A new biography of Barrett, Richard appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
The name of Richard Barrett, or “Dicky” Barrett, as he was known and revered by the Maoris, is intimately associated with the earliest history of Wellington. On his marriage with Rangi he became connected with one of the high-born Maori families. When he was greeted in 1839 in Ship Cove, Queen Charlotte Sound, by Colonel Wakefield and Edward Jerningham Wakefield in the ship Tory, he was commissioned to pilot the vessel into Port Nicholson, and he brought her to anchorage off the beach of Petone in September 1839. But he did more than that. He acted as interpreter and liaison officer between the new arrivals and the Te Wharepouri, Te Puni, and Wi Tako families in the reception of the immigrants and the first purchases of land in the Wellington area.
Barrett had then been in New Zealand for about 10 years, and had already been actively embroiled in the internecine wars between Taranaki and Waikato Maoris. He was born at Rotherhithe, London, and went to Australia in his teens. There he attached himself to John Agar Love, master of the trading brig Tohora, and came to New Zealand. Tiring of the Tasman, and having married a young Maori chieftainness, he settled in New Zealand, and after wide peregrinations up and down the West Coast of the North Island, he took up shore whaling from the Marlborough Sounds. He superintended the erection of the first temporary housing for immigrants in Wellington, and while doing so bought what is now the Hotel Cecil site to build a hostelry for himself. This he did by buying a house that had been brought all the way from England by Dr G. S. Evans, and converting it into a hotel. Barrett's Hotel at Thorndon, until it was all but destroyed in the earthquake of 1855, was the social and political hub of the new settlement. It saw levees, banquets, stage shows, and balls, and housed vice-royalty and politicians for years.
By the time the hotel was destroyed Barrett had been dead eight years. His death at the early age of 40 was widely mourned. He was a man of infinite tolerance, happy go lucky and good humoured, with “the shape of a small calf whale”. He was idolised by the Maoris, high and low, and commanded the deep respect of the Pakeha newcomers, from politicians down to drunken sailors and whalers. “He had the largest heart of any man in New Zealand”, wrote W. Partridge to Mr Justice Chapman after his death. His sunny nature was legendary, and as interpreter and agent for the Maori tribes the “rotund and merry Barrett” was a force to be reckoned with in the early days of the colonisation of the capital.
by Ronald Jones, Journalist and Script Writer, New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, Wellington.
- Early Wellington, Ward, L. E. (1928)
- The City of the Strait–Wellington and its Province, Mulgan, A. (1939).