The Fritz Reuter

Built in 1865 in Liverpool shipyard,
Departed Hamburg 12 April 1876,
Arrived Wellington 4 August 1876.

Researchers tracking early family names tend to fall between two extremes: those hunting for a John Smith, with tens of thousands of possibilities, and those searching for someone whose non-English name was often incorrectly transcribed.

I am usually in the latter camp, trying to find Poles who arrived in New Zealand in the 1870s. I was thrilled to discover Petone Settlers Data (through the Hutt City website). It provides lists of ships that landed in Wellington in the Vogel era. Some of the spellings were inventive—Rrebs?—but I am usually able to link a family to a name.

Until the ship, the fritz reuter.

Petone had no data on it, apparently because it was not an immigrant ship. It sailed into Wellington harbour (the settlement was then still known as Port Nicholson) on 4 August 1876. Wellington in winter is not a friendly place, weather-wise, but the people on that ship could not have known the human chill that accompanied the Cook Straight winds.

This story follows the reasoning why the fritz reuter is still apparently not considered an immigrant vessel.

—Barbara Scrivens

The ship Fritz 


by Barbara Scrivens

As the fritz reuter negotiated the seas between Hamburg and Wellington in 1876, its Polish passengers had no idea they were as unwanted in New Zealand as they had been in Prussian-partitioned Poland.

More than 260 Poles were among the 515 “souls” aboard, the largest number of Poles who had arrived in the colony at any one time. Scandinavians, Germans and Italians made up the balance of the passengers.

Immigration officials would typically have counted the fritz reuter individuals as 422 “statute adults” but immigration officials did not count them. These “foreigners” had arrived apparently against the express order of the colonial government, a government that a few months had earlier bluntly stopped “foreign” immigration.

On the surface, the matter seemed simple:

The day after the fritz reuter arrived on a wintry Friday in 1876 Wellington, the local evening post wrote:

She brings no Government immigrants but nearly 500 souls on board… who were ready to come out when orders were given to discontinue the shipment of foreign immigrants.1

The short piece on page two’s shipping column used the word “foreign” instead of “continental European” but meant “not British” or “non-English-speaking.”

It missed the fact that all settlers in New Zealand were foreign immigrants. The first large groups of British settlers arrived only 30 years earlier and would definitely have seemed foreign to the local Māori. Having deferred the Māori “problem” through war and land confiscation, the British colonists settled down to create pockets of “Little England” or “Little Scotland” throughout both islands. They did not appreciate the arrival of people who looked British but did not speak English.

The evening post may have missed another reason for the New Zealand government’s discontinuation of these particular immigrants: being “foreign” was not as much the problem as was their getting free passage.

In the 1870s, Prussian-occupied Poland was being absorbed into the greater German Empire whose government had legislated that its emigrants were not to sign promissory notes to other governments.

The fritz reuter arrival coincided with public questioning of Sir Julius Vogel’s ambitious scheme to borrow millions to fund colonial infrastructure through immigration.

Six years earlier Vogel had decided he could stimulate the colony’s stagnant economy and shattered reputation after the Māori Wars. He was an enthusiastic Colonial Treasurer in a new government after the 1869 elections and planned many construction projects, running in tandem, along the length and breadth of the country. His aspirations for the colony seemed to supersede a need to discuss the possible consequences of tackling such large projects so far away from labour and plant.

Vogel’s 1870 Immigration and Public Works Act, with its offer of assisted immigration, did  entice thousands. Many of the new arrivals did  build roads, bridges and railway and telecommunication lines, but in 1874—only two years after the first immigrants arrived under the scheme—the sheer expanse and scope of the work became the cause of its unravelling.

There was another related issue:

On the same page of the 5 August 1876 evening post, another story recorded a debate attacking the government’s financial and administrative failures: “accounts which would not balance; pledges made only to be broken… extravagant and excessive expenditure of the Premier…,” 2 (who, between 15 February and 31 August 1876, happened to be Vogel.)


