Robert Potter (and family)

BORN: Marden, Kent, England, c18301

DIED: Blenheim, New Zealand, 19012


Robert Potter was born in the tiny village of Marden in Kent in about 1832 and his wife, Sarah Ann Wickham was born in the village of Wadhurst in neighbouring Sussex county in about 1838. Both were from rural labouring families.3

The county of Kent was known for the high level of seasonal migration as village labourers moved around to meet the labour demands of the county's varied crops and in search for better opportunities. In the second half of the 19th century, most farms had sheep, cattle, pigs, poultry and arable crops: wheat, oats, barley, beans and peas, but in response to increasing imports of wheat from Australia and America, Kent farmers began growing more hops and more fruit. Families migrated from miles around to take part in the harvest of these crops. The Wickham family were typical of many and by 1843 they had left Sussex and were living in Marden where they met the Potter family. The two familes probably also worked together on the farms near Marden.

Robert and Sarah Ann were married on the 31st of August, 1856 in the parish church in Marden.4 At 16, Sarah Ann was still a minor and so would have needed the permission of her father to marry. Albert was their first child, probably born in 1857 in Marden. Their first daughter, Elizabeth (named after Sarah Ann's mother) was also born in Marden about two years later. Both children had dark red hair (as did some of their later children).

While the Potter family moved around over the years they seemed to have restricted their movements to a small area of Kent, within 10 kilometers or so of Marden. The 1861 England Census shows the family had made their first move, to Pailey Mill near Cranbrook, only some 7 kilometers to the southwest of Marden. Here Robert was employed as a carter. Also at Pailey Mill was Sarah Ann's mother and father, and their younger children. Her father, was employed as a farmer's bailiff.

Pailey Mill [also spelled Paley] farm was named after the watermill, used for milling grain, that stood beside one of the tributaries of the River Beult to the north of Cranbrook village. Cranbrook was famous for some 20 windmills and watermills which once stood in and around the town.5 Pailey Mill no langer exists although the mill building was standing in 1974, but devoid of machinery.6

As a bailiff, Samuel Wickham acted as the farm foreman, in charge of much of the routine running of a farm. The farm workers were required to attend all his directions concerning the work to be done and the way of doing it, and he was responsible for imposing fines if rules were broken and dismissing workers. So the role carried considerable responsibility and power, and usually came with a cottage that was of better quality than those given to the ordinary labourers. It is quite probable that he was the one who initially employed Robert at Pailey Mill. As a carter, Robert was responsible for moving all the heavy goods around the farm. If the mill was working, he may also have been employed to cart grain from local farms to the mill and then cart the flour back again. For carters (and ploughboys) the working day began earlier than for most of their fellow labourers, usually at 4 or 5 a.m., since the horses had to be fed and made ready to start work at about 7 a.m. At the end of the day, the horses had to be unharnessed, fed and settled for the night.7

Robert's and Sarah's second daughter, Rose was born here in about 1864.

By 1867 they had moved to Chart Sutton where their third daughter, named Sarah Ann after her mother, was born. Another daughter was born two years later in 1869 and named Ruth. The 1871 Census shows them living in Devil's Den [den means a clearing in the forest] Cottage in Chart Sutton. Strangely, Ruth is not listed. Normally this would indicate the early death of a child, except that we know Ruth later sailed to New Zealand with the rest of the family. Robert's occupation was listed as an "agricultural labourer" and Albert, now aged 13, was listed as "working on farms". Elizabeth and Rose are described as "scholars", indicating they were receiving some schooling. Since Elizabeth was now 12 her schooling would soon be at an end however, and she would be expected to begin work outside the home, unless she was required to remain at home and help her mother. Also listed as living at Devil's Den was a William Potter, his wife and six children. It's possible that William was Robert's brother, although this is unclear at the time of writing.

We next hear of Albert and his family as passengers on the sailing barque Carnatic, bound for New Zealand. The family sailed from London on 28th September 1874 and arrived in Picton on 10th January 1875. As far as we know, none of them returned to England.

To understand what might have prompted this momentous decision to leave everything they knew and begin a new life in an unknown country on the other side of the world, we need to look at the social conditions in Kent during the 1870s. While we don't have the details of the family's living conditions, we do know that the living conditions of rural labourers in Kent, and elsewhere in England, had deteriorated markedly in the previous 50 years and that there was widespread dissatisfaction.

The causes of this deterioration are complex and a mixture of social and economic changes. They are well covered in Rollo Arnold's excellent study of migration to New Zealand in the 1870s, The Farthest Promised Land.

