Story: Stokes, John Lort

Page 1: Biography

Stokes, John Lort

1811?–1885

Naval officer, hydrographer

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

John Lort Stokes was baptised at Prendergast, Pembrokeshire, Wales, on 3 September 1811. He was the second son of Anne Phillips, the daughter of a doctor, and her husband, Henry Stokes. In 1824 John Stokes joined HMS Prince Regent as a first class volunteer. The following year he was transferred to HMS Beagle, on which he served three commissions, from 1828 to 1836, under the command of Robert FitzRoy. From 1826 to 1830 and from 1831 to 1836 the Beagle surveyed the southern parts of South America, and, with Stokes as assistant surveyor, made a circumnavigation of the globe to compile a meridian distance survey. This was a subject in which Stokes continued to interest himself. On this voyage the Beagle visited the Bay of Islands briefly in 1835.

In February 1837 Stokes was promoted to lieutenant, and appointed assistant surveyor to J. C. Wickham on the third voyage of the Beagle. When Wickham left the service because of illness in March 1841, Stokes assumed command, being confirmed in this position later that year. On this voyage the Beagle surveyed the north-west coast of Australia, Torres Strait and the Arafura Sea, and produced the first adequate survey of Bass Strait. The voyage also left Stokes nursing an Aborigine spear wound.

At Sydney, Australia, on 21 January 1841, Stokes married Fanny Jane Marlay; they had one daughter. Returning to England in 1843, Stokes spent the next two years recording his Australian voyage in Discoveries of Australia, which was published in London in 1846. Promoted to captain in July that year, he was appointed in October 1847 to command HMS Acheron, which was to make the first full hydrographical survey of New Zealand, between November 1848 and March 1851. The Acheron sailed from Plymouth on 21 January 1848, and after calling at Rio de Janeiro, the Cape of Good Hope and Australia, arrived at Auckland on 7 November. Sadly, the journey was marred for the Acheron's captain by the death of Fanny Stokes; she was buried at Simonstown, South Africa.

The new colony lacked a detailed coastal survey. Its chain of New Zealand Company settlements was linked by a growing number of local craft and trading vessels, but the greatest need was for safe havens and anchorage for the immigrant passenger vessels. The Acheron, a paddle-steamer built originally to carry mail between Malta and Marseilles, was an experiment and a novelty in New Zealand waters. Stokes first surveyed the Waitemata Harbour, before travelling south at the end of January 1849 to Wellington, Akaroa, Lyttelton and Otago. He then undertook an examination of Cook Strait, the Marlborough Sounds and Nelson coastal waters. After maintenance and coaling in Sydney, an extensive itinerary took the Acheron from Auckland to as far south as Bluff, and Ruapuke and Stewart islands. Stokes next surveyed Cook Strait, visiting Kapiti Island, Port Gore and Tory Channel. On the final leg of the Acheron's journey he investigated Foveaux Strait and the south-west fiords, including Dusky and Milford sounds.

The Acheron's voyage produced many valuable charts, coastal views showing landmarks such as harbour entry points, 'astronomically determined' positions giving longitude, latitude and tidal range, and reports of geographical, scientific and human interest. Stokes made major corrections to existing charts of the South Island, producing the first accurate chart of Foveaux Strait. In addition to his own team of nautical experts, including G. H. Richards and F. J. O. Evans, both of whom later became Royal Navy hydrographers, he was accompanied by a number of able naturalists, such as David Lyall, and on the last Cook Strait expedition, William Swainson. Several reports of inland explorations were made, including Stokes's own accounts of the Waimakariri valley and the Canterbury Plains. His renaming of coastal features, however, was somewhat unimaginative. While exploring the Foveaux Strait area, Stokes reported to Governor George Grey that local Maori were willing to sell land to the government; negotiations for the Murihiku block subsequently began in 1852.

Charlotte Godley, who travelled on the Acheron from Wellington to Lyttelton in November 1850, described its captain as a kindly, stout, grey-haired man, although she deplored his 'unsailor-like' looks and manners. With his devout nineteenth century seaman's faith in a supreme being, his strong sense of justice and duty, and a shrewd yet tolerant view of humanity, Stokes inspired admiration and devotion. The Waimakariri chief, Tau, hoped that the record of the voyage would be printed in English and Maori. Stokes published an account of the survey in the Nautical Magazine and Naval Chronicle in June 1851. An informal narrative of the Acheron's journey, long attributed to Stokes, was in fact written by a clerk on board, G. A. Hansard, and is now held in two parts, the first in the National Maritime Museum, London, and the second in the Hocken Library, Dunedin. An example of the Acheron narrative's historical value is an account, from eye-witness memory, of the sacking of Kaiapoi pa in 1831.

Stokes returned to England after the Acheron was paid off in Sydney in 1851. Although he felt that the survey could have been extended and completed within a few months, the Acheron was instead replaced by the less manoeuvrable, sail-powered Pandora, which continued the survey for another four years. Stokes married Louisa French Garratt, formerly Partridge, a widow. It is not known where or when the marriage took place. From 1859 to 1862 he was engaged in surveying the east coast of Devon and the River Tamar. He was promoted to rear admiral in 1864, vice admiral in 1871 and admiral in 1877.

After his retirement from the navy in 1878, Stokes lived at Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire, where he was made a county magistrate. He died there on 11 June 1885. John Lort Stokes's hydrographical surveys were highly regarded for their accuracy. A measure of his skill is that his survey of New Zealand waters, the first of its kind, remained in use until the 1930s.

How to cite this page:

Sheila Natusch. 'Stokes, John Lort', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1990. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1s24/stokes-john-lort (accessed 19 November 2018)