These notes are from material collected by Margaret Stevenson and W. Macdonald.
One of the most enterprising of the early traders on the New Zealand coasts was Captain Dacre, who was a Sea-captain, trader, adventurer, and pioneer of the timber export trade. His adventures read like a thriller from the Boys Own Paper. He was a man of great courage and resource, able to face the storms of the open seas in a small sailing ship, and even to get the better of an aggressive Maori chief backed by a thousand fighting men. He is described as a tall, spare man, with that “indefinable air of authority often to be found in men of the sea”. It says much for his character and constitution that he lived until he was 87, his life ending peacefully after his long years of travel and adventure.
Born in 1797 in Hampshire, Captain Dacre came of a good family, son of Colonel Dacre, High Sheriff of the County. He joined the Navy as a midshipman at the age of thirteen and served in the War of 1812 against the U.S.A. A fellow midshipman was the lad who was later to become famous as Captain Marryatt, the writer of adventure stories. It is likely that Ranulph was a younger son, as it was common practice to put the younger boys of a family, into the Navy or Army for their careers. Dacre resigned his commission in 1815 (possibly there was retrenchment in the Navy at this time also, after the long Napoleonic wars), and he then joined the Mercantile Marine, taking command of a trading schooner for the West Indies. Here his ship was chased and captured by a privateer, and Dacre was condemned to be thrown overboard. During the confusion, he managed to secrete a cutlass under his cloak and determined to sell his life dearly, but the discovery of his naval papers by the privateer caused his captor to release* him.
Much of Dacre's early life was spent in Australia, or in voyages round the world. Between 1825 and 1831 he traded along the east coast of Australia, and made two more voyages between London and Sydney for Brookes in the “Surry”, (this ship is often so spelt in Dacre's life-story, but it should probably be spelt as is the English county of “Surrey”). Dacre had already worked for Robert Brookes of London, as commander of the “Elizabeth”. He then became part-owner of the Mission ship, “Endeavour”, which traded with the Society Islands. On one of these voyages, he carried the missionary deputation of Tyerman and Bennett on their celebrated visit to the South Sea stations.
On this voyage, the ship called in to Whangaroa harbour and here Dacre saw some fine stands of kauri timber, tall, straight trees of the kind needed by the Admiralty for masts and spars. These latter were in short supply at the time, as the usual sources for their importation - Virginia and Maine in the U.S.A., and the Baltic countries - had been cut off by the blockades of the War of Independence, and the Napoleonic struggles. It is noted that in 1820, the H.M. stores ships “Dromedary” and “Coromandel”, had been sent to New Zealand to procure masts and spars, and the “Dromedary” had returned with new masts of kauri timber, the fine quality of which were much approved by the naval authorities. Thus the Admiralty was willing to enter into supply contracts with anyone willing to procure them, and the prices paid were good.
Spars and masts were paid for by the lineal foot, according to the diameter. Sticks of 3" diameter were worth 7/- per foot but large ones of 30" diameter were worth 8/7d per foot. Masts of 60 to 78 ft were needed by the Navy and a good top mast was said to be worth £200 in London. They were usually squared deep enough just to show the heart wood. There was considerable activity in timber on the Hokianga River from 1826, when some Scottish carpenters from the ship “Rosanna” decided to settle by the river and produce the masts and sawn timber which could be sold at good prices in Sydney. As early as 1828 New Zealand timber was advertised in Sydney papers - spars, rickers, oars and deal planks - with prices and thickness carefully specified. Boards of 1" were 20/-per 100 superficial feet and thicker boards were cheaper, the 4" boards being 14/- per 100 super feet.
The Sydney firm of Raine and Ramsay established a ship-building yard at Horeke on the Hokianga River about 1827. This river was an especially favourable place, as the timber grew close to the banks and the river was wide enough to float the logs down to the ships, even in summer.
