The Marsters family saga spans nearly 200 years.  It begins in the middle of England and ends (or rather, still continues) on one of the most isolated islands in the world.  And along the way, there are multiple wives, lots of children, a murder attempt and an ignominious death for the founding father of the unique community of Palmerston.   And to this day it's a story still full of gaps and filled with contradictions.

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THE EARLY YEARS
From England to Penrhyn via California (?) and New Zealand




There is no deinitive view on the birth, early years and even the name of Palmerston's founding father.  

The most repeated version is that he was born Richard Masters (with no R in the middle of his surname) in 1831; we don't know his exact date of birth, but there is a record of baptism on 6 November of that year. 
[This information is based on English parish records. (no birth certificates exist as this was before a law was passed in England and Wales making registration compulsory]

According this version, William was the second child of John Masters (1809-1880) and Ann Armstrong (1802-1873)  who married in the ancient church of St. Mary deCastro near to Leicester Castle on 6 November, 1827.  (Ann's surname appears in earlier parish records as Armston).  His place of birth was the parish of Misterton in the Lutterworth district of Leicestershire.   It also helps to explain why one of the islets in the Palmerston lagoon is called Leicester Bank.  

 






BUILDING THE DYNASTY: William's first Palmerston wife and children



BUILDING THE DYNASTY: William's second and third Palmerston wives



Marsters second wife on Palmerston, Tepou Tinioi was NOT, as widely documented, a sister but a cousin of his first, as was his third wife, Matavia.   Tepou bore him six children.   The eldest, Marion, drowned at sea when the 'Araura' was lost off Aitutaki.  Matavia was first married to a Jean Baptiste Fernadez (or Fernandos) who jumped his whaling ship at Manuae to join Marsters who was on the island at the time and accompanied Marsters back to Palmerston. 

Fernandez and Matavia had one son of their own, Mahuta, and three other children who are thought to have been William's because they were fair skinned, whereas Fernandez is said to have been a dark skinned man, probably from Goa.   Fernandez had a big row with Marsters about the parentage and subsequently abandoned Matavi.  He drowned on 5th March, 1898 (not 1895 as is often reported) after falling overboard from the schooner, Torea which had just set sail from Rarotonga, bound for Atiu.  Some reports say he was drunk...others that he was very infirm and hardly able to walk.

Matavia and Marsters married and she gave him a total of seven children.   It's also significant that these births were recorded as MaRsters rather than Masters...the first official record of the name being spelled with the R in the middle. 

The fourth Palmerston wife



Most reports say William had only three (Palmerston) wives, but William's great great granddaughter, Yolande Browne (sadly now deceased) researched the family tree and confirmed for me that there was definitely a fourth.   She was called Arehata and the couple had one daughter, Ritia.  She married a Penrhyn trader called William Ford who, I was orignally told, was the brother of Henry Ford, founder of America's  Ford Motor Company and creator of the famous Model T.   Sadly, this is not correct.  However, Yolande's confirmation is very significant.  Previously, the only reference to the fourth wife was in the meticulously researched book 'Sisters in the Sun' by A.S. Helm and W.H. Percival.
And a home to house them all....
This house remains a testament to the skills, hard work and commitment of William Marsters to making Palmerston his home.  It's built from timbers from three wrecked ships, but, mainly from those of the vessel Annie Laurie which foundered on the reef soon after he arrived on the island.    William built several other houses too.


Wiliam's house was the only structure to remain in place in a major hurricane in 1926
English missionary William Wyatt Gill spent most of his adult life in the Cook Islands.  A meeting with Marsters is recalled in his book "Jottings from the Pacific", published in London in 1885.  It's the only known published contemporary account of a meeting of any length (as opposed to brief encounters by passing ships) and as such it's a unique insight into Marsters, the man. 

Gill says William was "one of those waifs so common in the Pacific" who had decided to settle on the island after years of wandering among the Line Islands (a group of 11 atolls and low coral islands in the central Pacific about 1,000 miles south of Hawaii).    He describes him as  "a short, well set  man of about 60 years; very active, but with an uneasy expression of countenance".



We learn from Gill that William planted 80,000 "cocoa-nuts" and that bĂȘche-de-mer (sea cucumber) was collected for the Chinese market.   The missionary is also responsible for the first church being built on Palmerston.  He refers to "a private conference" that he had with Marsters:   "He listened attentively to what I said, and engaged to give sufficient wood for the erection of a little church."








