In Search of a Home at the Antipodes

Since the turn of the twentieth century diaries and memoirs have provided a unique window into New Zealand’s colonial past for researchers and historians. Often diaries or journals get rewritten at a later date as personal memoirs. The Alexander Turnbull Library has a fine collection of both forms of these historical narratives in the Manuscripts Collection.

An exciting new acquisition to this collection is an illustrated memoir by James J Ledger: In Search of a Home at the Antipodes (Ref: MSX-9415). While it is not uncommon for Nineteenth Century memoirs to include illustrations by its author, it is less common for these memoirs to comprise illustrations of the artistic skill of Ledger’s, and to incorporate photographs as well. In Search of a Home at the Antipodes is a fine example of this genre of reminiscence.

James J Ledger

Little is known of Ledger outside of his memoir. His reminiscences begin with his emigration from England to New Zealand on the 2nd December 1878. Throughout the narrative Ledger gives us hints of his past life but nothing substantial. This is not unusual for a memoir. A point of difference between a memoir and a full autobiography is that memoirs are often recounting specific periods of time, pertinent events, or memorable experiences of a person’s life journey. An autobiography tends to recall the full history and ambit of the author’s life.

Seated portrait of James J Ledger in the frontispiece to his memoir.Seated portrait of James J Ledger in the frontispiece to his memoir.

What little we can glean from Ledger’s written work is that he had lived in France, Germany, Belgium and England at some point before arriving in New Zealand. His mother, Elizabeth Ledger (nee Bonsor) lived in Italy. He was certainly a well-travelled man and reference is made to his earlier military experience with the 7th West Yorks (West Yorkshire Regiment. Ledger doesn’t elucidate the reader as to where he served with this Regiment. However the “7th West Yorks” were involved in the New Zealand Wars, 1860-1866, and the Second Anglo-Afghan War, 1878–1880.)

2 Img 0790Chapter One – Outward Bound with a sketch of the barque Cape Finisterre off Gravesend.

Ledger has arranged his memoir into eleven chronological chapters of his exploits with an additional appendix of highlights entitled Colonial jottings. In the first section Ledger recalls his voyage of 119 days aboard the barque `Cape Finisterre' from London to Port Lyttelton, New Zealand. He provides a very detailed account of shipboard life, his fellow passengers, the weather patterns, icebergs, activities of the crew, and the islands and land masses the vessel passed by.

Arctic icebergArctic iceberg.

On the sighting of an iceberg Ledger was called on deck by crew as they thought it would be good content for his shipboard newspaper The Cape Finisterre Weekly News:

“What’s that”? I asked my friend the Mate. “An iceberg” he answered “and a perfect beauty.” I was down in an instant, and shouted to the boys to come at once on deck, as there was an “Ice Cream” as big as the largest pyramid, in sight. We gave it a wide berth as may well be imagined and passed it on our left.

Ledger’s keen eye for observation is translated both into his drawing skills and textual descriptions. Both are engaging, detailed and representative of their subjects. I spoke to Margaret Morris, Senior Conservator Works on Paper at the Turnbull Library about the nature of these vignette sketches. She commented on the delicacy of the iron-gall line drawings. Iron gall ink is a purple-black or brown-black ink made from iron salts and tannic acids from vegetable sources like gall nuts. There is also the use of gouache watercolour paint to highlight the white sections of the sketch. Gouache is a type of opaque watercolour paint in which the pigment is suspended in water. The iceberg drawing above is a good example of this technique where the gouache is used to represent ice.

Margaret went on to comment on the good condition of the sketches. This is in part due to the thick brown paper all the works have been drawn on. Under analysis the paper appears to be low grade commercial paper as opposed to artist grade drawing paper. The thickness of this paper has helped prevent the iron-gall ink seeping through to the reverse side of the sketched leaves. This ink is highly acidic and is renowned for ink corrosion on paper. Most sketches in this volume have also been mounted on some type of white matting paper. Whether this was for aesthetic effect or not it has the added outcome of protecting these small art works from further damage.

HandwritingAn example of the very fine penmanship evident throughout the memoir.

Shipboard diaries

The Manuscripts Collection holds over 800 examples of shipboard accounts captured in shipboard diaries, letters and memoirs. Most of these were compiled by new émigrés while travelling to New Zealand. Many of these journals stop abruptly once the author has reached their destination. Very few continue on to detail the life of the new emigrant in New Zealand, especially in the diary format. Some arrivals do continue to recount their new experiences to loved ones by the practice of letter-writing “home” to the United Kingdom and elsewhere.