Captain Dacre took his first load of spars from Hokianga in 1827, trading in the ship “Surrey”, which was partly owned by Robert Brookes of Sydney, and later in his own vessel, the “Lucy Ann”. While trading around the coasts, he visited Mahurangi - (he was the first trader in this inlet) - Whangaroa and Mercury Bay. Samuel Marsden had explored the Kaipara harbour from the landward side, and had noticed the fine timber on the banks of the three little rivers running into it, but the harbour was unexplored from the sea, and had a bad reputation as probably being dangerous.
In 1832 Captain Dacre was the first to enter and explore the harbour, with Captain Kent, but it seems that Dacre's ship “Surrey” made the first excursion into it, as possibly being more suitable than Kent's ship. It was in the Kaipara that Dacre had one of his many adventures; the chief who had undertaken to assist in procuring the spars suddenly downed tools and demanded a payment of blankets and tobacco on account. This Dacre refused to give, as it was usual to pay the Maori workers only when the promised job was completed. Although the chief had a strong following, much larger than the captain's fifty men, Dacre stood up against him, even threatening to throw him overboard. The Maori was much impressed by the stranger's audacity and he set about earning his payment without more ado.
Another awkward moment came for Dacre when he was in some river loading timber. The fine old Maori chief, Patuone - he who was later to live on the North Shore to protect Auckland – came frequently on the ship, and was in the habit of taking Dacre's small daughter, Julia, on his knee. One day, the child, quite unconscious of any wrong doing, caught the chief by his hair. Patuone set the child on the deck and immediately left the ship with all his people, the head of a chief being sacred and any ill-treatment of it a great insult. For three days the Maoris debated what reparation should be sought for this wrong and most of them were in favour of cutting the ship off. Patuone, however, argued that a child should be treated as one "porangi" or mad, as the action was not wilfully wicked. Fortunately Patuone's view was adopted and trading was resumed. But Patuone never again took the child on his knee. Dacre was said to have been hot-tempered, as even on his first visit to Whangaroa, he nearly got the party into serious trouble.
In 1832 Dacre travelled from Mahurangi to Coromandel in an open boat, to get supplies for his men. On landing, a chief brained one of his men. At this, Dacre protested so strongly that the chief confessed his error and offered one of his slaves to be killed as payment. The offer did not find favour but it is obvious that Dacre was a man of courage and able to think quickly in an emergency. At another time, a flax basket of food was sent up especially for the captain; to his horror he saw inside a piece of the tender flesh of a young Maori girl, nicely cooked and meant as a special delicacy.
About 1830 he decided to settle in New South Wales. He disposed of his property in England and applied for a grant of land in the colony, which was refused. He settled in Sydney in August 1831and in September, in Maitland, married Margaret Sea.
Dacre's efforts to form a regular trade in timber and flax were not always easy or successful. According to the Old Land Claims evidence (No’s 978-81), he writes of his first expedition to North Auckland and Mercury Bay:
“In 1831 I undertook to procure 100 masts for H.M. Government and employed Mr Skelton, with men from Sydney, to prepare them. I purchased a vessel in Sydney (the “Darling”), and sent the men from Sydney. Mr Skelton proceeded to Mongonui, about 70 miles east of North Cape, and there purchased land and a small forest – a house was built and people landed, but, as the trees were too short for naval purposes, Mr. Skelton went to Mercury Bay and purchased from the natives, a forest that appeared to have trees that were sufficiently tall for top masts for the Navy. A few days after landing the carpenters, the schooner was wrecked and a wild tribe from the Thames came across and drove the carpenters and crew of the vessel away, setting fire to their houses and store, by which a loss of 1200 was sustained”.
