“Would to God I had never heard the name of New Zealand”


“To tell you is a great task, for I can assure you it is a most awful country,”  wrote James Boot from Christchurch, New Zealand in letter to his parents in Nottingham, England in June, 1864. “Would to God I had never heard the name of New Zealand.  It is the most miserable place, with nothing to cheer the eye or heart.”

Boot and co drug store
The second store at 16-20 Goose Gate ,Nottingham, belonging to the Boot’s Chemist chain, founded by Jesse Boot (who later was made the 1st Baron of Trent) and his parents, c1885. This store is a short distance from the business James Boot left behind in Alfreton Street. Source: BBC Nottingham website.

James Boot arrived as an assisted emigrant, bringing with him his wife and five young children: James Alfred, age nine; Millicent, age seven; Frederick, five; Eleanor, three; and Walter age one out to Lyttelton on the immigrant ship, the Tiptree. Like many new settlers, he left behind his parents, siblings, and an occupation as a medical botanist situated on Alfreton Road, Nottingham – just two miles from another Boot family herbalist business which later become one of the most famous chemist shops in England.

Why James had left England is not known – most likely to improve his situation in life. According to his immigration application, he had been employed for two years as a joiner with prominent local tradesman William Woodsend, in his building business – which was continued by his descendants until liquidation in February 2011. William provided James with a character reference, as did local lacemaker, William Smith.

A sad and desperate appeal for help

James’ words may suggest his removal from Nottingham may not have been under ideal circumstances,

“If ever I get to Old England again, I would work night and day to redeem myself; but that can never be.”

His letter – a sad and desperate appeal for help – reveals the sorrow, despair and duplicity James and his family felt towards those people whom he believed had induced him to emigrate under false representations. James wrote,

“I have heard women say myself they could stand and see those men pulled limb from limb who advertise false representations in the English papers to induce people to go. It is a pity the public should be gulled.”

For many immigrants to Christchurch, life was much harder compared to what they had left behind in England. Living conditions were quite primitive. After a few days acclimatisation at the immigration barracks, settlers were turned out to fend for themselves. They were expected to find their own accommodation or build their own homes, and until such time they often lived under canvas or in V-huts.

“I have seen some queer places. One house in a place called The Valley’  I called at, you could not stand up in, and I do not think it was five feet from the top to the bottom, the roof slanting to the ground, and there being no walls nor any floor save the ground you walked upon. But I need not say anything about that, for I have no floor in my house, neither can I get any at present, wood being so awfully dear. It is all imported into Canterbury.”

Christchurch 1860s
Panorama of houses in Christchurch looking towards the hills at the time the Boot family arrived, 1860s.  In the middle is Gloucester Street with  Liverpool and Manchester House displaying a array of drapery goods outside. To the left of this is Joseph Papprill’s tailoring and habitmaking store and home. Photographer: Alfred Charles Barker. Source: National Library of New Zealand, ID: 1/2-075411-F.
A repugnant occupation

Obtaining work was also a major problem. James’ occupation on his emigration records stated that he was a joiner. Most likely he was under the impression that a trade profession would be more sought after in the colony  compared to his medical botany background.

However, he had only managed to acquire ‘half work’  at seven shillings a day, since landing in Lyttelton on January 20th, 1864.

After which, he had no work for two months, though he had searched all over town for it, like so many others.

James took to going around the district, visiting settlers’ homes to ‘hawke’ medicinal pills he made for a penny a piece – an occupation he said was, “most repugnant to my feelings”.  This was the only way he could make any money using the skills he had as a medical botanist – a profession he had taken up after moving away from the family trade as lace workers in Leicester.

“I did middling at first. The second day I went out, I earned 12s with small wares and 12s, with pills, which made £1. 4s., a good day… but the last few weeks I have done nothing scarcely earning a living.”

Advertising for tradespeople
Advertising by the Canterbury Association for tradesmen, labourers and domestics. Source: The Bristol Mercury, Saturday, May 1, 1858. Issue 3554

After being in Christchurch for a short time, James saw advertisements in the Nottingham home papers, claiming that carpenters and smiths were much needed in Christchurch. He wrote to his family back in England, complaining that the reality was quite different:

“Smiths cannot get work,  for I know several who are driving carts, or doing anything they can get, not being able to obtain a job since they came.”

