Carterton founder never lived in region

By Gareth Winter editorial@age.co.nz -
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Carterton Lions Club project organiser Allan Renall beside the statue of Carterton founding father, Charles Rooking Carter. Its bronze equivalent will be unveiled on Thursday. PHOTO/SUPPLIED
Carterton Lions Club project organiser Allan Renall beside the statue of Carterton founding father, Charles Rooking Carter. Its bronze equivalent will be unveiled on Thursday. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

Wairarapa archivist Gareth Winter recounts the fortunes of Carterton's namesake, Charles Rooking Carter, whose statue will be unveiled on Thursday at Millennium Park in Carterton

Among the founders of the small towns established in the Wairarapa in the 1850s, the most prescient was Charles Rooking Carter, whose name is recalled in Carterton. It was he who first articulated a vision of small farms scattered through agricultural land in the valley, in the late 1840s, several years before Masters, Renall and Jackson, among others, formed the Small Farms Association.

Carter was born into a relatively well-off family, in Kendal in the north of England in 1822. His father was a prosperous builder and one of his mother's Rooking relatives settled a small estate onto him, which supplied a small income through his youth.

His family hoped Carter would enter a profession, but family misfortunes saw him withdrawn from school and at the age of 14 he ran away, intending to go to sea.

His journey ended at a police station in Liverpool, where he was detained for a few nights before being sent back to Kendal.

His father died in 1837 and Carter decided he needed to be more independent -- he joined a family friend's nursery business. Quickly realising a career in horticulture was not for him, he started a carpentry apprenticeship in Kendal before transferring to nearby Penrith, where he became interested in working class politics.

In 1839 he moved to Newcastle for more work opportunities. After four years he moved again, this time to London, determined to better himself. He decided he would remain sober, study architecture and building, learn more about drawing, and would become an accomplished writer and public speaker. He later said he wanted to regain the social standing he had lost when his father's business failed.

He enjoyed London -- the wages were better -- but work was sporadic, so he studied and went to the theatre when unemployed. He worked on some large projects, such as Baron Rothschild's mansion and on gothic ornamentation of the Houses of Parliament.

His political thought was evolving. His first political article was published in 1844, arguing against social inequality. He concluded that Britain's rural population was too large, and advocated large and sustained emigration, saying New Zealand was especially "adapted ... to suit English constitutions, English industry, perseverance and character". While still in London, he also published a proposal for a series of villages to be established on the Wairarapa plains, surrounded by small farms.

By 1850 he had made his mind up -- he would marry, leave his job, and migrate to New Zealand. Accordingly, in March he wed Jane Robieson and, with her younger brother, left for the Antipodes, arriving in Wellington in November. Unlike many, he had some financial backing. He came prepared with extra clothes, household goods, materials to start in business as a builder, and 100 pounds sterling in cash.

He sought work on his arrival, but was told he should work on his own account, so he took a contract for a shop on Lambton Quay and he quickly became a respected building contractor. In 1852 he successfully tendered for reclamation work at Lambton Harbour. Some said he would fail as his tender was too low but he made a profit of 200 pounds sterling, partly by working alongside his men on the job.

He got the chance to pursue his dream of settlements in Wairarapa in 1853, when the Lambton Quay cooper, Joseph Masters, agitated for small farms on the Wairarapa plains. Along with others, Carter joined the Small Farms Association, and played a leading role in the formation of Greytown and Masterton. When land on the Taratahi Plains assigned to association members did not sell, he bought much of it, becoming a major landholder in the area.

The Wellington Provincial Council established a further two settlements in the valley, one named after the superintendent Dr Isaac Featherston, the other called Three Mile Bush, just north of Waiohine River. John Ashmore, who had taken the contract to bridge the troublesome river, was unable to fulfil his contract in 1859, and Carter took over the work, finishing the bridge.

The Three Mile Bush settlers were not happy with the name of their village, and petitioned that it be changed. They suggested a number of options, which were declined, but in 1859 they applied again, this time asking that their township and district be named after Carter, and the council acceded to their wishes.

Carter never lived in Wairarapa -- he continued to live in Wellington and supervise his extensive business. However, he arranged for deer to be released onto his Taratahi run, but he later denied reports that he also introduced first rabbits to Wairarapa. The Carter family -- Charles, Jane and their daughter Jane -- returned to England in 1865, Carter acting as emigration agent for the Wellington Provincial Council. He came back to New Zealand briefly in 1867, but returned to England, where he spent most of the rest of his life. His daughter Jane died in London in 1870.

Carter kept a strong interest in the progress of the town named after him. He was instrumental in the formation of the Carterton library in 1874, he donated the town clock, and he was involved in public buildings in the town. He also put to use his youthful training he had in literary matters, writing a three volume autobiography.

Jane Carter died in London in 1895. Following her death Charles Carter returned to New Zealand, to put his affairs into order. He died in Wellington in July 1896. His body was brought to the town that bears his name.

In his will he stipulated that 2172 acres of his properties should be leased to support the 'Carter Home for Aged Poor Men'. The home in Moreton Rd was opened in 1900. A further piece was set aside to act as a scenic reserve, and another piece was to supply funding for parks in Carterton. Yet another bequest led to the foundation of the Carter Observatory in Wellington. Although he never lived in the town that bears his name, Charles Rooking Carter's influence over its progress was profound, and continues.

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