebuilt many of the houses damaged in the event using wood rather than brick, and spearheaded the building of a railway link between Wellington and the Manawatu. He became a civic leader, serving in local government organisations, including the Wellington Chamber of Commerce. Not bad for a builder born in Shropshire.

It is hard to miss Plimmer's name; from the Plimmer Steps - which wind up the hill behind his statue, and where Plimmer's oak stands to the left as you walk up to Boulcott St - to the seaside town of Plimmerton, so named because it was a stop on his railway line to the Manawatu. Local businesses have taken the name because of their proximity to the steps: Cafe on Plimmer, Plimmer Shoes, Plimmer Towers.

And for the descendants of John Plimmer who still live in the city, his story was part of the fabric of growing up.

Says great-great-grandson John McKinnon: "We were always well aware of John Plimmer as an ancestor. That was probably more so because we lived in Wellington, as opposed to other descendants who are scattered and it's a little less relative. But in Wellington you could hardly escape it. It wasn't so much that our mother communicated it, it was part of the family experience, you're aware of that background."

Another great-great-grandson, Neil Plimmer, a former diplomat and now chairman of the Wellington Sculpture Trust, says there are about 2000 descendants of the so-called "Father of Wellington" scattered throughout the world.

"They work in every occupation you can think of, they've intermarried with people of other ethnic groups, just what you would expect after five and six generations of hundreds and hundreds of people.

"They're just a cross section of the population, and I guess that's just what happens when you immigrate to a new country, they diversify and spread to all walks of life. I would expect the Auckland and Christchurch phonebooks would have as many Plimmers as Wellington has."

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But a few of Plimmer's descendants have led high-profile lives, as he did.

John McKinnon is also a former diplomat and head of the Defence Force who now heads the Asia New Zealand Foundation. His brothers are Wellington Deputy Mayor Ian McKinnon, former deputy prime minister Sir Don McKinnon and Malcolm McKinnon, a well-known historian and editor.

John Plimmer, a retired restorative dentist, is named not only after his famous forebear but his father and his great- grandfather. He gave the name John to his son, who has given it to his son. That's six generations of John Plimmer.

While proud of their ancestor, Plimmers we spoke to say he doesn't loom large over their lives.

Says John McKinnon: "John Plimmer himself was a very upfront public figure. He was very good at promoting himself and his activities, and whether [our family's modesty] that's a reaction to that, I'm not sure. Part of the reason that he is prominent in our minds is he was prominent himself and he lived a very long time, until his 90s.

"He basically witnessed the whole growth of Wellington from a very small settlement to something resembling the city we know today. He was able to imprint his personality through his activities, which we don't necessarily do now, although there's less opportunity to do so."

One thing the Wellington Plimmers have inherited from their famous ancestor is his commitment to the city, says McKinnon.

They certainly haven't traded on their famous name, says John Plimmer.

"Just like I wouldn't trade on the fact my father was killed in the war. You get on with your life, it's what you do yourself. I'm sure old John would have respected that."

TONKS GROVE, TE ARO

Gary Tonks, 72, boasts he knows more about the Tonks clan than any other person living. That's a big call, considering his great-grandfather, Enoch, had 15 children.

"I've been involved in the family history for many, many decades since I was a wee laddy," he says.

His great-great-grandfather, William Tonks Sr, arrived in Wellington in 1842 with his wife, Jane, and five children (including Enoch) on the Birman, drawn by the offer of free passage and the chance to escape a fairly bleak existence in Shropshire.

"The mortality rate was very high and that was one reason we left England," says Gary. "There was no work, [there was] cholera, the industrial revolution was under way, and here was an opportunity to be transported by the New Zealand Company on a free trip to the colony all the way Down Under. It had to be better, it couldn't be worse. We had nothing in England, we were just serfs on the land. Some of Jane's children had already died in England because of living conditions."

She had another baby coming to New Zealand, but it died on the voyage.

Five years after arriving, William Sr opened a brickworks in Webb St, at the top of Cuba St, which was run by his sons after he retired.

