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The Cowans of Piha

Posted by SCe Comments Off on The Cowans of Piha

Charles and Peter Keith Cowan

The earliest settlers in the Piha valley were the Cowans and Nesses.

Peter Keith and Charles Cowan were the sons of Charles and Marion Cowan. Charles Cowan was the son of William Cowan, ironmonger of Edinburgh, and Ann Buchan. Charles is variously described as an iron monger or merchant. Marion was born a Mackay and her father, Peter, owned a mental asylum, Millholme House, at Musselburgh in Scotland.

The couple had three sons: Alexander Dallas Cowan (b 1847), Charles (b1852) and Peter Keith Cowan (b 1855). When Marion’s father died, Marion inherited the asylum and, with her husband as superintendent, she took it over. Marion’s husband, Charles, died on 20 April 1862.   Marion then married Dr William Stockwell, the resident physician at the asylum. In 1867 they emigrated to New Zealand, bringing with them Charles and Peter Keith, then aged 15 and 12 respectively. Alexander came separately and went to Masterton where he worked as a surveyor. Also with the Stockwells were Marion’s widowed mother, Isabella Mackay, and Eliza and James Creighton Ness, and their infant children. Eliza Ness had been Head Attendant at Millholme House and James had been an attendant.

It is not entirely clear why the party emigrated to New Zealand. Family traditions are that Stockwell had employment at the new Avondale Asylum, and he became the first Medical Officer of Health for Auckland, so he may have secured one of those positions before setting sail.

Stockwell was entitled to Crown Grants for the party and took these up in the Waitakeres, above the Kitekite Falls. At this stage, the land fronting the Tasman Sea had been designated as a Maori Reserve with the sale of the Pae-O-Te-Rangi block to the Crown in 1854. In 1876 Dr Stockwell leased the Piha and Wekatahi Reserves from its Maori (Te Kawerau a Maki) owners, with timber cutting rights, and in 1886 he purchased both blocks.

James Ness and Charles Cowan, aged 16, were the first of the Stockwell party to go out to Piha. The established a whare, then a small house, on the land above the Kitekite Falls. Stockwell called the house and the falls Glen Esk as they reminded him of Glen Esk in the Angus Glens in Scotland.

Once the reserve lands were leased, the Nesses (now including Eliza and children) and Charles and Peter Keith Cowan moved down onto the flat land in Piha valley (now the Piha Domain). There were still Te Kawerau a Maki families living in the Wekatahi Valley and they would have provided a source of food, as well as the abundant fish and shellfish that were available to the new settlers.

The man on the right of this group photographed on the Karekare Road is Charles Cowan, the photo taken about 1916 by AP Godber

Their intention was to harvest the kauri in the area and then float the logs out to sea where a boat could haul the log raft to the timber mills in the Manukau and at Onehunga. An attempt was made to do this but it was abandoned after the log raft broke up in the rough seas and the boat’s insurers said they would not insure such a high-risk venture.

The Cowans did a bit of farming and there were timber mills down the coast that could be supplied with meat. But the whole enterprise was a failure. By 1883, Charles Cowan was living in Ponsonby with his new wife, Mary Henrietta O’Neill ” providing the Cowan and O’Neill names to streets in that suburb ” and James Ness had gone to work at the Avondale Asylum. Charles and Peter Keith had both been in the Armed Constabulary and so gained land up north. Charles had a period at Mimiwhangata before returning to the Waitakeres where he remained involved in farming and timber milling for the rest of his life. At Piha he ran the hauler that took cut timber from the Piha Mill over the incline to Karekare before being taken up the Coast. Two of his sons worked with him and are on the WW1 Roll of Honour on Lion Rock.

Peter Keith immigrated to Rarotonga where he married a local woman and had four sons. He married a second time and settled on Mauke where he ran a store and had more children. He died on Mauke and is buried there. One of his sons from his first wife, Konini, came as a young man to work at the Piha Mill and is also on the Roll of Honour.

Cowan tomb Waikumete

Dr Stockwell died in 1889. Marion went to live with her son, Charles, in Mimiwhangata, and died in 1891 at Whangarei. Stockwell, Marion, Marion’s mother, and Charles are buried in Waikumete with a very impressive headstone: the grave has recently been restored by descendants including those from Rarotonga.

There are many Cowan descendants from Charles, Peter Keith and Alexander (who married a Maori woman) in New Zealand and the Cook Islands. An interesting other piece of information is that descendants of a brother of the original Charles Cowan, are also in New Zealand. Charles’ brother, George Buchan Cowan, trained as a surgeon. His third daughter to his first wife was named Georgianna (b1856), cousin to Alexander, Charles, and Peter Keith Cowan. Georginanna married a Charlie Wordsworth, who, with his mother, had survived a shipwreck and stranding on the remote Crozet Islands in the Southern Ocean. After being eventually rescued, the Wordsworths made their way back to Scotland where Charlie married Georgianna and the couple emigrated to New Zealand in 1876. While Charlie died young, by drowning, his widow and children stayed on in New Zealand. One of the descendants of this family is Dame Jenny Gibbs.


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