Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.

HEAPHY, Charles

(1820–81).

Artist and explorer.

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

Until recently there has been uncertainty about the date of Charles Heaphy's birth. It is now known that he was born in London in 1820, the second son of Thomas Heaphy (1775–1835) and Mary, née Stevenson. His father was a water-colour artist of some note and his elder brother and two sisters were also competent artists. After an artistic tour of Italy with his father, young Heaphy attended a series of art courses for five years. This training was paid for by a firm of London publishers who saw promise in the boy. In 1835 he exhibited some of his water colours at the British Institute. After working for 18 months in the workshops of the London and Birmingham Railway, Heaphy was appointed artist and draughtsman by the New Zealand Company and joined Colonel William Wakefield and the members of the preliminary expedition which sailed for New Zealand in the Tory (q.v.). He travelled with the Tory to Hokianga and Kaipara and, in April 1840, visited the Chatham Islands. Until he joined the preliminary expedition to the Nelson settlement in October 1841, he travelled through Wellington, Wanganui, and Taranaki. During this time he made many of his best-known sketches.

While with the Nelson expedition he shared in the work of reconnoitring the country around Tasman Bay. He has sometimes been blamed for reporting over-optimistically to Captain Arthur Wakefield on the extent and type of the land he found, but the decision to choose Tasman Bay for the settlement was due mainly to other factors. He was sent back to England in November 1841 to report to the Company on its latest settlement and published A Narrative of a Residence in Various Parts of New Zealand. He returned to Nelson in January 1843 and for a time took up farming; but he was soon diverted into exploration.

With William Fox and E. Kehu he set off for the West Coast in February 1846 and went some way down the Buller River, but his most notable feat was his journey with Brunner, which began in March. For five arduous months the party penetrated unexplored country and reached a point on the West Coast 36 miles south of Arahura. After his return in August he was engaged in surveying work around Nelson until May 1848, when Governor George Grey appointed him draughtsman in the Auckland Survey Office.

Here Heaphy took part in survey work until the discovery of gold at Coromandel, when he was appointed Commissioner of the Goldfields. He was at Coromandel from November 1852 until mid-1853. This work was the beginning of his lifelong interest in the Thames goldfields. Soon after his return to Auckland he went with Governor Grey and Bishop Selywn on their visit to Norfolk Island and New Caledonia and submitted plans (which took second prize) for the new Government House at Auckland. He was then appointed District Surveyor under the Auckland Provincial Government at Matakana and in September 1856 he was promoted to Provincial Surveyor. He was associated with Hochstetter in the geological survey of Auckland and with Donald McLean in the Land Purchase Department.

In 1859 he joined the newly formed Auckland Rifle Volunteers as a private and became keenly interested in the volunteer movement. On the outbreak of war in the Waikato in 1863 he volunteered for active service and was commissioned as Lieutenant in August. His knowledge of the country was of great value when he was attached to Colonel Havelock's “Flying Column” in January 1864. On 11 February, when he was at Paterangi, near Te Awamutu, a skirmish occurred during which a party of the 40th Regiment, who were bathing, were fired on. Heaphy showed great bravery in rescuing under fire one of the soldiers who had been wounded. Colonial troops were then ineligible for the Victoria Cross, which this deed merited, but his own application for the award, supported by his commanding officer and the strongest representations from Sir George Grey, at length prevailed on the Imperial authorities to award it to him in 1867. He was the first colonial soldier to receive this decoration.

Heaphy resumed his civilian duties in March 1864 and, until early 1865, was engaged by the General Government to survey the confiscated land in Waikato for the new military settlements at Hamilton, Cambridge, and elsewhere. His activities here were later (1871) subject to inquiry by a royal commission. Although he was found “not guilty” of intentional corruption, he was reprimanded for indiscretion in taking cadets for premiums and in letting contracts to his pupils. He was reappointed Auckland Provincial Surveyor in January 1866.

From June 1867 to October 1869 he represented Parnell in the House of Representatives; in politics he was a provincialist and supported Vogel. Having resigned from the Provincial Surveyorship in September 1868 he was available, on his retirement from the House, for appointment to the newly created post of Commissioner of Native Reserves. No doubt this was a reward for his political support of the Government, but he brought to the task a wealth of experience and was able to introduce something like order into the hitherto chaotic state of the reserves. In 1878 he was appointed Government Insurance Commissioner and Judge of the Native Land Court. Ill health caused him to resign from all his positions in June 1881 and, with his wife, he left for Australia. He died on 3 August 1881 at Brisbane where his grave was rediscovered 80 years later. His wife, whom he married in 1851, was Catherine Letita, daughter of the Rev. John Churton. They had no children.

Heaphy's outstanding characteristic was energy. From his earliest to his latest days he was constantly on the move – tripping around Italy, exploring Westland, surveying Auckland, inspecting the Thames goldfields (where he had a mining lease for a time), and travelling from one end of the island to the other examining Maori reserves. His early independence developed into self reliance and courage, amply demonstrated during his West Coast exploration and the episode at Paterangi. His sturdy demand for the V.C. illustrates his justifiable self-esteem; less justifiable was his resentment at deserved criticism. Still less justifiable were his attacks, in 1875–76, on Sir George Grey whose early protég he had been and to whom he owed more than anyone else the award of the V.C. He was always gay and sociable and had many interests: gardening, dancing, rowing, acclimatisation, and education.

Heaphy is remembered mostly for his neat maps and for his paintings and drawings of the New Zealand scene. These are more than the accurate topographical illustrations the New Zealand Company employed him to produce; the best of them are illuminated by some poetic insight; most of them indicate his struggle to come to grips with the savage landscapes so alien to one brought up in the milieu of the traditional English water colourists. It is very remarkable, however, that so few examples of his art date from later than the mid-1850s – it is impossible to say whether his later drawings were destroyed or whether he lost interest and produced no more or whether some hoard awaits a lucky searcher.

by Michael Wordsworth Standish, M.A. (1920–62), late Dominion Chief Archivist, Wellington.

  • N.Z. Company (MSS), Governor-General (MSS), Maori Affairs Department (MSS) (all in National Archives)
  • The New Zealand Wars, Cowan, J. (1956)
  • Early Travellers in New Zealand, Taylor, N. M. (1959)
  • Heaphy Papers, Turnbull Library, Wellington.


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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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