The following was written by D.E. Hurley and first published in “N.Z. Stamp Collector” (September, 1976). It is reproduced here by kind permission of the Royal Philatelic Society of New Zealand.

Some of the most interesting discoveries are made by accident. It was while browsing in the New Zealand Mail for 1874 that I first came across the Auckland Islands pigeon post.

In the issue, for 20th June, the Mail reprinted an account from the Riverton paper, the Western Star, of Dr Monckton’s “enterprising expedition to the Auckland Islands”.

Francis Alexander Monckton was a Riverton doctor at the time and an interesting character in his own right – but that is another story. While in practice at Riverton, Monckton took out a lease on the Auckland Islands with a view to settlement. The Mail outlines the story:

“…the beautiful schooner, Mabel Jane, belonging to the enterprising projector, has started for her destination under the charge of Captain Welch, a well-known and skilled navigator. She carries a number of station hands, including one married couple; also a young bull and a selection of heifers, a few thousand feet of timber, and a large assortment of stores, tools and implements. No expense has been spared in fitting out the vessel in the most complete manner, and she carries, besides her own boat, two kauri-built copper-fastened boats to be left at the settlement. If the weather proves favourable, we understand she is to be kept constantly running between the Aucklands and this port for many months to come for the conveyance of stock and stores. Some think a portion of the current outlay will be recovered by profits accruing from the seals with which those islands abound. We trust it will be so for the unflinching manner in which the lessee has overcome apparently insurmountable obstacles has commanded the respect of even the croakers, and the good wishes of all.”

Now comes the part that caught my eye:

“Dr Monckton had commenced his arrangements for establishing a pigeon post by procuring some young carriers, and it is with great regret that we learn from some unknown cause they died soon after their arrival. He has since written for more, and when his plan is perfected it will not be our least pleasurable excitement to’ receive a mail from our friends in the islands.”

This suggestion of a pigeon post sent me looking through the archives for further inf0rmation. There is, however, nothing in contemporary newspaper accounts which suggests that, the first lot having passed away, the replacements ever arrived; whether because Monckton did not really trouble himself or because he simply did not lave time before sailing once again.

There is, nevertheless, no doubt that the pigeon post was a serious proposition on someone’s part because in the Turnbull Library there is an 11-page pamphlet, printed in Dunedin in 1872, entitled “Copy lease, of the Auckland Islands, granted by Her Majesty the Queen to Francis Alexr. Monckton“. This sets out in a preamble and 21 clauses the conditions of the lease agreed on by Francis Alexander Monckton and Sir George Alfred Arney, ‘the officer administering the Government thereof“, sealed with the seal of the Colony and witnessed by Oliver Wakefeld, clerk. Secretary for Crown Lands Office, and William Fitzgerald, Assistant Private Secretary. The interesting clause is Clause 16 which states, as a legal requirement of the lease, that:

For the purposes of maintaining speedy communication with tie main land of New Zealand the lessee shall at Riverton or Bluff Harbor in Otago aforesaid or other convenient place for the purpose keep and maintain a sufficient number of trained carrier pigeons aid such pigeons shall from time to time be conveyed to the said settlement and on the occasion of a shipwreck or other special occurence requiring to be speedily known the lessee shall cause particulars thereof in a concise form to be legibly written and securely attached to one or more of such pigeons and despatched to tie mainland at Riverton or Bluff Harbour aforesaid.

It takes little imagination to visualize some canny civil servant of the day thinking that, if Monckton was mad enough to go down to the Aucklands, the Government of the day wanted some assurance that they would not Have to mount frequent search and rescue operations to see if the colonists were still alive. Hence the pigeons. It must have been a bone of some contention to have been written into the lease, and, somewhere along the line, although whether before or after the attempted settlement is not clear, there was reason for it because another biograply of Monckton* reveals that “On another voyage to the islands Dr Monckton and crew were absent for nearly nine months, and could not get back nor could any news of them be obtained.”

What a pity the pigeon post did not succeed. One can not help wishing that Monckton had thought of issuing and having some Auckland Islands pigeon post labels printed before he went. But at the back of my mind, I wonder. Could any pigeon have survived the long, inhospitable flight across 200 miles of sea without coming to grief on the way except in the calmest of weather?

What about the expedition itself? There is some information in a book by Fergus McLaren†:

“In spite of the tales of failure and disaster connected with the Auckland Islands, another attempt to found a permanent establishment there was made in 1874. Dr F. A. Monckton of Invercargill received from the Secretary for Crown Lands of the Central Government a license to place stock on the group, and in May, 1874, he had a married couple called Nelson waiting at Port Ross to take charge of the animals when they arrived. On 22nd May, Monckton’s ship was lying at Riverton, waiting to sail with a cargo of cattle to the Auckland Islands. The doctor intended to give up his practice and live at Port Ross. When it put to sea, Monckton’s ship was unable to proceed south on account of adverse weather, and consequently was compelled to seek shelter in Port Pegasus in the south of Stewart Island. As he was held there, for some time, Monckton was forced to allow the cattle ashore to feed and when the weather moderated it was quite impossible to muster them from the bush. Dr Monckton’s project therefore was abandoned.”

No mention of those pigeons! Nor for that matter does McLaren’s account entirely agree with contemporary records. The discrepancy in dates may be due only to a delay in the Mail getting the story, but Monckton did not give up as easily as all that. He returned to Riverton after a second attempt which brought Mabel Jane within only 12 miles of the island before the weather forced her to seek shelter back at Stewart Island, but says the Mail for 29th August, “…nothing deterred by the difficulties that beset the previous cruise of the Mabel Jane [Dr Monckton] has lost no time in laying the tight little schooner on again, this time with a cargo of sheep”. The vessel was then “fully manned and equipped and will sail from Riverton with the first slant of wind.”

Mabel Jane did just that and on 19th December, 1874, the Mail was able to report that “Messrs Monckton and McIvor, who are forming a pastural settlement on the Auckland Islands, have succeeded in landing thirty-one sheep in fine condition. The pasturage is described as being sweet and plentiful.”

First impressions were not lasting. The settlement was not a success: “The scheme proved wholly impracticable, and the project had to be abandoned in consequence of the highly dangerous character of the navigation of those seas at almost all seasons of the year (Fulton, op. cit.). Monckton relinquished the lease in 1878‡.

What about those pigeons? Lost without a trace? It would seem so. Can anyone add to the story of Dr Monckton and the Auckland Islands pigeon post?

*Fulton, R., 1923: “Medical Practice in Otago and Southland in the Early Days. Otago Daily Times, Dunedin.

†McLaren, Fergus, 1948: The Eventful Story of the Auckland Islands. Reed, Dunedin.

‡Kerr, Ian, 1974: Cambell Island. Chapter 9: Sheep, whales and seals. The Islander. 2 ( 1 ) : 251-65.

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