Matawhero Church

24 Church Lane, Matawhero

  • Matawhero Church.
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: Martin Jones. Date: 2/04/2003.
  • Matawhero Church. Interior.
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: Martin Jones. Date: 2/04/2003.
  • Mtaawhero Church. 2015 New Zealand Historic Places Trust Plaque. Image courtesy of .
    Copyright: Auckland Libraries. Taken By: Bruce Ringer.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 1 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 796 Date Entered 27th June 2008 Date of Effect 27th June 2008


Extent of List Entry

Extent includes the land described as Lot 2 DP 331263, Gisborne Land District, and the building known as Matawhero Church thereon, and its fittings and fixtures and the following chattels: six memorial plaques, roll of ministers on wooden plaque, 17 pews, one communion cup, two plates, one font bowl, one 19th-century Bible. The hall on the land described above is excluded. (Refer to map in Appendix 1 of the registration report for further information and to more detailed description of chattels in Section 2.3).

City/District Council

Gisborne District


Gisborne Region

Legal description

Lot 2 DP 331263 (GS128679), Gisborne Land District

Location description

The church is at the end of Church Lane which leads off the northern end of Saleyards Road.


Matawhero Church, at Matawhero near Gisborne in Poverty Bay, was built in 1865 or 1866 as a schoolroom for the European settler community. It was built with the assistance of the Anglican minister William Leonard Williams who used it for church services also. The schoolroom-church was involved in the campaign waged by Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki (Te Kooti) against Europeans and Maori who had over-ridden his land claims, supported the government in land and sovereignty issues or personally offended him in some way. In July 1868 the schoolroom served for a short period as a military hospital for colonial forces and volunteers injured in the first encounter with Te Kooti after his escape from imprisonment in the Chatham Islands. In November 1868 Matawhero Church was one of only a few buildings left standing and unharmed by Te Kooti and his troops when they raided Matawhero and Makaraka; at least 51 people were killed in what became known as the 'Poverty Bay Massacre'. In 1870 militia camped in the church and its grounds when anticipating another attack by Te Kooti.

In 1872 Matawhero Church (then Matawhero Schoolroom) was purchased by the Presbyterian Church and became the first Presbyterian place of worship in Poverty Bay. For the last 136 years as it has served continuously as a Presbyterian church as well as being a meeting place and social venue for the rural community.

The building began as a simple wooden one-room structure with a shingle roof and vertical tongue and groove timber cladding on the exterior, and with no adornment on the interior except for the exposed framing, trusses and tongue and groove wall linings. Except for the roof, which is now corrugated iron, this appearance has been maintained even though it has been extended a few times with side porches; lengthening and widening the nave to incorporate the porches; a rear porch added and the chancel walls re-built. A hall built in 1956 adjacent to the church was constructed in similar style and in appearance the property has high integrity. It is not known who designed and built the church.

Matawhero Church is significant in its survival from the early period of European settlement of Poverty Bay and its continuous use as a place of Christian worship for over 143 years. It owes its survival in the first instance through the Poverty Bay conflicts of the mid-1860s to the spiritual values placed on the building by the activist Te Kooti, who destroyed almost all other buildings in the surrounding district. Its subsequent survival and maintenance of its excellent condition is due to the high value placed on it by the Presbyterian congregation to whom it has spiritual and social values as being the focus of community activities.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

The building has a very strong association with the European colonial settlement and community development of Matawhero and Poverty Bay and is probably the oldest surviving European building in the Gisborne District.

The building played a particular role in a major event in the history of Maori-Pakeha relations in the mid-19th century and with an iconic warrior-visionary of very high significance in the history of land disputes between tangata whenua, the colonial government and European settlers. Matawhero Church was spared from destruction by the Ringatu leader Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki in his devastating raids on the communities of Matawhero and Makaraka and surrounding areas in November 1868 and as a result it is the only surviving building from this period in the district. Other associations with Te Kooti are its use in mid-1868 as a hospital for the militia wounded in an encounter with Te Kooti's forces and as a military camp in 1870.

Matawhero Church was the first Presbyterian Church on the East Coast and one that has been used continuously by the Presbyterian community since 1872. For the previous six or seven years, that is, since its construction, it functioned partially in the same use by the Anglican Church.

It is believed to be the oldest schoolroom used by the European community of Poverty Bay, having been built in c.1865 as a schoolroom and used for that purpose until at least 1878.


