An outstanding personality in the history of Te Awamutu and Raglan districts was Doctor Walter Harsant.
He was Government factotum for these districts from 1854 to 1878. Let us turn back and learn something of this Doctor’s background.
He was born at Haverland, Norfolk, England, on the 3rd. October 1811. Of his youth, or as to where he received his early education, nothing is known. Fortunately his diplomas in medicine and surgery have been preserved, and were presented to this Society. Although somewhat battered after 130 years, they are still decipherable. The most distinguished diploma is that of M.R.C.S., a large sheet headed by the coat of arms of the Royal College of Surgeons in London with the motto “Quae prosunt Omnibus Artes” with the seal of the College and the signatures of the President and two Vice-presidents and seven examiners. Two diplomas of the Medical Theatre, London, certify that he also attended lectures in the Principles and Practice of Medicine, and the Principles and Practice of Midwifery and the Diseases of Women and Children. From St. Bartholomew’s Hospital there are diplomas in Anatomical Demonstrations, Practice of Surgery and Lectures on Surgery.
The most spectacular diploma is that of the Court of Examiners chosen and appointed by the Master Wardens and Assistants of Apothecaries of the Society of the Art and Mystery of Apothecaries of the City of London, and, certifies that Walter Harsant has been carefully and deliberately examined as to his skill and abilities in the Science and Practice of Medicine and as an Apothecary, and certifies that he is entitled to practice as an apothecary accordingly. This diploma is authenticated by the seal of the Society and twelve signatures. These diplomas were issued in the years 1830 to 1834.
The only other facts known of his life in England are in a short statement in his own handwriting and signed by himself, which reads: “Walter Harsant, surgeon, practised at Coniston in Norfolk, from May 1836 to July 1840. Removed from thence to the neighbouring small town of Reepham where I continued to practise till August 1853.”
Allured like others, probably, by glowing but untruthful accounts of conditions in Auckland, the Doctor decided to emigrate, arriving at Auckland on Nov. 30th. 1833, with his wife and nine children, on the vessel “Hamilla Mitchell”. The eldest child being 15 years. He had married a Miss Ann Eliza Noakes at Puehurst, Sussex, on the 2nd July 1836. Disgusted with conditions in Auckland, and also no doubt with the misrepresentations, he resolved to return to his homeland on the first available vessel. It was partially on account of his wife’s health that he had come to New Zealand, she suffering from asthma. The doctor had brought a letter of introduction with him to Sir George Grey Governor of New Zealand, who, after receiving it offered him a post at Otawhao, which surprisingly, he accepted largely because his wife’s health was much improved, and perhaps because he was ignorant of what lay ahead.
So they set out on their long journey into the unknown. Mrs. Harsant and the three youngest children were carried in an amo (litter) made of flax, the rest of the party walked, and the Maoris carried the baggage etc., till they reached the Waikato River, where they continued the journey in a fleet of canoes carrying them and their personal luggage and household effects. Up the Waikato they went, then up the Waipa River to the nearest point to Otawhao where they left the canoes and covered the last seven or eight miles cross country. They arrived at their destination after seventeen days travelling, which was considered fast in those days. What must their feelings have been when they saw that a Maori whare was to be their home till a house was built.
The Te Awamutu Historical Society has been fortunate in obtaining photostatic copies of the documents giving Doctor Harsant his appointments. The Commissions of Dr. Harsant are signed by Lt-Colonel Wynyard, as officer administering the Government of New Zealand following the appointment of Sir George Grey as Governor of the colony of the Cape of Good Hope in 1854. Lt-Col. Wynyard was administrator from 3rd. Jan. 1854 to 6th. Sept. 1855. While administrator he was elected Superintendent of the Auckland Province. All of the documents are ponderous and flowery, and I will give a full transcription of some of them.
