SMITH, William Mein
Soldier, surveyor, and artist.
A new biography of Smith, William Mein appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
William Mein Smith was born in Cape Town in 1798, the son of a civilian officer of the Admiralty. Like so many more of those who figured prominently in the early days of New Zealand colonisation, his origins were military. He entered the British Army as a cadet in 1813, and in the course of service in Canada, Gibraltar, and at Woolwich Academy rose to the rank of Captain. While in Canada he married the daughter of General Basgrave Wallace. As a captain, he also held a professorial post in plan drawing at the Woolwich Royal Military Academy, and it was in that capacity that he became Surveyor-General to the New Zealand Company in 1839. He sailed from London with three other surveyors in the Cuba and arrived at Port Nicholson in January 1840. He chose Thorndon as the site of a city when his proposal in favour of Petone (Britannia) was rejected following a Hutt Valley flood. He was also a member of the committee set up for the maintenance of law and order in April 1840, and was gazetted a Magistrate in 1841. He still had his military affiliations, but in 1842 he retired from the Army and in the following year sold his commission.
Smith's surveying activities covered a large part of New Zealand. He began with land selection in the Wanganui area and spent a lot of time in the Wairarapa. In September 1842 he was commissioned by Colonel Wakefield to survey South Island harbours along the east coast, a task which took him three months. Unfortunately, much of the valuable data he compiled was lost when his cutter The Brothers foundered in a squall at Akaroa. He took part in the hostilities with the Maoris in 1845 as a captain of the Thorndon militia, but in 1847 he forsook public affairs and, with Samuel Revans, a former newspaper partner of Henry Samuel Chapman in Canada, took over Huangaroa Station in the Wairarapa. This comprised 22,000 acres of freehold and 30,000 acres of leasehold. While Smith was associated with this venture it did well but after his death in 1869 Revans found it a costly business. Smith found time as a pastoralist to serve in the Legislative Council in 1851, and in 1858 he was elected to represent the Wairarapa in the Wellington Provincial Council, a post which he held until his retirement in 1865.
Smith was of a scholarly turn of mind. He was a man of simple tastes, quiet and unobtrusive in manner, and keenly interested in mathematics, art, and natural science. As such he was at the time regarded as a strange partner for the fiery, dogmatic, and frequently unscrupulous Samuel Revans, but his influence on Revans must have been strong because the Huangaroa Station enterprise flourished as long as Smith was associated with it. The facility with pencil and brush that had secured Smith the professorship of plan drawing at Woolwich stood him in good stead throughout his years in New Zealand. In his sketches and water colours, he captured much of the contemporary scene and these charming, if unpretentious, studies are now recognised as having great historical value. His years in the region of Martinborough, where Huangaroa Station was, located, produced some most interesting water colours, examples of which were displayed by the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, as recently as April 1961. His work also includes some sketches of the Wellington area of the early days, and a number of varied studies of the western coastline from Porirua to Otaki and in the vicinity of the mouth of the Manawatu River.
Mein Smith died at Greytown on 3 January 1869.
by Ronald Jones, Journalist and Script Writer, New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, Wellington.
- Early New Zealand Engineers, Furkert, F. W. (1953)
- Wellington Independent, 5 Jan 1869 (Obit).