John Henry Menzies (c 1840–1919)

by Janet Hector

John Henry Menzies arrived in New Zealand in December 1860, as an energetic young man of 20 or 21 already imbued with strong views (he never touched alcohol again, having seen young men wasting their time drinking and playing cards on the voyage out). He already had some skill in wood carving, honed in his schooldays at Cheam, where he found that carving paper knives, boats and spoons for putting grease on the hair earned him protection from the big boys—though he seems to have been able to defend himself with his fists too. He had grown up in the countryside around Manchester, the son of a businessman with an interest in farming and a strictly religious mother.

On leaving school he spent a year at Edinburgh University followed by an unsuccessful period as an insurance clerk in an uncle’s firm. During this phase he enjoyed outdoor activities—botany field trips, walking tours with his brothers around Liverpool and Ireland—and was taken on a tour of Europe by his father. Finally, he says in his Family History, ‘my father at last came to the conclusion that I had better go to New Zealand ’. Before he sailed, he spent a period with a well-to-do farmer in Yorkshire, near his mother’s family, who also had a business as a tenant right valuer. Going round various sorts of land with the shrewd Mr Simpson gave young John Henry a good preparation for his land purchase and development in New Zealand.

Once in New Zealand, he settled first in Southland, where he bought, developed and sold land at Ryal Bush, Spar Bush, and finally a 4000 acre property near Otautau (called Ringway after his family’s farm). In 1865 he married Frances Elizabeth Butler who had settled with her family at Ryal Bush in 1862. In 1878, Menzies decided to move further north—to a better climate, to be free of rabbits, and to seek better educational opportunities for his seven children. On 12 September 1878, the family arrived at Mackintosh Bay (later Menzies Bay) on Banks Peninsula.

Menzies put his usual energy into developing the property (about 4,400 acres), and three more children were born. Friends visited frequently, and one of these was young Georgie Robison. Much later (1953) she wrote to a friend an account of how Menzies revived his old carving skills:

It was a foggy, drizzly time and for indoor amusements fret-saw became the rage, and Mr Menzies was drawn in by the urge to made the flat leaves or flowers of the patterns more life-like, so he cut veins and marks on them. But that, being flat, was not satisfactory and he took a bit of wood and carved the shapes and added all that nature wrote on them. This enthralled him, he bought a great bureau, stocked it with all tools, and sat before the largest window, and carved everything. The stair rails, the picture frames, table tops or edges, the trays, etc. Having finished his house he began to agitate for a Church in the next bay where a proper service could be held, not just a schoolroom, and a lay-reader once a month. This, in stone, he carved also—those Maori patterns he studied deeply and felt that he had got an inkling of what they stood for. When his daughters married (Connie and Charlotte) he carved much of their houses too. He carved a tiny pin tray for me, which I still use.

The interest shown by some European settlers in Maori carving at the end of the nineteenth century has been discussed by Anna Petersen (At Home in New Zealand); she connects it to the British Arts and Crafts Movement, which had a strong following in New Zealand. The emphasis that this movement placed on craftsmanship, simplicity and handmade objects would have been in sympathy with John Menzies’ views. Some of his carving, with its flowers and leaves, was also in the Arts and Crafts style.

One of the houses carved by Menzies survives (Rehutai), as does St Luke’s Church in Little Akaloa, in which both stone and wood were carved in Maori patterns. He also produced a book of Maori patterns, resulting from his study of Maori artefacts held in the Canterbury Museum (Maori Patterns Painted and Carved). A number of pieces of carved furniture, mostly but not entirely in Maori patterns, are still held by his descendants.

Prepared by Janet Hector


Note: Books published by the Menzies family can be obtained from P and J Hector, 1 Mahina Road, Mahina Bay, Eastbourne, Wellington.