Owen McShane, "illicit" distillery owner in historic south New Zealand

Owen McShane, "illicit" distillery owner in historic south New Zealand

27th March 2024

In the spirit of the distillery tour that Darkest Dunedin is taking of Distilleries in Dunedin, we’re sharing some research from old newspapers that Gregor has done and offer you the story of Owen McShane’s ‘Chained Lightning”

Owen McShane, "the cooper," (1815-1879?). "McShane's Chained Lightning"

The Hokonui Moonshine Museum credits a man called Owen McShane as having produced the first distilled spirit in the southern area of New Zealand.  He discovered that there was a staple food of the Maori of the area made by baking the cabbage tree or ti which produced a sticky, toffee-like substance.  His product was given the name "McShane's chained lightning."  It is sometimes referred to as being illicit - but it could only be illicit if it were breaking a law.  In the south at the time the laws were the customs and decisions of the people whose land he inhabited.

In 1852, Owen was included in a "List of Europeans and half-castes residing at Oue (New River) and Aparima," and described as: "37 years, native of Ireland, (can) read and write; Catholic; cooper and boat builder; 15 years in district; 1 acre wheat, 7 cattle, 40 pigs, 1 horse, 1 house and outhouse."

A reasonably prosperous farmer.  But, of course, Mr McShane had a past. Not the least of his exploits was being the first man to incarcerated by the authorities in a jail that he had built for them...



[By Robert McNab, M.H.R]

No. 8.  (excerpt)

There was an Owen McShane who ran a whisky still at New River Heads about this date, and between the distillings built boats at Jacobs's River. Our friend Owen was evidently one of the builders of the craft, and was the one who was put on board as security for the due performance — as the lawyers would say — of the covenants and conditions contained in Shortland's deed drawn up at Jacob's River. Finding the thirst coming on him, he wanted to sell the Maori craft so as to get the balance of the debt, and return to his beloved still. This account of what transpired at Wellington after the Bishop's return is inserted merely to satisfy readers that the sale of the vessel was due to a weakness of Owen, and not to the fact that the Bishop had proved an unprofitable passenger.   -Evening Star, 12/1/1904.


by "Aparima"  (excerpt)

One of the most notorious of Ouaia's characters, however, was one Owen McShane, noted for his manufacture of whisky. It was about Christmas time when Owen was kept most busily engaged at his still, for sometimes the supply of rum obtained from the whaling ships had run out, and McShane's "potheen" formed the only available spirits upon which the male and certain of the female population could celebrate. Accordingly the festive season always found Owen busily engaged upon concocting various brews from the cabbage trees which then grew in abundance upon the Sandy Point area; for it had not then been turned into the sand dune waste which to-day defies cultivation and largely contributes to the silting up of the New River estuary. The rabbit had not then been liberated to commence its devastating burrowing upon this wind-swept point, and McShane's cabbage trees grew in profusion. He had no difficulty in enlisting the services of a number of Maoris who collected the roots of the cabbage trees, and at the same time secured the extreme top of the tree. Putting these through some lengthy boiling process in a large tripot set up in his boat shed, McShane finished off the process in his home-made still. This genial son of Erin was by trade a ship's carpenter and boat-builder, but found the new occupation of whisky-maker less arduous and much more profitable than his legitimate calling. 

For some reason or other, perhaps because he early realised the future of the trade in Riverton, McShane eventually shifted his plant to Jacob's River, setting it up at the creek round by the Riverton bowling green in South Riverton. The old man must have looked well into the future, and had a revenue seeking Government not interfered, McShane's descendants should, undoubtedly, have possessed a lucrative business catering for the needs of the genial worthies who to-day fight out their important contests on the beautiful green which now marks the site of the old whisky still. For a time, his venture was most successful, for settlement was making giant strides; but the Customs Department stopped his operations, and he was forced to return to less interesting pursuits. 

(To be continued.)    -Western Star, 28/8/1923.