Weeks before the fritz reuter left Hamburg, the wairarapa standard recalled how Vogel, who arrived in Dunedin during the 1860s Otago gold rush, engineered his scheme:

Being proud and addicted to games of hazard, [Vogel] exhibited the same tendencies in his financial schemes. What was a million of money… which was to extend over five years, why not go in for ten millions? The Assembly… rather startled at this gigantic proposal… assented to a loan of five millions…3

Vogel went to the United States first, then on to London to negotiate the loans and a “complicated contract” with John Brogden and Sons for building railways:

… and a few hours after it is signed he hastens back to the colony to assist in squabbling over and undoing the very contract he had, apparently, so very seriously entered into on behalf of the New Zealand Government.4

By the time Vogel returned, having raised the first ₤1-million loan, Dr Isaac Featherston had left for London as the new Agent General. The wairarapa standard called Featherston the person “likely to prove one of [Vogel’s] most formidable political opponents.”

In 1872 Featherston raised the second ₤1-million loan “at a high rate” but with little quibble from his government. Exports such as wool and flax had risen in value but so had the cost of labour. Simply, there were not enough people to complete Vogel’s public works schemes:

… with a reckless disregard for the future, the Colonial Government telegraphed home to the Agent General to send out 20,000 per annum…5

Such was the drive for immigrants that the government offered colonists up to 10s “a head” for any friends they induced to come out. Featherston increased premiums to 250 agents in the UK and tempted “small capitalists” with free grants of land. During the summer of 1873–1874, travellers along the two islands saw evidence of the public works. British and Irish ship owners could not supply vessels quickly enough.6

The Agent General looked to continental Europe for “any person who had the necessary trade to receive assisted passage.” 7 (For details of New Zealand’s immigration requirements, see polish anchors 1872–1876.)

In February 1872, Featherston employed immigration agents Messrs Louis Knorr and Co. to bring in 2,000 statute adults8 through Hamburg.

The New Zealand government promised Knorr a commission of ₤1 for every statute adult, passage of ₤14 for every unmarried female statute adult and passage of ₤10 for the rest. Knorr had to provide either ₤5 from each emigrant or a promissory note, and used Messrs Robert Sloman and Co. as shipping agents.9

However, by July 1872, after having “procured and conveyed” 500 people, Knorr refused to continue the contract on the grounds of the German government’s objection to the extraction of these promissory notes.

Featherston looked for another agent, found William Kirchner, and waived the need for promissory notes in December 1873.10

The German decree forbidding promissory notes, and Featherston’s waiving of them and others, led to a fraction of the promissory notes repaid, and arguments as to why some immigrants had to personally fund their passages and others not.

Two months before Knorr reneged on the German immigration agreement, the friedeburg left Hamburg with about 100 Poles among its passengers. It arrived in Lyttelton in August 1872. Many of those Poles became market gardeners feeding a rapidly growing Christchurch. (See marshland: the place where flax grows profusely.)

The palmerston followed in July 1872, arriving in Port Chalmers that December, also carrying around 100 Poles. Most of the Polish men worked on building the railway through the Taieri plain south of Dunedin. By the time the construction work ended, many had bought their first properties. They built lives in Dunedin, and established communities around Allanton and Waihola.

At least five more ships from Hamburg carried Poles as part of Vogel’s immigration scheme, the reichstag, the humboldt, the lammershagen, the shakespeare and the terpsichore, but only the last three had more than a handful of Polish families.


According to immigration returns dated 30 June 1876, more than 90 percent of the 78,475 immigrants who arrived in New Zealand from the beginning of the Vogel scheme came from England, Scotland and Ireland.11

By then the cost and perceived mismanagement of public works had taken up hundreds of newspaper column inches.

At first immigrants did not arrive fast enough to complete the public works that had been authorised for completion within a specified time. As labour costs spiralled, the few experienced labourers took their pick of the work. When too many immigrants arrived the “foreigners” were blamed for not being employable either because they could not speak English or because they had large families.12

Unemployed English speakers held rowdy meetings in “large towns” while farmers struggled to find suitable, affordable labour. The evening herald, in March 1876, discussed the claim that the UK was orchestrating the removal of their “unmitigated loafers” to New Zealand and keeping its experienced farmers:

We do not obtain the best class of tradespeople by assisted immigration, for this class is doing too well in the mother country to leave…

… England does not wish to part with the agricultural labourer. She is happy to bid goodbye to as many ship-fulls [sic] of “Bill Nyes” as may leave her docks, and we seem to have been altogether over-accommodating…13

There is no doubt that by 1876 the government realised it could no longer afford “free” or “assisted” immigration. The June 1876 returns showed that in the previous year, the government paid out ₤90,832 in passages for 28 ships, yet recovered only ₤2,004.14

Earlier in 1876, Featherston cancelled a contract for another 4,000 immigrants from continental Europe that he had signed in May 1874 with Kirchner and Sloman.

