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Fruit from

the Scoria

Captain Robert David James
of Mt Albert & Avondale
Lisa J Truttman
The life of Captain Robert David James before 1868 as, at the moment, obscure. He appears to
have been born c. 1812 in Wales. 1 He was described in his death notice in 1895 as being “late 7th
Hussars” which may explain his title of “Captain”. He married in London in 1842, and from
1845-1865, he lived in New Brunswick, Canada (which may explain later confusion in the
Auckland press who claimed he was American) His first wife Susannah Elizabeth died there in
1859. 3 He and Susannah Elizabeth had 11 children; 4 died in infancy. 4 He married Sophia Rice
on 20 June 1860 in New Brunswick, and arrived in New Zealand in 1865. 5

Captain James appears on Auckland
documents in February 1868, when he
purchased a number of adjoining
sections from Allan Kerr Taylor. He
was elected as one of the trustees of the
Mt Albert Highway District Board in
October that year. 6 In August 1869, he
transferred part of his holdings west of
Alexis Avenue to J. T. Garlick. 7 On the
remaining 15 acre triangular section,
bounded by New North Road, Kitenui
and Alexis Avenues, he set about
creating his orchard.

Captain James served as chairman of
the Mt Albert Highway District from
1869-1871. During his time in the chair,
among the local issues were of the cost
of road maintenance, the trustees’
proposal to have the quarry opened up
Deed Whau 7 (LINZ records), 1868–1869, showing the
full extent of Captain James’ landholding in Mt Albert.

Research notes from Betty Lark of Nelson, received 20 September 2008
Website for New Brunswick Genealogy Society,, sighted 19 September 2008
Research notes from Betty Lark
Southern Cross, 7 October 1868, p. 4
21D.676, LINZ records
school district. James convened a public meeting in December 1869, 8 at which he was appointed
to the new school committee, and served as their first chairman. Heading a deputation to the
Provincial Superintendent later that month, 9 he argued on behalf of the Mt Albert ratepayers that
their share of the toll gate money collected should be for the maintenance of roads in the district,
and not just specific roads, but it was also requested for consideration that the New North Road
toll gate be removed as it was an impedance. As for the quarry, the Superintendent of the
Provincial Council agreed in early 1870 to have the Board’s request considered. 10

Sophia James herself was involved with the Wesleyan Sunday School in Mt Albert, and was one
of the ladies who catered for their annual meetings and soirees. 11 In February 1871, however, she
and Captain James were involved in an accident after a shaft pin on their buggy fell out and
caused the shaft to drop down against their horse’s legs, startling it. “The horse, which is greatly
prized by Captain James for the quietness of its disposition, took fright and bolted down Hobson-
street into Wellesley-street towards Freeman’s Bay. Fortunately, Captain James had some
control over the animal, and endeavoured to guide it into Mr. Harrison’s wood-yard, to avoid the
descent down the hill; but the trap upset outside the fence, and its occupants were thrown
violently to the ground. Captain James escaped unhurt, but Mrs. James was much shaken and
bruised, though the injuries sustained were not serious … The buggy was of course considerably
damaged, but the horse came off scathless.”12

Captain James retired from the Highway Board in July 1871. 13 His next community involvement,
however, was as a member of the committee appointed by the Mt Albert district residents to set
about the task of organizing the building of the district’s Anglican church, later known as St
Luke’s. 14 In 1874, he was once again chairman of the district’s school committee, but retired the
following year. 15

