Early morning on the 11 January 1841, Frederic Carrington stood on the deck of the ship Brougham and surveyed the rugged Taranaki coast for the first time. It was a new year and a new start for the surveyor who had been given the task of finding a suitable place for a settlement to be named New Plymouth.

The chief surveyor for the Plymouth Company was impressed by what he saw: "The country is the most magnificent I ever saw for agriculture; one gentle slope from the mountain to the coast with sufficient intervals in either directions which make it naturally drained. ...the base of the mountain between which and the coast are very many miles of fern and bush land" he wrote in his journal.

A young surveyor

Frederic Alonzo Carrington was born in Chelmsford, Essex, England and baptised there in 1808. He was the third son of Elizabeth Peters and William Henry Carrington, Royal Marine barrack master at Douglas on the Isle of Man.

His father had arranged specialist training in the profession Frederic was to follow by placing him under the tuition of Colonel Robert Dawson, a distinguished military engineer, surveyor and draughtsman. At the age of 19 he was appointed by the Duke of Wellington to a position in the Ordnance Department.

His ability as a draughtsman and talent in drawing topographical features impressed his superiors, who chose him to determine the boundaries of the boroughs from Bristol to Manchester as part of the 1832 Parliamentary reform bill. His genius for minute representations of hill country is evident in his published drawings of areas from Hereford to Halifax, covering thousands of miles.

An offer too good to refuse

Frederic and his brother William were surveyors in the Ordnance Survey Department in London when they were approached by William Mein Smith who was the newly appointed chief surveyor to the New Zealand Company, and the directors of its subsidiary, the Plymouth Company. The company intended to take over some of the New Zealand Company's land, sell it to potential colonists from the west of England and organise settlement. Smith gave a glowing description of the new country, and its possibilities. The Carrington's brother Wellington, also a surveyor, had been to New Zealand in 1835, returning brimming with enthusiasm for the little country on the other side of the world. These glowing testimonials soon had Frederic convinced he needed to go to New Zealand.

Shortly after, he accepted the position of chief surveyor to the Plymouth Company with a salary of £300 per year, rations for himself and his family, the sum of four pence per acre for all lands surveyed, plus 1% of the price of all lands sold. As chief surveyor for the Plymouth Company he could, in theory, make himself a small fortune. His younger brother Augustus Octavius Carrington (Ocky) became first assistant surveyor. Wellington was to follow several months later.

Frederic's duties were to be large – he was to "facilitate from the New Zealand Company holdings an area of 11,000 acres of ‘available’ land for the New Plymouth settlement, at the same time making provision for the addition of a further 50,000 acres adjoining the first area, survey and line out the town and suburban sections."

To New Zealand

On 13 August 1840 the barque London left Plymouth with Frederic, his wife Margaret, and their three children on board. The surveyor was described as “aged about thirty-two, a slight man of erect bearing, with brown hair already receding from a high forehead, an aquiline nose and bushy beard”. His daily journal reveals a fastidious family man, intolerant of arrogance and pretentiousness in those in positions of authority but lavish with praise when he felt it deserved.

Octavius Carrington followed later in a separate ship, the Slains Castle, to avoid possible disaster. Frederic arrived in Wellington on 12 December 1840, Octavius early the following year.

The family left a country in the middle of an industrial revolution – the steam engine, and invention of “machines to make machines” had made life a little easier for many. They had arrived in a country that was, as a new-born colony, just being beginning to crawl. They had given up a comfortable home, cobbled streets and an ordered society to move across the world to a home in a little raupo hut and mud floors.

Barrett: guide, interpreter and scoundrel

In Wellington Frederic met with Colonel William Wakefield, principal agent of the New Zealand Company, who encouraged him to hire Richard (Dicky) Barrett as a guide and interpreter for his mission. Barrett had helped Wakefield buy Taranaki land for the New Zealand Company.

Barrett and his family had been living in Wellington where they owned a hotel. The hotelier had an interest in the new settlement being in Taranaki, and more exactly, at his old home of Ngāmotu. He'd had enough of the Wellington weather, a new settlement at Ngāmotu offered him fertile soil, whales, more trading opportunities with a possible European population and a return to his extended Māori family. Barrett, his wife and her exiled Te Ātiawa friends wanted to be able to return to Ngāmotu, but they believed the only way they could do so was if there was a European settlement there to deter any more Waikato incursions into their territory.

