The Pioneering Deans Family

William and John Deans were among the earliest European settlers of Canterbury. The brothers became successful farmers and John’s widow Jane continued the tradition. The site of their first farm Riccarton Bush is now a central city park and nature reserve.

William and John Deans

The Deans brothers were born in Scotland. William was baptised on 31 January 1817. John was born on 4 May 1820.

William and John Deans trained as lawyers. They became interested in the New Zealand Company’s colonising scheme, and left for New Zealand (William in 1840, and John in 1842). Disappointed with the land which had been allocated to them in Wellington and Nelson, the brothers applied for permission to farm at Puturingamotu (Riccarton). The land was given to them on condition they did not settle near Māori plantings.

Settling in Canterbury

Deans house about 1890
The first house on the Canterbury Plains, Riccarton. In 1843 the Deans brothers built this house. [ca. 1890]
On 10 February 1843 William sailed for Port Cooper (Lyttelton) with the Gebbie and Manson families, who had also come from Scotland. From Lyttelton they sailed to the Estuary and took a whaleboat up the Avon River to a place where they unloaded bricks for a chimney. They changed to a canoe which could cope with the shallow water. At the point on the river where the present Christchurch Girl’s High School stands, they unloaded their supplies and carried them through to the patch of bush at Puturingamotu where James Herriot had first settled.

William Deans and Samuel Manson built their first house, with three compartments for the three families. They used wooden pegs to hold it together because the nails had been left in Wellington. While the house was being built, John Gebbie remained with the women and children at Port Levy. John Deans sailed from Wellington to Sydney to buy sheep and cattle. Once the farm was established, the Manson and Gebbie families left to establish their own farms at the head of Lyttelton Harbour.

More land leased

William and John bargained with the local Māori owners to lease more land. On 3 December 1846 a 21-year lease was signed for the land running six miles in every direction from Puturingamotu. More stock was brought in and the Deans brothers were able to sell their produce in Akaroa and Wellington, and their wool in London.

In 1848 the New Zealand Company bought land from Ngāi Tahu under the terms of Kemp’s Deed for the Canterbury settlement. The Deans brothers were allowed to have 400 acres for their farm in exchange for the land orders for Nelson and Wellington originally bought from the Company.

An agreement was signed on Christmas Day 1848 with Captain Thomas, surveyor of the new settlement, agreeing that the farm would be named Riccarton, after the Deans’ home parish in Scotland, and the nearby river the Avon, after the stream on their grandfather’s farm. Half of the Puturingamotu bush was to be kept by the Deans brothers, but half was to go to the Canterbury Association to provide timber and firewood for the new settlers.

Moving out of town

Because they were limited by the amount of land they could hold at Riccarton, William and John Deans decide to shift their sheep to a run of 15,000 acres in the foothills in April 1850, which they called Morven Hills. After an argument with John Robert Godley, who acted as agent for the Canterbury Association, the Deans brothers took up a large run at Homebush. In May 1851 William sailed for Australia to buy more stock. His ship was wrecked off Cape Terawhiti on 23 July 1851 and he was drowned. John returned to Scotland in 1852 and married Jane McIlraith, bringing her to New Zealand in 1853.

Jane Deans

Jane Deans was born Jane McIlraith at Auchenflower in Scotland. When John Deans decided on farming as a career, his father arranged for him to stay with Jane’s family and work on the McIlraith properties. Jane and John became close but did not become engaged as Jane felt she could not agree to marry a man living in the same house. After John left for New Zealand in 1842, Jane was not to see him for another ten years.

Although Jane did not write to John, he wrote to her father and in July 1850 was given permission to marry her. Jane would not travel out to New Zealand without being married, and so, after his brother William’s death by drowning in 1851, John returned to Scotland.

Jane married John Deans on 15 September 1852, and her only baby, a son, John, was born on 6 August 1853, six months after her arrival in New Zealand. John had caught a chill on his way to Scotland and later developed tuberculosis. He died at Riccarton on 23 June 1854. On his deathbed he asked Jane to make sure that Riccarton Bush remained forever.

A long pioneering life

Jane decided to remain in New Zealand and look after the estate for her son until he was old enough to take it over. Jane had little knowledge of farming but became a good judge of stock, especially horses and cattle. She was active in the life of the growing community, and was a strong supporter of the Presbyterian Church in Christchurch.

She told much of the story of her life in Letters to my grandchildren. Jane Deans died on 19 January 1911 at Riccarton. Riccarton Bush was presented to the people of Canterbury by the Deans family in 1914.


  • The book of New Zealand women edited by Charlotte Macdonald et al. Wellington, 1991
  • Geoffrey W. Rice,Christchurch changing: an illustrated history. Christchurch, 2000
  • Graham M. Miller, Deans, Jane, from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 7–Jun–2013
  • Graham M. Miller, Deans, John, from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 30–Oct–2012
  • Erik Olssen, Deans, Robert George, from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 7–Jun–2013
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