James Upfill Wilson

By Michele Leggott

Emily C Harris. Carte de visite. Unknown photographer. Circa 1854-1880. Puke Ariki. PHO2008-305

The next morning I went to call upon the Rev S. Poole, the examiner for the BA degree, to ask when I could have the room. He had just gone out but came back while I was talking to Mrs P.. He was in a great hurry to get to the schoolroom, so I went with him there explaining what I wanted as we went on. He is generally so full of compliments & jokes that it was rather a shock to me when he said, ‘Miss Harris you have allowed yourself to get so grey that I hardly know you — when I first met you your hair was as black as a raven’s wing.’

‘One cannot keep young forever,’ I said, & then we talked of other things. Yes my hair was dark enough then, but that was some eighteen summers ago, and Mr Poole never forgets that time – my visit to Motueka, where I met poor James – to my sorrow. That was so long ago, is it any wonder I am grey now? (22 Nov 1889)

This is Emily Harris’s second mention of James Upfill Wilson in the diary she kept 1885-1890. The earlier mention of James is also associated with lasting sorrow:

Last week John Wilson, eldest son of Joseph Wilson, Dr Wilson’s grandson, died suddenly in Wellington. He had had rheumatic fever but was getting better. Poor fellow to die so young when he had every prospect of a long & happy life, he was doing so well, & was to have been married at Christmas. I scarcely knew Jack Wilson since he grew up but it made me feel very sad as my thoughts went back to that other Wilson his uncle, poor James. Alas, life has much sorrow. (17 October 1886)

Who was James Upfill Wilson and why does his memory so provoke Emily Harris? To answer these questions we must piece together a story Emily seems determined to bury and yet cannot forget. Counting back 18 summers we arrive at 1871 looking for an occasion that might have taken Emily to Motueka, perhaps a holiday outing or a church picnic of the kind regularly enjoyed by Nelson residents. Anne McFadgen fills in the picture: ‘People in the Nelson area would travel widely to take part in social events and Motueka parties would usually go all night with guests going straight from the dancing to catch the morning ferry back to Nelson! They were hardy in those days. The Anglican Church was very much the centre of social activity in Motueka. The Rev. Samuel Poole was the resident minister of St Thomas’ Church, Motueka, from 1864-1893, and Joseph Foord Wilson its churchwarden during this time.’ (Email 4 Dec 2017). Whatever brought Emily to Motueka that long ago summer, the Reverend Samuel Poole, his warden Joseph Foord Wilson and Joseph’s brother James were all in the mix.

James Upfill Wilson was born in Chichester, Sussex, in 1834, the third son of Dr Joseph Foord Wilson and his wife Sarah Upfill. The Wilsons emigrated to Nelson in 1842 with six children born between 1830 and 1839. Dr Wilson became acting consular surgeon for Nelson. His sons Joseph Foord and Thomas Upfill Wilson grew up and settled respectively in Motueka and at Mount Grey in Canterbury. Joseph was a clerk of court and registrar of electors, births, deaths and marriages from the 1860s until the 1890s. Thomas leased the extensive Mount Grey station and was registrar of births, deaths and marriages for the district from the early 1860s. Third son James left fewer public traces. He was a farmer in the Collingwood district, relinquishing some leasehold land at Pokororo in 1870 (Nelson Examiner). He is perhaps the James Wilson registered as a landowner on electoral rolls for Motueka 1871-1880, living at Thorpe near Dovedale. In 1867 he was provisioning diggers bound for the Karamea goldfield from a store on the Graham River. Anne McFadgen: ‘If he was living at the Graham, possibly running the store out of his Pokororo homestead, he would have been living on the West Bank of the Motueka River. The Graham Valley was the starting point for the gold trails up to the Mt Arthur Tableland and diggers could carry on past the Tableland down to Karamea via the Leslie Track to the Leslie River, which is a tributary of the Karamea River.’ (Email 8 Apr 2020). Two years later,  in 1869, J. U. Wilson was presented with other Nelson gentlemen to HRH Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, who made a brief visit to the city in that year.

The patchy documentary record affords only glimpses of the man Emily met in 1871. She was 34, he was 37. She was about to begin exhibiting botanical flower paintings, six years returned from Hobart and teaching in the private school she and her sisters had established in Nelson. Was it friendship or romance that sprang up between the farmer from Motueka and the artist poet from Nelson? We don’t know, but the link between them was clearly important to Emily. There were ups and downs in Emily Harris’s world in the 1870s. She won medals at the 1873 Horticultural and Industrial Exhibition in Nelson and at the Hokitika Exhibition of the same year. She was too ill to complete a large exhibit of flower paintings for the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876. She reported appreciation of her work at the Exhibition of Fine Arts, Science and Industry in Whanganui in 1877. James Wilson’s fortunes over the same period were in steep decline. One Saturday in 1878 Emily could have opened the newspaper and read:

An inquest was held at the Hospital this afternoon; before L. Broad, Esq., coroner, and a jury, of which Mr Thomas- Scott was foreman, on the body of James Wilson, who died in the Asylum this morning, A verdict of death from natural-causes was returned. (Nelson Evening Mail 7 Dec 1878: 2)

