John was born in Devonshire (Devon, UK) and trained as a civil engineer under Isambard Kingdom Brunel. In 1854 he went to India to follow his profession, but two years later arrived in New Zealand.
In May 1863 with Jacob Louper, a Swiss guide who had recently arrived in New Zealand, he set out to find a practicable route from Canterbury to the West Coast. They ascended the Rakaia River valley and crossed the pass now known as the Whitcombe Pass, into the western watersheds. They reached the coast but were in a very low condition from exposure and want of food but neither Hokitika nor Arahura were inhabited.
In attempting to make their way to the mouth or the Grey River, where there was a Maori settlement, they had to cross the Taramakau River and Whitcombe’s strength was not equal to the effort and he was drowned when two derelict and waterlogged canoes in which they attempted to cross were overturned in the breakers at the river mouth.
Louper recovered and buried the body, which was later moved by the Government to the cemetery in Hokitika, where a combined monument commemorates Henry Whitcombe, George Dobson, Herbert Charlton Howitt and Charles Townsend, all of whom were surveyor-engineers during the early days the gold rush and the pioneering of Westland.
Further reading: George Whitcombe (Councillor), who for some time occupied the honourable position of chairman of the Pahiatua County Council, was the son of John Henry Whitcombe. The Cyclopedia of New Zealand, describes how John’s expedition with his Swiss companion, Jacob Louper, attempted to cross the Teremakau River in a canoe, which was in a very bad condition, and when in mid-stream the position became so critical that Mr. Whitcombe, who was able to swim, struck out for the shore in order to relieve the canoe of his weight, as his assistant was a non-swimmer. Old Jacob, as he is now called, clung to the swamped canoe, and was saved, but Mr. Whitcomb’s noble act cost him his life. The body was recovered and interred at Hokitika, where a monument erected by the Government now marks his resting place in common with that of Charlton Howitt, who was drowned in the river Brunner, and George Dobson, who was murdered by the Kelly gang.
Further reading: John Henry Whitcombe and his Wife, Maria Whitcombe (formerly North), and family, were passengers from UK to NZ on the Lyttelton by the Zealandia on 20th September 1858. After being widowed in 1863, Maria married Edward Cephas John Stevens, of Salford, England, who emigrated to Canterbury, NZ.
Credit: Graham M. Miller. ‘Stevens, Edward Cephas John’, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1990. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1s23/stevens-edward-cephas-john (accessed 31 July 2019)
Mount Whitcombe is over 2,600 metres high and is in the Southern Alps of the South Island. Unmapped at the time, the mountain and river were named after John Henry Whitcombe by Julius von Haast (a prominent explorer and geologist) in his honour.
Picture: View from Pt 1,850m, Birdwood range, Whitcombe Mountain (far right); Credit: Southern Alps Photography