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Story: Fyffe, Alexander Robert

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Fyffe, Alexander Robert


Whaler, runholder

This biography, written by Don Grady, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.

Alexander Robert Fyffe, known as Robert, was the son of James Fyffe and his wife, Elizabeth Stewart. He was baptised at St Martin's, Perthshire, Scotland, on 27 February 1811. Receiving little education, he worked for a year as a farm labourer and was apprenticed for a time as a wheelwright, an occupation he abandoned for a life at sea when he was 19 years old. For the next few years his whereabouts are unknown and he was presumably as peripatetic as all sailors. His acquaintance with New Zealand began in February 1836, when he sailed from Sydney, New South Wales, on the schooner Industry bound for Cloudy Bay, Marlborough. His fellow passengers included New Zealand's first shore-based whaler, John (Jacky) Guard, Guard's wife, Betty, and their two sons, John and Thomas.

Fyffe's destination suggests he may already have had some connection with the whaling industry. He worked for a few years in the Marlborough whale fishery with John Murray, but poor results led them to establish a shore-whaling station at Kaikōura in 1842. Fyffe thus was one of the founders of the European settlement at Kaikōura, where Guard joined him between 1844 and 1846. The Waiopuka fishery initially employed 40 men, but this number decreased in subsequent seasons. In 1845 Fyffe purchased a second station at South Bay, either from Murray or from their Wellington agent, John Wade. The collection of huts and buildings formed the nucleus of Fyffe's Village, the social and commercial centre of Kaikōura until 1867.

Fyffe, realising that the whaling industry was dying because of over-fishing, began to diversify his activities. He became involved in shipping, with his purchase in 1847 of the small craft Fidèle. He shipped supplies for Marlborough and Canterbury runholders such as the partners Charles Clifford and Frederick Weld, and his business extended as far south as Akaroa.

Farming, however, became Fyffe's mainstay. By 1849 he was grazing near Kaikōura a flock of sheep belonging to Wellington businessman Robert Waitt, who agreed to share with Fyffe the annual wool clip and the natural increase of the flock. After a successful application for a depasturage licence he ran his flock on a 200 square mile run between the Conway River and the Kaikōura Peninsula. In 1851 and 1853 he made the first formal applications for sheep runs in Kaikōura. For unknown reasons the licences were only secured by his executors six months after his death. Fyffe eventually owned 2,000 head of stock, among them 192 goats introduced to provide milk for the pioneer whalers, the progenitors of those goats which today rove the Marlborough back country.

In December 1853 Fyffe's young cousin George Fyffe, who had been a law student in Edinburgh, arrived in Wellington, having accepted his cousin's invitation to join him at Kaikōura. The partnership was short-lived. In late April 1854 Robert Fyffe was drowned while trying to escape from the Fidèle, which had capsized on a voyage to Wellington with a cargo of whale oil.

George Fyffe purchased Robert Fyffe's estate, including the right to whale for two seasons, at an executors' auction. He successfully ran the whaling station until 1866, while managing his own run and that of his late cousin. Fyffe House, built by George Fyffe near the Waiopuka whaling station in the 1850s, is still standing. It has come under the permanent protection of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust because of its historical and architectural significance.

How to cite this page:

Don Grady. 'Fyffe, Alexander Robert', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1990. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1f21/fyffe-alexander-robert (accessed 16 July 2024)