In desperation of his joblessness, James went to the ‘Government’ to ask them what they suggest he should do. They were sorry but had no suggestions apart from offering him a day’s work cleaning the windows of ‘Parliament House’.  James hoped that they would keep him on, and find him something better.

How a man with a family is to live here I leave you to guess

Food and supplies were expensive in Christchurch – some merchants and suppliers could charge whatever they liked due to lack of competition or supply.

“Things are most awfully dear. Bread is 1s. 4d. the 4lb. loaf, or what ought to be 4lb.; but loaves here I think are made by guess. We cannot get any of them weighed; they run about 3lb. 10oz,. and we have weighed them 3lb. 2oz., being 14oz. too light. We eat two of these things a day, so you may soon reckon what our bread bill is a week – only 16s. 8d. potatoes are 11/2d. per lb, and rising; flour 5d. per lb. ; butter 2s. per lb, ; eggs 4d. each…”

It was very difficult for James to support his wife and five children under the age of ten.

“How a man with a family is to live here, I leave you to guess.  My poor wife often cries bitterly at the misery we have come to. Little Nelly and Freddy often ask why I have brought them to such a miserable place, and say “It’s a nasty New Zealand ; when shall you go back to ‘Nockinam?

It’s a nasty man as took all the ‘cheers’ and tables. We have no furniture at all but the boxes we brought, and I think half the houses in New Zealand are the same.”

James wishes he was a pauper in Nottingham Workhouse, instead of trapped in unemployment and misery half way across the world.

“I do not think there is one in fifty but who regrets the day they came. Some tell me they dare not write the truth home for it would break their poor mothers’ hearts, so they are obliged to wrap things up as well as they can.”

Letters for Home

Newspapers and letters from home were one of the few ways new immigrants could stay connected with the life and people they had left behind in England. They took months to reach New Zealand and so the news was well out of date by the time it arrived, never the less the ships, and the news they carried, were eagerly anticipated.

Letters written home by settlers were often passed amongst friends and family, and some were submitted to newspapers for publication – much to the embarrassment of the writers. In one of Charlotte Godley’s letters written to her mother in England, she requested that her letters not be published as her husband and friend, Mrs FitzGerald had been greatly annoyed when it became known to them that some of their private letters had been shown around and published in the home papers, which had subsequently made their way out to New Zealand for all to read. [endnote Source: Letters from Early New Zealand, Lyttelton. September 30th. By Charlotte Godley.]

A chicken-hearted lazy fellow

The same fate befell James – 5,000 miles of ocean was not enough to keep his private thoughts sent in letters to his family, from reaching New Zealand. After being published in England, his letter was apparently copied into the Daily Southern Cross in Auckland, who expressed pity for his circumstances, suggesting that an Aucklander should rescue him from his plight. This article came to the scathing attention of the Editor of the Christchurch Pres, who accused James of being “a man of singularly refined palate, to whom all the luxuries of the season are necessary to render life tolerable” ,  a “helpless mortal”  who should get back to the Nottingham Workhouse as fast as he can and a whinging, “chicken-hearted lazy fellow” who apparently gives in at the first difficulty.

“The writer seems to have thought that in coming to a colony they were on the way to a kind of El Dorado, where they could make money as fast as they wished – how they did not stop to enquire, have abundance of everything provided for them, and trouble of every kind be forever unknown. When they are fairly landed, the contrast between their romantic expectations and the hard reality is a shock which they seem never able to overcome. Of course everyone who comes to a colony has something to undergo at first ; the very change in the ways and customs of the place, and the absence of many things which in England one has been accustomed to all one’s life, are trying ; but these are the very things that show what stuff there is in a man. A plucky resolute man goes to work at his business with a will, or failing that, turns his hand to anything he can pick up, soon obtains regular employment, and is on the way to securing a competence, if nothing more. A chicken-hearted lazy fellow gives in at the first difficulty, goes about groaning and sighing, can do nothing to help himself, writes whining letters home to his friends and finally throws himself upon Government and begs to be supported at the public expense.