Previous to this high class establishment a broken down beachcomber — by occupation a cooper —had a manufactory of beer and spirits from the cabbage tree, and trusted to the shore leave of successful whalers for a market.

This cabbage tree beer seems to have been the favourite beverage of the early Rivertonians, and in this connexion Dr Monckton relates a very amusing story, as follows: — “It is well known that a considerable amount of sugar can be extracted from the ti or cabbage tree; the Maoris had a process for doing this. The cooper no doubt had some fermenting process, with the aid of heel taps of rum and brandy, and succeeded in producing an intoxicating liquor of sorts. One lovely day a whaling ship hove to in Howell’s Roads and the liberty men pulled across the bar, entered the river, passed the “trying-out” works to the left and landed where the track led up to the cooper’s brewery. It may be mentioned that in those days the major portion of a whaler’s company consisted of a low-down class of men. The choice thirst of these individuals had caused an immediate rush to the hut for a drink. The owner was out, and as their time was limited, and they saw a hogshead of beer before them, they helped themselves, drank what they wanted, removed to the boat what they could find vessels for, and then, after the manner of such scoundrels, capsized the balance and smashed up everything useful or breakable before they left. When the cooper returned and saw what had happened, his passion and language were awful, but decidedly suited to the circumstances. The winter months were approaching and he knew that if he wanted revenge he must wait, as few vessels cared to cruise about the Solanders in the wild seas and sou’-westers of that season. He waited well on into the spring, and then arranged with the old chief Paitu, to give him timely warning if his people saw that ship appear again. One day, just as he had racked off a cask of capital beer, a Maori arrived with the news that the long waited-for vessel was showing round the point from Foveaux Straits, evidently wishing to beat up for an anchorage. The battered and generally inexpressive face of the cooper brightened, and became almost radiant as he instructed a Maori woman to bring him two handfuls of Kowhai blossoms and leaves, which he put into a billy of water and proceeded to boil. Another message that the vessel was crossing the bar caused him to quickly strain his decoction, empty it into the beer, remove everything that could be stolen or destroyed, except a few handy pannikins, and make himself and his Maori friends scarce on urgent private business. The batch of liberty men, whether the same crew or not — but off the same ship, found their way to the cooper’s and helped themselves, but as they did not return to the ship to time, nor in response to frequent gunshot signals, their officers came to look for them, and then — well, it was a question whether they would ever recover from the terrible “spring cleaning” they had not bargained for.” Dr Monckton adds: “The circumstances above related are historically true, and the question naturally arises as to whether the alkaloid of the kowhai has ever been isolated and scientifically examined. It was very well known to the older Maoris as a very violent emetic.”  -Southland Times, 9/12/1925.

Two other doctors figured prominently in the early history of Riverton, Doctors John McCristal and James Martin, who are still remembered by some of the older inhabitants of the town. Dr Fulton gives the following illuminating account of certain incidents in the life of Dr McCristal which throw considerable light on the early history of Riverton: — “To Riverton in 1859 came John McCristal from India, where he had served as an army surgeon during the Mutiny. He was young, apparently under 30, good looking, tall, straight as a dart. At that time there were few white settlers about Riverton, which was a whaling station. There was no opening for a medical man; no one was ever ill, and there were only occasional accidents. There was however, a demand for fencing material, and Dr McCristal, who was strong and active, found plenty of work at splitting rails and posts in the bush on the slopes of the hills at the back of South Riverton. The first case which he attended, to the best of Mr John Hunt’s recollection, was a middle-aged man named Owen McShane, commonly called “Cooper,” as that was his trade. He had a Maori wife, but no family, and did any kind of odd work. He had been drinking at Paulin’s public house, one of those old-fashioned shanties such as were at one time seen in Dunedin. The fireplace of the living room was like a small room in itself: the fire flat on the hearth, and on two sides against the wall of the chimney were benches where people used to sit or lie. “Cooper” had gone to sleep on one of these benches; in his sleep he rolled off and one of his feet went into the fire. He was too drunk to be conscious of pain, and before he was rescued his foot was so horribly burned that when the boot was removed the flesh came away with it. Dr Martin was called in to attend him, but his treatment appears not to have been successful, and the man “got lockjawed,” as Mr Hunt expressed it. He and some other young fellows on hearing this crossed the estuary and went up the bush to Dr McCristal’s camp, and fetched him down to see the man. As soon as the doctor came into the room where “Cooper” lay and saw the foot, he said, “Old man, there’s only one thing to be done to save your life — to take off that leg.” “Cooper” replied: “Very well, Doctor, do anything you like.” The doctor had neither instruments nor chloroform — as I have stated he was not practising his profession, but engaged in bushwork. However, he went out to Paulin’s butcher’s shop at the back of the public house, got a butcher’s knife and a meat saw, and with these he amputated the leg. Mr Hunt asserts that this is true; he was there all the time. He gives the names of three men — young fellows then — who helped to lift Cooper from his bed to the table, and he himself held the leg while Dr McCristal took it off below the knee. “Cooper” bore the operation without flinching and made a good recovery. A ship’s carpenter who was knocking about Riverton made him a wooden stump, and be lived for fully 20 years. He went to the Lakes when the diggings broke out and worked there for a while as a gold-digger and a teamster, returning to work at Riverton again.  -Southland Times, 9/12/1925.



