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Catherine Chapman In Karori 1844 - 1852

This is an article by Ruth Graham from The Stockade, Volume 35, 2002, p39-48.

In the northeast corner of St Mary's churchyard in Karori and overlooking what was once the Homewood Estate, is a memorial to members of the Chapman family. One side has an inscription to the memory of Catherine Chapman the wife of Henry Samuel Chapman and three of their children who lost their lives as a result of the foundering of the "London" in 1866. It is a poignant reminder of the dangers of travel faced by all those who voyaged between New Zealand and Great Britain in the nineteenth century and a singular tragedy for a family that lost their mother, eldest and youngest sons and only daughter. Reports of the tragedy allude to Mrs Chapman's strength of character in the face of a hopeless situation. A woman who during her eight years in the Karori Valley exhibited similar characteristics when faced with earthquakes, bush fire, threats by Maori, the fear of illness and the uncertainties of childbirth.

Chapman family memorial stone, St Mary's churchyard.
Photo by R.W. Lithgow 1985.

Catherine Brewer (1810-1866) was born in England and was one of thirteen children of a wealthy barrister, Thomas Gibson Brewer and his wife Ann Hughes. She received a convent education at Bruges in Belgium. In 1839 she became engaged to Henry Samuel Chapman who was friends with two of her brothers. Chapman (1802-1881) was a journalist and businessman who had spent ten years in Canada before reading for the Bar in the late 1830s. In 1839 he described his wife-to-be as, "intelligence improved by a most careful education" and "sweetness of temper and disposition", and that she was small in person, pretty in appearance, with the manner of a gentlewoman."[1] They were married in June 1840 and lived with Chapman's widowed father in Tillotson Place, London. Soon after Henry Samuel Chapman was admitted to the Bar but he continued to supplement his income from other sources, most notably as the owner-proprietor of the New Zealand Journal. Their first child, Henry Brewer Chapman (Harry) was born in April 1841 but the following year Catherine suffered a miscarriage. In 1843 Chapman's interest in New Zealand, coupled with the prospect of a growing family without an equivalent in income, led him to accept the position of Judge of the Supreme Court of New Zealand for the Southern District. The family left for New Zealand on the Bangalore in June 1843.

Some of what is known about Catherine Chapman's life in Karori is preserved in the letters that Justice Chapman sent to his father and aunts in England from 1843 to 1851. They are held in the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington. In many of his letters Chapman indicates that Kate (Catherine) has written or will write to the recipient. But amongst this collection of letters, only three of Catherine's from New Zealand survive; a letter dated 30 November 1844 to her aunts, 16 December 1846 and 29 January 1849 to her father-in-law. The tone of Catherine's letters suggests that she was a vibrant and positive woman who delighted in making a happy and secure home for her family in often challenging circumstances.

By the time she arrived in Wellington in February 1844 Catherine Chapman was approximately seven months pregnant. The family stayed with her brother William Brewer, a lawyer and his wife before locating what Justice Chapman considered a "suitable" house. In a letter to his father he wrote, "in a small community I can only preserve my influence by living the life of a hermit." [2] After being unsuccessful in finding accommodation in Wellington he took a lease on a partly finished house and 5 acres of land on section 36 in the Karori Valley. In lieu of rent, the owner Mr R. B. Tyser agreed that Justice Chapman spend the money on completing the house that is believed to have stood approximately where Karori Normal School is located. The bush had been cleared from around the house and on the property there was a fowl house, stables and a poultry yard. Justice Chapman describes a well and a stream. Karori Road ran along the front of the property with a private road to the left. The Chapmans furnished their new home with their own belongings and various pieces left by the owner. In a letter dated 24 March 1844 he describes the main room as having mahogany furniture, family portraits on the walls and many volumes of law books. The master bedroom contained their four-post bedstead, imported from England. There was a spare bedroom and a room for Harry and his maid. Jane the cook slept in the garret and George the indoor man slept in the outer kitchens. There was a verandah, that may have been partially enclosed by french windows and which overlooked the gardens and bush. On a fixed income, Justice Chapman set about raising as much as possible of the family's food requirements from his own crops, vegetables, poultry and animals and he wrote many letters home to his father detailing his plans for the property.

