Story: Whitby, William Laird

Page 1 - Biography

Whitby, William Laird

1838–1922

Master mariner, ship owner

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

William Laird Whitby was born to James Whitby, a shopkeeper, and his wife, Mary Laird, at Helhoughton, Norfolk, England, probably on 30 January 1838. He was baptised there on 11 February. Educated in Lynn Regis (Kings Lynn), William joined the British merchant service as an apprentice in 1853. He served in Crimea as ordinary seaman and witnessed the charge of the Light Brigade, the battle of Inkerman and the siege of Sevastopol. In 1858 he was articled as able-bodied seaman in the emigrant ship Regina to Port Chalmers, New Zealand. He later worked his way back on the Regina, arriving in Lyttelton in December 1859.

In 1860 he signed on as able-bodied seaman in Cookson, Bowler and Company's Lyttelton to Kaiapoi trading schooner Uira. He then commanded a small Port Levy to Lyttelton firewood cutter before becoming master in the cutter Ebenezer for Port Levy shipwrights John and Matthew Brown. By 1862 he had joined Brown Brothers as a partner and master in their ketch Annie in the Lyttelton to Wanganui trade, pioneering passages into poorly charted rivers and beaches. Whitby was one of a group of colonial masters who provided a lifeline for developing communities on the Cook Strait, Marlborough, Nelson and Canterbury coasts. On 30 January 1865 William Whitby married Ann Elizabeth Plowright at St John's Anglican Church, Lower Heathcote. Although childless, they were active in the community. William was to become a churchwarden at St Saviour's Anglican Church in Lyttelton and Ann the Sunday school supervisor. William also played for the Woolston Cricket Club and was a keen member of the Lyttelton Regatta Club committee and the Heathcote Rowing Club.

In August 1865 Whitby was promoted to master and part-owner in Brown Brothers' new ketch Emerald. He traded in this until he obtained his first steam command in the Lyttelton Harbour Board's auxiliary barge Heathcote in 1876. He had joined the Canterbury Coastal Vessels Association in 1866 and would later join the Shipmasters' Association of New Zealand, adding his support for improved provincial port facilities and safety at sea.

William Whitby received his New Zealand Marine Department Certificate of Competency as foreign master in 1884. Tiring of repetitive harbour work in the Heathcote, he became master in Cuff and Graham's auxiliary steamship Jane Douglas in 1887 and purchased a half-ownership in 1897. With partners at Lyttelton he set up the Star and Anchor Company of New Zealand, but by 1899 deteriorating eyesight temporarily forced his retirement from sea. From 1899 to 1903 he served as a Lyttelton borough councillor and in 1900 he was appointed a justice of the peace. On occasion Whitby acted as relieving master in the Cygnet to Akaroa, and in June 1901 he made the delivery from Newcastle, Australia, of the new schooner Amelia Sims for Kaiapoi ship owner John Sims. However, by 1908 he was totally blind.

Ann Whitby died at Christchurch on 2 July 1919 and William followed on 12 October 1922 at Lyttelton. He typified the energetic colonial seaman who believed strongly in God, public service and the trading and career opportunities available in a new colony. His passing was mourned by a large section of the Lyttelton community.