Turtle Bunbury

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Above: A portrait by Thomas Bunbury of
young George Dean Pitt.


MAJOR THOMAS BUNBURY (1791-1861) of Waitangi - Envoy Extraordinary

Seven years before his marriage to Miss. Anne Cowling, Major Benjamin Bunbury of Marlstone House had an illegitimate son. Thomas Bunbury was born in Gibraltar on 19th May 1791 and went on to become one of the more remarkable officers in the British Army during the mid 19th century, making a particular impact on the colonization of New Zealand. He was the man who sailed down the east coast to Port Nicholson and to the South Island to gather up the Treaty of Waitangi signatures from the Maori chiefs. On 4 June 1840, at Sylvan Bay, he proclaimed British sovereignty over Stewart Island by discovery and then, on 17 June at Cloudy Bay, over the South Island by cession. The details of his life are chronicled in his 3-volume "Recollections of a Veteran".

The Early Years

The name of Thomas's mother is unknown. As a young boy, he was cared for at a Church of England school although his father's family seem to have kept at least one eye out for him. His stepmother Anne Bunbury (nee Cowling) accepted him into her house on at least one occasion. He entered the army aged 16, starting as an Ensign in the 90th Foot, without purchase, on 7th May 1807. Later that year, he was transferred to the 3rd Regiment of Foot (aka the Buffs), in which regiment his uncle, Hamilton Bunbury, was a Colonel. Not that the avuncular relationship was particularly good. Thomas records how, at a dinner party given by his father and step-mother, he threw a glass of wine in the colonel's face, suggesting a volatile relationship that may well have been connected to the circumstances of his birth.

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Above: Thomas Bunbury c. 1861.

(General Assembly Library. Original photographic prints & postcards from file print collection, Box 8.
Ref: PAColl-6075-15. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. With thanks to Irish Mason)

The Peninsula War

Thomas served with the Buffs in the Peninsula War from 1808 until the end of the war. He was with the regiment when it crossed the Douro to fight the battle of Oporto on 12th May 1809. He carried the Colours of the same regiment at the battle of Talavera (27 - 28 July 1809) and was present at the battles of Barorosa, Tarifa, Nivelle and Toulose, as well as the taking of Seville (1812), the defence of the Bridge of Puento Largo (1812) and the siege of Bayonne. He was mentioned in Despatches on five occasions and badly wounded twice - once on the retreat from Bayer (for which he later received a pension of £100pa from 24th December 1827) and again at the battle of the Nive (for which he received gratuity of one years pay).

During this time, he recalled visiting his half-sister Anne Bunbury at her school and making an impression on her classmates. She later married Major Louis Verstrume and was matriarch of the Verstrume-Bunbury family.


My dearest Tom, as usual I am to give an account of ourselves since the last Epistle. You must allow you have always quantity and I hope is interesting to you whatever concerns us. To begin, we arrived in good health from Brighton and I presume are to remain settled at West Hall for the Winter months. I own I left Brighton with some regret as it was the season the better sort of company resort there and was very full. Many of whom we knew, the Loadstone that drew us to Mortlake was being near William who you have seen is now a protege of Lord Sidmouth and if he makes the best use of his time by improving himself and making himself above the generality of young men, there is little doubt of his getting on in life in an enjoyable situation, when there is neither fortune or interest, there must be superior activities or must of to get on like in a humble manner divest and could get a little ambition into Clara also but I doubt it. Music she attends a little to but I cannot persuade her to read or take drawing. Soon the time for her improvement will be passed when it is too late. She may be sorry.
(Clara Amelia was born about 1794 and in 1817 married Robert Parry Nisbet)
I have done my duty and more I am not so. Most of our country friends are returning to their dwellings. If we were not such a distance there would be a good …. and …. William will write a few lines for himself, he is just gone to walk with young Mr Addington to his house in the Park. (White Lodge, Richmond Park). It is proper he should pay attention where he ….. so much. The Taylor family have just been here and tomorrow we go to theirs. They are kind neighbours to us, all the morning we have have been expecting Mr Joe Harriott second daughter with George Harriott . They were to dine with us. She is going to be married to a Capt Barnes in the Marine Service on the Bombay Establishment. George Harriott is leaving of his leather business and is to turn farmer. Mr Harriott very unwell lately. He is greatly pulled down with this last illness. Mrs H. and Dotty very well.
(Mrs H was Betsy Harriott wife of George Frederick Harriott. Dotty is Dorothy the daughter of John Harriott) I fear my dear Tom you will find this …. and hereafter there has been a succession of different company coming in say ten minutes so I must conclude with very kind wishes for your future welfare. Your affectionate Mother D. Harriott
Have you seen Mr Seymour Larpent who was taken prisoner but I hear he has been exchanged. His brother George is on the eve of marriage with Miss Charlotte Cracroft, perhaps you may remember a pretty nice girl. Young Wa... is gone in the Civil Service to Ceylon, a very good appointment. We have received very kind letters from Captain Erskine inviting us to Sandhurst where the new Military College now is, which we intend accepting and shall go in a few days, most likely stay for a week with them. The Hills and Birches still at Snailwell. The Gossets in Town. Tom Gosset has just got a fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge which brings him in two hundred pounds per annum. I suppose all together this young man has about fourteen or fifteen hundred a year, a pretty fortune.
(Tom Gosset was Thomas Stephen Gosset, brother of Rev Isaac Gosset 1796-1847. In 1824 he became Vicar of Old Windsor)
Once more adieu God Bless you, D.H.

