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This is an article by Rhys Richards from The Stockade, Volume 36, 2003, p 16-27

Joseph Thoms: Sealer, Whaler and Trader of Porirua

Rhys Richards

Thoms Rock lies on the south coast a kilometre southeast of Karori Rock. Its original Maori name was Tokohaere, meaning something like arrival rock or farewell rock, which suggests it may have been used as a navigation marker on canoe trips across Cook Strait. An early edition of The New Zealand Pilot described Thoms Rock (first reported by Captain Unthank) as "only just awash at low springs". As master of the tiny 134 ton brig Bee, Alexander Unthank made many trading voyages from Port Nicholson to Nelson, Akaroa, Otago, New Plymouth and Sydney from 1844 to 1846. Unthank perhaps reported this almost sunken rock to a group of surveyors he carried from Port Nicholson to Nelson in 1844. However, it was probably well known much earlier than that, and was named after Joseph Thoms -- sealer, whaler and trader who lived around Cook Strait from 1823 to 1852. 

According to a family bible kept by his children, Joseph George Thoms was born in Liverpool on 20 April 1798. He was also known as "Geordie Bolts", and his granddaughter said his children always referred to him as "Geordie". According to the will he signed in 1840, he was "Joseph Toms, mariner, late of Sydney, N.S.W., but now residing in Queen Charlotte's Sound". This late reference to his having lived in Sydney may indicate that he grew up there. 

The earliest record found of him is that "George Bolt" was listed on the muster roll as a crewman on board the Sydney sealing vessel Lynx (pers. com. John Cumpston 1976). In 1820 the veteran sealer Richard Siddens took the Lynx out with a hand-picked crew on an exploratory cruise to exploit the seal rookeries on the newly found South Shetland Islands in the Antarctic. Also on board as a crewman was John Guard. They left Sydney in the Lynx on 3 November 1820, took seals at the New South Shetlands, wintered over at the Falkland Islands, and continued sealing until their return to Sydney on 19 June 1822. After a long, trying and dangerous voyage of twenty months, they had taken 5,000 sealskins and 40 tons of oil, but this was not a lucrative voyage, and soon after, Captain Siddens left the sealing trade. (Sydney Gazette 10 Nov 1821 and 21 June 1822, Ships Muster no.56, p.298.:Rose 1984 pp.102-115). 

Joseph Thoms had to look for another ship. "George Bolt" and John Guard were both named in the crew list of the sealing brig Wellington, which began on 1 April 1823. (Sydney Gazette 20 March 1823). She was reported at Stewart Island and in Foveaux Strait in mid-June, and returned home in September from "NZ and Saunder's Island", (which possibly was not Otago Peninsula but in the Falkland Islands!) (Cumpston 1964 p.145). Neither Bolts nor Guard was on the muster for her next voyage in 1824, so it seems likely they had been left sealing on the southern coast of New Zealand. 

Much later in his life Joseph Thoms told several people, and his children, that he had been on board the first vessel to "discover and enter" Wellington harbour, (Crawford 1880 p.276 and pers. com. Joe Boulton 1979). Since there is no reason to doubt Thoms' claim, it is likely that the sealing brig Wellington, and Thoms, entered in 1823 the harbour that was subsequently "discovered" in 1826 and ironically, was later called Wellington Harbour, not after this first ship, but rather after the hero of the battle of Waterloo. 

Where Thoms went sealing, and for how long, is unclear, but there is a passing mention of a handsome young sealer, "Charley Thoms", in a curiously vivid tale, told to the scholar and linguist William Baucke by an old Ngatimutunga chief, Ngapongi, who had probably met Thoms at Porirua. This story involved a fatal fracas between settlers and southern Maori near Bluff in about 1825. There a young girl called Riaki was importuned by "Charley Thoms", and when she objected, he sought to kidnap her. Seven Maori warriors were killed, partly because they were still unfamiliar with the sealers' muskets. (New Zealand Times 15 November 1913; Richards 1995 p.24). It may be relevant to note that despite his early sealing among Ngai Tahu, Thoms was not associated further with them, and thereafter lived with their northern enemies.

