William Walter Smith: Curator 1908 – 1920

Taranaki Herald   December 17, 1932   Christmas Supplement

A Student of Nature

Many a time before to-day a wanderer from the beaten track in North Taranaki has been surprised to meet, perhaps in the cool of a patch of bush, perhaps on a wind-swept beach, an old man, grey of hair and beard. This could be none other than Mr. W. W. Smith, of New Plymouth, a naturalist known the world over and a true Nature lover if ever there was one.

It is this love of animals, birds and trees, that leads him at the great age of 81, to continue the tripe that make him happiest and to add ceaselessly to his vast store or knowledge from the treasure-chest of that greatest of all teachers, Mother Nature.

There are those who say that the town in which he has lived for the past 24 years hardly realises his worth. That is not surprising, for W. W. Smith would be the last one to court publicity. But whenever some plant or insect rarity requires identification the cry is “Ask W. W. Smith,” and a reporter intrudes upon his work to secure the answer he is so sure of receiving.  Those privileged to know this remarkable man have for him a great respect. His is a nature that could never do harm to man or beast. Children love him just as much as he loves to initiate those interested into the ways of those forms of life on this earth that are not human. No child, it is certain, ever thirsted in vain for the knowledge he could impart.

Correspondence with Other Countries.

This man has done much for posterity in adding to our store of knowledge. An extensive and broad reader, a painstaking student of New Zealand botany and zoology, he has for many years been a regular contributor to New Zealand and English scientific journals. On good authority he has been described as the man who knows most about the extinct moas, while his writings have also dealt with such subjects as native ants, earthworms, birds, insects, and plants. Nor is this all.  For many years, and still today, he has had extensive correspondence with English, American, French and Italian naturalists inquiring for specimens or information.  To them he has been able to send many new species of plant or insect life. Even to-day this correspondence is voluminous, and the veteran naturalist, who had received 14 letters on the day on which our representative called, finds that the demands made in this way are almost beyond him.

Right front his boyhood in Hawick Roxburghshire (Scotland),  Mr. Smith found an absorbing interest in the plant and animal worlds. On leaving high school he become apprenticed to the Forestry Department, after which he worked in big private gardens in England for some three years. He then spent about eight months in France, where he learned the language and later, attracted largely by the novelty of its plant life, came to a decision to take his passage to New Zealand.

Years in the South Island.

His first position in New Zealand was on the estate of the late Hon. J. B. Acland, on the Rangitata River, in Canterbury. Five years with this great planter of trees were very happy ones, and the years that have passed have served to enhance rather than dim the esteem which, he has for his late employer.  “He lives in my thoughts as much as any other man,” he said. It was while on this estate that he devoted much time to the study of moa remains, many of which were to be found in the Albury district. Investigations were also made by him into the life history and habits of the kea.

His next move was to Windsor Park, Oamaru, after which he became curator of the botanical gardens at Ashburton, a position he held for 10 years. During this time anxiety at the wholesale destruction of native bush led him to advocate vigorously the preservation of the country’s scenic wealth.  Partly as a result of these writings he was approached by the late R. J. Seddon, at whose request he became secretary of the newly set up Scenery Preservation Committee, which travelled for three years in both islands. Its business was to select for preservation areas including all classes of scenery, also ancient Maori pas, and to procure about the latter all possible data respecting their history.  As the result of the commission’s recommendations to the Government many scenic and historic places in Taranaki were proclaimed as reserves.

Thus it comes about that the parts of New Zealand he knows best are the ones many people never see in a lifetime.  Well might he call himself the last of the old school of field naturalists.  He was associated with the late T. H. Potts, of Governors’ Bay, Canterbury, for 15 years. With him, Sir Walter Buller, Guthrie- Smith and Dr. Petrie, he has penetrated Into the remotest districts of both islands on ornithological and botanical excursions.

Now, in the evening of his life, what he misses most is the congenial companionship of those kindred spirits who have gone before him. Some of these expeditions, for instance, took him up to the upper reaches of many Canterbury rivers in the bird-nesting season, but no more than one egg was ever taken from a nest.  He believes that he is the last man to report seeing a huia alive. He came across it in the bush at the back of the Tararua Range in 1907.

In New Plymouth for 24 Years.

