Community Contributed


Kete Horowhenua2020-03-23T16:52:11+00:00
One of the most fascinating stories of early New Zealand must be that of Amos Burr. The victim of a ghastly accident within days of his arrival, he had to spend the rest of his life, maimed, an object of curiosity and pity – an ogre to little children who dreaded the steel hooks that replaced his missing hands.
Date of birth06/02/1822
Date of death17/05/1906
Mothers nameAnn
Spouses nameLydia Harris HOSKINS
Spouses date of birth31/03/1838
Spouses place of birthCheltenham, England.
Mothers date of death24/08/1872
Spouses date of death23/08/1930
Mothers place of deathBuried Foxton Cemetery.
Spouses place of deathPalmerston North
Fathers nameJohn BURR
Marriage date29/10/1855
Place of marriageFoxton
SiblingsEliza Ann BURR (m1 Staff in England, m2 George Nye in Foxton) , , , ,
Fathers occupationOstler or groom
ChildrenJohn Vincent BURR (10/08/1864-21/07/1956), Sidney Paul BURR (28/09/1872-9/07/1949), Esther Maud (Hester) BURR (30/1/1877-27/02/1970), Lydia BURR (15/09/1856-26/06/1930), Amos (Moss) BURR (8/1/1858-12/12/1946), Henry Ernest BURR (29/10/1860-6/11/1936), Edward Albert BURR (2/7/1862-7/11/1938), Alice Julia Ann (Minnie) BURR (14/02/1867-25/06/1964), Arthur Sidney Charles BURR (14/05/1869-4/2/1870), Arthur Charles BURR (29/11/1870-1910), Clara Grace BURR (7/12/1873-), Leonard Claude BURR (1/1/1876-4/3/1876)
Places of relevance, , , ,
AliasE Mutu, Hookey
Place of birthSpilsby, near Boston, Lincolnshire, UK.
OccupationNative interpreter, Roading overseer, Sailor, Hotelier
Place of deathBrooklyn, Wellington.

One of the most fascinating stories of early New Zealand must be that of Amos Burr. The victim of a ghastly accident within days of his arrival, he had to spend the rest of his life, maimed, an object of curiosity and pity – an ogre to little children who dreaded the steel hooks that replaced his missing hands. He was known as “Hookey” or to the Maori “E Mutu” which means mutilated or cut off.

Amos was born in 1822 at Spilsby, near Boston, England, to John and Ann Burr. His father was an ostler or groom. Young Amos grew up in Boston, a seaport surrounded by swampy fenland which probably helped him later in draining his swampy Manawatu farm.

Living so close to the Boston Harbour, Amos was attracted to shipping, serving on the “Ivanhoe” and then the “Nautilus” which took him to Tasmania and back. He then joined the New Zealand Company vessel “Cuba”. He is said to have studied Maori from a book on the voyage.

The “Cuba” arrived at Port Nicholson with a party of surveyors on January 4th, 1840, followed on the 22nd by the “Ellina” and the first immigrant ship, the “Aurora”. The passengers were landed and the British flag hoisted, “surely this was the moment the Colony of New Zealand was born?” according to Brett in “White Wings”. The ships proceeded to fire a salute to the flag in acknowledgement. Amos was in charge of a cannon which misfired and he was obliged to draw out the charge to reload. Unfortunately at the crucial moment the cannon roared back to life. Thus the “moment the Colony of New Zealand was born”, was the moment Amos had his arms torn off (at the elbows) and his bleeding body hurled into the sea. It is said that the cook on the “Cuba” saved his life by covering his bleeding stumps with salt. The subsequent operation, without anaesthetics or antibiotics must have been the first operation in the Colony. Two weeks later, on 6th February, 1840, while the Queens’s representatives were at Waitangi attempting to persuade a gathering of Maori chiefs to sign their hastily prepared Treaty, young Amos was celebrating his 18th birthday in the New Zealand Company’s scarcely-established infirmary in Wellington.

Over the following few months in partial compensation from the New Zealand Company, he received strapped on “wooden arms” into which could be fitted (with spring loaded ball bearing) steel hooks, a knife, fork, spoon, pencil, screwdriver etc. He was also granted 100 acres on the river bank near the present Whirokino Bridge and a pension.