Enoch ran the brickworks from 1875 and built a number of wooden cottages for workers and family members in the vicinity, dotted along Webb St and Thompson St.

Another enclave of Tonks-family-owned properties became known as Tonks Gr, later Tonks Ave. "We never ponced off down to The Terrace or Thorndon and swanky houses. We just had what they call copy-book houses, just ordinary wooden houses. My cousin told me when she lived there before the war, she couldn't understand how her girlfriends would go and visit their uncles and aunties all over the place, because all her uncles and aunts were all along the street. But as family members grew up, they moved away."

The Tonks family took their immigration to New Zealand as an opportunity to break out of the class system that had held them back in England, where they couldn't have held land or run their own businesses. Through their various ventures - brickworks, a bakery, interests in trans- Tasman shipping, tramlines, property development and land reclamations - they became quite wealthy.

Although the brickworks closed in 1923, five years after Enoch died, and the "copy-book houses" passed out of Tonks' hands in the 1950s, bought up by the Ministry of Works to build the bypass, Gary remains staunchly proud of his connection with this area. Calling himself a brickologist, he collects bricks from various works and eras, and has an E Tonks brick in the small yard of his Berhampore townhouse. When the houses in Tonks Ave were threatened with demolition during the bypass' construction, Gary was involved in their subsequent relocation and restoration.

The Tonks' entrepreneurial spirit lived on in his generation, Gary says, but his children's generation, who are spread all over the world, do not seem to have the same impetus. "They're a softer generation, they don't have the drive or the tenacity."

Gary grew up in Miramar, his interest in the family leading him all over the city to talk to members of his clan and absorb their stories. Although he spent most of his working life in other parts of New Zealand, he and his wife, Denise, have spent the past 12 years back in Wellington. Part of the attraction was his family's link to the city. Two of his three children live here, including the latest addition to the family, grandson Emmett, who is 3 months old.

MEIN ST, NEWTOWN

You would be hard pressed to find any of New Zealand Company surveyor general Captain William Mein Smith's descendants in the phonebook if his great-great- granddaughter Philippa Mein Smith had not changed her name by deed poll in the 1970s.

Her brothers, Jeff and Alastair, were given Mein as part of their names, with their last name being Smith, but Philippa was not. "When I was old enough to be annoyed about such things, I asked my parents 'Why do my brothers have this name and I don't'," says Philippa, a professor of history at Canterbury University. "I was told it was because I was a girl, and I said that wasn't good enough. I actually obtained an apology from my father."

When she was an undergraduate student, a New Zealand history lecturer encouraged her to make both Mein and Smith her last name. "He said, 'Why aren't you Mein Smith, that's who you are!' So I had a discussion with my brothers and we all changed our name officially by deed poll."

Captain Mein Smith arrived in Wellington, then known as Port Nicholson, in early 1840, with instructions to survey and plan a settlement - and fast. Settlers arrived not long after he did. After an attempt to survey the Hutt Valley was scuppered by flooding, his plan took in current-day Thorndon, Te Aro and parts of Newtown.

Captain Mein Smith went on to survey the Wairarapa, planning Featherston. He later became a sheep farmer in the Wairarapa, was a member of both the Wellington Provincial Council and the Legislative Council, the upper house of New Zealand's Parliament. He is also thought to be remembered at Papawai Marae, near Greytown, as one of 13 pou whakairo (carved posts) that guard the marae, because of his close association with chief Tamahau Mahupuku - so close that the chief adopted the child of one of Captain Mein Smith's descendants, says Papawai chairman Paora Ammunson.

Although he designed the plan for Wellington, he didn't name all the streets, say his descendants. "He didn't even want [Mein Street] named after him," says Alastair. "That's why it's just Mein St, not Mein Smith St. I can remember reading that about him. He didn't want any kind of kudos."

Mein was a family name from Captain Mein Smith's mother's side, and his wife's maiden name, Wallace, also graces a street in Mt Cook.

Both Alastair and Philippa have lived in Wellington for short periods, but the Wairarapa is where they feel their connection to their ancestor more vividly.

