Wednesday, 12 August 2020


Story of "no ordinary man" finally told by Cooks Beach author

On Sunday morning, 26 January 1845, Welsh born Arthur Guyon Purchas, aged 24 years, disembarked from the 600-ton sailing ship, Slain’s Castle, in the port of Nelson. He had organised a free passage from England to New Zealand as the ship’s surgeon after resigning from his lucrative surgeon’s role in Liverpool.

His arrival in New Zealand came about because of a promise made years earlier to his late mother, Marianne. Before passing away at just 33, she had expressed a strong wish to her husband that, one day, their most promising and gifted son, Arthur, might go to New Zealand to serve as a doctor or a priest. Arthur had always been determined to fulfil his mother’s wishes and visit a country well known to those living in the United Kingdom via the many books and journals being published about the famous voyages of Captain Cook.

Sixty-one years later, on 28 May 1906, Arthur Purchas, who had raised 14 children, passed away in a hotel room in Hastings, New Zealand, aged 85, after being seized with a violent cough and acute bronchitis.

In between those years lies the tale of an extraordinary man said to be perhaps the most gifted person ever to come to this country. Surgeon and doctor, architect, engineer, geologist, explorer, musician, botanist, artist, priest and inventor, in his time he was one our most prominent citizens.

His is a fascinating story that, in hindsight, sat idle for far too long. Thankfully Cooks Beach resident and author, John Steele, has done something about it. His recently released book, “No Ordinary Man,” covers the life and times of Dr Arthur Purchas in great detail.

“It took me around six years to complete the book but, once I started researching and finding out more about this amazing man, I felt it was something I needed to see through to the finish. In addition, and after reading 60 or 70 books about the people and events of the mid-19th century, I often wondered why as schoolchildren we had never been taught the real stories of New Zealand, especially those leading up to the most critical of events, the Land Wars and events surrounding our Maori and colonial settler history, including the life of people like Arthur Purchas,” says John.   

The quality and attention to detail of John’s work is impressive as it explores our history and, in particular, the struggles and triumphs of Arthur Purchas.

Most influential people are remembered not so much for what they achieved in life but the way they went about what they achieved and the positive effect they had on a wider community as well as individuals within it. After reading through the book, it became clear that Arthur Purchas was almost a gift given to this country, and a person never fully recognised for the work he did and his incredible achievements.

In medicine alone, he is still widely acclaimed for his pioneering work in major abdominal and ovarian surgeries, including using a unique surgical clamp, an instrument he designed and had built by an Onehunga blacksmith. 

In John’s prologue he says, “This is not so much a history, but more the story of an extraordinary yet still largely unknown pioneer who figured prominently in many different facets of early Auckland and New Zealand history. Several writers and historians who have come across Arthur Purchas while documenting our early medical history, the Land Wars, architecture or science, geology or music, have argued that his story should have been written 100 years ago.”     

There will be many people who love reading about New Zealand history that will be forever grateful John took up the challenge. For those who are looking for something a little different and factual to lose themselves in for a few hours, then they won’t be disappointed either.

But John, like Arthur Purchas, has many strings to his bow. A talented musician and keen fisherman, he began working life as a journalist with the New Zealand Herald and in broadcasting, before three separate CEO roles during 40 years in the motor industry.

In retirement he returned to writing, with a particular interest in New Zealand history. His first book, “Smales’ Trail, an historical biography,” was published in 2012, followed by various writing and editing roles for a variety of papers, books and historical projects in both Auckland and Mercury Bay.

No Ordinary Man, published by David Ling Publishing Ltd, is available from most popular book shops including Paper Plus Whitianga.

Pictured: Cooks Beach author, John Steele, with a copy of his latest book, “No Ordinary Man.”


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