..we have already said that we know nothing of Mr. Boot, but if his is one of the former sort, we have no doubt that next year he will be writing home in a very different strain, and will probably assist his relatives to join him in New Zealand, without any reason for ‘weeping tears of blood’ on their arrival. But if he is really the helpless mortal his letter indicates, our best advice to him is to get back as fast as he possibly can to the Nottingham Workhouse. He will be much happier there than in Canterbury, and he is quite right in supposing it is the best place for him.” [endnote Sourced from the British Library Gale Document Number:R3209365798. Extract from: NEW ZEALAND AND ITS SETTLERS. Nottinghamshire Guardian (London, England), Friday, February 24, 1865; pg. 3; Issue 996. Original article: Press, December 9, 1864.]

Although James did not know at the time, there was some truth in what had been written in the Press. After a few years, he managed to acquire work and the Boot family fortunes changed for the better, whilst his Nottingham based family’s suffered. But this was still a few years off, and James’s experience of emigration left him feeling alone, isolated, unemployed and desperate – an issue that would not be fixed any time soon.

Unemployment in the Colony

Even before James’ arrival in 1863, reports had circulated about the employment situation in the new Colony. The Secretary of the Working Men’s Committee in Canterbury, W. H. Barnes, had written to publications in Australia in October 1859, claiming that 600 men were out of work at the time, with several more ship loads enroute to Lyttelton,

The place is swamped with labour of all sorts, and many that are working cannot get sufficient to keep themselves and families.”

Barnes listed the wages given and what could be bought with them so readers in Australia could judge for themselves whether it was worth their while to go to Canterbury or not.

Agricultural and other labourers were paid 5s per day; carpenters, smiths, masons and other trades from 8s to 10s; rent per week was from 10s to 15s. Flour per 100 lbs was £1/6s; bread per 4 lbs was 1s 2d; Tea per lb, 3s 3d; Sugar 8d; milk per quart 6d; butter 2s; bacon and cheese 1s 3d.[endnote Source; The Hobart Town Daily Mercury, 19 October 1859, page 2.]

Meetings of unemployed were constantly being called throughout the colony. James had written in his letter home:

“Auckland is the same as Christchurch. I have met with many who have come from Auckland here to do better, and they say Auckland is just the same.”

On the 23rd January, 1871, five hundred unemployed men met in Auckland to adopt a petition, “stating that they were in a condition of destitution, and approaching starvation, and requesting employment.”[endnote Source: Wellington Independent, Volume XXVI, Issue 3105, 24 January 1871, Page 2]

Ten months later, in October 1871, a petition was presented to the Canterbury Provincial Council, signed by 168 persons, complaining of want of employment. The Government had provided employment for men in the Domain at 3s and 4s per day, and on stone breaking at the new Addington gaol at 4s per day, but they had been discharged when the work had ceased.

One of the signatories to this petition was James Boot, who was also called to give evidence to the Committee set up to examine the issue. By this time James had begun a business as a fruiterer, with just 4/6 in his pocket. His change of circumstances and personal views bore the Committee’s findings – there was work for those who wanted it, but “the immigrants from England are taught to expect too much”.

Amongst the Committee’s findings were:

  • That while some of those out of employment are deserving of assistance, a great number are men who will not work if they can help it, or who will not take work under a certain rate of wages or who through extravagance of various kinds, have failed to make provision for a period of slackness.
  • That while there is a demand in the country for single men and women and married couples without encumbrance, there is sometimes a difficulty for a married man with children to obtain a situation especially if his wife be unable to work.
  • That it would be advisable for the Provincial Government, should complaints of want of employment again occur, to offer piece work to married men so as to enable them to earn something less than the then current rate of wages
  • That those persons who have arrived here as assisted immigrants form a very considerable section of the population and as a body are in a highly prosperous condition.[endnote Source: Archives New Zealand, Christchurch]
Boots Muffins and Crumpets
Boot’s celebrated muffins and crumpets Ad 1869. Source: Star, Issue 246, 25 February 1869, Page 1. Image: Past Paers.
Pines, Oranges and Refreshment Rooms

By 1866, James had established a good business as a fruiterer in High Street. Before emigrating, James had worked in a confectionery store in Nottingham, so it was inevitable that confectionery would also be added to his produce.