The greatest number of column inches devoted to Captain James, however, involved his orchard
and vineyard at Mt Albert. A correspondent to the Southern Cross in January 1874, “Old
Practical”, in writing about wasted theories and writing about what could or couldn’t be grown in
Southern Cross, 23 December 1869, p. 4
Southern Cross, 25 December 1869, p. 6
Southern Cross, 11 January 1870, p. 7
Southern Cross, 8 September 1870, p. 3
Southern Cross, 23 February 1871, p. 2
Southern Cross, 11 July 1871, p. 3
Southern Cross, 27 March 1872, p. 3
Southern Cross, 2 February 1875, p. 3
Auckland at that time, sang the praises of one Captain James of Mt Albert: “I have heard it most
positively stated some few years back, and by men whom you would think should know better, that
this country was not suitable for apples, grapes, gooseberries, and a vast lot of other fruit and
production, when you have only to walk or ride out to Mount Albert to see the perfection to which
all these things have been brought on the fruit farm of Captain James by his judicious skill,
knowledge, and persevering industry … I think it is an admitted fact the fruit season is the most
healthy season, therefore the man who is instrumental in bringing large supplies of fruit before
the community at moderate prices has done a real good to his country. I could not help being thus
struck in walking through Captain James’s grounds, and although it has cost that gentleman a
great deal of indefatigable industry as well as a good deal of capital, I do trust his untiring and
unaided labour will meet with its due reward …Recurring to Captain James’s fruit farm at Mount
Albert, it is refreshing to see the amount of fruit there produced: strawberries, guavas,
gooseberries, lemons, oranges, grapes, in abundance.” “Old Practical” felt that James’ orchards
served as an example of how Mt Albert had progressed from being “that once despised
neighbourhood” to “one of Auckland’s best and most flourishing suburbs.” 16

In August 1875, the Southern Cross, devoted an entire article to Captain James and his


“On several occasions we have urged upon the attention of our country and suburban readers the
advisability of devoting more attention than has hitherto been done to fruit growing. We have at
different times enumerated several cases where the cultivation of fruit in this Province has been
found exceedingly profitable. In fact, wherever good varieties of fruit trees have been carefully
planted, and a reasonable amount of care bestowed upon them afterwards, fruit growing in this
Province has always been highly profitable. We are glad to learn that more attention it being
devoted to this industry than formerly was bestowed upon it. In several places in the suburbs of
Auckland, and in other parts of the Province, small orchards are being planted with different
kinds of fruit trees, and, we are glad to learn, in every case with the most promising results. Of all
the recently laid out orchards in the neighbourhood of Auckland, that of Captain R. D. James,

Southern Cross, 2 January 1874, p. 3
Southern Cross, 9 August 1875, p. 3
Mount Albert, is the most extensive and most promising. Captain James’ place is a little beyond
St. Luke's Church, and on the same side of the road.

“Seven years ago, when he purchased the 16 acres of land he now owns, that district was a
wilderness. There was no house upon the ground, and the surface of the land was covered with
rough, unshapely blocks of scoria, just as they had been ejected from the ancient volcano in the
neighbourhood, Mount Albert. But it presents a different aspect to-day, and shows how attractive
a small and
unpromising piece
of land may be made
with the exercise of
good taste and a
certain amount of
labour. "With few
exceptions Captain
James has removed
the surface scoria
blocks, from his
grounds, and five
acres have been
tastefully laid out as
an orchard, around
which is planted a
substantial fence of
pine trees. These act
as an excellent

breakwind, and
J R Randerson’s sale of most of the former James’ orchard and vineyard, 1882.
Deed 28, LINZ records. save the fruit trees
from being tossed
Detail of the plan showing James’ buildings (today’s 1-13 Violet Street and
16A Alexis Avenue) above. about by the fresh
breezes which we some times experience. He has a handsome residence, with commodious
outhouses for a small dairy, and trees and shrubs planted around the house, which, when fully
grown, will make his farm or orchard one of the most attractive spots in the neighbourhood of

“The fruit trees which have been planted are of course very young, and many of them are only
beginning to bear fruit; but the returns which have already been obtained give ample promise
that, in the course of three or four years more, Captain James will receive an abundant reward
for his care and attention. The five acres at present devoted to orchard purposes are divided here
and there with live fences, for the purpose of affording the fruit trees a greater amount of shelter
than they would otherwise enjoy.

“A considerable amount of attention is devoted to the culture of the grape vine, there being
grape-houses measuring, in the aggregate, 260 feet in length, and 12 feet in width. In them are
planted nine different varieties of grapes, chiefly the ''Black Hambro" but his collection includes
some rare kinds. Here is found growing: the “Syrian Grape," which is generally supposed to be
the grape found near the brook Eschol by the spies sent out by Moses, referred to in the last
chapter of Numbers. This grape vine bears bunches of great size, but they do not possess such a
high flavour as some other varieties. Of these grape-houses there are 170 feet, where the grapes
are in full bearing, and during last season, Captain James found a ready sale in Auckland, at
good prices, for all the grapes he could supply. Captain James is an American, and like many his
countrymen has quick and cheap ways of doing some things which Britons do not think of. To
erect 250 feet of graperies in the ordinary way British gardeners have them constructed would
cost a very large sum of money. Instead of having the glass fastened in the frames with putty,
Captain James constructs the roofs of his houses into spans 12 inches apart. On each side of the
bars sloping to the ridge of the roof, a groove is cut out, into which the sheets of gloss are
introduced from .the bottom. These are made to overlap about an inch, and are kept in position
by a small strip of zinc bent somewhat in the form of an s. With sufficient slope on the roof, all
dripping can be thoroughly prevented. By this arrangement the glass can be removed during the
autumn and winter season, thus giving the wood of the vine an opportunity of being thoroughly
hardened before next growing season comes on. The protection of glass can thus be provided for
the raising of fine grapes for the table, or for the culture of tender plants, at less than ¼th of the
usual cost of constructing a grape-house. When Captain James's plan of constructing glass-
houses becomes better known there is little doubt he will find many imitators.
“Of pears, plums, and apple trees, Captain. James has now 500 planted out at distances of 10 to
15ft apart. A number of the plum trees are bearing, but only a very few of the pear and apple
trees have reached the fruitful stage. They all look, however, remarkably clean and healthy, and
show no symptoms of blight. There are 70 peach trees planted out recently, 30ft. apart. There are
300 gooseberry bushes, chiefly the dark red sort, planted between the young fruit trees, thus
utilising the ground while the larger trees are growing. Of guava trees there are 80 planted out,
and are from five to six feet high, all in full bearing. Last season a very large quantity of fruit was
taken off these trees, and from this fruit the finest jams and jellies can be made. There is about an
eighth of an acre of ground planted with grapevines without any shelter. These vines are trained
on the cordon system recommended by Dr. Guyot. Good returns are expected from these vines.

“Of loquats there are 240 trees planted out at distances of 15ft. apart, all in full bearing. There is
about a dozen lemon trees (chiefly Lisbon), in full bearing, when we visited the orchard lately ;
many of these trees were hanging full of fruit in various stages of maturity. Besides the above,
there is a large number of nectarines—both upright and pendant— a number of Maltese and
Mandarin orange trees, about 160ft. of fence, covered with the Passion fruit plant, and an
immense number of American and Cape gooseberries. The whole of the trees look exceedingly
healthy, and are free from blight of all kinds, save one young orange tree, which was afflicted
with the scaly bug. The ground between the fruit trees is occupied with strawberries, cabbages,
potatoes, lettuce &c, in rotation. Captain James, however, has found that the light, pluffy,
volcanic soil is not well adapted for fruit growing, and for many of his trees he has had to art
large quantities of day to mix with the soil in which the trees grow.

“Those who wish to see what can be done in the course of a few years in improving the
appearance of a district should call upon Captain James and solicit the privilege of being shown
over his orchard. The whole of the work has been accomplished by the proprietor himself, save
on a few occasions when he had to obtain assistance in removing the large blocks of stone which
were met with. If there were a good many more Captain James's in the Province, our yearly
expenditure for imported fruit would soon diminish, and in time we might hope that, instead of
importing we would have a large surplus sent to districts less favored by soil and climate than is
the Province of Auckland.“
Sadly, the youngest child of Captain and Mrs James, Frances Alice, died aged 7 in April 1876. 18
A month later, however, Captain James was able to celebrate a successful crop of sweet potatoes
from his farm. “A remarkably fine specimen of the sweet potato was brought to our office on
Saturday, by Captain James, of Mount Albert, and afterwards placed for exhibition in Mr
Brewin’s shop window. Its weight is 5lb., and flavour, we are told, unexcelled. The seeds were
obtained from Hokianga, and Captain James has been so far successful that he is now in a
position to supply a few sets to intending purchasers.” 19

Early in 1881, Captain James sold his Mt Albert property, and moved to a 20 acre farmlet in
Avondale, stretching between present-day New Windsor Road and Tiverton Road. This was
purchased in his wife Sophia’s name, from Robert Charles Greenwood and the Auckland
Permanent Coop Building and Investment Society. 21

It didn’t take him long to create another landmark property in the new district.

“Adjoining Mr. Matthews’ section is the homestead and nursery grounds, near some 20 acres in
extent, of Captain James, formerly of Mount Albert. No better illustration of what industry,
practical skill, and capital can accomplish can be found in the district than at this gentleman’s
nursery. He came to the place, a wilderness of fern, over a year ago. Commenced planting last
August several thousand trees – peaches, apples, lemons, quinces, &c. Two acres are laid out as
a peach orchard, and another large breadth planted out in strawberries. One of his specialties is
lemons, the Lisbon variety principally, and we have not seen any trees so thriving as these for a
long time. Of grapes, he is cultivating all the early and late varieties, and has a number of vines
of the black Hamburg variety. He has erected three greenhouses, each 50X24, teen feet stud, with
span roof, and 14 feet rafters. Another specialty is the gooseberry, and he has set out 800 plants,
as well as prepared a bed of several hundred apple trees, all budded and grafted. About 10 acres
are at present in hand, around the boundary of which belts of shelter trees are being planted.
Another breadth of several acres has been cleared adjoining, and ploughing will shortly be
commenced. A plough and cultivator is used in the orchard as far as possible, to minimise hand
labour, Captain James and his son doing all the labour with themselves. Headlands are left for
the horses to turn without injuring the trees. Advantage is taken of the fall of the ground to carry

Southern Cross, 6 May 1876, p. 3
Southern Cross, 22 May 1876
29M.840, LINZ records
K2.630, LINZ records
all the sewage, slops &c., of the homestead by pipes to sewage tanks in the centre of the section,
for irrigation purposes, so that everything is utilised. The soil is a black vegetable mould, easily
worked. Some blue gums sown in a box ten months ago, and planted out, are now from six to
eight feet high. Everything is turned to advantage by Captain James. The boundary fence is lined
with passion fruit, the prospective produce of which has already been secured by a speculator.
Inside the fence, some 10 feet or so, flax plants are being set out to provide materials for putting
up fruit and for binding operations, instead of twine. Adjoining the residence is a commodious
stable, with vehicles for transporting to and fro everything required, so that from first to last
everything is done within the resources of the establishment. We left the place with a wholesome
respect for the energy and pluck of the man who, past the meridian of life, had, for the fifth time
in a busy life, hewn out a fresh home for himself from the wilderness.”

The James’s were to live in Avondale until Captain James’ death on 7 July 1895. Sophia died
in March 1903, found dead in the backyard of her sister’s home in Lincoln Road, Henderson,
after an illness lasting 18 months. They’re buried, together with Sophia’s father, Charles
Harlehan Rice, in the George Maxwell Memorial Cemetery, corner Rosebank and Orchard Streets
in Avondale. The grave is closest to Orchard Street – considering what Captain James was most
well known for, that is somewhat fitting.

His Mt Albert estate was subdivided in 1881-1882 and rapidly sold. All traces of his orchard and
glasshouses disappeared. In Avondale, the farm was sold to Frederick Bluck, a local fruitgrower
and also clerk to the Avondale Road Board. Eventually, around a quarter of the farm came to
be owned by a grower named Arthur Athelstone Currey, famous in his own right for his acres
and acres of glasshouses on the New Windsor Road site from the 1920s to 1970s, growing
tomatoes. A white villa at the moment on what is now an Auckland City Council reserve fronting
New Windsor Road may be the last visible link with Captain James remaining in Auckland.

NZ Herald, 24 June 1882
NZ Herald, 8 July 1895
NZ Herald, 4 March 1903
17A.358, LINZ records
NA 497/37, LINZ records