Sealing had been suspended from 1810 but resumed in 1820 when prohibitive duties on colonial exports were rescinded. At much the same time, the Royal Navy sought to develop New Zealand flax as an alternative to Baltic hemp for naval rigging. So several former sealing captains began re-examining the New Zealand coast for mixed cargoes of sealskins and flax. Sealing gangs were left ashore in the south while their ships sought flax further north. At this time Joseph Thoms probably spent the winter seasons sealing in the far south but during the summers settled somewhere around Cook Strait. Perhaps he lived with the sealers who settled at Cloudy Bay from about 1825 growing small crops and storing in clay vats "enough whale oil to load a 200 ton brig". (Heaphy 1863 p.173). If so, he was probably already well established when his former shipmate, John Guard, arrived in 1829 to start a shore whaling station there. (N.B. Thoms preceded Guard who did not begin there in 1827, Richards 1995 P.49). 

Joseph Thoms later said he had settled at Te Awaiti in 1831, and other sources mention him there in 1832 living among Maori from Taranaki. Some indication that he was not "settled" anywhere permanently until then occurs in his marriage to Te Ua Torikiriki, ("the Sea Mist") a daughter of Waitarauhi Nohorua ("Tom Street"), a tohunga who was an elder half-brother of Te Rauparaha. Her people were not often in that area until about 1828 or 1829, so a marriage in 1831 seems about right. Moreover according to the family bible their first two sons were not born until 1833 and 1835. (Angas 1847 p.276; Carkeek 1966 p.20; Joe Boulton pers. com. 1979). 

Nohorua and his people were frequently based at Mana, so Thoms probably moved to and fro across Cook Strait with them. The first mention of him at Mana was in mid-1834 when "Jack Thoms, Geordie Young and several other daring spirits" including Jock Nichols appealed successfully to Rangihaeata on Mana Island for restitution after some of his wilder warriors had seized a boatload of trade goods Nichols was taking north. (New Zealand Mail 13 and 20 February 1891 p.ll).

The few scattered references to Thoms during the 1830s indicate that he prospered and became a man of some substance. In November 1835 "Mr and Mrs Thoms" were passengers, not crew, on the Hind from Cloudy Bay to Sydney. (Family records say they were married, "legally" there). In August 1836 he was whaling at Cloudy Bay as "Johnny Bolts", using an extra boat provided by an American captain. In September 1838, Lt. Chetwode noted at Te Awaiti that though Maori thieves had "robbed Thoms of property to a great amount", Thoms was still operating 12 whaleboats, presumably with crews of over 80 men, and perhaps as many as a hundred. (McNab 1913 pp.136, 455, 225). At this time Thoms also owned a small cutter Harriet of under 30 tons, which he and others used extensively for coastal trading. 

His shore whaling station at Te Awaiti was still operating in September 1839 when it was visited by the young aristocrat, Edward Jerningham Wakefield. Evidently they did not get on. Perhaps Thoms was not as deferential as his contemporaries, and Wakefield responded by giving Thoms a negative report that is not echoed by any other source: "Another man heading a whaling party here was nicknamed "Geordie Bolts". His real name was Joseph Toms, but being crippled in an encounter with a whale, he had the fame of never having been able to face one since, and hence the nom de guerre. His appearance was by no means as attractive as that of Barrett. Independently of the deformity arising from his unfortunate accident, he was of small stature and repulsive features. Nor had he acquired the same character of hospitality and kindness to either natives or fellow-countrymen, which we found universally accorded in Dicky [Barrett]. He was married to a near relation of Rauparaha, and by means of the alliance maintained another whaling station at a harbour called Porirua, on the main between the islands of Kapiti and Mana". (Wakefield 1845 p.46). His injury may have rendered him unable to row, or to harpoon, but Thoms did continue whaling for another decade, and Wakefield's suggestion that he had become too frightened to attack a right whale, seems highly unlikely and mistaken.  

