Tuesday, November 11, 2008

M. Francois Rayer: Avondale's French Connection

A barricade in the Paris Commune, March 18, 1871. Source: Hachette Biblio College, Les Miserables. Via Wikipedia.

Posterity is left with two tantalising pieces of information about a Frenchman in the 1880s who came to settle in Auckland and chose a patch of ground on which to be a winegrower or vigneron somewhere close to Mt Albert and present-day New Windsor.
Taking the left side of the road above Mr. Gallagher’s farm, we came to the section lately purchased by Mr. Stewart, of the Thames Hotel, 25 acres in extent, taken up a couple of years ago, and laid down in grass; adjoining is that of Mr. Beaumont, 15 or 20 acres, just ploughed, and beyond that again the section of Mr. Longuet, where clearing and fencing is going on, and then comes the extensive vineyard of M. Rayer, some 12 acres in extent, with as much more yet to bring under cultivation.

(NZ Herald, 24 June 1882)

On several occasions we have drawn attention to the efforts being made in the Mount Albert district to establish vine growing for wine making on a scale which will go far to settle the question as to the suitability or otherwise of this industry for the district around Auckland. The experiment is being carried out by Mr. Rayer, a skilled French vine grower.

The situation of the vineyard is not such that the majority of Auckland settlers would have chosen for such an enterprise. The site chosen is on the slope of land at the back of Mount Albert, on the rolling land stretching onto the blockhouse at the Whau. The surface soil is a clayey loam, resting upon a not unkindly free yellow-brown clay. The situation the vineyard occupies exposes it to the sweep of the south-western winds, as they come up from the Manukau, but Mr. Rayer says he has nothing to fear from any winds which prevail in Auckland. Far stronger winds blow in France, but even there no injury is sustained by the vines from this cause …

He is satisfied that the Auckland climate supplies … [equable climate] conditions … On this account Mr. Rayer is of opinion that the Auckland district will produce wine in greater abundance acre for acre than either France or Australia … These are certainly encouraging prospects and it is to be hoped that Mr. Rayer will be enabled to carry his experiment to a successful termination. He is at present unable to give an opinion as to the particular flavour (or bouquet as he called it) the Auckland-grown wines may develop, but he has no doubts as to the ripening of the grapes, and the abundance of wine which will be yielded.

The land purchased by Mr. Rayer is 22 acres in extent, about 15 or 16 acres of which is a clayey loam, and the balance rich volcanic flat, subject, however, to a super-abundance of water in the winter season. This, however, can easily be cured by blowing out a narrow ledge of rock which crosses the creek a short distance below the boundary of his land. A few acres of this flat have been sown in oats for oaten hay this season, but the vines are as yet all planted on the clayey loam, nearer the road than this flat. Fifty thousand vines are permanently planted out, at varying distances of three to five feet apart, besides a little over three thousand rooted plants, which will be planted out at the proper season. The vines are of different ages, some being planted only last season. A few of the older ones are bearing, and all are being trained in the bush form. They are all healthy looking though not yet making the rapid growth of wood which well rooted plants invariably do here…

Upon the whole Mr. Rayer is well satisfied with the prospects before him. This year he expects to make twenty or thirty gallons of wine merely as a sample of what can be done, but next year he anticipates to have a considerable quantity. Beneath his dwelling-house he has excavated a cellar where the wines will be made and matured. This cellar is of sufficient size to enable him to carry on operations for three years, by which time an opportunity will be afforded of testing the results of the enterprise.
(Auckland Weekly News, 20 January 1883)

M. François Rayer (c.1831-1883) seemed at the time of the Weekly News reporter’s visit, to be a shining example of a great horticultural and business experimenter – establishing a fully-fledged wine-making industry in Auckland. Within weeks, however, Rayer was dead and buried in Symonds Street cemetery. That alone would have made his story interesting: New Windsor may well have been covered by vineyards, had he lived and the project continued, up until the last quarter of the 20th century, judging by the development patterns of the Henderson area where thriving vineyards were also (later) established.

But – Rayer was also a convicted Communard, a former political prisoner, a participant in the Paris Commune uprising of 1871, sentenced along with thousands of others to penal servitude at New Caledonia when the uprising was crushed. Rayer was present at a series of events in the French capital which were to have a major impact on the political history of Europe.

Much has been written about the 1871 Paris Commune, which took place immediately after France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. The Auckland press in 1880 called those from the commune “communists”, but the people themselves preferred to be known as “communialists”, to differ from the socialists and nihilists. The political prisoners on New Caledonia were pardoned from 1879, and were made a generous offer: as deportés, they had an option to either return to France or head for anywhere in the Australasian colonies at the expense of the French Government. Other prisoners, common criminals, were known as ticket-of-leave men. They were forever banished from France or any of her colonies – and to get elsewhere, they had to pay their own way.

