John Grubb, 1817-1898

John Grubb owned the first piece of land that was bought in New Zealand. The house that he built on this land — known as Grubb Cottage — still stands. This page gives a detailed account of his life, family and career, and links to further reading.

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One of the earliest settlers in Lyttelton, John Grubb was the first resident to buy land in the town. The house he built on town section 45 (62 London Street) still stands today.

Grubb was a shipwright who built the first vessel ever constructed in Canterbury. For many years he ran a successful slipway business. A member of the first Lyttelton Municipal Council, he was actively involved in the establishment of the Presbyterian Church in Canterbury.

At the time of his death, he was the oldest resident of the town of Lyttelton and universally respected.1

Early life

John Grubb was born on 1 May 1817 in Tayport, Fifeshire, Scotland. As a young man, he was apprenticed to the shipbuilding trade. Later, he went to sea, achieving the rank of chief officer in the merchant service. He then returned to his work as a shipwright, serving as a ship’s carpenter on a number of vessels.

His actual arrival in New Zealand was unplanned. In 1847, he was working as a ship’s carpenter on the General Palmer, owned by the shipping empire founded by New Zealand Company director, Joseph Somes (after whom Somes Island in Wellington is named).

The ship was on a voyage between Melbourne and London when it developed leaks and was forced to land in Wellington for repairs. It was condemned and Grubb was unable to return to either Australia or England.

Arrival in Lyttelton

In search of work, Grubb made contact with Captain Joseph Thomas, the Canterbury Association surveyor commissioned with preparing for the arrival of Canterbury settlers. Grubb boarded The Sisters, which arrived at Lyttelton on 6 October 1848. He had been contracted to build a jetty in Cavendish Bay for use by the Association’s ships, working alongside James McNeil, and brothers, Robert and Magnus Allan, under the supervision of Donald Gollan. The Canterbury Association allocated one hundred pounds for the construction of the jetty and a sea wall.

In the spring of 1849, the men built a 100-foot by 15-foot (approximately 30.5m by 4.5m) wharf, using timber imported from Nelson and Australia, as well as pit-sawn timber from Port Levy and Pigeon Bay. The timber was charred, rather than tarred. The jetty and the sea wall were much admired by the early settlers, who described them variously assplendidexcellent and convenient, and even as probably the best in New Zealand.2In 1858, Grubb and the Allan brothers added a 100-foot extension to the wharf, along with a ‘T’ end.

Arrival of Grubb’s family and settling in Lyttelton

John Grubb had married Mary Stout of Forfarshire on 26 January 1842 in Scotland. By the time of his arrival in Lyttelton, they were the parents of three daughters, Mary, Jean (Jane), and Janet (Jessie). On 19 November 1849, Grubb wrote to Mary, who was living in Dundee. He expressed his satisfaction with life in Lyttelton:

Now Mary, when I left the ship, I had nine pounds; when I paid all, and got shoes, about £7, now I have got £23. The place where I am, I am well paid every three months, and I like the place well. 3

He planned to establish a shipbuilding business in Lyttelton and arranged for Mary and the children to sail to Canterbury on the first Canterbury Association ship, the Charlotte Jane. He instructed her to bring with her more tools: cross-cut saws, an axe and adze, steel chisels, handsaw files, a brace and bits, rebot planes, a hand plane and plane handles.

Due to a trip to Wellington to complete the building of a whale boat, he was not in Lyttelton when the Charlotte Jane landed on 16 December 1850. He had, however, already erected aV-hut to accommodate his family. It had been built on the site later occupied by the Bank of New Zealand. He brought back with him cooking utensils, flour, butter, and other foodstuffs. Within a year, his eldest son, also named John, was born.4 Two more sons and four daughters were born between 1853 and 1861.

Grubb Cottage

In July 1851, John Grubb became the first Lyttelton resident to buy land there (some sections had been pre-sold in England before the arrival of the First Four Ships). He purchased from the Canterbury Association town section 45 in London Street (later 62 London Street) for £23. There he built the first permanent residence in the township.