In 1832 Dacre entered the timber trade on a larger scale. He arranged with Gordon Davis Browne to superintend a station for cutting timber on the Mahurangi inlet and some 15 men were established there, with their tools and huts, to start work. Soon after this, the station was removed to Mercury Bay, as, according to Dacre, the H.M. ship “Buffalo” came in to Mahurangi and took forcible possession of the standing trees, placing the broad arrow on them. Although Dacre says that he had begun squaring spars and preparing masts, as well as having had his land surveyed by Mr Florance, he was obliged to leave the station in 1834. He declared:
“I remonstrated with the Admiralty but never got any redress. In consequence of this, I judged it necessary to remove the station, and I accordingly determined to send Mr Browne to take possession of my old station at Mercury Bay. Thither, accordingly, in the year 1836, I removed the whole party from Mahurangi, then numbering thirty Europeans. I went down to Mercury Bay myself with the party. Upon this, I instructed Gordon Browne to make as large purchases as he could, to secure the timber, and to buy other land to form a cattle station”. (Gordon Browne had been connected with a timber yard in Sydney and this town was always the headquarters, the selling place, and supply station - for all the New Zealand timber trade).
The Mercury Bay settlement was a success - at least, it did produce a great deal of good timber, especially some fine masts, which could be prepared in the summer and got out in the winter, when the steams were in a fresh. In 1835, Browne wrote to Dacre that he had upwards of 400 new hands to work, “who have not a blanket amongst them”. He thought masts should be fairly plentiful, on account of the ravenous nature of the country.
He wrote: “I never saw such a place in New Zealand for extent of forest and convenience. The creeks come down from the mountain tops and in winter time the floods are tremendous”. He believed that two or three thousand loads of timber could be obtained annually, including 80 to 100 London masts. By August 1836 Browne reported that he had 140 masts and 150 loads of timber squared for Europe. “The order for the “He de France” (?) is commenced and will be complete in 4 to 6 months”, he wrote to Dacre, and asked him if he could find a market for 2000 loads of Square Timber, or any spars, (large clap) to be cut to order. “I could do the job well, and I think do it cheap, to be ready for shipment by August 1837”.
To facilitate the work, Browne made an agreement to erect a sawmill, driven by water power, with a Mr. McMullen, a millwright who had completed a flour mill for the Mission. Browne arranged for him to build the mill at Mercury Bay in 1837, “He taking one third share and retaining the management of it”. Browne wrote to Dacre that this man was a good practical mechanic and was willing to settle there, and “if we do not take him, he will go elsewhere”. Browne believed the prospects for the mill were good, because of the quantity of accessible timber fit for the saw, and the fine streams. This mill seems to have been the first timber mill in the country, though others soon followed, that of Gilbert Mair in 1840 and William Webster at Hokianga in 1841. Gordon Browne organized ship-building at Mercury Bay and also a slip for repairs. It was said that at least a dozen small vessels were built there. (Reed, Story of the Kauri) a wharf, made of solid blocks of stone, erected with Maori labour, was built and is still serviceable.
To pay his labour force, Browne asked Dacre for “a lot of small trade, knives, scissors, tobacco, boxes, fancy pipes, combs and anything else cheap that you can think of . . .” At this time, the timber business seemed to be going well; there was even a ship from Brazil in New Zealand waters seeking masts for the Brazilian navy. But it is probable that at least for the first six years, the enterprise did not pay. Dacre had to foot the bills for the schooners to take supplies to Browne and for the goods sent to pay the workers. The saw-mill, the wharf and buildings were erected at a cost of £4000 and Dacre said that his accounts in 1838 showed a loss of over £9000. Evidence in the Court of Land Claims before Francis Dillon Bell, 28 June 1862.)
A modern photo of a kauri forest, by Tudor Collins of Warkworth, shows the type of tree that was sought by Captain Dacre. His venture into the greenstone trade was not a success. A greenstone mere was sold for a high price in China and the stone was valued there, so it was said, at three times its weight in gold. To obtain a larger amount of this precious stone, Dacre sent one of his ships under Captain Anglin to the Milford Sound. The venture was not a success. A large 2-ton block of greenstone was procured but, in the blasting, Captain Anglin lost his eyesight and the greenstone proved too hard to work with the tools then available.
