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Of the early settlers in Kaiapoi in the 1850s, James Wylde was perhaps the most energetic. Not an inspiring figure to look at, and impeded by a stutter, Wylde nevertheless fought more for Kaiapoi in the chambers of the Provincial Government than any other representative. He was an engineer by profession, with experience of railway work in Scotland and water schemes in Denmark. He was one of the first sawyers to work Ohoka bush. At the same time he invested in land and in 1856 he set himself up as Kaiapoi’s first land and stock agent. Sales were held in the stockyards of the hotels, and within a short time a regular market was established. Wylde and his friend Alfred George Rich had decided to come to the colonies. He was engaged to Clara, Alfred’s sister, and it was decided that he would first prepare a home before they married. He also had two children who were cared for by his mother.
Among his possessions he brought with him several dozen strong blue striped shirts, serge jumpers, moleskins, and also a complete armament, not only of sporting guns, but also of rifles, revolvers and bowie knives. That may seem absurd, but the Wairau massacre had just taken place. Wylde and Rich embarked on the John Taylor from Gravesend on 10 July 1853 and landed at Lyttelton on 18 October 1853. On arrival, and having made many enquires since landing, the friends chose to stay in Canterbury instead of proceeding to Nelson. They visited the Lakes Station area and decided to purchase a block of land nearby. They were about to start the walk to Christchurch to make the purchase when Wylde cut his leg severely with an adze, and was obliged to sew it up with a common needle and thread, but it became infected and laid him up. Rich carried on to Christchurch and after some weeks James had heard nothing of him. He became worried, so he started to walk down with the help of two sticks.
It transpired that Rich had been duped by the person taking him to Christchurch. This person had been instructed by the squatters on the land Wylde and Rich intended to buy, with the result the purchase did not go ahead. Rich was found at a hotel in Christchurch in a very low and despondent condition. He had fallen off a horse onto his head and had been in bed for three weeks.
Wylde reminisced later in life that had the two men been without ties, they may have purchased a few sheep and built up a stake in a station to learn the business, and ended up one of the great land owners who absorbed so much of New Zealand to the detriment of its progress, and the exclusion of the hard working settler. He described the landowners as selfish conservatives, and himself as a thorough liberal. As the friends were both engaged to be married and were anxious to make homes as quickly as possible, they were obliged to look out for some occupation to bring in an immediate return.
This was when the decision was made to come to the Kaiapoi area. Timber was required for building, fencing and firewood so they purchased a bush block at Ohoka. Getting their stored possessions from Lyttelton to Kaiapoi was via Heathcote and then to Kaiapoi on The Flirt. Unfortunately, the first boat to Heathcote hit a snag and sank. Their goods were saved but damaged and all their little keepsakes were destroyed. The men themselves walked, crossing the Sticks River by way of some sticks laid across it. (The name was later changed to Styx.) A ferry took them across the Waimakariri and they reached Cookson and Bowler’s store. This was managed by Mr Norman, or rather Mrs Norman, who in James’ words 'in their case the mare was decidedly better than the horse'. They became great friends, and it was found that Mrs. Norman had known his father.
The two men set to work to cut the timber, built a small punt and floated the wood down the Ohoka Creek to the Waimakariri. Having started to trade they employed several young men to work for them. The bush was soon worked out, and Wylde eventually obtained rights over the remainder and built his home ‘Egglesfield’ in what had been the centre of it.
Having prepared a home, his future wife, Clara Rich, came out bringing his two children, Lucy and Harry, and they married directly upon her arrival in Christchurch in October 1855. He was appointed Provincial Engineer for Canterbury and subsequently, having resigned that position, was elected member for Kaiapoi on the Canterbury Provincial Council. He had also set himself up as a stock agent, and attained much influence in the sphere of farm stock. From the money he made he was able to finance the building of a 'memnonium' in Charles Street, a huge assembly hall for the use of the settlers. This building contained offices, shops, meeting rooms and a hall, which was used for both his auction sales and as a primitive town hall. After a year or two, it was converted into a produce warehouse. It is noted here that in December 1858, Wylde held the first cattle sale at Rangiora Bush at the Red Lion Hotel stockyards. Had he foreseen the future, he might not have jeopardised the status of his beloved Kaiapoi by holding this sale, for the weekly sale day grew to be a Rangiora prerogative, and the town slowly became the market centre for North Canterbury.
As well as being Kaiapoi’s representative on the Provincial Council, Wylde was involved with other community and church groups and also acted as Chairman of the Kaiapoi Philharmonic Society and Secretary of the Northern A & P Association. In 1868, the flood ruined him like a great many other farmers in the District. Afterwards, he was appointed engineer to the 'Brunner Rail and Coal Co' on the Grey River. The company very soon failed and Wylde’s subsequent career was somewhat chequered. He died in Kumara in 1908 in his 84th year. His wife, Clara died a few years before him. His daughter Lucy died in 1875. His second marriage consisted of five daughters and seven sons, of whom one son died in infancy and another fell over a quarry and was killed at the age of eight.
Rich Street was named for Alfred Rich and there was a Wylde Street between Hilton and Fuller Streets at the time of the 1857 township declaration, but that street was not formed, most likely because the railway went through between those streets.
Hawkins, D N - Beyond the Waimakariri : a regional history. Christchurch : Whitcombe and Tombs, 1957.
Woods, Pauline - Kaiapoi : a search for identity. Rangiora : Waimakariri District Council, c. 1993.
Extracts from James Wylde’s diary, transcribed by Blanche Wylde.
Further brief details of James Wylde’s career by his son, Harry James Wylde, of Palmerston North.