The family moved in even before the doors and windows had been fitted, the first kitchen table consisting of two biscuit casks from the Charlotte Jane with boards on top.5 Grubb family descendants occupied the house until 1961. In 2006, the Christchurch City Council bought the property for $260,000.

Read more about the history and restoration of Grubb Cottage.


Grubb joined forces with the Allan brothers to establish a shipbuilding business in Lyttelton. They constructed a slip on Beach Road below the Immigration Barracks, and by March 1850, had built a five-oar whale boat, a seven-oar whale boat, and a 36-ton punt for the Canterbury Association, using timber from Port Levy.6 They also built the first Heathcote ferry punt for Thomas Jackson Hughes. The punt measured 24 x 10 feet, with falling ends and a four-foot high top rail. It was completed in May 1851. 7

In 1853, Grubb and George Marshall built a small ketch, the Caledonian, the first such vessel constructed in Canterbury. This boat was launched in September with much fanfare, by Mrs Mary Grubb. The Lyttelton Times reported that:

A most gratifying interlude … took place … The first vessel, bona fide built of New Zealand timber, and entirely by Canterbury industry … was launched amid the cheers and vivas of a large group of spectators, the animating strains of our … admirable amateur band, and the fervent good wishes for the success of the little craft and her worthy and industrious owners … Her registered burthen will be about 20 tons, with a capacity to carry about 30 bales of wool; cutter rigged and of a light draught of water …. The Caledonian is an example to us all of what may be effected by honest, persevering industry …8.

The Caledonian was employed by Marshall in the coastal trade around Christchurch, and between Christchurch and Wellington.

In 1855, the Lyttelton Times reported the launch at Pigeon Bay of another Grubb/Marshall ship. This vessel was the Canterbury, which had been intended to be the first steam vessel built in the province. It was designed to serve the river trade, ferrying passengers and cargo from Lyttelton to Christchurch. Because of the disruptions to trade caused by the Crimean War, however, the machinery for the vessel failed to arrive.

Grubb and Marshall tried to secure a steam subsidy for the project from the Provincial Council but they were unsuccessful. Accordingly, the ship was launched as a schooner, built almost entirely of timber cut from the bush in Pigeon Bay.9

The loss of the steamship contract resulted in some financial difficulties for Grubb and Marshall, who were forced to advertise the sale of part of the vessel in November 1855. The same year, however, the Provincial Council awarded Grubb the monthly mail contract to Wellington, and the Canterbury was used by him and Captain T. McClatchie in this venture until 1858.10

Slipway proprietor

From about 1860, Grubb re-entered into partnership with the Allan brothers. Grubb & Allan were slipway proprietors, maintaining and repairing the many ships which sailed into and around Lyttelton. They also built the signal flagstaff in Lyttelton for £25. They were regularly called on by the courts to inspect and report on vessels in the port about their levels of seaworthiness.

As early as 1856, they were involved in the unsuccessful salvage of the Alma, which was wrecked near the Cave Rock reef.11 Grubb’s daughter talked about the repairs her father carried out on the British Empire, which, among other things, needed a new mast. Grubb “would not let them say the vessel could not get the repairs done in New Zealand”. He acquired the necessary timber from Hay’s Bush in Pigeon Bay and used small steamers to lift the big mast into position.12

As the town grew, Grubb & Allan moved their slip several times, to Erskine Bay, Dampiers Bay, and finally Corsair Bay. The original slip was given up when reclamation work began for the railway station, and another move was dictated by a storm in March 1867, which completely destroyed their slipway.

The work was not without its dangers. In 1869, Grubb’s schooner, the Dove, was wrecked on a trip from Little Akaloa. The crew escaped unhurt, but the entire cargo of timber was lost.13 Grubb’s eldest son, John, (b.10 November 1851), who became a ship’s captain in the coastal trade, was involved in several accidents on the high seas, including a collision with another vessel while en route from Lyttelton to Hokitika in 1876.14

In 1881, Grubb himself was seriously injured when some clamps slipped on a ship undergoing an overhaul at his slip. Grubb was hit in the chest by the released belting and thrown 14 feet; according to a newspaper report, he narrowly escaped being killed.15

