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John Shedden Adam was born in 1824 in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland, to James Adam (1771-1849) and Janet Shedden (1788-1863). James and Janet married on August 10, 1807, and they had eight children of whom John was the youngest son. John’s father was a man of many parts being an estate manager or factor, a land improver, a Writer to the Signet and the inventor of a screw propeller for naval ships. James was originally from Lochwinnoch where he had a small property and in 1807 was appointed the factor on the great Drummond estate. On his own account, he was later involved in land improvement schemes at Barr Loch from 1813 until 1815; these proved a financial disaster. Fortunately, by marrying into the Shedden family and through the wealth and generosity of Janet’s uncle, the Adam family did not face ruin and were later to inherit significant wealth. These Barr Loch holdings were sold by 1820 and on quitting agricultural pursuits and leaving Garpel near Lochwinnoch, James practised as a Writer to the Signet (solicitor) in Edinburgh, a profession to which he had been apprenticed.
Around 1821, James returned again to the role of factor (property manager) moving his family to Lewis where he worked for Mackenzie of Seaforth at least until 1826. Around this date, he moved back to Edinburgh and recommenced his business as a Writer to the Signet. John Shedden Adam, despite the strong family connections to Lochwinnoch where all his siblings were born and his relatives had significant landholdings, spent his childhood initially on Lewis and then from 5 years of age in Edinburgh. He went to school at the Royal Naval and Military Academy, Lothian Road, Edinburgh. This institution was commenced for the purpose of ‘affording education to pupils destined to serve in the army or navy, or East India Company’s service’. The Academy taught a range of practical subjects such as mathematics, science and engineering and languages but, importantly for Adam’s future work as a draftsman, it also taught landscape and perspective drawing. In 1841, John was awarded the Master’s prize in senior mathematics and first prize in civil engineering.
The Adam Family and New Zealand
By 1841, the extended Adam family had decided to seek their fortune in New Zealand. John’s brother James and his wife Margaret took passage to New Zealand on the Brilliant and arrived in October of that year. The Adam family had been convinced by the New Zealand Manukau and Waitemata Company to invest £1,200 in shares for land and were led to believe that the wonderful city of Cornwallis was ready and waiting for energetic young immigrants, such as themselves, from Scotland. The settlement was a disaster. Where settlers expected there to be a town there was nothing but wilderness, and they had been duped by exaggerated promises. Sadly, the settlement leader, together with James Adam and several others, going on an errand of mercy to get medicine for a sick woman (Mrs. Hamblin, wife of the Missionary at Manukau) were drowned in November of 1841 and the plans of the Adam family were thrown into disarray.