Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Thomas Kendall (1778–1832)

by J. W. Davidson

This article was published:

Thomas Kendall (1778-1832), missionary, was born on 13 December 1778 at North Thoresby, Lincolnshire, England, the son of Edward Kendall, a small farmer, and his wife Susanna, née Sorflitt. He became a teacher but at one period combined this work with farming and at another abandoned it to become a grocer and draper. On 21 November 1803 at Kirmington, Lincolnshire, he married Jane Quickfall (1781-1866).

In 1808 Rev. Samuel Marsden persuaded the Church Missionary Society to begin work in New Zealand by appointing a group of men able to teach the Maori 'the arts of civilization', as well as to act as catechists. In 1809 Kendall, whose preoccupation with religion had from youth been intense, though discontinuous, volunteered for service in the proposed mission and was accepted. With his wife and five children, he sailed for New South Wales in 1813. He participated, together with Peter Dillon, in a preliminary expedition to New Zealand in 1814. At the end of that year Kendall, whom Governor Lachlan Macquarie had appointed a justice of the peace in order that he could attempt to exercise some restraint on the actions of Europeans in New Zealand, settled permanently at the Bay of Islands with William Hall, a carpenter, and John King, a shoemaker.

Kendall applied himself to his duties with energy and devotion. In particular, he set out to master the Maori language and produced a Maori-English primer, A Korao no New Zealand; or, the New Zealander's First Book (Sydney, 1815). In 1816 he opened a school for Maori children, but he had formidable difficulties. His two colleagues, who possessed equal status with him, resented his non-participation in manual work, and the three quarrelled violently on this and other matters. Attendance at the school soon began to wane, as he lacked the resources to feed his pupils. Finally, the arrival in 1819 of an ordained clergyman as resident superintendent of the mission was a bitter blow to his self-esteem. He continued his work on the language and deepened his study of custom; but, from an early stage, he had sought solace for his troubles in heavy drinking with visiting mariners and, through his contact with them, he became involved in the trade in muskets. In March 1820 he sailed for England accompanied by two Maori chiefs. Though he was censured by the Church Missionary Society for this unauthorized visit, it enabled him to publish, jointly with Professor Samuel Lee of Cambridge, A Grammar and Vocabulary of the Language of New Zealand (London, 1820) and to secure ordination by the bishop of Norwich.

Kendall arrived back at the Bay of Islands in July 1821. Before long he was living with a Maori woman and again trading in muskets. In 1823 he was dismissed. In 1825 he sailed for Valparaiso, where he acted as chaplain and schoolmaster to the English community. He returned to New South Wales in 1827, obtained a land grant at Ulladulla, and entered the timber trade. In August 1832 he was drowned when a small vessel that he used in his business overturned near the mouth of the Shoalhaven River.

As a missionary Kendall was conspicuous for his fine qualities of intellect and imagination; but his career was ruined by the instability of purpose that had marked his religious and professional life from its beginning. He was a man who was equally responsive to the claims of conscience and of the senses, and it seems fitting that the best known of his descendants, his grandson Henry Kendall, gained his reputation as a poet.

A painting by James Barry of Kendall and two Maori chiefs, Hongi and Waikato, is in the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Select Bibliography

  • J. R. Elder (ed), Marsden's Lieutenants (Dunedin, 1934)
  • R. M. Burdon, New Zealand Notables, vol 3 (Christchurch, 1950).

Citation details

J. W. Davidson, 'Kendall, Thomas (1778–1832)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 24 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


13 December, 1778
North Thoresby, Lincolnshire, England


August, 1832 (aged 53)
Shoalhaven River, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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