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John Dewar — Otago Pioneer: Notes about John Dewar

Written by his daughter, Janet Bethia Dewar, probably in 1973, prior to her death (the third to last paragraph mentions "a grandson (1973)".


John Dewar - An Otago Pioneer

John Dewar was born in Culross, Scotland, married Bethia Bringans at Mosgiel on February 15, 1883, and died at Alexandra, aged 93, on April 26, 1927.

The 1967 edition of “Blue Guide to Scotland” states:

“Culross, a decayed royal burgh (514 inhab.) is the most perfect example of a small Scots town of the 17th–18th cent. The lower town, beside the Forth, is connected with the upper – where are the abbey and the laird’s house – by steep paved alleys. Culross is the supposed site of a 5th or 6th cent. religious establishment presided over by St Serf (Servan) and St Kentigern (d. 603), the apostle of Glasgow is said to have been born or educated there. A ruined chapel of 1503, E of the town, marks his legendary birth place.
Later, Culross was noted for its “girdles” for baking oatcakes, and its former salt-pans were visited by James VI, who raised the burgh to royal standing in 1588. Recently many of the older houses have been restored by the National Trust.”

John Dewar was proud of the fact that he attended Dollar Academy, which had been endowed by a local man who had made a fortune, with the condition that village children attend so that the children of rich and poor were educated together.

Next, he went to sea and was a sailor before the mast; he was on one of the troopships which took soldiers to the Crimean War. A recollection he handed on to his family was of being one of the good conduct men allowed ashore while the Battle of Sebastopol was being fought.

An accident, when he was 17, was to affect him for the rest of his life. A boat fell on his back, causing a hunchback condition which worsened in old age.

About 1859–60 John Dewar deserted from his ship at Melbourne to join the rush to the Bendigo goldfield. Having not a great deal of success as a miner, he returned to Melbourne and worked in a general store. In 1862, he came to Otago in charge of a consignment of horses being shipped for use on the road to Tuapeka goldfields.

Again, at Gabriel’s Gully, he was not satisfied with the returns he won. In August, 1862, came the announcement of the Hartley and Reilly discovery of the Dunstan goldfield. John Dewar was there not long afterwards and, with the exception of about seven years when he was part owner of and worked the Tribute dredge at Roxburgh, and three years at Lowburn Ferry, spent the rest of his life in or near Alexandra following gold as long as health permitted.

Of the winter of 1863, Robert Gilkison writes in “Early Days in Central Otago”:

“Unluckily, a rush had just set in to Campbell’s, a gully at the back of the Old Man Range, and in spite of the storm and the threatening appearance, a great many men left Manuherika on July 28, determined to be first at the new Eldorado. Nothing more was heard of the new diggers until 14 August, when the report came that there were five hundred men snowed up at Campbell’s and great loss of life was feared. In small parties the poor fellows came staggering back through the snow. To reach succour they had to climb a mountain six thousand feet high and tramp fifteen or twenty miles through the fog and gale and driving snow, with no marks to indicate the line of the track, no food and no shelter.”

A stone cairn at Gorge Creek, at the foot of the mountain is a memorial to the many who died. John Dewar was one of those who survived.

When dredging became the way to win gold from the river, he worked on the first spoon dredge, the first current wheel dredge and the first steam dredge on the Clutha. It was after his first experience on a dredge that he had the Tribute Dredge at Dumbarton Rock, six miles south of Roxburgh. Next were the years helping to build the Alpine dredge on the Lowburn Flats. The Alpine claim was about three miles below Cromwell and just below the famous Hartley and Reilly claims. The dredge sank in the Cromwell Rapids, so never reached the claim and the next dredge was built on the site.

After three years at Lowburn, John Dewar moved to Alexandra where he was dredge-master of the Sailor Bend dredge, about four miles below the town, After the claim ran out, he took casual employment, for a time in a coal mine. Then came retirement. he is buried at Alexandra. Bethia Dewar died in 1937, aged 76, and is also buried at Alexandra.

When John Dewar married in 1883, he was 46 years old. The marriage certificate gives his father’s name and occupation as John Dewar , a gardener. His mother was Janet Dewar, nee Ross. Bethia Bringans was 23, a teacher, born at Holytown, Lanarkshire. Her father’s name and occupation were Alexander Bringans, labourer, and her mother was Janet Bringans, nee Mitchell. The wedding took place at the home of Alexander Bringans, The Bush, Mosgiel. The minister was Rev John M. Sutherland, and witnesses were Mary Bringans, Mosgiel, and Robert Mitchell, Dunedin. Both John and Bethia were staunch Presbyterians.

The first home was at Conroy’s Gully, Alexandra, where John Dewar was “fossicker” mining. Two children, John and Janet Bethia, were born there. After the move to Dumbarton, two sons, Maurice (who died in infancy) and Robert Alexander were born.

The first house their daughter, Janet Bethia Moffat, remembers was at Dumbarton Rock, away from the road and near the river bank. It was a comfortable wooden cottage. Bethia Dewar had one of the first coal ranges produced by Shacklocks in that cottage. It was the only range she ever had. She took it to Lowburn, and it was in the Alexandra house when it was sold in 1937.

The Lowburn house was a corrugated iron cottage, hot in summer and cold in winter, In Alexandra the family lived in a small sun-dried brick house for seven or eight months until a new home was built – palatial for those days, with four large rooms and a lean-to kitchen, pantry and back bedroom. This house, renovated, is still standing. It was built of heart red pine and although every item was brought from Lawrence to Alexandra by wagon, the cost was only £275 ($550). At all the homes there were good vegetable gardens, onion growing being a specialty with John Dewar. There was a pretty flower garden at the Alexandra home, at other homes Bethia Dewar satisfied her love of flowers with collections of pot plants.

