Story: Merton, Charles

Page 1: Biography

Merton, Charles

1821?–1885

Bootmaker, teacher, musician, farmer

This biography, written by Malcolm Anderson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.

Charles Murton, the elder son of James Murton, a labourer, and his wife, Susan Denny, was born in Haughley, Suffolk, England, and baptised there on 4 November 1821. His father's family had lived in the district for many generations. Little is known of Charles's early life. He was apprenticed for a period to a bootmaker, but his intelligence and musical ability were noted by the vicar of Stoke-by-Nayland, Charles Torlesse, who took an interest in him and encouraged his career as a teacher. He was often a guest in the Torlesse home and occasionally accompanied the family on their holidays in Long Melford.

Charles married Charlotte Street, the Torlesse family nurse, probably on 2 August 1847, by which time he spelt his name 'Merton'. The same year, a church school was established in Stoke-by-Nayland, and Merton became master of the boys' class, his wife having charge of the girls. He also took a great interest in community music, regularly giving instruction in his home in sight-singing, and conducting numerous choral performances.

Torlesse was a member of the management committee of the Canterbury Association, and he encouraged several of his parishioners to emigrate to Canterbury, New Zealand, where two of his sons, Charles and Henry, had taken up land near Rangiora. In 1856 Merton decided to move to the new settlement, and with his wife, their four children (two more were born in New Zealand) and his parents, sailed from Gravesend in the Egmont, arriving in Lyttelton on 23 December 1856.

Until his appointment in January 1858 as assistant master at Christ's College, a position he held for two years, Merton plied his trade as a shoemaker. He quickly became involved in community music-making, however, and within 12 months had started a brass band – it led the procession to lay the foundation stone of the new Canterbury Provincial Government Buildings in 1858 – and had organised several concerts featuring both vocal and instrumental items. In July 1858 he was appointed conductor of the Christchurch Harmonic Society. In order to give private instruction to intending members he discontinued his own public appearances. He also advertised that he had pianos, harmoniums and other musical instruments for sale, and styled himself 'Teacher of Music'.

In 1860 Merton was appointed master of the new Church of England School at Rangiora. It was built on Torlesse land and paid for with money raised by the Torlesse family in England. When the school divided into separate boys' and girls' classes Merton taught only the boys. The syllabus was based on religious instruction with emphasis on memorising the collects, gospels and hymns for the following Sunday; accurate knowledge of catechism and creed; and the development of reading, using passages of scripture as texts. The results obtained by Merton's pupils reflected the high standard of his teaching: two won provincial government scholarships and several, including William Pember Reeves and Westby Perceval, went on to distinguished careers.

Following a commission of inquiry into education in Canterbury in 1863, the provincial government established a district school system; denominational schools now drew government funds but had to submit to rigorous inspection. As district schools became established near Rangiora the numbers in the church school declined. Merton resigned in 1870; he gave the reduction in salaries as his reason, but he had probably never become reconciled to the intrusion of the state. Almost immediately he set up his own day and boarding school for boys at Melford, his farm on the Oxford Road.

Merton's farming brought him mixed fortunes. He had some success in raising pigs and growing wheat but his knowledge of farming was limited. In 1879 he leased 2,500 acres from John Evans Brown at Swannanoa, but a very wet first season proved disastrous for him and in 1881 he sold up and returned to Christchurch. Despite his previous reservations about public education he applied for a position at Bromley School, and on the strength of his character and reputation was appointed in June 1882 without having to be examined for a teaching certificate.

At Rangiora Merton had played a full part in district affairs. He founded the Rangiora Horticultural Society in 1874, served on the committee seeking borough status for the town, was a founder and president of the town's literary institute, and was an active player and president of the local cricket club. His greatest contribution was in music. He possessed vocal and instrumental talent, organisational ability and a cheerful, outgoing personality. Whatever group he led flourished. His bands led processions, his choirs performed with great credit, and his concert parties, utilising his family and most of the leading musicians of the settlement, provided popular entertainment in town and country halls, and raised funds for many worthy causes.

On his return to Christchurch Merton joined the cathedral choir as one of the six senior lay clerks. He died at Christchurch on 31 December 1885, leaving an estate of less than £300. A mural inside the west door of the cathedral commemorates his contribution to the cathedral choir; he is also remembered in a tablet in the Church of St John Baptist, Rangiora, presented in 1929 by his old pupils 'in loving memory of Charles Merton'. Charlotte Merton died in 1906.

How to cite this page:

Malcolm Anderson. 'Merton, Charles', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2m46/merton-charles (accessed 23 November 2019)