In 1874, in the middle of the immigration frenzy in New Zealand, Featherston had also decided to take over two Queensland contracts for 2,000 and 1,615 people.

Kirchner then worked for the Queensland government. He agreed to resign and work for Featherston if he could use Sloman as his shipping agent. Featherston knew of Sloman, who had been involved with both the defunct Knorr contract and the stalled Queensland contract, but agreed. He did, however, insist that Kirchner complete the Queensland contract first. It was a month late, and became Featherston’s excuse to wriggle out of the 4,000-immigrant deal.

Kirchner and Sloman did not initially accept Featherston’s contrived reasoning and dispatched the first—and what would be the last—load of passengers they had already collected under the continental European contract.

The newspapers writing in 1876 about the fritz reuter passengers not being government immigrants followed Featherston’s “frequently and forcibly expressed” assertions of that theory.15

Particularly galling to Featherston was that 416 aboard the fritz reuter received “free” passage. A month before he died on 19 June 1876, Featherston told the Ministry for Immigration of his “determination to resist those claims:”

I would desire particularly to guard the Government against receiving them as if they were immigrants selected by the Agents of the Government, or sent out under its authority…16

The evening post described the fritz reuter arrival as causing “a complication which at one time threatened to be rather awkward” and reported that because the ship had been sent against instructions, the government “declined to receive or recognise them, declaring their shipment wholly unauthorised.” 17

The new zealand herald followed the same line but with a qualification:

The Continental agents have unquestionably violated their instructions in the matter, for had they complied with them, the immigrants would not have left their native shores.18

… we cannot see that the immigrants should be subjected to a hardship through the culpable disobedience of those who engaged them for New Zealand.19


As the fritz reuter remained in Wellington harbour on 5 August 1876, Under Secretary for Immigration CH Haughton wrote to the Consul for the German Empire Frederik Krull:

… as these persons are not Government immigrants, no steps will be taken by this department for their reception.20

Consul Krull had been part of the flurry of correspondence before and after the fritz reuter left Hamburg. He negotiated with New Zealand immigration authorities. Haughton relented two days later and allowed:

… those of the fritz reuter who are not in a position to provide for themselves to temporarily occupy the [immigration] depot upon their disembarkation… rations to be issued for a few days at the expense of the Government… they have no claim on this department as Government immigrants…21

The fritz reuter passengers disembarked on 9 August, still under the cloud of their lack of immigration status. Because of this, immigration officials were under no obligation to inspect the vessel, report on its condition, receive a surgeon-superintendent’s report, or ask for a copy of the captain’s log, which would have noted births and deaths. An unconfirmed 11 deaths included four children and six babies, making it difficult to marry the names of those who embarked in Hamburg with those who disembarked in Wellington.

On 24 August 1876, Minister for Immigration Harry Atkinson divulged the document that Krull used in his negotiation. In a letter to the interim Agent General, Sir Tyrone Power, Atkinson wrote:

I desire to point out that the Government has been placed at a great disadvantage throughout the proceedings in connection with this vessel, owing to the want of information from the London office with regard to the question at issue between the late Agent-General [Featherston] and Messrs. Sloman and Kirchner. It was only through the courtesy of the Consul of the German Empire that the Government obtained a copy of the agreement of 11th May, 1874, signed by Mr Sloman, and approved by Dr Featherston, for the conveyance of 4,000 statute adults from Hamburg to New Zealand, a document of considerable importance, which certainly should have been sent to the Government.22

Vogel, after leaving the premiership at the end of that August, became Featherston’s permanent replacement.

Less publicly than Featherston, Kirchner and Sloman became equally persistent that they had followed their contracts in good faith. As the new Agent General, Vogel employed John Mackrell & Co. to sift through the documentary evidence.


On the same day the fritz reuter passengers disembarked, and well before Vogel’s enquiry, the southland times followed the reasoning for their treatment and queried the value of being so inhospitable to any immigrant ship or foreign country:

… it seems very much as if both the late Dr Featherston and our present Government had been indulging in a little sharp practice.

… [The government] could insist on having just their pound of flesh and no more, the exact fulfilment of the contract…

… Foreign contracts for the supply of human beings are not supposed to be carried out in that precise way.

