The Dunlops of Poverty Bay

Pioneer Settlers in New Zealand

By Margaret M. Bowater - Revised edition now available, Nov, 2010 !


James and Sarah Dunlop were my great-great-grandparents, early immigrants who came to New Zealand less than a decade after the Treaty of Waitangi was signed between the British Crown and the indigenous Maori people. What was it like for them, a young couple arriving in a strange country so far from home, having to live off the land and make their own way in an unstable frontier society?

James, a well-educated man, kept a daily record of events in the family, which would have been able to give us a very useful outline of their life over 40 years, if the diaries had not all been burned in the two house-fires that they suffered in 1868 and 1888. He resumed, however, in 1889, and three of the subsequent diaries have survived, 1889, 1895 and 1896, providing the impetus to create this account.

As diaries, they leave much to be desired. He made factual notes about his daily work; who called to visit them, but not what they talked about;  the arrival of his remittance from Glasgow at half-yearly intervals, and what bills he paid; and many rather elliptical comments about people’s behaviour, especially the women he observed. Scattered throughout are occasional “mutterings” in an unreadable language, probably a dialect of German, which can be generally described as very disrespectful! The 1889 diary is also frustrating to transcribe because of the number of pages torn or damaged by water. Nevertheless, as I read and re-read, I began to build up a sense of James as a person, quiet, reserved, honest, alternately annoyed and amused by female foibles, a detached observer of life, but also the figurehead of an expanding family to which he was strongly committed.

The Dunlops settled in Poverty Bay in 1849, and lived through some of the most dramatic events in our nation’s history, escaping from the 1868 Massacre by the barest margin. The family had been neighbours and friends of Te Kooti and other Maori chiefs before then; yet many of the Dunlop daughters later married soldiers who were involved in trying to hunt Te Kooti down; and two of them became valued interpreters between Maori and Pakeha, Sarah (Ross) in Opotiki, and Jeanette (Smith), my great-grandmother, in Kaitaia. All the children were involved in the early development of the town of Gisborne and its surrounding districts, or pioneered farms in Kaitaia or Opotiki.

 I have expanded the story from a number of other sources, particularly McKay’s Historic Poverty Bay, Binney’s Redemption Songs, the Poverty Bay Herald archives on www.Paperspast,,  several reference books of the period (listed at the end), and a number of family papers.  My moyher, Olive weatherly, gathered some of the original material. I also express my gratitude especially to three of James and Sarah's descendants: Jeanette de Montalk, who helped me considerably with photographs, relevant newspaper cuttings and other research; the late Denis Murphy, who contributed many wonderful potraits and a detailed genealogical summary; and Sally Shaw, who provided information about the Ross family.

As a result of the work I have done over recent years on different lines of my family history, I have become much more aware of how New Zealand’s unique bicultural history developed, and how easy it is for today’s generation to take for granted the hard work and commitment of men and women, Maori and pakeha, who struggled inch by inch to build the democratic society and economic wealth we know today. today's generation, however, is also slowly making amends for the injustices done to Maori.

Stories like this one about James and Sarah Dunlop and their children help us to personalise our history and recognise how deeply we belong to New Zealand.

Margaret Bowater, 2010
Spiral bound, 130 A4 pages, semi-gloss, many b/w photos, incl genealogies and text of 3 diaries.

Contact us to order a copy, $35 + postage.
November 2011:  A 12-page Supplement with additional material is now available for $5 more, or $10 if posted separately.

If you have more information to share about James and Sarah Dunlop’s descendants in NZ, I would be interested to hear from you by email.