Church (Presbyterian)

Stuart Road And Whangarei Heads Road, Mcleod Bay, Whangarei Heads

  • Church (Presbyterian).
    Copyright: NZ Historic Places Trust. Taken By: Stuart Park. Date: 3/02/2010.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 2 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 464 Date Entered 25th June 2010


Extent of List Entry

Extent includes the land described as Allotment 153-154 Parish of Manaia (CT NA42B/460), North Auckland Land District and the building known as Church (Presbyterian) thereon, and its fittings and fixtures and the following chattels: pews. (Refer to map in Appendix 1 of the registration report for further information).

City/District Council

Whangarei District


Northland Region

Legal description

Allotment 153-154 Parish of Manaia (CT NA42B/460), North Auckland Land District


The Presbyterian church at McLeod Bay, Whangarei Heads was built by Scots settlers associated with the migration from Scotland and Nova Scotia to Waipu, which arrived in Northland under the leadership of Reverend Norman McLeod in 1854. The church is said by some local historians to have been built in 1858, which would make it the oldest Presbyterian church in Northland and the third oldest Presbyterian church in New Zealand. Its date of construction cannot be proven, but seems more likely to be the late 1860s or 1870s.

The church was originally built on land owned by one of the Scots settlers, and separate title was not created until 1927. When the road to Whangarei Heads was built it passed very close to the church, and increased volumes of motor traffic by the 1960s meant the church had to be relocated to its present site in 1966.

The plain and simple form of the church typifies the austere attitude to worship and to church architecture of many Scots Presbyterians. The church continues to play a significant role in the life of the local community, as it has since its construction in the nineteenth century.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

The church at McLeod Bay is historically significant because of its connection to the migration led by Norman McLeod from Scotland via Nova Scotia and Australia to Northland, and specifically the area around Waipu and Whangarei Heads. It documents the development of the Presbyterian Church as an important community element in this part of Northland. Although the claimed early date for the building of 1858 cannot be proven, the church building was provided on the basis of considerable Presbyterian worship in this area that began as soon as the Normanites arrived in the area, and continues as an unbroken tradition to the present day.

Social Significance or Value

The church at McLeod Bay has played a significant role in the social life of the Whangarei Heads community throughout its history. Although its regular use has declined as the population of the area diminished, it has continued in regular worship and for milestone events such as baptisms, weddings and funerals for the community of Whangarei Heads. The local community continues to care for, maintain and upgrade the church.

Spiritual Significance or Value

As the only Presbyterian church in the area, the church has long had spiritual significance to Presbyterians who worship there. It is also a place of reverence and respect for the descendants of those who worshipped there, those whose life milestones took place there, and for the local community.

(b) The association of the place with events, persons, or ideas of importance in New Zealand history

The migration led by Norman McLeod from Scotland via Nova Scotia and Australia to Northland was a remarkable episode of persistent planned migration that is unusual even in a century of planned migration. It has inspired many historical accounts, works of fiction and even musical performances. Almost 1000 people completed this remarkable migration, and today their descendents number in their tens of thousands, all over New Zealand and the world. They set about the task of establishing a close knit and highly successful community in Waipu and sister settlements. Those connections continue to be celebrated. While it is centred on the town of Waipu, the Normanites settled in a number of parts of Northland's east coast, and the church at McLeod Bay is an important visual reminder of that wider settlement.

(e) The community association with, or public esteem for the place

The community of Whangarei Heads and the wider Parish have demonstrated their high regard for this place over the many years of its existence. That is currently shown through the community's voluntary work and fundraising to maintain the church, its ongoing use as a place of worship and life milestone events.

(k) The extent to which the place forms part of a wider historical and cultural complex or historical and cultural landscape

Presbyterian churches are relatively uncommon in Northland, whose Christian settlers were mostly Anglican, Catholic and Methodist. Because of the Normanite migration to Waipu, however, there is a cluster of early Presbyterian churches on the East Coast of Northland from Waipu to Kaurihohore, including Mangapai, Whangarei and Whangarei Heads. These churches can be considered to comprise a dispersed cultural landscape related to the history of Scots Presbyterian settlement there.