The site is recorded as New Zealand Archaeological Association site number Y18/72. Archaeological excavation of some of the grounds adjacent to the building has revealed evidence of phases of the building's history. From the structural and material finds of this investigation it is apparent that unexcavated areas will be likely to contain further evidence relating to the colonial settlement period of Poverty Bay, schooling of the mid-1860s and 1870s, military occupations during the mid-1860s and 1870, and material related to community, social and church activities.


Matawhero Church is an example of a well-built and well-proportioned church built in the Gothic Revival style prevalent in New Zealand in the mid-nineteenth century. The restrained quality of design and detailing are typical of this design philosophy, and includes the use of exposed structural elements and the incorporation of materials in a direct manner as decoration in their own right.

The building stands as an example of early construction methods, including the enlargement of the nave while still retaining its symmetry and ecclesiastical style.


The Church, its hall and garden have has been the focus of many social and community events in the district, including fetes, ceremonies, fundraising activities, working bees and celebrations. It has provided a meeting and gathering place for the community since its construction in approximately 1865.

The Church has been the venue for christenings, marriages and funerals, all events that bind a community together and strengthen relationships. The sense of community and home-coming has been evident in the various anniversary celebrations held at the Church.


Matawhero Church has been the focus of Christian worship in the community for over 140 years and has high significance for the current Presbyterian congregation members to the extent of them resisting its closure and amalgamation with larger congregations in Gisborne.

The view is held by many that it was its spiritual significance that caused Te Kooti to spare it in his attack on the Matawhero settlement in 1868, both because of its Christian associations and its traditional links to one of his respected kaumatua.

(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history:

Matawhero Church reflects the development of educational and religious facilities in small rural communities in colonial New Zealand and the importance of such institutions on the community. It encompasses the earliest building associated with the introduction of Presbyterianism to Poverty Bay and is the earliest surviving building associated with Christian worship for the European community of Poverty Bay.

The building reflects Maori respect for Christianity and for traditional kinship ties, in its deliberate sparing from destruction during Te Kooti's raid on the Matawhero district in 1868.

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

Matawhero Church is associated with inter-racial conflict over land and sovereignty in the 1860s and in particular is associated with Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki. Te Kooti was the founder of the Ringatu Church, a folk-hero, a guerrilla fighter and a champion of Maori land rights and sovereignty. The strength of this association makes Matawhero Church a focus for narrating this aspect of Poverty Bay's history and in the wider context, nationwide issues relating to colonialism and differing cultural perceptions regarding land ownership, recompense and utu.

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

Public esteem for Matawhero Church is high, as it is very well-known to people in the district and to visitors interested in local history. The Church has attracted a lot of publicity over the years and there is strong community support for its survival. The local Protestant community values it as their place of worship and focus for social activities, meetings of local groups and as a venue for special events.

(f) The potential of the place for public education:

The story usually told in association with Matawhero Church is that of the 'Poverty Bay Massacre'. The place has strong potential to tell the story of Te Kooti as a man who lost his land through the injustices of the early decades of European settlement and Crown actions, but also as a man who, in retaliation, attacked the settlement, burning buildings and killing both Maori and Pakeha without discriminating between military and civilian targets. Stories associated with the place graphically demonstrate also, the divisive struggles of mixed loyalties faced by Maori who embraced Christianity and who became torn between the 'two worlds' during the conflict. Additionally, the place represents many stories that provide knowledge about early settlement on the East Coast and the development of Christianity and its role in the social, economic and spiritual growth of the area.

(i) The importance of identifying historic places known to date from early periods of New Zealand settlement:

The place's age, its excellent state of preservation and high architectural integrity, plus its associations with the early years of the Anglican and Presbyterian churches in the Poverty Bay- East Coast districts and its continuous use by one denomination for over 135 years, make this place a very important and rare example of its type.


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


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

The place is special as the oldest surviving church in the Gisborne district and possibly the oldest building in the district. Its integrity has been retained through sympathetic repairs, modifications and additions, some of which have been undertaken to preserve the fabric of the building, some to remove unnecessary additions, some to make it more usable and some to add new facilities and thereby increase its value to the local community. It is in excellent condition.

It is special also for its continuous use as a church for 143 years and as a Presbyterian Church continuously for the past 135 years to the present (2008).

Matawhero Church has a unique and outstanding history as a survivor of the attacks on Matawhero by Te Kooti and his followers in 1868. Its place in this story has been kept alive in the frequent articles and publications describing the 'Poverty Bay massacre' and the church itself, and even though aspects of this story can be discounted, the mythology associated with it remains and is embedded in local history.


