POTTS, Thomas Henry
A new biography of Potts, Thomas Henry appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Thomas Henry Potts was born on 23 November 1824, the son of Thomas Potts, small-arms manufacturer, and his wife, Mary Ann, née Freeman. He was christened at Brandon Church, Suffolk, on 16 July 1826. Through his father he inherited both a fortune and the family firm of Branders and Potts, later one of a group which formed the Birmingham Small Arms Co. Though Potts was trained as a gunmaker, his heart was in his hobbies – ornithology, entomology, and botany. On 2 April 1850 at the parish church of Bourton-on-Dunsmoor, Warwickshire, he married Emma, daughter of Henry Phillips. The wedding was not unnoticed by foreign dignitaries: a portrait of the bride and groom shows presents from Prince Louis Napoleon and an Indian prince. Three of the 13 children of this marriage were born at Croydon, the remainder in New Zealand.
After the death of his parents, Potts emigrated to New Zealand where his father-in-law had settled at Rockwood in the Malvern Hills, Canterbury. He made careful preparations for a new career, consulting with Kew as to the best plants to grow around homes in the young settlement. Before his departure for Lyttelton on the Ballanquith, on 24 April 1854, Potts sent out seeds, plants, and trees, including azaleas and rhododendrons, the first of their kind to be introduced into the province. These were the nucleus of his nursery at the corner of fashionable Tuam and Antigua Streets, Christchurch, from which seedlings were supplied to public and private gardens. In 1858 the family lived at “Ohinetahi”, Governors Bay, Lyttelton Harbour, the home most associated with them; and here, in a life spent mainly out of doors, Potts indulged his passion for nature study. Extensive explorations were made into the mountainous districts of Canterbury, Westland, and Banks Peninsula. His acute observations of nature gave to New Zealand literature unique records of birds and flora even then retreating before the progress of European occupation. Among new species discovered by Potts were the roa or great grey kiwi, and the black-billed gull.
Potts was a member of the Canterbury Provincial Council, for Port Victoria, from 1858 to 1861 and from 1866 to 1875, member of the House of Representatives for Mount Herbert from 1866 to 1870, and was the first parliamentarian to advocate forest conservation. A member of the Philosophical Society of Canterbury, the Canterbury Acclimatisation and Agricultural Societies, the Christchurch Domains' Board, and the board of trustees both of Canterbury College and Canterbury Museum, Potts played a full part in public life. He shared actively in the work of the magisterial bench and was one of the visiting Justices to the gaol where he took a keen interest in the welfare of prisoners. His church was St. Cuthbert's of Governors Bay, and here Potts delighted to serve in any capacity required.
A brisk, peppery, extremely strong, little man, witty and congenial, Potts was an expert cattleman, master of a 20 ft stockwhip. Loyal to his friends, Potts backed them financially against impossible odds, and of his fortune there was little but mortgages left when he died suddenly on 27 July 1888. After a life without a day's illness, he collapsed with a heart attack while making purchases in a stationery store. Best remembered for “Out in the Open”, a collection of scraps of natural history, Potts was a contributor to the Canterbury Times, the Field, London, the New Zealand Country Journal, the Journal of the Linnaean Society, the Transactions of the New Zealand Inst. and, unacknowledged, Buller's History of the Birds of New Zealand.
by Alan Drummond McKinnon, B.FOR.SC. Assistant Director (Forest Management) New Zealand Forest Service, Wellington and Lanna Coughlan, New Zealand Forest Service, Wellington.
- Press (Christchurch), 28 Jul 1888 (Obit).