Summary of Significance or Values

This place was assessed against, and found it to qualify under the following criteria: b, e, k.


It is considered that this place qualifies as a Category II historic place.


Additional informationopen/close

Historical Narrative

Maori settlers of the Whangarei Heads area were initially Ngati Awa, and after their move southwards, Ngai Tahuhu and Te Parawhau. However, between the time of Samuel Marsden's visit in 1820 and that of Dumont D'Urville in 1826, significant depopulation of the area occurred, as a result of the conflict between Ngapuhi and the southern tribes of Waikato and Ngati Paoa further south. Te Parawhau allied themselves with Ngapuhi, and Tirarau and other Te Parawhau chiefs went south on extensive military expeditions, but that laid them open to reprisal attacks from the south. Samuel Marsden describes meeting many people in Whangarei harbour in 1820, but French explorer Dumont D'Urville in 1826 found only deserted villages. This seems to have been the result of a retaliatory raid on Te Parawhau by Ngati Paoa in 1824.

The Manaia block, which includes McLeod Bay, was purchased for the Crown on 13 July 1855 for £200. The land purchase commissioner was John Grant Johnson, and the 12 Maori signatories included Wiremu Eru Pohe, Tipene Hari, Hirini Taiwhanga and Hinewaru.

A group of Presbyterian Scots under the leadership of dissident religious zealot Norman McLeod left Scotland in 1817 and settled in Nova Scotia at Pictou and then at St Ann's on Cape Breton Island. In 1851, following a potato blight, McLeod led his followers to South Australia and then almost immediately to New Zealand. The first group of McLeod's followers arrived in Auckland on the Gazelle in September 1853, and in 1854 began to settle on Government allotments on the Waipu River in Northland. Four more ships followed from Nova Scotia, in 1856, 1857, 1858 and 1860. All told, more than 800 people took part in the migration. Noted New Zealand Prime Minister Peter Fraser has written:

New Zealand has many records of the adventurous voyages and the trying experiences of its hardy and courageous pioneers. Each successive settlement has its history of early trials and vicissitudes, of tremendous difficulties and crushing failures preceding success and of great dangers from fire, flood, earthquake and war but none excel the story of the Highlanders of Waipu.

Some of the Nova Scotian Scots bought land at Whangarei Heads in preference to Waipu. However, they maintained close links to the Waipu settlement, and Rev. Norman McLeod, who was aged 75 years in 1854, travelled once a month from Waipu to preach, sometimes in the house of Captain George McLeod, for whom McLeod Bay is named, or in the barn of David McGregor.

The church at McLeod Bay is said in a number of local history books to have been built in 1858.

The church was built some two or three years after the arrival of the first settlers, in 1858, on George McLeod's property. Constructed of Kauri and probably with a roof made of wooden shingles, it has withstood many floods and storms. It is the oldest Presbyterian Church in Northland and as such has recently been marked for preservation by the Historic Places Trust, for which credit must be given to the late Mr Barney Finch who worked hard for years to bring this about.

This is one of the earliest churches in the Whangarei County, and was built by the Nova Scotians in 1858 on land that belonged to Captain George McLeod. In 1878 Mr J.I. Wilson surveyed most of the Whangarei Heads area and produced a plan which clearly shows the church property on Cap-tain McLeod's land.

As McManaway notes, construction in 1858 would make this the oldest Presbyterian church in Northland, earlier than the church at Kaurihohore (NZHPT Record no. 465), which also claims to be the oldest in Northland, and was probably built in 1861. It would probably be the third oldest Presbyterian church in New Zealand, after St Andrew's Church in Auckland (NZHPT Record no. 20, built 1847-50) and St Andrew's Church in Christchurch (NZHPT Record no. 304, built 1856-1857).

