Making a new life
in New Zealand

Helena & James Selwood Story

Welcome! This website primarily focuses on the full and diverse life of a young English couple, Helena and James Selwood. In 1876 they left southern England to start a new life in an isolated and challenging part of southern New Zealand.  Helena Jeffery was from a well-to-do farming and hoteling family from Ottery St Mary, Devonshire. James was from an agricultural laboring family from Buscot, Berkshire.

Their eventful 84-day non-stop journey from Greenock, Scotland to Port Chalmers, Otago on the emigrant sailing ship Oamaru was wonderfully recorded by two passengers who kept diaries of their trip. This trip is recorded and featured in this website.

The Selwoods raised a family of 11 children in the rural back-blocks of a young and raw Southland, New Zealand.  Their lives spanned rabbiting, shepherding, mineral searching, hoteling, chutney making, and gold mining. Their lives were entwined with a rapidly developing New Zealand including sheep farming, railway expansion, and the building and launching of New Zealand’s iconic steam ship Earnslaw.

Ottery St
Mary, Devon

The Jeffery Family

Helena Jeffery was born in 1855 and was the tenth and last child of William and Elizabeth Jeffery. Her father was a successful farmer at Burrow Woods, near Wiggaton, on the southern outskirts of Ottery St Mary. The family moved to Ottery St Mary where he owned the Five Bells Inn. It was there, at the age of 10, that Helena witnessed the first of three big fires in her life. At the age of 17 Helena found herself pregnant to James Selwood (Sellwood). She gave birth to Henry in isolation at the Burrow Woods farm. She moved to James town of Buscot.


The Selwood Family

James Selwood was born in 1850, the son of Isaac and Mary Sellard. His father Isaac was an agricultural labourer who lived and worked on the Buscot Estate, which became one of the largest and most innovative farms in the region. James was a gamekeeper on the Estate. Helena joined the family in 1874 and soon after baby Henry was baptized at the local St Mary’s Church. Eighteen months later, in February 1876, Helena and James married at the same Buscot church. James received a life-changing offer to work in New Zealand as a rabbiter.

The Campbell Connection

The lives of the Selwood family in the 1850s to 1880s were very closely linked to the Robert Campbell family, both in Buscot, Berkshire, and in Southland, New Zealand. This connection was primarily a work relationship, the Campbells, of landed gentry, being the owners/managers, and the Selwoods being the workers/servants.

Isaac Sellard/Sellwood/Selwood and son James worked for Australian-born Robert Tertius Campbell on the Buscot Park Estate, and resided in an accommodation block owned by the Campbells.

The Buscot Park Estate was an extensive but run-down land of some 1,440 hectares when Robert Tertius Campbell purchased it in 1859. Using his large-scale Australian farming experience, he converted it to one of the most advanced farms in England.

The earlier generations of Campbells were from Scotland, and immigrated to New South Wales, Australia, at the time it was transitioning from a penal colony towards independence. They were true pioneers, making their fortunes in importing and trading, ship building, sealing (Campbell Island named after them), gold dealing and farming. Their success enabled Robert Tertius Campbell to purchase Buscot Estate.

Robert Campbell junior, the eldest son of Buscot’s Robert Tertius Campbell, become one of New Zealand’s largest high country land owners. He had several business involvements and was also a politician. It was he who was instrumental in encouraging the young Selwood family to immigrate to New Zealand in 1876 for the primary purpose of helping control the burgeoning rabbit problem on his Burwood and adjacent sheep stations.

It was at the time the Selwoods were moving to New Zealand that Robert Campbell junior and his wife built their 35-room limestone baronial mansion on the Otekaieke Estate in north Otago. We conclude the chapter by looking at the fate of the Campbell business and Otekaieke’s Campbell Park Estate.

The Trip to New Zealand

The young Selwood family, James aged 25, Helena aged 20, and young Henry aged two, said goodbye to the Selwoods of Buscot, and to their Campbell sponsoring family in September 1876. They travelled to Greenock, on the Clyde, in Scotland, to board their sailing ship, the Oamaru, for their journey to a new life in a new world.

