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Story: Kettle, Charles Henry

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Kettle, Charles Henry


Surveyor, public servant, farmer

This biography, written by Brad Patterson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990. It was updated in March, 2014.

Charles Henry Kettle was born in Kent, England, probably on 6 April 1821; his father was Matthew Kettle. Much of his early life remains obscure. Reputedly from a respectable, if impecunious, background, and of good education, he was employed as a teaching assistant at Faversham Grammar School, Kent, between 1835 and 1839. He sailed for New Zealand on the Oriental in 1839, arriving at Port Nicholson (Wellington) on 31 January 1840.

Kettle was initially employed as a clerk before being appointed, in February 1841, as a cadet in William Mein Smith's first survey corps. His aptitude for colonial land division was soon apparent, and he was promoted to assistant surveyor within five months, despite his lack of formal training. Having proven his abilities laying out sections west of the first town of Wellington and on marine surveys, he was placed in charge of surveys in the Manawatu district. He was kept on at a lower rank after William Mein Smith's replacement by Samuel Brees in March 1842.

In May 1842 Kettle embarked on his most celebrated Wellington venture. Proceeding up the Manawatu River, he led an exploration party into Northern Wairarapa. The party proceeded back to Wellington via the Wairarapa valley. Kettle's observations arising from this trip and from a brief return visit in the following summer helped stimulate pastoral penetration of the district after 1844. In January 1843, however, Kettle was made redundant and he sailed for England two months later.

Kettle now became a publicist for the projected New Edinburgh settlement in Otago. For almost two years he travelled widely, often in the company of George Rennie and Thomas Burns, gathering support for the settlement. At the instigation of the New Zealand Company's Court of Directors, he appeared as an expert witness before the House of Commons Select Committee on New Zealand, in June 1844. September 1845 saw Kettle appointed to head the survey of the new settlement. He also married Amelia Omer. The marriage ceremony took place in the parish of St Peter, Sandwich, Kent, on 10 September 1845. The couple were to have 10 children. Charles and Amelia Kettle arrived in Otago in February 1846.

Kettle's Otago surveys involved the first extensive use of trigonometrical methods in New Zealand; the laying out of the required urban and rural lands was painstakingly executed. Although much of the sectional survey work was contracted out, Kettle reserved to himself the connection of the constituent parts. By March 1848 the outlines of the surveys were virtually complete. Although the survey force was then discharged, Kettle's services were retained. For the next two years, with the exception of a brief posting to Akaroa to delineate reserves in connection with the land purchased by H. T. Kemp, Kettle also assumed full responsibility for the distribution and registration of lands in the settlement. At the same time the exploration of lands outside the Otago purchase was put in hand. Kettle gained the reputation of being 'a man of solid parts…an eminently useful man'; one, moreover, willing to drive himself unceasingly, to the point of ill health.

There was, however, a succession of quarrels between Kettle and his subordinates, and between company officials and Kettle. Differences with William Cargill, leader of the Otago settlers, intensified after the demise of the New Zealand Company in 1850. The clash of two strong personalities was exacerbated by uncertainty as to the authority of each, and by Kettle's perceived increasing association with the English 'Little Enemy'. In 1851 Cargill claimed the right to dismiss Kettle; the surveyor refused to be dismissed. To break the impasse, Kettle was appointed government surveyor of Otago in February 1852, and deputy registrar of deeds six months later. While Kettle was sporadically employed on official work between 1852 and 1854, including surveys relating to Walter Mantell's Murihiku purchase, his standing was systematically undermined. At the end of 1854 he resigned both his offices.

Kettle had prudently taken every opportunity to secure his future. As early as 1848 he was reported to be illicitly grazing sheep at the Taieri, and in 1851 he was a successful applicant for depasturage licences in the East Taieri and Tokomairiro districts. Two years later he secured the 25,000 acre Run No 25 in the Molyneux (Clutha) district. This property, known as Kaihiku, was to be the focus of Kettle's attention for the next six years. He was as successful as grazier as he had been as surveyor; he was able to sell his licence and retire to Dunedin in 1860. Characteristically, too, his occupation of the run had been punctuated by court actions aimed at ensuring the sanctity of his boundaries.

Throughout his life Kettle was involved in community affairs. Education, youth work and the temperance movement all drew his attention. Moreover, befitting a muscular Anglican, he was a keen cricketer. He also periodically sought public office. Having unsuccessfully sought the chief commissionership of the Waste Land Board in 1857, he failed to gain election to the Otago Provincial Council after his retirement to Dunedin. In February 1861, however, Kettle was returned unopposed to the House of Representatives as member for Bruce, but was inconspicuous in his single session. Appointed provincial auditor in January 1862, he served less than six months before succumbing to typhoid fever on 5 June 1862, the result, it was said, of too close an examination of Dunedin's primitive sanitation system.

Tall, austere, habitually black-clad, Kettle's unbending allegiance to his principles left him respected by many, but seemingly, loved by few.

How to cite this page:

Brad Patterson. 'Kettle, Charles Henry', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1990, updated March, 2014. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1k11/kettle-charles-henry (accessed 24 May 2024)