Other writers are more circumspect, describing the church at McLeod Bay only has being built early in the life of the settlement. McKenzie in The Gael Fares Forth says it was built 'more than seventy five years ago' (from 1942, which gives 1867 or earlier; the 1935 edition of his book has 'more than seventy years ago', which gives 1865 or earlier) .

Until 1909, when it became part of a home mission charge, Whangarei Heads was part of the Waipu parish. The Waipu minister preached there once a month. For years, the Rev. Norman McLeod preached in George McLeod's barn, and Donald McGregor's residence. He preached only once in the church. This building, which was erected more than seventy¬ five years ago, is still in good repair and services are held there regularly. (Information supplied by Capt Murdoch Stuart) In McLeod's time, people often went from the Heads to Waipu to attend church. They went on the Saturday and returned on the Monday - walking about thirteen miles each way and fording a tidal river!

[Capt. Duncan McKenzie] brought ...a horse named Charlie...[who] used to draw the first gig imported into the district. This gig was bought for the purpose of conveying the Rev. Norman McLeod on his monthly visits to preach at the Whangarei Heads...Donald McLean, of Lochalsh Farm, al-ways accompanied the minister, who was over eighty years of age, on these trips. Even at this great age the minister preached four times during each visit - once on Saturday evening, twice on Sunday and once more on Monday morning.

Reverend John Gorrie was the first Presbyterian minister to be ordained in New Zealand. On 8 January 1862 he was ordained at St Andrew's Church in Auckland to the pastoral charge of St Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Whangarei and took up his duties in Whangarei on Friday 17 January 1862. St Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Whangarei had opened in 1861. Rev. Gorrie kept a detailed diary of his church activities from January 1861 until shortly before his death on 9 March 1869.

As well as conducting worship at St Andrew's in Whangarei, Rev. Gorrie regularly held services in the Presbyterian churches at Mangapai and Kaurihohore, and less regularly the Presbyterian church at Tamaterau, as well as in settler's houses and barns in Maungatapere, Maungakaramea, and Parahaki. He records quite clearly where he held services each week, usually two services each Sunday. Baptisms of infants were often held in the parents' house. His first mention of Whangarei Heads occurs in his diary for Tuesday January 13 1863 (original spelling retained).

Preached at Wangarei on Sunday morning and.. rode to Mr Scott's Ta-matarau, and preached there at 4 o'clock. Slept at Mr David Hay's. Yes-terday morning rode to Wangarei Heads along with Mr Hay. Preached there at Mr Geo. McLeod's in the evening. Started homewards in the morning at 7.30 and reached Waitangi [his Whangarei residence] in safety at 7.45 pm having performed 12 baptisms down the river - two were adults.

His diary entry for 9 February 1863 records the arrival of four boatloads from Whangarei Heads to attend his service held at Parua Bay on the previous day, Sunday 8 February 1863.

Entries in April 1867 read:

Wednesday 17 April. Went down the river by boat to Whangarei Heads. Held divine service in the school there in the afternoon and spent the night at the house of Mr Aubrey R.M. (18 April): Crossed over to Henry's Point and rode along beach to Waipu...(Sunday 21 April): Preached in the morning and the afternoon in the large schoolroom [at Waipu]. Morning at-tendance was very good'.

The pulpit had been removed from the church at Waipu after the death of Rev. Norman McLeod in 1866, to prevent anyone else from preaching there, which explains Gorrie's use of the schoolroom for the services in Waipu.

His next diary entry concerning Whangarei Heads was on 12 February 1868:

Returned this morning from a tour to Wang. Heads and Waipu, having left home this day week. Went down by cutter 'Wangarei' to the heads on Wed. evening, crossed over to Waipu on Thursday, visited a few families on Friday and Saturday, preached twice on Sunday, returned to the Heads on Monday where I held public service at 4PM and a Baptismal Service immediately thereafter. Visited yesterday and fortunately got the opportu-nity of returning home again this morning by the 'Wangarei'.

Rev John Gorrie died on 9 March 1869. His last diary entry was made on 28 February 1869.