  It was in 1908 that Mr. Smith came to New Plymouth as curator of Pukekura Park, a position he held for 12 years. In his little cottage overlooking the park he lived what might to others have seemed very lonely existence, but that loneliness was banished by his interest in his pets and studies, while a warm welcome always awaited his friends.  As a small boy the writer used to visit him, and can well remember how the mantelpiece in the living-room was loaded with a great variety of rare insects, butterflies, and other specimens.

For 12 years Mr. Smith cared for the beauties of the park, and since then he has been living quietly in retirement in New Plymouth, pursuing the studies without which his life would seem empty. Still he undertakes his little expeditions into the country. Many a night has he spent in farmhouses, and he gratefully states that in the course of 25 years of wandering over North Taranaki he has never been hindered or prevented by a farmer from going where his will took him.  W. W. Smith is also one of the original members of the Polynesian Society, founded by the late Mr. S. Percy Smith, with whom were connected in its early life Messrs. J. Parker, W. Newman, R. H. Rockel, M. Fraser, W. H. Skinner, P. J. H. White, and Captain Wm. Waller. For 10 years he was secretary of this society, whose work is well known.

Fairly recently Mr. Smith worked out the history of the ants of Mt. Egmont, 17 known species, some being remarkable forms. Later he intends to publish a work on the history of native ants. He considers that Mt. Egmont is the most magnificent region in New Zealand for the study of Nature.



It was in New Plymouth that W. W. Smith made his exhaustive study of the kiwi, continuing a work that he had previously started. In July 1908, the late Mr. Newton King gave him a large female kiwi which had been captured by some Maoris. Mr. Smith set to and built a house, but when he introduced a mate the lady proved to have ideas of her own on the matter. So fiercely did she attack her unwilling suitor that she nearly killed him. A second male was subjected to the same drastic treatment before the termagant finally admitted him to her good graces. Experiments in the years following proved it to be the rule with Madame Kiwi that when a strange male was introduced to her he had to take his “degrees” in the order explained before being accepted by her. When reconciled and mated, however, no birds pass a more peaceful life than do kiwis.  

Painstaking Study

After the pair had been mated for three months the female laid two eggs, with an interval of 10 days.  Then the male took possession of the nest and commenced to incubate the eggs. As Darwin used to stand in the woods and let the baby squirrels gallop up and down his back, so in the evenings Mr. Smith would sit or be motionless in the gloom of the place where the kiwis were, observing their habits and enjoying their sniffing at him and prodding him with their beaks.

For four whole weeks the luckless male sat on the eggs before the chicks appeared, the mother taking no interest in the task at all. When his long wait was over he had been reduced to a bag of bones, and it was just as well for him that the female then took the babies in hand, for it took the father all his time to feed himself back to prosperity.

“Of all the beautiful things in Nature nothing appeals to me like a young kiwi,” Mr. Smith confesses. They are little fluffy birds, pure white, and with preposterously long pink beaks. Mr. Smith found that the two babies being reared in captivity could run about and feed as soon as they were hatched.

When they were half grown one fell a victim to an English murderer, the cordially hated weasel. This particular one expiated his crime a day or two later, and the other young kiwi in five months grew to maturity. Mr. Smith had thus achieved the feat of raising the first kiwi in captivity.

Kiwis Fierce Fighters.

For its size the kiwi is tremendously strong bird, and with a blow from its powerful leg could rip open the flesh of a big dog. On several occasions Mr. Smith placed a full-grown Game cock in the yard in the evening. The female kiwi lost no time in assailing him and, before the melee was stopped, had kicked half the feathers off his back and breast, wounding him severely. When they were fighting, the ferocity and rage of the kiwis seemed unsurpassible. They rushed furiously at one another, striking rapidly with the right foot, and the impact generally caused both to roll over. Of the 15 kiwis which Mr. Smith had in captivity at different times, all remained irreconcilable to their confinement and unrelenting in their efforts to escape. No birds ever worked more persistently or determinedly to gain their freedom.

And now, to-day, it would hardly be an exaggeration to say that W. W. Smith knows the whereabouts of every family of kiwis within a large area in North Taranaki. In his keeping their secret is perfectly safe. Wild horses would not drag from him the information as to their haunts unless he were absolutely certain of the inquirer.