The result of the changes was the destruction of the traditional culture of English village society, and the reduction of much of the rural population to demoralised, servile wage labourers. Men had largely become day labourers, taken on as required, and turned off in large numbers in the slack times of the agricultural year, and when wet weather held up farm work. Income was therefore irregular, rising to its highest in the harvest season and falling lowest in winter, at which season villagers found it difficult to keep out of debt. Even at the best of times meat was a luxury, generally reserved for Sundays only and there is ample evidence that families went hungry at times. The quality of the labourer's cottage varied widely, but too often it was wretchedly small and badly built. In the 1850s nearly half of all cottages had only one bedroom, some had only one room. There is no reason to assume the Potters were any better off.

Yet not all submitted tamely to their fate. The most notable movement of protest was the `Swing' riots, which swept over southern and eastern England in the autumn and winter of 1830-31. The government sent troops to quell the disorders, and meted out brutal punishments, including hangings and transportation. In contrast, the 1870s saw a very different rural revolt that had more of the feeling of the Black American freedom movement of the 1960s, in the skilful use of the law courts, of the boycott, of non-violent direct mass action, and of political involvement. Kent rural labourers were at the forefront of this movement and among the first to turn their attention to unionism. Unionism was strong among the urban workers of Maidstone, the county town of Kent, and Maidstone labourers seem to have had strong links with rural labourers in the surrounding countryside. The Kent and Sussex Labourers' Union was formed in 1872 and by the end of its first year the union claimed over 8,000 members. On 14 May 1873 unionists from all parts of Kent, with their wives and children, converged on Maidstone, to celebrate their union's first birthday. The union had negotiated cheap railway fares for the day, and a reported 7,000 men marched through Maidstone, to the music of six bands, to an open air annual meeting of 12,000 to 13,000 persons. 8

Since, by definition, emigrants are dissatisfied with their lot, we can be sure that Robert Potter was sympathetic to union efforts to improve the conditions of rural labourers. Chart Sutton, where the Potters were living at this time, was only a short distance to the south of Maidstone, and there is no doubt that they would have been aware of this event and may themselves have gone up to Maidstone to take part in the celebrations.

In parallel with these events were the attempts by the New Zealand Government to recruit families for settlement in New Zealand. The emigration drive was often untidy, improvised and disunited and the results were generally dissapointing in the early 1870s when the rural unions were having success in improving wages and conditions. However, as the intractable attitude of many farmers and landowners became more evident, unions became increasingly interested in promoting emigration. A powerful inducement was the New Zealand Government's agreement in 1873 to offer free passage to suitable emmigrants. The promotion of emigration had an element of Utopianism about it, encouraging people to seek the promised land in New Zealand if it was not to be gained in England. Such ideas were reinforced by the many stories, published in the union newspapaers, from successful settlers who talked about plentiful work, high rates of pay, short working days and meat on the table every day.9 Many had come to own their own farms, an impossible dream for a farm labourer in England. There were also other reassuring factors. The first was the idea that emigrants were going to a familiar "Anglo" world and would remain attached to English society and familiar institutions and laws. There already existed strong ties between Kent and New Zealand as a consequence of earlier migrations. Secondly, the size and speed of ships had increased dramatically, and although the mass transfer of people to the other side of the world was never easy, families could expect to get there in reasonably good health.10 This was especially so with the advent of assisted passages, since the New Zealand Government insisted on competent ship's doctors, adequate rations and accomodation, and regular inspections.

The Potter family probably assembled in Maidstone with other intending migrants from Kent. There they listened to farewall speeches from well-wishers and union leaders before taking the train to London. The farewell of an earlier group had a party atmosphere: "At nine o'clock ... the emigrants assembled at the Corn Exchange, and headed by a band and a large union flag, marched down High Street to the railway station, where they were farewelled by a large crowd."11

Once in London, they then made their way by train to the dock area of Blackwall. There they stayed at the Emigration Depot untill the loading of the Carnatic was complete. The Emigration Depot was formerly a hotel, bought by the New Zealand government to accomodate (free of charge) emigrants untill their ship was ready. After a delay of a few days, the Carnatic was moved to the East India Dock basin and the group moved aboard. James Nicholls in his dairy of the voyage describes the event: "It was a sight to see us all, about 300 in number, with bags & baggage, moving along, men , women & children, to embark on the ship. We went on & was directed where to go."12 Early the next morning James Nicholls writes that he was woken up by men and women singing. When he went up on deck he found the ship was being towed down the Thames river by a tugboat, under a bright moon that lit up the country. In contrast to this calm beginning, it took eight days of beating into a head wind before they cleared the English Channel, no doubt a most uncomfortable experience for the passengers on board.

