Thursday, December 29, 2011

Rangitoto Jack

Rangitoto by moonlight, c.1910. Ref 35-R50, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Council Libraries.

My eye was caught the other night by a notice placed in the Auckland Star of 11 February 1878. 

My interest was piqued especially when the matters of the rescue were described by the newspaper. Sinel, with a young man named Alfred Beetson, had headed out on a fishing trip in the harbour, when a squall caught them near Rangitoto Island. On making it ashore, they spent a night in a cave, then, after erecting a signal, discovered they were close to the “solitary abode” of George Jackson, otherwise known as “Rangitoto Jack.” The “lonely fisherman” and his wife took them in and made them comfortable, until Sinel and Beetson were rescued by the Naval Brigade. 

With a name like “Rangitoto Jack”, it seemed that George Jackson had a story behind him. As it turned out, there were apparently two “Rangitoto Jacks”. The first seems to have been one John Beaton, said to have been a crewman on the immigration ship Duchess of Argyle in 1842. 

An old settler whose experience in this province dates as far back as 1842, in rummaging his boxes, came across the following scrap, an interesting reminiscence of the arrival of the pioneer immigrant ship on the shores of this province: "About sunset, on the 4th of October, 1842, our vessel was steadily gliding over the ocean with a careful watch placed, upon her forecastle. An experienced eye would have seen at a glance from the preparations on deck that she was near the end of her journey. She was the pioneer immigrant ship Duchess of Argyle, with nearly 500 souls onboard, commanded by Captain Pait, a thorough gentleman and sailor, he having no chart but those laid down by Captain Cook. It was needful that there should be a sharp look-out, as the Captain had intimated that we were nearing the land, and that possibly we might see it early next morning. We gradually, one after another, retired to dream of those we had parted from, probably, in this world, to meet no more, and our ship followed her path over the waste of water. Early the next morning, a very little before the first dawn of light, there was a cry that roused every one on board, it was "land oh the weather bow." I hurried on deck, it was very dark the captain was standing with only his trowers [sic] and shirt on him, night glass in band, and the seamen were heaving the ship to, but no one could see anything like land, only one man, a sailor, whose name was John Beaton, better known lately as "Rangitoto Jack." He was standing, bent a little forward, pointing over the bulwark, crying, "there it is, don't ye see it." Still the Captain, nor any other one on deck could see anything like land. The Captain looked at John, and said "Beaton, it was the Flying Dutchman you saw." "No, it was not; don't you see it, there -- there it is." Gradually, as if by magic, the darkness passed away, and there rose before us the Three Kings, apparently towering hundreds of feet above over masts, glittering like silver and gold before the rising sun. We had reached the shores of New Zealand." 

Auckland Star 5 October 1875 

That passage is interesting as, by the time that was published, there was a different man known as "Rangitoto Jack" in the newspapers. The first "Rangitoto Jack" does seem to have been John Beaton. In the papers there is also, from the early 1860s, a John Beaton who was a Ponsonby Road bricklayer/brickmaker, well in business then out of business as bankrupt. There's no certainty that the two (or even three!) John Beatons are the same man. In March 1868 though, "Jack Beaton of Rangitoto" reported the theft of “a four-oared boat, sharp at both ends, clinker-built, painted black outside and lead colour inside.” In October 1868, “Rangitoto Jack” Beaton and his “intrepid daughter”, as the Southern Cross described her, both living on Rangitoto, assisted John Johnson after the fishing boat Pet was caught by a sudden storm and partly sank. 

In November 1869, “Rangitoto Jack” was charged with assaulting one Frank Deprasquail on the 23rd of that month. It seems that Deprasquail had taken a shine to Miss Beaton, and had been ardently wooing her. Her father, however, laid down some conditions for the hopeful swain – that he become Roman Catholic, and pay £100 for the privilege. (Isn’t it the bride’s father who usually provides the dowry?) According to Deprasquail: 

“I was following defendant's daughter, intending to marry her but Beaton told me to give it up, and I did give it up. I never asked defendant for his daughter after that but had twice asked for his daughter before. I did not attempt to blacken the character of the daughter after being refused. I told defendant to look out for his daughter, or she would be on the town. I told him this before being refused. I said nothing of her to any one else. The girl did not refuse me. When we parted she said, “You keep your own, and I'll keep my own," and that was all. She followed me, and I followed her.” (Laughter.) 

