The Little Doctor Was Not (Initially) Impressed



When one of Wellington’s founding fathers, Dr. Issac Featherston, arrived in Wellington in May 1841 he was shocked to find, “… those mud hovels scattered along the beach, or those wooden huts which appeared every here and there…represent the City of Wellington?” The New Zealand Company had promised, “…fine fertile land which shall produce such astounding crops”. Instead, Featherston found he “…invested money in land in 1840 and has got a useless swamp worth nothing….” His anger at the New Zealand Company would lead him to engage Colonel William Wakefield in a duel. Featherston shot first and missed. His story could have ended there, but Wakefield, no ethical paragon himself,  spared Featherston’s life.


Dr. Featherston's house in Thorndon

Featherston’s Thorndon house (far right) overlooking the bay in the 1850’s.

Perhaps to recoup his investment, Featherston devoted himself to the settlement of Wellington and was elected unopposed as the first superintendent of Wellington province in 1853. He held this position for 17 years. In 1862 Featherston was also appointed Wellington province’s land purchase commissioner and used his, “cunning and powers of persuasion” to acquire Maori land. He also managed to acquire considerable land for his own purposes including a sheep farm in the Wairarapa–something his political rivals would use against him for years.



Though described as a quiet man with a soft voice  who appreciated a joke, he also participated in the NZ Land Wars – leading men into battle while ill ‘in his dressing gown, with a cigar in his mouth, having no weapon whatever with which to defend himself’. As a Wellingtonian “The Little Doctor” gained legendary status – the Wairarapa town of Featherston and Featherston Street carry his name.



Adapted from:

Featherston, Issac Earl at Te Ara:

Image Credits

Creator unknown :Portrait of Dr Featherston. Ref: PA2-2492. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23055118

Thorndon, Wellington. Creator unknown : Photographs of Wellington, from the Dorset album. Ref: 1/2-021193-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22471801

Why is Dr Featherston so sheepish? [1857]. Ref: Eph-D-POLITICS-Wellington-1857-01. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22852868