On Sunday evening, 10th January 1875, 104 days since leaving London, the Carnatic anchored off the wharf at Picton. James Nicholls' first impression of his new home was highly favourable, and we can assume that the Potter family had similar thoughts: "...this morning I was up at 7am, on Deck looking at Picton, which was a far superior place to whatever I had anticipated seeing in New Zealand, for having never read or noticed any account of the country before coming out, all I had in my head was Mud Shantys. I soon learned however that this was but a poor town compared with others as Christchurch, Nelson, or Dunedin, but this was quite enough to give me a more favourable idea of the country, for the buildings looked quite clean & homely".13

The arrival of the Carnatic was also a great occasion for the people of Marlborough. A Blenheim newspaper, the Marlborough Express pointed out its importance:

The arrival of the good ship Carnatic 871 tons, in the waters of Queen Charlotte Sound with 297 passengers on Sunday last is an event which we may justly consider, at this early period of the year, as marking the commencement of a new era in the history of Marlborough. We believe there has only been one other ship direct from England to Picton since the formation of the settlement, the Carnatic being the first with immigrants...

The Carnatic left London on September 29th and beat about the Channel until October 4th, on the 9th was off the Start, and on the 13th the Wolf Rock, crossed the Line on November 8th and passed the Cape on December 4th, made Cape Farewell on January 8th, cast anchor off Jacksons Head on same day, and arrived at Mabel Island, Picton Harbour on the 10th.

As soon as possible after her arrival the Immigration Commissioners. Messrs Goulter, Dalton & Tripe, went on board and found the ship clean and in excellent order. Enquiries were made among all classes of the passengers, and no complaints of any kind were made, on the contrary they all expressed themselves perfectly satisfied with the treatment they had received. They were all in good health with only two exceptions, one of which was a recent accouchment and the other a person who had for some years being subject to hysteria. There had been very little sickness of any kind during the voyage, only two deaths had occurred, both infants, and two births, which had brought up the number to its original standard.

The depot at Picton was filled by those persons who wished either to remain in Picton or to proceed to Havelock, and the remainder have been brought on to the Barracks at this town [Blenheim].

Several persons at Tua Marina turned out to welcome the new arrivals and presented them with fruit and milk, an act of graceful welcome which does credit to our suburban friends, and which we trust will be an augury of future union and good feeling between our old and new "chums". Upon making enquiry at the Depot this afternoon we learned that 98 adults and 43 children had been received there of whom all the servant girls had been engaged except two, and those would probably find employment before the day is out. Five married couples have found engagements, besides three of the single men, two being carpenters, the other a blacksmith.14

The Barracks referred to in the newspaper article was accomodation purposely built to accomodate the new immigrants from the Carnatic until they found employment (see photo 3). Within two weeks all except one married couple and a single man had found employment and had left.15 The family may have split up at this time as they accepted employment around the area. Elizabeth would have been among the single girls snapped up almost immediately and probably accepted a live-in position. Albert may have done the same, with Robert and Mary Ann going with the younger children. Although it could be difficult for immigrants with large families of young children to find both employment and suitable housing, Marlborough was suffering an acute shortage of labour during the boom years of the 1870s, so that employers did their utmost to attract and hold good men. Robert would have been pleasanlty surprised at how much better his working conditions were compared to Kent. Letters back to families in England invariably mention the good wages, the plentiful, good, cheap food, and the short (usually eight hour) working day. The letters also express important changes in mental outlook, including release from the perpetual worry of poverty, and from the continual petty humiliations associated with it. In New Zealand the immigrant labourer found that he was no longer consigned to a menial and degraded status, consuming what was not good enough for his "betters", excluded from their company, the recipient of their charity.16

We don't know for certain where Robert and Sarah Ann first moved to, but it was probably to the Wairau area just north of Blenheim since that is where their daughter Eva was born on August 8th, 1875.17 The date of the birth suggests that Sarah Ann became pregnant en route aboard the Carnatic. The following year, another daughter was born and named Annie Amelia, but lived just 15 months.18

Soon after, Robert seems to have abandoned farm labouring, at least temporarily, with the gaining of a roading contract at Dashwood's Pass, to the south of Blenheim. The local government undertook a road and rail building programme during the 1870s, in order to improve access from the Blenheim area to the rest of the country. Upgrading the road through the pass was intended to improve the route to the south. The contract was undertaken in partnership with another Kent man, William Tapp who had also arrived with his family on the Carnatic. On the completion of the contract in 1877 they were paid, not in cash, but in a grant of land of 43 acres in the Waitohi Valley. Today the Waitohi Valley is also called the Tua Marina valley and lies just north of Tua Marina along Highway 1 towards Picton. At the time or writing we don't know what they did with the land; they may have sold it. Nor do we know if Robert undertook any other road building, although we do know that William Tapp, in partnership with another man, was granted a little over 14 acres on the completion of another stretch of road.19 This is an interesting insight into how enterprising immigrants with little or no capital were able to secure farms, made possible under the Waste Lands Acts that allowed provincial governments to award grants of land in lieu of cash for payment for public works.

