BRITTAN, William Guise
A founder of the Canterbury Settlement and Commissioner of Crown Lands.
Brittan was born at Gloucester and educated at Plymouth Grammar School where he became head of the school. He studied medicine and surgery and made two or three voyages to India and China in the Indiaman, General Palmer. Subsequently he lived near Staines and then moved to Sherborne, Dorsetshire, where he became editor and part proprietor of the Sherborne Mercury. He showed an interest in the Canterbury Settlement and was in the chair at the historic meeting at the Adelphi Rooms on 24 April 1850 when the Society of Canterbury Colonists was founded, Brittan pledging himself to fill a ship of the largest size with emigrants. He impressed E. G. Wakefield who wrote to Godley suggesting that Brittan should receive a position of trust in the new colony. Brittan sailed in the Sir George Seymour with his wife, Louisa née Chandler, of London, and his four children. On the voyage the surgeon superintendent proved highly unsatisfactory and Brittan took over most of his functions, which he was well qualified to do.
When the “Pilgrims” landed, the Society of Canterbury Colonists became the Society of Canterbury Land Purchasers, with Brittan again as chairman. Godley appointed him to take charge of the Land Office and supervise the allotment of sections. He, himself, being fifth on the list in order of priority, chose 100 acres of the Papanui Bush, the most valuable rural land in Canterbury today. This bush provided most of the timber for early buildings in Christchurch; he also selected 50 acres on either side of the Avon just outside the East Town Belt. This district was much overvalued in early days owing to exaggerated ideas of the possible navigation of the Avon. Here he built his home, Englefield.
In 1853 Brittan stood for a seat in the General Assembly and was defeated by two much younger men, Stuart Wortley and E. J. Wakefield. He took his beating very badly. He spoke of “the expedients which his honourable opponents did not scruple freely to use”; and he “rejected with scorn and contempt the offer to use such means to gain votes for himself; he had no recourse to mean and degrading expedients”. Brittan never recovered from this affair and never again sought any public office.
Brittan was a very able man, not afraid of responsibility, but in temperament he was jealous, thin-skinned, and bitter. He and Godley fell out, no doubt partly owing to Godley's curt and haughty manner to those he considered his social inferiors. But Brittan was certainly a capable and successful Commissioner of Waste Lands. He made a gift of the first Papanui Church; he did much for the Church of England and was a member of the first Diocesan Synod. He and Michael John Burke went into partnership in Halswell Station in 1851 and he farmed it himself for a time and later made his home there. He sold part of it to Sir Edward Stafford in 1870. When Grosvenor Miles died in 1865, Brittan bought his third share in William White's business as sawmillers, quarrymen, and contractors for £1,500. He was a trustee of the Deans Estate and worked actively for it for 20 years. He was appointed a Resident Magistrate in 1856. He is generally considered to be the father of Canterbury cricket. In appearance he was described as “with ponderous head, black hair, shortish and stout”. He died on 18 June 1876, aged 67.
by George Ranald Macdonald, Retired Farmer, Kaiapoi R.D.
- Letters from Canterbury (tpscr.), Wakefield, E. G., Turnbull Library
- Men of Mark in New Zealand, Cox, A. (1886)
- The Press (Christchurch), 19 Jun 1876 (Obit).