In 1845, the European population of New Zealand hovered around 6,500. While the 1840s saw the first substantial wave of British migration, the British remained in the minority compared to the nearly 200,000 Maori. The 1840 Treaty of Waitangi had established British sovereignty; however, there were not nearly enough British citizens for the country to run in a British way.
Advertising campaigns throughout England promoted New Zealand as a great place to live, and this did bring in a trickle of immigrants. Nonetheless, there was still not a large enough population to maintain an effective police or military presence. With the ever present threat of Maori attack, the New Zealand settlements were desperate for protection.
To that effect, Lt. Governor George Grey turned to England and petitioned the government for soldiers to supplement his small force of 1,100 fighting men. In response, the Lt. Governor received a contingent of 900 soldiers from New South Wales, and an additional 702 “old soldiers”.
These old soldiers, or “Fencibles” as they were called, were retired soldiers in their upper 30s and 40s, living on government pensions. A fleet of eleven ships brought the old soldiers, along with their wives and children, to New Zealand.
In return for their military duties, the soldiers (along with their families) were offered free passage and a fresh start in a new land. They were each paid a regular pension and given a cottage on an acre of land. This land would become fully theirs after serving for a seven year term. Officers were given large homesteads and a full 50 acres of land.
The Howick Settlement
The Howick settlement was originally part of a claim established by William Thomas Fairburn. Fairburn had purchased 40,000 acres of land at the insistence of local Maori tribes, and had established a mission station at Maraetai.
After the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840, the government took back 36,000 acres from the Fairburn claim. Some of the land was sold off to settlers and some was returned to the Maori; however, a substantial portion was used to establish Fencible settlements of Howick and Otahuhu.
The Howick settlement was named after Lt. Governor Grey, who was the 3rd Earl Grey and Viscount Howick, as he was largely responsible for the Fencible immigration scheme. Each old soldier was given land with the understanding that they would be called up as a defense force in wartime. Their name “Fencibles” was in fact derived from the word “Defencible”, meaning capable of defense.
While the old soldiers never were called upon to honour that defense contract, they did establish a thriving permanent settlement – some of which can still be seen today in the Howick Historical Village. Many of the old soldiers became successful farmers, and a large number of their descendants still live in the area today. In fact, it is estimated that over 600,000 New Zealanders can trace their roots back to this first group of old soldiers and their families.