Palmerston's Robinson Crusoe

He compares the founding father of Palmerston to Alexander Selkirk, the real life Robinson Crusoe who inspired the famous story by Daniel Defoe.  "Monarch of all he surveys, His right there is none to dispute". 

Author's note:  Gill does not give Marsters full name in his account.  He refers to him as M_______.   I have replaced this with 'Marsters' in the extracts.   He also refers to the island as Palmerston's with an apostrophe, as do other contemporary publications

Today's church... successor to the first which W. Wyatt Gill persuaded William to build
William Marsters Snr & family
William Marsters Senior with some of his family and heirs  (photographer and date unknown)

The story runs that William ran away to sea when he was 18, but Anne Elizabeth's birth certificate (extract above) proves that can't be true.   He would have been at least 21, and that assumes he fled after the conception of the second child (around March, 1853).   So far, I have also been unable to confirm why he left England.  One report in the UK's 'Daily Mirror' newspaper in 1959 says he had a fierce row with his father about going off to seek his fortune in the California gold rush.  There is no other source to corroborate this, but it makes sense.  Given that William had just become or learned he was to become a father for the second time, you can understand why Masters senior would have lost his temper.

Great great grand-daughter, Yolande Browne (descended from William and his first wife and now herself, sadly deceased) told me William was accompanied by three other boys when he left.   He subsequently earned a living on  the whaling ships which frequented the Bay of Islands in New Zealand.  But around 1859, he left his vessel and after what one report describes as "various ups and downs", he reached Tahiti.  Sea stories and songs of the sea attracted him to the life, according to his descendants.  One such sea song is still sung today on Palmerston...

According to the Marsters family, William worked alongside men like this one panning for a possible fortune in the California gold rush.  The Rev. Bill Marsters, in a letter of 1998, says the patriarch "came away with a find of three jars or jimmy-johns of gold nuggets". 

If that's true, it's not clear why he ended up destitute after returning to sea.  Several documents say he jumped ship at at Penrhyn (also known as Tongareva) in the Northern Cook Islands.   Another account from 1888, however, has Marsters himself telling visitors from a passing vessel that he ran away from the British barque, 'Rifleman' in Tahiti.  The dates don't add up either...even if William fled England as soon as he knew his wife was pregnant with their second child, he wouldn't have reached California in time for the gold rush because that ended in 1852.   If, on the other hand, he was born in Birmingham in 1821, this does becaome feasible.

Click here to see exactly where Misterton is and here to find out more about the St. Mary deCastro church.
FOUNDING A DYNASTY
From Penrhyn to Palmerston via Manuae




Letter in William Marsters handwriting
This is where we can pick up the Marsters story again with some certainty around the facts.

American, John Hart was Master of the schooner, 'Horai' which took William to Palmerston.  The vessel was owned by Scotsman, John Brander who was a trader in Tahiti.   Brander told Hart to relieve Sweet of his role as "caretaker or Manager of Palmerston" - apparently, Sweet was fed up with the job - and find another man to take his place.  En route, Hart called in at Manuae (or Hervey Island as it was called at the time) and found Masters there. 

It's conceivable that Marsters knew Brander and Sweet as, according to one newspaper report albeit many years later,  he "entered into relations with some of the traders" while he was in Tahiti, and Brander was a prominent figure.   If that's the case, it may be no coincidence that Sweet found Marsters on Manuae but actually sought him out.  However, there is no written evidence this was the case.



A letter from Palmerston in William's own hand, dated 6th January, 1888, confirms that it was Brander who arranged for him to take over as caretaker. 

It says: "I was put here by Mr John Brander of Tahiti to make cocoanut oil for him.  For the first six years, their vessels attended me regularly but afterwards they left me for two and three years at a time without coming near, and in 1878 they ceased coming here".

The woman who accompanied William to Palmerston was the first of four Palmerston wives and was of noble parentage.  Akakaingaro (Sarah) was from the royal family in Penrhyn.  He married her in Tahiti.  She was the child of Tehaharua Parerima, a great chief from Tetautua whose own wife,  Kaneakore was the daughter of another royal chief  of Omoka and a descendant of the famous warrior chief Te-Kairangi.

Sarah gave William nine children.  But tragedy struck the first two - Anne was drowned in the Vai Sinane River in Samoa at the age of 2, and Elizabeth died on Manuae when she was only one year old.  The places where they died confirm other writings which say that at this time, William was visiting other parts of the Cook Islands and the central South Pacific, although there don't seem to be any records of exactly where he went. 

