Pioneer Otago whaler, farmer, and merchant.
A new biography of Jones, John appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
John Jones was born in Sydney in early 1809, the son of Thomas Jones, a “settler” of New South Wales. Jones was always reticent about his Sydney background, but from the statement made to T. M. Hocken by Jones's old whaling associate, David Carey, and from various contemporary reports such as Sewell noted in his Journal, it is evident that for Jones this period was one best forgotten. While still a youth Jones was sealing in New Zealand waters somewhere about the year 1825. He then became a waterman in Sydney Harbour and by the age of 20 had acquired enough money from one source or another to take shares in three whaling vessels working along the New Zealand coast. He was so successful that in 1834 – the picture now becomes clearer – he took over, with a partner, George Bunn's shore whaling station at Preservation Inlet. In the following year they bought the Sydney Packet (Captain James Bruce) which was fitted out for bay whaling. The success of this venture encouraged Jones to acquire a chain of whaling stations which ran from Foveaux Strait as far north as Waikouaiti, on the Otago coast. By 1839 Jones was at the height of prosperity and owned a fleet of coasting vessels whose names, Micmac, Lynx, Magnet, Jessie, Genii, and Success, were deservedly well known in the trade. In that year he claimed to own seven whaling establishments which employed 280 men, with an outlay of £15,000.
But, like many other Sydney speculators, Jones had over-reached himself, and when oil prices slumped he lost heavily. To add to his difficulties the Sydney Packet went ashore at Moeraki, Otago, in July 1837, followed two years later by the loss of the Lynx at New River, Foveaux Strait. Perhaps with the idea of securing a more solid basis for investment, Jones began to purchase land in various parts of the South Island. In October 1838 he bought from the Southern Chief Tuhawaiki large tracts in South Otago and in eastern Southland. Again, in 1839 through his agent, Captain Bruce, he acquired from the chiefs Karetai and Taiaroa considerable areas in the vicinity of Waikouaiti. Finally, in February 1840, as a member of a Sydney syndicate, Jones shared in what purported to be the purchase of the entire South Island, the vendors being a number of South Island chiefs who were visiting Port Jackson. When British sovereignty was established in New Zealand by the Treaty of Waitangi, Jones argued the legality of these transactions before the Land Claims Commissioners who granted him the maximum area of 2,500 acres. Later negotiations, however, gave him a further 8,500 acres of unsold land within the Province of Otago.
Meanwhile, the cultivation of land at Cherry Farm, Waikouaiti, had begun as early as 1838, and when matters went from bad to worse at Sydney Jones decided to turn his whaling station into an organised settlement. In February 1840 he dispatched the Magnet to his Waikouaiti station with a dozen or so families, as many children, a sprinkling of single men, some 20 head of cattle, and provisions. With the idea of giving stability to the venture Jones had applied in 1839 to the Wesleyan Missionary Society for a resident missionary. The board agreed, and on 15 May 1840 the Rev. J. Watkin arrived to found the first mission station in the South Island. At first the settlement was left to its own devices. As whaling was in decline Jones busied himself in general trade, and his schooner Scotia was soon well known along the southern coasts. His New Zealand partner or agent was W. M. Bannatyne, who in 1842 was in business in Wellington as a merchant. In that year, when the slump brought disaster to Sydney, Jones decided to settle at Waikouaiti where progress, if any, had been slight. In August 1843 Jones's family arrived and made their home at Prospect Farm, Matanaka, Jones himself for the next five years dividing his time between Otago and Wellington. At Waikouaiti Jones was very much the feudal overlord, a hard but, on the whole, just taskmaster. In 1844 he claimed to have over 2,000 acres under cultivation, well stocked with sheep, cattle, and horses, and early visitors to the district, such as Bishop Selwyn and David Monro, were certainly generous in their praise.
When the Scottish Free Church settlement was established at Dunedin in March 1848, Jones was able to draw upon his farm for supplies which he sold at fair prices. As business tended to centre more in Dunedin, Jones moved there in 1854 to face the threat of competition from his Free Church rival, James Macandrew, who, in order to stimulate trade, had in circulation a note currency of sorts. In self defence, Jones issued his own notes, payable three days after date at Dunedin or Waikouaiti, and by 1861, it is said, he had as much as £20,000 in circulation throughout the province.
Perhaps Jones's greatest contribution to the progress of the infant settlement was the steady growth of his shipping interests which linked the southern ports both with the north and with Sydney. In 1854 he purchased the brig Thomas and Henry to add to his fleet and, in partnership with the firm of John and E. B. Cargill, bought the paddle steamer Geelong for coastal work. When this partnership ended in June 1860, Jones founded the Harbour Steam Navigation Co., almost on the eve of the Otago gold rush. He soon won a generous share of the passenger and cargo traffic between Dunedin and Port Chalmers, and he strengthened his position by securing a contract from the Provincial Council of Otago to run regular services from Dunedin to other southern ports. At the time of his death Jones owned a three-quarter share in five small steamers and two schooners. In the reorganisation which followed, another Harbour Steam Navigation Co. came into being which in due course grew into the Union Steam Ship Co. of New Zealand.
Jones took little part in public life. In February 1851 he was one of 11 shareholders who launched the Otago Witness, successor to the ill-starred Otago News, though his interests here were slight. As a Justice of the Peace, he served for a time in the early fifties on the local Bench of Magistrates, one among a number of amusing oddities. In 1855 he headed the poll for the Dunedin Town Board and in the following year was its chairman. When he moved from Waikouaiti to Dunedin he set himself up with some pretension to style and purchased the Fern Hill property of Captain E. H. W. Bellairs. Before long the old wooden building was replaced by a massive stone mansion, now the Fernhill Club. It was here that Jones died on 16 March 1869, aged 60. His wife Sarah, née Sizemore, whom he had married in Sydney in 1830, had predeceased him, dying at Dunedin on 22 September 1864, aged 57. They had 11 children, two of whom died in infancy.
Jones was a man of mixed qualities. He had been reared in a hard – even brutal – school, and it is scarcely to be wondered at that in his prime he was feared for his uncertain temper and summary actions. Yet he had his own crude notions of justice and honour and, as long as he was not thwarted or opposed, could play the part of a benevolent despot. In many ways he was generous and well meaning and gave freely to deserving causes. In later years, if he failed to win the affection of the community, he had at least its respect. Hocken, who knew Jones only in his last years, described him as then having a round, ruddy face crowned with beautiful silver hair. He generally appeared in public dressed in a black broadcloth suit of no particular cut, a coat with capacious flapped side pockets, a squat top hat, and a loose silk necktie, the overall picture suggesting a prosperous farmer in his Sunday best. It was a far cry from Jones's Sydney waterman days, but this impression of benignity personified made a strong appeal to a generation already romanticising the pioneering era.
by Alexander Hare McLintock, C.B.E., M.A., DIP.ED. (N.Z.), PH.D.(LOND.), Parliamentary Historian, Wellington.
- John Jones of Otago, Eccles, A., and Reed, A. H. (1949)
- New Zealand Notables – First Series, Burdon, R. M. (1941)
- History of Otago, McLintock, A. H. (1949)
- Otago Daily Times, 17 Mar 1869 (Obit).