Scotts Landing

Nau mai ki (welcome to) Location 4: Schoolhouse Bay

This commentary explores:

  • In the area: points of interest
  • The pā site above and middens below
  • Early European settlers in Schoolhouse Bay
  • The Burton Wells years
  • The story of the McElroy homestead across the river

Read on to explore the history of the area you see from this vantage point.  

You will note that the configuration of this bench with its wooden platform differs from others on the historical trail.  It has been designed to sit lightly above ground to protect any archaeological taonga that may lie below.  The predominance of timber and its light touch on the landscape respects the particular cultural and historical significance of this place.

Kia mahara mai (please note): MERRA’s Historical Trail commentaries are draft working documents compiled by volunteers.  They will be revised through on-going consultation and research and as feedback is received.

We invite constructive feedback, wider perspectives, additional information, and suggestions for improvement.   Please be in touch via the contact form on this website.

In the area

Above you to your right cloaked by a regenerating cover of native bush are the remnants of an impressive headland ring pā.  The shores of what Māori called the Kiaho and Waihē (now more commonly known as Mahurangi Harbour and River) are dotted with these pre-European fortifications.  Adjacent to each would have been cleared areas for cultivation and day to day activities such as fish drying, waka building or repairs, games and recreation, implement and weapon making, carving, flax preparation, net making, weaving, and cooking and eating.  

The slowly eroding shoreline directly in front here underlines this.  The shell middens evidence the many meals of kaimoana enjoyed long ago right here.

The European name ‘Schoolhouse Bay’ derives from the one room school that stood for 130 years just up the rise behind you to your left.  From 1861 its pupils likely played and had swimming and nature study lessons right here.  Some perhaps rowed ashore at this very spot each morning perhaps tying their ‘Mahurangi Punts’ to the sprawling pohutakawa tree while they attended class.  The ponies that other children rode to school may have grazed lazily along this shoreline waiting for home time.  Sailing scows once awaited their next cargoes at anchor in the shallows just as waka had in previous centuries.

South (left) along the shore towards Ngaio Bay (Location 5) modest cottages and other buildings were built by European settlers from the 1850s.  Among these were the cottages of surveyor Charles Heaphy and William McBrierty the local ferryman. 

Directly ahead across the harbour the former McElroy homestead with its red roof and white weatherboards brings its own historical tales of enterprise, generosity, commitment and longevity.

The pā above and middens below

The Māori history of the Mahurangi is extensive and complex; blurred in part by the mists of time.  The commentary at  Location 6 offers further Māori history.  

The pā here is one of the over 5000 known pā sites in Aotearoa New Zealand, most in Te Ika a Maui (the North Island). Each was built as a defensive stronghold and place of refuge in case of attack.  At the time Europeans first arrived in the late 1700s most Māori communities in northern New Zealand maintained at least one pā in a state of readiness (see

The Department of Conservation (DOC) dates this pā as 16th to 19th Century. (see  However future archaeological investigation and carbon dating may provide more definitive dating.  

The well-preserved ‘sharp’ state of the earthworks (despite likely being grazed by livestock in the late 19th and early 20th century) suggest the pā may indeed have been occupied periodically until as late as the early 1800s.  Other pa sites such as that at Motu Maunganui opposite Scott Point’s Location 6 (Casnells Island; 16th to 18th Century) have similar dates in DOC records. 

The NZ Archaeological Association describes the pā here as a fine example of a ring-ditch pā. Some of the area around the pā shows signs of terracing … [This] suggests that the outer areas of the headland were used for living and the pā used as a defensive retreat if the occupants of the headland were threatened by attack. Other signs of occupation are the middens. These are visible as scatterings of shell in blackened or charcoal stained earth.’ (see

Three hundred years ago it may have looked a bit like the pā depicted in the image below.

A representation of a pa that occupied a similar headland showing the defensive works and buildings within the fortified area. See:

The planning and sheer hard physical work that pā construction required is daunting even by today’s standards.  The clearing, digging and earth-moving required to form the terraces, ramparts and ditches is massive; especially on steep, cliff-edged sites chosen for their natural impregnability.  Additionally the felling and transport of the hundreds of kanuka palisade posts, digging them in and lashing them together was another mammoth task.  Within, there were also the fighting platforms, whare (shelters, houses), pātaka and pākoro (storage pits and storehouses) to craft, construct and whakairo (decorate or carve).

The fact that so much time and energy was invested in building these defences (and so many of them) is witness to the fact that the Mahurangi was both prized and contested by Maori over a long period.  It was a location that ticked boxes: sheltered harbour, travel crossroads, rich fishery, temperate climate, and strategic location.

