Across the ocean to Albertland
by Andy Bryenton
Birmingham in the early 1860s was a place that rivalled London itself when it came to the Dickensian levels of both honest piety and poverty; a city where the industrial revolution had created both a lower middle class and an underclass with puritan ethics and the desire to break free of what they saw as a stifling social system.
So when William Rawson Brame took out an advertisement looking for settlers in a Birmingham newspaper in 1861, people listened. America was embroiled in a civil war over the fate of slavery, and it was impossible to emigrate there. Australia was a notorious prison colony. New Zealand had already seen two successful religious settlements, by Scots and Anglican Christians Otago and Canterbury respectively. Brame set out to create not just a new settlement where honest men and women could make a future through honest labour. He looked to the Kaipara Harbour as a place where he could make an example of a model community.
In the end, more than 3,000 settlers signed up for what would be a one-way trip, selling up their lives in England to sail here on tall ships which were not built for large passenger contingents. May 29 1862 (157 years ago to the day, just next week) was chosen as an auspicious day, as it reflected the date 200 years before when nonconformist ministers were thrown out of the Church of England, effectively establishing the puritan-style sect of which Brame and his followers were adherents. Two initial ships, the Matilda Wattenbach and the Hanover sailed from London and arrived at what would become Port Albert to offload the settlers.
What happened next is a testament to the practicality and mindset of these people, who had been brave enough to leave the familiarity of England behind, at a time when Britain was the hub of civilisation. They found that the place where they were supposed to build their ‘shining city’ (one to rival Auckland) was not as ideal as they thought. They also discovered that the Kaipara was an area rich in natural resources, and many other spots connected by its waterways and inlets were just right. Maungaturoto, Matakohe, Paparoa and Wellsford all came from settlers striking out in different directions to make a new home here in New Zealand. Today, Port Albert is a sleepy seaside village with a single wharf.
However, for a while there, it was something else. An imaginary city, never built, which nevertheless inspired hundreds of people to seek their fortune far from home.