From Whalers to Ocean  Liners  (excerpt)

Captain Elles, the magistrate, made us thoroughly comfortable. Next day we bade farewell to Mr Pinkerton, our guide, who expressed his unstinted admiration for the way in which we had come through such a trial of endurance. We stayed a few days at the Bluff and then, on foot, made for the head of the harbour, crossing a low pass in the hills which encircle it and reached the estuary of the river locally known as "Jacob’s River.” It appears that Captain Elles was a fine type of man, respected and admired by all who knew him. He later held important positions under the Southland Provincial Government. It may well be imagined that in those unruly days the official positions he held were no sinecures, but he seems to have filled them with admirable tact and efficiency. Some good stories are told in this connection. When he first came to Bluff there was no lock-up where he could detain offenders, so shortly after his arrival he called for tenders for the erection of such an edifice. The successful tenderer was a man named Owen McShane, somewhat of a hard case, and renowned for the manufacture of illicit whisky. He carried out his contract very faithfully and erected a very serviceable little building. Its efficacy, however, was to be tested in a somewhat strange manner. In order to celebrate the event, McShane got together some of his friends, and a convivial evening was spent. Later on he had the misfortune to meet the local constable, a man named Walker, who accused him of being under the influence of liquor. This McShane stoutly denied, but the constable would not be convinced and tried to arrest him. A struggle ensued, in which McShane, who was a powerful man, came off decidedly best and proceeded to inflict severe punishment. Walker shouted for help, but no one appeared anxious to join the conflict. Finally the constable saw a man named Johnny Parker standing by and called upon him in the name of the Queen to assist the forces of law. Parker succeeded in calming down McShane, whom the constable eventually escorted in triumph to the lock-up. Thus McShane was the first to occupy the edifice he had himself built. Truly it might be said that he had made his own bed and had to lie in it. But some of his friends assisted him to the honour of being the first to escape from the lock-up. Armed with a log they battered in the door and enabled him to escape. Captain Elles was naturally considerably perturbed at this affront to the majesty of the law, and offered a reward of £5 for information which would lead to the conviction of the person or persons who had been responsible for breaking open the lock-up. Needless to say, there were no claimants, but some days later Captain Elles met Parker in the street. “You cunning old villain,” said the Captain, shaking his fist, “you know all about this business.” 

