Cobwebs and Colonials : Sarah Mathew and the Founding of Auckland

From New Zealand Society, 2:12 pm on 9 October 2015
A portrait of Sarah Mathew in later life.

A portrait of Sarah Mathew in later life. Photo: 7-A11646 Sir George Grey Special Collections

Sarah Mathew was born in London in 1805, and for ten years worked as a governess. In her late 20’s Sarah agreed to marry her cousin Felton Mathew and follow him out to Australia where he had obtained a position as a surveyor. He left for Sydney in 1829 and two years later, Sarah followed – the first of a remarkable six journeys she made between Britain and the southern hemisphere, all the more impressive when you learn that she suffered terribly from sea sickness. She arrived in Sydney in January 1832, married Felton and then almost immediately went with him on his long surveying trips into the bush.

Author Tessa Duder has written a biography of Sarah, drawing upon the journals and diaries she wrote during her long life in the colonies and back home in England. She believes Sarah would have assisted Felton with the hard physical work of surveying and shared his hardships under canvas in the baking New South Wales sun.

'The extraordinary thing is, she kept the diaries. She wrote the books day in and day out.'

Sarah and Felton suffered two stillbirths while in Sydney and in her journals there are hints of other misfortunes.  This was the start of a run of mixed luck for the couple. Felton lost his job in 1839 due to disagreements between Sydney and London over which had the power to make civic appointments. He was quickly shoulder-tapped by William Hobson to help found the planned colony of New Zealand and to advise on the location of a capital city.

Felton sailed to the Bay of Islands in January 1840 and was present at the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. Sarah arrived three months later.

I expect we shall very shortly be sent off again to survey and lay out another town in which the seat of government will be fixed. Felton has selected a very favourable situation for the purpose. It is to be called Auckland.

For two months on a tiny boat, Sarah and Felton sailed and surveyed from Northland to Thames, climbing seemingly every mountain and exploring rivers, streams and harbours. Despite some initial misgivings on Felton’s behalf, a site on the Waitemata harbour was chosen and on September 18 1840 a ceremony was held to mark the founding of the nation’s new capital. Sarah was the only Pakeha woman present on shore and typically, she wrote it all down.

A beautiful morning seemed to smile on the auspicious circumstances of taking formal possession of a certain portion of the land. About half past twelve the whole party landed and proceeded to the height where the flag staff was raised and ready to receive the royal standard. The flag was run up and the whole assembly gave three cheers and a salute of 21 guns fired. Her majesty’s health was most rapturously drunk with cheers long and loud. The gentleman got up a boat race among themselves and a canoe race for the natives and this closed the day’s festivity. There was no rain though it threatened frequently, a good omen I hope for the prosperity of the new city which is to rise on this spot. In the evening the captain gave us a few songs but had shouted himself hoarse in honour of her majesty in the morning.

Felton was named surveyor general for the new capital. He got to work, climbing hills and volcanoes, walking the length and breadth of the isthmus, sketching, planning, thinking. His notebooks survive and are on display in Auckland Library’s Sir George Grey Special Collections.

An image Felton Mathew's sketch of the Hauraki Gulf showing Rangitoto.

Felton Mathew's sketch of the Hauraki Gulf showing Rangitoto. Photo: 7-C1572 Sir George Grey Special Collections

In just two months Felton finished his design for the layout of Auckland. It was centred on what is now Albert Park and consists of a series of circular streets with crescents, circuses and squares, with a wonderful jetty arching out into the harbour. There’s reclaimed land and well-laid out suburban areas and hardly a straight line to be found. The Cobweb, as it became known, was an elegant and beautiful design. Everyone hated it. Especially the editor of the local newspaper.

It is supposed that Mr Mathew, the distinguished surveyor, who is a native of Bath, took the plan of that town and after improving it to his own taste, then applied it to Auckland. Where however well it might suit the fine brick and stone buildings of Bath it does not seem at all to answer.

A close-up view of Felton Mathew's "Cobweb" plan for Auckland.

The Cobweb Photo: NZ MAP 2664 Sir George Grey Special Collections

Despite being criticised for being too pretty, too impractical and too expensive, the design was signed off by Governor Hobson - who immediately ruined it by stealing the best part for his own home. And when it was decided to put military barracks in Albert Park - at the heart of the design -  Felton’s cobweb was dead and his reputation died with it.

Things continued to go downhill for Sarah and her husband. Felton lost his job – again – and traveled to England to protest. Sarah went with him. When they returned, they quickly fell out with the new Governor, Sir George Grey.

My husband’s health continued very precarious and he had the mortification to find that (Grey) had already filled up the appointments which had been offered to and accepted by my husband, pretending that the circumstances of the colony required the police magistrate to be a military man and the postmaster general was not required at all.

Felton's health was declining and his enemies were growing. They considered him officious, venal, on the make, incompetent and obsessed with regulations and rules. John Logan Campbell, often called the Father of Auckland, liked to refer to Felton as “Red Tape”.

Disappointments, dismissals and the snobbery of the expat community broke the couple. They eventually gave up and in 1847 began the journey back home to Britain. But in Lima, Peru, Felton succumbed to his long illness and died.

He gradually sank and departed on the 26th of November. I cannot write of this dreadful time.

Sarah Mathew continued the journey to Britain, alone. She was 42 years old.

In 1858 she once more sailed to Auckland to settle her affairs, staying for four years in the rapidly growing city that had become, to her eyes, nearly unrecognisable. Sarah went home for the final time to Britain and died there in 1890, having never remarried.

In her life she had traveled farther than many and seen more than most. She had  met and mixed with Tāmati Wāka Nene and Te Rauparaha, Samuel Marsden, James Busby, Governors Hobson and Grey and many, many more. And she wrote it all down, all the journeys, and all the people, the very few triumphs and the many setbacks of her life with Felton in the colonies. Sarah Mathew left a remarkable series of documents detailing both early colonial life here and in Australia and modestly, her own achievements. Tessa Duder is adamant that she deserves to be remembered.

'She was a woman outside of her time. It was noted by other women at the time that she went on these trips with her husband in tones of some amazement. There's been quite a bit of attention paid to Eliza Hobson and Mary Ann Martin, wife of the first Chief Justice. Personally I think Sarah should be up with (them) and that's one of the reasons why I wrote the book because I feel that she does deserve to be right up there.'

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