Another visitor to Te Awaiti, J.C. Crawford in November 1839, provides a less unflattering account when he wrote that Thoms was "a noted disciplinarian", with "a powerful body and a determined character, for it rested with him to keep order among the community which consisted of a set of wild dangerous men, often inflamed to madness by the abominable [often semi-poisonous] liquor which he himself sold to them. No one dared to disobey his order. If anyone ventured to dispute with him, he would tie him up and hold him prisoner. He was a short, stout, man, with a trunk like a barrel and a bullet head, standing firm on his legs, and looking everyone straight in the face ... He had a strong lusty voice, and was upon the whole a good sort of fellow ... It was not the season for killing whales, and the work that was done consisted of coopering casks, repairing boats, etc., or in attending to small cultivations". (Crawford 1880 p.32- 33).


By now a trader and whaler of considerable wealth and power. Thoms was alternating his place of residence with his winters spent mainly at Te Awaiti and his summers spent trading, often based from Paremata, where his whaling station operated each winter season from late in 1834 or mid 1835. Thus when Wakefield went to the station of "Geordie Bolts" at "Paramatta" in March 1839, "neither Toms nor any one I knew were at his house at the station, this being out of the busy season". (Wakefield 1845 p.220). This site was probably named "Paramatta" by local Maori Christian converts after the mission school near Port Jackson and Sydney, and was only changed much later to the present neo-Maori spelling). (Richards 2002 p. 15). 

Thoms whaling station at Paremata lay at the south end of what is now Ngatitoa Domain, near the ruined redoubt, the Scout Den and the Mana Cruising Club. Within a few years he had several buildings and was operating seven whale boats with about forty men. Probably at least half were local Maori related to his wife. The "Parramatta" station took whales for several years, but as the slow-swimming "right" whales were decimated elsewhere, the local catch declined accordingly. In 1837 Thoms had seven boats at this shore station at "Paramatta" and probably he owned another station that was listed as at "Porirua". (Richards 2002 p.24).

Their whaling consisted of preying upon the pregnant right whales and their older calves as the mother whales came close inshore, right into the harbour mouth, seeking warm, calm waters in which to bear and suckle their newborn calves. Since Thoms subsequently claimed and won legal possession of the land that included the best look-out points on the north shores of Titahi Bay, it can be assumed that whales were spotted from there, chased and killed, and then dragged on incoming tides to Thoms' station. The carcasses were beached as high as possible on the sandy strip there, so that the low tides left them high and dry for the flensing and rendering down to oil. It was rough filthy work, with hunks of blubber hacked off, split and melted down over smoky fires fuelled with whale scraps. Every visitor remarked on the disorder, the stench and the harshness of the scene, but for the men involved it provided work and a rare opportunity to earn scarce cash. Whaling was a winter activity, from May to September, but very intermittent, with long periods of inactivity and boredom. Alcoholism was rife, particularly as Thoms made good money dispensing his famous, vile brew, known locally as "Porirua bolt lightning" (see Crawford p.40). 

An incident occurred in June 1840, which has given Joseph Thoms a unique place in New Zealand history, but is more relevant here in demonstrating the honour and respect with which he was held by his Maori in-laws. After the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in February, Major Bunbury was tasked to secure confirmatory signatures from southern chiefs. Bunbury went first to Stewart Island where, after having to translate the northern Maori text into an approximation that Southerners could understand, the high-chief Tuhawaiki, recently home from Sydney, finally signed. After visits to Otago and Akaroa, Bunbury arrived at Cloudy Bay where initially the men of Te Rauparaha, including Nohorua, were most reluctant to sign up, fearing that if they chose to do so then their lands could then be taken from them. However after extensive debate, all nine chiefs then in Cloudy Bay signed the Treaty. Nohorua was the last to sign, and did so only after insisting that his son-in-law, Joseph Thoms, witness and sign it too, reasoning that if his grandchildren should lose their land by it, then their father. Thoms, would share the blame. Thus Joseph Toms became a witness and signatory of the Treaty of Waitangi, not on the pakeha side, but upon the insistence of his Maori in-laws. (McNab 1913 p.378).