The Chapmans had only just moved to Karori when tragedy struck. In late February 1844 Catherine's brother William died from a wound that he received as the result of a duel with another solicitor. William Brewer had been in financial difficulties and his wife was seriously ill. Following William's death his widow stayed with the Chapmans in Karori but Justice Chapman wrote that he hoped she would go on to her brother in Wanganui for the winter stating she was not intrinsically a very interesting person (except that she was William's widow, and destitute, and fated to die) and "she had been ill trained and has all the vulgar prejudices of her class and hence she is not a companion for Kate; however, we have determined to make her as comfortable as we can here."[3] 

Catherine had calculated their second child would be due about 9th or 10th of April 1844 but it was not born until the 13th of May. The baby, Charles William, weighed 8 lbs. and five days after the birth Catherine had moved from her bed to the sofa in the sitting room. Ten days following the birth she walked out into the garden and rested under the verandah. The doctor and nurse had been called to attend the birth and an Irish nursemaid employed to care for mother and baby. Catherine breast-fed the new baby until he was weaned in January 1845. Martin, the third of the Chapman children was also born at the rented house on section 36 in April 1846. Later in that year the settlers were faced with the threat of attack from Maori and Catherine Chapman earned respect for staying in Karori. Justice Chapman relates that "Kate has gained a character for courage and good sense for remaining here and setting a good example while almost all the gentleman classes and their wives are rushing into town."[4]

 Many of Justice Chapman's letters include requests for items from home. In 1844 he wrote that Catherine would like four pairs of doubled soled black boots and four pairs of black shoes from Isherwood, Luggate Hill. [5] He also requested books for his wife, Farming for Ladies and Mrs London's Ladies Companion to the Flower Garden. [6] It appears that Catherine developed a strong interest in the stockyard and the garden. In November 1844 she wrote to her aunts: 

Our poultry yard consists of every kind; a goat with three kids has also the run of the yard, rabbits too answer very well to keep, and with a white sauce make a capital dish we wish to be independent of the butcher [and] we have great hopes that our young broods of this Summer will with our pigs and rabbits keep us this next Winter with only an occasional joint of meat as a change. [7]

Justice Chapman was always concerned with saving money and tried to be as self sufficient as possible. However, his budget for 1844 shows that he had no qualms in spending one hundred and twenty-two pounds on employing staff, an out-of-doors man, an indoor man, a cook and housemaid and a nurse and another ten pounds for occasional help. 

In November 1844 Justice Chapman purchased section 35 in Karori, approximately one hundred acres standing almost opposite to where they lived and the Chapmans intended to build a home and develop the section. Catherine wrote to her aunts:

It is a very beautiful spot, when a little cleared we shall see the harbour and town of Wellington You can form no idea of a New Zealand bush, it is so thick, and the Supple Jack which is very tough and hard binds it so close as to make it hopeless to attempt to make your way through it without a billhook and compass.  I lead a very happy and contented life here. I was always fond of the country, and I have it here in great perfection. Henry no longer so much oppressed with work as in England, I enjoy more of his society and with our dear little ones I should not have a wish ungratified could I but see the dear friends I have left behind. I wish I could show you my dear little boys, you would be delighted with them, Harry is a fine manly little fellow, Charley a dear fat good-tempered little darling, always laughing and happy. [8]

Almost immediately work was begun on clearing the land on section 35 but it would not be until April 1847 that the family would move into their own home on the section which they later named Homewood. The book Homewood and its Families: a Story of Wellington by Beryl Smedley recounts many of the details of the development of the house and section and the Chapmans' life in Karori. At the time the family moved to Homewood the household consisted of Mr and Mrs Chapman, three children; Harry, Charley and Martin, the nursery maid and her assistant, a cook, an out-of-doors man and his son. The manservant had been dispensed with because there was little dining company. 

