Frederick Thompson, 1805-1881

Throughout 1859, the columns of the Lyttelton Times included many articles, letters and editorials on the subject of the proposed Mechanics Institute, which had first been proposed as early as 1852, but had finally got off the ground early in 1859. One letter writer suggested “respectfully … that the clerk or librarian should have some knowledge of books; upon him … the permanent success of the institution will be found to depend”1. In June, the name of the librarian, whose role was to be “honorary and unpaid”, was announced; he was Frederick Thompson, the mathematics and commerce teacher at Christ’s College, secretary of the Christchurch Book Club and a member of the Mechanics’ Institute’s first committee. 2

Early Life and Career in the Mediterranean

Thompson had enjoyed and interesting and varied life before his arrival in Christchurch in February, 1853 aboard the Minerva. He was born about 1805 in Maldon, Essex, but at some stage moved to Malta with his family, where his father may have been involved with either the British military or the British administration there. On Malta, Thompson met Mary Ann Bingham, the daughter of William Bingham, a stores clerk for the island’s Director of Works; they were married on 4 March 1832 in Valletta. Between 1833 and 1849, Mary Ann gave birth to 5 sons and 4 daughters, one son and one daughter dying in infancy.

Thompson appears to have been well-educated, for in 1834 he became headmaster of the I Padre di Famiglia school. In 1836, he and his family moved to Corfu, and then in 1839, they settled in Livorno (Leghorn), a major shipping port on the Tuscany coast, where they remained for the next 13 years. Thompson was appointed British vice-consul. A man of strong religious beliefs, he also became heavily involved in the work of the British and Foreign Bible Society, which secretly distributed bibles to seamen; it was illegal in Italy at that time to own or read the Bible. The family got caught up in the European revolutions of the late 1840s, and was frequently in danger when the Austrian army invaded Livorno in 1849. Although Thompson declined to leave Italy at that time, by 1852 he was looking for somewhere for his family to make a new start. When William Bayley Bray, an engineer he had befriended in Tuscany in 1845, wrote to suggest the new religious settlement of Canterbury in the South Island of New Zealand, to which he himself had emigrated in 1851, the decision was made. Leaving one son in Malta to complete his education, the rest of the family embarked for Christchurch from England in October 1852.

Moving to Christchurch

The Thompsons stayed with Bray in Avonhead when they first arrived in Christchurch, moving after a few days to a V-hut where they quickly learned to milk cows, chop firewood, and cook over open fires. They then rented a farm in the Waltham area, and built a sod house, which, according to their eldest daughter, Mary, was “a miserable place, very cold and damp”. In 1854, Thompson was offered a position as assistant master at Christ’s College, the school run by the Rev. Henry Jacobs whom they had met through Bray. At the same time, Mary Ann was asked to open a school for the daughters of local tradespeople.

Mary Ann's school, which remained very successful until her health failed in the late 1870s, was opened in the house which Thompson bought at this time, on Cashel Street near the Avon River. In 1857, he extended the property, building a library and a governors' boardroom for Christ's College, which he let to the school for £50 per year. At the same time, he and his family established a flourishing garden and orchard, producing bunches of fine grapes and other fruit for many years. In 1871, he sold half the property to a timber yard. The same year, Thompson arranged the marriage of his youngest daughter, Emily Rose, then aged 20, to his friend and former employer, 46 year old Rev. Henry Jacobs, first Dean of Christchurch, whose first wife had died 2 years earlier. Later in the 1870s, he and Mary Ann sold the Cashel Street property and moved to a house in Armagh Street West.

Librarian, Businessman and Politician

About the time he became the Mechanics' Institute librarian, Thompson resigned from the College to pursue other interests. As a farewell gift, he presented the school with gymnastics equipment. Over the next few years, he was involved in the insurance industry, representing the Northern Assurance Company and also in partnership with John Cameron. In 1876, he was chairman of a committee of insurance agents which promised £500 to the city for a new fire station. For a brief period (1862-4), he operated a quarry in the Port Hills with Arthur Dobson, from which stone was quarried for the Provincial Council Buildings and the Bank of New Zealand. He gifted to the Christ Church Cathedral the foundation stone which was laid on 16 December 1864. This stone which is now lost, bore a fish-shaped design and contained within it two texts in a glass cylinder and a full mint set of coins. In the 1870s, he ran a rent collection agency in partnership with Edward Parkerson, and was confidential adviser to the Trust and Loan Association. He was actively involved in the Fine Arts Society, founded in 1863, and was a trustee of the managing committee of the Christchurch Hospital, which opened in 1862. In 1872, he presented a judas tree, grown from seeds he brought from Florence, to the Botanic Gardens.

Thompson was interested in local government, and was an unsuccessful candidate at the first election of the Christchurch Municipal Committee. In 1861, he was elected to the Provincial Council as the member for Christchurch. He remained a member for only 5 sessions, however, losing the election in 1862 after becoming embroiled in a conflict of interest case over a coal reserve in the Malvern Hills. As a provincial councillor he voted against the reserve, but a day later, bought the land on commission for J.B. Sheath. The controversy caused a good deal of unpleasant publicity.

Crosbie Ward wrote of Thompson at the time of his election to the Provincial Council that he was a man on the verge of age, with silver hair, fair complexion and imposing physique. When he speaks it is with a deep sonorous voice and somewhat pompous manner as though he had a more than sufficient sense of the importance of his position and a less than sufficient amount of tact to hide his weak points ... when he becomes familiar with the forms of the House, he may see the propriety of coming down from his stilts and be more useful as he becomes less artificial 3.

He died on 12 April 1881, aged 76, and is buried with his wife, who died in 1885, in the Barbadoes Street cemetery.

Thompson remained librarian of the Mechanics Institute for only a short time but was nevertheless a worthy first appointment to the position.


  1. 1. Lyttelton Times, 28 May 1859, p. 4
  2. 2. Lyttelton Times, 11 June 1859, p. 4
  3. 3. Garrett, Henry Jacobs, p. 155


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