The first notice of Dr. Harsant’s appointment as Resident Magistrate and Colonial Surgeon is contained in a letter written in beautiful copper plate from the Colonial Secretary’s Office, Auckland, and signed by the Colonial Secretary, Andrew Sinclair, on the 8th. February 1854. This states :
“Sir, in reference to your letter of the 2nd. December last, I have the honour by direction of the Officer Administering the Government to inform you that His Excellency has been pleased to appoint you to the office of Resident Magistrate and Colonial Surgeon for the District of Waikato, with a present salary of £175 per annum from 1st. instant. Your commission of appointment will he issued to you from this office on payment of the prescribed fee of 10s 6d.
“I have also to inform you that the sum of £250 will be allowed you for the building of a house at Otawhao for your accommodation”.
The Doctor must have paid his fee promptly, for on the same date his commission of appointment was issued from the Colonial Secretary’s office.
“By His Excellency Lieutenant Colonel Robert Henry Wynyard, a Companion of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath, the Officer Administering the Government of the Islands of New Zealand.
“Whereas by an ordinance made by the Lieutenant-Governor of New Zealand with the advice and consent of the Legislative Council of the said Colony passed on the seventh day of November in the year of our Lord, one thousand eight hundred and forty six, instituted ‘An Ordinance to provide for the establishment of Resident Magistrate’s Courts and to make special provision for the administration of justice in certain cases,’ it is enacted and ordained that it shall be lawful for His Excellency the Governor to appoint Resident Magistrates provisionally until Her Majesty’s pleasure shall be known. Now know ye that in pursuance of the power and authority in me vested by said ordinance, I do hereby appoint Walter Harsant Esquire to have, hold, exercise and enjoy the office of a Resident Magistrate by the provisions of the said ordinance until the pleasure of her Majesty shall be known. Given under my hand and issued under the Public Seal of the Islands of New Zealand at Auckland in the said Islands this eighth day of February in the seventeenth year of the reign of her Majesty Queen Victoria and in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and fifty four.”
The three inches square seal is affixed to the bottom left hand corner of the document.
Almost a year later Dr. Harsant was appointed Registrar of Marriages for the district of Rangiaowhia, under the Marriage Act of 1854. This is also an interesting document bearing the Public Seal of the Islands of New Zealand and signed by Lt-Col. R. H. Wynyard. The boundaries of the “District of Rangiawhia” are given as follows:
“On the East by the mid channel of the Horotiu branch of the Waikato River, to its source at Lake Taupo, thence by the Eastern shore of Taupo and by the mid channel of the Upper Waikato until its junction with the Southern boundary of the Province. On the West by the mid channel of the Waipa from its junction with the Horotiu to its source, from thence by a straight line to the source of the Mokau River, thence by the Western boundary of the Province to its junction with the Tunua River and along the 39th degree of South latitude, being the Southern boundary of the Province, to its junction with the Upper Waikato”.
As Registrar of Marriages it will be seen that the versatile Doctor had a large district, the only consolation being that it was sparsely populated by Europeans. Shortly after his appointment to Rangiaowhia, 37 Europeans and 25 “Aboriginal Natives” signed a petition which was forwarded to the Provincial Superintendent in January 1855:
The petitioners, settlers of the district of Rangiaohia asked that:
“Whereas we have for some years passed, felt the inconvenience of our isolated position in respect of being debarred from receiving any communication by letter or otherwise from Auckland within any reasonable time, and whereas some time a post was proposed as a branch one from that of Kawhia, but which your petitioners deemed unadvisable from the badness of the road to be travelled over, and the extra time and expense it would entail, your petitioners would therefore humbly beg that a postal communication be established by the following route: Viz. From Auckland to Onehunga from thence to Waiuku by the cutters plying across the Manukau, and from Waiuku to Rangiaowhia by canoe, the expenses attending upon which your petitioners should think would not be greater than thirty pounds per annum for a fortnightly transmission and your petitioners would lastly state that in case of any extra expenses over that above mentioned they would cause them to be collected and defrayed amongst them, and your petitioners would ever pray etc.”
