16 May 2023

Tūranga’s upcoming Heritage Highlights delves into the history of Dr William Donald, the forgotten man of Lyttelton.

Dr Donald (1815 – 1884) was a doctor, surgeon, dentist, immigration officer, returning officer, resident magistrate, coroner, registrar of births, marriages and deaths and a Justice of the Peace.

He was an administrator par excellence and prominent in early Lyttelton society, yet he seems to be often overlooked.

Head of Libraries and Information Carolyn Robertson says an event at Tūranga will offer the chance to explore the history of this man and the influence he has had on the development of early Lyttelton.

“We’re excited to be holding a session later in May in our Auaha Hīhī / Spark Place to allow the chance to look into the many lives of Dr Donald.”

Dr Donald was elected Chair of the first Lyttelton Municipal Council in 1862 and represented Lyttelton on the Canterbury Provincial Council from 1855 – 57.

“Alongside this, he was also a prominent community member in a non-official governmental capacity,” says Ms Robertson.

He was Chairman then committee member of the Lyttelton Colonists’ Society, co-founder and later District Grand Master of the Lodge of Unamity, Treasurer of the Oddfellows Lodge, Trustee of the Lyttelton Savings Bank, Anglican Church Trustee and member of the Canterbury College Council.

He was appointed medical officer for Port Cooper – now Port Lyttelton – to provide medical services to those preparing for the arrival of the first Canterbury Association ships.

Dr Donald was part of the small community of professional men in those pre-1850 days who were planning the new settlement on the ground.

After the First Four Ships arrived in late 1850, Dr Donald was part of the round of social gatherings attempting to replicate life ‘back home’.

Following Dr Donald’s death in 1884, his life was celebrated by a full Masonic funeral.

Family History Librarian Annette Williams says she first came across Dr Donald while working at the Lyttelton Library. “Once I found him, I kept tripping over him constantly when I researched Lyttelton’s history.

“It became a standing joke with my colleagues that whenever we looked at Lyttelton’s 19th century history, Dr Donald was sure to be involved.”

Ms Williams says she wonders why Dr Donald is a forgotten man. “There is a small street in Lyttelton named after him, and a fish specimen held in the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa's collection that was presented by Dr Donald.

“Other than that, there is very little else, and it is a bit of a mystery as to why his history is not more widespread.”

Dr William Donald: the man who managed Lyttelton will be held on May 24 from 10am – 11am at Tūranga. This free event is recommended for adults and bookings are required.