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Above: A painting by William Henry Harriott from 1813 shows two young ladies walking
in front of West Hall in Mortlake. The two ladies are almost certainly his sisters Clara
Amelia Harriott and Elizabeth Hill. In the distance behind West Hall is another house -
Brick Farm, where Mrs Elizabeth Taylor lived with her 3 daughters. Mrs Taylor was a
daughter of James Dee, and connected to the Bunbury family of Killerig.
(With thanks to Ted Hill).

The Portuguese Expereince

By 1814 Thomas was serving as a Captain in the army. As he spoke fluent Portuguese, he was given special assignment to the Portuguese army. At this stage, Thomas was something of a party animal and certainly enjoyed dallying with the ladies. He stayed with them for five campaigns in return for which king Don Juan of Portugal made him a Companion & Knight of the Military Order of the Tower & Sword (18th August 1824) and the Portuguese government awarded him the Gold Medal. In October 1822 he transferred to the 80th Foot and became Captain.

The Maltese Years

The regiment was stationed in Malta from 1822 to 1827, during which period word must have reached him of his father's gruesome death in England although he does not mention this in his 'Recollections'. It seems he had no expectations of any inheritance from his father, and Marlstone House passed to his step-brother Henry Mill Bunbury.

Commandant of Norfolk Island

Thomas's illegitimacy undoubtedly prejudiced the military hierarchy of his day, not least when it came to handing out the rewards of service. Nonetheless he was promoted to the rank of Major with the 80th Regt (Staffs) on 21st November 1834 in which capacity he escorted 17 lots of convicts to Sydney. In 1838, he became Commandant of the Norfolk Island penal colony. Confident in his ability to manage the hardened convicts, he expressed surprise that 'a villain who has been guilty of every enormity, should feel shame at having his back scratched with the cat-o-nine-tails when he felt none for his atrocious crimes.' He also claimed that 'if a man is too sick to work he is too sick to eat', by which rationale the queue at the hospital was apparently halved. Although his punishments were harsh, he replaced hand hoeing with ploughs, rewarded good behaviour with improved jobs and gave older convicts lighter work. He earned the ire of soldiers on the island by ordering the destruction of huts built on the small gardens they kept for their own use and for trafficking with the convicts. The soldiers mutinied, a warship was sent to restore peace and Major Thomas Bunbury was recalled in July 1839.

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Above: This portrait of Colonel Thomas Bunbury, KH, is above the fire place in
the Mess of the Abercorn Barracks, Ballykinler, Northern Ireland. The inscription
below states that he was with the 60th Duke of York's Own Rifle Corps, and
that he was Colonel Commandant of the 60th King's Royal Rifle Corps
from 1842-1856. I hope I have the right Colonel Thomas Bunbury here!

The New Zealand Years

In 1840 he was transferred to New Zealand where he is today hailed as St. Helier's first farmer and Auckland's first military commander. He originally travelled there in the company of the New Zealand Governor's wife and is notably obscure in his Memoirs about their relationship which, to quote the late Peter Bunbury, 'bobs up now and then' over the next four years. He spent four years in New Zealand, during which time he played a pivotal role in persuading the Maori chiefs to sign the Treaty of Waitangi, sailing around the islands for two months on HMS Herald collecting signatures as he went. [Please report to me if the link does not work]. In 1841 a detachment under his command built a stone barracks, still standing in Auckland. He also purchased 116-acres in St Heliers and built a house which still stands today. Karaka Bay at St. Heliers is where, on March 4 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi was signed by representatives of Queen Victoria (aka Thomas Bunbury) and the Tamaki Chiefs.A memorial stone in the town also recalls the man.