Grubb’s second son, James, (b. 16 January 1853), joined the business in the 1880s, after working for some years with large shipbuilding firms in Scotland, and then spending several years at sea. He took over as sole proprietor on his father’s retirement in 1892.16

Continued interest in shipbuilding

John Grubb remained interested in shipping all his life. He owned or was a shareholder in a number of vessels, including the Ada, the Jupiter, the Waiotahi, the Connaught Ranger, the Blackwall, the Flying Squirrel, the Agnes, and Wild Wave.17 Some of these vessels were captained by his son, John. In the 1890s, he was said to have

… enjoyed watching young shipwrights at work in Dampiers Bay. He would often take a piece of chalk, plot out the frames on a piece of plate steel and tell the apprentices how each was secured to the kelson and keel. Each ship design was made in a half-model, carefully scaled. Several of these, about two feet long showing one side of the ship, were kept in his workshop for reference.18

Political activities

Local body

John Grubb was involved in discussions about the creation of municipal institutions in Lyttelton from the early 1850s.19 Ten years later, he was a member of the deputation to the Superintendent of Canterbury which sought the creation of a Lyttelton municipality.20The first poll was held on 3 February 1862, and Grubb was one of nine councillors elected to serve under the chairmanship of Dr William Donald. In January 1864, Grubb was the highest polling councillor after Donald himself and in September 1870, he topped the poll.21Grubb was again elected a councillor in 1879 and in 1896. At a meeting in May of that year, he spoke against raising rates at a time when business was bad. The Council should cut its cloth according to its means, he said.22

According to his daughter, he was asked to be the town’s first mayor, but he did not want the position.23 His son, James, was elected as Lyttelton’s mayor in 1902.24

Central government

John Grubb also showed an interest in central government politics, and was regularly mentioned as a sponsor for candidates standing in the Lyttelton electorate. He nominated Richard Turnbull to represent Lyttelton on the Canterbury Provincial Council in 1857.25 In 1866, he signed a testimonial congratulating E.A. Hargreaves on his election to Parliament and regretting his subsequent resignation from the Lyttelton Borough Council.26 In 1879, he seconded with much pleasure the nomination of Hugh Percy Murray-Aynsley as Lytttelton’s MP,27 and in 1881 he was one of a group which proposed Edward Richardson for the position.28

Church-related activities

St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Christchurch

As John Grubb’s Press obituary noted, The deceased gentleman took a very great interest in Church matters….29 Grubb was a staunch member of the Scottish Presbyterian faith, and was actively involved in the founding of the church, both in Lyttelton and Christchurch.

He attended a meeting in Christchurch on 31 January 1854 at the Royal Hotel, presumably one of those having come a distance of four to eight miles to be present.30 The meeting was called to discuss the best means of erecting a Presbyterian church in Christchurch. Grubb was appointed to the committee set up to obtain subscriptions, buy a suitable plot of land, procure a building design, and establish the best way of obtaining a minister of the Free Church of Scotland.31

The committee met regularly over the next few years, and John Grubb was among those who helped in the selection of the Rev. Charles Fraser as the first minister (he arrived in Christchurch on 14 April 1856). Grubb’s own subscription to the church fund was £5.32 He and Ebenezer Hay were asked for practical advice on the timber to be used for the church building.33 The church, named St. Andrew’s, was built on a triangular corner between Tuam Street and Oxford Terrace and opened for public worship on 1 February 1857.

St. John’s Presbyterian Church, Lyttelton

John Grubb then turned his attention to the erection of a Presbyterian church in Lyttelton. The first Presbyterian services in Lyttelton were held in a room in the Oddfellows Hall, with the Rev. Fraser coming over from Christchurch every second Sunday to take the service. On Christmas Day 1857, Grubb attended a meeting called by Fraser to discuss the building of a Lyttelton church. He was appointed to a committee charged with securing a piece of land for a school house, which could also serve as a place of worship, thus following the Scottish tradition of combining education and religion. A plot was purchased for £138 and the building erected within two months.

Over the next few years, he and other Presbyterians raised over £1000 for the building of a proper church. With the Provincial Council’s pound-for-pound subsidy, the committee engaged the services of architect, Samuel Farr, to design the church on a piece of land in Winchester Street. The foundation stone was laid on 1 June 1864 and in December the same year, the congregation chose the name, St. John’s. The church opened for worship on 1 January 1865.

