Whanganui has a strong tradition of generous philanthropy. Throughout its 125-year history the museum collection has been cultivated by donations. Every year the museum accepts approximately 100 donations to the collection that can range from one object to hundreds. These donations by individuals, families and organisations have contributed to preserving the evidence of our region's rich history.

Through its collection the museum has become adept at telling the stories of our region and people. Memories of people may fade and pass as the people who knew them die, but objects and archives in a museum collection preserve knowledge of people, places and occasions.

One recent donation was a small hand-painted photograph of a young man who had recently graduated from medical school in Glasgow, an old sword as used by an officer of the Wanganui Militia and a tiny tintype photograph of the same man, a couple of decades older. Donated by one of his descendants, along with other objects and archives already contained in the collection including a piano, wallpaper samples, letters to the Land Claims Commission and a pistol, all combine to tell the story of one of the early European settlers to Whanganui, Dr James Allison.

Photograph on tin (tintype) of Dr James Allison in the mid-1860s. Photographer: possibly WJ Harding. Whanganui Regional Museum Collection ref: 2020.2.2
Photograph on tin (tintype) of Dr James Allison in the mid-1860s. Photographer: possibly WJ Harding. Whanganui Regional Museum Collection ref: 2020.2.2

Allison was born in Scotland in around 1816. He trained as a medical doctor at the Royal Glasgow Hospital, graduating in 1839. In 1840 he immigrated to New Zealand, landing in Wellington. He soon moved to Whanganui where he had purchased some land through the New Zealand Company and took up life as a farmer at Lambhill, Warrengate Rd, in Fordell.

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On March 30, 1844 he married Georgiana Jones Gilfillan, the eldest daughter of the artist and farmer John Alexander Gilfillan. They had their first son, Alexander Gilfillan Allison, in June 1846. Alexander was destined for a short life. As a 10-month-old he was staying with his grandparents, plus his young aunts and uncles, in their home in the Matarawa Valley, just north of Whanganui. On the night of April 18, 1847, a group of young Māori attacked the family. His 40-year-old step-grandmother Mary, 14-year old aunt Eliza, 11-year old uncle Frank and 3-and-a-half-year-old uncle Adam were killed. Alexander and another aunt, Agnes, who was only 4 months old at the time of the attack, survived only to die within two months because of the injuries they had received.

Shortly after the death of their son, the couple moved to the Wairau Valley in the South Island to take up a sheep farm. They had two sons in the next two years; the first they also called Alexander, the second, John. As an adult, Alexander cultivated the first Chinese gooseberry (later renamed the kiwifruit) in New Zealand. They moved back to Lambhill in 1853 and had two more children, Mary in 1854 and James in 1863.

After his return to the Whanganui region, James Allison senior was elected on to the Rangitikei Provincial Council and was appointed captain in the Caledonian Rangers Wanganui Rifle Volunteers by Governor Thomas Gore Browne in 1860 and the Wanganui Volunteer Rifles by Sir George Grey in 1863.

In February 1867 he resigned his position on the Provincial Council due to ill health, deciding to return to Scotland for a visit to regain his strength. This was not to be. On the voyage over he contracted yellow fever and died at the age of 50. He was buried at sea but has memorial headstones in both Strathaven in Scotland, and Whanganui commemorating his life. He also has a street named after him on Durie Hill, Whanganui.

* Trish Nugent-Lyne is collection manager at Whanganui Regional Museum