Memoirs in general do provide a wider span of experiences than just a shipboard account of the voyage to New Zealand. Some accounts of shipboard life aboard an emigrant vessel are very detailed and describe all manner of interactions between the crew and passengers, shipboard activities and rituals, the food and diet aboard ship etc. Others contain only brief details and in the occasional example only provide details of the changing weather patterns. Official ship’s logs differ from the passenger’s journals in that the ship’s log captures specific nautical details like the latitude and longitude of the vessel on any given day, specific weather patterns and instructions to the crew.

Ledger’s memoir contains the detailed section on his shipboard passage and continues on through this initial voyage to his life experiences in New Zealand, a later voyage on to Australia, and Ledger’s subsequent life in Melbourne where he was to stay for the remainder of his life.

South Island

Ledger arrived in Port Lyttelton on the 30th March 1879. He was to spend over three years travelling primarily around the South Island searching for work. In many respects he was an itinerant worker, but a skilled one. He appears to have had some engineering training and this was his preferred work. However, there was not a lot of call for this type of work in Canterbury in the 1880s so Ledger took work where he could find it. At various times he worked as a joiner in the Christchurch gas works, as a kitchen range builder, lithographer in a newspaper office, and as a hand in a survey party laying railway lines in the Waimakariri Gorge and Rangiora Region. Ledger seemed to have a genuine fascination with the New Zealand landscape and the characters he met. There are sketches of Māori women, a Chinese man, a colonial larrikin, an Irish mounted trooper, and a swagman among others.

Swagman on the walking trackSwagman on the walking track.

This lovely depiction of a swagman includes his swag, billy can, tea mug, hatchet and pipe. One interesting facet of memoir writing is the manner in which different time periods merge together in exposition. Ledger is attempting to present a chronological story of his travels. At this point his later experiences in Australia are used here to amplify his descriptions around the nature of colonial character:

When I was in N.Z. there was no so called “Larrikiness”, but Melbourne, and all the other Colonies made up for the deficiency. The swagman is the travelling labourer, who goes from farm to farm, or Cockatoo to Cockatoo, as the farmers are called in N.Z. or to the Stations up country, seeking for work.

The title page has an inscription indicating that this memoir was commenced in Abbotsford, Melbourne in 1890. The appendix closes with the date April 1892. However, an entry in the appendix quotes a New Zealand article from January 1893. It does appear that the memoir was completed over a two to three year period. This would account for the careful manner in which the volume has been constructed in chapters with indent spaces for sketches. It is speculation whether Ledger composed the text and images at the same time, or returned to the pictorial side of this work on completion of the narrative.

There are six black and white photographs situated throughout this volume. These photographs are albumen contact prints produced from glass plate negatives. The first image is a self-portrait; the remaining five photographs are images of paintings, sketches and drawings. From the nature of this memoir it appears as if Ledger has not only drawn from memory, but also from in situ drawings sketched while travelling. The sketch below is a composite image detailing aspects of his time with the survey party in the Waimakariri Gorge. The photograph acts as an aide-memoire for the text and for other art works Ledger may have wished to create at a later point in time.

Survey camp in the Waimakariri GorgeSurvey camp in the Waimakariri Gorge.

The accompanying photograph below is of a sketch of the Waimakariri Gorge in 1880. The original sketch is in a different style to the detailed drawing above, and it showcases Ledger’s ability with perspective and drawing physical structures. Mark Strange, Senior Conservator Photographs has consulted these photographs and suggests that this sketch may have been drawn with the aid of a camera lucida. This would account for the topographical nature of the sketch and the accuracy of the bridge and houses in the foreground.

Waimakariri Gorge, 1880Waimakariri Gorge, 1880.

After his stint with the survey party Ledger travelled on foot to South Canterbury where he found employment in the summer harvest. Here he worked on a steam-powered wheat thresher for the season. With this job complete Ledger travelled further south to Timaru where he settled for a time, taking a cottage by the sea and working as the head clerk for a large grain store.

Ledger made good use of footnotes throughout the memoir to clarify points, particularly around language. This does give the memoir a formal and academic feel in various tracts of text. It emphasises Ledger’s attention to detail, but also raises the question of who his audience was. Many memoirs are a personal history for future family members or act as a document of legacy for a wider readership. Ledger has indicated his entrepreneurial spirit and business ambitions in many sections of this work. This memoir may have been written with an eye towards publication. This would help explain the detailed layout of the memoir, the inclusion of pictorial images, and the use of referencing. This footnote refers to a description of Mount Cook:

On my left and in front was the town, encircled by the Southern Alps and the highest mountain in the whole of Australia, Mount Cook 14,000 feet high. “Aorangi” in Māori.


