A portrait by Thomas Bunbury of
young George Dean Pitt.
Seven years before his marriage to Miss. Anne Cowling, Major Benjamin Bunbury of Marlstone House had an illegitimate son. Thomas Bunbury was born in Gibraltar on 19th May 1791 and went on to become one of the more remarkable officers in the British Army during the mid 19th century, making a particular impact on the colonization of New Zealand. The details of his subsequent life are chronicled in his 3 volume "Recollections of a Veteran".
The name of Thomas's mother is unknown. As a young boy, he was cared for at a Church of England school although his father's family do seem to have kept at least one eye out for him. His stepmother Anne Bunbury (nee Cowling) accepted him into her house on at least one occasion. He entered the army at the age of 16, starting as an Ensign in the 90th Foot, without purchase, on 7th May 1807. Later that year, he was transferred from to the 3rd Regiment of Foot (aka the Buffs). This was presumably due to the support of his uncle, Hamilton Bunbury, who was a Colonel in the Buffs. Not that the avuncular relationship was particularly good. Thomas records how, at a dinner party given by his father and step-mother, he threw a glass of wine in his Uncle's face, suggesting tender nerves about the circumstances of his birth.
Thomas served with the Buffs in the Peninsula War from 1808 until the end
of the war. He was with the regiment when it crossed the Douro to
fight the battle of Oporto on 12th May 1809. He carried the Colours
of the same regiment at the battle of Talavera (27 - 28 July 1809)
and was present at the battles of Barorosa, Tarifa, Nivelle and
Toulose, as well as the taking of Seville (1812), the defence
of the Bridge of Puento Largo (1812) and the siege of Bayonne.
He was mentioned in Despatches on five occasions and badly wounded twice
- once on the retreat from Bayer (for which he later received a pension
of £100pa from 24th December 1827) and again at the battle of the
Nive (for which he received gratuity of one years pay).
During this time, he recalled visiting his half-sister Anne Bunbury at her school and making an impression on her classmates. She later married Major Louis Verstrume and was matriarch of the Verstrume-Bunbury family.
By 1814 Thomas was serving as a Captain in the army. As he spoke fluent Portuguese, he was given special assignment to the Portuguese army. At this stage, Thomas was something of a party animal and certainly enjoyed dallying with the ladies. He stayed with them for five campaigns in return for which king Don Juan of Portugal made him a Companion & Knight of the Military Order of the Tower & Sword (18th August 1824) and the Portuguese government awarded him the Gold Medal. In October 1822 he transferred to the 80th Foot and became Captain.
The regiment was stationed in Malta from 1822 to 1827, during which period word must have reached him of his father's gruesome death in England although he does not mention this in his 'Recollections'. It seems he had no expectations of any inheritance from his father, and Marlstone House passed to his step-brother Henry Mill Bunbury.
Thomas's illegitimacy undoubtedly prejudiced the military hierarchy of his day, not least when it came to handing out the rewards of service. Nonetheless he was promoted to the rank of Major with the 80th Regt (Staffs) on 21st November 1834 in which capacity he escorted 17 lots of convicts to Sydney. In 1838, he became Commandant of the Norfolk Island penal colony. Confident in his ability to manage the hardened convicts, he expressed surprise that 'a villain who has been guilty of every enormity, should feel shame at having his back scratched with the cat-o-nine-tails when he felt none for his atrocious crimes.' He also claimed that 'if a man is too sick to work he is too sick to eat' , by which rationale the queue at the hospital was apparently halved. Although his punishments were harsh, he replaced hand hoeing with ploughs, rewarded good behaviour with improved jobs and gave older convicts lighter work. He earned the ire of the soldiers on the island by ordering the destruction of huts built on the small gardens they kept for their own use and for trafficking with the convicts. The soldiers mutinied, a warship was sent to restore peace and Major Thomas Bunbury was recalled in July 1839.
In 1840 he was transferred to New Zealand where he is today hailed as St. Helier's first farmer and Auckland's first military commander. He originally travelled there in the company of the New Zealand Governor's wife and is notably obscure in his Memoirs about their relationship which, to quote the inestimable Peter Bunbury, 'bobs up now and then' over the next four years. He spent four years in New Zealand, during which time he played a pivotal role in persuading the Maori chiefs to sign the Treaty of Waitangi, sailing around the islands for two months on HMS Herald collecting signatures as he went. [Please report to me if the link does not work]. In 1841 a detachment under his command built a stone barracks, still standing in Auckland. He also purchased 116-acres in St Heliers and built a house which still stands today. Karaka Bay at St. Heliers is where, on March 4 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi was signed by representatives of Queen Victoria (aka Thomas Bunbury) and the Tamaki Chiefs.A memorial stone in the town also recalls the man.
On 26th July 1844 he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel with the 80th Regiment. He sported that same uniform during his Indian campaigns with Hardinge and his distant cousin, Viscount Gough, during the 1840s. He writes about this in some depth in Volume 3 of his 'Recollections' (as well as a lengthy account of his being wrecked on the Andaman Islands on his way to India in 1844).
Thomas retired around 1853 when he married Clara Matilda Harriott, the daughter of William Henry Harriott and Mary Sibella Hunter. She was born in London 12 Apr 1823 and baptised at St Marylebone on 14 May 1823. She was 29 at the time of the marriage, whilst Thomas was 62. They had no children, probably because Thomas was too busy writing his memoirs, published in three volumes in 1861 as "Recollections of a Veteran". Frustratingly, the autobiography mentions almost no-one by name which may have been the custom in those days. A copy is available in the British Library in London while a paperback entitled "Major Thomas Bunbury - Envoy Extraordinary" was written by Alan Lambourn and published in New Zealand in 1995. Clara Matilda Bunbury died on 24th January 1903. Thomas passed away on Christmas Day 1861. He left no known issue.
· Punishment Short of Death: a history of the penal settlement at
Norfolk Island, Margaret Hazzard, Melbourne, Hyland, 1984. (ISBN 0-908090-64-1)
. Colours, Battle Honours & Medals of a Staffordshire Regiment - 80th Regiment of Foot, Robert Hope, Churnet Valley Books, 43 Bath Street, Leek, Staffs, 1999. (includes lists of Casualty & Medal Rolls and Annual Listings of Officers)
. Major Thomas Bunbury , envoy extraordinary. New Zealand's soldier-treatymaker, Alan Lambourn, Heritage Press, 1995.
With thanks to Peter Bunbury, Rodney Kerr, Alan Martin and others.