Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The enigma of Robert Chisholm

Image of Chisholm's estate, from LINZ records.

In April 1874, a “rather large and handsome” imposing house burned to the ground. The owner, Robert Chisholm (1797-1877) and his manservant John Turnbull saw the blaze as they worked in a nearby paddock, somewhere close to the site of today’s Heron Park, but were only able to save some blankets, the fire spread so quickly. The fire was a puzzling one, in more than one respect. Some of his best furniture, including a piano, had already been removed a week before. Newspapers reported that the back door had been locked – something unusual for the rural area that was Avondale. The Southern Cross advised that “only a few of the neighbours went near to offer any assistance, Mr. Chisholm, unfortunately, not being a general favourite in the district.” This was most unusual for 19th century Avondale, a district where neighbours usually came readily to help whenever a calamity occurred.

It seems likely, however, no matter what a section of Avondale’s sparse population thought of him at the time, that his 300 acre estate would have been the enduring inspiration behind today’s name for what was once Avondale’s agricultural, now industrial centre.

Much that is known about the enigmatic Mr. Chisholm comes from the research by the historian for Clan Chisholm, Audrey Barney. He was born in Melrose, Scotland, in 1797, and moved north to Edinburgh as a young man, marrying there and taking up the occupation of flesher. By 1851 he had his own business and a household servant – and two years later the family made their plans to move to Australasia. They sailed from Greenock in May 1854, and arrived in Melbourne, stayed four months, then journeyed from Sydney to Auckland, leaving two of the daughters behind (most likely with relatives).

Purchases of land at the Whau were completed almost immediately. Allotments 6 & 7 on the Whau Flat peninsula was bought by Chisholm in November 1855; part of Allotment 5 in 1858. (Another part, breaking up the continuity of Chisholm’s estate, would come to be owned by Daniel Pollen from 1868, then potter James Wright in 1872 until 1879, and then eventually by Enoch Althorpe. This was possibly because the eastern half of Allotment 5 was the closest point to the shellbanks of Traherne Island across the mangroves.) Chisholm’s purchases of the area near Heron Park were made in 1868 (Allotment 14) and 1861 (Allotment 15). Robert Chisholm took out a number of mortgages on these farms, as his over 383 acre landholding came together – but also gave Dr Thomas Aickin finance for part of the Aickin farm across the road on the peninsula in 1865. At some point, a portion of Allotment 62, across the Great North Road from the Heron Park area (close to today’s Lions Hall site) was also bought by Chisholm. So, from 1855 to around 1868, Chisholm slowly developed into becoming a landholder of some note in the Whau district. But, all this time, he actually lived in Parnell, at what is now 4 Burrows Avenue, a grand two-storey gentleman’s residence which still stands, surrounded then by a substantial estate called Hope Park.

The earliest sign that he had a connection with the community at the Whau over to the west comes in March 1867, when his name appeared on a public notice along with those of John Bollard, O. A. Rayson, Thomas Aickin, William Motion and John McLeod regarding a £25 reward for information leading to the apprehension of a blighter killing their sheep and carrying away the carcases). Come October 1868, and Chisholm put his name up as one of the first trustees for the new Whau Highway District: a short-lived term of office, however, as he was struck off the Board in 1869 for refusal to pay rates. By July, he appeared to have either sheep or connections with livestock merchant Alfred Buckland at “Windsor Park” (the only farm by this name at that time I have found was in Waiuku, the property of an E. Constable). Chisholm, though, seemed to have connections, and to have been in the livestock business in a big way.

Chisholm’s residency at Parnell , according to Audrey Barney, seems to have finally come to an end around 1870. His Whau homestead may have been built c.1868, but probably served as a country house until Chisholm made the final move from Burrows Avenue. At his Whau estate in May 1874, Sir James Fergusson, the Governor of the colony, along with Sir Charles Du Cane, Governor of Tasmania, along with “four other gentlemen, shot over the grounds of Mr. Chisholm on Saturday last, and met with very good sport. The party afterwards proceeded to Dr. Pollen’s ground.” Hopefully, the sheep moved out of the way.

By the time Chisholm died, though, it appears his wife had been living down south for a considerable time; she was not referred to in his will. Chisholm was buried in the Presbyterian section of the Symonds Street cemetery, undisturbed therefore by the carving of the motorway through the cemetery in the late 20th century. His son John William Chisholm joined him there in 1881, while his wife Isabella died in Wellington in 1887.

According to Audrey, in Chisholm’s will, “he turned over all his affairs to a group of eleven executors, who were the Manager of the Bank of New Zealand, two Insurance Managers, three Presbyterian ministers, a farmer, another banker, and John Logan Campbell.” They were required to liquidate his shares and assets (other than his Whau holdings) and invest the proceeds, and to lease the Whau farm out for 25 years, investing the income “wisely”, and only at the end of that period sell the land at public auction. At the end, everything was then to be divided up among his living children and grandchildren.

Twenty-five years would have meant a grand sale of the 383 acres at the Whau in 1902; instead, the two remaining Trustees in 1882, banker John Murray and insurance manager George Pierce, broke the trust and arranged Chisholm’s estate into town and country allotments, dubbing it “Rosebank Estate”. This appears to be the earliest known use of the name “Rosebank” in terms of the peninsula, and is likely to be the reason why the road, which wound along the boundary of the estate, has the name today. (An earlier “Rosebank”, the house of John Buchanan in the late 1860s, was in reality just off St Georges Road). Perhaps they’d made a deal with Chisholm’s family to cash out the trust and take advantage of the speculative trend of the time to sell off the larger estates ringing the young city of Auckland, just before the coming bite of the Long Depression. Nothing is known for certain, however, as to what transpired. Avondale’s story, however, may have been somewhat different had the trustees waited until 1902.

This post updated here.

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