Stephenson Percy Smith (1840 - 1922)

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Birthdate:
Birthplace: Beccles, Suffolk, United Kingdom
Death: Died in New Plymouth, New Zealand
Occupation: Surveyor
Managed by: Kate Lindsay
Last Updated:

About Stephenson Percy Smith

Stephenson "Percy" Smith was born on the 11th June 1840 at the market town of Beccles in Suffolk, England. He was the eldest of [eight?] children born to John "Stephenson" Smith, a timber merchant, and his wife Hannah (née Hursthouse).

In circa-1843, the family moved to Norfolk, firstly to Norwich, then Lodden. Persuaded by Hannah Smith's brother, Charles Hursthouse, who had emigrated to New Plymouth in 1843, the family decided to emigrate to New Zealand. They departed London on the 9th August 1949, aboard the New Zealand Company ship "Pekin", arriving in Wellington on the 26th December. Percy's father then travelled overland to New Plymouth, while Percy, his mother and five siblings, travelled by the same ship to New Plymouth about six weeks later.

Percy was educated at New Plymouth and Omata until 1854, when he left to help on the family farm. Farm life and the surrounding Taranaki bush stimulated Percy's interest in the native New Zealand flora and fauna, so a year later, he took lessons in landscape painting from the renowned artist John Gully. He also began his cadetship with the provincial Survey Department, under Octavius Carrington, helping to subdivide the land around the New Plymouth settlement. The surveying expeditions involved long periods in the bush, and brought the surveyors into frequent contact with the Maori.

Percy was a great adventurer. In January 1858, with his cousin Wilson Hursthouse and four others, he made an overland trip into the interior of the North Island. The group walked and canoed to Lake Taupo, on to Lakes Rotomahana and Tarawera through the Tongariro-Ruapehu country, and then onto Wanganui on horseback. In the course of their 2-month journey, the group walked 500 miles, canoed (with the help of Maori paddlers) 46 miles and covered 60 miles on horseback.

Percy's knowledge of Maori languages and his bush-survival skills allowed him to make great progress in the Survey Department. In 1859, he was transferred to the Native Land Purchase Office of Auckland to survey the recented acquired government land in the Kaipara and northern Wairoa districts. In April 1860 he was called upon to act as an interpreter and intermediary, to enlist the help of Ngati Whatua for the defence of Auckland against a possible attack by the Waikato tribes.

In 1863, Percy married Mary Anne Crompton, daughter of William Morgan Crompton, a former schoolteacher and member of the Taranaki Provincial Council. The couple were married in Parnell, Auckland, and their first child, Maurice Crompton Smith was born there the following year. In 1865, the family returned to New Plymouth, when Percy was made the district surveyor. For the next six years, Percy was responsible for the major triangulations of Auckland, Hawke's Bay and Taupo, as well as laying out the plans for the settlement of Rotorua.

In 1871, the family moved back to Auckland. Percy's work was rewarded with promotion through the ranks of the Civil Service. By January 1889, he was the Surveyor-General of New Zealand and the Secretary of Lands and Mines. He held these positions until his retirement in October 1900. The family then moved back to New Plymouth.

Percy had used his time on survey expeditions to collect and record information about the traditional history and culture of the Maori people. This became the basis of his later career as a Polynesian scholar. At the time of retirement from the civil service, he had already been recognised as the leading Pakeha authority on traditional Maori history, language and traditions. With Edward Tregear, he co-founded the Polynesian Society in 1892, becoming co-editor of the Journal of Polynesian Society, and its chief contributor. The society was formed largely in response to the widespread belief that the Maori were a dying race, and Percy hoped to preserve the traditional knowledge of the Maori before this disappeared. During his 30-year association with the society, Percy published a large avolume of articles and books on Polynesian history.

Percy's wife Mary Anne died at New Plymouth in 1911. Percy died at his home "Matai-moana" in New Plymouth, on the 19th April 1922, survived by four of his children.

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S Percy Smith's Timeline

1840
June 11, 1840
Beccles, Suffolk, United Kingdom
1863
April 23, 1863
Age 22
New Zealand
1864
1864
Age 23
Auckland, New Zealand
1865
1865
Age 24
New Plymouth, New Zealand
1868
1868
Age 27
New Plymouth, New Zealand
1870
1870
Age 29
New Plymouth, New Zealand
1872
1872
Age 31
Auckland, New Zealand
1922
April 19, 1922
Age 81
New Plymouth, New Zealand