In 1876 there were, of course, no planes, buses or cars, but there were horse-drawn coaches and rail services. It is probable that the Selwoods travelled by local train to London’s Euston Station to catch the London to Glasgow train. In those days the train service was operated by the London and North Western Railway as far as Carlisle, near the Scottish border, and then the Caledonian Railway from Carlisle to Glasgow. It was a direct and relatively quick service that took 12.5 hours for the 400 mile (640 km) journey. From Glasgow it was a local railway service to the port of Greenock.

The Oamaru was a grand, full-rigged, three-masted iron ship of 1,364 tons gross. It was built as a long-distance emigrant ship. It was somewhat larger than many of the preceding immigrant ships which plied the Australian and New Zealand emigrant routes, which were often well less than 1,000 tons gross.

The Selwoods were on the Oamaru’s second voyage, taking 84 days, under the command of Captain Hood. The Oamaru left Scotland on 23 September 1876, and arrived in Port Chalmers on 16 December with the Selwood family on board, only to be placed in quarantine on arrival. The chapter concludes with the scene on arrival, the time spent on Quarantine Island, the move to Dunedin city, and the birth of Helena and James’s second child Edith Annie.

84 Days at Sea

What was that 84-day non-stop journey to New Zealand like? We are very much indebted to two passengers who kept diaries of their trip which, through their families, have been deposited in Archives New Zealand. With Archives’ approval, they are reproduced here.

One of the diaries was kept by Jane Findlayson, single, 25 years old, from Perthshire, Scotland. She provided a full diary and a wonderful insight into the day-to-day life on board the Oamaru in the single girls’ section at the stern end of the ship.

The other diary was kept by John McDowell, aged 40, from Antrim, Ireland. He was accompanied by his wife Lucy (36), and two young children, Robert (five) and Henry (four months), and they were bunked in the married quarters at the centre of the ship. He has provided a family perspective with emphasis on the ship and its progress.

22 September 1876

We came with the tug on board this ship and a real “hub bub” it was (with) everyone looking after their berth and getting their luggage put to rights. I was much disappointed at being far away from my friend Agnes but we will try our best to exchange with someone.

23 September 1876

We have got the first night over and quite a novelty it is. We have heard of ship life often but the reality is scarcely so pleasant. We have fortunately got a girl to change with me and I am now beside Agnes at which we are very glad. We were all on deck seeing the anchor weighed about four o’clock afternoon, and sailors had a merry song over it and off we went. We stayed on deck till we were ordered to our place at seven o’clock. We took a long look at Scotland and could not help thinking many a change may pass before we see it again.

The Selwoods At


After arriving in New Zealand in 1876 the young family of four travelled to Windley in northern Southland. James was a rabbiter on the Burwood high country sheep station.  It was a productive time, not the least of which was adding a further 6 children to the family. However a major fire in 1889 became life-changing for the family of eleven.


After 12 years virtually living in the rural wilderness the family moved to the small but very active junction town of Lumsden. For the first time the children had a school to go to, and there was an active community life. James and Helena had a significant career life change, with James becoming the proprietor of the Royal Mail Hotel.


After a difficult time making a financial success in his short two years at the Royal Mail Hotel, James Selwood took up the opportunity of converting the run-down Parawa Junction Hotel. The hotel became a very popular focus for the local community. It was generally a happy time for the family, now of 13. But James had failing health.

James Selwood died at the young age of 48

James Selwood died at Parawa on 8 April 1899, and his burial was at the Lumsden Cemetery. The final section of the Parawa chapter reports on the death of James Selwood at the young age of 48, his burial and legacy.

Helena Selwood At


Within two years of the death of her husband, Helena Selwood took the bold step of purchasing the Lake Wakatipu Hotel at Kingston, at the southern end of Lake Wakatipu.

