Pioneer settler and explorer.
George Duppa was born in 1819 at Hillingbourne House near Maidstone in Kent. He was the fifth and youngest son of Baldwin Duppa and of Mary, daughter of Major-General Gladwyn.
In May 1839, for £800, George Duppa purchased from the New Zealand Company in London eight properties in Wellington, each comprising one town acre and 100 country acres. Eight months later he arrived at Port Nicholson in the Oriental to find that, owing to a delay in the surveys, he was unable to receive all his land. Indeed, he found ultimately that his order of choice of sections could not be exercised at all, as the only land to which it could refer was situated in the Wairarapa, a district which, at that time, had not been purchased from the natives. In spite of this, with a group of other Kentish men, he immediately began clearing land on the west bank of the Hutt River about 1 mile from the sea. Some weeks later, following a river flood, an earthquake, and a disastrous fire which destroyed settlers' dwellings in nearby “Cornish Row”, Duppa moved to Oriental Bay, Wellington, and there erected the prefabricated house that he had brought out from England.
In February 1841, in London, Duppa's elder brother Bryan wrote a now famous letter to the New Zealand Company suggesting the foundation of a second, larger settlement. The directors adopted this plan (with slight modifications) and advised the principal agent in Wellington of their intention to name this second colony Nelson. In June 1841 Colonel Wakefield requested George Duppa to accompany Captain E. Daniell in the Bailey to observe and report upon the country and harbours in and near Banks Peninsula with a view to selecting a site for Nelson. Duppa ascended the Avon for 8 miles from its mouth, but Captain Daniell's promising report on the suitability of Port Cooper and its hinterland was disapproved of by Governor Hobson. The company finally directed the settlement to Blind Bay (now Tasman Bay).
Duppa attempted to have his Wellington land orders honoured by the Company in Nelson but was refused. He thereupon imported cattle from Australia and shipped them to Nelson where he squatted upon unoccupied land at Allington in the Wai-iti Valley on the east side of the Waimea River. His occupancy prospered and he was soon depasturing stock for the settlers in Nelson town itself. After long and acrimonious negotiations with the New Zealand Company he was granted 200 acres in the Waimea and, in addition, in 1849, depasturing rights at Birch Hill, an 8,000-acre run in the Upper Wairau Valley where he had already been squatting for two years.
After visiting the Amuri district in the spring of 1852, Duppa applied for a vast area stretching from the Cheviot Hills to the main divide. His repeated applications were declined, but at length he was granted the lease of part of the Lowry Peaks country, and this formed the foundation of the huge St. Leonards station. He held the western part of this run in trust for his nephew, Bryan Phillip Darell Duppa. Both Darell and a younger brother, Euston, worked as cadets on St. Leonards until its sale, and Euston was later a pioneer in Arizona. St. Leonards was named by George Duppa after a suburb of Hastings, in Sussex.
As his fortune mounted, his overmastering passion drove him to act without scruple. During his occupancy of the Birch Hill and St. Leonards stations (1852–62) he does not seem to have hesitated to evade his moral or legal obligations when this improved his own position. For instance, he seems to have encouraged his sheep to graze on neighbours' runs as well as on his own, to a more than usual degree in a day of no boundary fences, and this seems to be one of the cases which led to the introduction of restrictions on trespass. Less creditable than Duppa's effort to avoid paying his annual dues to the Commissioner of Crown Lands (by the simple expedient of transferring 3,000 sheep from Birch Hill to St. Leonards) was his attempt to defraud Robert Ross, the manager of his St. Leonards run, of wages due to him. Ross's consequent legal action did nothing to dispel the resentment already created in settlers' minds by Duppa's infringement of the unwritten code whereby squatters did not bid for land on their neighbours' runs.
Duppa's reputation as an explorer rests mainly on his enterprise in pioneering a high-country route for the transference of stock between his two stations. This route had been previously traversed on foot by Weld and Clifford in April 1855. After an unsuccessful attempt by Travers several months later to follow in the explorers' footsteps, George Duppa with C. H. Brown conquered the route on horseback. Leaving Tophouse on 25 April 1865, the two arrived in Christchurch 10 days afterwards, none the worse for their long journey. Duppa returned over the same country later in the same year and thus proved the possibility of driving sheep overland from Nelson and Marlborough to the Canterbury plains.
In 1862 he sold St. Leonards for a fabulous sum and, in the following year, returned to his native Kent, where he purchased his ancestral home from a nephew. Here he lived the life of a country squire, served as a Magistrate and High Sheriff (1875) of the county and gained a reputation as “an ardent sports man, a consistent Churchman and a sound and energetic Conservative”. In 1870, described as an “Australian millionaire”, Duppa married Alice Catherine, eldest daughter of Philip John William Miles, of Leigh Court, Somerset—a society beauty said to have been many years his junior—and they had one son. Duppa died on 5 January 1888.
One of the first men to make a fortune in New Zealand, George Duppa was a colourful figure whose lack of public spiritedness was most untypical of early settlers in this country. As a young man he was described as able, energetic, well spoken, well connected, and good looking—“a handsome dark eyed man with a face like a Spaniard, descended from the Bishop Duppa of Charles II's reign”. He was musical and could sing well, and was a splendid horseman who could ride a race in finished style. Yet he was held in scant respect by his contemporaries and took no part in the civic affairs of the young colony; indeed, he made no secret of the fact that his guiding ambition was to make a fortune so that he could return to England to live at ease in his birthplace at Hollingbourne. The self-confident, crudely selfish, unscrupulous, and at times parsimonious manner in which he pursued this purpose finally led to the material success he sought; but it never endeared him to his fellow colonists.
by Herbert Alexander Horace Insull, M.A., DIP.SOC.SC., Principal, Marlborough College, Blenheim.
- Amuri—a County History, Gardner, W. J. (1956)
- Nelson Province, 1642–1882. Field, A. N. (1942).