The next adventure for Ledger was to be in the North Island:

A cry arose from one end of N.Z. to the other, that the tribes of Taranaki Maoris had broken into open revolt, and that they must be put down at once and at any cost. Here was a chance for me of seeing the Maori, uncivilised, in his native haunts…

The next section of the memoir details Ledger’s service as a volunteer with the South Canterbury Contingent under the command of Captain Hammersley of the Timaru Artillery. These three chapters are the most extensive of Ledger’s in relation to his observations of, and interactions with, Māori. He provides a full account of his travels to and from Parihaka as a member of the volunteers. He provides wonderful descriptions of army dress, daily rituals and military protocols, all within local social settings. So we get recollections of Māori women coming into the camp for food alongside examples of soldier’s pig hunting with swords and bayonets to capture their supper.

Uniform for a volunteer wearing a blue serge jumper and a Glengarry capThe inset drawing shows the uniform for a volunteer wearing a blue serge jumper and a Glengarry cap.

Ledger provides a first-hand account of the troops sacking of Parihaka and the expulsion of some Māori and the imprisonment of others, including Te Whiti, Tohu and Titokowaru. At one point in the taking of Parihaka he notes:

At 12 o’clock precisely there was a great stir among the Constabulary, and the Mounted Rifles, and I saw the men pulling down part of the fencing, and entering the Pah. Not a Maori moved! After a few minutes a yellow buggie (sic) was brought round, two Maori chiefs entered it, with two women, and accompanied by a detachment of Mounted Rifles, drove away passing close to where I stood. These were Te Whiti, John, his wife and niece. They had surrendered, and all the tribe with them. We were all pretty well mad after the expectation of seeing a bit of fighting, but at last an immense hurrah was raised all along the line, the guns fired a salute, and we all fell back on to our reserves.

Later he elaborates on the destruction of Māori huts and whare, but then comments on how well they are made and details their architecture. It is almost as if Ledger is feeling compelled to do the right thing and represent the colonists by registering as a volunteer, but also wanting to be an anthropologist and record the event both pictorially and textually. He has a fascination with tribal moko and the Māori tattooing art form:

Unidentified Māori elder wearing a greenstone pendant at ParihakaUnidentified Māori elder wearing a greenstone pendant at Parihaka.

While he was based primarily at Parihaka, Ledger did make a sketching visit to Pungarehu where he hoped to catch sight of Te Whiti and Tohu, who were imprisoned there in the blockhouse. He was unsuccessful on sighting the Māori prophets but did see Titokowaru who had recently been captured hiding in a whare:

He certainly was a hideous “Skally Wag” with one eye, and his moko all destroyed by scars.

Pungarehu settlement as sketched from the wall of the blockhouse. Sketch includes depictions of the lookout stations, store huts, canteen, billiard rooms, butchery and the headquarters of Messrs Bryce and Rolleston. Pungarehu settlement as sketched from the wall of the blockhouse. Sketch includes depictions of the lookout stations, store huts, canteen, billiard rooms, butchery and the headquarters of Messrs Bryce and Rolleston.

By December the volunteers had broken camp at Parihaka and began returning to their own districts. Ledger returned to Timaru by way of a vessel departing from Opunake. Here he took the time to create a sketch of Mary Dobie’s graveside memorial. Dobie was killed by Tuhi at Te Namu in 1880 and Ledger recalls the story as it was known to him. He records the costal journey down the country with stops at Picton and Lyttelton. The return home ends with a train trip from Christchurch to Timaru. Along the way they are greeted by mayoral receptions and well-wishers.

Ledger’s Parihaka anecdotes are obviously a highlight for him of his personal recollections of New Zealand. The appendix for the volume ends with an extract from a New Zealand newspaper on Te Whiti and the state of life in Parihaka in 1893. This article provides a point of difference from Ledger’s own narrative. However, it is interesting to speculate on how later media reports and historical writings on Parihaka may have influenced his own process of recollection. Some of the logistical details in his memoir appear to have the benefit of subsequent knowledge. This does give greater authority to Ledger’s writing, but it may not represent a fully accurate account of his own experiences.

Upon resuming domestic life back in Timaru, Ledger then visited the editors of a publishing house in Dunedin. The principal of the company brought his twelve sketches of Parihaka for fifty pounds. This was not an insubstantial amount of money at the time. In today’s currency the sale of these sketches would have earned Ledger NZ $9,500. Ledger notes he is very happy with this sale and this certainly provides evidence of Ledger as the entrepreneurial adventurer. This book was published as Pen and ink sketches of Parihaka and neighbourhood with scenes of Māori life by Ferguson & Mitchell, 1892.


Ledger stumbled upon a Māori tangi during his stay in Opunake as evidenced in the sketch above. He explains the ritual of the dead and the tapu on the young woman’s body. It is not apparent whether he knew of these Maori protocols and rituals at the time, or whether he gained this knowledge subsequently.