The 22-year-old hotel was the last remaining hotel at Kingston and provided a strategic service linking the end of the rail and road connections to the south with the lake ferry services to Queenstown to the north. Travellers often stayed overnight waiting for the ferry or train. Helena, assisted by members of her family, applied herself with energy and refurbished the hotel. It was while here in 1912 that the Earnslaw was assembled and launched. But did Helena launch the Earnslaw?


In an effort to regain her health, Helena leased out her Lake Wakatipu Hotel for a five-year period from 1906. She shifted to Invercargill and immediately took out a lease on the Victoria Private Hotel. This hotel was on the corner of Clyde and Tyne Streets, a little south of the town on the Bluff highway.

Invercargill was a booming regional town. She would have been, of course, very familiar with Invercargill as the key regional town for obtaining supplies and carrying out legal business. The railway network provided her with a relatively quick and comfortable link from Kingston, Parawa, or Lumsden in the north

Helena Selwood In Later Life

After her farewell valedictory at Kingston, Helena Selwood moved to the southern coastal town of Riverton, Southland, in September 1913. She wanted to regain her health and Riverton would have been a good place for that. But business was still in her blood.

At the age of 57 she purchased a small bakery and confectionery business in Palmerston Street, Riverton. Despite poor health she immediately went into promoting the business and placed advertisements weekly in the Western Star from September 1913. Over the next 18 months she built the business up and was producing 700 loaves a week, which included a substantial contract to the local hospital. The tea rooms were the venue for many local meetings at which Helena provided the catering.

However, Helena’s health had not improved enough and in 1915 she decided to sell up and shift to Christchurch. She sold her business to her son Albert (Bert) but baking was not one of Bert’s strengths and bankruptcy followed, entrapping Helena in the legal follow-up.

In Christchurch first, then in Upper Hutt, she lived in retirement with daughter Evelyna (Eva), her husband Robert Kirk, and their two children, Edwyn and Evelyn. She kept in touch with her family and grandchildren, which by 1930 totalled 30!

Helena Selwood died peacefully on 31 March 1932 at her daughter Evelyna’s home. She was buried alongside her husband James, who died 33 years before her. With husband James they produced and raised 11 young Selwoods in a new land and gave them the grounding and foothold to continue the Selwood legacy of solid work and contributing to the community.

The 2001 Selwood Reunion was a great opportunity to celebrate the lives of Helena and James, and to discover and share how and where their seeds have borne fruit. This website attempts to capture the essence of their lives.

The Selwood Tree

It is exciting to discover where we fit, and who we relate to, in the wider Selwood/Sellwood/Sellard tree.

On this site, with ongoing website development, I hope to give you direct access to the names of some 6000 Selwoods and partners in my Selwood ancestral and descendant tree.  In the meantime, on request, I can give you indirect access to my Selwood Tree on

To truly verify a family tree connection it is desirable to take a DNA test.  We discuss these tests and their value.

In this section we can also look at the lives of some of the immediate first generation descendants of James and Helena Selwood.  I depend on members of the various Selwood branches to prepare their family group stories and complete this section.

The 2001 Selwood Reunion

The year 2001 was the 125th anniversary of the arrival of James and Helena Selwood in New Zealand in 1876. They established themselves in inland Southland and raised a family of 11 children.

To celebrate this 125th anniversary a reunion was held in Invercargill in January 2001 at which about 90 Selwood descendants, family and friends attended, including ten of James and Helena’s grandchildren.  The reunion included a field trip to many of the places familiar to the Selwood family.  It included a ride on the Kingston Flyer train and in a railway carriage which the Selwood children would have travelled in some 100 years previously.  There was a special dinner and an inspiring Sunday commemorative service led by Neville Selwood, Archbishop Emeritus Church of Otago, which included a specially-written Selwood hymn.

Many friends were made and lots of photos were taken. A summary of the 2001 Reunion together with many of the photos, is posted via the link here.

Grahame Walton

Grahame Walton is a third generation Selwood descendant. In his retirement he has been researching the family tree, and working on this website for the last two, going on 25 years!

Grahame would welcome feedback to improve and update the information on this website, and to correct any inaccuracies.