The deliberate settlement of Dunedin in the 1840s was an enterprise of (Presbyterian) Free Church of Scotland set up in part by John McGlashan, the Rev. Thomas Burns and Captain William Cargill.
Cargill was born in Edinburgh but had been an officer in the British Army. With his wife and five children, he sailed from London to Port Chalmers in Dunedin as a representative and agent of the New Zealand Company and the Free Church Presbyterians of Scotland.
Even though the settlement was supposed to be a Scottish initiative, of the 97 passengers on the John Wickliffe, ‘a considerable number of the emigrants….were English.’ (McLintock, 1949).
According to A.H. McLintock in The History of Otago (1949) many of the emigrants were seeking ‘to escape poverty and unemployment at home’ rather than seeking to fulfil some noble Christian ideal which seemed to be what the promoters of this expedition were trying to achieve.
Mary O’Neil was just 22 years old when she boarded the clipper Taranaki in Glasgow on 7 November 1878. The ship arrived at Port Chalmers, Dunedin, with her 326 passengers on 24 January 1879.
Born in Wigtown in the south-west of Scotland, Mary left behind her parents and 8 siblings. Mary married William McLaren, a butcher, in 1881 at Knox Church in Dunedin and the first of their 8 children was born in the same year.
In 1895, just 2 weeks after the arrival of the 8th child, William fell off the wharf in Dunedin and drowned. There are no records that show how Mary survived on her own with eight children but in 1905 Mary married her second husband Robert Waddingham at Kaitangata in the Catlins. Mary was 43 years old and Robert just 31.
She died at the age of 73 in 1929 and is buried in the Kaitangata cemetery near Balclutha. Descendants of Mary O’Neil are scattered throughout New Zealand.
Transcription of the first page of Mary O’Neil’s first letter home from Dunedin:
‘1879 Prince st Dunedin Febury
My dearest father and mother it is with pleasure I rite to let you know I am well and we arrived all right we had a beautiful voyage 75 days we landed on the 25 of Janury I would have rote sooner only I missed the mail I am in a nice place with a Roman Catholic family in the town of Dunedin Mary Brodie is about ten minutes walk of me in the town to I hope you are well as I must thank my maker for his kindness to me you think me very hard hearted but I will need it all hear so many strangers but I have one friend I have found a friend in Mary Brodie and she is like a sister to me all the voyage we were…’
List of ‘Steerage Passengers for Otago’ aboard the John Wickliffe, 1847. Flotsam and Jetsam Volume 4: 009.
List of Provisions for both cabin and steerage passengers on the John Wickliffe, 1847. Flotsam and Jetsam Volume 4: 016.
Henry Brett, White Wings. 2 Vols. Christchurch: Capper Press, 1976.
The Heather and the Fern: Scottish Migration & New Zealand Settlement. Edited by Tom Brooking and Jennie Coleman. Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 2003.
Mary O’Neil. Letter home to Scotland from Dunedin and transcription, 1879.
Photograph of Mary McLaren (née O’Neil). Thought to have been taken at the time of her second marriage to Robert Waddingham, c.1905.