Barrett told Carrington he would think about his proposal and mulled over the idea for a week before agreeing to join the survey boat. Once he had decided, Barrett set about convincing Carrington that Taranaki was the place for a new settlement. He described the country in glowing terms and assured the surveyor of his support in setting up the settlement.

Before the search began, it was a foregone conclusion that New Plymouth would be at or near Ngāmotu. Barrett pointed out that stores were unavailable around the country and mentioned that certain goods would be useful as bargaining tools. As a result Carrington increased his cargo by half a keg of tobacco and three hundredweight of biscuits, as well as more flour, rice, brandy and general stores. But purchasing and packing the stores delayed the ship.

To Taranaki

Finally, on 6 January Carrington and Barrett set out for Taranaki on the Brougham, the winds being favourable in that direction. Two days later, the ship anchored off the Sugar Loaf Islands, Frederic stood on deck and surveyed the coastline stretching away before him. The land at Ngāmotu was indeed all that Barrett had described. Taranaki was green, beautiful and clearly fruitful with an abundance of fern and bush.

Barrett and his family went ashore, where they were greeted warmly by their family. Carrington, his family and assistants followed, and Barrett began his campaign to have the Plymouth Company choose Ngāmotu as the place for the new settlement.

The surveyor was greeted by handshakes from the fifty or sixty people who crowded round, repeating cries of 'Haere mai! Haere mai!' When Carrington asked what this meant, Barrett said that they wanted white people to come, then told the surveyor that the clustering, welcoming crowd were talking about little else but the expected arrival of Europeans to live with them.

Carrington then set out to take stock of the surrounding countryside “which was not done without difficulty for almost every step we had to fight our way through fern and scrub” he wrote in his journal. But there was a snag – there was no natural harbour, and Carrington surmised that building one would be at considerable expense.

On 11 January, Carrington, Barrett and the chief mate of the Brougham set off to explore the Waitara River, an area the surveyor had tentatively marked for the establishment of the new settlement. They crossed the sand bar at the mouth of the river, before rowing up river for three miles. Carrington was again impressed by the richness of the soil and the lushness of the surrounding landscape. After a “wretched night passed with sandflies and mosquitoes” in the bush the party returned to the river mouth. They rowed back to the ship with a prematurely optimistic estimate of the possibilities of Waitara as a site for the new settlement.

Fruitless search

Before a final decision was made, and to be fair to Wakefield who had recommended other sites, Carrington set sail to do a search of the South Island. Barrett appears to have manipulated the exploration, taking the surveyor on shore trips, deliberately showing him areas of barren, swampy land. Port Hardy (D'Urville Island) Adelle Island and Motueka were visited. None of which Carrington saw impressed him more than what he had seen in Taranaki.

Either bad weather or Barrett's cunning prevented them from sighting the perfect place for a settlement, a natural harbour and fertile plains. It's thought that had they seen the Wakatū harbour New Plymouth's history would be different. Instead the Brougham sailed on, and the area was discovered and settled by others – becoming the city of Nelson.

The Brougham returned to Wellington, with Carrington convinced that the extreme fertility of Taranaki would outweigh the disadvantages of having no natural harbour. Barrett's plans had been successful.

Sandbar sinks hopes

During the first week of February the Brougham was stocked with goods as Barrett's whaling gear, boats and everyone's furniture, animals and plants were put on board. At the last minute Carrington decided to take a prefabricated wooden house, and then had trouble finding a place on deck for the goat Wakefield gave him.

The ship arrived off the coast of Ngāmotu on 12 February and unloading of Barrett's belongings began. The Brougham was to continue on to Waitara. The next day Carrington despatched Ocky (Octavius) and a team in the ship's boat, surrounded by provisions, tents and tools. They were to set up camp for the arrival of the Brougham.

But one of the men returned the next day with bad news – three of the men had been thrown out of the boat and nearly drowned in the “truly awful” surf on the Waitara sandbar. Carrington went to investigate and returned demoralised – the sandbar had thwarted his plans for the new settlement.