In September 1861, before Gorrie had come to Northland, the Presbyterian churches in Whangārei and Kaurihohore were opened by Rev D. Bruce. During his tenure in Whangarei, Rev. Gorrie officiated at the opening of two new church buildings in his parish district.

On the afternoon of the nineteenth instant, after the induction service at Wangarei, the Rev Mr Bruce of Auckland accompanied Mr Gorrie to Mangapai for the purpose of opening the church that has recently been erected there, and of introducing Mr Gorrie to that part of his pastoral charge... The Mangapai church is built on a fine site, generously given by Mr Harrison, and occupies a central and convenient position for the settlers of that rising district. It is very gratifying that this building is entirely free of debt.

On 30 November 1863 he records that at a meeting the previous day at Tamaterau (west of Parua Bay) the settlers resolved to 'proceed forthwith... erected there suitable...a church and school' [some missing words are in a form of shorthand, not currently decipherable] On Sunday 5 March 1864 he wrote: ‘Our new church at Tamaterau was opened for Divine Service this afternoon when I preached from Isaiah XXVII.13'.

There is no reference in Rev. Gorrie's diary to the building or opening of a church at Whangarei Heads. While it is possible that one was built there before he arrived in Whangarei in 1862, there is no mention in his diary of a church building at McLeod Bay, nor any suggestion that he held services in a church. His use of George McLeod's house for a service in 1863 and of the school in 1867 suggests there was no church building there then.

On the basis of the available information, it is not possible to date the construction of the Presbyterian church at McLeod Bay precisely. No contemporary evidence has been found to prove that was built as early as 1858, and Rev. Gorrie's diary entries suggest it was not built before 1869. However, if Rev Norman McLeod did preach in it before his death, it must have been built by 1866.

Florence Keene says ‘In 1878 Mr J.I. Wilson surveyed most of the Whangarei Heads area and produced a plan which clearly shows the church property on Captain McLeod's land.' Searching has not located that plan. However, it is clear that J. I. Wilson was undertaking surveys in the Whangarei Heads area around 1861. One early plan bears his name, but is unfortunately undated, and does not contain landowner's names. It does show a schoolhouse a short distance to the east of the current location of the church. That plan is probably the one being referred to by McManaway in her history of the school, which she indicates was opened in 1858.

Another plan by J. I. Wilson is dated 1861. That too shows the schoolhouse in the same location, marks out G. McLeod's land in the area where the church now is, but does not show a church building. Its absence from that plan might support the suggestion that the church was not built before 1869. The fact that the school was built in 1858, and that church services were held in the school, may have given rise to the belief that the church was built in 1858.

Whangarei historian Florence Keene says that the church was originally constructed on George McLeod's land, with separate title being created only in 1927. It was also not until the 1920s that road access to Whangarei Heads was formed. Initially access was primarily by boat or by horse - in the 1860s Rev Gorrie preferred the boat journey to Whangārei Heads over the difficulties of a long horseback ride.

Keene records that

In 1927, when the road from Parua Bay to the Whangarei Heads was put through, it looped round St James within seven feet of its southern comer, and when cars became common the little church was accused of being a traffic hazard. Nevertheless it was 1966 before it was moved to a spot 40 feet away so that the road could run straight past it.

That relocated site subsequently became contentious itself, with the County Council indicating in 1976 that the church was in part on Council road. The problem was resolved by realignment of the road boundary.

Florence Keene continues her account of the Whangarei Heads church's history:

In 1872 the Rev. William MacRae took over the charge of the Presbyterian Parish and established the practice of preaching in Gaelic in the mornings and English in the afternoons, and this custom of having services in both languages was followed at St James [Whangarei Heads] for many years.

There are several interesting features about this church, which is 27 feet long by 20 ½ feet wide. Handwrought nails were used in its construction and all its original 16 pews are still in use. Some of these have had blocks added underneath to tilt them back a little in an endeavour to make them more comfortable. The old organ and pulpit are still in use, and an old Gaelic Bible also holds an honoured place in the church. To commemorate the centennial of the church congregation, a baptismal font and hymn board were presented by Mr J. R. Maddren in 1956.