Although he is known to have visited Kapiti Island late in 1840, he lived with Hector McDonald at Otaki for at least 12 months before receiving instructions from the New Zealand Company in December, 1841, to proceed to the Manawatu River mouth to take charge of stores with which the Company intended buying the Manawatu land. Amos helped negotiate land sales in both Manawatu and Rangitikei in the role of interpreter, having already had considerable opportunity to learn the Maori language. During the early 1840s Amos was given the daughter of Te Raotea as a wife. They lived at the Ngati Raukawa village of Papa Ngaio (opposite Te Wharangi) where Amos was running an accommodation house. She and her family are no doubt due a great deal of credit for Amos’ adjustment to his disability. They, in turn, secured an ally they could influence and through whom they could communicate in fluent English. She apparently died after about 7 years (circa 1850), leaving a son who died young from tuberculosis. It is understood that they are both buried at the Ihakara Gardens Cemetery.

1855 was an important year for Amos. His widowed mother, sister and the latter’s children, arrived from England. The sister, Eliza Ann Staff, later married George Nye. Then a few months later he married the very reluctant 17 year old Lydia Hoskins. At a time when women were scarce, she was highly indignant at her father off-loading her on a disabled man. They had a difficult marriage, both were strong willed but by the time they went their separate ways in the late 1870s they had produced 13 children, 10 of whom survived.

Amos had a variety of jobs over the years, which show both his versatility and the responsibility he was given. In addition to running accommodation houses, river ferries and farming, he also worked as an interpreter, including a period as Assistant Interpreter in the Manawatu. He was also used by the Maori Land Courts to help untangle the various claims and counter claims. His 100 acre farm was part of the New Zealand Company purchase which the Government disallowed. However the formidable Te Rangihaeata signed it over to Amos in 1852, in consideration of that original payment. Amos grew wheat and potatoes as well as livestock on his flood-prone farm on the river bank at Whirokino and the frustration of seeing his work under water repeatedly, led to his 1862 proposal to the Government to make a channel across the base of the Foxton Loop, removing what his research showed to be a major bottleneck. Eighty years later the Whirokino Cut was created along the same route, with Amos credited as the original “designer”. The less fortunate effect of the Whirokino Cut was the removal of Foxton’s earliest lifeline – its Port.

In the mid 1860s, while Lydia remained in Foxton with the family, Amos worked as Overseer of Roads creating the main roads around Palmerston North including the road through the Manawatu Gorge. In the summer of 1865-6 Lydia rode with Lady Fox and the survey party to see the new town deep in the bush. They were the first white women to see it. Amos built the first hotel there in 1867 but Lydia refused to leave the civilisation of Foxton and start again in such primitive conditions so he had to employ a manager. Lack of custom soon saw it close. As the years went by, so did the people who had appreciated Amos’ abilities. A particular example was the arrogance displayed by the Hon. John Bryce, Minister of Native Affairs around 1880. Amos reported his views to Bryce on the sources of Maori land troubles in Taranaki, supporting the Maori view. A quote by the prophet Te Whiti (May 18 1880) that Amos forwarded to Bryce is held by descendants in the highest regard. “…. That Moses wrote the law of God on stone; the English wrote theirs on steel for the purposes of printing; but the New Zealand Government wrote theirs on an elastic material which their officers stretched for their own private profits”. Amos provided ample evidence to support Te Whiti’s words.

Lydia’s life is worthy of the greatest respect also. She often had to provide alone for her family when Amos was away working or seeking work. She had been proprietress of the Adelaide Hotel, Foxton, in the 1860s and had advertised her services in the district as a milliner and dressmaker in 1878. Her children recalled her sewing until 2am to raise money. When she was declared bankrupt in 1880 (when Hon. John Bryce was refusing to pay Amos for services rendered in Taranaki) her youngest child was only 3 years old. She was a survivor however, and when she moved to Palmerston North in 1895, she rose to become head of the Dressmaking Department of Leopold Simmons, then that town’s largest drapery shop.

As Amos grew older he became grumpy and disillusioned. Without Social Security he was still working a flax punt at Moutoa in 1900, aged 78. His hooks had always provided a degree of security during tense moments. Once the Court ordered one of them removed for three months after he “hooked” a heckler at an election meeting. Death finally came in 1906, Lydia travelling down from Palmerston North to his funeral in Wellington. They’d had their differences but she respected him and appreciated his difficult life. Lydia had a stroke in 1910 and she herself was physically disabled for the remaining twenty years of her life. Each spent their latter years with their children, passing on valuable information which is now appreciated by later generations throughout the country.

While Amos and Lydia Burr and most of their family were to leave Foxton later in life, descendants regard Foxton as the birthplace of the birthplace of the Burr Family.


When referencing this article please use the following:

Pioneers of Foxton : Book One. p.6-9. [Foxton, N.Z.] : Foxton Historical Society, 1988.

Amos's mother Ann Burr married William Wintersgill in 1857.