BARRY, “Captain” William Jackson
New Zealand's “Baron Munchausen”.
A new biography of Barry, William Jackson appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
According to his own account, Barry or Berry (there is some doubt as to his correct surname) was born in Dublin in or about 1819, and went to London at an early age. Many years later, when he interviewed Arthur Orton, the Tichborne “claimant”, he told the authorities that he was born in Melbourn, Cambridgeshire. Barry's early life is poorly documented, but the following incidents are vouched for in their main outline by two independent sources. Barry came out to Sydney as a prisoner in the Red River (probably in 1829). He was assigned as a servant to one Smith, a butcher in George Street. At that time Barry was known as “Sydney Nobby”. After his sentence expired Barry was generally believed to have joined Jackey Jackey's bushranger gang, to have taken part in the gang's depredations in New South Wales, and to have been present when a Bank of New South Wales building was undermined and the safe robbed. Later, Barry served as “Jimmy Ducks” on a whaling voyage and, in 1851, went to California when the rush from Sydney took place. He returned to Victoria in 1855 or 1856 when he started a butchering business (under the name of Berry) at Brown's Diggings near Ballarat. From Brown's, Barry came to Otago in 1861 or 1862.
In 1862 Barry was at Wetherstones goldfield, Tuapeka, where he sold tripe, cow heels, and trotters which he begged from the carcass butchers who, being old Victorians, gave him the offal in order that he might make a“rise”. Later in the same year he was in similar business at the Dunstan and at Clyde. He arrived in Cromwell in February 1863 and set up as a butcher in partnership with H. Murray. They succeeded in breaking the monopoly enjoyed previously by the only other butcher in the area and, on 29 June 1864, Barry was presented with a gold watch in recognition of the fact that he had been instrumental in lowering meat prices to 6d. a pound. In 1866 he was elected first Mayor of Cromwell. During this time he also dealt in livestock as an auctioneer, and acquired a choice farm known as Towans in the Mt. Pisa foothills near Cromwell. He also showed his natural ebullience in a number of ways, many of which have become legend. In spite of these (or perhaps with their assistance) he was re-elected in 1867.
It is recorded that, as a protest against Provincial Government proposals to alter election arrangements, Barry locked the Court door and took away the key. He was charged with assault, but received only a nominal fine. In 1868 he called a public meeting because the school committee had refused to investigate his charges that the school teacher had used unbecoming language to him. The meeting is reported to have treated the charges as “a good joke”.
In September 1869, he rediscovered the Carrick gold reef and produced a spate of publicity which started what is described as “the quartz reef mania” in Cromwell. Barry and his party formed the “Royal Standard Syndicate”–after which Barry appeared to lose interest. This was possibly because of the success of his first lecture on “Forty Years of Colonial Experience”, which he delivered in Cromwell on 7 December 1870. For the next few years he moved about restlessly, lecturing in many places and acting as auctioneer and carcass butcher. He returned to Australia in May 1872, but was back the following year and running the Prince of Wales Hotel in Queenstown. During his lecture tour in Australia, Barry claimed to possess considerable property in Bathurst. The lectures, however, were not a success financially, and Barry's passage back to New Zealand was paid by his Dunstan friends. In Queenstown, in November 1874, he again described himself as holding valuable property, this time in Ballarat.
The period of hotelkeeping was terminated with another typically Barry incident, in which he and a crony were charged with theft. The case was dismissed, and Barry was soon moving through Arrowtown and Cromwell as an auctioneer. At this stage he began writing his book, which was roughly to follow the pattern of his lectures. The manuscript was already in shape in July 1878 when he gave readings from it in Dunedin, an evening's entertainment filled out with songs by himself and other performers. On this occasion he was on his way to Wellington in an endeavour to persuade the Government to sponsor a trip to England, where he was prepared to act as publicity agent, and this story is one of Barry's most entertaining. During June and July 1878 Barry found that he had “worked out” the Otago goldfields. Recalling that, as Mayor of Cromwell, he had entertained Sir George Grey when he was Governor of New Zealand, Barry conceived the idea of becoming an Emigration-Agent-Lecturer to advertise New Zealand throughout England. He arranged for a numerously signed memorial recommending himself for the office. As Sir George Grey (then Premier) held out no hopes for Barry's employment, Barry decided to seek a personal interview with him in Wellington. On the journey from Dunedin he assumed the rank of “Captain”, on the grounds, as he put it, that he wanted to stand well with the “swells”. The Government did not appoint him to any office, but Barry appeared in England in July 1879, armed with a number of introductions to important people. He addressed several meetings, one of them in Peckham, at which he extolled New Zealand as the land of opportunity. His book, Ups and Downs, had been revised by a New Zealand journalist (Thomas Bracken). It was published in London, while he continued giving lectures, selling copies of the book, and quite uncannily managing to catch the public eye. It was at this time that his enemies were most inclined to point out that whatever publicity he attracted tended to illuminate “Captain” Jackson Barry rather than New Zealand.