Southern Cross 30 November 1869 

I'd say telling a man his daughter would become the next thing to a whore would be enough to fuel any temper. Two weeks later, Beaton gave Depasquail a walloping, and was fined 50s. 

In April 1872, Beaton, described as a fisherman, sued Jeremiah Casey over a collision with one of Casey’s boats, the Gemini. But, just before this, one George Jackson appears in the newspapers. He was reported as being a witness to seeing a thief named Charles Foster on Rangitoto. (Southern Cross, 4 February 1871) 

Perhaps, John Beaton left and George Jackson took over, taking over both the sobriquet and the local legends. 

Over the years from that point, "Rangitoto Jack" popped up in reports from time to time, usually in relation to finding dead bodies in or near the Rangitoto waters, and bringing them in to the mortuary. At least the 1878 Sinel-Beetson accident ended fortunately. 

In 1876, "Rangitoto Jack" brought public attention to himself in a different way -- as part of one of the wild goose chases by the police tracking Hara Winiata, accused of an infamous Epsom murder. The following offers a colourful illustration of the "rulers" of the islands in the harbour and Hauraki Gulf.

The police expedition to Rangitoto yesterday affords an illustration of the trouble to which our zealous guardians of the peace are subjected in their search for the Maori murderer by persons coming to them and spinning yarns which are based on commonplace facts, but kindled into startling information by vivid fancy untempered by judgment or intelligence. As our readers are aware the Water-Police started for Rangitoto yesterday soon after 12 o'clock to investigate a rumour brought to town by Captain James of the Pilot service, that Wynyard, the Epsom assassin, had been seen about the island by Mr Jackson, or “Rangitoto Jack" as a well-known man is called who lives with his wife in a little whare near Rangitoto reef. 

The police arrived at Jack's mansion soon after three o'clock, and were hospitably received by the island monarch. Detective Jeffries broached the subject of their mission in his well-known diplomatic style, and did his level best to set before his majesty the advantage which would accrue to himself both in a pecuniary and general sense from giving up the murderer if he had sought shelter in the rocky fastnesses of the island. King Jack made answer that, although no extradition treaty existed between himself, and her Majesty, he should be most happy to give his assistance and command his subjects (consisting of his wife, a dog and two cats) to do the same towards capturing and delivering over to justice the man Hara Winiata, should he or they come across the scoundrel. 

The detective then confronted the monarch with Captain James, and asked his island majesty to repeat the story told to the pilot yesterday. Now arose a wonderful discrepancy. King "Jack" denied most emphatically having told the captain that he had seen the Maori. He had seen a man in a punt, who said he was going to Motutapu for sheep, that was true and he had also told Captain James that he had known a man named Wynyard at Mahurangi some years ago but he had not said he had seen the murderer, nor could he even swear that the man he had seen was a Maori. To this story "Jack" adhered, till her Majesty's ambassadors, finding that the petty sovereign either could or would not furnish them any other information, took their departure after exchanging mutual felicitations. 

Determined to trace the affair to its source, the party pursued their course round the island in the direction the dingy had disappeared, and shortly before six arrived in the narrow channel between Rangitoto and Motutapu. The tide being out they could not pass through, so drawing up their boat and scouring it, they made their way across the island to the residence of the two brother kings of the island, whose name is Reed. Here again every deference was paid to their uniform, and cakes and firewater were set before them of which they partook. When the business was mentioned, the two sovereigns looked at one another, and one closed one of his eyes momentarily, and the other touched his nose with his finger. They then drove a bargain as to what they should receive if they gave all the information they had. This being settled they supplied the following important facts. On the evening of Thursday, a Portuguese man had come to them from the chief of a neighbouring island, whose name was Sandford, to fetch a ram. The man had been sent at day break, so they had learned, from the chief's island, which is called Little Motutapu, and had tried to get into Home Bay, but his boat, the tide being strong and he lazy, had drifted past, and floated into Rangitoto Channel. Now the sun being scorching hot he became sleepy, and had lain down in his boat and gone to sleep forgetful of his mission. When off the reef he was espied and interrogated by the prince of Rangitoto (as our readers have heard.) Subsequently he completed the circuit of the island, being by that time sorry for his laziness, and towards evening arrived through the channel at their palace, when he begged the ram, and obtaining it had departed in peace to his chief's island. Enough, they had spoken. 

