MERRA Historical Trail Location 1:
Mahurangi Heads Cemetery
Summary: This commentary explores the history of…
- this old, secluded but treasured cemetery and some of its occupants
- the modest but beautiful church that stood here for 123 years
- the Mahurangi Harbour as an historic highway… an essential route for travel and trade
- the scow Jane Gifford (1908) that still plies the river
- the rise and unspeakable fall of Philip Dyer of Dyers creek (opposite)
- Motukauri (Grants Island) and the graves it may hold
- Gordon Browne and how his spar trade was usurped by HMS Buffalo in 1834
This land was gifted to the Presbyterian Church in 1862 by early settler William Grant to become a Free Burial Ground. It is one of four small graveyards around the Mahurangi Harbour. The others are at Te Muri, Pukapuka and Te Kapa.
The graves and headstones before you are the final resting place of many early European settlers and local families. Farming, boat building and seafaring feature strongly in their family stories.. The family plots include members of the Algie, Darrach, Darroch, Dawson, Kasper, Grant and Scott families. Donor William Grant’s tombstone reveals that he lived to the grand old age of 98. Others died much younger; some lost to drowning in the days when people and goods travelled by sea not road. The Auckland to Warkworth road was not formed until 1915 and until the late 1930s was impassible for much of the winter.
An elegantly simple wooden church was built here and opened on March 13 1864. It is thought that William Grant built the church largely single-handed from local kauri. The building was sited beyond the graveyard closer to the water and the southern (LHS) fence line.
The energetic Reverend McKinnley rowed himself down the river from Warkworth each week to take Sunday services. The first recorded marriage was in 1868.
The church was at the heart of the community for 123 years. It hosted services, marriages and funerals along with soirees and other community events. The congregation would arrive on foot, by boat (and a steep trail up the hill) or by horse. By the 1950s summer services regularly overflowed the building. A team of volunteers completed a 3 metre addition to the building in 1956. The wooden belfry was replaced in 1948 by the stand-alone brick version that still stands. The large
brass ship’s bell (originally donated by a local shipyard) was relocated to the brick belfry.
Sadly the church was blown off its foundations by Cyclone Bola in 1988.
Despite an eight month campaign by local residents who were passionate about saving and restoring the building, the Presbyterian authorities decided it must go. The building was broken apart and burned.
For more history and pictures of this location (and references/acknowledgements) see:
The Mahurangi Harbour
The Mahurangi River leading up the valley to Warkworth was once a busy thoroughfare traversed by Maori in their waka. Fishing (particularly for shark) saw a large seasonal population of Maori in the area. From Victorian times the river was regularly traversed by local European settlers in their flat bottomed rowing punts, trading vessels of various sizes, and the regular coastal steamers calling at Scotts Landing and Warkworth as part of their scheduled passenger and freight runs. Other traffic on the river included vessels in the firewood, fruit, market-garden, lime and cement trades. These
vessels serviced John Anderson Brown’s water-wheel powered sawmill (1844-65), flour and bone mills (1855-77) and Combes and Daldy’s lime works (1840s to 1880s). These were all in the Warkworth township area. From humble beginnings in 1866 until 1924 the Wilson Cement Works operated on the opposite bank south of the town. Increasingly up-scaled and mechanised it produced a peak of 20,000 tons of cement annually. The picture below is of these works in 1902. The clouds of coal smoke, steam and dust would have been clearly visible up the valley from this vantage point
Flat bottomed sailing scows were the heavy trucks of their time. Many were locally-built and a frequent sight on the river. The Kasper family owned many of the scows and steamers that frequented the Mahurangi. Many of the Kasper family are buried here. Some of their fleet is shown below anchored near here. The Kasper’s home ‘Pine Grove’ was around the next point up river.
The Darroch family (again many buried here) were notable boat builders in the Mahurangi and later at Whangateau. George Darroch built the ‘Eagle’ almost directly across the river from here in 1852. At least 11 further vessels were built at his new home on the Te Kapa side of the peninsular (now Cantyre Estate). His son James kept up the tradition. Grandson Davy Darroch built dozens of vessels at Whangateau including the sailing scow Jane Gifford in 1908.
The Jane Gifford
The Jane Gifford worked the Mahurangi river from 1921 until 1938. Much of that time she transported shell from the Firth of Thames to the cement works. From 1937 to 1958 she too was owned by the Kaspers.
Happily Pine Grove is now back in Kasper ownership and the 112 year old Jane Gifford, now beautifully restored, once more plies the Mahurangi from her base in Warkworth.
Unfortunately development and deforestation over time have silted up the river with the main channel now far shallower and navigable only at high tide. Dredging of the river, started in 2018
with a $250,000 Local Board grant, will recommence thanks to a $4m Government grant announced in July 2020.
The Lawrie Family
The kauri-dotted farm north towards the top of the peninsular has been in the Lawrie family for six generations. James Lawrie, one of many of his family buried here, arrived from Scotland in 1860 aboard the ‘Red Jacket’ and purchased the farm in 1863 from Messrs Daldy and Combes. James died aged 91 in 1922. His descendants still farm the beautiful property.
The Rise & Unspeakable Fall of Philip Dyer
Dyers Creek flows past an early pa and cultivation site into the Mahurangi opposite here. The creek is tidal up to a small waterfall a kilometre or more upstream.