Plate 12. Profile sketches of a Māori woman, military men, and “watching the dead, Opunake”Plate 12. Profile sketches of a Māori woman, military men, and “watching the dead, Opunake”

Ledger describes approaching the tangi:

… a tall Maori woman stood in front of me. She was old and horrible looking in her old flax cloak, and in the gleam of the evening, “Tapu! Tapu! Tapu!” she cried, lifting up her bare arms. “All right, old girl,” I said, “what’s up?” She did not answer, but signed to me to go around a side path. I followed her and she took me to a tent where lay the body of a young woman. The body was wrapped round with a white cloth and flowers were spread over her… I had indeed broken through the terrible Tapu and in former days, would inevitably have been killed and eaten in consequence.

Many of the sketches in this earlier publication have been used in his later memoir. Although often with subtle changes as they have been redrawn for a different purpose. I have conducted a search online to locate the original sketches without success. The Turnbull Library does hold a facsimile copy of one of Ledger’s plates from this publication drawn by Dr McIntyre. The artwork (Volunteer camp of Major Hammersley's battalion near Parihaka [1881. Copied 1920s?]) came to the Library with the first acquisition of the James Cowan Papers: MS-Papers-0039. It is likely this copy sketch was requested by Cowan for his publication The New Zealand wars: a history of the Māori campaigns and the pioneering period . In the end this sketch wasn’t used in Cowan’s publication. Ariana Tikao, Research Librarian, Maori, is currently arranging and describing the latest deposit of James Cowan’s papers. Her progress can be followed on her blog: A little history of James Cowan.

Pencil sketch by McIntyre of Ledger’s Volunteer camp of Major Hammersley's battalion near Parihaka, Plate 6Pencil sketch by McIntyre of Ledger’s Volunteer camp of Major Hammersley's battalion near Parihaka, Plate 6.

After this point Ledger failed to settle back into a routine life in Timaru and decided to leave New Zealand for Melbourne, Australia:

My “Boss” was very much astonished when, towards the end of August 1882 I told him that I intended leaving him the next week, that I was full up to the brim of Maori land, and that I considered I had wasted four of the most valuable years of my life in the place.

Up until this point in the memoir the impression Ledger presents of himself is of the intrepid adventurer, up for a laugh and any sort of experience. From his arrival in Australia the memoir becomes abridged and the next ten years of his life are covered in a handful of pages. He was clearly always driven to succeed and he set about finding himself a wife, a cottage and a career. By the end of the memoir Ledger has retrained as an architect, married Mary Florence Lawrence, and become the proprietor of his own business. He doesn’t mention his passion for sketching but it is evident in the quality of these sketches that he is still active in this discipline. He does mention his new hobby in 1892 which is gardening and tending to his conservatory; he was growing ferns, palms and banana trees.

I have searched Australian online databases attempting to trace further details of Ledger’s life. The only entries I’ve located to date relate to a court case in June 1891 whereby a James John Ledger as architect, and Joseph Thorpe as builder were charged with the manslaughter of Joseph Gahan. Gahan was trapped by a falling wall designed by Ledger and built by Thorpe. It is quite possible the two Ledgers are one and same. However, more research is required to confirm this. Records indicate that Ledger died in Collingwood, Melbourne in 1907. In 1913 his wife Mary Florence married John George Walling.

Ledger’s memoir provides a wonderful portal into colonial life in New Zealand between 1878 and 1882. His observations of individuals, culture and landscapes are quite acute given his interest and practice in sketching and architecture. His experiences in the South Island as an iterant worker and his involvement as a volunteer in the Parihaka incident will be of particular interest to New Zealand researchers. The sketches that illustrate this manuscript are also worthy of further investigation as they provide a pictorial record of Ledger’s travels around New Zealand and marry up with his written recollections.

Ledger’s cottage `Bella Vista’ in Abbotsford, Melbourne, 1892. This is a photograph of a very detailed sketch by Ledger. It was at `Bella Vista’ that Ledger wrote his memoir.Ledger’s cottage `Bella Vista’ in Abbotsford, Melbourne, 1892. This is a photograph of a very detailed sketch by Ledger. It was at `Bella Vista’ that Ledger wrote his memoir.

By Seán McMahon

Seán is an archivist buried in deep beneath the manuscripts in the Alexander Turnbull Library. Twitters like a canary on AlexArchivists:

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Cecilia Spence November 9th at 7:10PM

Ledger's departure for Melbourne in 1882 is significant as it demonstrates that Melbourne's image was a powerful attraction for some settlers to NZ. Melbourne at that time enjoyed the wealth from the gold rush and promised prosperity and education not available in other parts of the Australasia. I wonder what the name of the Melbourne Architectural firm was that gave him his training as an architect.

Paul Capewell November 11th at 2:49AM

Absolutely fascinating, and a rich, detailed read. Thanks!

Peter Ireland November 19th at 4:03PM

An impressive piece of work, Sean, well done. What a good acquisition.