John Grubb became an elder of the St. John’s Presbyterian Church in 1866, and in 1870, he presented his commission to the Canterbury Presbytery.34 In May 1876, he attended a meeting of the Presbyterian Synod.


John Grubb was actively involved in the freemasonry movement. He and his son, James, were among the founders of the Canterbury Kilwinning Lodge in Lyttelton. James Grubb was the lodge’s Grand Master for eight years. According to his obituary, John Grubb took great interest in the lodge, and for fourteen years filled, with great credit to himself and to the material benefit of the lodge, the position of treasurer.35 He retired as treasurer at the end of 1896 (according to the report in the Star, he had actually served for eighteen years), and was presented with a jewel in token of his many valuable services.36 Very large numbers of the Masonic body attended his funeral in 1898.37

Family life and children' education

John and Mary Grubb had a large family, comprising three sons and seven daughters. Like many Scots, they were passionate about education. As early as 1853, Grubb took part in a meeting called to discuss schooling in Lyttelton. He was one of those who argued that every religious denomination had a right to establish its own schools with government assistance, although religious teaching should never be forced on any child. 38 All the Grubb children attended school, first in the Immigration Barracks, and then in the public school opened in the town. Both sons and daughters were pupils at Lyttelton High School.

Jane Grubb noted that she had a passion for teaching, alike in day and Sunday school … I was teaching in the infant school for the Government when I was thirteen, she remarked.39 David Grubb also qualified as a pupil teacher.40

The Grubb children were regular prize winners at Lyttelton High School. In 1868, Agnes and Annie Grubb received prizes for geography, English, grammar, and geography. David Grubb won a geography prize the same year, and in 1870, was awarded prizes for arithmetic and Bible studies.41

Jane Grubb remembers that there was a grand spirit of comradeship in Lyttelton in the early days. The residents were like one large family and the children had plenty of fun.42There were winter readings in the Colonists’ Hall and a Choral Society to which the Grubbs belonged. David Grubb often sang at entertainments and also gave recitations.43 There were also sailors’ dances and the family often walked into Christchurch over the hill. Later they were able to use Cobb’s coaches or their father’s coastal ships to move further afield.

Family involvement with the shipping community

The family remained strongly linked to the Lyttelton shipping and shipbuilding community. James and David Grubb both followed their father’s profession and became shipwrights. John Grubb was a master mariner and ship’s captain in the merchant shipping service.

Several of Grubb’s daughters married men in the shipping industry:

On 18 September 1862, Mary Grubb married Francis Maule, a seaman. He died in 1879. In 1885, Mary married another seaman, William McCullum.

In 1862, two daughters got married — Janet Bell (Jessie) Grubb to sea captain Alexander Munro; Jane Grubb married mariner Tamerlane Vitruvious Whitmore on 5 October.

Agnes Watson Grubb married shipping engineer, George Miller, on 13 March 1879 and Sarah Grubb married Captain John Benjamin Munns in 1884.

Only John Grubb’s youngest daughter, Isabella, married outside the shipping community. Her husband, Michael O’Connell, was described as a woollen draper at the time of their marriage in 1878, and as a hotel keeper in Masterton when Grubb wrote his will in 1891.

Many of these weddings took place at Grubb’s cottage in London Street.

Death of John Grubb

John Grubb outlived several members of his family. His wife, Mary, died on 18 October 1886, aged 69, deeply regretted by her husband and family.44 His daughter, Annie, died on 17 February 1876 at the age of 20, and Mary McCullum and Sarah Munns also predeceased their father.

He died on 19 February 1898, recognised as one of the oldest and most respected residents at Port and one of the hardy pioneers of the colony.45 The Star claimed he was the oldest resident of the town of Lyttelton.46 His funeral took place on 20 February and was a very large gathering. The Lyttelton Brass Band even postponed its open air performance on account of the funeral.47

Lyttelton town sections 45 and 46 were willed to his sons, John, James and David, with James inheriting the part of the section which included Grubb Cottage. David Grubb inherited his father’s interest in the slipway business, along with a shed leased from the Lyttelton Harbour Board and all his tools and business chattels. Each of the three sons also received the sum of £70.