Passing from the kiwi to its much more imposing relative, the moa, we find that W. W. Smith is one of the greatest authorities on that extinct giant among birds. In 1890 the late Sir Walter Buller sent him to explore the Albury district (Canterbury) for moa bones. At that time ploughmen on the estate every day turned up large quantities of the bones, and he was able to make a large and valuable collection. There were among these bones six or seven species, including bones from the elephant-footed moa, a species of massive structure.

  Probably the most interesting phase of moa history, and that which has caused much speculation, is the question of when it became extinct. This problem has interested Mr. Smith for half a century. Seven years ago he published a series of articles on this aspect of moa research, and he states that all unbiassed students of moa history who have studied moa remains and their condition in the haunts of the bird know that no other decision could be accepted than that, in both islands, the bird was alive, in limited numbers, down to a comparatively recent period.

The large collection of bones which Mr. Smith secured in Canterbury were of various ages and stages of decay. Most of them lay on the surface, while others were half embedded in the soil. Observing the fresh condition of the bones, he realised that Mr. H. Hill’s theory and that of Sir Julius von Haast were incompatible with reason and fact. Mr. Hill, writing on the extinction of the moa in the North Island, stated “the history of the moa is the history of a race of birds that disappeared long anterior to the coming of the Maoris to New Zealand,” while Sir Julius also contended that the ancestors of the Maoris knew not the moa.

Lived Early Last Century.

According to the highest authorities, the Maoris have occupied New Zealand for some thousands of years. There can be no doubt, according to Mr. Smith, of moas having lived in the early years of last century. The late Mr. Taylor White, of Wimbledon, Hawke’s Bay, discovered the skeleton of moa lying on the surface in the bush. It was not in the least buried and, to the finder, the bones had not been there more than 15 years or so.

“Years of patient research and observation in the last haunts of the moas in South Canterbury profoundly impressed me long ago with the contemporarity of the Maori and the moa in all the districts explored,” said Mr. Smith.  “The vast quantities of well-preserved bones and small heaps of gizzard stones lying on the tussock lands, and those being unearthed by the ploughs, likewise impressed me with the recent occupation of the district by both moa and Maori. I have little doubt that for many years before the Ngai-Tahu invasion of the South Island the peaceful Ngati-Mamoe, living in their primeval painted caves and rock shelters in the warm, secluded inland valleys, would draw on the moas for food, if they did not actually farm the birds. All evidence obtained by digging and examining the floor and inelegantly painted walls of their primitive homes, camps and cooking places prove unmistakably that the Ngati-Mamoe tribe occupied the whole area of Canterbury for an exceedingly long period. The occurrence of identical chips, flake-knives, rude and polished adzes on the upland moa-hunter encampments, as those found in the Albury and Opihi caves and rock shelters, determine the periodical visits by Ngati-Mamoe to the remote nesting haunts of the moa

Comparison with Ostrich Bone.

Mr. Smith states ‘that no evidence is offered by advocates of pre-Maori extinction to explain the presence and fresh condition of the skeletons and numerous detached bones of birds of all ages and species lying exposed on the surface on innumerable sites when English settlement began.

Ferdinand von Hochstetter, the geologist of the Novara exploring expedition who collected moa bones in both islands, stated in “New Zealand” that “most moa bones still contain 10 to 30 per cent of organic (gelatinous) substance, and are not even in the state called semi-fossil. Fresh ostrich bones usually containe one-third organic and two-thirds inorganic substance.” When writing some years ago on the age of moa bones, Mr. Smith said “assuming that the dead body of an ostrich or emu could be procured and placed in a similar situation where the skeletons were found and left to decay and disappear, it would prove precisely the time required for such.” A year or so ago the femur of a full-grown ostrich was brought, to the New Plymouth Museum. The bird had died 18 years previously on Mr. John Wheeler’s farm, near Inglewood, and was left lying on the bank of a stream. The bone was honeycombed and in an advanced state of decay and would, from its condition have become assimilated in the soil in 18 more years. Naturally all bones would decalcify and decay more rapidly in the drier climates of Canterbury and Hawke’s Bay than in the humid climate of Taranaki.

“Canterbury has yielded the largest number of species and the largest quantity of well-preserved bones of the moas,” concluded Mr. Smith. The great concentration of species of those extinct birds, and the fresh condition of their bones lying on the surface when settlement began, has long convinced me that the Albury and Opihi districts in South Canterbury were the last haunts of living moas, with four exceptions, 125 years ago.”



