William Charles Cotton, the Bee Master of St John’s College

Source: Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:William_Cotton_1.jpg
William Charles Cotton, Eton College Leaver’s Portrait painted by Margaret Sarah Carpenter, 1832.

Honey bees are our friends. Much of the  human food supply relies on honey bee pollinating services.  Aotearoa/New Zealand has 28 native bee species, but none of these have the crop pollinating abilities of honey bees, so essential to our present diet.

Records show that Mary Bumby, the sister of a Methodist missionary,  brought two hives with her from England to New Zealand on board the James, in 1839. Other missionaries from various denominations followed suit later. Honey bees adapted to local conditions quickly.

Source: https://archive.org/details/mybeebook00cottrich Internet Archive/University of California Libraries
My Bee Book by William Charles Cotton. Published in 1842.

When George and Sarah Selwyn set sail for New Zealand in the Tomatin in 1841, they had in their party Selwyn’s friend, chaplain and fervent apiarist, the Reverend William Charles (“Bee”) Cotton, and with him,  several hives of bees, sadly doomed to a watery grave en route to New Zealand. Nevertheless, Bishop Selwyn was able to record in a letter in 1847 that “…the College bee house supplied honey.”

Selwyn’s Legacy, Allan Davidson’s book on the history of St John’s College, is peppered with references to Cotton.  He was a busy missionary and educationalist, but even while teaching, travelling and sermonising, he found time to desiminate craft of bee keeping to St Johns students and to write books on bees, My bee book (1842), A manual for New Zealand beekeepers, (1848), and Ko nga Pi (1849) in te reo Māori, to guide the people he came to serve in the basics of bee husbandry.

More of his character can be deduced from  in  personal writings, such as his gentleness, generosity, empathy and humour. In his diaries he collected sketches and watercolours by himself and others.

Source: Reverend William Charles Cotton 1813 - 1879, PH-NEG-C19459. Auckland Museum.
Reverend William Charles Cotton in later life.

Cotton returned to England after only six years, where he was to undergo treatment for mental illness. In her book Reminiscences, Sarah Selwyn praises Cotton’s “love for the Bishop, his enthusiasm, his goodness and good nature and cleverness” but also hints at a darker side of Cotton, his “ want of ballast…his temperament subject to alterations of the highest and lowest spirits…” (p 15) His biographer Arthur Smith spells out in 21st century terms that Cotton was likely to have been manic depressive.

Despite (or perhaps because) of his variable mental states, Cotton’s energetic, charming and eccentric personality stands out in both primary and secondary sources, revealing a significant contributor to the apiarist and wider agricultural industries,  as well as Anglican theological education in the short time he spent in New Zealand.

Digitised copy of William Cotton’s journal (1841-1848) held at the State Library of New South Wales

Digitised copy of Cotton’s 1842 ‘My Bee Book’ from the Internet Archive

Books on William Cotton held in the Kinder Library:

Barrett, Peter. William Charles Cotton, grand beemaster of New Zealand, 1842 to 1847. Springwood, NSW, 1997.

Barrett, Peter. The Immigrant bees, 1788 to 1898. Vol. 4. Caloundra, QLD: Peter Barrett, 2010. (Currently in processing)

Kawepo Tama-ki-Hikurangi, Renata. Renata’s journey = Ko te haerenga o Renata. Translated, edited and annotated by Helen M. Hogan.  Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 1994. (Includes transcriptions from Cotton’s diaries.)

Selwyn, Sarah. Reminiscences. Auckland: H. Bioletti, 2002.

Smith, Arthur R.  William Charles Cotton MA, 1813-1879 : Priest, missionary and bee master. Wirral, England: Countryvise, 2006.

Cotton in the Kinder Archive:

The library holds microfilms of many of Cottons’ diaries, copies of letters, as well as copies of extracts from his journal, including, notably, his compassionate and touching description of the death of his colleague Thomas Whytehead.

MIC 16 Journals of William Charles Cotton, 1813 – 1879

MIC 38 Acland family papers – Cotton correspondence

For more information about bees:

Te Ara’s entry on New Zealand Bee species

Interesting facts about the Honey Bee


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