Alexander Gray (c.1830 - 1888) MP

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Birthplace: Aberdeen City, Aberdeenshire, Scotland
Death: Died in Foxton, Horowhenua District, Manawatu-Wanganui, New Zealand
Managed by: Jason Scott Wills
Last Updated:

About Alexander Gray

Alexander was gifted with a shrewd Scots business sense and a genuine entrepreneurial flair. He invested a substantial portion of his capital in property in the township, anticipating that Foxton would grow and prosper as indeed it did for some years.

Alexander Gray was a Scot from Aberdeen who came to New Zealand on his own in 1849 to explore business prospects in the young colony. He settled first in Wellington where he commenced business in a small way as a general merchant and he must have thought the prospects at least fair because he sent for his elderly widowed mother Mary Bruce Gray, whom he had left in Aberdeen in the care of his brother William Gray. In response to Alexander’s message, a party comprising Mary Bruce Gray, William Gray, his wife and six year old son William, embarked on the ship “Simla” in late 1851. The voyage was eventful and interrupted by a mutiny which compelled the vessel to put into Hobart Town in Tasmania. It eventually arrived at New Plymouth in 1852 and the Grays disembarked there. Alexander came up from Wellington to collect his mother and took her back to his home. William remained in New Plymouth to enter the Postal Service, moving in due course to its head office at Wellington.

From that time on, Alexander kept his elderly mother with him in his various households until her death in Foxton at the age of 98 years. Mary Bruce was a true Highland Scot whose native tongue was the Gaelic which she spoke and read to the end of her long life. Her parents, William and Mary Bruce, were farmers in the North Highlands and claimed undisputed descent from the great chieftain Robert the Bruce who ruled Scotland in the early 14th century. Mary was born at Port Gower, Sutherlandshire, in 1783 - 32 years before the Battle of Waterloo!

Alexander’s business ventures progressed reasonably well and he married a beautiful young English girl named Louisa Anne Waters. In 1858, having amassed some capital, the couple decided to move to the Manawatu settlement where land could be purchased at lower prices than in Wellington. They settled in Foxton, a natural trading post for the produce and agricultural requirements of the Manawatu. Alexander invested a substantial portion of his capital in property in the township, anticipating that Foxton would grow and prosper as indeed it did for some years.

Alexander was gifted with a shrewd Scots business sense and a genuine entrepreneurial flair. He continued the merchandising activities he had begun in Wellington, developed flax milling and associated enterprises, and was busy for many years in subdivision and development of land in the township. He gave much time to local body and community affairs (no doubt it was in his interests to do so) and represented the Awahou Riding on the Manawatu County Council. He served several terms on the local Town Board, and with his friends, John Kebbell and Francis Robinson, was an original Trustee of the Foxton Racecourse. By the standards of the day he was prosperous and was able to build a large residence in the centre of the town. This he proudly named “Aberdeen House” after the far-away city of his birth. (This was probably both his business place and his residence as “Aberdeen House” features in advertisements in “Manawatu Herald”). He deeded to the town of Foxton in perpetuity as a Public Reserve, the low hill on which the water tower now stands. In his time it was known as “Gray’s Lookout” because he and other merchants (and no doubt eager prospective purchasers of ribbons and finery) used to climb to the top of the hill to spy the small ship “Jane Douglas” and other vessels crossing the bar and coming up the Manawatu River to the Port of Foxton.

The beautiful Louisa bore three sons and five daughters. Of these, a daughter (Isabel) and a son (“Bertie”) died in early infancy. The surviving children were George, William Franklin, Susan Mary, Louisa, Kathleen and Jessie Martha. Mary and a sister (probably Louisa) were able to attend a girls’ boarding school in Wellington. This required a coach journey down the smooth beaches with an overnight stay at a coaching inn possibly Paekakariki. The second day was more arduous over the rougher ground to Wellington. Mary grew to love the Kapiti coast and all her life loved to visit it. In later years she told her family of a picnic to Kapiti Island, when the family was “marooned” overnight because of rough seas. A young scion of the Easton family named Freddie was on this picnic and got up to various high jinks.