John Grubb was clearly close to his daughter, Isabella, since he left her a piece of land (Lyttelton section 114) for her sole and separate use, along with £160. Her husband, Michael Charles McConnell, was named as one of Grubb’s executors. His other real and leasehold estate, along with his personal assets and savings, was to be divided evenly between his remaining living children, and the children of his two deceased daughters. Accordingly, three cottages on sections 44, 50 and 52 were advertised for sale a year after his death.48 Grubb left his piano to his niece, Mary Grubb of Lyttelton.

John Grubb is buried in the Anglican cemetery in Lyttelton, alongside his wife, Mary, and daughter, Annie.



1. Lyttelton Times, 21 February 1898, p. 4.
2. Quoted in K. Plowman, A history of the port of Lyttelton, MA thesis, Canterbury University College, 1941, p. 20.
3. Quoted in C. Amodeo, Forgotten forty-niners, p. 88
4. Birth notice, Lyttelton Times, 15 November 1851, p. 5.
5. Reminiscences of Jane Whitmore (nee Grubb), The Star, 22 February 1919, p. 8.
6. C. Amodeo, Forgotten forty-niners, p. 120.
7. C. Amodeo, Forgotten forty-niners, p. 91.
8. Lyttelton Times, 3 September 1853, p. 6a-b.
9. Lyttelton Times, 6 June 1855, p. 6.
10. C. Amodeo, The Mosquito fleet, p. 81 & p. 257
11. C. Amodeo, The Mosquito fleet, p. 82 & p. 285. Grubb and the Allans gave a quote of £475 for the salvage operation, but ended up out of pocket when it failed.
12. “Early Lyttelton days”, The Star, 22 February 1919, p. 8.
13. Evening post, 11 June 1869, p. 2.
14. Wanganui chronicle, 11 May 1876, p. 2.
15. The Star, 28 February 1881, p. 2.
16. “Mr James Grubb”, Cyclopedia of New Zealand: v. 3, Canterbury, p. 397
17. C. Amodeo, The Mosquito Fleet, p. 257.
18. C. Amodeo, The Mosquito Fleet, p. 163.
19. Lyttelton Times, 29 October 1853, p. 7.
20. Lyttelton Times, 20 January 1862, p. 7.
21. Lyttelton Times, 5 February 1862, 14 January 1864, 9 September 1870
22. The Star, 11 May 1896, p. 4.
23. “Early Lyttelton days”, The Star, 22 February 1919, p. 8.
24. Cyclopedia of New Zealand, v. 3, Canterbury, p. 397.
25. Lyttelton Times, 4 November 1857, p. 8.
26. Wellington independent, 4 August 1866, p. 5.
27. The Star, 29 August 1879, p. 2.
28. The Star, 28 September 1881, p. 2
29. Obituary, The Press, 21 February 1898, p. 3d.
30. Centennial history of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, p. 10.
31. Lyttelton Times, 15 July 1854, p. 7.
32. Lyttelton Times, 9 May 1855, p. 6.
33. Centennial history of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, p. 15.
34. The Star, 13 January 1870, p. 2.
35. Obituary, The Press, 21 February 1898, p. 3d.
36. The Star, 3 December 1896, p. 4.
37. Obituary, The Star, 21 February 1898, p. 4.
38. Lyttelton Times, 29 October 1853, p. 7.
39 “Early Lyttelton days”, The Star, 22 February 1919, p. 8.
40. The Star, 17 March 1874, p. 3.
41. The Star, 10 December 1868, p. 2 and 15 December 1870, p. 2.
42. “Early Lyttelton days”, The Star, 22 February 1919, p. 8
43. The Star, 14 December 1972, p. 2 and 14 June 1873, p. 2.
44. Death notice, The Star, 19 October 1886, p. 2.
45. Obituary, The Press, 21 February 1898, p. 3d.
46. Obituary, The Star, 21 February 1898, p. 4.
47. The Star, 19 February 1898, p. 5.
48. The Star, 11 February 1899, p. 8.

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