A new site

Wakefield had recommended Moturoa as a site – so the ship was unloaded on the beach at Ngāmotu. Barrett was to have the new settlement on his doorstep. The only foreseeable problem was the lack of a harbour. Carrington took a boat out and examined the Sugar Loaf Islands, discovering the rock to be a hard granite. "If a breakwater was made here we should seldom or ever have any swell upon the beach, vessels may come along side to discharge and take on cargo."

He finally settled on placing the town between the Huatoki and Hēnui streams around three miles from the proposed breakwater. Water was plentiful, the forest for house construction and firewood would be closer and the town dwellers would be well away from Barrett's planned whaling station, “which would be a horrible nuisance” and they would avoid the sand that would blow in the summer.

This gave Carrington enough space for a town of 2,200 quarter-acre sections, with 209 50-acre (20 hectare) suburban sections and 1,150 50-acre rural sections toward Waitara. The town was to have ample room for housing, industry, parks, playing areas and schools, with a green belt around the fringes. Carrington envisaged New Plymouth becoming the garden city on the Taranaki coast.


Huts were erected and fire breaks were cut into the scrub around them. Carrington could not find anyone to erect his prefabricated house, so he and his family lived in a raupo hut with no floors, doors or windows, along with some labourers and their luggage and all the company stores. The inhabitants had to wear greatcoats and cloaks inside when it was cold, and Carrington had to draw his plans by lamplight at night, after being out all day with his instruments.

Frederic had Plymouth Company settlers on his heels, champing at the bit to move to a new life in New Zealand on their own piece of land, so time could not be wasted. The men were set to work slashing survey lines through the scrub and bush and the marking out of land began. This was not an easy task – fern, scrub and grass covered the area – some scrub up to 20 feet high.

The summer had been hot and the scrub was tinder dry, so it took little effort to put a match to but needed careful watching. Carrington and his brother were standing near some un-torched bushes which unexpectedly went up in a whoosh in a wind change one day, and saved their lives only by making a quick dash across some smouldering red-hot ashes. The area was soon black and charred.

There was no shortage of helpers for the surveyors, with the few European settlers and many Māori being employed to help clear the surveyors' lines among the bush and scrub. Carrington initially employed six immigrant labourers and nine Māori labourers, giving instructions to the latter through sign or using Barrett as an interpreter.

Carrington had some mild disputes with his Māori workers – not because they disputed the sale of the land – but because they had not been paid in full for it. His patience and willingness to use Barrett as an interpreter to gain understanding of the Māori and their concerns earned him respect.

Carrington was popular with his workers and always treated them courteously. He began his survey by running a line from the beach toward Mount Taranaki, but at a later date ran a Devon line which extended in a straight line for nearly 20 miles (32 kilometres) to cross the Waitara River and intersect with the beach. Carrington made this line the origin of his surveys calling it 0deg. 0min.

Arrival of the first immigrants

The arrival of the first immigrant ship the William Bryan in late March 1841 brought new labour: 42 married and 22 single adults and 70 children, and a few unexpected guests - a plague of rats, which immediately made themselves at home and were from then on to become a recurring problem for the new settlers.

There were no horses or bullocks so the new arrivals dragged their luggage along the beach and across the burnt ground for three kilometres to the new town site. Carrington had set out temporary housing sites on Mount Eliot (Puke Ariki) to be squatted on until the town lots were ready.

“In a week after the William Bryan's arrival new Plymouth was spread out and already divided into factions in different spots. There was the native village, containing Barrett's home and the three large houses for immigrants, whalers and labourers, at Ngāmotu; the missionaries on their land next door; some of Carrington's overworked surveyors assistants and labourers three kilometres away, on an area of about five acres, and others near them in the storehouse on the Huatoki; the dissatisfied, impatient settlers, also divided into upper and lower social strata, squatting in tents and raupo huts on the slopes of Mount Eliot, and the tribes people, increasingly bewildered and hostile, scattered around their 30,000 acres” wrote Angela Caughey in The Interpreter.

It was not a happy little community. Tempers were short all around as the immigrants to New Plymouth were moaning about ever having left England. The settlers had arrived expecting to walk straight onto their pieces of land - many had false expectations - expecting an up-and running town to be awaiting them. Living was a battle as they fought against the elements and the pests to protect themselves and their food supplies.