James had also recognised a gap in the market in the city for a good refreshment tea room and coffee house, so he pioneered the idea and established a respectable and highly successful shop which offered hot tea, coffee,’pines and oranges’ and his ‘celebrated muffins and crumpets’ served at all hours as well as a convenient cloakroom staffed by a female attendant for ladies to relieve and refresh themselves whilst in the city. The Boot Tea Rooms became synonymous with good service and food and was highly patronised by Cantabrians of that time.[endnote Source: Star, Issue 246, 25 February 1869, Page 1.]

The Boot family lived in a house on a quarter acre section on Cambridge Terrace east, which in 1881 was valued at £1,600. While his fruitery and confectionery rooms continued to flourish, that same year in Nottingham, James’ eighty five year old, widowed father Joseph, was living in an almshouse with his daughter, Sarah who worked as a dressmaker and his grandson William who was employed as an iron turner.

Twenty Four Lashes with a Cat-o’-nine Tails

The Boot family home on Cambridge Terrace east, had a large glass house in the back garden. Within this temperate hot-house, grew an illustrious vine which produced a crop of much anticipated grapes in late summer. This delicious crop was tended carefully until the ripened sweet fruits were harvested and transported carefully to the fruit shop to be sold at a good price. However, on the night of Tuesday 25th February, 1879, James’ son, Walter discovered five boys in the back garden caught ‘red handed’ with their arms loaded with the precious bunches of grapes as well as mouths quickly swallowing the juicy evidence. The young lads – George Hyde, William McDonald, John Borland and G. S. Rose, who were aged between ten and twelve years were held by the furious Boot men while a police came to the house to arrest them.

They boys were charged with breaking in and stealing thirty six bunches of grapes valued at the grand total of £7 10s. In court, despite the boys’ parents’ tears and distress over the charges laid against them, the bench intended to make an example of them.  They were found guilty and taken to the Addington Gaol where they were detained for four hours to await their punishment. The three oldest lads – George Hyde, William McDonald and another called Henry Chiverson – had been charged with other similar offences committed around the same time, so were given twenty four lashes with a cat-o’-nine tails, whilst the other two, John Borland and G. S. Rose, received the lesser amount of one dozen lashes.[endnote Source: Star, Issue 3399, 3 March 1879, Page 3.]

Licensed to Sell Wine and Beer

James had built up a reputation for running a respectable establishment. Many patrons who enjoyed partaking in his refreshments and meals at his High Street shop were in favour of him gaining a liquor license so they might be able to enjoy a glass of wine or beer with their food. However obtaining a license was not an easy exercise, even for respectable businessmen such as James Boot.[endnote Source: Star, Issue 1311, 8 May 1872, Page 2.]

Boot family, circa 1902
The Boot family, with James pictured at centre, taken by Standish and Preece circa 1902. Source: The Weekly Press, page 31, April 10th, 1912.

Alfred Gee, another confectioner operating in High Street, already had a wine and beer license, so the bench was “shy of multiplying licenses”

Others objected to the petition as they were concerned that might Mr Boot no longer be involved in the business, the license could be transferred, and “the place might become a nuisance.” The shop was next to Spensley’s Hall which was leased by Mr Spensley and used for music rehearsals. There was concern that alcohol could make its way into dance parties at the hall, through a connecting door from the shop to the hall.

The bench was assured that it was not Boot’s intent to open a bar, but to merely supply wine and beer with meals to patrons who did not like going into public-houses. James was also willing to make it a condition of the license that it be surrendered should he leave the business, and the door between his shop and Spensley’s Hall be permanently closed. Never the less the Bench wanted to view the premises, and another adjournment was made in a fortnight. The application was then turned down on the grounds that they had refused similar applications before, and if anyone wanted ‘refreshment of that nature‘ they could send for it.

James tried again for a license in December, 1874 to serve wine and beer to this lunch time customers, including ladies dining in a special private room. His application was supported by a petition signed by a ‘large number of respectable citizens‘. Eventually the license was granted to Boot, afterwhich patrons were able to enjoy a wine or beer with their meals.[endnote Source: Star, Issue , 22 May 1872. Press, 29 May, 1872. Press, 2 December 1874.]