Marsters first son was born in 1860 and called Joel (his brother's name).   Other writings say the eldest son was William who would subsequently succeed his father as head of the island, but his year of birth is given as 1862.  This is also confirmed elsewhere in academic research.  The other children in order of birth were James (died 1920), Aaron (died on Palmerston, aged 6 months), Elizabeth Saretuaroa Akiakirau - commonly referred to by William as "one girl" -  (born 1866), Kuras (born 1898) and Teraia (1881-1932). 




In a statement sworn at the British Consulate in Papeete, Tahiti on 4th February, 1891,  he says: "When I took Wm Masters off Hervey Island, he was entirely destitute and was highly pleased to accept the positon I offered him."   And he also confirms that William was not alone when he was taken to Palmerston.  

"I conveyed him, his woman, her sister and one or two children to Palmerston Island, landed them on 8th July <1863>, and made a written ageement with him in which it stated that he, Wm Masters, was to hold possession of the said Palmerston Island, for, and on behalf of Mr John Brander....and his renumeration for so doing was to be a share of the produce raised on the island". 
(From the Logbook of the Schooner 'Horai' )

There was already a small community there.   Hart took 18 men and women back to Rarotonga with him, but left on the island with William a man and two women from Penrhyn, a white man and his son and some others who he describes as "Atiu natives".


Gold panner
Read the detailed story of how William first laid claim to Palmerston and the Scotsman who tried to take it from him.  Find out why the Marsters claim links to the British Royal Family
A very English man

We get a further insight into Marsters, the man in a study of the Palmerston language which was undertaken in 1992 by one of the world's leading linguists. 

Sabine Ehrhart-Kneher writes:  "It seems that William Marsters tired to prevent his wives from speaking Maori.   He was a very distrustful person and he did not want them to communicate in a language he could not (fully) understand.  He obliged his children - and later on, his grandchildren - to speak English all the time...According to witnesses,  Marsters influence was greater than the Bible on what is known to be a religious island." 

And I have recently turned up another viewpoint in a book of 1921 ('Cruise of the Dream Ship' by Ralph Stock).  The author pays tribute to the standards William laid down from the outset.  He writes; "That they were sound standards is evidenced by the people of Palmerston to-day.  They read, write and speak English, this last with an accent vaguely reminiscent of the south-wet of England. They are courteous, hospitable, and honest to a degree little short of startling..."



Location of Leicestershire
William Marsters
William's first marriage (if you believe the first version)
Much has been written about William's wives on Palmerston (see below), but if you accept the birth in Leicestershire and follow the family tree, he was already married when he arrived on the island.   On 10 November, 1851,  at the age of 20, Richard Marsters married in Misterton 18 year old Charlotte Farmer from the nearby hamlet of Walcote (spelled Walcot at the time).   They had two children,  Richard (or John Richard according to census records) who was born about January, 1852, and Anne Elizabeth who was born on 5th December, 1853.  The records which confirm this mean also that Charlotte was heavily pregnant at the time of her marriage.  (Ann Elizabeth's birth certificate also reveals that Charlotte was illiterate...instead of signing the certificate, she marks it with an 'x')

It's debatable whether William committed polygamy when he married his Palmerston wives.  No one owned the island at the time, so it was not subject to the law of any country.   That said, he married the first of those wives in Tahiti which was under British rule at the time and bigamy has been a crime under UK law since the 17th century.

The California connection (or lack of it)
Marsters of Palmerston page header
A unique family saga
The house that William built
How and why he ended up on Palmerston is a story that has been confused for generations.  But the facts can now be separated from the fiction for the first time, thanks to documents in the UK's National Archives, including one in William's own handwriting.
Close up of the massive timbers
It's a remarkable structure, described in detail in a New Zealand newspaper of 1894:  "The timber, excepting being cleaned and in some instances planed, was used just as it came from the wreck.  The result is that he has rafters 24 by 24 ; ridgepoles, 12 by 12; uprights, 18 by 12 and 18 by 24 ; door posts, 24 by 24; while the boarding of the houses and the flooring are of 12 by 4 and 4 by 3, resting on timbers 18 by 12 and other light pieces of timber. The doorsteps are of 18 by 12 and 20 and 25 feet long. The nails used in the houses are ship's bolts."   Marsters said he only only wanted to build houses once!