After the colony began, Thoms successfully claimed land purchased at several places before 1840. The largest block was 1100 acres at Okiwa or The Grove in Queen Charlotte Sound. (Old Land Claim files 986, 987 and 988). He also claimed five acres at Kakapo Bay in Port Underwood originally purchased by John Guard on 30 March 1838. (New Zealand Gazette 1842, p. 139). Family records mention 500 acres claimed, apparently unsuccessfully, on Kapiti Island, and early surveys show as "Tom's Grant" a 160 acre block on the north side of Titahi Bay, (Richards 2002 p. 18). This latter had been excluded specifically from the broad purchase of the whole of the Porirua basin by Mr William Hay on 10 October 1839, and excluded again when Colonel Wakefield also purchased the district from Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata three months later in February 1840. (Foster 1966 p.833). It is notable that while the land claims of other pakeha were often ignored, Thoms' claims were acknowledged, and respected, by the new colonial authorities. His land purchase at Paremata on 1 May 1838, is curiously late since he had occupied the site since about mid-1835. Perhaps Thoms wanted to replace his "grace and favour" family rights with a more formal purchase. The original deed survives in the Turnbull Library. It records that land at "Purrie Rua, known as Parramata", was sold on 1 May 1838 by "A Ki, native of New Zealand to Joseph Thoms" for various listed goods including 8 muskets, 4 guns, 50 lbs of powder, 1 1/2 kegs and 2 cwt tobacco, a cask and 80 gallons of spirits, 12 dozen blankets and other items. Curiously, the Maori names on the deed are all unfamiliar -- "A Ki" is repeated then follow the marks of four "native" witnesses, "Hudy Fenua, Ihoe, A Pukky, and E Range". The other witnesses, all listed as mariners, are "William Gully, Callaghan, and P. Nott". Later, in a law suit over the ownership of a whaleboat held by Thoms, William Gully testified that he began working as chief headsman for Thoms at Paremata from Christmas 1838. He said that Thoms' clerk was then a Mr Burrell, until replaced in early 1839, by Daniel Henry Sheridan until the season ended on 1 October. (New Zealand Gazette and Wellington Spectator 18 October 1843). Notably Thoms did not sign this deed himself, so it is possible that it was arranged by Gully and Burrell while Thoms and Sheridan were living at Te Awaiti, where Thoms was operating other stations with clerical help from Sheridan. 

Although trading came to be much more important, some residual shore whaling continued during the first years of the infant colony. In 1843 the "Purrirua" station took 60 tuns, and 24 tuns and 25 cwt of baleen in 1844. These were the product of perhaps only two right whales in 1843 and one in 1844, very small returns for a season even if, as seems likely, the men were usually engaged on other activities and were in essence only whaler-men part-time and "on call". In 1845 Edward Boulton ran the station at "Purirua" with 18 men in two boats but took only 18 tuns of oil and 15 cwt of baleen. In 1846, the Porirua station took even less, just a paltry 1 1/2 tuns, or under 400 gallons. By that time, whale bones and other whaling debris extended all along the shore from the whaling station to the streams at Plimmerton and Taupo pa. (Wakefield 1845; Dieffenbach 1843; McNab 1913 p.298; Millar 1971; Richards 2002 p.25). 

By then, Thoms had switched mainly to provisioning not only visiting vessels but also running frequent food cargoes round to the ever-hungry colonists in Wellington Harbour. Perhaps it was during this period of local trading that some near-fatal incident occurred that associated his name permanently to "Thoms Rock" on the south coast near Karori Rock. He had built his 33 ton schooner Three Brothers in Queen Charlotte Sound in April 1842. A year later she achieved some infamy among the settlers for conveying from Mana to Wairau, most of the Maori later involved in the "Wairau Massacre". (But in December 1845 Thoms sold the Three Brothers to three Porirua Maori, David Puaha, Solomon Matakapi and Joseph Henia, her new master.

Unfortunately within a year, she sank in Porirua Harbour. (Ingram and Wheatley 1961 p.33). 

George French Angas, the artist, visited both Porirua and Te Awaiti in 1844, noting that "Jordy Thoms, a master whaler", owned a "substantial house" at both places, and that the whole settlement at Te Awaiti welcomed Thoms' return there in a right royal manner with much feasting. But it was a wild scene, as the beach was strewn with stinking whale remains, and gulls, pigs and poultry feeding off a rotting whale carcase close by. Moreover Thoms' whaleboats were "manned partly by Europeans and Maories; the former were semi-barbarians, both in appearance and manners, and certainly acted more like savages than [did] their so-called companions". (Angas 1847 p.271). 