Additional informationopen/close

Historical Narrative

Matawhero Church was built as a simple, one-roomed structure in 1865 or 1866 by the Anglican Church for use as a school. At this time Poverty Bay district was being settled by Europeans, but many irregularities over land ownership existed and contradictory claims to sovereignty prevailed in the area. One of the land issues involved Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki (Te Kooti) whose actions led to the devastation of most of the buildings in the Matawhero and Makaraka districts and the deaths of many residents, both European and Maori, on 10-11 November 1868. Matawhero Church was one of the very few buildings spared in this event and as a result, it has become the focus for recounting the events of the 'Poverty Bay Massacre', as Te Kooti's raid became known.

Soon after the community was re-established, the need for a church was felt by followers of the Presbyterian denomination. The former schoolroom was purchased in 1872 and has been used continuously for this purpose until the present day. The history of the Matawhero Church is seen as closely following the fortunes and misfortunes of the European settlers of Poverty Bay.

Matawhero, Poverty Bay, is a locality seven kilometres (km) northwest of Gisborne on the flood plain of the Waipaoa River within one of the major bends formed by its winding course. The Waipaoa River flows into the sea towards the southwest end of the Bay via the Awapuni Lagoon. A nineteenth-century account describes Poverty Bay as 'a circlet of hills bound[ing] the interior ... [it] consists of a fertile plain, which stretches for about 25 miles [40 km] inland, and averages from six to eight miles [10-13 km] in breadth. The plain is traversed by several rivers, navigable for a few miles by small craft.' Immediately to the east of Matawhero is the locality Makaraka. Makaraka is bounded on the east by the Taruheru River which flows into Poverty Bay at Turanganui (Gisborne).

By the nineteenth century the northern part of Poverty Bay, or Turanga as it was known, was the rohe of Te Aitanga-a-Mahaki with Ngati Porou to the northeast and Rongowhakaata to the south. There were abundant natural resources in the sea, swamps, rivers and bush, and there was easy access from the coast into the interior. The soil was fertile and the climate warm enough for cultivating sub-tropical crops. The large population of Maori were based in kainga and pa located on the coast, and by the rivers, on the low country near the foothills of the ranges, particularly in the southwest end of the Bay. The defended kainga Te Pa-o-Kahu on the shore of Awapuni Lagoon was said to be one mile long (1.6 km). By 1832 the tangata whenua were well-supplied with European goods and produce, with sufficient firearms to repel an invasion of Whakatohea at that time. As in other parts of the country, the firearms and European goods were acquired by a vigorous trade in locally-grown potatoes, flax and pigs. One of the earliest European traders to settle in the Bay was John Williams Harris, who did so in 1831 under the protection of chief Paratene Potiti (also known as Paratene Turangi). Harris had trading establishments at Turanganui and at Opou, on the Waipaoa River, the latter land having been acquired through his first wife's whanau.

From the 1830s onwards, several Europeans settled on the Waipaoa plain. Some households included mixed-marriages, some were solely European. They included traders with stores selling imported goods and produce, farmers and support trades such as blacksmiths and saddlers - their customers were the European settlers and Maori. Often their land tenure was uncertain, some of the European men having been given access to land through their wife's whanau but because of cultural misunderstandings regarding land ownership difficulties ensued. The chief, Kahutia, of Te Whanau-a-Iwi hapu led a 'redemption' movement, 'which from 1851 sought to take back lands that had been alienated at Turanga and to return the payments'. The first of many official land claim hearings to sort out the Poverty Bay land issues was held in 1859.

The Anglican Church, under the auspices of the Church Missionary Society (CMS), had begun evangelising in the Poverty Bay-East Coast region in 1834 and in 1840 William Williams established the first Poverty Bay mission on the Turanganui River at what is now called Gisborne. The third and most successful mission was established at Waerenga-a-Hika, seven km inland from Matawhero, on land granted to the CMS by Rongowhakaata. William Williams' son William Leonard Williams, who assisted his father in his missionary work in Poverty Bay, reported that wheat and freight for the building of Waerenga-a-Hika was conveyed by river as far as Matawhero, from whence it went overland: this implies that Matawhero was the limit for some water craft. There was a ford across the Waipaoa River just to the west of Matawhero and trading stores situated nearby. Waerenga-a-Hika mission station became a large educational establishment with four schools and sufficient produce from the farms to be self-supporting.