The Indian Campaigns

On 26th July 1844 he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel with the 80th Regiment. He sported that same uniform during his Indian campaigns with Hardinge and his distant cousin, Viscount Gough, during the 1840s. He writes about this in some depth in Volume 3 of his 'Recollections' (as well as a lengthy account of his being wrecked on the Andaman Islands on his way to India in 1844).

Marriage & Retirement

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Above: This is believd to be a self-portrait of the belle Sibella Harriot, mother-in-law of Thomas
Bunbury, or ‘Lady Harriott’ as she was formerly known in the house where she now hangs. The lore
holds that she painted it herself but there may be a confusion regarding her daughter Sibella who
was also an artist. This lady certainly seems to be of from the scantily-clad era of Lady Hamilton
and Adam Buck.
(With kind thanks to David Marten)

Thomas retired around 1853 when he married Clara Matilda Harriott. She was 29 at the time of the marriage, whilst Thomas was 62. Clara was born in London on 12 Apr 1823 and baptised at St Marylebone on 14 May 1823. She was a daughter of the artist William Henry Harriott (c. 1791-1839) and his wife, Mary Sibella Hunter, the daughter of Robert Hunter, Esq., of Kew and Charlotte Hansford. Clara's grandfather Major Thomas Harriott of the East India Company lived at West Hall, Mortlake, where he died aged 65 on 19th April 1817. Clara's paternal grandmother was Diana Dietz. West Hall is now the only Georgian mansion surviving in the Kew/Mortlake area.

W. H. Harriott and Mary Sibella Hunter were married in 1816. As Mary Sibella's portrait appears opposite, this seems an appropriate place to record her siblings, namely:

William Hunter of the Hon. East India Company’s Service.
Charles Hunter of the Hon. East India Company’s Service.
Eliza Hunter married to Thomas Lilly, Esq., lieutenant in the army.
Caroline Drury Hunter, m. to Lieutenant Colonel Sir Dudley St Leger Hill, Governor of St Lucia. He built Braganza House, Carlow.
Christine Hunter, m. to Captain Master.

Clara's older sister Sibella Christine Harriott was also an artist. In 1844 she married Samuel Saunders, youngest son of D’Oyly Saunders of Cope Bank, near Whitby. They had a daughter - Edith Clara Hatyma Saunders who was born in Alexandria, Egypt, in about 1844. In 1872, Edith Clara married Edward Leslie Barnwell Lowry (son of James Corry Lowry – Lowrys of Rockdale House in Tyrone - and Ellen Johnston).

W. H. Harriott, described as 'a gentleman of large and independent fortune', was just 48 at the time of his death at their home, 14 Sussex-place, Regent's Park, in 1839. It was an unpleasant end, following his collapse onto a fireside fender, in the presence of his mother. In what the coroner deemed a violent heart attack, he also managed to pull a writing desk over on top of him. He had been in poor health for sometime and had just returned from Boulogne a few days earlier, having spent the previous two months in Paris for the benefit of his health. For more, see ‘W.H. Harriott: A Forgotten Imitator of Prout’ from The Connoisseur, Volume 78 (Otto Limited, 1927).


Thomas and Clara Matilda Bunbury had no children, probably because Thomas was too busy writing his memoirs, published in three volumes in 1861 as "Recollections of a Veteran". Thomas passed away on Christmas Day 1861. The Norfolk Chronicle of 4 January 1862 recorded: 'On the 25th [December 1861], at No. 11, St James’s terrace. Regents-park. Lieut-Colonel Thomas Bunbury, C.B., late of her Majesty's 80th Regiment, and a Knight of the Portuguese Order of the Tower and Sword.’

He left no known issue. Frustratingly, the autobiography mentions almost no-one by name which may have been the custom in those days. A copy is available in the British Library in London while a paperback entitled "Major Thomas Bunbury - Envoy Extraordinary" was written by Alan Lambourn and published in New Zealand in 1995.

Clara Matilda Bunbury died at North Lodge, Hamtpon Wick on 24th January 1903, aged eighty.




· Punishment Short of Death: a history of the penal settlement at Norfolk Island, Margaret Hazzard, Melbourne, Hyland, 1984. (ISBN 0-908090-64-1)
. Colours, Battle Honours & Medals of a Staffordshire Regiment - 80th Regiment of Foot, Robert Hope, Churnet Valley Books, 43 Bath Street, Leek, Staffs, 1999. (includes lists of Casualty & Medal Rolls and Annual Listings of Officers)
. Major Thomas Bunbury , envoy extraordinary. New Zealand's soldier-treatymaker, Alan Lambourn, Heritage Press, 1995.

With thanks to Peter Bunbury, Ted Hill, Rodney Kerr, Alan Martin, Maria O'Brien, David Marten and others.