The First Four Ships carried the Canterbury Association’s first settlers. The Association, founded in 1848 and guided by Edward Gibbon Wakefield and John Robert Godley, imagined the founding of an Anglican Church settlement in New Zealand comprising a cross-section of English society. In late 1848, the Association’s land surveyors found what they considered the ideal site for the proposed settlement of Canterbury and its chief town, Christchurch (originally, the Wairarapa was to be the site). In May 1849, official sanction was gained and the Association in London was notified. By July 1849, the setting out of the port town and surveying of the Bridle Path and Port Hills were under way. On January 3, 1850, the Association’s purchase terms were approved for a reservation of 2½ million acres in the Canterbury region. With that, the Association began recruiting emigrants, and by July 1850, preparations were well under way for the voyage to New Zealand.

1850s shippingThose who came to Canterbury on the First Four Ships were divided into two main groups: “colonists” and “emigrants”. Colonists travelled as cabin passengers and had the money to buy land in the new settlement. The Canterbury Association required that a rural allotment of at least 50 acres be bought at £3 an acre, as well as a town section in either Lyttelton or Christchurch. These high prices were aimed at preventing labourers and the like from buying land. The Association intended that the colonists be the leaders in Canterbury in its formative years.

The “emigrants” were mainly agricultural labourers, tradesmen, domestic servants and young married couples. Emigrants travelled in steerage and paid what they could afford for their fare. The shortfall was made up either by the Canterbury Association or by their future employers travelling on the same ship. Emigrants were required to be under 40 years old, to provide their own tools, and to supply testimonials as to their qualifications, medical certificates and certificates from the minister of their parish, countersigned by a Justice of the Peace.

Cabin passengers paid £42 a berth, intermediate passengers £25 a berth, and steerage passengers £15. Each ship carried a chaplain, a surgeon and a schoolmaster, all paid for by the Canterbury Association. The doctor received 10 shillings for every passenger safely delivered to Lyttelton, but had to pay back 20 shillings for every passenger who died.

Early on Saturday, September 7, 1850, the first ship, the Charlotte Jane, departed Plymouth Sound, England. The Randolph followed a few hours later, and late on Saturday night the Cressy left. The Sir George Seymour departed the following day about 11am. The exact number of passengers on board the ships is not known; surgeons’ lists and shipping lists do not match, and some young children were not counted. About 154 passengers were on the Charlotte Jane, 217 on the Randolph, 155 on the Cressy, and 227 on the Sir George Seymour.

Life on board was cramped. Steerage passengers were confined to a small space below the main deck. Single men slept in bunks 6½ feet long by 2 feet wide. Married couples shared a slightly wider bunk (3½ feet) and had a curtain for privacy. This space was used not only for sleeping, but also for storing everything needed for the voyage. There was a lack of fresh air, and dampness was a constant concern.

Basic food was provided, such as salted meat, flour, rice, biscuits and potatoes, but steerage passengers had to cook it themselves. A large table was fixed to the floor down the middle of the steerage area for this. A bucket was supplied for washing and laundry.

Cabin passengers had slightly better conditions. Living quarters had more space and privacy, and meals were cooked and served by stewards.

Many suffered from seasickness. The worst of this was during the first two weeks, but for some it continued for the whole voyage. Passengers passed the time at sea plotting the ship’s course, writing letters and diaries, sewing, playing cards and games, and dancing. Prayer meetings were held every morning and afternoon, and there was a full church service on Sundays. There were also school lessons for the children.

The Charlotte Jane anchored at Lyttelton at 10am on Monday, December 16, 1850. The Randolph arrived at 3.30pm. The Sir George Seymour anchored at 10am the following day, and the Cressy arrived on December 27. The ships brought about 800 people to Lyttelton. Initially, many were housed in immigration barracks, while others set up V-huts and tents. As soon as possible, many of the settlers made the arduous journey up the steep Bridle Path to the summit of the Port Hills and then down into a swampy Christchurch.

Heavy goods were transported by boat down Lyttelton harbour, across the shallow bar of the Sumner Estuary and then up the Avon River. A number of families lost their possessions when boats sank crossing the bar.


815 people have registered to add information to this site.

692 of those registered have agreed to be contacted by other registered members.

191 more passengers have been added to the site than were in the 1900 photographs and listed in the First Four Ships book.

348 entries of additional information on the passengers have been added to this site by registered members.


Copies of the book have sold out. It will not be reprinted.


Project editor Mark Wilson writes:

In January 2006, The Press published a series of articles on the Canterbury Association's First Four Ships. The genesis of the series was the rediscovery by Christchurch man Peter Day of four group photographs taken in 1900 of surviving passengers of the Charlotte Jane, Randolph, Sir George Seymour and Cressy.

The photographs were first published in The Weekly Press in 1901, each with a simple caption list of names. We decided to enlist the help of our readers to find out who these people were and what had become of them.

In the case of the better-known names, such as the Hon. C. C. Bowen, much was already known. But in the case of others, particularly women identified solely by the name of their husband (eg, Mrs J. Thompson), we knew very little. So we commissioned two researchers, post-graduate history student Victoria Cook and Randolph expert Margaret Copland, to write a brief account of who these individuals were, when they were born, when they died and where they lived.

The information was to be gained from secondary sources, such as published books. The intention was not to find new information but rather to summarise what was readily known and, in so doing, point to where there were gaps. We then asked our readers to help fill those gaps.

I was not prepared for the avalanche of information that followed. Several hundred emails and envelopes came in through January and early February. New material was still arriving six months later.

Some readers provided information about people who were on the First Four Ships but were not in the photographs. Others expressed disappointment at their descendants not being mentioned in the series; more than once I was held responsible for someone’s ancestor not being in the line-up in 1900. Those wishing to do so can add information on such individuals to this website.

Mark Wilson is features editor of The Press. He has a BA (Hons) in New Zealand and Pacific history from Canterbury University.


Chief researcher Victoria Cook writes:

When I started researching the photographs of surviving passengers of the Charlotte Jane, Sir George Seymour and Cressy (Margaret Copland researched the Randolph), my goal was to find out the person’s first name, when they were born, when they died, and who they travelled with to Canterbury. From there, I could search a number of sources for other information.

I found that for some people, particularly those of some renown in Canterbury, there was much information and this needed to be edited for publication. For others, particularly women, there was no information. In some cases my assumptions were based on speculation, and I was aware at this stage of the project that some of my “guesswork” would be wrong.

The response to the articles in The Press was overwhelming. After the many bits of new information were collected, it was my task to sort and sift them to produce additions and corrections to the material already published.

The information received varied greatly from person to person. For some, a number of family members wrote in; for others, only one was forthcoming; and for a few, no further information was received. Nonetheless, it was possible to add to and correct much of the initial research.

This project has relied on information gathered from family histories, family trees and personal testimonies. Some correspondence came with notes on where the information was obtained - for example a marriage or birth certificate - but some did not. For a historian, this lack of documentation is problematic. This is not to say that the information is incorrect or not sourced from reliable data, but there needs to be caution. Memories fade, and family myths can turn into “reality”. Hence, it is possible that some of the additional information is not based on reliable evidence and will itself be subject to future correction.

Victoria Cook has a BA (Hons) in New Zealand history from Canterbury University. She is currently researching an MA thesis on the relationship between New Zealand women and US servicemen during World War 2.