During these years the two older children were married and began producing grandchildren. Elizabeth gave birth to an illigitimate child on July 28th 1876. He was christened Frederick Albert Potter and although no father's name is given on the birth certificate, there is a strong possibility that the father was William Bothwell20, who Elizabeth married in October 187621. Sadly Frederick died a year later, but Elizabeth and William went on to have seven more children.22 Albert married Anastasia Talbot in the Catholic church in Blenheim on 23rd July 1878. Their first child, Albert was born in 1879. Sarah Ann and Robert were busy as well with the birth of another three children: John in 1878, William in 1879 and finally Alice Maud in 1880 to bring their total to ten.23

The family continued to live in the area around Blenheim. The other girls eventually married, divorced, had affairs, married again, had children and did all the things that families do. Many of their descendants are still living in the Marlborough area, or nearby. Albert was the exception, moving with his wife and family to Masterton about 1885, and then disappearing from view about 1900.

Robert and Sara Ann established a farm in Kaituna Valley, famous today for its vineyards. In 1899, a correspondent from the Otago Witness wrote an article on the delights of the Marlborough area and under the sub-title, "Vale of Kaituna" wrote: "Mr. Robert Potter, owner of this homestead, here contentedly carries on dairying and gardening with profit and pleasure".24 It would seem as though the couple had achieved all they could have dreamed of.

They were not to enjoy it for very long however. Sara Ann died in 1898, aged about 60,25 and Robert died in 1901, aged 72.

In July the previous year, Robert had made out his will. In it he directed that the farm was to be held in trust for his sons John and William. His personal property was to go to Elizabeth.26 It is interesting that his oldest son, Albert is not mentioned. At the time of writing we have no explanation for this. Nor are his five other daughters mentioned.


  • 1871 England Census
  • NZ Internal Affairs BDM, Record no: 1901/1063.
  • Families of Maidstone Kent Public Member Tree. Owned by Details of the Potter and Wickham families have been taken from this site.
  • ibid.
  • Excerpt from Watermills and Windmills of Cranbrook by C. R. R. Pile, June 1954
  • The River Beult
  • Horn, Pamela. Labouring Life in the Victorian Countryside. Gill & Macmillan. 1976.
  • Rollo Arnold, The farthest promised land : English villagers, New Zealand immigrants of the 1870s, Wellington, N.Z. : Victoria University Press , 1981. This is also available as an online e-book.
  • ibid.
  • James Belich, Replenishing the Earth. The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Anglo World, 1783-1939. Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Rollo Arnold, The farthest promised land. p69.
  • Joyce Neill (ed.). Plum Duff and Cake. The Journal of James Nichols 1874-5. An Account of his Voyage to Picton New Zealand on the Ship Carnatic & Some of his New Zealand Experiences in the Colony. Pegasus Press, 1975. p43.
  • ibid. p133.
  • Marlborough Express 13 January 1875. p4.
  • Evening Post 25 January 1875. p2.
  • Rollo Arnold, The farthest promised land. p224.
  • NZ Internal Affairs BDM, Record no: 1875/1582
  • Birth: NZ Internal Affairs BDM, Record no: 1876/9805.
    Death: NZ Internal Affairs BDM, Record no: 1896 [sic]/4415.
    There is some inconsistency between the the age at death (15M) and the Record Number which suggests she died in 1896.
  • Marlborough Express 6 June 1877. p6.
  • NZ Internal Affairs BDM, Record no: 1876/9806.
    That William Bothwell may have been the father is suggested in the Bothwell Family web site
  • NZ Internal Affairs BDM, Record no: 1876/2264
  • Bothwell Family web site
  • John: NZ Internal Affairs BDM, Record no: 1878/1461.
    William: NZ Internal Affairs BDM, Record no: 1879/1627.
    Alice: NZ Internal Affairs BDM, Record no: 1880/18535.
  • Otago Witness 12 January 1899. p31.
  • NZ Internal Affairs BDM, Record no: 1898/7164.
  • Archives New Zealand, Probate for Potter, Robert. 1901-1901.
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