Alastair lives in Auckland while brother Jeff lives in Hong Kong. Philippa's son, Alex, once worked at Weta Digital but is now a London-based digital musician. Other relatives live in the Wairarapa, still, including Barry Smith, who donated many of Captain Mein Smith's personal items to the Alexander Turnbull Library.

Philippa says her ancestor's role in New Zealand's history did not inspire her choice of career, but does cement her identity as a New Zealander, and she feels connected to him through his art. Many of his descendants have prints of his watercolours. "It gives me a stronger sense of being Kiwi. I have no doubts about where I belong, I know I belong here."

Alastair says he has always known about the life of Captain Mein Smith from his mother. "Especially as New Zealand's population gets larger, the group of people who have something to do with New Zealand's history gets smaller. It's like the Maori with whakapapa, it's good to know where you come from."

His daughters, Jessica, 13, and Emily, 11, have had "no choice" but to know all about their illustrious ancestor. "I just tell them you've got to know where you come from."

And for those of us who have been calling the Newtown street "Me-in", it is pronounced to rhyme with "rain".

RIDDIFORD ST, NEWTOWN, & RIDDIFORD ST, WOBURN

Another of the first European settlers to arrive in Wellington, Daniel Riddiford has the honour of not one but two streets named after him.

Daniel Riddiford was a 26-year-old emigration agent for the New Zealand Company when he arrived March 1840, but later that decade became a sheep and cattle farmer, holding a lease on blocks of land throughout the Wairarapa, including about 30,000 acres on the east coast, called Te Awaiti block.

For many years, he and his wife, Harriett, lived at Orongorongo Station on the south coast of the North Island, an isolated spot where the only time Harriett had contact with other settlers was her yearly visit to Petone, made by waka, to have her children. They spent their last 20 years in Woburn, where the second street to be named after Daniel is located.

Edward Riddiford was one of their 12 children, and he did the lion's share of turning Te Awaiti into a working cattle and sheep station from 1862.

According to Te Ara, the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, Edward spoke Maori, "played cards and drank with the men; he slept with the women" although he upheld a strict no-alcohol policy on the station. He was nicknamed "King" by local iwi, and worked hard - sometimes not sleeping, and riding for miles to get to his station. He married Eleanor Bunny, daughter of politician Henry Bunny, but also had a Maori wife and family.

The Riddiford family is peppered with farmers and lawyers. Two cousins that went into a law partnership together are Earle and Daniel Johnston Riddiford.

Daniel Johnston was awarded the Military Cross during World War II and wrote about escaping from prisoner of war camps in a self-published book, Committed To Escape. He was MP for Wellington Central during the Holyoake government from 1960 to 1972, beating Frank Kitts in the 1960 general election. He was minister of both justice and labour, and attorney- general. One of his six children, Dan, manages Te Awaiti today.

The name Daniel runs in the family - there are seven family members to bear the name, says Daniel Johnston's widow, Yvonne.

Earle Riddiford took the family to new heights; he was a mountaineer who climbed alongside three New Zealanders, including Sir Edmund Hillary, in a 1951 expedition to the Himalayas. Earle Riddiford scaled Mukut Parbat (7242 metres) before the British invited two from the group to join a reconnaissance expedition for a British ascent of Everest. Riddiford and Hillary were chosen, though as fellow climber Bill Beavan wrote, their selection "permanently changed what had been a very happy and friendly team when they had left New Zealand". A back injury meant Riddiford missed the historic first Everest ascent that made Hillary a household name.

Belinda Cranswick, Earle Riddiford's daughter, says she thinks the determination of her ancestors, Daniel and Harriett, has definitely been passed down to the current generation.

She cites relative Richard Riddiford, the managing director of Palliser Estate winery at Martinborough, as an example. He is regarded as one of the fathers of pinot noir in New Zealand, and was the founding chairman of Toast Martinborough. He set up the vineyard 25 years ago after a career in London and New York in the meat industry.

Richard says his ancestors do not loom large in his life, but Edward and Daniel's adventurous spirit, how they worked hard to break in new land in often desolate places, inspires him.

- The Dominion Post

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