In January 1847 Charles Heaphy made a sketch of "Toms" station at "Porirua" that shows three sturdy buildings and a fenced area nearby with at least four fenced Maori huts. Thoms was a prosperous trader, involved in many areas, but he still tried any work that might provide money. The late Joe Boulton, a great-grandson of Thoms, recalled clearly family traditions that more or less annually Joseph had led sealing trips from Cook Strait down the West Coast from 1836 to at least 1845. Sealing had dwindled to a low ebb, but making a few trips was logical since over several decades Joseph Thoms had developed an intimate knowledge of the southern coasts of New Zealand. For example in the summers of 1836 and 1837, his 42 ton schooner Harriet went sealing on the West Coast, and in January 1844 Thoms was reported as having brought the Three Brothers right into the mouth of the Buller River. (Field 1942 p.63; Caughey 1998 p.75).

From his humble beginnings, Thoms had become a wealthy man. As early as 25 November 1840, he had made out a document that begins "In the name of God, Amen, I Joseph Toms, ... do make and publish ... my last Will ... ". He left all his financial assets and his dwelling and its equipment to his second wife, Maria Boulton. He left a whaleboat and a larger schooner boat to his son George, a whaleboat to his son Thomas, and all his land at "Sawyers Bay" to his brother-in-law Thomas Boulton. He left the rest of his land "at Entry Island, Teti, Perrirua, Queen Charlotte Sound and Cloudy Bay", to be divided equally among his wife and children. "All the residue of my goods and chattels at my various whaling establishments" were to be sold "with the money paid to my wife". He signed it clearly "Joseph Toms", and it was witnessed by three of the more successful long term early settlers, namely David Scott, Richard Barrett: and Uriah Hunt. In every respect, it was the last will of a successful man. 

Thoms continued whaling stations intermittently, and more profitable trading, until his death, which is recorded in the family bible as on 2 August 1852. He was buried with much ceremony at Te Awaiti. Alas so far no obituary has been found for this prominent pre-colonial Pakeha-Maori.



Angas G.F. 1847 Savage Life and Scenes in Australia and New Zealand, London.

Boulton J.1977 "Boulton Family History:, Kapi Mana, 1 June 1977. 

Carkeek W.C. 1966 The Kapiti Coast. Reeds. Wellington. 

Caughey A. 1988 The Interpreter. The Biography of Richard "Dicky" Barrett. Bateman. Auckland. 

Crawford J.C. 1880 Recollection of Travel in New Zealand and Australia. London. 

Field A.N. 1942 Nelson Province, 1642-1842 Nelson. 

Foster J. 1966 Mana Island in The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, vol. II, p. 833. Wellington. 

Heaphy C. 1863 A Chapter on Sealing, Southern Monthly Magazine, Vol I, no.4 pp. 173-176. 

Ingram C.W.N. and Wheatley P.O. 1961. New Zealand Shipwreaks 1795 to 1960. Reeds. Wellington. 

McNab R. 1913 Old Whaling Days. Whitcombe and Tombs. Christchurch. 

Millar D.P. 1971 "Whalers, Flax Traders and Maoris of the Cook Strait Area -- An Historical Study in Cultural Confrontation", Dominion Museum Records in Ethnology. Vol 2. no.6 pp.57-64. 

Richards R 1995 Murihiku Re-Viewed. Lithographic Services, Petone. 

Richards R. 2002 Pakehas Around Porirua Before 1840. Paremata Press. 

Rose L. 1984 Richard Siddens of Port Jackson. Roebuck Society, Canberra. 

Thoms J. 1838 Deed of Purchase of land at Purrie Rua, known as Parramatta. Treadwell papers 1, MS papers. 

(Thoms J.) 2634, folder 1/01. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington. 

Toms J. 1840 Last Will. Donald McLean Papers 1832-1927, Micro. MS. 0726, Reel 15, folder 799. 

Wakefield E.J. 1845 Adventure in New Zealand. London.


From Stockade 37, 2004, 4-6 Karori Historical Society