… for the last four or five years it has been our recognised settled policy to encourage immigration for many years to come, and the non-fulfilment of an emigration contract by a particular day is not considered as a matter of equity and public policy any more an absolute ground for invalidation than the non-completion of a difficult railway contract or difficult ocean passage…23

The piece points out that even if the colonial government did win the case in court, it stood to “lose credibility” and gain a reputation for “being guilty of dirty conduct in our public affairs.”

The public opinion of Great Britain, and even of Germany, is or ought to be of some moment to us, and though we may be quite right in deciding that in future all our assisted emigrants shall be subjects of Great Britain, there is no reason for condemning a contrary policy in the past, far less for attempting to evade even a seeming engagement entered in accordance with it.24

The writer invites those fritz reuter passengers unable to find employment in “the North” to go to the Invercargill immigration barracks, where they would not remain long without offers of work.

He or she reminded readers that England enjoyed highly profitable wool and silk manufacturing industries, thanks to accepting “imported foreign labour” from Belgium and France. Belgians fled to England during the massacres by its governor, the Duke of Alva, in the 1500s. A century later French Huguenots escaped to England with their silk-weaving secrets after King Louis XIV instituted a policy called Dragonnades to intimidate the Huguenots into converting to Catholicism.


It is not clear why Featherston took over the two Queensland contracts for 3,615 immigrants while at the same time signing for another 4,000 with the same agent. The urgent appeals for labour in late 1873 and early 1874 suggest he may have wanted to secure his supply line.

Mackrell noted that before the agreement was formally signed on 14 March 1874, Featherston repeatedly “contemplated” that the Queensland immigrants would be “despatched” within two years,25 yet in the draft proposal, Featherston squeezed the time limit to 18 months. This put pressure on Kirchner’s and Sloman’s then-current immigration contract for New Zealand.

Kirchner and Sloman returned the draft, accepting it as “quite correct” apart from a “slight modification” regarding Queensland. They explained to Featherston that as their existing contract had absorbed all their available ships, the new time constraint would compel them to charter other, less appropriate ones like the German “fever ship” alardus.26

Featherston refused to change anything and “insisted” the Queensland contract be completed within the 18 months. Kirchner and Sloman accepted, but Sloman later said that Featherston forced him to “execute a losing contract” on the strength of which he had bought two “large and expensive vessels.”27

Featherston terminated the contract for the 4,000 on the grounds that the Queensland contract was not completed by 14 November 1875, irrespective—as Mackrell wrote in his report—“of those immigrants who had been selected but did not depart until December 1875.”

In January and February 1876, the Agent-General received definitive instructions from his government: “Send no more foreign ships.”28 By then he had disengaged from Kirchner.

Kirchner, aware that the New Zealand government had indicated it wanted to stop “foreign” immigration, wrote to Featherston in January 1876 saying he had enough applicants to fill six vessels. With no reply by 20 February, Kirchner informed Featherston he had two ships ready to send in April and two in May. In the same letter, Kirchner noted that he had had to prevent his agents from “rushing to Bismarck to implore his intercession through the Foreign Office…”29

This finally extracted a response from Featherston (Queen Victoria had close ties to Prussia and Germany), and the first of his many letters repudiating liability for the fritz reuter passengers.


The fritz reuter Poles came from Prussian-partitioned northwest Poland. Ripe to hear about a better life than theirs under Bismarck, they were encouraged to leave by immigration agents promoting New Zealand. (For a fuller story on the colonial government’s enticements, see jackson’s bay 1874–1879.)

Kirchner had a logical reason for asking Featherston for six months’ notice on the cancellation of the 4,000 contract: collecting immigrants and arranging ships would have taken time and it made sense that Kirchner and Sloman started to work on the 4,000 contract before completing the Queensland one.

By law, potential emigrants from the German Empire had to get permission from its government to leave, and Polish employees in northwest Poland had to give three months’ notice to German employers. The potential emigrants had to sell property, collect the clothing and utensils required under New Zealand regulations, and get themselves, often by foot, to Hamburg by a certain date.

The fritz reuter Poles included those like the Fabish family, who had been conned out of their properties by a German neighbour, Wurtz. He told them that if they deposited their land deeds with him, they could continue to work the land instead of joining the Prussian army and fighting against their compatriots in the 1870–1871 Prussian-Franco War. After that war, Wurtz refused to return the Poles’ land deeds and drove them into progressively increasing poverty.

