First settler’s legacy celebrated by namesake

The legacy of Queenstown’s first European settler was celebrated on Thursday at a hotel named after him, on what would have been his 196th birthday.

William Gilbert Rees, originally from Wales, and his wife Frances settled beside Lake Wakatipu in 1861 and built the first buildings nearby before everything changed with the discovery of gold the following year.

A farmer, Mr Rees lost his licence for "Run 356" in Queenstown when the land was declared a goldfield on November 6, 1863, but immersed himself in the community and the two sports closest to his heart, horse racing and cricket.

He was a founding member of the Queenstown Cricket Club in 1863 and later its president, and was also a founding member of the Masonic Lake Lodge of Ophir, president of the Wakatipu Jockey Club, Church of England committee member and chairman for the hospital and Queenstown improvement committees.

However, in 1867 he and his family left Queenstown, bound for the Otekaieke Run, in the Waitaki Valley.

At a farewell in Queenstown on April 23 of that year, a large number of residents and settlers gathered at the Queen’s Arms Hotel to pay their respects to the family. Prominent political and business leader Bendix Hallenstein delivered the valedictory speech, and Mr Rees was presented with a purse of gold sovereigns.

At Thursday’s posthumous birthday party, held at The Rees Hotel, named in the early settler’s honour, Lakes District Museum director David Clarke, of Arrowtown, said the museum held a number of taonga (treasured objects) belonging to Mr Rees, many donated by his great-granddaughter Rosemary Grace Marryatt, whose book A Sheep In My Eye tells Mr Rees’ story.

The items included a letter to Mr Rees from his godson, early English cricketer William Gilbert Grace, sent in 1891 from Australia during one of the first international cricket tours.

Cutting the cake at William Gilbert Rees’ posthumous birthday party at The Rees Hotel in...
Cutting the cake at William Gilbert Rees’ posthumous birthday party at The Rees Hotel in Queenstown on Thursday are (from left) hotel executive assistant manager Micka McDonald, Queenstown-Lakes district councillor Matt Wong and hotel manager Roman Lee-Lo. PHOTO: TRACEY ROXBURGH
"He claimed the cricket in Australia is played in bad spirit and there are accounts of cheating," Mr Clarke said.

However, the most significant items formed a silver tea service — on display at The Rees yesterday — each piece engraved to acknowledge their presentation to Mr Rees "as a mark of the esteem of his friends and well-wishers in the Wakatipu district".

In later years, Mr Rees lived in Alexandra, Timaru and Ashburton and success followed him until his death on October 31, 1898, at Wairau Hospital, Blenheim.

Mr Clarke said he had often wondered what might have happened if the Rees family had remained in Queenstown.

"He would have been involved in politics — perhaps become the mayor or local MP.

"Irrespective, we have all been fortunate he passed this way and left such a legacy."

The Rees Hotel general manager Roman Lee-Lo said the hotel was dedicating this year to Mr Rees’ memory, offering historical sightseeing options for guests, while honouring the role played by Queenstown’s pre-European settlers, the Māori and celebrating the 160th anniversary of Queenstown’s naming.