Knights of the Merope

The story of European migration to New Zealand is something we are all at least superficially familiar with.

Early European settlers left their beloved homelands behind – mainly Scotland, Ireland, and England, opting for a fresh start which awaited them in the middle of the Pacific.

Spending months at sea aboard merchant ships was an ordeal for many – death and sickness often marred such voyages, but the story of Henry Knight and his family’s journey aboard the clipper Merope in 1879 shows a more hopeful side of the nineteenth century immigrant experience.

The Merope itself was not a particularly special ship.

Built in 1870, she was a fairly typical merchant ship with a crew of nineteen, having been re-rigged to a barque sail configuration in 1882.

The Merope anchored at Gravesend, England. Photograph from White Wings Vol. 1., Fifty Years of Sail in New Zealand Trade, 1850 to 1900. (1924, The Brett Printing Co. Ltd., Auckland.)

According to the Lyttelton Times, 28th July 1879, the Merope’s passage of “85 days from Gravesend and 79 from land to land – is a very good one indeed, and shows that barque rig is suitable for the vessel.”

There were 26 in saloon, 9 in the second cabin, and 25 in steerage – including the Knight family.

Entertaining the Emigrants

In 1967 the last surviving daughter of Henry Knight, Mrs. L. Hicks, donated a small, delicate book to the Ashburton Museum & Historical Society Inc., which is still preserved in the Community Archives at the Ashburton Museum.

According to the Ashburton Guardian, 22nd July 1967, “Mrs. Hicks was only four when her family set sail from England on the Merope in 1879 and she cannot remember much about the trip. Her father, however, to keep the passengers amused and to help pass the time, started up a bulletin which he called the “Merope Independent.”

It would appear from the book containing selections from Mr. Henry Knight’s writings, that the “Ocean Times” had been a forerunner to the “Merope Independent,” but had for some reason ceased publication.”

The Merope Independent, dated the 13th June 1879, is chock full of anecdotes, quotes, poems, and jokes compiled by Henry, sporting an amusing cover illustration showing a grand publishing office for the paper on Steerage Road, while the offices of the former Ocean Times, sat around the corner on Saloon Street, sit dilapidated and vacant.

Illustrated cover page of the Merope Independent, assumedly drawn by Henry. The artist has shown a great deal of imagination and patience – imagine trying to fill in the brick pattern of the office building on a rocking ship, using a dip pen.

This illustration perhaps alludes to a playful rivalry, perhaps a light-hearted class struggle between the steerage and saloon passengers, and may also tell us that a saloon passenger was the publisher of the mysterious Ocean Times.

The Independent, among the unique mixture of crude and classy humour, presents some advice to live by:

“Have the courage to thrust your legs down below the sheets in cold weather.”

“Have the courage to discharge a debt while you have the money in your pocket.”

Besides the humour, there are also some sobering reminders of the deepest, truest feelings of the emigrants:

“Which of us watching the sun’s decline at sea does not cherish the remembrance of loved ones left behind, and with them his country? Be it granite-girded Scotland, or the emerald-like Isle of Ireland, or the sweet meadows and purifying streams of England, how dear the memory, how deep and lasting the love of ‘home’.”

The Knights departed the Merope at Lyttelton, and after renting a house in Christchurch for a week they ended up moving to Alford Forest.

Henry Knight built and ran the Alford Forest Store, which opened in November 1881, for the purpose of selling “every variety of goods, of guaranteed quality, at strictly moderate prices.”

The Alford Forest Store in 1900, Henry Knight and his wife proudly standing, and Mr. N. Olsen holding the horse.

Knight’s wife and children ran the store while he taught at Alford Forest.

The original store building was pulled down and replaced in 1933.

The Fate of the Merope

After eighteen voyages to New Zealand, the Merope was on its way back home from Lyttelton in 1890 when it was destroyed by fire about 193 kilometres from the Azores, West of Portugal.

The fire had broken out among the cargo, and after fruitless attempts to subdue the fire the crew of nineteen had to jump ship, many of them having to leap into the sea and swim to the boats.

Seven men, being the mate, cook, and five seamen were taken to Liverpool by the W. F. Babcock, an American vessel.

The Merope may have met a sudden and fiery end after a solid twenty year run, but the memory and spirit of what it was like to sail across the world on the adventure of a lifetime has been forever encapsulated in the Merope Independent – an amusing and heart-warming little piece of New Zealand history.

By Connor Lysaght

This post was modified for this blog and originally appeared in the Ashburton Guardian, 22nd of August 2020.

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