As a result of this petition Lt-Col Wynyard recommended the establishment of a bi-monthly post to Rangiaowhia. The cost of carrying the mails to be borne by the Provincial Government. On the 7th May Dr. Harsant, in his capacity of deputy postmaster contracted a native chief William Toe Toe, living at Rangiaowhia, to carry the mails. The agreement, interpreted and duly witnessed and certified was as follows:
“William Toe Toe binds himself during the space of twelve months from this date (7th May 1855) to convey the mails safely, twice in a month to and from Auckland and Rangiaowhia – the days of starting to be appointed from Auckland by the Post Office Authorities – on consideration of which duty the said Walter Harsant makes himself responsible to the said William Toe Toe for the payment of ten pounds sterling quarterly.”
Another photostatic copy of documents held by the Historical Society is related to the Doctor’s appointment as a Commissioner of the oaths for the supreme court. This, like other documents, is ponderous and gives the Doctor power to take affidavits and other Supreme Court documents, and witness them. This document is “Given under the seal of the said Supreme Court and the hand of His Honour Sidney Stephen Esq., Chief Justice thereof at Auckland in the Province aforesaid this twenty sixth day of March one thousand eight hundred and fifty six.”
As can be seen the Doctor must have been very versatile to have held all the various offices, and had excellent education. Unfortunately documents do not tell the hardships of those early days. It is known that on his arrival at Otawhao he, as already stated, lived in a Maori whare for some time. A study of an early survey map shows that the Doctor’s residence was on the corner of Bank Street and Puniu Road. At that time the mission settlement of Otawhao was 15 years of age, and was in charge of the Rev. John Morgan and his wife, who had been as far as is known, the only white woman living at Otawhao, until the arrival of Mrs. Harsant. It is stated that the newly arrived family worshipped in the mission church, St. John’s which was built the year they arrived. The Harsant family had a long seat provided for them in the front of the church, the natives sitting on the floor behind them. Unfortunately the diary the Doctor kept has been lost and only snippets of his work at Otawhao are known. One account speaks of the Doctor always carrying a large umbrella with him on any journeys he made, under which he slept at nights. It is to be hoped that more will be known of his work and experiences in this district from Government archives and perhaps from private sources.
In 1858 Dr. Harsant was transferred to Raglan district. Recollections of a daughter, as printed in the Te Awamutu Courier 9th Nov. 1938, gives a brief account of this journey.“Mrs. Thompson retained a clear memory of the arduous Journey from Te Awamutu to Raglan, which was made on foot with Maori carrying their baggage. The three youngest children and Mrs. Harsant were also carried by the natives over the mountains, and the whole trip took the party twelve days. Each Maori was given food during the journey and received a blanket in payment.”
Probably the only appointment the Doctor took to Raglan district was that as Commissioner of Oaths for the Supreme Court, and he continued to practice as a doctor and surgeon. His first appointment in Raglan was that of coroner, this being dated 2nd August 1858. The following year he received the appointment of Registrar of Births Deaths and Marriages. On the 20th November 1860 another appointment, this time as Collector of Customs for the port. He was informed of this in a letter from the office of the Commissioner of Customs, Auckland. This states that he had been appointed “coastwaiter” at Raglan with a salary of £50 per annum, commencing on the 1st November of that year. He was advised to communicate with the Collector at Auckland who would forward the necessary forms and instructions for his guidance. How much simpler must have been a custom officer’s work in those days.
The authorities must have thought that the Doctor had still time to spare, because in 1863 he was appointed emigration officer for the Port of Raglan. This last appointment indicates that the Port of Raglan was used by some emigration ships, instead of Onehunga. Raglan in those days would be primitive, although perhaps not quite as much as Otawhao, there being, of course, coastal transport. The stores came by cutter and frequently they would be delayed by weather and be late in arrival with the result that provisions for the settlers would be almost exhausted. What was worse, it was not unknown for the stores not to arrive because of some not very creditable reason. The result was that the Harsant children knew what it was like to go to bed hungry. Apparently at one time the family existed on small potatoes for some thirteen weeks. Mrs. Harsant was in poor health at the time, when there came the wonderful present of one loaf of bread. She had a slice every day until it was finished, and an illness was staved off. Though there was water transport the Doctor thought nothing of walking to Auckland if need be for medical supplies. Often on these trips he was accompanied by one of his daughters who was an expert interpreter. This was his eldest, Lucy, who often interpreted for her father on official occasions. The Doctor never attained any proficiency in Maori; even so it is obvious that the Doctor must have been held in high regard by the Maoris, for as far as is known he was never molested by them, or his family. No doubt he would have some anxious moments, as he lived in Otawhao and Raglan when the Maoris were becoming restless and rebelling against the Pakeha. This eventually led to the outbreak of the Waikato War.