However, by late 1864 missionaries of the new religion Pai Marire, whose followers were commonly called Hauhau, had begun recruiting in Poverty Bay. By March 1865 a high proportion of the Maori population had become adherents and had abandoned, or were at least uncertain of, their previous loyalties and the Christian faith. On 31 March 1865 William Williams (then Bishop of Waiapu with an extensive diocese covering much of the eastern North Island) abandoned Waerenga-a-Hika in the face of threats from Hauhau that he would suffer the same fate as Rev. C.S. Volkner in Opotiki.

W. Leonard Williams stayed in the district after his father's departure and the closure of the mission station, and while he was based in Turanganui for safety, he still ministered to the people (Pakeha and Maori) of the district. Leonard Williams refers in his diaries to subscribers to the Matawhero schoolroom fund, an indication that not only was the community sufficiently large to warrant a local school, the people were working together to establish it. It is probable that the school was intended for children of the European settlers only. Williams was apparently the organiser of the erection of the school building at Matawhero, as this entry indicates:

On May 2nd, 1865, at 11 o'clock, Mr Harris came by special arrangement, that he might accompany me to have an interview with Gibson about the Matawhero schoolroom .... Mr Gibson had the timber there since January, and Gibson said he had not put a plane on it... because of the unsettled state of the district...

After disputes between the community group and the builder Gibson, and later the replacement builder Williamson (the latter was also a contributor to the fund), an arrangement was made for the money for the timber to be paid back minus Williamson's £1/10/- subscription. On 20 May Williams noted: 'Newham now offers to cut the timber for the schoolroom, if we like to employ him.' Just who did build the schoolroom, and when, has not been ascertained, but it is generally held to have been built in late 1865 or 1866. It is also held that Captain Read, a trader in Turanganui (Gisborne), actually got the schoolhouse erected. The original building measured only 25 feet by 15 feet 6 inches [7.6 metres x 4.7 metres]. Even though small, it was the only gathering place for the Matawhero community as the other buildings were small farmhouses, often temporary ones on sleds, and places of work such as smithies and saddleries.

Archaeological excavation of the front lawn and two other small areas to the southwest and northwest of the Church in 2003 found 59 fragments of drawing slates, 25 pieces of slate pencils and two complete ink bottles that probably relate to this period.

Pai Marire's activities in the Poverty Bay-East Coast region accelerated to such an extent that on 11 October Lieutenant (later Major) Reginald Biggs, James Fraser (later Lieutenant-Colonel), and Ngati Porou chief Ropata [Rapata] Wahawaha led a force that captured 500 Hauhau at Hungahungatoroa. Biggs killed one of the prisoners, a leader of Te Aitanga-a-Mahaki named Pita Tamaturi, in cold blood; Te Kooti was subsequently asked by Tamaturi's people to avenge his death. The remaining Hauhau returned to Poverty Bay and built three large pa, the strongest being Waerenga-a Hika overlooking the sacked and abandoned mission station. A long siege at Waerenga-a Hika pa from 17 to 22 November 1865 resulted in the capture of 200 Pai Marire (Hauhau) men. Also arrested, on a charge of supplying cartridges to the defenders of Waerenga-a Hika pa, was Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki (Te Kooti).

Te Kooti was born in approximately 1832 in the Ngati Maru settlement Te Pa-o-Kahu near the mouth of the Waipaoa River. Ngati Maru was a hapu of Rongowhakaata. He was taught at the Anglican mission at Whakato, Poverty Bay, between 1850 and 1853, during which time he was baptised. The missionaries' experiences of him differed widely, from William Williams seeing him as a drunk too keen on worldly matters, to Thomas Grace employing him as a shepherd and encouraging Te Kooti's aspiration to become a minister. During his first marriage Te Kooti converted to the Roman Catholic faith. By early 1852 Te Kooti was one of a group living at Makaraka with the chief Kahutia; this group protested over land rights and enacted acts of revenge through plundering and stealing of settlers' stock, horses and alcohol. Te Kooti became known as bloodthirsty, powerful, an adulterer and a thief. He alienated many of his own iwi and hapu but also gained many followers seeking justice over land issues and independence from the colonial government.

Soon after his arrest at Waerenga-a-Hika, Te Kooti was released, but he was arrested again on 3 March 1866 and transported to the Chatham Islands and held prisoner there. The rationale for Te Kooti's reprisal in 1868 is embedded in his treatment by the government agents and individuals such as Biggs, Wilson and Paratene Potiti (the latter is said to have kicked him with contempt) - all three would be executed during the raid on Matawhero.