All pā, and this is no exception, reflect an area’s turbulent past… ‘Māori were not constantly at war, but they did live with the constant threat of war … It is a fact of life that ‘is literally carved into the New Zealand landscape’  (( 

As historian Ronald Locker observed in ‘Jade River, A History of the Mahurangi’ (2001) the Mahurangi had to be defended repeatedly against alien waka, nosing in with predatory intent, or war parties from the inland’.  He describes how local lookouts would have,  “watched nervously as the great waka passed northwards or southwards, and more nervously when the crews camped nearby for the night, or to wait for better weather. Te Hemara Tauhia and others, in a claim for Tiritiri Matangi in 1867, said it was usual for war parties of all tribes travelling along the coast to camp at the island, and to bury their dead there”.

Prior to the arrival of the European musket, the weapons used to attack pa were mere (flat club often made of greenstone) and taiaha (long hardwood weapon).   Sometimes fire, stealth or even subterfuge were used.  Weapons of defence were rocks, spears, mere, taiaha and of course (in the case of siege) good supplies of food and water.

As will be outlined in subsequent commentaries a long succession of iwi and hapu contested, occupied and enjoyed this harbour with tales both of conflict and accord.

Early European settlement in Schoolhouse Bay (sometimes known as Heaphy Bay)

The ‘Old’ Survey Station and Heaphy’s cottage:  Between 1852 and 1854 Provincial Surveyor Charles Heaphy VC supervised Denham’s survey of the Village of Mahurangi. 

The resulting map showed a Survey Station building approximately 50 metres left of here on ‘Lot 62’ which was then described as a Reserve.  

This Signal station appears in the public record as a polling booth in Provincial Elections during the 1860s and 1870s.  Described as ‘Old’ by 1862, the station was clearly long-established (see for example, The Superintendency Election.  Daily Southern Cross, 1 Dec 1862, Page 3)

Other accounts suggest it served as the first local church and possibly the school prior to 1861.

Heaphy himself built his own cottage slightly south in this same bay.  As discussed at Location 2, Charles Heaphy was a prominent figure in early New Zealand as an artist, explorer, surveyor, and militia man.   Even when he moved on the Schoolhouse Bay cottage remained a summer escape until he retired to Queensland around 1880 due to failing health.

Charles Heaphy died in 1881.  

 According to former residents, the Grahams, Heaphy’s cottage formed the original part of their home at the bottom of Roberts Street.  It has been enveloped in additions over two levels and has recently undergone further extension.  The location of Heaphy’s former cottage is behind the first of the two giant macrocapa stump you will notice as you walk along the beach towards Location 5.

NZ Railways publicity photo of Schoolhouse Bay circa 1930s.  Charles Heaphy’s former cottage is visible along the beach.  The scows at anchor likely belong to the Kasper family.

William and Rose McBrierty’s family cottage was just beyond Heaphy’s.  They arrived here in 1861.  Father William was employed to row travellers across the harbour as they journeyed north or south along the coastal trail.  The local Roads Board paid him a modest annuity (£15 in 1876).  Given that the Puhoi ferryman (with a far shorter crossing) was paid £20 per year and charged 6p per passenger it is likely McBrierty’s fee was significantly higher given a return row of over two miles.  Penny-conscious locals preferred to maintain their own punts or cutters for their own crossings. Reminding us of the many drowning tragedies this brought (including the Short family discussed at Location 2), the Daily Southern Cross (8 September 1875) reported that McBrierty recovered the drowned body of a Mr Pilkington from a reef in the harbour).  (see also  The Reverend McKinney’s son met a similar fate. 

William McBrierty died in 1881.  His wife Rose’s obituary mentions the McBrierty’s kindness in offering travellers food and accommodation.  The McBrierty family by 1881 was listed as 6 children, 41 grandchildren, 58 great grandchildren and 3 great great grandchildren.  The modest cottage must have been stretched at times!

The McBriertys are buried in the Mahurangi Heads cemetery (Location 1). Rose’s obituary is below.  Their cottage remains; still used as a much-loved family bach.  It would have been just out of shot (right) in the above photograph.

Obituary for Rose McBrierty, NZ Herald 14 July 1895.  Note that the vessel Jane Gifford referred to was a 488 ton barque that brought immigrants to NZ.  The ship’s 1842 manifest shows four McBrierty children (aged 12 to one year) embarked with William and Rose.  Sadly the infant died at sea. The 1908 Darroch-built scow Jane Gifford was named after the barque.

Burton Wells and family

Like Heaphy, Burton Wells (1886–1955) was a surveyor whose profession brought him to Schoolhouse Bay and kindled a love affair with the Mahurangi. In 1941 Burton and wife Louisa (Louie) took a lease over the Education Board land incorporating the headland, the former school grounds and much of the Schoolhouse Bay frontage.  It was a holiday retreat for themselves their four children.  Their original holiday accommodation was the old school house (ladies slept inside, men outside in tents).  It was at this time one of the outhouses was repurposed as a fish smoker.  This was supplemented later by two ex-army huts relocated to the beachside. Eventually the Wells family purchased the land from the Crown and the headland was vested in the Crown as a reserve.