As has been indicated, this Owen McShane had a very extensive connection with one of the most profitable industries the Bluff has ever known — the manufacture of illicit whisky. He opened his distillery in 1852, at Bushy Point, near Invercargill, where there was a convenient stream of fresh water. The main ingredients of this “chained lightning” were the baked roots of cabbage tree, from which the Maoris had long known the art of preparing an intoxicating beverage, and the coarse sugar that was to be obtained in those days. The result was a very overproof whisky that had the most alarming effect on even hardened drinkers. The retailers and the manufacturers of the liquor worked in together, and used to net a very substantial profit. When trade became more regular between the Bluff and the Old Country, the Bluffites gradually became converted to a whisky that was less devastating in its effects, and the local industry died a natural death.  -Southland Times, 10/12/1925.




Some interesting references to the Oreti River and the early settlers on its banks are contained in a volume entitled “Historical Records of New Zealand South” (Carrick) which is to be found in the Reference Department of the Invercargill Public Library. Mr Carrick states that the name of the river was originally Koreto, which means “trickling down.” Later this was changed to Koreti, then to Oreti. He adds that the river at, Invercargill is “an expiring fiord or estuary which at certain states of the tide forms a succession of pools and trickling streams. According to Mr Carrick the first mention of potato culture was a paragraph which appeared in the Sydney Gazette in September, 1913, when a flaxmiller named Williams, who had landed at Bluff and penetrated some distance inland supplied the following information to the Sydney paper: “The natives attend to the cultivation of the potato with as much diligence and care as I have ever seen. A field of considerably more than 100 acres presented one well-cultivated bed, filled with rising crops of various ages, some of which were ready for digging, while others had been but newly planted. Dried fish and potatoes form their chief support.” There is a highly interesting reference to an early whisky still on the bank of the river and Mr Carrick makes the pertinent comment that “at that time (1839) the Oreti River had the reputation of a place of excessive drunkenness.” The narrative states: “In 1839 a shipping disaster occurred at or near the mouth which exercised prejudicial effects on the trade. A 500-ton barque, the Lynx, had loaded a first cargo of oil and bone at the two newly-erected stations. Being caught in light winds and strong currents she was driven on shore and became a total wreck. An old waterman named Doig related in connection with the mishap that it was purely the result of bad management consequent upon drunkenness. He had been present at the scene of the accident. An Irishman named Owen McShane together with another person had erected a large whisky still at Oue, near the junction of the Oreti, so named in respect of the variety of the flax it grew. They were in the habit of supplying the whale stations and settlements along the coast as far as Waikawa on one side and Preservation on the other. P—— and a Maori woman were noted for making long trips with the grog. In the case of the Lynx as it was the first cargo that left the New River an extra amount of grog was consumed. A week or so prior to the vessel’s departure all hands were in a state of intoxication. It being an inferior spirit some of them went absolutely mad. In that state the anchor was hove and before long the vessel ran into difficulties. All hands managed to struggle on shore, but otherwise the wreck was most disastrous.”  -Southland Times, 13/12/1930.

Mr McKerchar tells of many quaint old cards who lived in the little town by the sea — among them an Irishman named Owen McShane. He was the local cooper and was kept busy making camp ovens and casks for the cargoes of oil from the whaling fleet. It so happened that he fell in love with a beautiful Maori maiden who, however, refused to have anything to do with him. One day, so the story goes, when she was watching him putting the finishing touches to a big cask on the beach, Owen acted in a sheik-like manner and threw her into the hooped cask, and refused to release her until she would promise to become Mrs Owen McShane. She declined that great honour, and her loud cries brought some stalwart Maoris to the scene. They released the lovely lady, made the bold knight — Owen McShane — an unwilling captive in this cask and pushed the cask containing him into the estuary. Away Owen floated out to sea. He started yelling, and when he reached the bar was rescued just in time, a wetter but a wiser man.  -Southland Times, 28/8/1933.

There are no results in the available online records when searching for the grave of Owen McShane.

These days, Coopers Creek is a small community of houses built on council land but owned by those who use them either temporarily or permanently.  It can be found on the road to Sandy Point beside the New River estuary - where, in the late 19th century, my great grandmother arrived from Britain in a ship which grounded on a sand bar.  Passengers were rowed to shore in the ship's boats.  She was nine months pregnant at the time.