Story: Carrington, Frederic Alonzo

Page 1: Biography

Carrington, Frederic Alonzo

1808?–1901

Surveyor, public administrator, politician, provincial superintendent

This biography, written by J. S. Tullett, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.

Frederic Alonzo Carrington was born in Chelmsford, Essex, England, and baptised there on 26 July 1808. He was the third son of Elizabeth Peters and her husband, William Henry Carrington, Royal Marine barrack master at Douglas on the Isle of Man. He married Margaret Gaine in London on 3 December 1833; they were to have four daughters and one son. Carrington's grandfather and great-grandfather were prebendaries and chancellors of the diocese of Exeter.

Carrington trained under Colonel Robert Dawson, a distinguished military engineer, surveyor and draughtsman. In January 1826 the Duke of Wellington appointed him to the Ordnance Survey Department. He surveyed a large tract of land in Wales and adjacent English counties, and revised their boundaries. Impressed by his ability, his superiors chose him to determine the boundaries of the boroughs from Bristol to Manchester as required by the parliamentary reform of 1832. Carrington's genius for minute representation of hill country is evident from his published drawings of areas from Hereford to Halifax. They were prepared in the map office of the Tower of London, and covered thousands of square miles.

Early in 1839 Carrington met William Mein Smith, soon to be appointed surveyor general of the New Zealand Company, and the directors of its subsidiary, the Plymouth Company. The company intended to take over some of the New Zealand Company's land, sell it to potential colonists from the west of England and organise settlement. Carrington was appointed chief surveyor of the Plymouth Company, and his younger brother, Augustus Octavius Croker Carrington (known as Octavius), became first assistant surveyor. In 1841 the Plymouth Company was absorbed by the New Zealand Company.

The two brothers travelled separately to New Zealand to avoid possible disaster. Frederic reached Wellington on the London on 12 December 1840 with his wife and three children; Octavius arrived on the Slains Castle early in the following year.

In early January 1841, after meeting Colonel William Wakefield, principal agent of the New Zealand Company, Carrington sailed for Taranaki on the 250 ton Brougham, and from there to Port Hardy, D'Urville Island, Queen Charlotte Sound and other prospective sites for the Plymouth Company settlement. He was accompanied by Richard Barrett, guide and interpreter. On 8 February 1841 the Brougham again sailed for Taranaki, with the Carrington brothers, Frederic's wife, Margaret, and their children, and John Rogan, second assistant surveyor, and other members of the surveying team.

In the Waitara region Carrington found land ideal for general farming and a river suitable for some shipping but limited by its shallow bar and frequent rough seas. He selected instead a site for the settlement near the Sugar Loaf Islands, 10 miles to the south, and began surveying work at once. The undulating topography, dense vegetation, wet, cold weather and very primitive accommodation made it a formidable task. Further, problems with Maori in the district, and with some of his own men, hindered progress. But by 4 November he had produced a map of the future New Plymouth. It showed 2,267 half acre sections surveyed and ready for selection.

While Carrington's site was criticised by Europeans for its lack of a harbour, Maori disputed possession of the land. Further, the depression of the early 1840s left Carrington short of money and materials, and the resident agent of the New Zealand Company, John Tylston Wicksteed, was required to reduce his establishment. Contracts for cutting survey lines ended and the wages of many of Carrington's workers were reduced. Carrington was advised by Wicksteed that his employment as chief surveyor would cease on 31 March 1844. In the event Carrington with his wife and family left Taranaki for England in August 1843. Octavius carried on as chief surveyor, but in a caretaker role and without pay. Another brother, Wellington, also a surveyor, had joined his brothers in 1841, and stayed on to look after the company's interests at Waitara.

