Story: Carter, Charles Rooking

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Carter, Charles Rooking

1822–1896

Builder, businessman, politician, writer, philanthropist

This biography, written by G. H. Sutherland, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990, and updated in December, 2005.

Charles Rooking Carter was born in Kendal, Westmorland, England, on 10 March 1822, the second son of John Carter, a builder, and his wife, Hannah. An older brother, John, died in 1832. Charles's early education was by tutor in his own home until 1835, when he began two years at Samuel Marshall's Quaker school in Kendal. After his father's death from consumption in 1837, Charles was bound as an apprentice carpenter and joiner for seven years to John Brocklebank, of Staveley, near Kendal. When this firm foundered in 1839, Carter became apprenticed as a builder in Penrith. In September 1839 he began work as an apprentice in Gateshead, near Newcastle upon Tyne, where he remained until 1843.

During these years Carter read widely and attended evening classes at the Institution for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in Newcastle upon Tyne, became a total abstainer, took a keen interest in the activities of the Chartists and the Anti-Corn Law League, and wrote extensively on economic matters and labour conditions. From 1843 to 1850 Carter lived in London. He was often out of employment and, with a strong desire for self-improvement, attended adult classes at the Westminster Literary Institution. His liking for writing flourished and in 1848, under the name of 'Argus', he drew attention to New Zealand by writing a series of letters to newspapers, including the Weekly Times. He became a strong advocate of emigration, particularly to New Zealand. Carter was greatly influenced by the 1848 Liberal risings in Europe, and was later to describe himself as a liberal reformer. He acted as secretary of the movement which resulted in a shorter working Saturday for many London shops. On 6 March 1850 he married Jane Robertson (also known as Jean Robieson) of Turriff, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, at St James's Church, Piccadilly. Their only child, Jane Caroline, born in 1851, died of scarlet fever in London in 1870.

After their marriage Charles and Jane Carter sailed for New Zealand in the barque Eden, arriving in Wellington on 28 November 1850. Carter began business as a builder, soon becoming a leader in his trade. He completed many early buildings in Wellington, including the House of Assembly and provincial government offices in 1857, and was responsible for the early reclamations of land from the harbour, the construction of sea-walls, and the first bridge over the Waiohine River in Wairarapa. Later he was to negotiate, on behalf of the provincial council, contracts for an iron wharf and patent slip in Wellington and the iron bridge over the Wanganui River. His business interests in Wellington included the operation of a brickyard and the promotion of a steamship company, and he practised as a surveyor and valuer. He was also one of the commissioners who reported on the Wellington earthquake of 1855.

In 1853 Carter and Joseph Masters persuaded Governor George Grey to buy the first blocks of land for settlement in Wairarapa, and they were on the committee of the Small Farm Association, the organisation largely responsible for the settlement of Masterton and Greytown. Carter acquired, by a series of purchases, a large area of land in the Taratahi block, and his work for the district led, in 1859, to the new town of Carterton being named after him. Carter was involved with the Small Farm Association until its liquidation, and his suggestion in 1867 that unsold town sections should be used for educational purposes within the district led to the establishment in 1872 of the Greytown and Masterton Trust Lands trusts.

Carter represented Wairarapa in the General Assembly from 1859 to 1865; he also represented Wairarapa from 1857 to 1864 in the provincial council, where he supported Superintendent Isaac Earl Featherston in his struggle with Edward Jerningham Wakefield. During his absence in England between 1863 and 1867 he retired from parliamentary life. He did, however, act as emigration agent for Wellington province while in England.

In England, where he spent most of the latter part of his life, he began work on a three-volume autobiography which, together with his writings on a number of New Zealand subjects, provides a valuable commentary on life and politics in the colony. He also became a great collector of books, especially books on New Zealand. In 1890 he presented a collection of 395 works on New Zealand to the New Zealand Institute and Colonial Museum and by the time of his death the collection exceeded 1,000 books. His gifts to the Carterton borough library made it one of the best in the country by the time of his death. In his will Carter left the residue of his estate to the New Zealand Institute for an astronomical observatory and this bequest led eventually to the establishment of the Carter Observatory in Wellington. By gift or by the personal influence of Carter, Carterton acquired sites for a cemetery, post office, court-house and police station. His most notable gifts to the town were the Carter Home for aged men, now known as Carter Court and accommodating both men and women, and the Carter Reserve, an area of bushland.

After Jane Carter's death in September 1895, Carter returned to Wellington, where he died on 22 July 1896; he was buried at Clareville cemetery. He had made a notable contribution to the growth of Wellington and towards the settlement of Wairarapa; and as a bibliophile and writer, his contribution to early New Zealand records and history is worthy of note.

How to cite this page:

G. H. Sutherland. 'Carter, Charles Rooking', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1990, updated December, 2005. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1c8/carter-charles-rooking (accessed 26 May 2018)