Page 1: Biography
Webber, George William Wallace
Postmaster, boarding-house keeper, farmer
This biography, written by Hilary Stace, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
George William Wallace Webber was born on 15 August 1875 at Nelson, New Zealand, the first child of Maria Elizabeth Wells and her husband, Wallace Thomas Webber, a sheepfarmer of Elmslies Bay, French Pass, in the Marlborough Sounds. From 1877 his father had a contract with the post office to collect mail from vessels of the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand – a difficult job in the frequently treacherous conditions of the pass.
George was educated at home by a succession of governesses, at a local household school, and in Nelson. While home from school in 1888 he was one of the first to see the dolphin, Pelorus Jack, which for 24 years was a tourist attraction in nearby Admiralty Bay. When collecting mailbags in his dinghy, George often had to push the mammal away with an oar to prevent his boat capsizing.
In 1896 Dr Hugo Schauinsland, director of the Übersee Museum, Bremen, arrived at French Pass having been sent by the German government to the Pacific to collect specimens. He was particularly interested in the tuatara of Stephens Island, a reptile of ancient origin, and he and his wife stayed with the Webber family. George became his assistant and later went with the Schauinslands to the Chatham Islands. He became involved in collecting, dissecting, preserving and freighting specimens – sometimes live – to Germany. Once, when he opened a box, some non-poisonous tree snakes from the Pacific islands coiled up his arm and he had a great struggle to get them back in.
When George married Ethel Amy Crump, a music teacher, at Nelson on 31 December 1900, his father retired. George took over the farm and became acting postmaster, then in 1907 postmaster in his place. Ethel's family were initially against the marriage, fearing that she was not strong enough to cope with the isolation and hard work required at the pass; but she insisted. The couple were to have eight children.
Other international visitors stopped at the Webbers' residence. In 1903 George and Ethel hosted Captain John Claus Voss, who was attempting to circumnavigate the globe in the Canadian canoe Tilikum. In 1912 men from Captain R. F. Scott's support ship Terra Nova came to French Pass to do a marine survey of Admiralty Bay while wintering in New Zealand. On returning to Antarctica the support party discovered that Scott and his party of explorers had perished while returning from the South Pole. Several years later George received a copy of the expedition's map of Admiralty Bay, which he treasured.
About 1910, when the first telephone lines were installed, there were still no public buildings at the bay, and the post office consisted of a partitioned-off section of Webber's storeroom. In 1918 a money-order office and post office savings bank was added, and as his five daughters left school they worked there in turn. When wool and stock prices declined in the 1930s George and Ethel ran a boarding house. The French Pass Road Board was established in 1935 and George became its chairman.
In later life George Webber wrote about the European settlement of French Pass. The manuscript chronicles events and the lives of people in this isolated outpost, which was for many decades an important point on the shipping route between Wellington and Nelson. He retired from his position as postmaster in 1944 and in 1950 he and his wife went to live with their daughter in Putaruru. After Ethel's death in 1956 George moved to Stratford to live with a son. He died there on 12 June 1967 aged 92, survived by four daughters and three sons. A dynamic and colourful personality, as postmaster for 44 years at French Pass he provided the local residents with an important link to the outside world.