And when they had finished, the Queen's delegates looked one upon another, and their lips moved but they spake not aloud for decency sake. So they refreshed themselves with sleep after their search, and returned to Auckland this morning much pleased with their success and Inspector Broham heard their report and his lips moved, but he spake not aloud for decency's sake, and so dismissed them and Captain James departed to the North Shore contemplating the vanity of earthly hopes. 
 Auckland Star 19 February 1876 

For decency's sake -- I'd say the investigators kept their swearing behind closed doors once they got back to base.

But in 1879 -- Auckland lost its "Rangitoto Jack." 
A Man Drowned in the Harbour. 

Yesterday morning at six o'clock the sailors on board the schooner Christina, from the Bay of Islands, noticed a dingy floating near that vessel, when inside of Rangitoto Reef. Seeing that the boat was not occupied, they approached it, and found in it a goat and several loaves of bread. Captain Smith, thinking that an accident had occurred, ordered a constant look-out to be kept until the Christina arrived at the wharf. At 11 o'clock the body was seen floating in the water, further up the channel, and it was immediately taken on board the Christina

As the schooner had to wait for the afternoon tide to come up the harbour, Captain Jackson landed at Takupuna, and walked over to Devonport and there by one of the ferry steamers to Auckland. On being informed of the finding of the dead body, Sergeant Martin, of the water-police, had the body brought Auckland in the police boat. The body was recognised to be that of an old man Jackson, who with his wife and family have resided at Rangitoto Island for many years past. It appears that deceased had been at Devonport Saturday right, and had after purchasing some provisions, left to return to his home. As the water was very calm on Saturday night and Sunday morning it is difficult to say how the accident occurred. 


An inquest was held on the body of deceased George Jackson, this afternoon before Dr Philson. Captain Smith, of the schooner Christina, deposed to finding the body, as described above. William Henry Trevarthen deposed that he last saw deceased alive on Saturday night at 9 o'clock on the Devonport Wharf. 
 Auckland Star 28 April 1879 

The verdict found was that of accidental death.

The scene at Rangitoto when the authorities went to both tell Mrs Jackson that she was now a widow, and to drag her away from her island home, must have been heart wrenching.

Sergeant Martin and several of the police went to Rangitoto last evening to inform Mrs Jackson of the death by drowning of her husband, George Jackson. The police were accompanied by a daughter of the deceased. Mr Trevarthen of Devonport also proceeded by boat to the Island. It was with much difficulty that Mrs Jackson could be induced to leave her old home and come to Auckland. She has two daughters residing in Auckland, with one of whom she will now live. 
 Auckland Star 29 April 1879 

To the Editor Sir,—lt has been suggested that a subscription list should be started, or an entertainment got up for the benefit of the widow of the late George Jackson, who was found drowned in the harbour recently. The case is a very deserving one. Mrs Jackson has no means, and is at present residing with her son-in-law, Mr F. Nicholson, shoemaker, of Wyndhnm-street. Can some of our local amateurs assist in this matter '.—I am, &c, A.B. 
 Auckland Star 7 May 1879 

I don't know what happened to Mrs Jackson after that.

In Papers Past, we find an obituary of sorts to George Jackson, the man who was, at least, the second Rangitoto Jack, most likely coming originally from out of the NZ Herald. It had the wrong details about his family life -- but at least puts something up for posterity in honour of one of the characters of the harbour.

Rangitoto Jack, the old fisherman who is reported to have been found drowned beside his boat in the Rangitoto Channel a day or two ago, was one of those odd characters who are still to be found in secluded spots in many parts of New Zealand. He lived entirely alone in a small hut on Rangitoto, the remarkable insular volcanic cone at the entrance of Auckland Harbour, and was well known to all the boating men who frequent the bays and islands on that part of the coast. There are all sorts of legends about his antecedents, some of which represent his early life as having been decidedly adventurous, and the old man himself was not at all averse to being considered a bit of a desperado. We believe there really was not much harm in him though, and that his most desperate exploit had probably been nothing more thrilling than desertion from some man-of-war. He was a first-mate hand in a boat, and knew exactly where the best fishing was to be had in all the waters anywhere near the Waitemata, and he will no doubt be a good deal missed from the circle in which he was specially known. His solitary death, in the neighbourhood of his humble retreat, was perhaps as suitable an ending to his career as could possibly have occurred. Many a yellow-covered novel has been made out of less promising materials than the incidents of his life and death afford. 