In England, Barry sought and obtained permission to interview Arthur Orton, the Tichborne “claimant”, and recognised him as one Thomas Castro, an old Victorian miner. Orton on his side recognised “Captain Jackson Barry” and his Indian retainer. One who had known Barry in Australia and Otago pointed out to the Home Secretary that “Captain” Barry's rank was of very recent vintage, and that he had never had an Indian servant either in Australia or Otago. The informant stated that it was a well-known fact that “Old hand” convicts had a system of “telegraphing” between themselves, and that without doubt Barry and Orton had made use of this mode of communication. Barry's identification of Orton produced press comment, but did not influence the course of the trial.
In 1880 Barry was back in New Zealand, where his book was received with some amusement. A lecture tour saw him at Lawrence, Dunedin, Clyde, and Cromwell, with varying results. At Timaru he was greeted with rotten eggs. His constant tours took him into the, to him, comparatively unknown territory of the North Island. He dealt with this new atmosphere in his own Barnumesque way, by building up a “story” which would impress the Northerners. With him on the stage at Auckland was an old whaler he claimed to have met in 1835 (Barry would have been 16 then, but at least it was possible), and three Maori chiefs. He had a long audience with Tawhaio in July 1882, and was made godfather to a child of Te Ake. One of the chiefs then presented him with one of his daughters as prospective wife, together with a concession to mine for tin in the King Country. Barry, no doubt pleased at these testmonials to his oratory, went reef prospecting to Te Aroha, while the Native Land Court debated the legality of the tin concession.
But, though ageing, Barry was not becoming set in his ways. He lectured in Marlborough in 1883 on “Kings and Chiefs I Have Met and Cannibals I Have Seen”, and was again involved in trouble when the charge was made that his material came out of a book by Archibald Forbes. As a variation in technique, he challenged, and beat, a man named Maxted in a horse race.
The West Coast, Dunedin, Poverty Bay, and other places saw him in 1883. He appeared for a time with the skeleton of a whale, which he sold to the Dunedin Museum. In Cromwell he announced his intention of retrning to the King Country to marry the chief's one-eyed daughter–and then he was in a Sydney again. Here occurred an odd flashback to the Tichborne case. He was fined in a Sydney Court for assaulting one Tichborne Smith. Barry addressed the Court for an hour, apparently to everyone's enjoyment, and produced a wi tness called Edward Orton. But this was merely a prelude to greater things. Aged 65, he next appeared in a boxing ring, and in July 1886 he gave a in a boxing ring, and in July 1886 he gave a “farewell” concert which was most successful. But Barry took some time to leave Sydney and, later, made several more “farewell” appearnces in Melbourne and Adelaide. It was 1891 before he was back in New Zealand, on the old Cromwell, Bannockburn, Queenstown circuit. Finally the Native Land Court granted him his tin licence, but after a time in the King Country (and a term in hospital in Auckland) he was asking for coalmining rights.
At 79 he brought out a new book, entitled Past and Present, and Men of the Times, and petitioned the Government to grant him a pension in consideration of his services to the colony. Even this was not the end. He paid a last trip to Sydney, remaining there until August 1905.
He died in Christchurch on 24 April 1907, and was well remembered in his passing. A verse by Thomas Bracken does not overstate his case:
‘Who told about the wondrous ores
That lie around New Zealand's shores,
And showed Sir George his Cromwell boars?
Why, Captain Jackson Barry!’
William Jackson Barry was a strange phenomenon in which it is difficult to separate legend from fact. In legend he was a stormy, impetuous, two-fisted character out of the romantic past–and it must be said that Barry himself wilfully did nothing to dispel that legend. In fact he was friendly, humorous, justice loving, and generally well liked–and was undoubtedly New Zealand's greatest literary liar. He was New Zealand's de Rougemont, as de Rougemont was Australia's Munchausen. It is a strange reflection that Australia may also well claim him as her own.
by Cedric Raymond Mentiplay, M.A., DIP.JOURN., Journalist and Parliamentary Press Correspondent, Wellington and Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.
- Governor's Files G2/2, G26/1, G28/8 (MSS), National Archives
- Heart of the Desert, Parcell, J. C. (1951).