Arthur Guyon Purchas was born 27 September 1821, at St. Arvans, Monmouthshire, Wales. After being educated privately he entered Guy’s Hospital, London, as a medical student in 1839 qualifying three years later in 1842. As a student he met Bishop George Augustus Selwyn in London and expressed his desire to pursue missionary work in New Zealand.
Purchas left Guy’s Hospital with multiple testimonials from such 19th century medical luminaries as Thomas Addison, Richard Bright and Benjamin Guy Babington. In October 1844, he sailed for New Zealand aboard the barque ‘Slains Castle’, arriving in Nelson on 26 January 1845 where he again met Bishop Selwyn. Purchas then travelled to Auckland by way of Wellington and New Plymouth and returned to England via Sydney.
Purchas married Olivia Challinor on 27 December 1845, at St. Catherine’s Church, Liverpool and in 1846 they emigrated to Auckland, New Zealand, where he took up residence at St. John’s College, both as a doctor and teaching singing classes.
His close relationship with Bishop Selwyn saw him ordained as a deacon on 19 September 1847. Shortly after, he was inducted as first charge of the Parish of Onehunga and was instrumental in the design and building of its first church, St. Peter’s Church. He ministered there until his resignation in early June 1875 when he returned to practising medicine again fulltime.
Purchas displayed throughout his life an extraordinary range of talents and intellectual interests. He composed, taught, and published singing music; produced reports concerning specifications and design estimates for the first Mangere Bridge, and for a source of water supply for the city of Auckland; patented an invention for the preparation of flax (Phormium tenax) and other plant fibres with co-inventor James Ninnis, a mining engineer; and conducted experiments in electricity. He was also involved in many areas of civic life, much of it charitable, including the Institute of the Blind, for which he worked on a printing method for improving the Braille type. His passions for community work spread into strengthening relationships between local Māori and Pakeha settlers with the construction of the St James Church in Mangere, which he designed with the help of Selwyn.
Auckland Institute and Museum
In 1867 many of these interests converged when he became a founding member of the Auckland Philosophical Society, which in 1868 was established as the Auckland Institute and Museum. Prior to this, his time assisting von Hochstetter’s geological survey of New Zealand in 1858 is likely where his relationship with the fledgling museum began. Purchas would later become a key player in its success.
The Reverend Dr Arthur Purchas was among the group of twenty-three forward-thinking Aucklanders who formed the Auckland Institute and set themselves the task of "promoting science and literature by means of a museum and library".
The Institute members met monthly to discuss scientific topics of interest, and a Council of 8 members also met monthly to conduct the business of the Museum and Library. Dr Purchas was an active and engaged member of both groups for more than thirty years.
Papers were read on a variety of subjects and in 1868 Capt. Hutton (later Curator of the Otago Museum) prepared a list of suggested topics for discussion and 200 copies were ordered to be printed and distributed to members. The subjects were relevant to the needs of the colony, and covered Māori history and ethnology, natural science, transport, medicine, science, and technology.
In September 1868 Dr Purchas gave a viva voce 'On the Preparation of Native Flax' and contributed to the discussions following the papers. He regularly presented papers on various subjects, which included: Processes connected with preparation of auriferous ores in South America (1868); The Submarine cable between Australia and New Zealand, (1875); The telephone and microphone: illustrated by experiments. (1879); and The Railway and its place in Social Economy. (1895).
Purchas was an active member of the Institute Council from 1868 to 1899, serving twice as President, and acting on financial, building and exhibition committees. His signature regularly confirms the minutes during these early years.
During the 1870’s there was much discussion and deliberation about a home for the Museum and Institute Library, and the Museum moved up and down Princes St from rooms in the Provincial government and Northern Club, to the Old Post office, and finally to the new Museum building.
The building committee, including Dr Purchas, was formed in 1871, and made slow progress. On the appointment of curator Thomas Cheeseman in 1874 the building project gained momentum and the minutes of 13th July 1875 record that Dr Purchas congratulated the Council members on the commencement of work on the building. The new purpose-built brick building designed by architect Phillip Herepath was opened in 1876 with Dr Purchas on the opening committee. Purchas oversaw the selection and installation of the gas lighting which allowed the Museum to hold evening events.
Dr Purchas was inspired by the success of the opening exhibition and proposed a series of scientific lectures, and he and 3 others formed a Conversazione committee. The ensuing success of the 1880 Conversazione was followed by one in 1884 and a Microscopical Conversazione in 1889.
An interest in the Museum Collections
Dr Purchas was among the members who frequently made donations of geological and natural science specimens to the Museum In the 1870’s his donations include "a pebble embedded in a block of lava”, 2 fossil specimens from Kawakawa, stalactites from the Manukau, and a Freshwater leech.
By the 1890’s the founding members were no longer young men. The first Minutes in 1867 have 23 names on the Subscription list with pencil notes against some names stating "dead" or "left the Colony"), added by Cheeseman in the 1890’s. Dr Purchas served on the Museum Trust Board and Council for 33 years and after being balloted to retire under Rule 19 in 1898 he was no longer involved in the business of the Museum.
Purchas’ death in 1906 was marked in the 1907 Annual report by the following obituary that elegantly summarises the importance of his work with the Institute:
“Among the members removed by death will be found the name of the Rev. Dr Purchas, who was not only one of the founders of the Institute but was intimately associated with its affairs for many years, repeatedly serving both on the Council and as President. In the early days of the Society, when its position was ill-assured and struggling, few members worked more zealously for its advancement, or were more ready to expend their time and energy on its behalf, and the Council feel that his many services should receive full recognition.”
Papers Past: New Zealand Herald, Vol. XLIII, Issue 13,189, 29 May 1906, Page 6.
Papers Past: New Zealand Herald, Vol. XLIII, Issue 13,191, 31 May 1906, Page 6.
Wikipedia: Arthur Purchas
Wikipedia: Richard Bright (physician)
Wikipedia: Thomas Addison (physician)
Auckland Museum Institute 150 Years
Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute, vol. 1, 1868 [issued May 1869]
St James Church in Lawlor, Ian. Lost Villages of Manukau (Presentation), 2009
Purchas and Ninnis Flax Mill, Waiuku 1860
Steele, John. No ordinary man: the extraordinary life and times of Dr Arthur Purchas. David Ling Publishing Limited 2019
Cite this article
Elizabeth Lorimer and Martin Collett.
Arthur Guyon Purchas and the Auckland Institute and Museum 1867 – 1906. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 13 April 2022. Updated: 15 April 2022.