By John Osborne, Vice-President of The Howick & District’s Historical Society Inc

Many people walking around Howick will have noticed the mosaic tile artwork of a ship on the wall of the Information Centre. My family have a particular relationship with this ship as my great, great grandfather Captain Isaac James Burgess was Commander of this ship – the Government Brig Victoria. This is our family connection with the arrival of the Fencibles and their families in Howick late in 1847.

Captain Isaac James Burgess
(Photo by John Hanna, Alexander Turnbull Library, PA2-0804, Wellington New Zealand)

On 8th October 1847 the Fencibles, the “Victoria” and Captain Burgess came together with the arrival of the immigrant ship “Minerva” in Auckland Harbour with 80 Fencibles with their families, followed a few days later by the “Sir Robert Sale” with a further 74 Fencibles and their families. They moored in stream in the Auckland Harbour near Fort Britomart, where they remained until 15th November when they were transhipped to Howick beach on the Government Brig “Victoria.”

The final leg of the immigration by the “Victoria” was necessary due to the shallow harbour depths around Howick and the “Victoria” only drew a depth of 12 feet and could get close access down harbour to Howick beach. Later on the 26th November 1847 “The George Seymour” arrived in Auckland and on the 13th and 16th December the Fencibles and their families were taken to Howick by the “Victoria”

The Brig “Victoria” had returned to its home port Auckland from Wellington on 28th September and was lying in Auckland Harbour when “Minerva” arrived.

As the most appropriate locations for the Fencible settlements had still not been determined by the time the immigrant ships arrived and with the Surveyor General Felton Mathew in the Bay of Islands selecting possible sites for a Fencible settlement, the “Victoria” was despatched on the 11th October to fetch him back to Auckland urgently. His excellency Governor Grey, Bishop Selwyn and the Surveyor General visited the Tamaki District on 18th October and decided upon the location for the Panmure and Paparoa settlements.

On 28th October the Brig “Victoria” took a group of carpenters from the “Minerva” and the “Sir Robert Sale” and Royal Engineers to Howick, together with a load of materials, to build temporary accommodation for the Fencibles and their families. Two one-hundred-foot longhouses were built to house the Fencible’s families. The families would live in these longhouses for many months until their allotments and housing were finally available. The Fencibles themselves lived in tents on the beach.

The Government Brig H.M.S “Victoria” was launched on the Williams River in Sydney in 1839 intended for trade with New Zealand. She was purchased by Governor Hobson in December 1840 for £3,200-00 to provide the new Colony New Zealand with its own ship. The “Victoria” was a small two masted brig 80 feet long with a beam of 19.2 feet and a draught of 12.25 feet. She was registered as 184 tonnage and 200-ton burthen. Ports of call around New Zealand for “Victoria” in the 1840s and 1850s were Auckland, Great Barrier, Tauranga, Mahurangi, Bay of Islands, Hokianga, Taranaki, Wanganui, Kapiti, Porirua, Port Nicholson, Nelson, Cloudy Bay, Massacre Bay, Akaroa, Chatham Islands. Sailings were also made to Port Hobart and Sydney in Australia. The “Victoria” was regarded as the Governor’s flagship and was primarily used to transport him around the new Colony and to provide communications and the movement of personnel, equipment and supplies around the isolated settlements. A typical sailing voyage from Auckland to Port Nicholson (Wellington) would average 12 days. In 1854 the Governor decided to dispose of the “Victoria” and she was sold in September 1854 for £850-00.

Captain Isaac James Burgess was Commander of the Government Brig “Victoria” when the Fencibles arrived in Auckland in October 1847. Captain Burgess had arrived in New Zealand as Chief Mate of the Barque Madras having sailed from London. On arriving in New Zealand he joined the Government Brig “Victoria” in Auckland as Chief Officer in October 1846. Following the drowning of the Victoria’s Commander Captain Robert Richards at Wanganui in July 1847, Captain Burgess was appointed Commander of the Brig by Governor George Grey. Captain Burgess filled this role until 1850 when he was appointed acting Harbour Master and Chief Pilot for Auckland Province and subsequently Harbour Master in 1853. Captain Burgess was Auckland Harbour’s longest serving Harbour Master finally retiring in 1894 having served as Harbour Master for 44 years.