Charles Heaphy VC

b. 1821 London. d. 03/08/1881 Brisbane, Australia.

Charles Heaphy (1821-1881) was born in London probably in 1821, the youngest of five children. His father, Thomas Heaphy, was a professional watercolourist and miniaturist of considerable social prominence. Charles’s mother, Mary Stevenson, is said to have died shortly after his birth, and Thomas remarried. Little is known of Charles’s upbringing and formal education. The family circumstances were prosperous; Thomas Heaphy enjoyed royal patronage and was deeply involved in the art politics of the time; and three of the other children became well-known artists. There is evidence to suggest, however, that Thomas Heaphy’s relations with the children of his first wife were strained.

Charles Heaphy VC

Charles left home shortly after his father’s death in 1835, and for 18 months was employed as a draughtsman by the London and Birmingham Railway Company. In 1837 he entered the Royal Academy, and attended classes sporadically over the next two years.

Charles Heaphy is said to have come under the patronage of a prominent publisher, who may have sponsored his admission to the Royal Academy and brought him to the notice of the New Zealand Company. Heaphy entered the service of the company on 6 May 1839 as a draughtsman, and on 9 May boarded the Tory at Plymouth, arriving at Ship Cove in Queen Charlotte Sound on 18 August.

Heaphy was subsequently to be based at Port Nicholson (Wellington), employed as an assistant surveyor. In April 1840 he accompanied a company expedition to the Chatham Islands, where he was wounded in the course of a skirmish between Ngati Tama and Ngati Mutunga. In the hope of finding a ‘great plain’, Heaphy began a series of journeys into the hinterland in November 1843. In February 1846, with William Fox, Thomas Brunner and Kehu, he ventured via Rotoiti and Rotoroa down the Buller River as far as the commencement of the gorge.

Heaphy had left the Motueka farm in January 1845, and until 1848 he lived in some poverty in Nelson, his only sources of income being a few commissions to execute portraits of acquaintances, some contract survey work and paid militia service. He was at this time unpopular with some of the settlers, who resented his over-enthusiastic propaganda for the company, and tended to blame his wildly optimistic initial estimates of the extent of arable land near the settlement for their plight. His life at Nelson was without prospects, and in 1847 he applied for a post with the colonial government at Auckland. In August 1848 he was appointed a draughtsman in the Survey Office there.  On 30 October 1851 he married Catherine Letitia Churton, daughter of a leading local clergyman, at Auckland. There were to be no children of the marriage, although in time two children, a boy and a girl belonging to the Churton family, were taken in by the Heaphys as wards.

Heaphy served as gold commissioner at Coromandel from November 1852 to June 1853, while retaining his position in the Survey Office. Later in 1853 he served as secretary to Governor George Grey on a voyage with Bishop G. A. Selwyn to the New Hebrides and Norfolk Island. From February 1854 until March 1857 he was based at Matakana as district surveyor to the Auckland provincial government. During 1859 he assisted Ferdinand Hochstetter in his surveys of the economic geology of Auckland province. In the same year he enrolled in the Auckland Rifle Volunteers, being commissioned lieutenant in August 1863.

Heaphy was an enthusiastic propagandist in favour of the war in Taranaki, and shortly before the outbreak of the Waikato war was involved with survey work for the military road being driven south from Auckland, and with the charting of river channels. In July 1863 he was in camp at Papatoetoe, in command of about 100 locally raised and unenthusiastic troops, and was subsequently on Lieutenant General Duncan Cameron’s staff as ‘Military Surveyor and Guide to the Forces’. On 11 February 1864 Heaphy, under intense fire, went to the aid of a wounded soldier, at Waiari, near Te Awamutu; after some agitation on his part, this led to his becoming the first member of an irregular unit to be awarded the Victoria Cross, at a parade held in Auckland on 11 May 1867.

In June 1867 Heaphy was returned unopposed as MHR for Parnell; he served without distinction until October 1869. During 1868 and 1869 he invested heavily, but without any financial return, in a goldmining company, which he managed near Thames. A great deal of his time late in life was spent in arduous fieldwork, and he became almost crippled with rheumatism. He was appointed a judge of the Native Land Court in 1878, but retired in 1880 under the Hall administration’s retrenchment policies. He remained a commissioner under the New Zealand Native Reserves Act 1856 and the Native Lands Frauds Prevention Act 1870, but his health collapsed in May 1881, and in June he and his wife sailed for Brisbane, where he died on 3 August. He was buried in the Toowong Cemetery, and in 1961 the New Zealand government marked his grave with a soldier’s plaque. His medals are held by the Auckland War Museum.






Auckland War Museum – Images of the Heaphy VC Medal Group.