The Doctor and his family lived in Raglan through the Maori wars, and no doubt would meet many men who were to figure prominently during the war in the Te Awamutu district. One of these would be Colonel Waddy, commander of the 50th Regiment, who built a redoubt at the head of Raglan Harbour in 1864. This regiment fought on several occasions in this district. Another was the Government surveyor, Richard Todd, who was later killed on the slopes of Pirongia Mountain in 1870. He, in 1863, when it was feared that Kingite Maoris from the Waikato or Kawhia would attack Raglan, strengthened the Court House with heavier timber and dug a deep trench around it and the local gaol.
After twenty years in Raglan came Dr. and Mrs. Harsant’s retirement to Onehunga; where they celebrated their diamond wedding in July 1896. In 1897 the Doctor died and was buried in the Methodist Cemetery at Mangere near his eldest daughter. In 1900 Mrs. Harsant, in her 90th year, was laid beside him.
This account of the lives of these two pioneers, who no doubt played a prominent part in the early days of the Waikato, has been compiled from records held by this Society, and an article written in the N.Z. Woman’s Weekly, 29th July 1954 by C.B. Hay. The Society also owes a great deal to Miss Lucy Gilmore, a great-granddaughter of the Doctor. She presented to the Society Photostat copies of all his appointments and other details of his life. Recently she also presented to the museum a deeply fringed hand-painted silk shawl, over 100 years old and still in perfect order, although perhaps the silk is fragile with age. There was also a gold key-wind watch still in working order. Both these were the property of Mrs. Harsant. These gifts, together with the Doctor’s surgical kit which was presented to the Society some years ago, form a link with early Te Awamutu, and add another reminder of our past.
 These diplomas were presented to the Society by Mrs. Seifert of Raglan, who is a direct descendant of the Doctor.
 Otawhao was the name of the large pa which stood where Wallace Terrace now is. Te Awamutu district was known by this name before the Maori War.
 Mr. R. H. Wynyard of Great South Road, Kihikihi, is a direct descendant.
 There is an interesting reference to this in Govt. Archives. In 1856 the Doctor was driven to complain that he had been obliged to build a shelter for his family, but also to “secure a place where my duties may be transacted”. Probably referring to a dispensary and possibly a courthouse. Governments have not altered over the years.
 Cowan states that the correct spelling is “Rangiaowhia”. An explanation is given in the Editorial in the Te A.Hist.Soc. Jounl Vo.l, No. 2, page 23. I have not altered the spelling as given in the documents.
 Horotiu was the name given by the Maoris to the Waikato River from its source to the junction with the Waipa at Ngaruawahia.
 By Upper Waikato is probably meant the Tongariro River.
 The 39th degree South Latitude passes through Waitara on the coast, just south of Owhanga on the main trunk rail, to a point on the Tongariro River just south of Tokaanu.
 Raglan District. The official description of this district is given as bounded on the North by Whaingaroa Harbour (Raglan) from its entrance to the Waitetune River. On the East by the inland boundary of the Whaingaroa Block, on the South-east and South by the boundary of the Ruapuke and Karioi Blocks to the sea. And on the West by the sea northwards to the entrance to the harbour.
 I should like to thank Miss Gilmore for reading my draft copy and correcting such facts as were known to be incorrect.
Journal of the Te Awamutu Historical Society, Vol. 3, No. 1, 1968
By J. F. Mandeno.
For more info online, try this link to our collections online: https://collection.tamuseum.org.nz/objects?query=Walter+Harsant