James Wilson’s death certificate is more specific: ‘Verdict of Jury: General Paralysis.’ The certificate is light on details concerning the nature and duration of his last illness and the medical attention he received. Records for the Nelson Lunatic Asylum in this period are scant and only the date of James Wilson’s admission (1 October 1878) and the date of his death are extant. A great deal of information is lost that could tell us what happened to James Upfill Wilson between 1871 and 1878. Were his problems alcohol-related? Was he overtaken by a congenital condition or a socially or sexually transmitted disease? We don’t know. Whatever his case, James Wilson’s committal was no joke. Nelson had recently upgraded its asylum but a report by Dr Skae, Inspector of Lunatic Asylums, in 1877 makes grim reading. It begins:

This Asylum was opened for the reception of patients in June, 1876. It is built on the corridor plan, and has accommodation for thirty males and thirty females. It has a pleasant and healthy situation on a slope about a mile from town and commands a cheerful view. The land belonging to the Asylum is only eight acres in extent, and is much too small for the requirements of the patients. It is almost completely surrounded by public roads, so that there is not sufficient privacy. The male airing court and two small yards at the back of the building, in which dirty or destructive patients take exercise, are only separated from the public road by a wooden fence, and annoyance is occasionally suffered from persons climbing up this fence and staring at the patients, or handing matches over to the men.

The Asylum has a pleasing interior, but much space is wasted by its internal arrangements. The corridors are far too wide for mere passages, and at the same time not well suited to serve any other purpose, while the day-rooms are too small, and the single sleeping rooms far too numerous in proportion to the associated dormitories for the number of patients. As yet it is almost entirely unfurnished, there being little beyond one or two tables and benches without backs, and no ornament whatever. The beds are of a very objectionable description. Galvanized iron wires are carried right through from end to end of each row of single rooms, and by means of transverse strapping wires fixed on to these, a “bedstead” is formed in each room, on which is laid a straw mattress. It would be difficult to invent anything more absurdly uncomfortable. The wires are apt to cut the mattress. If the occupant of any room is restless and inclined to dance about on his bed, all the other patients are disturbed and kept from sleeping by the violent pulling of the through-going wires. The consequence is that most of the patients prefer to sleep on the floor. The windows of the sleeping rooms have no shutters; they are furnished instead with strong iron bars on the inside. The want of shutters, the inside iron bars, and the fixed iron bedsteads, combine to render these rooms very unsafe places for violent or suicidal patients.

Skae goes on to criticise the cramped grounds and lack of adequate exercise areas for patients. He notes that the food is good but there is no dietary scale and no store or provision books are kept. Bedding allowances for patients are substandard, clothing issue is deficient in quantity and quality, and patients look shabby in their worn-out asylum clothes. The keeper and his four male attendants are overworked and underpaid, as are the matron and her single female attendant. There is no chaplain, and no religious services are conducted at the Asylum. Dances for the patients are infrequent, and while male patients have access to drafts and cards, there is no library to speak of. There is no register of discharges, and no case book. The medical journal is not kept properly and does not give all the information required by the Lunacy Act. Skae acknowledges that the problem of space is acute but ends his report by priorising a number of immediate fixes designed to improve patient welfare:

The more pressing wants of the Asylum at present are that it should be painted inside, and that the wards should be properly furnished, that bedstead should be got, that shutters be supplied for the windows, and the iron bars removed; that a proper quality and quantity of clothing and bedding be got; that a female airing court be made; that an additional female attendant should be engaged; and that additional ground – the piece pointed out by the Medical Officer – should be got.

The dining-hall should be furnished with tables, and the men and women should take their meals there at the same time. The female attendants’ wages should be raised to £40, and the new one engaged at that rate. The registers and case book should be registered as required by the Act. The fence of the small yard at the back of the Asylum should be heightened, and made so that the boys could not climb it, in order to secure privacy to these courts. (Nelson Evening Mail 13 Aug 1877: 4)

Years after James Wilson’s death, Emily Harris is still haunted by her connection with the Wilsons of Motueka. One last diary entry, more encrypted than the other two, reveals that the link between Emily and the Wilsons was one of mutual regard. In 1886, not long before her entry about the death of James Wilson’s nephew John Sinclair Wilson, Emily receives an unexpected visitor:

I got up early this morning  & gave the dining room a good sweeping. I made an extra neat toilet. I had a strong presentiment that some stranger would call, I saw the name of De Vaux in the list of arrivals & I wondered if it was Des Voeux. However, about eleven a.m. Frances came into school & asked if I would go in for a few minutes as Mrs Birch Brown had called to see me. I had no idea she was in Nelson, I was very pleased, she & Mr Brown are here for a few days. She said I looked so well & so young (for my age of course), she did not remember Frances & said, ‘I did not know you had an older sister. I thought it was you at first & only that you had altered. I suppose she is years older.’

‘No,’ I replied, ‘she is years younger.’ I cannot make it out why Frances, who has not the worry that I have, should look older, but people often ask if Frances is not the eldest that I am quite used to it. (22 Sept 1886)

Elizabeth Birch Brown, nee Wilson, is the sister of James Upfill Wilson. She was widowed and married her second husband John Thomas Brown at St Thomas’ Church in Motueka in 1882, a ceremony that was conducted by the Reverend Samuel Poole. Mrs Birch Brown is visiting Nelson from her home in Christchurch. She pays a call on Emily Harris, acknowledging old ties between the two families and perhaps wondering what kind of sister-in-law Emily would have made if circumstances had been different.

Lead writer: Michele Leggott
Research support: Brianna Vincent, Makyla Curtis, Dasha Zapisetskaya

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