After purchasing a Government cutting right for £5, Philip Charles Dyer (occupation sawyer/firewood cutter) set up camp in 1846 with his wife Eliza (nee Smith). A son, George, was born in 1847. Dyer and his neighbour Henry Cowan (also a sawyer) built the schooner ‘Post Boy’ in 1849. The build site was probably on the creek bank near the bush line where shards of iron and pottery have been discovered. Dyer and Eliza soon moved on to Pakiri where their business in timber and shingles
flourished. The Mahurangi-built ‘Post Boy’ was used to deliver wood products to the Auckland market.
The family grew to 7 children. The Dyers established a busy store, post office and built a school for local Maori and settler children. A tragic turning point came after Eliza died aged 52 in June 1870. Dyer’s took to drink and an abusive relationship with his niece Elizabeth Battersea.
Dyer was hanged in 1874; guilty of murder. The court established that his brutal abuse of Elizabeth (she too was known as Eliza) had culminated in him dousing her with kerosene and fatally setting her alight.
For more history and references/acknowledgements see http://early-history- auckland.blogspot.com/2014/03/murder-at-pariki-northland- and.html and http://www.mahurangi.org.nz/2018/04/11/boatbuilding-begins-in-the-mahurangi/
Cowan’s Bay is the next bay north and where Henry later set up a brick-making operation. The large (144 ha) area of native bush opposite between Cowans Bay and Dyers creek is McElroy Scenic Reserve. It was vested in Council by the McElroy brothers. Their large farm, Wicklow Hills, was purchased from an uncle, John Campbell, in 1901. Its interesting history will be covered in another site guide.
The Anderson Family
The farmland immediately to the south of the cemetery was purchased by the Andersons in 1903 at least in part from the Grants. Fred Anderson was one of the last sawyers in the area. He would row down the river to the Pukapuka and from there walk up to the logging camps around Moirs Hill. The Anderson’s gradually acquired a sizeable land-holding on the peninsular. Much has now been on-sold. Joyce, widow of Fred’s grandson Graeme Anderson, still resides on the land, north of the sweeping bay that bears the family’s name.
Grants Island just off shore has an interesting history of Maori occupation (probably as a fortified lookout). Known to Maori as Motu Kauri it appeared in the 1834 HMS Buffalo survey by the transliteration Motu Cowdie. It was also known as Pine Island and Pudding Island in the past. It may hold the graves of executed convicts and possibly the captain of the 380 ton timber ship ‘Nancy’ who was killed in a loading accident in 1832. There are reports of marked graves on the island in 1888.
Legend has it that two convict labourers on board HMS Buffalo in 1834 were executed and buried there after killing their guard. This early photograph of Grants Island taken from near the old schoolhouse (above Burton Wells Reserve) shows a fuller profile and far fewer mangroves.
Brownes Bay: On the opposite bank further south on the river one can make out a narrow pine-tree clad point and a wide shallow bay to its right. This bay, later to be part of McElroys’ ‘Wicklow Hills’ farm, was the site of Gordon Davies Browne’s kauri spar station. It was the first European settlement on the Mahurangi. Timber breastwork, Sydney-made bricks and pottery shards still mark the site. Fluent in Te Reo Maori, Browne was a swashbuckling figure in early New Zealand and New
South Wales. After close shaves and mixed fortunes in the early flax and timber industries, Browne arrived from Sydney (with entrepreneur Captain Dacre) aboard the 243 ton brig ‘Bolina’ in May 1832. They were armed with a dubious 5000 acre ‘purchase’ from Puhata, William Pepena and others (chiefs of Ngāti Pāoa) and a contract to source 115 masts and 500 loads of timber for the sum of £750. They brought a team of fifteen carpenters and sawyers with them.
When missionary Henry Williams visited in April 1833 the operation was well underway. Browne was resident with ‘Jess’, his high ranking Ngāti Pāoa wife and storekeeper. Jess was to give birth to a son during their time at Mahurangi. Dacre too was still here. A team of 30 workers including many Maori were busy felling, squaring spars and cutting timber. Once prepared, stockpiled timber was loaded onto ships, via a tunnel (now collapsed) cut through the point. The remaining ‘notch’ is still
visible. The sailing ships anchored in the deeper water of the next bay.
Browne was enraged when the Admiralty stores ship HMSS Buffalo arrived in 1834 to commandeer spars. Captain Sadler’s willingness to offer muskets, bayonets and shot as payment seriously impacted Browne’s on-going ability to retain and re-recruit Maori workers. There was also friction with local (Te Kawerau) Maori who disputed the land-sale and resented the presence of Browne’s Ngāti Pāoa workforce. These ongoing tensions and problems with quality control meant that the spar station was shortlived. Dacre instructed Browne to relocate the operation to Whitianga in 1835/6. Browne’s mixed fortunes continued. He died aged in the Bay of Islands in 1841, a broken man not yet 40.
In 1834 HMS Buffalo’s first mate F A Cudlip carried out the first detailed part-survey of the Mahurangi. His map is reproduced below with Motu Cowdie (Grant’s Island) opposite Dyers Creek near the top and Browne’s spar station marked middle left inside a narrow peninsular.
For acknowledgements and further detail see http://www.mahurangi.org.nz/2017/05/21/gordon-
browne-spar-station/, https://teara.govt.nz/en/1966/browne-gordon-davies and