Families such as Kowalewski, Krakowski, Lipinski, Roda, Rogacki and Wiśniewski had families already in New Zealand.

The southland times described Featherston as an “[e]xcellent politician and soldier” but without a head for business. He had been “on more than one account called to account for bad management with regard to his emigration arrangements” and “endeavoured to compensate for laxity in one or two instances by over strictness in others.”30

Featherston’s pedantic and revengeful nature came to the fore as he indignantly and authoritatively repeated his stance that the fritz reuter immigrants did not have official approval. He convinced enough government officials and newspapers to repeat his story.

Mackrell, however, found no documentation the might have supported Featherston’s view in a law court, and recommended that Kirchner’s and Sloman’s claim be paid “and a lump sum in addition.”31

Vogel sent the message to New Zealand on 30 April 1877.


Wellington’s Acting Immigration Officer included the fritz reuter passengers in his “Return of Immigrants” for the year ended June 1877.32 The ship appeared again in a general return of immigrants for the same year.

For people not officially considered immigrants under the Vogel scheme or any other governmental scheme, the fritz reuter passengers took up many hours of official time.33

It is not clear exactly how much the government paid Kirchner or Sloman, but the passage alone cost the colony ₤5,792 10s.

The fritz reuter Poles repaid those passages in a multitude of other ways. They might not have created a New Zealand wool or silk industry, but they knew how to farm, and how to build. They came from the same area in Poland that had produced mathematician and astronomer Nicholaus Copernicus and from the country that on 3 May 1791 produced Europe’s first democratic constitution.

© Barbara Scrivens, February 2018
Updated February 2021.



  • 1 -  Evening Post, 5 August 1876, page 2, column 1, ARRIVAL OF THE FRITZ REUTER, Papers Past, through the National Library of New Zealand,
  • 2 -  Evening Post, 5 August 1876, page 2, column 3, SATURDAY, AUGUST 5, 1876, Papers Past, through the National Library of New Zealand,
  • 3 -  Wairarapa Standard, 23 March 1876, page 2, NEW ZEALAND LOANS, Papers Past, through the National Library of New Zealand,
  • 4 -  Ibid.
  • 5 -  Ibid.
  • 6 -  Ibid.
  • 7 -  Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives (AJHR), 1871, D-3, PAPERS RELATING TO IMMIGRATION. 1–GENERAL REPORTS AND CORRESPONDENCE, page 37.
  • 8 -  For the purposes of immigration numbers in the 1870s, a statute adult was regarded as anyone older than 12. Children between one and 12 were counted as half a statute adult and babies younger than a year as “souls” who received free passage.
  • 9 -  AJHR, 1877, D2, page 57.
  • 10 - Ibid, page 58.
  • 11 - AJHR, 1877, D-5, NEW ZEALAND IMMIGRATION RETURNS, page 3.
  • 12 - Any search of the AJHR or Papers Past with the word “foreign” comes up with hundreds of examples.
  • 13 - Wanganui Herald, 13 March 1876, page 2, The Evening Herald, Monday, March 13, Papers Past, through the National Library of New Zealand.
  • 14 - Ibid AJHR, 1877, D-5, pages 3 & 4.
  • 16 - Ibid, AJHR, 1877, D-2, pages 1 & 2.
  • 17 - Ibid, Evening Post, 5 August 1876, page 2, column 3.
  • 18 - New Zealand Herald, 8 August 1876, page 2, column 4, UNTITLED, Papers Past, through the National Library of New Zealand.
  • 19 - Ibid.
  • 21 - Ibid, page 6.
  • 22 - Ibid. AJHR 1877, D-1, page 4, no.7.
  • 23 - Southland Times, 9 August 1876, page 2, WEDNESDAY 9TH AUGUST, 1876, Papers Past, through the National Library of New Zealand.
  • 24 - Ibid.
  • 25 - Ibid, AJHR, 1877, D-2, page 58.
  • 26 - Ibid, page 59.
  • 27 - Ibid, pages 59 & 10.
  • 28 - Ibid, page 10.
  • 29 - Ibid.
  • 30 - Ibid, Southland Times.
  • 31 - Ibid, AJHR, 1877, D-2, page 56.
  • 33 - Ibid, AJHR, 1877, D-5, page 2.