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James Heberley
January 22nd 1809 - September 26th 1899

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Probably one of the best and least known identities of early Wellington, the Cook Strait and the Marlborough Sounds was James Heberley the first Harbour Pilot for Port Nicholson. Most people know James by and because of his nickname "Jack Worser" and because of the fact that he bequeathed this name to the place in which he lived - Worser Bay. In reality, beyond this well documented fact, his life and standing in the history of early New Zealand are less well known and perhaps more important.

James, it is with the utmost respect that we relate your story.

James was born on January 22nd 1809 at Weymouth, a coastal town in Dorsetshire on the south coast of England. In his diary, James states that his Father, Jacob (or John Jacob) Hebley a German from Witenberg "was taken prisoner by my Grandfather" - James Curtis - "in a Privateer in the year 1790 (and) brought into Weymouth". Jacob married the daughter of his captor, Elizabeth, on January 2nd 1809 and James was their first born son. As such, it seems that he was doted on by his Mother and, in his own words, she "set great store by me, and gave me so much of my own way, and I was a spoilt child".

James Father was a seaman who died in 1817 aboard the brig Nancy. At this time James was eight years old and had been at school for three years. His Fathers death, however, required that he curtail his studies as his Mother "had to go a washing to maintain me and my brothers and sisters". James was sent to live with his "Uncle Smith" who, as well as owning land at Cowes on the Isle of White, was manager of the Estates of Lord Henry Seymor of whom "I was a great favourite".

At the age of eleven years James ran away to sea and had a varied and sometimes rough time of it. In 1826 he arrived in Sydney and became involved in the whaling trade. It was this that brought James to the Bay of Islands in New Zealand in 1827. James was a lad of 18 but he was about to witness his first war and to have his first experience of brutal cannibalism. These experiences are vividly described in James memoirs in such a clinical and unemotional manner that one wonders if, at the time of writing, he had become inured to the extreme violence of his experiences.

In April 1830 James returned to New Zealand for the second time apparently intent on settling at Te Awaiti in the Tory Channel. It was at this time that James met and later married his first wife Maata Te Naihi otherwise known as Te Wai.

It was not long afterwards that he was invited by Colonel Edward Gibbon Wakefield to pilot the ship "Tory" across the Straits to Port Nicholson which had been recommended by those at Te Awaiti as an appropriate place for the New Zealand Company's settlement. Richard "Dicky" Barrett, an acquaintance of James, went as an interpreter. James was appointed Harbour Pilot by Colonel Wakefield and in this capacity it would be his responsibility, with the permission of the Captain, to board ships arriving at the mouth of the harbour and guide them through the Heads and into Port Nicholson.

His appointment did not come with a salary and James was forced to live on the fees (pilotage) he gained from ships captains for his services as pilot in guiding their vessels safely into and out of port.  Local Maori, relations says James of his wife, gave him the bay later called Worser's in which to live and helped him build a house there. However his piloting duties were conducted from nearby Tarakena Bay as the official Pilot Station was not built at Worser Bay until 1866, well after James had quit. For whatever reason  (James says his "piloting was not sufficient to pay me and a crew"), he left the Heads and came into town to start fishing. This certainly would have provided him with an income and in the season he headed across to the Marlborough Sounds to do some whaling. James was a renown and skilled fisherman and there is a description of his catching barracouta in Jerningham Wakefield's book.

The origin of James nickname of "Worser" seems to be in dispute and at least five possibilities are expressed in David McGill's very good book "The Pioneers of Port Nicholson". The traditional and most often told story is of his use of the term "Worser and Worser" when referring to the state of the weather. However, as Edward Jerningham Wakefield certainly knew him in the 1830's as "'Worser', the whaler" before he took up his piloting duties it seems that James own description of his names origin may probably be correct. The story, related in "The Pioneers of Port Nicholson"   speaks of James, when staying with a Maori family while his own house was being built, slept in  their food house. On being called for breakfast the next morning the daughter of his host did not know his name and called to him as the "...man of the food house". The delighted tribespeople changed this to "Tangata whata" or "Whata" for short and this was anglicised to "Worser".

James was not only a skilled pilot. He followed Dr Ernest Dieffenbach on a number of expeditions and was the only person to remain with him on his expedition to the top of Mt Egmont. On Christmas Eve 1839, after an unsuccessful first attempt, James reached the peak of Mount Egmont. 20 minutes ahead of Dr Dieffenbach. As such he was the first European to stand on the summit. In other expeditions of exploration he accompanied Dr Dieffenbach and "Deans" on an expedition to find a way over the Tararua Ranges into the Manawatu.

James later life is sketchy and although he was living in the Marlborough Sounds with his wife Te Wai, he seems to have dropped out of "public life". His beloved Te Wai died in June 1877 after almost 50 years together. After this he moved to Picton and it was here in 1879 that he married Charlotte Emily Joyce becoming well known in the community.

James Worser Heberley's health began to deteriorate in the last few months of his life and he became frail and quarrelsome and was considered to be of unsound mind. James drowned in Picton Harbour on Tuesday, September 26th, 1899. The coroners report indicates that he had climbed out of a window (broken by him the previous Friday) and had wandered off, eventually to be caught in the mud at the harbour. He was found about 250 yards from the wharf....floating in an upright position with his stick in his hand. The stick was a walking stick which had been carved by his son Jacob who was a well known carver. The end of this stick is buried with James.  In his pockets at the time of his death were, among other things, a pension cheque for 12-10-00, six sovereigns, a one pound note and two pennies, a purse key, a penknife, a matchbox, a receipt for 3-18-7 and a handkerchief.

It seems strange and strangely fitting that the sea that James spent most of his life around and which, in the main, gave him his living eventually took his life. It is said that the adventurous amongst us would not gladly die quietly in bed. James was an adventurer in every sense of the word.

If you are interested in contacting anyone regarding James Heberley and his ancestors please contact
Sue Crawford or John Hebley

Copyright: Denise & Peter 1999 - 2004