Captain Dacre had business interests in Australia and the Pacific as well as in New Zealand. The firm of Dacre and Wilks lasted a few years in Sydney and in 1840 Dacre was one of the leading merchants there. He owned a wharf in Sydney harbour and was a director of several businesses, including the Union Bank of Australia, and the Sydney Alliance Assurance Company. He was an assessor of the Supreme Court in the following year, and a share broker in many others. He was the owner of several ships, including the “Julia”, the “Diana”, the “Wave” and, with Alexander Fotheringham, the whaler “Porteous”. In 1841, with Richard Jones and Henry Elgar, he organized the first expedition to the Isle of Pines for sandalwood. Soon afterwards, he bought land for a sheep station in the Port Phillip district, on the Gammon Plains. In the Depression of 1842-44, he became insolvent and lost all his ships and estates and removed his family to Hexham, on the Hunter River, in New South Wales.
After 20 years of trading, Dacre decided to leave the sea, but first he had to collect the various moneys owning to him here and there, so he undertook several more sea voyages, to New Zealand, the Society Islands and to Hawaii. In 1941 he had begun a long battle for the title of the New Zealand land he had bought during his spars ventures, and in 1844 he came here to pursue this claim. Here he began to prosper once more as a merchant and ship-owner. From this time he appears to have divided his time between Auckland and Sydney. In 1854 he entered into partnership with Thomas Macky whose business was in Fort Street, and was then one of the largest firms in the town. Finally, in 1859, he settled his large family in Auckland, where he became one of its best-known and respected citizens.
He was very interested in St. Paul's Church and worked with Colonel Moule of the Royal Engineers, to add two wings to the building. He was a member of Synod and was a good friend to the Orphan Home in Parnell. His wife, to whom he was married for 55 years, was his constant companion in many of the trials which came the way of an early colonist. About 1878 he and his wife returned to England, where he died at Clapham in Surrey, on June 27th 1884. They had at least one daughter and seven sons.
Dacre bought land from the Maoris at several of the places where he called in to trade - some 4000 acres at Omaha (still referred to as Dacre's Claim) and some hundreds of acres on the Whangaparaoa peninsula, in the area known as Hobbs Bay and Shakespear's. He built a house there and it still stands. His son, Charles Craven Dacre, farmed there in the 1860s but had to give up in 1871 when his sheep became infested with the disease known as scab.
Charles was a noted sportsman and, when he came to live in town, he served on the Auckland Harbour Board. Dacre also acquired a large part of the Weiti estate, near Silverdale, and this land was run as a cattle station by his two bachelor sons, Henry and Lief. They were there for 25 years. Their house was built by a stream on the property but was later moved to a site at Stillwater. It does not exist today. There is a flat, rocky shelf which juts out into the Wade River on the Arkle's Bay side, and this was used by boats at low tide to drop mail and good's, which the Dacre men would row over to pick up. It is still called Post-Box Corner. Henry later married a step-daughter of Maurice Kelly, the notorious character from the Wade -- he lived to be 104 years old. A grand-daughter of Henry's, Mrs Elliott, still lives on Whangaparaoa.
Photo of the house on the Whangaparaoa Peninsula (probably built by his father Captain Dacre), lived in by Charles Dacre, 1860-71, and is by courtesy of the Wainui Historical Society.
Colourful characters are numerous in early New Zealand history, but certainly Ranulph Dacre was one of the most interesting and enterprising of them.
Grateful thanks should go to Charles Dacre's grand-daughter, and to Margaret Stevenson, who initiated this research and discovered the Dacre house.
Brett’s Early History of New Zealand.
The Auckland Encyclopaedia
Story of the Kauri -- Reed
Gordon Browne's Letters to Dacre are printed in “European Trade & Settlement in New Zealand before 1840” by R.M. Ross.
Post Primary School Bulletin Vol. 6 No. 7 -- 1952
Australian Dictionary of Biography Vol. 1 -- 1788 -1850.