The first baby born at Homewood was Ernest Arthur and he was approximately one month premature weighing only 4 lbs. Fortunately the baby survived and Justice Chapman wrote that because the birth was so "easy" Catherine "now feels as if she were quite capable of getting up, but she will remain in bed her usual time (five days) and for prudence sake, will not attempt to walk until after 10 days."[9] The birth of their fifth son, Frederick Revans, was also eventful as the umbilical cord was around his neck and he took 15 minutes to revive. A much hoped for daughter was born in October 1850 when Justice Chapman was away in Nelson. He wrote to his father, "we intend to name her Catherine Ann De Lancey, the first after her mother, second after her two grandmothers and the third in fulfillment of your wishes." [10] 

For the Chapman children the experience of growing up in rural New Zealand was quite different to the life of their contemporaries in London as Justice Chapman suggests, "the real day nursery of our boys is in the open air where they have free range without risk of being run over by a racing omnibus, or flattened between a lamp post and a brewers dray."[11] The family also experienced some frightening events they would not have expected to encounter if they had lived in England. In October 1848 a severe earthquake damaged the house and destroyed the chimneys. Following the initial earthquake there were over 1000 aftershocks and Justice Chapman writes that Kate displayed her usual calmness and self-possession. In February 1851 the threat of a serious bush fire meant the family and servants removed the entire contents of the house to an open paddock and then keep vigil through the night to ensure the fire did not engulf their home. 

In early 1849 Catherine, then a mother of four boys, wrote to her father-in-law reflecting on their life in New Zealand: 

It is now five years within a few days since we came to this colony, and I think the greatest change has been in our present home when I look at my four boys scampering about for even little Ernest though he may bump down at every stumbling block, contrives by throwing his arms about, and making as much noise as he can to get up a pretty good make-believe scamper, as I said when I see them all so full of fun and spirits, I often wish you too could enjoy the sight, I well know how much it would please you. [12]

In September 1851 the distance between England and New Zealand must have seemed insurmountable when Catherine finally learnt of the death of her father that had occurred six months before. Justice Chapman wrote, "Kate was deeply affected  --  more so after a week or 10 days than at first. But her cheerfulness (except now and then when something occurs to recall old associations) is in great measure restored. The mother of six children and the mistress of a rural establishment like ours is too much under the pressure of her immediate duties to dwell upon a painful idea "[13]

The education of the children was a great concern to Justice Chapman  --  a factor that influenced his decision to pursue the appointment as Colonial Secretary in Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania). The main responsibility of home teaching the children would fall on Catherine. Justice Chapman's educational plan for the children being "letters at 4 read easy things at 5. Write at 6, and Latin at 7."[14] In 1851 Justice Chapman reports that Harry is now going to Mr Wheeler's as a day pupil, Charley is now declining the nouns, Martin is reading nicely and Ernest is at his letters. [15] Servants were another responsibility for Catherine. In May 1848 the household was thrown into disorder when they lost Mary the cook and the same day the assistant nursemaid fainted on the stairs, fell and had to return home. This left only a part-Maori girl and a fourteen-year-old of German parentage. The baby Ernest, who was nine months old, had to spend a lot of time with Catherine and as a consequence she had been unable to wean him. [16] The situation was temporarily improved when Mary the cook volunteered to return for a time before her marriage. Many of Justice Chapman's letters contain report the latest difficulty in finding and retaining servants often increasing the level of self-sufficiency required by the family. 

