ASHWELL, Benjamin Yates
Benjamin Yates Ashwell was born in 1810 at Birmingham, England, and was the son of Benjamin Ashwell, a brassfounder of that city. Ashwell joined the Church Missionary Society in 1831 and spent two years at the society's training institution at Islington before proceeding to Sierra Leone as a lay missionary. The West African climate proved too much for his health, however, and he was obliged to return to England shortly afterwards.
In 1835 Ashwell sailed for New Zealand, arriving at Paihia on 23 December. Because he appeared somewhat temperamental he was not at first entrusted with a mission station, but, instead, occupied himself ministering to the Europeans at Kororareka. When at length he joined Maunsell at Waikato Heads, his temperament provoked hostility among the Maoris. Later he was allowed to open his own mission station at Kaitotehe, near Taupiri, where, to the surprise of his superiors, his ministrations met with instant and impressive success. Besides the normal duties of his mission, Ashwell had to cover a large district. In 1839 he opened branch missions at Te Awamutu and Otawhao, again with spectacular success. The latter was taken over by Morgan in 1841. By 1843, morning and evening services were being held in 30 villages, and reading classes, morning schools, and Sunday services took place regularly.
Ashwell's eccentricities endeared him to the Waikato Maoris and he came to exert great influence among them. In 1846 they asked him to settle a difficult fisheries dispute at Rotokauri. He attended St. John's College and was ordained in December 1848. On 16 January 1849 he assisted Maunsell to baptise 40 of Te Waharoa's tribe at Kirikiriroa (later, Hamilton). By 1851 Ashwell's native school at Kaitotehe was considered one of the finest in the country and was receiving annual grants from the Governor's fund. Ashwell opposed the growing “King” movement in the 1850s and, on the outbreak of war, withdrew to Auckland. There, Sir George Grey arranged for him to take charge of the Kawau prisoners, but these escaped before Ashwell could assume his duties. He returned to Taupiri at the close of 1864, but found his mission people had scattered. Towards the end of the decade he retired from missionary work and devoted his remaining years to church administration. For a time he acted as a prison visitor in Auckland.
Ashwell was twice married. His first wife, whom he married in England, accompanied him to New Zealand and helped him at Taupiri. After her death he married, on 12 May 1858 at Parnell, Maria Brothers. There was no family by the second marriage, but one of his daughters by the first marriage helped Gorst to prepare copy for Te Pihoihoi Mokemoke.
Ashwell had indifferent health during his declining years and died at Remuera on 29 September 1883.
Although he did not always get on happily with his fellow missionaries, Ashwell was eminently successful in the mission field. His school at Kaitotehe became a pattern for similar institutions in other parts of the country. The Waikato Maoris admired Ashwell greatly and he was one of the few missionaries of that district who could return to their stations after the war. For many years “his short figure, wide, greying beard, and asthmatical breathing”, were familiar to settlers living in the Waikato district.
by Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.
- The Advance of the Missionaries, Fancourt, H. C. (1939)
- Armed Settlers–1864–74, Norris, H. C. M. (1956)
- The Maori King, Gorst, J. E. (1959).