Charles and Elizabeth Roebuck of London, first instance of whiskey being distilled in Dunedin, Otago

Charles and Elizabeth Roebuck of London, first instance of whiskey being distilled in Dunedin, Otago

27th March 2024

A blog story about Charles and Elizabeth that describes very early Dunedin and also describes the first whiskey distilled in Otago!

Charles and Elizabeth Roebuck of London, Nelson and Otago.

Charles Roebuck arrived in Nelson in 1842, on the ship "Bombay," travelling Steerage class with Elizabeth, his wife, and Elizabeth, George and Mary Ann, their children.  He is described in nearly records as a harness-maker, carpenter and coach builder.  In March of 1843, the "Nelson Examiner and NZ Chronicler" records him as being committed for trial for shooting another man's pig.

By 1847 the family had moved to Port Chalmers and Charles was advertising his services as boatman, "at his usual Low Terms," plying between Port Chalmers and Dunedin, in the Otago Witness of 1851.

Charles died in 1868 and Elizabeth lived on in Port Chalmers.  It is from her death in 1895, aged 88, that we are able to get a more full picture of their early years in Otago:  


On Tuesday, the 17th September, at Port Chalmers, there passed away another of the pioneer settlers of the Nelson Province, who for some 52 years past was a resident in Otago, and probably the oldest inhabitant at Port Chalmers. Mr and Mrs Charles Roebuck and family left Gravesend on the 6th August 1842, in the ship Bombay, Captain Young, arriving at Nelson on the Christmas Eve. They soon had a house built and a comfortable home, cheerfully enduring all the hardships of'a pioneer life. The Maoris were, however, in a very unsettled and excited state, threatening the settlers much. Mr Roebuck was taken prisoner by them and detained some days. He was, however, treated kindly, but not knowing their language he feared the worst. At length he was released by the chief Ranghiata, and Mr Roebuck always afterwards spoke well of him. The New Zealand Company were now about to proceed with the survey of the Wairau district, and men were required. Mr Roebuck was desirous of joining the party, but after his detention by the Natives his wife became nervous, and begged him to leave Nelson. A friend, Captain Damon, owner of a small vessel, the schooner Henry, persuaded them to come south, and they sailed from Nelson in May 1843, arriving at Otago in the middle of June — narrowly escaping shipwreck at Otago Heads. However, they were safely landed and soon made another comfortable home — the Maoris being very peaceable and quiet. Mrs Roebuck settled down to the life with cheerfulness and content, and soon became the friend of all, nursing the sick and comforting those in trouble. She was a general favourite, no social gathering was complete without her. With her husband she removed to Koputai in January 1849, where they lived until May 1855, when they went over to Hawksbury Bush, Waikouaiti, residing there until September 1858, then removing to Broad Bay. Ill health then induced the couple to again settle at the Port, where Mr Roebuck died in December 1868. Since then Mrs Roebuck has lived with her daughter (Mrs J. R. Monson), and took much internet in passing events — reading the daily papers, and enjoying a retired life. She passed away quietly on the 17th inst. at the good old age of 87 years and four months, leaving one daughter, seven grandchildren, and eight greatgrandchildren.  -Otago Daily Times, 28/9/1895.

Charles is also recorded as having distilled the first whisky in Otago, in partnership with David Carey of Carey's Bay.  Peter Entwhistle in "Behold the Moon" describes it as: "a kind of whisky, from cabbage trees which, mixed with turpentine, had people 'continually rolling around on the beach in a state of intoxication bordering on madness.'" 

Sounds like a party to me.  The cabbage trees used were taken from what is now the site of the Grand Hotel, AKA the Dunedin Casino, in the heart of the Exchange area.

 Roebuck and Carey were there to welcome the "John Wickliffe," stores ship for the Scottish arrivals in 1848, with the 20-ton "Mercury," built by Roebuck, which was used to trans-ship the stores from Port Chalmers to the site of the town of Dunedin.  The "Mercury" According to Ian Church's "Port Chalmers and its people" was also known as the "Jumping Jackass" for its lively motions while under sail at sea.




In glancing through a paper written by Mr James Carey, of North Invercargill, on happenings in his young days an Otago, a ‘Star’ reporter came across an account dealing with the building of the first ships at the Port of Otago. Mr Carey was born at Waikouaiti on November 29, 1842, and later resided at the whaling station at the Kaik owned by Messrs Weller Bros., of Sydney. Mr Carey states that his late father and a Mr Roebuck built the first craft in Otago. They had to cut the timber in the bush up the bay, which was somewhere about the vicinity of Princes street. The timber had then to be rafted down to the Kaik. The two pioneers secured' the necessary nails by barter from the whalers. The ironwork required was worked up out of harpoons and old iron found about the whaling station. She was a ketch of about twenty tons. After the boat was ready to launch the builders could not agree on the name to be bestowed on her, and they were about to end the argument by chopping her up when R. Driver, one of the harbor pilots, happened along, and settled all arguments by naming the craft Mercury. She was successfully launched, and rigged out with blue dungaree sails. Her first trip was to Moeraki for a load of pigs. The Mercury proved to be “such a lively craft in a sea that Joe Beal, one of the crew, fell down the hold and broke two of his ribs.” After that the ketch was known by the name of  “Jumping Jackass.” She landed the passengers from the John Wickliffe, the first ship to reach Port Chalmers from England. Captain Bigbee, master of the Mercury, “disappeared with his ship from Port Chalmers one fine night, accompanied by a young lady, who sailed away without the consent of her parents,” The craft turned up at Akaroa, and she was engaged in carrying firewood from the French settlement to Sumner for many years. The next Craft built in Dunedin was...-Evening Star, 8/7/1922

The above image, painted by Captain D O Robertson and courtesy of the Hocken Library, shows "the barque Philip Laing sailing into Kopatai Bay with a light easterly breeze, which barely fills her sails and ruffles the water. The vessel is foreshortened to almost a stem view, necessitating a considerable amount of fine-line drawing in rigging, figures, &c. Towing behind her is the pilot boat, and to the left is a whaleboat in which are four Maoris, one being a wahine. The man in the bow of the boat is holding up a young poker, ("porker"?) in the way of opening up a trade with the new arrivals. In the middle distance, well in shore, is laying at anchor the ship John Wickliffe, which arrived some days before the Philip Laing. She is a finer-lined vessel, with fall poop and clipper bow of that period. Astern of the latter vessel is a small cutter of about 25 tons, built by Mr Roebuck (assisted by his nephew) at Otago Heads in 1847. The timber used in her construction was sawn by Mr D. Carey. She was christened the Mercury, but was better known by her nickname of "Jumping Jickass." She made periodical trips to Moeraki, and as far as the Molyneaux to the southward. As depicted in this sketch she is bound to Dunedin with a load of luggage and cargo from the John Wickliffe, as she assisted materially in the discharging of both vessels.  -Otago Witness, 19/5/1898.