Story: Potts, Thomas Henry

Page 1 - Biography

Potts, Thomas Henry

1824–1888

Explorer, runholder, conservationist, naturalist

This biography was written by Paul Star and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 2, 1993

Thomas Henry Potts, one of New Zealand's earliest conservationists, was born in London, England, on 23 November 1824, the son of Thomas Potts, a gun maker, and his wife, Mary Ann Freeman. He was baptised at Brandon, Suffolk, but it is unclear where he spent his childhood. When his father died in 1842 he inherited Brander and Potts, the family gun-making enterprise. Although he spent his 20s based mainly on his country estate in Croydon, near London, the business was increasingly focused on Birmingham. The merger of Brander and Potts with the Birmingham Small Arms Company brought Potts a fortune of about £50,000.

Potts married Emma Phillips at Bourton on Dunsmore, Warwickshire, on 2 April 1850, shortly before Emma's parents and brothers left for Canterbury, New Zealand. The Pottses followed on the Balnaguith, arriving at Lyttelton on 24 April 1854. They already had three sons, and a further 10 children were born in New Zealand.

The Pottses at first lived near Rockwood station beyond Hororata, where Emma's father, Henry Phillips, had settled. Eager to start his own cattle station, Thomas explored inland with his brothers-in-law and neighbours. In April 1856 they travelled up the Wilberforce River as far as Mt Sebastopol and were the first Europeans to glimpse Browning Pass. In April 1857 they cut across the Rakaia valley to the Rangitata River, named Lakes Heron and Clearwater, and became 'the first who have discovered a route from the Rakaia to the Ashburton by the Westward hills'.

On the strength of his explorations Potts claimed land on the eastern side of the upper Rangitata River, where he quickly established a station, Hakatere. He built this up until he owned seven runs extending over 81,000 acres. Although he paid lengthy visits to the station, where Mt Potts and the Potts River were named after him, he never lived there. It was run by managers, while Potts and his family resided within easy reach of Christchurch.

Potts bought a property of 255 acres at Governors Bay from William Sefton Moorhouse in February 1858. He increased this holding to about 600 acres; it included Quail Island, from which was quarried some of the material used in the central three-storeyed block of his stone and wood mansion, Ohinetahi. Built in the period 1863 to 1867, this is a notable example of neo-classical architecture. The grounds were created by Potts and his head gardener, William Gray; the fernery was destroyed by flooding, but much of the tree-planting work is still in evidence.

From a gentlemanly sense of duty Potts served as a member of the Canterbury Provincial Council (1858–61 and 1866–76) and the House of Representatives (1866–70), and became a justice of the peace and a synodsman of the Anglican church. More in line with his real interests, he also served as vice president of the Canterbury Acclimatisation Society and the Philosophical Institute of Canterbury, and as president of the horticultural society. He was an original trustee of the Canterbury Museum in 1870, and one of the first governors of Canterbury College in 1873 – positions he held until his death.

Thomas Potts used his public positions to advance the cause of conservation. In about 1858 he protested in vain to the provincial secretary about the destruction of totara in the Port Hills. On 7 October 1868 he moved in the House that the government 'ascertain the present condition of the forests of the Colony, with a view to their better conservation'. An early experimenter with Pinus radiata, he supported the planting of exotics, but contrasted their uncertain performance in New Zealand with the reliability of native trees and other plants whose economic value no one had explored.

More than anything, however, Potts enjoyed the pursuit of natural history. His travels, often motivated by the search for ferns and birds, included a voyage around Fiordland with James Hector in 1873 and a visit to the King Country with Sir George Grey in 1878. When in 1871 he described the only remaining unclassified species of kiwi, he named it after a close friend, Julius Haast. Both Haast and Hector received extensive gifts of birds' eggs from him.

Potts became a noted student of New Zealand's bird life; unlike Walter Buller, he neither sought nor received glory, although he was the better bird-watcher and naturalist. His four papers in the Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute (1869–73) gave the fullest descriptions of New Zealand's bird life then available; they were quickly overshadowed by Buller's major work of 1873, for which Potts had contributed field notes. He wrote almost 100 articles (some under the pen-name 'Rambler'); the best were published in the New Zealand Country Journal from 1878 to 1888. His book Out in the open collected the series as far as 1882, and was the first substantial work of natural history published locally.

Protection of native birds was, for Potts, partly a matter of utility. He remarked on the short-sightedness of introducing birds of prey and insect-eaters to help agriculture while unprotected native hawks and insectivorous kiwi were being destroyed. But Potts not only saw value in the native flora and fauna; he also revered them. While other cataloguers of threatened species calmly accepted their extinction as inevitable, Potts stressed how much more 'the student can read from the original text'. In 1872 he proposed that Resolution Island become a reserve 'under tapu from molestation by dog and gun', a suggestion realised in 1892. His article on 'National Domains' (1878) marshalled together the ideas that precipitated the foundation of national parks in New Zealand from 1894.

Thomas Potts was an 'alert, vivacious, peppery, little man'. His only recorded fault was an excessive generosity, but it was more the economic depression of the 1880s which impoverished him. He was forced to sell Hakatere station in about 1885, and to leave Ohinetahi in 1887. He spent the first half of 1888 in the Chatham Islands as the guest of his son-in-law, Edward Chudleigh. When he died later that year, in Christchurch on 27 July, his total wealth amounted to £70. He was survived by Emma Potts, who died on 2 June 1919, and their 13 children.