Feats of endurance – Early Ashburton District history

Once again I have found myself enthralled by tales of Ashburton’s past, as told by Alex Hewson in his 1918 reminisces, as well as Mary Anne Barker’s brief description of crossing the Ashburton River.

“Early Days in the Ashburton County” by Alex Hewson was first published as a series of Guardian articles in 1918, before being amalgamated into a booklet later that year.

The Ashburton Museum and Historical Society republished Hewson’s stories in 1996, and it is this booklet that has given me much food for thought over the past two weeks.

Last week we narrowly avoided being frozen solid, as we learned about the harshest winter Hewson had seen at Clent Hills in 1878.

To survive as an early European settler, in what they saw as a new land, was to be resilient in both body and mind.

The settlers who brought their way of life to the other side of the world endured many physical and mental challenges, and hardships, as described by Alex Hewson.

Ultramarathon man

According to Hewson, Mount Peel Station was taken up first by Tripp and Acland “in 1855 or 1856”.

The first house was built of cabbage trees stuck upright in the ground, and the cracks were filled up with clay.

The roof was thatched with snowgrass, and we can assume that the state of the floor was far from satisfactory.

Drownings were common in early Ashburton County – a few years after the founding of Mount Peel Station a man named Clark drowned in the Rangitata at the Long Ford, and “about the same time a Mr. Findlay was drowned when swimming the river near the woolshed.”

One station man’s story sticks out to me as almost mythical – that of Andy the Black, a skilled tracker and runner at Mount Peel.

According to Hewson, Andy could “run a newly shorn merino wether down on the hills in less than an hour”, and could track down a mob of sheep based on where they had camped a few days before.

Once, Andy was sent to Christchurch with a letter of importance, and “leaving Mount Peel just as the sun rose, he made a bee-line for Christchurch, swam all the rivers, delivered his letter, got drunk and was in the lock-up before dark.”

His impressive feat of endurance is something to be marvelled at, as modern runners with extensive training can run 100km in under 10 hours.

If you are not an already established runner, estimates range between 12 and 15 hours to run that distance.

Andy could have made the trip by horse but this is not specified, and the claim that Andy “swam all the rivers” points to the possibility that he went on foot.

Unfortunately for Andy, tragedy befell his family and in seeking revenge he met an early grave – “Andy was sent back to the Swan River, and hanged there for murdering a man who had shot Andy’s mother.”

Barker’s travels

“Station Life in New Zealand” by Mary Anne Barker, also known as Lady Barker, is a fascinating read which offers a peek into early New Zealand life through the eyes of a well-to-do British traveller and settler.

After compiling this work from her letters home, she went on to write 21 more books throughout her life.

While visiting Christchurch in 1865, Barker describes the women there as possessing “an amount of useful practical knowledge which is quite astonishing.”

In contrast to her cushy life in Victorian England, Barker was thoroughly enjoying her new outdoorsy lifestyle in Canterbury after leaving Christchurch.

“It is delightful to wake up in the morning with the sort of joyous light-heartedness which only young children have.”

Barker’s experiences in New Zealand were not all positive however, as she sadly lost her infant son in May 1866.

A bumpy ride

Barker’s eighteenth letter, entitled A Journey “Down South” details her amusingly terrifying experience of crossing the Ashburton River, at the hands of her drunken driver “Jim”.

After having dinner at the inn they changed drivers on the banks of the Ashburton, and in regards to their new driver, they were told by their previous driver that “he handles the ribbings jest as well as when he’s had a drop too much as when he’s sober, which ain’t often, however.”

“When I saw our new charioteer emerge at last from the bar, looking only very jovial and tolerably steady as to gait, I thought perhaps my panic was premature. But, oh, what a time I had of it for nine hours afterwards!”

As soon as Jim had mounted the carriage, with one crack of his whip he sent the party dashing down a steep cutting and into the Ashburton almost instantly.

Barker half expected that the carriage would break in two from the force which they were dragging across the boulders.

“The water flew in spray far over our heads, and the plunge wetted me as effectually as if I had fallen into the river.”

“We lurched like a boat in a heavy sea; the “insides” screamed; “Jim” swore and yelled; the horses reared and plunged.”

Over the course of that leg of the trip, their driver took the opportunity to have a few more drinks, and according to Barker he became “extremely friendly with me, addressing me invariably as “my dear,” and offering to “treat me” at every inn from that to Timaru.”

If there is one thing to be learned from Barker, it’s that you should be careful who you drive with!

By Connor Lysaght

This post was modified for this blog and was originally published in the Ashburton Guardian, 9th of June 2020.


  1. Shepherds at Mount Peel Station, 1902. Much progress had been made by this point, compared to the early days of the late 1850s.
  2. Wilkinson’s sheep after crossing the Rakaia River bridge, around 1876.
  3. Turton’s New Inn, which was owned by Thomas and John Turton from 1866 to 1874. Christchurch-Timaru coach in foreground.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: