James Stephen Whitehead (1832 – 1879?) and Sophia Shirley (1835 – 1905) Pioneers and Founders of the NZ Whitehead’s.

James was born in 1832 in Lyminge, Kent, England the son of James Stephen Whitehead  of Kent and Ann Maria Stone from Surrey.  James had one known sister, Mary Elizabeth Whitehead b. 1829.  James was baptised on the 18th October 1832 in Kennington, Kent, England.

From my research so far I have been able to find the Whitehead’s all across eastern Kent in populous numbers and indeed for many generations.  Whiteheads appear across a wide variety of different records from poorhouses across to respected places of education.

Grey Scroll1

Around 1838, James father had died at the Isle of Thanet in Kent, England.  Within  the same year his mother remarried. She married another James, but this time it was James Prebble from another local Kent family.  James Prebble’s wife Ann Maria Gurr had also died the year before. The Prebble family had like Ann been left with a family of young children.

At the age of seven on the 22nd September 1839, James  sailed with his family and new relations from Gravesend in England to their new home in far off New Zealand.  In an effort to quickly settle this new land the British government collaborated with the newly formed New Zealand Company to send free settlers to people the new colony. (Noting the date of embarkation, the family left England before the 1841 English Census).

Onboard were James Prebble aged 40 a carpenter, his new wife Ann Whitehead (nee Stone) aged 36.  James children, Richard Prebble aged 15 employment given as carpenter,  Ann Prebble aged 15 employment given as servant. William Prebble aged 12, Edward Law Prebble aged 10, Mary Elizabeth Prebble aged 7, James Whitehead and  his sister, Mary Elizabeth Whitehead aged 13.

Twelve days prior to their arrival in New Zealand, James mother and stepfather welcomed a new child to their family.  John Aurora Prebble who was born at sea.  John never enjoyed good health and for many years was cared for by his half sister Mary who later married and became Mrs. Mary Dawson.

Port Nicholson

On the 22nd January 1840  at the age of 8, James and family arrived aboard the Aurora at Port Nicholson in New Zealand. James was one of the new settlers to the fledgling community who began their new lives camping on Petone beach.  Two years later in 1842 another brother, Thomas Prebble was born. Over the next ten years the Prebble & Whitehead family established their home in the new pioneering settlement of Port Cooper Plains which was later renamed and now known more famously as Canterbury.  Between 1853 and 1864 James Whitehead is listed on the New Zealand electoral rolls as living in the Upper Hutt, Wellington. His occupation listed as Sawyer (a wood-cutter).  On the 3rd August 1854, James married Sophia Shirley at St Peters Church in Wellington.  The church had only been built a few years beforehand in 1848.

St Peters Church Wellington

Let me assure you, if you think the Whitehead’s arrival only a very small representation in the new colony of New Zealand?  Well they were very productive.  The name Whitehead particularly across the north island is common in the extreme.  Other Whitehead’s of course came from England and afar however our one’s were not slow in planting a new crop.  James and Sophia had twelve children with eleven reaching adulthood.

Shirley, Sharley, Shurley ? (Somerset)

Sophia Sharley/Shirley was born in 1835 and christened on the 18th July 1835 in Horsington, Parish, Somerset, England.  She was the daughter of Thomas Sharley and Ann Hallet, . Both residents of of Horsington, a parish in Somerset.

I don’t claim, nor do I understand, the nuanced differences of how the name Shirley or Sharley or as I’ve found it Shurley was distributed among its family members.

In today’s traveling time James and Sophia were born in towns three hours from each other in England. Sophia’s family were an early pioneering family who came to New Zealand aboard the Arab from England.

Sophia’s siblings were Matthew Sharley b.1825, Selina Sharley b.1827, Henry Sharley b.1829, Ann Sharley b.1832, Thomas Andrew Sharley b.1837, Elizabeth Sharley b.1840.

By the time the family had settled itself into New Zealand they adopted and styled the spelling of their surname as Shirley.

James and Sophia Whitehead

James and Sophia’s children were, twins (?)  James Thomas b. 1855, Matthew b. 1855. Matthew died at the age of 3 in 1858.  John William b. 1856, Alfred b. 1858, Stephen b. 1860, Mary Ann Elizabeth 1861, Emily b. 1863, Sophia b. 1866, Richard b.1868, Edward b. 1871, Amelia b. 1873 and  Sarah b.1874.  In 1859 James and Sophia were still living in the Hutt area of Wellington where James was recorded as a Labourer.

Wellington Militia

On the 16th April 1860 at the age of 28 James was drafted into the Wellington Militia.  Being drafted into the militia was not a popular decision. The pay was minimal, the disruptions to families and work was a huge burden. The purpose of the militias was to provide a force of settlers who could act alongside the military to police and protect the settlements. The Maori Wars were a response by the Maori people to the conditions that were being forced upon them to sell their lands often unfairly to the British government and accept British sovereignty. These wars lasted throughout 1845 to 1872. Through these wars 800 Europeans died and 1800 Maoris died. In 1903 the Earl of Ranfurly released a publication called the Roll of Honour, 1840-1902, Defenders of the Empire, Residents of New Zealand. Ranfurly notes himself in the opening pages that there are many transcription errors and omissions of persons from this role. There is a JJ Whitehead listed which personally I believe is our JS Whitehead with one such error. Those first couple of pages are worth a read because they also speak to the attitudes of the time. Ranfurly recognised the Maori as ‘one of us’. I would suggest this inclusive thinking was long before the time where European colonials would drop the veneer of arrogance and beliefs of entitlement to the resources and people of the nations they settled in. Likewise Ranfurly recognised the personal sacrifices made by these early settlers and soldiers whom he refers to as veterans and calls (somewhat surprisingly for the times) on the people of New Zealand to financially support those who had ‘served’ and had not been able to live a life of providence.

James and his family were living at The Hutt during what became known as The Hutt Valley Campaign of 1846. Hostilities between the opposing groups of European settlers and the traditional owners, the Maori were accelerated after dubious purchases of land by the New Zealand Company and the haste of Pakeha (the Maori word for European settlers) to take over the land. Land was only supposed to be sold by Maori chiefs to the government.  This was meant to protect the Maori’s right to retain their lands.  This however was open to wide interpretation and in many cases outright abuse.   In The Hutt valley the aged chief Te Rauparaha; was angered by these land-grabs and with the support of his people was orchestrating attacks to take back his land and subdue the Pakeha. The militia and army responded. Te Rauparaha was captured in a surprise attack after letters of his were intercepted that gave evidence to this plan. This ended the Hutt Valley campaign but the Maori wars continued in other areas with other affrays. ( I thoroughly recommend you read the story at http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/war/wellington-war for a much wider discourse on the New Zealand Wars).

Hutt Valley Campaign

According to Sophia’s obituary James died in 1879. This would have made him the rather young age of 47. To date I have not been able to find an obituary or any other evidence of his death at that time. Finding a burial place for James has also proven fruitless and the best I’ve been able to secure is that his burial place is not known. Its possible that at the time he died there was not a formal, enduring cemetery nearby.

James and Sophia’s son, James Thomas Whitehead would die quite young.  He was married in December of 1881 at his mother’s house and was dead by the 5th April the following year. His only child, Lillyan Sarah Whitehead was born the following August but tragically would only live a matter of 6 months herself.   Deaths – Whitehead – at Carlyle St, Napier on Februrary 6th Lillyan Sarah Whitehead, the beloved daughter of the late James and Clara Whitehead, aged 6 months. Hawkes Bay Herald 8 February 1883.

Their other children would go on and have very LARGE families.  I think that is one of the reasons why there were so many Whitehead’s in NZ!.  

In 1905 Sophia died.  As a pioneer in the district a considerable obituary was written about her.    Bush Advocate, Rōrahi XVII, Putanga 48, 28 Huitanguru 1905, Page 4

Sophia Shirley Whitehead Gravestone

There passed away at Dannevirke last week an old colonist and one who in her time had borne the full ‘heat and burden of the day’. We allude to the late Mrs Sophia Whitehead, relict of the late Mr James Stephen Whitehead who died in 1879. The late Mrs Whitehead was the youngest daughter of Mr Thomas Shirley, who arrived at Wellington in the ship Aurora in 1841.  ( It was the Arab but anyway) .. Mr Shirley (who died about 15 years ago, aged 87), remained in that province till 1855 and during his stay he passed through the first Maori war, and as one of the militia witnessed many of the exciting scenes of Rangihaeta’s time.  the family all participated in the troublesome times of those days and it is related that on one occasion the timely information given by a Maori woman to the late Mrs Whitehead enabled the military to be sent for, and so prevented a contemplated raid by the natives.  Mrs Whitehead was married at St Peters Church, Wellington in 1853, and lived at the Hutt for some years. Thence with her husband she proceeded to Canterbury, where they remained for some years, afterwards finally settling in the Waipawa district, in Hawke’s Bay.  The late Mrs Whitehead was a typical representative of the sturdy pioneers and was always held in the highest esteem by her family and friends.  She is survived by a family of five sons and five daughters, the former comprising Messrs John Stephen and Richard Whitehead of the Weber district.  The daughters comprise Mrs Alf. Herbert and Mrs John Sergeant of Weber; Mrs Joseph Cossey, Eltham; Mrs G. Armstrong, Te Nui; and Mrs J. Edwards of Eketahuna. there are 50 grandchidlren and five great grandchildren.

Bush Advocate, Vol XVII, Issue 43, 22 February 1905. Death: Whitehead. – On the 21st instant at the residence of her son, R. Whitehead, Tennyson Street, Dannevirke, Sophia, relict of the late Stephen Whitehead, aged 76 years.

Sophia’s headstone reads:  In loving memory of Sophia Whitehead, died February 21 1905, aged 70 years. “She passed away so calmly, with such a peaceful brow. That none could tell the pain she had, but those that loved her so”.   Sophia is buried at The Settlers Cemetery in Dannevirke.

A few years later in 1911 her son Edward Whitehead “a Farmer”, would die aged 33 and be buried in the same cemetery as Sophia.   Another of her sons Alfred Whitehead would “die suddenly aged 61” in 1917 and is buried at Herbertville.

John William would live onto 1940 after having ten children however his relationship with his wife would turn sour as would his relationship with his children. Stephen was involved in amateur motor-cycling riding around New Zealand for many years and also had a large family.  He died in 1941. The NZ newspaper archives are full of recounts of his many thrills and spills including some grainy looking photos.   Mary Ann Elizabeth would go on and marry James Edwards. They had a small family and she died in 1929 not long after her husband.  Emily married Joseph Cossey, they had a large family and she died in 1937.  Sophia died in 1921.  She married Joseph Herbert and they had a small family together. Alfred married Mary Petherick also with a considerable sized family.  Of Edward, I know little.  He died quite young (early forties) and had listed his mother as his next of kin.  I suppose from that, that he may not have been married? He died in 1911.  Richard had a large family and in the course of this married two sisters, Lilian and Lavinia Heskell.  He died in 1939.  Amelia married John Sargent she would have been considered a small family of the time with five children.  She outlived all of her siblings and died in 1943.  Sarah married George Armstrong they had a large family and she died in 1926.  So as you can see whilst only one Whitehead was on the boat coming from England there are now gazillions of us from that humble batch floating around NZ, Australia and further abroad.

I’d say we have James and Sophia to thank for being not only European pioneers in a new country, but for making sure our ancestors were cared for and flourished in what must have been pretty austere times.

8 thoughts on “James Stephen Whitehead (1832 – 1879?) and Sophia Shirley (1835 – 1905) Pioneers and Founders of the NZ Whitehead’s.

  1. Thanks for the rich history that you have posted about Whitehead Shirley family, it is easy to read and very interesting.
    I think that there may be a typing transposition for the birth date of Ann Shirley, I believe that her birth date is 1832, however it has been typed here as 1823. Ann Shirley is my husbands 2nd great-grandmother, she married James Avison and they were settlers in Waipawa, Hawke’s Bay.
    Thanks again
    Judi Smitheram

    • Hi there, I’m searching for information on my ancestors who I believe to be James Avison and perhaps his wife Ann Shirley. My great great grandmother was Ann Seymour nee Avison. Would either of you have any information about this branch of the family?

  2. Hi Rebecca
    Yes this is the family I am researching as well. My husband Tony is descended from William and Ann (nee Avison) Seymour.
    I have had a quick look on my tree and I haven’t yet got any descendants form this couple who are Jones’. So would be really interested in communicating with you.

  3. I am just beginning to research my family history and have found this article to be accurate to the limited information I have. I believe that Sophia Whitehead (nee Shirley) is my great great grand grandmother through her daughter Sarah as my great grandmother. If anyone has more info on this line of the family I would be grateful to read it.

    Kind regards

  4. Matthew Shirley (born Aug 8, 1825 Templecombe, Horsington, Somerset, England) was my Great Great Grandfather – he was Sophia Shirley’s brother 🙂
    I am a descendant through his daughter, Rosina Shirley who married Daniel Joseph McGowan.

  5. Just to add to your very informative history , the son James Stephen Whitehead , born in 1860 in Upper Hutt , married Sarah Ellington. This couple went on to have 21 children , of which 16 reached adulthood and went on to live well into old age . These 16 went on to help support the growing NZ population and upheld the productive family tradition .

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