John Dewar was a keen bowler, too good a lead to be allowed to play as a skip. He was a foundation member of the Alexandra Bowling Club and a regular player in the elderly bowlers’ day matches in Dunedin from the inception of this event until 2 years before his death.

It was on his suggestion that the open space in the centre of Alexandra, known to the older inhabitants as “The Rec.” and now Pioneer Park , was set aside for sport.

In his hattering days (the times when married men worked and lived away from home during the week and returned to be with their families on Sundays) he always had a cat for companion. During the time he was master of the Sailor Bend dredge, he had a cat he had trained to jump hurdles to get its food.

Always young in spirit, he kept his interest in world affairs to the last and he had a keen wit and great sense of humour. On one of his trips to Dunedin to an elderly bowlers’ day, he went to the wharf to see his son, John, sail for Hobart on his way back to Malaya. Noting the sprightly walk, an officer remarked to John, “Not eighty years old, eighty years young.” A few days before he died, when someone said of a dilapidated car “I don’t know how that car goes” he made a characteristic quick reply, “On its four wheels, of course.” He had a peppery temper but was gentle and courteous unless roused by dishonesty in any form, or cruelty to animals. Of these he was absolutely intolerant. And he had the pride characteristic of Highland people.

John and Bethia Dewar’s eldest son, John, walked the six miles from Dumbarton to Roxburgh school. A classmate was Sidney Smith (later Sir Sidney) whose investigations into criminal poisonings made his name famous in the medical world. John began work as a pupil teacher, then took a position with the Lands and Survey Department at New Plymouth. He was a cadet in the surveying party which opened up the King Country. A rugby player, he was fly-half in the Taranaki team known as the Bush Whackers XV the year they were North Island champions. As soon as he received his surveyor’s licence he went to the (then) Federated Malay States, where he rose to be Surveyor-General. He retired to Scotland in 1937.

After World War II, he was sent back to Malaysia by the Imperial Government to an expected problem with land titles it was thought would have been lost. John had worked with Maori trainees during his time at New Plymouth and, in Malaysia, persisted until successful with applications for permission to train Malay clerks in Kuala Lumpur. The wisdom of this was discovered when he found clerks had hidden every land title and none had been lost. For his work in Malaysia, John was awarded the C.B.E. He married Gladys Kathleen Plunkett, a relative of a former Governor-General of New Zealand, and they had one son, John Richard Gresley Dewar, now living in England.

Six miles was too far for Janet Bethia to walk to school, so she was sent to live with her grandparents in Mosgiel for schooling for 2 years. At the end of that time, when she was seven, there was the move to Lowburn, and she returned home. She travelled by train to Lawrence with two Mosgiel women she knew. A memory of the journey is of the women leaning from the carriage window, catching in cups and drinking water which streamed down the inside of the Mt Stuart tunnel. At Lawrence, the shy little girl was given into the coach driver’s care and remembers standing in the roadway, pointing out her trunk, away on top of the coach. The move to Lowburn is also remembered, household goods as well as a crate of hens being transported by wagon.

It was back to Alexandra and school there in 1899 and Janet Bethia was the recipient of the school’s first dux medal. Runner-up was William Appleton (later Sir William, a businessman in Wellington and mayor for a time). The next two years’ education were at Mosgiel District High School. This was followed by two years’ pupil teaching at Alexandra and two years at Sawyers Bay before two years at Dunedin Teachers’ Training College, during which time she passed 3 university units which gave her a B certificate in teaching. Her ambition had always been to be an infantroom teacher. She spent two years as sole teacher at Matau school, at the lower end of Inch Clutha, then moved to Alexandra to a position as infantroom mistress. She left for health reasons, had 18 months at Hampden school, then taught at Tokomairiro District High School for two years.

She married William Ernest Moffat, and they lived on the Te Houka farm until retiring to Balclutha. They have a family of four – Robert Dewar, Duncan Ernest, Bethia Stoddart and Peter Watson.

Robert Alexander went to school in Lowburn and Alexandra. After a period working for an Alexandra baker, Mr A. Sneeston, he followed this occupation at Naseby and Kurow. He was a successful rugby fullback. At the outbreak of World War I he volunteered for the main contingent. He took part in the Gallipoli landing, then uninjured but suffering from war effects, was invalided to England and spent about a year in Walton-on-Thames hospital before returning to NZ in 1915. Not well enough to return to baking, he took a position as overseer on Chatto Creek water race, then being constructed. In 1921 he married Mary Hawthorne, of Hampden, and they had one son, John Robert. He died in 1924 in Dunedin hospital and is buried in the soldier’s plot in Anderson’s Bay cemetery. John Robert has a son and a grandson (1973) and so the name of Dewar is being carried on in New Zealand.

John Dewar, the pioneer, had at least one sister, Janet, a brother, David who went to U.S.A. and there may have been two other brothers who went to Canada.

This is a record of John Dewar’s life, remembered by his daughter Janet Bethia Moffat, for his descendants.



Linked toBethia Bringans; Living; Living; Janet “Nettie” Bethia Dewar; John Dewar; John Dewar; John Robert Dewar, CBE; John Robert Dewar; Living; Living; Maurice Dewar; Robert Alexander Dewar; Mary Jane Hawthorne; Bethia Stoddart Moffat; Living; Peter Watson Moffat; Robert Dewar Moffat; William Ernest Moffat; Joan Marie Quelch; Janet Ross

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