James Wynen

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Wild frontier for Blenheim’s first storekeeper

How James Wynen ended up in a Nelson hotel where he died in 1866 is a mystery.1 But the story of the ‘decent and respectable native of the Netherlands’2, is touched by tragedy.

James-Wynen.jpg

James Wynen, Marlborough Historical Society - Marlborough Museum Archives

In 1839, Wynen came to New Zealand to buy land for a Sydney syndicate. He took up residence in Port Underwood and, like many European men of the time, took a Maori wife, who ‘proved to be a faithful and devoted helpmeet’.3 Rangiawa Kuika, a Ngati Toa chieftainess who was related to Te Rauparaha, was to be brutally murdered just a few years later.4

Wynen lived happily among local Maori at Kakapo Bay according to explorer Dr. Dieffenbach who wrote in September 1839: “the natives have just built a house for him…he occupies himself much with those people, whose disposition he praises very much and upon them, he exercises a happy influence.”5

The Reverend Samuel Ironside and his wife Sarah arrived in Port Underwood in December 1840 and held the first Christmas Day service at Wynen’s house. Ironside described the storekeeper as ‘about the only decent and respectable man on that (whaling) station’.

Wynen gin bottle

One square gin (case gin) glass bottle c 1850s. Dutch. Diamond pontil mark. Pig snout. . Found at the Wairau Bar. Originally from the Wairau Bar Hotel, after they have been discarded they came up out of the mud after a flood in the Wairau river. 2007.Marlborough Museum and Archive

Wynen had married spinster Bethia Virtue in the county of Middlesex on 11 May, 1830 and the couple had one son, James Virtue Wynen who was born in August 1833.  It is unclear what happened to Bethia6, but Rev Ironside married Wynen and Kuika in New Zealand.2

Tragedy struck in December 1842. Wynen was rumoured to be wealthy and when he took one of his regular trips to Nelson, a fellow Port Underwood settler Richard (Dick) Cook murdered Kuika and their infant son. He ransacked the hut, finding only a bag containing useless coins.7 A distressed baby girl, who was looked after by Sarah Ironside, died some weeks later.8

Cook’s wife, Kataraina was the chief prosecution witness and said her husband was the assassin but, as his wife, she was disqualified from giving evidence and Cook walked free.8 This lowered Maori respect for Pakeha justice.9 After the Wairau Affray six months later, the chief Te Rangihaeata claimed one of the reasons he had killed Arthur Wakefield was because Richard Cook had not been punished.8

In about 1847, Wynen moved from Port Underwood, to the north side of the Wairau River mouth.10 At the time, the Boulder Bank was a primitive frontier settlement where bullock drivers, boatmen and whalers ‘revelled in drunken orgies’.11 A series of rough drinking houses, stores and wharves served the small sailing vessels which plied their trade exporting wool and importing supplies for the fledgling pastoral runs.12

With his brother William, Wynen operated a virtual monopoly in the Wairau, included shipping and receiving goods, a store, accommodation house and drinking shanty. Boats from Wellington and Nelson moored outside the Wairau River mouth and cargo was discharged into Wynen's whale boats and taken up the river to be stored at his large raupo warehouse located on the banks of the Omaka River, which he eventually converted into a shop.13

On the other side of the Wairau River mouth, Francis MacDonald operated a hotel and relations were strained between the two businessmen. Both were seeking liquor licences and Wynen told the authorities that he had gone to Wellington leaving a man named Smith in charge. Smith had got Wynen’s young Maori housekeeper intoxicated and taken her across the river to MacDonald’s hotel where he made her work as a prostitute.14

Wynen Kennedy

The Kennedy at Blenheim's first wharf, April, 1866- the year James Wynen died. One of the earliest shipping photographs showing the old port of Blenheim. The Kennedy is upstream of today's railway bridge on the Omaka (Taylor) River at Wynen's wharf. This was at the end of Wynen Street on the true right bank of the river.. Marlborough Museum and Archive

In December 1849, Wynen applied for a liquor licence, writing to Nelson’s superintendent that he wished to operate a respectable hotel: “The whole of our natives have become drunkards, and then as well as the drunken Europeans, come to my place to get sober.” He continued: “I look forward to murder, robbery and crime as inevitable if some restraint is not put upon the sale or gift of liquor to the natives.”15