A mixture of the two classes of former prisoners, 24 in all, sailed from Noumea in January 1880 to Onehunga in the Griffen, on a voyage which should have lasted just 10 days – instead, with bad weather, it took 30 days to reach New Zealand. Almost as soon as they touched Onehunga’s shore, the news spread of their arrival, and the papers blared that it was “The French Invasion.” The Auckland Evening Star did differentiate between the political prisoners and the ordinary criminals (the former not nearly as bad as the latter in their opinion), and most of the fuss over the next days was over whether France continued to intend to use New Zealand, or any British colony for that matter, as a dumping ground for their “dregs”.

Of the deportés, the Star found that their language skills in English were on the whole poor to non-existent.
A reporter from this office interviewed about a dozen of the Communists at Onehunga, while they were awaiting the arrival of the 1 o’clock train from the wharf. Some of their number had gone to Auckland early in the morning, and had returned to report progress. They appeared very anxious to ascertain the chances of employment, and made diligent inquiries with respect to the state of the market. None of them could speak English, and they seemed keenly sensible of the disadvantage at which this fact placed them. One gentleman who acted as a spokesman for the rest unearthed from the inmost recesses of a leather satchel a well thumbed French and English dictionary, and exhibited it with great satisfaction, although he sorrowfully explained that he had not a sufficient knowledge of the grammatical structure of the language to be enabled to derive much assistance from the volume.
(Auckland Evening Star, 18 February 1880)

By the time another vessel, the Sovereign of the Seas, arrived with more ex-convicts from Noumea the following month, Aucklanders had more or less settled on accepting that a new, small wave of immigration was taking place. After all, former Communards had arrived years earlier, via London, but because they had entered in dribs and drabs, no one created the fuss which occurred in February.

François Rayer when he arrived was described on a list of the deportés compiled at the Auckland Police Station and later submitted to Parliament as being 50 years of age, 5ft 4in in height, medium build, with a dark complexion and grey eyes. His hair was dark, tinged with grey, he had a full moustache, slight beard and whiskers. His general appearance was described as smart. According to records, he had worked as a contractor (possibly on Noumea), but in Paris he had been a wineseller. Almost everything else known about Rayer is sketchy at best.

What he was doing in Auckland from 1880-1883 is uncertain. There is a possibility however that he was at the New Windsor property as early as 1880, given that the Weekly News described the vines planted by January 1883 as being of varying ages. Rayer never owned the land he worked at New Windsor. Part of Allotment 66 of the Parish of Titirangi, it had been sold by Robert Greenwood to a solicitor, John Benjamin Russell, in May 1882. It was Lot 10 on Plan No. 131. Rayer comes into the picture, taking out a lease from Russell for Lot 10 in July 1882 – then, two months later, transferring the lease to Graves Aickin (Auckland chemist, politician and nephew of Dr. Thomas Aickin), Henry Brett (proprietor of the Auckland Star), and John Chambers (an Auckland merchant). So curiously, at the time of the Weekly News article, even the lease was no longer in his name.

Map from DP 131, LINZ records.

The Weekly News and the Star published concerns about his failing health before he died. On 3 March 1883, the following death notice appeared in the NZ Herald:
RAYER – Décédé hier, l’Hôspital Provincial, François Rayer, agé de 52 ans, natif de France.
L’enterrement aura lieu aujourd’hui, 3 Mars, á 4 heures après midi. Le cortège se réunira devant l’Hospital. Le members de la Société Littéraire Française sont invités á vouloir lui render les deroiers honneurs.
“His death,” the Star stated, “at the present time is much to be regretted, when the success of the experiment at vine growing for wine making purposes depended upon his knowledge and skill.”

All the French residents in Auckland are said to have attended the funeral in Symonds Street, along with members of the French Literary Society. “The Secretary of the Society“ the Weekly News reported, “placed on the coffin a crown of flowers, ornamented with the French national colours, and the cortege proceeded to the burying yard, where the Rev. Mr. Dudley read the burial service. M. A. Villeval [another former Communard], in the name of the French residents and of the Literary Society, made a short speech, in which he referred to M. Rayer’s humble but useful career, and bade him adieu.”

Verna E. (Ching) Mossong, “The Communists are Coming!”, The New Zealand Genealogist, January-February, 1980, pp. 504-505
Christine Liava’a, “French Convicts in New Zealand”, The New Zealand Genealogist, September-October, 2001, pp. 323-325
Lucy Marshall, “Convicts and communists arrive in Auckland,” The New Zealand Genealogist, November-December, 2001, pp. 396-398
Land Information New Zealand records
Auckland Evening Star, Auckland Weekly News, NZ Herald, Papers Past.


  1. Very Cool and fascinating stuff on Rayer Ice. Interesting you should mention Sovereign of the Seas. She was built by my great great great Grandfather George Callan Sharp. She was later stolen by McCaffrey and ended up being wrecked off the coast of Australia. I will find the Bradley Family History Book and find the chapter then scan it so you can have a read. I'll make note of this guy - winegrowers are another interest of mine. I love this blog. AWESOME YOU ROCK!!!!

  2. That info about Sovereign of the Seas would be really cool, Storm -- I'd like to add a wee note on that as an update post and link it back to this one. Cheers, and many thanks.