Winter set in and the wet, cold weather made the going tough for the surveyors. In his reports to the company Carrington outlined some of the difficulties facing a small surveying party in lining out large numbers of town sections. “It is impossible to theodolite without cutting our way through the scrub - some 10 feet to 20 feet high.”

The first six suburban sections were available to settlers on 6 October, while the town sections were not to be available until 15 November. "Carrington obviously wishes eventually to teach us virtue of patience" wrote one disgruntled settler.

Half-starved and depressed

Rumours had been circulating among coastal traders about the dangerous coast along New Plymouth, so ships had been avoiding the little settlement. Other rumours about the destitution of New Plymouth were reaching the ears of intending settlers and many went instead to Port Nicholson. As a result, while Wellington had unemployment, New Plymouth simply did not have enough employers, leaving hundreds of labourers who had been promised work before leaving England unemployed.

Drunkenness was rife among the labourers as depression sank in. The settlers' problems were compounded by the shortage of food. Carrington's extra purchase of food had helped, but seed potatoes being planted by local Māori (expecting many white people to arrive) were not yet ready to dig, wheat, turnip and other seedlings were just tender young shoots. Hens and stock brought by the settlers were too precious to kill. So the settlers looked to the land to provide for them, curlews, pigeons and other forest birds along with the occasional wild pig.

The Amelia Thompson

The arrival of the Amelia Thompson off the coast in November brought a sigh of relief to the half-starved settlers - but she sat offshore for seven weeks due to bad weather before unloading of cargo began.

The Amelia Thompson's baggage ship the Regina arrived shortly after but while unloading was blown ashore onto a reef. Her crew landed safely and the remaining luggage was unloaded, but the ship was a wreck. She was the first of many vessels that fell victim to the surf until the breakwater was built 40 years later. This just emphasised the need for a harbour, and caused the conscientious Carrington more anguish.

Carrington's final town plan, finished in November, covered 550 acres, but instead of being in a tight knit community the new town's citizens found themselves scattered around with vacant sections in between belonging to absentee owners.

An overworked and stressed Carrington was often on the receiving end of the settlers' complaints and criticisms - he had after all, been the one to choose a site without a harbour. Meetings were held at which the ever-present issue of starvation was brought up - and arguments over the lack of a harbour had brought the little settlement to within a hair's breadth of having to move to another location. But Carrington had the support of the majority of the settlers. It was only the persuasiveness of those who believed in the remarkable fertility of the area that won the day.


As there was no other form of transport the surveyors had to make their way around the district by foot. Travelling was rough going as they had to ford rivers and scramble through fern and scrub. In 1842 a horse was bought in Australia and shipped over for the chief surveyor to use. Having been stabled and fed after the voyage, the horse, Pompey, was presented to Carrington for his first ride. The surveyor climbed into the saddle only to have the horse buck and turf him onto the ground. Three times he tried, and three times he was unceremoniously thrown from Pompey's back. After the third attempt Carrington abandoned the horse and returned to using his feet to get him around the district.


The survey teams had moved out to mark the suburban and rural areas of Waiwhakaiho, Bell Block and on to Waitara which was to be named Raleigh, marking out land for farming.

A new agent for the New Zealand Company arrived in the town to take over from an injured Captain Liardet. John Wicksteed and Carrington did not get on. The company had ruled that one tenth of the land at Waitara would be set aside for Native Reserves. But Wicksteed was against having the Māori interspersed with the settlers and gave orders that it be quashed - compensation to be given in the form of one block of land away from the settlers.

Carrington was aware how highly Te Ātiawa valued Waitara and had promised them two favourite spots as reserves when the balloting took place. However, when the selections for the rural lands took place, the reserves were not mentioned. Wicksteed had disregarded Carrington's promise and allowed the settlers to choose any sections they liked.

The special constabulary were sent out from New Plymouth, a volley of shots was fired and the land was taken from the Māori. Carrington later remarked that “Wicksteed's action was a breach of faith of the type from which has arrived all native wars”.