Timaru Herald 30 April 1879 

Rangitoto Island’s 19th century history from 1840 started with it nominally being under Crown control – but in fact being bought and sold actively by Europeans into the early part of that decade. 

The people will recklessly and foolishly spend their money without the sanction of Government on the purchase, or rather re-purchase of lands which are already bought by Government or by private individuals. This is no suppositious statement. It has already happened. We understand that even the barren Island of Rangitoto, although the property of the Government for more than three years, has within the last week been twice bought. 

Southern Cross, 26 October 1844 

Before the appearance of a “Rangitoto Jack” c.1868, stone from the volcanic island was used in works such as the formation of Queen Street Wharf from c.1851, a practice that was to continue into the 20th century. In 1854, the Crown is said to have formally acquired title, but ownership was still under dispute at the Native Land Court before Judge Fenton as at 1867. In 1863, the island was used to quarantine the passengers and crew of the Tyburnia.

… your memorialists regret that the authorities have not been able to procure a better place for the performance of quarantine. The island of Rangitoto is destitute of water, has no sufficient space for exercise, and in the opinion of your memorialists, is otherwise unfit for the purpose for which it has been set apart, more especially in the case of women and children. 

Southern Cross 25 September 1863 

Even with this scarcity of fresh water, there was speculation in 1865 that grapes could be grown on the slopes of the island. Mind you, at that point, those interested in grape growing were willing to try anything. 

The dispute over ownership of the island may have been how “Rangitoto Jack” first came into the picture in 1868 – as a squatter, with no one particularly interested in moving him on. Even so, reports on excursions to the island in December 1869 and January 1870 do not include any descriptions of habitations thereon. (Auckland Star, 28 December 1869; 28 January 1870) The Auckland Harbour Board was granted management over Rangitoto from October 1872, which made sense, as the Board were in the process of the vast reclamations which reshaped Auckland’s southern foreshore to the Waitemata. Stone from Rangitoto formed part of the great seawalls built up. 

The wife of another fisherman based at Rangitoto, or so she said, one Mary Carmichael, alias Mary Cameron, was up before the courts for drunkenness in 1877. 

Sub-Inspector Pardy to prisoner: Have you been drunk three times lately? Prisoner: Oh, yes as drunk as a lord. I am the wife of a fisherman at Rangitoto. Reached this colony in 1842 and when I come to Auckland I must have a drop, you know can't help it. 

Auckland Star 31 August 1877 

By 1890, Rangitoto came under control of the Devonport Borough Council, forming a Domain Board. Ahead was the rest of the story: quarrying, wrecks, heritage baches, and Auckland's pride in a unique landmark on the waters.


  1. > My eye was caught the other night by a notice placed in the Auckland Star of 11 February 1878.

    Your opening sentence expresses very well the way you live in the past (no insult, when addressing historians)! It's wonderful how newspapers - tomorrow's fish-and-chip paper - help people not only to stay up to date but also to piece together the past, though admittedly they sometimes mislead.

    The transferral of such flimsy sheets to apparently more ethereal (but searchable) digital media seems even more amazing.

  2. Heh! You're quite right, Claire -- I tend to see things with an overlay from the past. Been doing that for years. I was actually looking up information on someone who owned a Queen Street building at the time (that'll be another post, if I gather up more info) -- and scanning down the Papers Past results, I spotted the notice. Then looked up the articles on the boating accident. And found "Rangitoto Jack" ...

    Advertisements, public notices, tender notices, dissolutions of business partnerships -- all part of the fabric of how Auckland, or anywhere, ticked at any particular point in time. I was taught about their importance by historical researcher Mike Butler years ago. A wise lesson, that.


  3. I am a long-time bach owner on Rangitoto family has owned baches there since 1922. In the 1960s, I found the 2 stone walled huts that Rangitoto Jack lived in. I know of no other person associated with the island, including DoC staff, who know of these.

    John Walsh