Towards the end of 1898, disaster struck Palmerston.  The thousands of coconut trees William had planted were struck by blight.  And just a few months later the man who had built the island into a home for his ever growing family died of malnutrition.

Sailors on the  American barque, Empire that called into the island on 7th February, 1900 were told by one of his sons that he died about six months earlier "from lack of proper food" and the remaining 50 inhabitants of Palmerston were starving.  Captain Knacke provided them with some supplies and promised to report their desperate condition to the authorities on Rarotonga. 

But it was an ignominious end to an era and for a man who founded a dynasty which still continues to this day.



Palmerston island church
William Marsters gravestone
Across the generations...one of William's young descendants near his gravestone
English with a twang -  read more about the unique language of Palmerston
AUTHOR'S NOTE
When you're writing - or in this case re-writing history - it's important to make sure the facts are right.  This is particularly challenging with the Marsters story because so much fact is intertwined with family folklore.   I'm not saying the family stories are false, but we all know how much a story can change in the telling especially over generations.  Wherever possible, I have followed my journalistic tenet and looked for at least two separate sources, one of which is supported by documentary evidence.. 

There are many loose ends which you may be able to help tie up.   If you have any additional information, please email me and, with your permission, I will share that through this website.  Copies of photographs and documents relating to early family members would be especially welcome too.   And remember this is still research in progress for a book which I hope will finally separate fact from fiction.    For detailed acknowlegements, please click here (opens in new window or tab).





Right:   William's death, as reported in the Thames Star of New Zealand on 27 April, 1900.  Captain Knacke of the American barque, 'Empire' told the story on his return to Australia.  The "he" referred to is one of William's sons, but it isn't clear which as the report names him as "Williams"    (from the archives of the National Library of New Zealand)
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Author's note:  The reason Brander's vessels stop calling in 1878 is that Brander died in 1877
Brith certificate extract
Author's note: The song is particularly fascinating with its mention of the railway. Leicestershire was one of the first places in the world to have one.  Logan is almost certainly a reference to John William 'Paddy' Logan who was co-founder of one of the most important civil engineering firms of the age, Logan and Hemingway. 

"Blow the winds I O
To the Logan I will go
To live no more on England shore.  And let the music play
I'm off for the morning train
To cross the railway road
I am a rose to me own true love
Ten thousand miles away"
 
CAN YOU HELP?
No records have come to light so far that explain how William ended up on Manuae after jumping ship at Penrhyn.   Do you know?  Email me if you have any information.
 
AN IGNOMINIOUS END



Author's note:  William's gravestone on Palmerston (bottom of this page) records the date of his death as 22 May, 1899. This report means that date is wrong.  The captain of the barque said he called in at Palmerston on 7 February which means Marsters would have died sometime around September or October, 1899

MARSTERS - THE MAN



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VIDEO CLIP
The fascinating story of William Marsters is told in a short song written for the 100th anniversary of his arrival on Palmerston.   Click here to watch it on YouTube 
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In a 1998 letter from Palmerston, the Rev. Bill Marsters says William heard the sea songs and stories from seamen who gathered every evening at the "Red Lion Fish Market".    Locals tell me a pub by that name was demolished in 1970 to make way for houses which are now on Franks Lane.   But  the local history society say records dating from 1835 show the only pub in the village at that time was the Bull's Head; the nearest Red Lion was in Gilmorton.   Maureen Hilyard researched this further for her book about Marsters and she was told a fish market was probably held in the centre of the village in the 1800s, but I have not been able to find any official records confirming this.   If you can shed further light on this, please email me



 
 
Jottings from the Pacific book cover
We also learn that William always carried a loaded revolver with him.   Gill explains: "A few years ago a plot was laid to kill Marsters whilst asleep and to drown his children in the lagoon.  The women were engaged in the plot....This may have accounted for the presence of two large fierce dogs.  Marsters world is law, and must be implicitly obeyed".
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An alternative version is that William was born in 1821 in Birmingham, lived his early years on a farm and was brought up by his grandmother in Leicestershire, so perhaps the two stories converge at some point.    There is documentary evidence of the Birmingham origins in the records of the London Missionary Society.  Writing of a visit to Palmerston on 29 July, 1877, missionary, William Wyatt Gill states: "M told me he was a 'Birmingham man'.   Commander Victor Clark RN who was shipwrecked on Palmerston in 1954 relates in his book "On the Wind of a Dream" being told the same story of a Birmingham origin, early years in Leicestershire and Marsters running away to sea at the age of 14.