Burton and Louisa Wells

The remaining bach that sits very close to the beach was built on the Wells property by a colleague and friend Mr Luan (Lu) Bridson.  Lu was a capable and generous gardener who had previously occupied one of the army huts. An extensive garden surrounded his dwelling.  Sadly around 1970 Lu was discovered dead in his cottage by one of the Wells’ grandchildren.  There were no suspicious circumstances.

Lu Bridson’s cottage c 1966 courtesy of the Wells family (see It is interesting to note that while Lu’s original dwelling has been extended and a deck added, it seems the shoreline has eroded back quite significantly in the past 55 years.

Burton Wells died in 1955 and Rose in the late 1960s.  The property was sold after this time.  John Waugh in his research refers to subsequent ‘time of sale correspondence (sale: Lucas to Sakurada in 1992)’ where the Warkworth Museum was offered the schoolhouse for removal.  Annotation suggest that the schoolhouse was dismantled and removed, presumably by museum volunteers, around this time. (see

Schoolhouse Bay with the pā site (now Burton Wells Reserve) in the centre.  You are now in behind the large pohutakawa middle right.

The McElroy Homestead Mahurangi West

Directly ahead of this bench straight across the harbour, just inland from the Oaua headland pā site, sits a white weatherboard villa with a classic red roof. It is demurely screened by mature pohutakawa trees. 

The picture-book Victorian homestead (Pictured above: Locker, 2001) was built as a country retreat by wealthy Irishman John Campbell.  Campbell, whose wealth came from Auckland real estate dealings, had purchased the extensive 1190 acre landholding (extending from the north side of the Pukapuka Inlet through to Cowans Bay) for £541.   His friend and fellow Irishman, the irrepressible Henry Mason (grandfather of longtime councillor and Rodney mayor Gordon Mason), moved into an older more modest home nearby and managed the day to day running of the farm until 1899.  

Campbell’s three ‘nephews’ Billy (William Jnr) and Paddy (Arthur) spent much time at the farm.  Their father William McElroy (senior) was a local settler with a good knowledge of (particularly Māori) local history. He was close (perhaps related) to Campbell but also a successful contractor… he was the builder of the original Waiwera Bridge (1882) and the original steamer wharf at Scott Point.  His successful tender for the wharf was £490.00. However William McElroy’s enterprise came to an abrupt end when he was killed in a logging accident at Ruakaka aged 34.

A steamer at the McElroy-built wharf at Scotts Landing during a Mahurangi Regatta.  Years later Nora Weakley (see below) watched from the villa opposite as the whole thing (shed included) floated away during a storm.  (courtesy

Generously Campbell passed the property to William’s widow Nellie (the boys’ mother) apparently at very favourable terms.  The boys became the farmers.  The property was named ‘Wicklow Hills’ after their mother’s Irish birth county.

Paddy never married and Billy’s marriage to local widow Matha Warren produced no children.

In the late 1920s when mother Nellie became ill, a 16 year old Warkworth girl by the name of Nora Weakley joined the household as caregiver, nursing her until her death.  In turn she cared for both Paddy and for Billy after his wife died.  In appreciation the boys promised Nora the use of the villa for the rest of her life.  It turned out a very generous gift… as Locker noted in Jade River- a History of the Mahurangi (2001) “having celebrated her 84th birthday in 1997 she keeps active in her colourful garden in one of the most beautiful settings on the River…. one of the last survivors of early life at the heads”.  

Nora Weakley outside the McElroy’s Wicklow Hills homestead in the 1990s

But the boys generosity was not finished… 151 bush-clad hectares of the McElroy property was gifted as a reserve and the residue of the huge property willed to the Anglican Church via the McElroy Trust.  

Despite lobbying that it be purchased as a Regional park, the church somehow disposed of the property back into private ownership.   While some blocks have been on-sold, so far the beauty and serenity of Wicklow Hills remains; its beautiful homestead still in original form.  Hopefully it will remain so.

Next Location: to reach Historical Trail Location 5 head (tide permitting) south along Schoolhouse Bay and around the rock shelf to Ngaio Bay Reserve (Approximately 1.2 km). Be careful as the rocks can be slippery particularly if wet and some parts are impassible above half tide.  Ngaio Bay has many dinghies on their racks and a steep concrete ramp between macrocarpa trees up to a public carpark.  You will find the Location 5 bench adjacent the carpark.

If the tide is too high (or incoming) retrace your steps back to Ridge Rd (via Williams St and Location 3) or head up either of the two marked walkways further south along the coast. The first (beyond Lu’s bach) takes you up ‘Bay St’ veering back north to Location 3.  The second heads more directly up to Ridge Road via ‘Reef St’ adjacent #57 Ridge Rd.  Once on Ridge Road head south beyond the tarseal taking the marked walkway (or road just beyond) on the right (opposite #8) down into Ngaio Bay.

PLEASE only exit the beach via marked walkways or the reserve.  All other ramps, gates or steps are onto private property.

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