Topic: Dr John Frederick Rockstrow

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Medical Officer for the Maoris in Manawatu and Horowhenua districts Dr Rockstrow became involved with local body affairs and was elected to the first Foxton Local Board in 1875 and to the Manawatu County Council in 1878, becoming Chairman in 1882, a position he held for only one year.

Dr John Frederick Rockstrow was born on 2 October 1834 at Erfurt, Germany.  The original spelling of his surname was “Rockstroh” but was officially changed to “Rockstrow” when he was naturalized in New Zealand in 1869.  Fred received his education by means of scholarships at Leipzig. 


While he was at university the German Government passed a law requiring all young men to spend three years in the army.  The medical students objected because they considered the country required doctors all well as soldiers and they refused to be conscripted.  The police came to arrest them and some of the students fired on the police.  As a result all students were in trouble and likely to be sent to prison. 


Although not actually involved in the incident, Fred Rockstrow deemed it advisable to leave the country and made his way to France and then to America.  Here he was offered a position as doctor on a ship sailing on a botanising expedition to the South Pacific.  It was not until the ship was at sea that he discovered that it was a whaler.


The ship ran on to rocks at Kerguelan Island near the Antarctic and it was six months before they were rescued.  It is said that the doctor saved the crew from scurvy by making them eat the grass which grew on the island.  They were eventually taken to Hobart and it was the time of the gold rushes in Australia. 


Dr Rockstrow travelled to the Ovens Goldfields and Snowy River about 1860.  Then came news of gold in New Zealand so about 1865 he came to New Zealand on board the “Aldinga”, going to Cromwell and Gabriel’s Gully.  From there he moved to Hokitika and in 1866 went to Westport to take charge of the first hospital in the Nelson Province.  The family understand that he crossed the Southern Alps on foot.  While on the West Coast he is said have treated the well known pirate Bully Hayes after he was wounded in a fight.


He married Anna Eunice Gapper on 27 June 1867 and this is the first recorded marriage in Westport.  Eunice Gapper was born at Stoke Under Ham, Somerset, England on 20 April 1839 and came to New Zealand with her parents on board the “Clifford”, the second ship to arrive at Nelson.  Her father was wounded at the Wairau massacre.


In 1868, with his wife and infant son, Dr Rockstrow returned to Germany and spent a year brushing up on his medical knowledge.  On his return to New Zealand, he went to Reefton.  In 1873 he was appointed by Sir William Fox to the position of Medical Officer for the Maoris in Manawatu and Horowhenua districts.  This covered the area from Horowhenua to Rangitikei.  Thus they came to Foxton to live.  In the Foxton Museum there is a photograph of their two storied house in Lady’s Mile.  It was later destroyed by fire.


Dr Rockstrow was very concerned for the health of the Maoris and refused offers to move to Palmerston North.  He considered the busy little port of Foxton was a coming place.


He became involved with local body affairs and was elected to the first Foxton Local Board in 1875 and to the Manawatu County Council in 1878, becoming Chairman in 1882, a position he held for only one year.  The council had a somewhat stormy period, particularly over the laying of the Foxton-Sanson Tramway lines and Dr Rockstrow with his large medical district to attend to, certainly did not have the time to spend on details – not to satisfy such sticklers as E.S. Thynne anyway.


Rockstrow is said to have been impatient and unmindful of administrative detail.  However he was loved and respected as a medical man and recognised everywhere in his top hat and frock coat.  He had a wide circle of acquaintances and had immense influence with the natives and knew all the chiefs intimately. 


A taiaha presented by the Maoris used to hang in his waiting room.  It had a calming effect on many a Maori patient. 


Dr Rockstrow did his own dispensing and carried a bag containing forty tiny glass-stoppered bottles of drugs and prepared medicines on the spot.  He received all the latest medical journals and kept himself up-to-date with the latest treatments.  He became very annoyed when patients did not take the prescribed medicine. 


Many patients unable to pay in cash gave produce in lieu of payment, some gave some of the family silver and one family even gave a bedroom chamber pot!  Dr Rockstrow may have seemed abrupt but underneath he was warm and understanding and concerned for his patients’ welfare.  One cold day he came home without his coat – he had given it to a beggar in the Square and he is known to have gone through his daughters’ wardrobes and given some of their clothes to poorer patients. 


Mrs Rockstrow was a very gentle person loved by all.  In all they had eight children, the four younger ones born in Foxton.  During his time in Foxton Dr Rockstrow made regular visits to Palmerston North when there was no doctor resident there.


In 1886 the family left Foxton and went to live in Palmerston North.  Dr Rockstrow practised there for some time, the younger children completing their schooling there.


About 1897 he took up a Crown Leasehold property at Awatuna next to the mountain reserve, presumably to set up his eldest son in farming.  The sons had to clear the bush and run the farm.  He built a house there, known locally as “Rockstrow’s Mistake” because of its fourteen foot stud.  While beautifully cool in summer, it was extremely cold in winter.  Dr Rockstrow did no work about the house – Mrs Rockstrow kept the garden, made butter and cheese, killed and prepared poultry for the table. 


Dr Rockstrow returned to Palmerston North, probably about the time his eldest son went to the Boer War.  In 1904 he returned to Germany for his 70th birthday taking his sons Gus and Walter.  They remained to work there for some time.  Dr Rockstrow however seemed disappointed – Germany was not as he remembered.


He died in Palmerston North in 1913.  During his time he saw Palmerston North grow from a settlement to a thriving town.  His home was well known with its wide verandah where he loved to sit and smoke on summer evenings.  Mrs Rockstrow died in 1914.


The children were:

John Frederick

Henrietta Mary

Rosalia Elizabeth

Frances Amelia

Ellen Flora

Augustus Isidor

William Caspari

Walter Leonard


Compiled from letters and information stored at the Foxton Historical Society’s Museum.  With special thanks to Mrs Joan Strawbridge for information and photographs etc.


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Dr John Frederick Rockstrow

Date of birth:2/10/1834
Date of death:1913