An extremely conscientious, skilful and dedicated surveyor and draughtsman, Frederic Carrington left frustrated and disappointed. His papers include a lifelong daily diary which shows him to have been a fastidious and humane family man, intolerant of arrogance and prejudice in those in positions of authority but lavish with praise where he felt it was deserved. He was deeply concerned at his treatment by the company, and his diary reflects worry over money matters. It also contains forthright comment about his superiors, not all of whom, however, were critical of him. Captain Henry King, chief commissioner in New Zealand of the former Plymouth Company, praised his achievement and ideals. The New Zealand Company gave him a testimonial. Carrington was highly respected by his equals and popular with his workers, to whom he was unfailingly courteous.

Arriving in England on 24 January 1844 Carrington immediately sought re-employment with the Ordnance Survey Department. The chief clerk gave him a polite but cold reception and advised him that there would be no vacancy and no recommendation to other departments. Carrington wrote in his diary: 'I fancy he must be directly or indirectly connected with the Company'.

On 6 June 1844 Carrington gave evidence on the state of the colony of New Zealand before a select committee of the House of Commons, in the course of which he severely criticised the conduct of the New Zealand Company towards him, and argued that the Maori occupied only small areas of land, so that title should be easy to obtain. He had two audiences with the Consort, Prince Albert, who was interested in his collection of specimens and curiosities. This collection, consisting of birds, skins, insects, Maori mats, models of canoes, war clubs, spears, native knives, musical instruments, carvings, and specimens of indigenous timber and Taranaki ironsand, was exhibited in several centres.

Carrington then became involved in surveying for railways and harbours. His systems of surface delineation and plan modelling, and his skills in drainage and roading, earned him a prize medal in the Great Exhibition of 1851. He also gave much time to New Zealand affairs, particularly in connection with his Taranaki ironsand samples, which impressed British experts. Between 1851 and 1856 he visited California three times to advise on mining problems, water races and railways. He also worked in France and Belgium for British engineering firms.

In January 1857 Carrington and his family returned to New Zealand. He intended to exploit Taranaki ironsand, set himself up as a real estate agent and work on his plans for a harbour at New Plymouth. But soon after his arrival he was appointed government engineer and surveyor for Taranaki. During the wars of the 1860s he assisted the military to establish an adequate system of roads in the province.

On 9 September 1869 Carrington was elected provincial superintendent of Taranaki, a position he held until the abolition of the provincial system in 1876. In 1870 he became MHR for Omata, and from 1871 to 1879 represented Grey and Bell. His major concern in politics was to advance the cause of an adequate local harbour. 'Nothing less than a harbour at the Sugar Loaves would enable us to have a fair share of the advantages administered to other provinces', he wrote to the premier, Julius Vogel, in 1872.

The New Plymouth Harbour Endowment Bill, which he introduced in 1874, provided that a quarter (or less if the provincial council so decided) of Taranaki's land fund should be spent on harbour construction. It passed the House of Representatives, and the provincial council authorised the raising of a loan. However, a further proposal for building a prison at New Plymouth and employing prison labour on the construction of the harbour aroused great controversy. Though supported by the harbour board, the House in 1876 deferred consideration of a central gaol at New Plymouth. In effect the plan was defeated. Nevertheless, in February 1881, 40 years after selecting the site of the town, Carrington, who had been first chairman of the harbour board, laid the foundation stone of the New Plymouth breakwater. Progress was slow; it was not until 1886 that overseas ships were able to berth alongside the breakwater to unload and load small cargoes.

An ordinance of 1875 constituting a board of trustees for a public recreation ground was the last enactment of the Taranaki Provincial Council. It was confirmed by statute in the following year. On 29 May 1876 Superintendent Carrington ceremonially opened Pukekura Park; this botanic garden became the jewel of the city's outdoor recreation grounds.

In failing health and unable to continue in politics, Carrington retired in 1880. Almost to the last his well-known, erect figure was seen daily in the town. Margaret Carrington died in 1888; Frederic Carrington died in his sleep on 15 July 1901. A street is named after him, and a marble tablet erected by his daughters in St Mary's Church celebrates him as 'The Father of New Plymouth'.

How to cite this page:

J. S. Tullett. 'Carrington, Frederic Alonzo', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1990. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1c7/carrington-frederic-alonzo (accessed 16 October 2019)