The story of William Gilbert Puckey, who for much of his life served alongside Rev Joseph Matthews at the Kaitāia mission founded in 1834, is relatively well known.

Never ordained, he is remembered as a remarkably multi-talented man, a farmer, engineer, carpenter, shipwright, medic, teacher and linguist, whose affection for Māori was reciprocated, the forebear of what is now a very large Far North family.

The story of his parents, William and Margery (nee Gilbert), is less well known, but there has always been a shadow. One of his contemporaries in the Bay of Islands cryptically remarked that it was a wonder that William Gilbert turned out as well as he did.

Now, thanks to descendant, historian and author Adrienne Puckey, we know what she meant.


Her new book, By Bible, Hammer & Compass, is the story of brothers James and William Puckey, who left their family home in Cornwall in 1796 for a life of adventure in the Pacific, beginning in Tahiti, and for William life in the fledgling mission at Kerikeri.

William and Margery both died young, within weeks of each other, in Sydney in 1826, victims of their addiction to alcohol. Very little is known of Margery, but she must have possessed prodigious courage as they set off for the other end of the world.

(James died in 1803, 23 years before his younger brother, while returning to England).
But the missionaries — or mechanic missionaries, as James and William were, their task to introduce Tahiti and New Zealand natives to the skills that would aid their conversion to Christianity — were no happy band of brothers.

There were differences of opinion, carping and personality clashes. Adrienne does not shy away from any of that.

"If you enquire about William Puckey Senior at the Kerikeri Heritage site, you will probably be told he was dismissed from the mission for drunkenness," she told the Northland Age.

"That's a hard place to start a biography from. I have deliberately confronted that challenge head-on in writing this book. History is more alive if you deal with real issues.

"Old William and his brother could not have imagined what they would experience when they set off from Cornwall," she added, "but they took the risk of the unknown. Where would humanity be if people didn't?

"Of course there were casualties — Capt James Cook among them. Our pair just didn't make such a name for themselves in the process."


They deserve to be remembered though, with respect, admiration and perhaps affection. They survived in what in many ways was a harsh little community, one in which "sympathy, empathy and support were in short supply," Adrienne writes.

"There as no victim support, no grief counselling, no trauma therapy, no AA ... If a child died it was God's will; if you were assaulted, turn the other cheek; when faced with cultural shock such as infanticide and cannibalism, man up and preach the gospel ...

"As for alcoholism, in the words of Rev Richard Davis' "May the Lord have mercy on his deluded, sinful soul," which, by implication, meant neither the church nor the mission would.'

There is much more to this story, and to the trials and tribulations of those who set out for the South Pacific armed with missionary zeal, good intentions, unbridled optimism and not a lot more, however.

This is a painstakingly researched tale of some remarkable people whose legacy remains to be seen to this day, and a reminder, if needed, that great sacrifices were made to give their descendants and others much of what they enjoy in the 21st Century.