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Story: Whisker, Alexander

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Whisker, Alexander


Soldier, diarist

This biography, written by Janice C. Mogford, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.

Alexander Whisker was born at Markethill, County Armagh, Ireland, on 22 July 1819. He was the son of Catherine Jenkins and her husband, James Whisker. He enlisted in the British Army on 26 May 1838 and was posted to the 58th Rutlandshire Regiment of Foot. He married Flora Cook: it is not known when or where the marriage took place. A daughter, Mary Jean, was born while the regiment was stationed in Dublin on 10 September 1842, and a son, Charles, was born on 30 April 1844 at Chatham, while the regiment was awaiting trans-shipment to New South Wales for garrison duties. By March 1845 Whisker and his family were in barracks at Parramatta.

Whisker's stay at Parramatta was short. Reinforcements were needed to fight against Hone Heke and Kawiti's forces in New Zealand. No 3 Company of the 58th Regiment arrived in Auckland on 22 April 1845 aboard the Slains Castle en route for the Bay of Islands. The company was commanded by Captain C. W. Thompson, whose soldier-servant was Private Alexander Whisker. During May Whisker took part in three engagements, including the assault on Heke's pa at Puketutu and the subsequent retreat. Returning to Auckland, Whisker celebrated his survival in the local grog shops and as a result lost his soldier-servant position with all its privileges.

During this period Whisker kept a Memorandum Book in which he recorded, in a spontaneous style with misspellings and little punctuation, a detailed account of life as a soldier. He shared the predilection of his fellow soldiers for drinking, fighting, looting and complaining. He also, like them, accepted harsh discipline and living conditions.

Whisker had remained in Auckland when the company was sent north again in May 1845 and so missed Colonel Henry Despard's disastrous attack on Heke's pa at Ohaeawai in June and July. He followed later and visited the battle site and the graves of his comrades at Waimate North. His company joined the force sent against Kawiti's pa at Ruapekapeka in December. Torrential rain, inadequate shelter, poor provisions and constant alerts made life miserable. Whisker's talent as a 'scrounger', and the daily rum ration, helped him to survive. Ruapekapeka was finally taken on 11 January 1846.

There followed several months of boredom in camp at Victoria (Waitangi) and Wahapu Bay. Whisker spent some of his time composing a ballad about the campaigns. Eventually the company returned to Parramatta and Whisker rejoined his family in late December 1846. While in New Zealand he had written regularly to Flora and had also composed a love poem for her.

On 10 July 1847 the Whisker family arrived in Auckland on the Pestonjee Bomanjee with a detachment of the 58th. Light duties allowed Alexander Whisker to supplement his pay with casual labour until his discharge on 31 December 1849.

Little is known about the rest of Whisker's life. The entries in his Memorandum Book end in April 1852 and are followed by songs and ballads he either composed or copied. He worked as a labourer on Kawau Island and then bought a property in Newmarket, Auckland. He was arrested and convicted for drunkenness in May 1852 and served 24 hours' hard labour. In July that year he was charged with conveying spirituous liquor into gaol and fined. His occupation is later described as a dairyman and then as a contractor. His family eventually numbered six sons and two daughters.

Flora Whisker died on 1 November 1891. Alexander Whisker lived for another 16 years, dying on 25 November 1907 at his home in King Street, Newmarket, Auckland.

How to cite this page:

Janice C. Mogford. 'Whisker, Alexander', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1990. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1w16/whisker-alexander (accessed 13 July 2024)