Financial problems

The Plymouth Company had run into an embarrassing amount of financial difficulties. Since its inception the failure of its bankers had resulted in its amalgamation with the New Zealand Company. Now it faced further difficulties - reports of the dangerous coast discouraged many from making their homes at New Plymouth, the company did not sell as much land as they had envisaged. The company was also hampered by lack of support from both the home and colonial Governments. Wicksteed began cutting back savagely. He reduced the labourers wages by half, issued no more stores or rations and, in collaboration with Colonel Wakefield, decided to dispense with Carrington telling him his services would not be needed from 31 March 1844.

Carrington's men bailed and within a short time his work team had reduced from 80 to three men, his requests for necessary equipment went unanswered, his salary ceased and, eventually, he was told to stop surveying altogether. As he was paid on the number of sections he produced, Carrington was going to be out of pocket. The surveyor was short of men, short of equipment, short of transport, food, money, and friends in high places.

He didn't wait until March, but left New Plymouth frustrated and disappointed along with his wife and five children (they had two more daughters) on 27 August 1843. His brother Octavious took over the position of chief surveyor, without pay while Wellington, who had arrived the year previously, was left in charge of surveying the remaining Waitara land.


In London Carrington was met with a frosty reception. He eventually found work directing surveys and preparing models of railways, harbours and water works in England and Scotland. The excellence of his work impressed, and at the Great Exhibition of 1851 he was awarded a medal for his models.

From 1851 to 1856 Carrington travelled to California, Paris and Belgium where he carried out his surveying work. While in New Plymouth Carrington had gathered together a large collection of native birds (he did his own taxidermy) and Māori artefacts including several waka. These he displayed in exhibitions around London.

Return to New Zealand

But the call of New Zealand and all it offered was too great and the Carrington family set out once more for the little colony in 1857. This time Carrington had plans to set up a business using the iron sand he had seen covering the beaches, make a survey of the area he planned for a harbour, and act as a real estate agent. His plans were put on hold when the Land Wars broke out shortly after the family's arrival back in New Plymouth. He was instead appointed Government engineer and surveyor of roads.

Many attempts had been made to compensate for the lack of a harbour at New Plymouth. Settlers had established a surf boat service, transporting passengers and goods from the boats lying offshore to dry land. But New Plymouth's unsheltered coast produced some large breakers, often making the trip from ship to shore or vice versa a treacherous one. Moorings were placed on the sea bed for ships to tie up to - but often captains were reluctant to do so in rough weather. A jetty had been built, but it soon succumbed to the ravages of the sea.

The lack of a harbour had bugged Carrington for years. He was keen to see his dream realised, and approached the Government with the idea of using convict labour to build a breakwater at the Sugar Loaves. The idea was shelved until after the Land Wars.

In 1869 Carrington was elected superintendent of the Province of Taranaki and held the position until it was abolished in 1876. For many years he represented the Grey and Bell district in the Hall of Representatives and was also chairman and treasurer of the harbour board.

Carrrington's legacy

Carrington's main concern became getting a breakwater for the settlement. "Nothing less than a harbour at the Sugar Loaves will enable us to have a fair share of the advantages administered to other provinces" he wrote to the premier Julius Vogel in 1872.

Finally, in 1881 he laid the foundation stone on New Plymouth's new breakwater. It was a moment in history he had been fighting for over 40 years and the crowning of his personal struggle to justify his choice of the site of the town. The first passengers disembarked on the newly finished breakwater in 1883. Later that year the first commercial cargo, coal for the New Plymouth Gas Company was landed. In 1888 the Moturoa wharf was completed and New Plymouth's harbour problems were over.

Carrington had retired from politics in 1881, at the age of 73, but he continued to keep an avid interest in the welfare of the province, “which he looked upon as a flower of his own” wrote the Taranaki Herald.

His wife Margaret died in 1883. He died at the age of 93 in July 1901. Carrington's legacy remains in the streets of New Plymouth. Over half the streets and rural roads that he planned are still in use.


Caughey, A. (1998). The Interpreter: The Biography of Richard 'Dicky' Barrett. Auckland: Bateman.

Tett, W.F (1935). Frederic Alonzo Carrington, 'the father of New Plymouth' his work in selecting and surveying the site of the town and settlement of New Plymouth: 1841 – 1843. Thesis.

Tullett, J.S. (1981). The Industrious Heart. New Plymouth: New Plymouth City Council.

Related Information


Puke Ariki Heritage Collection: Frederic Carrington


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