There was an active and pleasant social life in the young pioneering settlement with concerts, church socials, the occasional “Grand Ball”, picnics and gatherings at home for musical items and group sing-songs round the piano. Mary remembered Dr Rockstrow singing “I left my heart at Bingen, at Bingen on the Rhine” in his rich German accent. The girls rode their horses along The Lady’s Mile - Mary was very proud of a solid silver “bit” for her pony’s mouth which Alexander gave her on one of her birthdays. “Grannie Gray” played an active role in the life of the community and of “Aberdeen House” until a very advanced age, and indeed survived her daughter-in-law by six years. Her great friend was the Presbyterian Minister the Reverend James Duncan, with whom she spoke the Gaelic. Her Gaelic Bible survives in her great-great-grandson’s possession, together with a few lines of lovely Georgian copperplate handwriting in Gaelic.

The decade of the eighteen sixties, when Alexander was entrenching his interests at Foxton was a time of European-Maori turbulence in the North Island. The land wars in Taranaki and the Waikato had left a bitter aftermath, and from 1864 to 1868 the Fourth Maori War raged across the Central North Island, a war of life and death resistance against European occupation under brilliant generalship by the Maori leaders Titikowaru and Te Kooti. They inflicted crushing defeats on the British-led regular and militia forces, and in 1868, the colonists feared European control of the West Coast from New Plymouth to Wellington was genuinely threatened. James Belich in “The New Zealand Wars” says “The prevailing sense of insecurity did not stop at Wanganui. As far south as Foxton settlers fled their homes”. In later years Mary told of the time when the Town Council ordered the people of Foxton to take refuge in their Church, fearing that Te Kooti or Titikowaru were close at hand. Alexander refused, saying to his family “If we have to die we shall die in our own home”. The attack never occurred. Alexander had always made a point of cultivating friendly relations with the tribes in the Manawatu, a circumstance which was helpful in his commercial ventures. His well-stocked medicine chest was used generously in the treatment of Maori friends and their families. They bore the sting of iodine stoically when assured by “Kere” (their rendering of “Gray”) that it would be good for them. A presentation from the tribes in the form of a greenstone ear-pendant or “kuru” is still a treasured possession of Alexander’s descendants and will never be sold or exchanged for material gain.

All of the children of Alexander and Louisa who survived to adulthood married and founded families of their own. Mary married Benjamin Dawson, who, when she met him, was a young Railway Officer holding the triple posts of Stationmaster, Customs Officer and Harbourmaster, at Foxton. Louisa married Robert Stansell who had established a sawmill at Waikanae and later a horse-training stables there. Kathleen married William Dalzell, a dairy farmer at Manakau. Jessie married Alfred Parish of Te Awamutu, also dairying. Of the sons, George married Elizabeth McDonnell and settled in Wellington; William Franklin became Secretary of the Manawatu Racing Club and later joined the Valuation Department at Wellington - he had only one son, William Alexander, who in the First World War served in the Samoan Capture, the Gallipoli Campaign, the Battle of the Somme, where he was awarded the M.M. “for conspicuous bravery in the field” and was killed in action in France. George’s son, also William, served at Gallipoli and in France. George’s daughter, Leila Gray and Mary’s daughter Vera Honor Dawson, both served overseas as Sisters in the New Zealand Army Nursing Service.

Alexander died at his home in Foxton at the unexpectedly early age of 58 years on 28th July, 1888. The cause of death was heart failure. His obituary in the “Manawatu Herald” recorded that “Ten or twelve years ago he was a fairly rich man”, but that the depression set in, property prices fell, business reverses were severe, and the anxiety and distress of these contributed to the failure of his health.

Alexander was laid to rest in the Foxton cemetery beside his dear Louisa, and little Isabel and Bertie. The grave has been relocated but the original marble plaque survives. Only William and Jessie were living at home at this time. When Jessie married soon after, William moved out also but such a large place could not be sold on the depressed market so it was leased out. In 1893, after some alterations and additions, it became the Post Office Hotel. It is said to be one of the few buildings in Main Street not to have been burnt in the many disastrous fires which plagued early Foxton.

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Alexander Gray's Timeline

1830
1830
Aberdeen City, Aberdeenshire, Scotland
1858
May 13, 1858
Age 28
1860
1860
Age 30
Foxton, New Zealand
1865
1865
Age 35
Manawatu-Wanganui, New Zealand
1869
August 28, 1869
Age 39
Foxton, New Zealand
1874
1874
Age 44
1875
1875
Age 45
Foxton, Horowhenua District, Manawatu-Wanganui, New Zealand
1888
July 29, 1888
Age 58
Foxton, Horowhenua District, Manawatu-Wanganui, New Zealand
????
Foxton, New Zealand
????
Foxton, New Zealand