While Justice Chapman's letters are rich in information about his family, his work and colonial affairs there are few references to the lives of other Karori residents. One point of contact between the community and Catherine Chapman seems to have been when settlers were ill. In September 1846 Justice Chapman refers to his wife as "the Frau Doctorium of this neighbourhood" and a year later, after an influenza epidemic, that "all the settlers here have a great faith in Kate's remedies and the medicine basket is greatly run upon."[17] Justice Chapman's father later sent out a medicine chest and Catherine was able to make good use of the contents which included, "Rhubarb and Magnesia, Salts, Senna, Dover's Powder, Tincture of Rhubarb and of Senna, Laudanum, Tincture of Henbane, Calomel, and the Muriated Tincture of Iron her own favourite tonic."[18] Catherine's healing skills gained some notoriety in the colony for effecting a cure for one of Dr Featherstone's children that had ringworm for two years. Maintaining the family's health was a continuing concern for the Chapmans. Martin, the child identified by Justice Chapman as the cleverest of the children, suffered from a number of serious illnesses and accidents as a young child. In late 1849 Justice Chapman urgently returned to Wellington from Auckland when he learnt that Martin had been very ill and that summer the household moved into town for a change of air for the sickly child. [19] 

One feature of Catherine's life in Karori was the time she spent alone at Homewood when Justice Chapman was required to go to Nelson, Wanganui or New Plymouth to hear court cases. At times there were extended visits from her sisters-in-law but if she had many close women friends, it is difficult to tell. The distance of Homewood from Wellington must have been a barrier to socialising and she seemed resigned to being at home when her pregnancies reached an advanced stage. In 1844 Justice Chapman writes she hadn't been to town for four months and on another occasion he took the children to the races in January 1849 while Catherine remained at home pregnant with their fifth child. [20] Because of their position within the community the contact she had with Karori women was probably as an employer or the result of benevolence in times of hardship or illness. The Chapmans supported the Karori community in a number of ways. They gave four acres of Homewood for the establishment of church on the site of the present St Mary's Anglican Church. They also provided financial support to the Trustees of the Karori Chapel and School. In 1851 the Karori settlers celebrated the anniversary of the colony at Homewood where between 50 and 60 Karori children enjoyed the treats supplied by Mrs Chapman. Just as the Chapmans were making plans to stay in Karori the appointment of Henry Samuel Chapman as Colonial Secretary of Van Dieman's Land was gazetted in London. In early 1852 Homewood was sold, the furniture auctioned and the family sailed for Tasmania on board the Munford

Catherine Chapman came to Karori as the mother of one child and as a married woman that had never had her own home. Eight years later, she had a family of six children and was the mistress of a country estate. At times she felt the burden of the distance from her friends and family but she appears deeply committed to her husband, she loved and delighted in her children and enjoyed the natural surroundings of their home in the New Zealand bush. In the Karori community she took on a leadership role and cared for her neighbours in their time of need. Her calm in the face of adversity was tested at times in Karori and was a quality for which she was remembered during the final hours before the fateful sinking of the London in the Bay of Biscay. A voyage that would have reunited husband, wife and children in New Zealand at the end of two year trip to England to visit family and friends.


1. Peter Spiller, The Chapman Legal Family (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1992), 28. 

2. Henry Samuel Chapman, 9 December 1843, Letters 1843-1851, (TS) Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.  

3. Chapman, 24 March 1844.  

4. Chapman, 13 May 1856. 

5. Chapman, 24 September 1844. 

6. Chapman, 10 November 1844. 

7. Chapman, 30 November 1844. 

8. Ibid. 

9. Chapman, 19 August 1847. 

10. Chapman, 10 November 1850. 

11. Chapman, 24 August 1847. 

12. Chapman, 29 January 1849. 

13. Chapman, 4 Oct 1851. 

14. Chapman, 2 August 1848. 

15. Chapman, 10 August 1851. 

16. Chapman, 20 May 1848. 

17. Chapman, 19 December 1847. 

18. Chapman, 14 February, 1849. 

19. Martin Chapman founded the legal firm of Chapman, Tripp, Sheffield and Young. An account of the legal careers of Henry Samuel, Frederick Revans and Martin Chapman can be found in The Chapman Legal Family by Peter Spiller. 

20. Chapman, 13 June, 1844; 29 January 1849.  


From Stockade 37, 2004, 4-6 Karori Historical Society