Clara and Alexander MacShane
Peter MacShane, Great-Great Grandson of Clara and Alexander MacShane
Somewhere around 1850 Clara MacShane, or an employee of hers, planted the huge Oak which now graces Eyebright. If that tree could talk, it would tell us about Clara’s house that stood close by. No one remembers this house because it burnt to the ground before anyone alive today was born.
Tell-tail signs are, however, abundant. Adrienne Matthews (previous business partner in Eyebright) collected literally buckets of metal, glass and porcelain from where it stood, and there will be buckets more mixed in with the soil. I always found it gravelly and hard in the area to the right of our entrance. That’s because it was packed by horses hooves and the narrow wheels of carriages as they pulled up in front of the house.
I found an iron exactly where you would expect, at the back of the house, where the laundry would have been. It was mid-afternoon in January 2016 and the blazing sun had heated the iron to an uncomfortable heat as if it had been on the stove.
That iron had waited first beneath the ash left from the house fire, and then either just below the soil surface or unnoticed in the grass. It waited while women received the vote, two world wars were fought and Nelson’s railway tracks were lifted. It got trampled by sheep, then dairy cows. It got shunted by ploughs and knocked by harrows. It saw the arrival of a new Millennium, and then sixteen years later, caught my eye while I was tending my sunflowers. Now it lives on the window sill behind the counter at Eyebright. Just ask if you would like to handle it.
Clara MacShane's Iron
Even by nineteenth century standards Alexander McShane was on this earth for a brief time, but seven years in Nelson were probably his best. He arrived on the Whitby, under the command of Arthur Wakefield. He and his fellow pioneers had high ideals for the new settlement. Wakefield’s log reports that early in the journey they had a meeting to establish The Nelson Library and Scientific Institution. A hat was passed around and when their ship stopped at Tenerife in the Canary Islands, an order was sent back to England for books to be forwarded to Nelson.
MacShane was 29 when he arrived. A few months later his bride to be arrived on the Fifeshire. She was 22 year-old Clara Durley, and she had an infant daughter with her. Clara was obviously a ‘gentlewoman’ (she had money), or Alexander paid for her passage. She and her daughter had their own cabin. Clara was on the record as being a widow, which may have been true, although her daughter’s father was William Durley of Adelaide. Perhaps she and Durley had conceived the child, then Durley travelled to Australia and came to grief. We’ll probably never know.
Clara was also an educated woman. She was a pharmacist.
MacShane and Durley married two days after Clara’s arrival. Theirs was the first non-Maori wedding in Nelson.
In addition to practicing medicine, McShane was secretary of the Nelson Library and Scientific Institution; he was Nelson’s immigration officer, and he was on the Committee of Public Safety when the massacre at Wairau triggered concerns of an impending attack.
Ten months after her arrival, Clara gave birth to another daughter and during the next six years she produced two more daughters and a son.
In December 1847 Dr David Munro (The Munro Building, next to the Suter, is named after him) visited MacShane and noted that he was unwell, but MacShane made light of it. What Munro had observed were early symptoms of Tuberculosis.
After Munro’s visit, McShane was offered the position of Colonial Surgeon at the new public hospital in New Plymouth, one of four hospitals which were funded by Britain on the urging of Governor Gray.
MacShane and his family arrived in New Plymouth on the brig Victoria on the 11th of January 1849. Although MacShane’s was the top medical position, New Plymouth already had a competent doctor who was twenty-two years his senior, the warm-hearted Peter Wilson. The MacShanes moved in next door to Wilson.
Wilson was disappointed by his new neighbour, yet he was charitable. In a letter to his good friend, and owner of the house the MacShanes occupied, he wrote:
“I am at a loss what to make of our new colonial surgeon. I called on him within five hours of his arrival, and on the five following days. He appeared a pleasant man and conversible enough, but though living next door to us, neither he nor Mrs McShane have returned our visit.”
Wilson goes on to write:
“One would think that under his unfortunate state of health it would be in his interest to be on friendly terms seeing that on emergencies I might be of service to him”
Relationships with the house’s owner went sour when the MacShanes moved to the hospital, reneging on an agreement to occupy the house for a year and then buy it.
MacShane was, indeed, in an ‘unfortunate state of health’. In May 1849, Wilson wrote another letter to the house’s owner, saying:
“I have not given your letter to MacShane and I think you will approve. On Friday he was seized with a violent haemoptysis in turberculosis, and when I called on him on Sunday he was wretchedly weak and scarcely with power of utterance”
A month later, Wilson’s wife wrote on her husband’s behalf:
“Don Pedro (the endearment she used for her husband) has gone to the hospital tonight to watch over poor MacShane who is not likely to trouble his friends long.”
Wilson subsequently wrote:
“Poor MacShane died on Friday 6 July at noon”
Finishing the letter with the comment:
“MacShane died on your sofa so my wife insists that it must be taken to pieces, stuffing washed and remade before you use it.” (good idea: Tuberculosis is caused by a contagious bacteria).
After less than a year in New Plymouth, Clara returned to Nelson, with her five children and pregnant with another.
It is most likely that she was responsible for the house building and tree planting at what is now the Eyebright site. It may have been that the property was awarded to the MacShanes upon their first arrival, because settlers were granted a ‘Town Acre’ and a ‘Country Ten Acres’. It is unlikely however, that Alexander would have had time to develop a property which was a long carriage ride from Nelson town.
What should have been a charmed life for Clara, was far from it. Raising six children on her own would have been no picnic, but all the evidence points towards her having been formidable.
I have had the privilege of meeting her great-great-great granddaughter. To read about that visit
A couple of months ago another great-great grandchild of Clara and Alexander’s called in. Peter MacShane was delighted to be given his choice of some of the artefacts from the house site and I was able to connect him with his, many times removed, cousin.
In preparing this article, it is struck me how quickly history fades. I am indebted to A.C. Hayton, a physician in New Plymouth. Had he not, in 1978, wrote about Alexander MacShane in the New Zealand Medical Journal, the story of Alexander and Clara would have disappeared into the mists of time.
PS. If you’ve noticed that throughout this article, MacShane is spelt with a Mac rather than a Mc as it appears on the road signs, that’s because at some stage a cartographer accidentally dropped an ‘a’. MacShane is correct.