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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.


SWAINSON, William, 1789–1855


William Swainson was born at Newington Butts, London, on 8 October 1789, the eldest son of John Timothy Swainson and Francis, née Stanway, the second of his three wives. His father's family originated in Lancashire, and both grandfather and father held high posts in H.M. Customs, the father becoming Collector at Liverpool. William, whose formal education was curtailed because of an impediment in his speech, joined the Liverpool Customs as a junior clerk at the age of 14. But his passion for natural science led to a desire to go abroad, and in 1806 he obtained a junior post on the staff of Commissary-General Wood. In the following year Swainson went to Malta, then Sicily, with. the army of occupation. There he remained until 1814, and was able to devote much time to the study of Sicilian and Greek zoology and botany. In 1814 he studied the ichthyology of western Sicily under Baron Bivona. In 1815, after rising to the rank of Assistant Commissary-General, he was forced by ill health to return to England. Next year he retired on half pay, became a fellow of the Linnean Society, and went with Koster to Brazil. There he met Dr Langsdorff, and the party, detained by revolution, made a rich plant collection. In 1820 Swainson, now back in London, was made a fellow of the Royal Society, and began the serial publication of an important group of works on natural history, including the Zoological Illustrations and Exotic Conchology, which used new lithographic methods of colour printing.

In 1823 he married Mary, only daughter of John Parkes. When hopes of a post at the British Museum proved futile, he devoted the next 15 years to the writing, of a large number of botanical and zoological works, all illustrated by himself. But after 1835, the year in which his wife died, he gradually lost interest in that work, the more so since his speculations in Mexican silver mines proved disastrous. Disappointed once again over a post at the British Museum, Swainson turned his thoughts to New Zealand. In 1839 he became a member of the committee of the New Zealand Company and of the Church of England committee for the appointment of a bishop to New Zealand, bought land in Wellington, and gave up scientific literary work.

Swainson married again in 1840. His second wife was Anne Grasby, daughter of Joseph Grasby, of Bawtry, Yorks. Together with four of Swainson's five children by the first marriage, they sailed for New Zealand in the Jane, reaching Wellington, after a trying voyage, in June 1841. Swainson took up 300 acres at the Hutt and established his estate of “Hawkshead”. After a few months this land was claimed by Taringakuri, a Wellington chief, and for several years he was in constant dread of interference and violence. During the operations against the Maoris in 1846, he was an officer in the militia in charge of a body of friendly natives. In 1852, in partnership with his son-in-law, Major J. W. Marshall, Swainson took up a considerable area of pastoral land in the Rangitikei, but it yielded little return during his lifetime, and he was largely dependent on his half pay.

During the years 1852–54, at the invitation of Australian Governments, he studied the flora of New South Wales, Victoria, and Tasmania. He soon confined himself to gum trees, described 1,520 varieties, and claimed to have discovered the principle of their variation. He returned to New Zealand to live at Fern Grove, a property in the Hutt, where he died on 6 December 1855.

Swainson was a notable naturalist, an extremely skilful botanical draughtsman, and a competent artist with water colours. He was too gentle a man to be a successful colonist, and seems to have felt isolated and unhappy in New Zealand. Insecurity of all kinds, and tension between stepmother and stepdaughters in his household also contributed to making his later years sombre ones. He was survived by four sons and a daughter by his first wife, and three daughters by his second, whom he also predeceased.

by K.C.

  • A Short Biography of William Swainson, F.R.S., F.L.S., Swainson, G. M. (MS), Turnbull Library
  • Marshall Family Papers (microfilm MSS), Turnbull Library
  • Adventure in New Zealand, Wakefield, E. J. (ed. Stout, Sir R.) (1908).