Robert Shakespear: a conservation pioneer

16 July 2020

Robert Shakespear: a conservation pioneer

Robert Henry Anson Shakespear arrived at Wellington in 1868, when the College was less than a decade old. He himself was only eleven years old when he joined the Anglesey. Four years later when he left, his younger brother William joined the Murray. Both boys were Foundationers – that is to say, as the sons of  a deceased Army officer, they were provided with an almost free education, under the terms of the College’s Foundation Charter. The boys’ father, William Ross Shakespear, a Captain in the 3rd Madras Cavalry, had died in 1862.

Robert Shakespear’s entry in the College Registers gives very little information about his subsequent life, stating only that he had taken up ‘farming in New Zealand.’ However, a recent enquiry has provided much more information on his unusual career. In fact, Robert became the first caretaker of New Zealand’s first nature reserve, Hauturu, then known as Little Barrier Island.

Robert’s emigration to New Zealand may have been encouraged by his maternal grandfather and guardian, Sir Robert Hamilton, who bought land on the Whangaparaoa peninsula, north of Auckland. Robert and his wife Blanche initially farmed there, and indeed the area is now known as Shakespear Regional Park. His brother William also moved there after a career in the Indian Army.

Hauturu, a small island just off the north-east coast of North Island, had already been identified as a rich and important habitat for New Zealand’s unique native birds. The Austrian naturalist Andreas Reischek spent time there in the 1880s, surveying the bird life. Though some of Reischek’s methods are now repugnant, it was he who recommended to the New Zealand Institute that the island should be preserved as a nature reserve, and that a caretaker should be appointed to oversee it.

During the 1890s the island was used for farming; cattle and sheep roamed freely, grazing the native plant life, and kauri trees were felled and exported for firewood. The negative impact of these activities was recognised, and so in 1894-5 the island was purchased as Crown land and declared a reserve ‘for preservation of native fauna.’ In 1896, the position of caretaker was advertised, and Robert Shakespear was appointed from no fewer than 198 applicants.

Robert, his wife and their six children, along with two aunts, arrived on Hauturu in January 1897. The children were aged between nine and eighteen, and a seventh child was born on the island a year later. The family spent their first night in a boatshed which ‘leaked like a sieve,’ and a tent, which stayed dry. For the next ten months they lived in a combination of tents and a small existing cottage, whilst building a larger house. Two tents continued to be used as a bedroom and schoolroom at least until 1902. The details of the family’s life on the island are preserved in diaries and photograph albums kept by the eldest daughter Frances, a skilled self-taught photographer.

In many ways things were little different from their previous life as farmers on the mainland. They had a small number of sheep and cattle for milk and meat and an extensive vegetable garden, but in spite of this, supplies were still scarce. In January 1898 the family recorded that it was two months since they had eaten any meat, and their attempts to catch fish were proving difficult. Other supplies arrived by boat sporadically, every few weeks.

Each morning the children were home-schooled by one of their aunts, and everyone helped with the household chores: laundry every Monday, ironing and mending on Tuesdays, and constant fetching of wood and water. In spite of this, the family were still able to explore the island. Frances and her aunt collected and preserved the wild plants, and recorded the presence of birds such as kiwi and bellbirds. Later the eldest son, Robert junior, built several boats, and the family used them to explore the coastline. In the evenings there was time for reading, music (the family owned a piano and an organ and several of them sang), and board games, as well as Frances developing photographs in her purpose-built darkroom.

The Shakespear family stayed on Hauturu until 1910, when Robert resigned his post, possibly due to ill-health. He died only three weeks after leaving. Several of his descendants still live in New Zealand, and are the custodians of Frances Shakepear’s precious collection of photographs. Wellington College is very grateful for their permission to reproduce some of the photographs here, as well as to Dick Veitch, current researcher of Hauturu and its history, who supplied the modern photographs and much information.

Hauturu remains one of New Zealand’s most important nature reserves, home to around 400 native plant species, and possibly more endangered birds than any other island in the country. It has been described as ‘the most intact native ecosystem in New Zealand’, and as ‘New Zealand’s Ark’ for its role in preserving the hihi, or stitchbird, and other endangered species. In 2011, the Crown returned ownership of the island to the local Maori community, who in turn gifted it to the people of Aotearoa (New Zealand). It is now cared for by the country’s Department of Conservation.

The Shakespear family house on Hauturu, 1906.