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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.


PURCHAS, Arthur Guyon


Clergyman, surgeon, musician.

Arthur Purchas was born in 1821 at St. Avans Grange in the Wye Valley, Monmouthshire, and was the son of Robert Whittlesey Purchas and his wife Marion. He was educated privately and, in 1836, was apprenticed to a doctor at Tintern. In 1839 he entered Guy's Hospital, where he studied under the eminent doctors Addison and Bright. After three years there he gained his M.R.C.S. and L.S.A. and was appointed resident surgeon at Southern and Toxteth Hospital, Liverpool. While still a student Purchas had heard Bishop Selwyn preach on the work he had undertaken in New Zealand. He volunteered immediately, but Selwyn, no doubt recognising the potential value of having a medical missionary in the colony, advised him to complete his studies before coming to New Zealand.

In 1844 Purchas sailed for New Zealand as ship's surgeon in the Slains Castle. He interviewed Selwyn at Nelson and, subsequently, visited Wellington, New Plymouth, and Auckland before returning to England via Sydney. Back in England he busied himself with missionary affairs and in 1845 married Olivia, daughter of Charles Challenor, of Liverpool. Early in 1846 Purchas sailed again for New Zealand and joined the staff of St. John's College, where he gave valuable service as medical officer. Meanwhile, he continued his studies for the ministry and was ordained deacon in 1847 and priest in 1853. Purchas was inducted as vicar of St. Peter's, Onehunga, in 1847 and served this parish until 1875 when he resigned to resume medical practice.

In addition to his activities in medicine and the Church, Purchas possessed many other interests. Mrs Selwyn wrote in her Reminiscences: “… besides acting in his medical capacity he was a great gain to the community from his musical powers, he taught the boys, both English and Maori, to sing and the Chapel services were greatly enhanced by their music”. Later, Purchas was one of the compilers of the New Zealand Church Hymnal and it is also recorded that he helped to found the Sydney Choral Society during his short stay in the city when returning to England from his first visit to New Zealand. There is also evidence for believing that he assisted Selwyn and Thatcher in designing the well-known “Selwyn Churches”. Mrs Selwyn refers to his sketching ability and he certainly did a great deal of architectural work for St. Peter's and its vicarage. Dr Giles, writing to the New Zealand Herald in 1906, said that Purchas designed the famous fortified church of St. Bride's at Mauku.

Purchas was one of the founders of the Auckland Institute and served as its president on several occasions. He was a member of the Scenery Preservation Society and took a keen interest in the Blind Institute from its inception. This latter appealed to his ideal of community service and he not only gave music lessons to the blind but also invented a speedy method of preparing metal plates for printing Braille.

Arthur Purchas's contribution to the growth of the colony will probably never be fully evaluated. He came at the beginning of colonisation and lived to witness the country's development from tents and shanties to towns and cities – from primitive settlement to dawning nationhood. He sought neither personal wealth nor fame, but was content to serve the community as doctor and priest on a modest stipend of £90 a year. He stimulated the cultural life of the colony and played a part in fostering the growth of respect and understanding between Maori and Pakeha.

Purchas died on 28 May 1906 at Hastings, Hawke's Bay, and was buried at Purewa, Auckland. He was survived by 10 children, four sons and six daughters, of his family of 14. The New Zealand Herald paid him this tribute: “He laid the foundations of all that is good and true in the social life of the colony”. This recognition is surely a fitting culmination for one whose boyhood ambition was to serve humanity.

by Cyril Roy Knight, M.A., BARCH. (LIVERPOOL), F.R.I.B.A., F.R.S.A., F.N.Z.I.A., Professor Emeritus, University of Auckland.

  • History of St. Peter's, Onehunga, Soar, F. E. (1948)
  • Reminiscences…, Selwyn, S. H. (1961)
  • New Zealand Herald, 29, 31 May 1906 (Obits).


Cyril Roy Knight, M.A., BARCH. (LIVERPOOL), F.R.I.B.A., F.R.S.A., F.N.Z.I.A., Professor Emeritus, University of Auckland.