Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.

DEANS, William and John

(1817–51) and (1820–54).

Canterbury pioneers

A new biography of Deans, William appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

The Deans brothers were sons of John Deans, of Ayrshire, and were born in the parish of Kirkstyle, Riccarton. Both were intended for the law, but they became interested in the plans for settlement in New Zealand and were accordingly placed on good Scottish farms to prepare them for colonial life. William bought his land orders from the New Zealand Company in 1839 and, sailing by the Aurora, reached Port Nicholson on 21 January 1840. With him was John Gebbie, an experienced Ayrshire farmer, with his wife and child. Gebbie had entered into a five-year engagement with Deans. He found on his arrival that much of the land was under heavy bush, that the Maoris were often unwilling to sell, and that the New Zealand Company had not completed its purchases and was much behind with its surveys. Being a vigorous and energetic man, he set out on various expeditions in both islands and at the end of a year could say that he knew more of the country than any other colonist. After he had seen the South Island twice, he made up his mind to settle on the Canterbury Plains. He decided to wait for his brother John's arrival, and to save encroaching on his limited capital, took contracts for setting survey lines through the bush. He found this paid him well. William Deans got on very well with the Maoris and soon had a knowledge of their language. He made such an impression that they offered him a chieftainship if he would stay with them.

His brother John (born 4 May 1820) had bought land orders in the Nelson settlement and arrived there in the Thomas Harrison on 25 October 1842. He was much dissatisfied with the quality of the land and the arrangements for settlers, and readily agreed to join his brother in the new venture. Francis Sinclair, another dissatisfied North Island settler, had built on the Hutt River a schooner which he named the Richmond. The Richmond sailed on 11 February 1843 with, as passengers, William Deans, John Gebbie with his wife and family, and Samuel Manson, a carpenter who had come out with John Deans, also with a wife and family. They left the women and children at Port Levy in the care of John Gebbie, and transferring into a whaleboat and picking up the well known Robinson Clough, they proceeded as far as the spot later known as “The Bricks”. Here they had to change to a canoe, which carried them close to their destination. They brought with them tools, provisions, poultry, and joinery for the house. Unfortunately the nails had been left behind and the timber had to be joined with pegs. In the meantime John had crossed to Australia to buy seeds and stock. He chartered the Princess Royal and, after a passage of 21 days and with a loss of only six cattle and one mare, he landed 61 cattle, three mares, and 43 sheep.

William had shown great judgment in selecting the spot where they were to settle. The small bush afforded them shelter and plenty of timber for their needs, and the ground was rich and intersected by deep streams of never-failing pure, cold water. These streams served them to keep the stock in different lots and off their cropping land. They changed the Maori name Putaringamotu to Riccarton and they called the principal stream the Avon after a stream at their Scottish home. They, of course, had to build the necessary bridges. They made their own bricks, sawed their own timber, and built a long shed, divided into three rooms with curtains of blankets. This was finished by May: within the year they had built two more houses, a stock yard, a milking shed with 10 double stalls, a stable and calf house, and two bridges.

For the next seven years the Deans lived the simple rewarding life that philosophers have dreamed of, seeing their flocks and herds flourish and multiply, often for months not seeing another white man. They grew all the normal farm crops, potatoes, and other vegetables and planted fruit trees, as well as tree seeds and quicks. They shipped their fat bullocks to Wellington and their butter and cheese to Wellington and Sydney. Their cheese earned the highest commendation. In 1844, 20 cows were being milked. The Gebbie and the Manson families left them in 1845 to settle at the head of the harbour. They hired Riccarton cows at 50s. a year and had to rear all calves for the Deans. Both families prospered. In 1846 the Deans leased from the Maoris the surrounding country for grazing, paying £8 a year, with the consent and approval of the highest authority. John made two more trips to Australia to buy stock and both trips were completely successful. In 1847 the Comet lost only 16 out of 600 sheep, and five out of 170 cattle. In 1850 the Woodbridge, after a long trip, lost only one out of 600 sheep.

After some trouble the brothers were able to exchange their previous land orders or selections for 400 acres freehold at Riccarton; but there was much more trouble over exchanging their run. Godley took up a stiff attitude over the Pre-Association settlers' claims for consideration. But he soon realised that without reasonable terms for pastoralists, Canterbury could not continue to exist, and the brothers were finally allowed to take up the run of 33,000 acres which became known as Homebush. In response to Captain Thomas's request, they furnished a report on the seasons, the yield of crops, what implements and tools were necessary—in fact everything a prospective settler could wish to know. This report was a model of its kind and bears witness to the high ability and general knowledge of the brothers. The arrival of the surveyors and later the settlers solved their marketing troubles.

William Deans met with a tragic death. With the intention of buying more stock in Australia, he just managed to catch the Marie, sailing for Wellington. On 23 July 1851 she was wrecked on the rocks of Terawhiti and all of the 29 on board were lost, except a Lascar and a boy. William was the leader of the brothers and was universally looked up to for his ability and integrity. His death was considered a national loss.

During these years John Deans had been corresponding with Jane Macilraith, of Auchenflower, who, however, was reluctant to make the trip out. He therefore decided to return to Scotland and marry her there. In the course of the journey, while crossing the Panama Isthmus in a deluge, John received a chill which impaired his health. They returned by the Minerva in 1853, and in August of that year his son John was born. John Deans died on 23 June 1854. He was second only to his brother William in all the qualities that make a pioneer. The Deans of Canterbury are a living testimony to his fine character.

by George Ranald Macdonald, Retired Farmer, Kaiapoi R.D.

  • Pioneers of Canterbury—Deans Letters, 1840–1854 (ed.) Deans, J. (1937)
  • A History of Canterbury, Vol. 1, Hight, J., and Straubel, C. R. (1957). Pioneers on Port Cooper Plains, The Deans Family of Riccarton and Homebush, Deans, J. (1965).


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This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

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