Happy Birthday Kemp House

New Zealand observed a very special anniversary on March 25. Kemp House in Kerikeri – our oldest building – celebrated 200 years to the day since people first began to live under its roof.

Kemp House surrounded by bush with its reflection in the nearby water.
Kemp House – 200 years old this year. Photo: Grant Sheehan for HNZPT.expand/collapse

Two centuries ago missionary Rev John Butler, his wife Hannah, their teenage son Samuel and daughter, also named Hannah, officially moved their stuff into what would become their new home.

The ‘new house’ referred to in Butler’s journal still stands on its original spot in the Kerikeri Basin under the shadow of Kororipo, the pā of Ngāpuhi rangatira and mission protector, Hongi Hika.

The simple wooden building has survived the Musket Wars, the dregs of British soldiery being billeted on site, the threat of fire and several major flood events over the past 200 years. 

“The house had largely been completed, though there had been a bit of activity inside and outside before the Butlers officially moved in,” says Kerikeri Mission Station Property Lead Liz Bigwood.

“The Butlers moving in signalled the beginning of a very long history as a family home.”

Kemp House – now a Tohu Whenua – was not to be inhabited by the Butlers for long, however. In later years, missionaries James Kemp and his wife Charlotte moved in, with the house remaining in the Kemp family until the mid-1970s.

“Kemp House is an important remnant of early contact between Māori and Pākehā and was built by missionary carpenters and Māori sawyers,” says Liz.

“We wanted to celebrate the memory of the key people behind the construction of the house – all of whom were called William. The names of Williams Bean, Fairburn, Puckey and Hall have been memorialised in a special 5-pack of commemorative carpenter’s pencils available for purchase. The fifth pencil has been named simply ‘Wiremu’ to acknowledge the Māori sawyers and builders who worked with the missionaries, and whose names have been lost over time.”

In 2000 two writing slates – both with words in Te Reo permanently and deliberately etched into them – were uncovered during restoration work under the floorboards highlighting the educational activity that took place here. “The first slate found is signed ‘Nā Rongo Hongi a(ged) 16’. Rongo Hongi was the daughter of Ngāpuhi chief Hongi Hika. Rongo lived with the Kemp family, leaving only to be with her father and mother during important occasions and to tend to her father after he had been shot,” says Liz.

“She then returned to the Kemps after his passing moving into Kemp House with them in 1832. She was later baptised, taking the name Hariata after Charlotte, and after marrying Hōne Heke she moved out of the house.”

The second slate is an early waiata whakautu (a song in reply) etched on it. In 2018 both slates were added to the UNESCO Memory of the World documentary heritage register.

The house and gardens were passed down through the family until Ernest Kemp – great-grandson of James and Charlotte – gifted the house to the nation in 1974 through the New Zealand Historic Places Trust, now Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga.

“Kemp House occupies a place in the hearts of many New Zealanders and will be enjoyed and admired for many years to come,” says Liz.

- John O'Hare