Sixteen years ago, during the war, a well-known English writer who visited New Plymouth, contributed the following in a newspaper article afterwards:-

“I discovered him working away in Pukekura Park, of which he is curator. The morning sun was shining down on all sorts and conditions of men in New Zealand, but I am confident that the Dominion does not contain a more observant or reverent student of nature than W. W. Smith. As modest as the great Sir Isaac Newton; as gentle and thorough as Gilbert White of Selborne; as truthful and painstakingly accurate as Richard Jeffries; as wide in the scope of his interests as Professor Owen, and valued by New Zealand so little that he, with all his erudition, with all his painstaking first-hand work, with all his accumulated stores of personally ascertained fact, is actually employed in doing work which an illiterate muscular labourer could probably do as well. Not only so, but his careful scientific research and experiments are allowed to lapse or be but struggingly maintained because, forsooth, the small means necessary to continue them are not forthcoming.

“Yet how New Zealand can shout over what she means to do in the future in the cause of science that she may be advanced to a place among nations! Here, in New Plymouth, is a truly wonderful man—one to whom many secrets of Nature are revealed; a man, moreover, with whom to spend an hour is to receive such an insight into the heart of Nature’s workings that one realises that, having eyes, there has hitherto been no sight; that having ears thre has yet been no hearing until this hour came.

“The World Was Not Worthy.”

“In a poor, mean little cottage in the park this reverent scientist and naturalist works. He has none to help him, for the day labourer and the lad who constitutes his ‘staff’ have enough to do and are fittingly employed working in the grounds. It is a folly over which the angels might well weep that sees wasted on this work one who should be honoured, esteemed. and placed in a position where he would at least be free to observe, reflect, and put before the humble-minded, who are worthy to sit at the feet of Wisdom, his impressions. ‘Of whom the world was not worthy’ is the epitome I, at least, select for this man’s life character and achievements.

“Bear with me, oh dear, short-sighted New Zealand, if I point out that in any other country under the sun Mr. W. W. Smith would long ago have been recognised as a man of mind, a man of power, a wonderful observer, a scholar, and a Gentleman, a leader in scientific discovery and of advanced thought. This man should be treasured as one of New Zealand’s greatest assets, and truly his fame has gone out to the end of the earth. In the world’s great capitals the name and labours of W. W. Smith are wen known. Letters come to him from eminent scientists and naturalists in all lands asking his opinions on hundred and one moot points. He replies, but his careful and scholarly answers must needs be written while others sleep, for our great man is paid the wage of a labourer, and works with spade and for his daily bread.

“Among the seven abominations that Solomon, the wise Eastern sage, saw under the sun was of “beggar. on horse-back and princes walking.” There are to-day many impoverished minds whose owners drive about in motor-cars and spend money freely, while a prince among men, such as W. W. Smith is hard put to it to buy materials to enable him to carry on his invaluable work for the benefit of mankind.

The Most Interesting Man.

“The true history of the progress of a nation has ever been the history of her great men, her individualists, and it is via such men as this that a nation arrives. When I return to the Homeland and am asked to name one of the men who has most interested me in this country during my stay of some 18 months, my answer will at once be ‘Mr. W. W. Smith, of New Plymouth,’ and if I were an autocrat for but an hour, possessed of autocratic power and wealth, I would immediately evercise my autocracy to levy the sum of £10,000 which I would place in the hands of Mr. W. W. Smith that he might use it as his wisdom and judgment should dictate for purposes of research and otherwise, but absolutely as he thought best.  It is no secret that Mr. W. W. Smith has in his possession manuscripts which he has written, diaries through long years of trained and scientific observation which would be given to the world were the funds for publication available. With £10,000 at his disposal and a free hand, Mr. Smith would be able to give his undivided attention to observation and experiment and to secure for the Dominion and the civilised world incalculable wealth of the highest kind. Nor would the money be other than a wise investment. There would be nothing of a speculative nature about it; the yield would be sure and certain. It is to our men of science that we are indebted for the millions secured by commerce which they have made possible, and industrial New Zealand would find that in Mr. Smith’s soundly-based theories there is unlimited gold.”

Doubtless Mr. Smith himself would contend that this is a gross exaggeration. Those who know him best, however, could not agree with him on that point.