The Boot Brothers
London Gaiety Burlesque Companu
Theatre Royal Christchurch: London Gaiety Burlesque Company. “Carmen up to date”. May 1893. Source: Alexander Turnbull Library ID Eph-B-OPERA-1893-01-cover.

In June 1887, sons James Alfred and Frederick, trading as “The Boot Bros. Pastrycooks and Confectioners”, were celebrating their take-over of the business established by their father twenty years earlier at 232 High Street.  Cocoa, soup and hot Scotch Pies were offered on their menu of refreshments while muffins and crumpets, made famous by their father, were still available, along with pastry and confectionery of all kinds. They boasted of their wedding, christening and birthday cakes which could be ordered “on the shortest notice”, and that they were now able to serve wine and beer with their meals as they had obtained a license.[endnote Source: Star, Issue 6054, 10 October 1887, Page 4.]

The brothers expanded their business by opening a second shop and refreshment room at 177 Colombo Street, opposite Cab Stand Corner. They  offered light refreshments, luncheons and teas from 9 a.m. until 10 p.m. It was the perfect place to sit and enjoy a quiet cup of tea with a delicious sweet treat, while browsing through the latest copy of the ‘Graphic’.

The London Gaiety Burlesque Company, visiting Christchurch as part of their New Zealand tour and performing at the Theatre Royal in May 1893, fortified themselves at the Boot Bros. Refreshment Rooms before going to the theatre according to the brothers’ advertising. Evidently they had a sense of humour, as they also claimed they were “By Special Appointment to the Begum of Beezhgarnooroooopooly”[endnote Source: Star, Issue 4649, 20 May 1893, Page 4.]

After renewing their lease on the Colombo Street premises in August 1896, the brothers redecorated and refurnished throughout – painting the exterior an eye-catching white and gold colour scheme so their patrons would have no trouble finding them – they were the only ones with that colour scheme in town at the time. Patrons could enjoy soups and grils (sic) at lunchtime, with beverages and hot pies available all hours.

By mutual consent, the Boot Brothers dissolved their partnership on the 3rd April, 1899. Frederick took over the High Street shop where he manufactured goods on the premises, and James Alfred took over Colombo Street.

Frederick eventually moved the High Street business in April 1908, to the former premises of Roche and Co., Hatters and Mercers at 220 High Street, next to Petersen’s Jewellers – six doors south of his old shop. [endnote Source: Star, Issue 9203, 4 April 1908, Page 5.]

James Alfred, continued in business in Colombo Street and by 1922 was listed in Christchurch’s telephone directory as having telephone lines at his shop at 701 Colombo Street and a factory at 57 Hereford Street.

James and Jane Boo, 1912
James and Jane Boot, pictured in The Weekly Press at the time of their 60th Diamond Anniversary on March 28th, 1912, presumably taken outside their residence at 195 Fitzgerald Ave, Christchurch. The couple had married 60 years previous, at Broad Street Baptist Church in Nottingham. Source: The Weekly Press, page 31, April 10th, 1912.

Having left the pastry and confectionery business in the capable hands of their two eldest sons, James and his wife, Jane, retired around the turn of the century to 195 Fitzgerald Street. Having married at Broad Street Baptist Church, Nottingham on March 28th, 1852, Jane and James celebrated their Diamond Anniversary in Christchurch 6o years later, a moment in time commemorated by a photographer from The Weekly Press.

Less than six months later, James died of a cerebral embolism,  at the age of eighty two years, on Saturday, 17th August, 1912 – having spent over half his life in New Zealand. Jane passed away in October 1918.

After their arrival in New Zealand, the couple appear to have had three more children: Alice born in 1867, William Arthur in 1869, who also became a pastry cook, and Roland who was born 1873.  Roland was the only one who seems to have worked outside the family pastry or confectionery business. He first worked as a furniture designer, then as a talented musician and singing teacher.

 James Boot’s letter dated Christchurch New Zealand, June 12th, 1864, published in the Nottingham Express. Source: Birmingham Daily Post (Birmingham, England), Monday, August 29, 1864.

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