Wynen Gold painting

Gold, Charles Emilius, 1809-1871. [Interior of the house or hotel of an early settler on the Wairau plain. The painting is  thought to show Wynen and his Maori housekeeper.] Wining's Wairau New Zealand. April 1851.. Ref: A-447-002. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/29942216

Scotsman, James Sinclair and his wife Christina arrived at the Boulder Bank in 1852 and soon headed up river to the junction of the Omaka and Opawa Rivers. With the bed of the Wairau Lagoons lowered by the 1848 earthquake, Wynen also saw an opportunity to establish a base inland, although his business at the river mouth continued until he sold it to Captain Samuel Bowler and his brother-in-law, Captain George Jackson in 1855.16

An 1851 painting is thought to show Wynen and a Maori woman sitting in a large fireplace in an early hotel on the Wairau Plains.17  Wynen also had a ‘Gin Palace’ at Beavertown made from red gin cases, which was notorious for the number of drunks to be found there. He would not do business on Good Friday, although he would offer a free drink from the gin bottle he always had with him.10

We know that Wynen’s rival, James Sinclair became very successful.18 But we don’t know when Wynen ceased to run his empire and left Blenheim. Did the demon drink combined with personal tragedy break him?

On September 22 1860, a report from the Magistrate’s Court in Nelson places him at the Wakatu Hotel earlier that month, where he claimed he was trying to help the publican deal with a drunken fight. Wynen pleaded not guilty to resisting arrest by a policeman but was fined £10 for a breach of the peace.19

James Wynen died aged 60 at The Fleece Hotel in Waimea Road, Nelson and is buried in St Paul’s churchyard, Brightwater.1

2017

Sources used in this story

  1. Tua Marina and Port Underwood (1974, October) Nelson Historical Society Journal, 3(1)
    http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz//tm/scholarly/tei-NHSJ03_01-t1-body1-d6.html
  2. Berry, K. (1986) Scrutiny on the county. Blenheim, N.Z.: Marlborough County Council, p 42
  3. Buick, T.L. (1900) Old Marlborough or the story of a province. Christchurch, N.Z.: Capper Press, p. 240
    http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-BuiMarl-t1-body-d8-d1.html
  4. Mitchell, John and Hilary. Te tau ihu o te waka: a history of Māori of Nelson and Marlborough, p. 83
  5. McIntosh, A. D. (ed)(1977). Marlborough: a provincial history. Christchurch, N.Z. : Capper Press, p. 29
  6. Chambers, W.A. (1982) Samuel Ironside in New Zealand. Auckland: Ray Richards
    http://www.methodist.org.nz/files/docs/wesley%20historical/samuel%20ironside%20in%20nz.pdf
  7. Buick,  p. 241
  8. Mitchell, p. 83-84
  9. Buick, p. 243
  10. Andrews, J. (1989) Marlborough river transport of bygone days and some of the colourful operators. Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, 2(3)
    http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz//tm/scholarly/tei-NHSJ05_03-t1-body1-d3.html
  11. Buick
  12. Holdaway, B. (2016) The Wairau and its forgotten capital. Blenheim, N.Z.: Barry Holdaway, p. 52
  13. MacDonald, C.A. (2003) Pages from the Past: Some Chapters in the History of Marlborough (2nd.ed) Christchurch [N.Z.] : Cadsonbury Publications, p. 258-260
  14. Holdaway, p. 55
  15. McIntosh,  p. 154
  16. Holdaway, p. 56
  17. Gold, Charles Emilius, 1809-1871. Gold, Charles Emilius, 1809-1871 :Wining's Wairau New Zealand. April 1851.. Ref: A-447-002. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
    https://natlib.govt.nz/records/29942216
  18. Stephens, J.(2099) Blenheim or the Beaver, on the Prow
  19. The Colonist (1860, September 25), p. 2

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McKinnon, M.  'Marlborough places - Blenheim', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand,  (accessed 11 October 2017)
http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/marlborough-places/page-7

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