Subsequently, Diane McManaway noted that ‘For years the old Gaelic Bible was kept in the church but as there are few people who can read Gaelic now, it has been given to the Whangarei Public Library where it will be held on permanent loan.'

The Whangarei Heads community celebrated the centennial of settlement in the area in 1956. The celebration opened with a service at the church in McLeod Bay. To commemorate the centennial, a baptismal font and hymn board were presented to the church by the centennial committee.

The church at McLeod Bay has played a significant role in the social life of the Whangarei Heads community throughout its history. Although its regular use has declined as the population of the area diminished, it has been the focus for regular worship and for milestone events such as baptisms, weddings and funerals for the community of Whangarei Heads.

Physical Description

The church at McLeod Bay is a plain, simple rectangular wooden weatherboard church, 7.5 metres long and 6 metres wide. It now stands on the north side of Stuart Street, oriented west to east. An entrance porch was added at the eastern end in 1981, to replace an earlier added porch. In 2005, following consultation with NZHPT and with consent from Whangarei District Council, the church modified the porch again to provide for better disabled access to the building and provide toilet facilities. Corrugated iron on the roof replaced the original shingled roof in 1937. The church has two double-hung 12 light windows on the north and south sides, with no window in the western wall. The interior is unpainted, with exposed kauri board walls and a kauri sarked ceiling. The roof is supported by timber cross braces. The altar is a recent introduction; the form of the original communion table is not recorded. The wall boards show 'ghosts' of the outlines of the backs of the pews prior to their 'softening' by having the angle altered. The original configuration of the pews is shown in Pickmere's book. Neither the pulpit nor the organ referred to by Keen in 1978 remains today, with a modern electric organ being used, and a small lectern taking the place of a pulpit.

The plain and simple form of the church, without ornament, is consistent with the religious values and attitude to worship and church architecture of many Scots Presbyterians of the nineteenth century.

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1858 -
Suggested date of construction

Original Construction
More likely date of construction

1937 -
Shingle roof replaced with corrugated iron

1966 -
Church relocated by County Council sixty feet to current site because of dangerous proximity to corner of road and flooding

1997 -
Window repairs

2005 -
Alterations to entrance porch, incorporating a toilet and code compliant ramp, endorsed by NZHPT

Construction Details

Kauri timber, corrugated iron roof (originally shingle roof)

Completion Date

14th June 2010

Report Written By

Stuart Park

Information Sources

Elder, 1940

John Rawson Elder, The History of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand 1840-1940, Presbyterian Bookroom, Christchurch, 1940.

Keene, 1978

Keene, F., Legacies in Kauri: Old Homes and Churches of the North, Whangarei, 1978

Pickmere, 1986

Nancy Pickmere, Whangarei: The Founding Years, Whangarei, 1986

Smith, 1910

Maori Wars of the Nineteenth Century, Whitcombe and Tombs, Christchurch, 1910.

House, J and House S, 2006

Churches of Northland: a record of churches and places of worship including histories and photographs Whangarei 2006 Published on CD

Keene, 1966

Keene, F., Between two mountains : a history of Whangarei, Auckland, 1966

McKenzie, 1938

Norman McKenzie, The Waipu Congregation: A Unique History, Christchurch, 1938

The Outlook, July 13, 1938, pp.9-10

McKenzie, 1942

Norman McKenzie, The Gael Fares Forth, Christchurch, 1942

McManaway, 1983

Diana McManaway, Whangarei Heads 125 Years, 1983

Vallance, 1956

W R Vallance, The Story of Whangarei Heads 1956

Other Information

A fully referenced registration report is available from the NZHPT Northland Area Office.

Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero identifies only the heritage values of the property concerned, and should not be construed as advice on the state of the property, or as a comment of its soundness or safety, including in regard to earthquake risk, safety in the event of fire, or insanitary conditions.