Location of Leicestershire
The Marsters family saga spans nearly 200 years.  It begins in the Midlands of England although exactly where is not altogether clear, 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.  

The content of these pages are the product of original research by the website author and all rights are reserved and all sources acknowledged.   If you wish to use this material in academic research, the suggested citation is "John Roberts, author of www.cookislands. org.uk".   Please contact the author about use for any other purpose

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

The commonly held view is that William Marsters 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 he was baptised on 6 November of that year). 

He 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.

BUT...and it's a big but...

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...as far as I can establish, the first official record of the name being spelled with the R in the middle


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 originally told, was the brother of Henry Ford, founder of America's  Ford Motor Company and creator of the famous Model T.   Unfortunately, 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 when a major hurricane struck Palmerston in 1926
William Marsters Snr & family
William Marsters Senior with some of his family and heirs (believed to have been taken in 1925)
William II is in the centre.  The photo was kindly given to me by the great great granddaughter (by way of William and his first wife), Yolande Browne of New Zealand (now deceased).   Her grandmother, Munokoa Nono Vakai is on the second row, third from the left with the long hair.  Marion Marsters, who dated the photo for me, tells me her grandfather, Ned is in the back row holding her father, the Rev. Bill Marsters

All the published writings to date say 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).   It's not clear 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.   Given that William had just become or learned he was to become a father for the second time, it would be understandable why Masters senior 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. 

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.   Another theory is that he joined the Alaska gold rush which began in 1850 with a further discovery in 1861.

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

Letter in William Marsters handwriting
American, John Hart was Master of the schooner, 'Horai' which took William to Palmerston.  The vessel was owned by Scotsman, John Brander who was possibly the most important trader in Tahiti at the time..   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 Hart 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
William Marsters
William's first marriage (if you accept his Leicestershire origins)
Much has been written about William's wives on Palmerston (see below), but if you believe in his Leicestershire origins, he was already married when he arrived on the island.   On 10 November, 1851,  at the age of 20, he 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 pictured below 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 while there's still debate about Marsters origins, the facts about his later life are now clear, 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 an Australian 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 wanted to build houses once!

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The reason Brander's vessels stopped visiting is that Brander died on 5 June, 1877.  His widow, a young Tahitian Princess, was left to pick up the pieces and subsequently fought a war of words with William for ownership of the island.  The full story is here
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 probably 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"
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 self-published book about Marsters (Marsters of Walcote) and she was told a fish market was probably held in the centre of the village

There's some debate among Palmerston islanders themselves about the accuracy of this.  William Wyatt Gill of the London Missionary Society writes of a visit to Palmerston in 1877 in which he says Marsters told him he was a Birmingham man.  And there are at least two late 19th century newspaper reports of encounters with Marsters by passing ships which say he told their crews he came from Birmingham.  A report in 'The Press' of 1935 has Marster's son, William the second telling reporter RK Palmer his father was born in Birmingham but brought up in Leicestershire. And he also says his father kept "spasmodic communication" with his UK relatives until his death.

That would also explain why some dates, based on in the oral history of Palmerston do not add up
Author's note:  Information about the Leicestershire origins 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).  Missionary Gill's letter referring to the Birmingham origin is from the archives of the London Missionary Society.  The newspaper reports are in the National Library of Australia and the National Library of New Zealand
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...
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