During his incarceration on the Chathams Te Kooti received a series of divine inspirations and from these developed a new faith that became known as Ringatu or 'Upraised Hand', a mixture of Maori cosmology and values with the teachings of the Old Testament and Christianity. During this time parcels of land to which he had rights were alienated. This included land at Matawhero. On 10 July 1868 Te Kooti and nearly 300 followers, having escaped from their incarceration in the Chatham Islands, landed at Whareongaonga south of Poverty Bay. The party had their first encounter with colonial forces including the Poverty Bay Mounted Rifles under Captain Biggs at Paparatu on 20-21 July 1868. The colonial forces were severely routed with many wounded. Te Kooti began a campaign to exact revenge for the many misdeeds he had suffered; his attack on Matawhero and Makaraka in November 1868 dealt with several grievances at once but embroiled him in direct confrontation with the colonial government. After years of guerrilla warfare being pursued by government forces, Te Kooti retreated into the King Country. He was pardoned in 1883 and after another period of defiance retired to Ohiwa Harbour in the Bay of Plenty where he died in 1893. Te Kooti became a legend, with such widely disparate opinions of him as admiration for his intelligence and leadership and respect for his Ringatu faith to seeing him as a fear-invoking violent fanatic rampaging through the country. He was usually described in ghoulish terms in such language as 'he commenced to write his name in letters of blood over the face of the country'. More recently, his actions have been put in context of the frustration and strong sense of ill-usage he felt with the colonisation of his land and the perceived mistreatments of himself and his iwi.

In 1867 the population of Poverty Bay:

... consisted of about 500 Maoris and 150 Europeans of all ages. Matawhero was situated about five miles [eight kilometres] from the sea, in the heart of the district. Many people resided there in houses surrounded with gardens and orchards.

Gisborne was still a relatively small settlement in the late 1860s, although it did by then possess a hotel, trading stores, courthouse and post office. Two redoubts were built across the river to provide for the residents' safety if required. In 1868 'there were only some twenty or thirty white people living in Turanga, the majority of the people living out on the flats at Makaraka, the Resident Magistrate (Capt. R. Biggs) living at Matawhero.'

The Matawhero schoolroom was used as a temporary military hospital after the Paparatu engagement in July 1868. Leonard Williams recorded:

I met Dr. Brown who was enquiring for Dr. Watling and who also asked me about the schoolroom being used as a hospital for the wounded, Major Whitmore having arranged that the poor fellows be placed under Dr. Watling's charge. The next day, July 22nd, I rode up again to Matawhero ... and found the doctor attending to the patients.

Leonard Williams supplied an iron bedstead and mattress to the hospital. He returned on 23 July, and again on 30 July with his wife Sarah, plus 'money and more mattresses'.

Te Kooti retreated into the Urewera during the winter and the militia and Whitmore's forces disbanded. Despite some unease amongst Maori and Pakeha residents in Poverty Bay, life returned to normal and Biggs and Captain Wilson returned to their homes at Matawhero. Leonard Williams continued with his ministrations to both his Maori and Pakeha congregations. A happier event at the Matawhero Church in August 1868 was the wedding of Robert Atkins and Jane Sharp.

However, in November word reached Turanga that Te Kooti was moving towards Poverty Bay, but the authorities gave little weight to the reports. Leonard Williams recorded for Sunday 8 November 1868: 'After the English service at Matawhero I had a little chat with Captain Briggs [sic]'. Williams elaborated on this in his retrospective account, that after he had finished giving a service at Manutuke, he heard a report that Te Kooti was on his way to Poverty Bay and that: 'I stopped for an English service at Matawhero where Biggs was then living' and that Biggs told him he had scouts on the lookout. On the following day he advised Biggs of a fresh report, but again Biggs seemed to place full reliance on waiting for official word before acting. Williams states: 'In little more than twelve hours after my conversation with Major Biggs he and his wife and infant child were numbered among the dead'.

Soon after midnight on 10 November 1868 Te Kooti and his followers launched a major raid on the Matawhero area, killing residents (both Maori and Pakeha), looting and burning buildings. The dispersed nature of the settlement allowed some people to escape, fleeing to Turanganui or south to Muriwai. Some were warned or assisted by Maori loyal to, ambivalent about or wavering in their allegiance to the colonial government. Assessments of the numbers killed vary but by the morning 29 Europeans were killed, and Mrs Alice Wilson was mortally wounded. At least 22 (possibly 32) Maori died, also executed by Te Kooti either in revenge for their loyalty to the colonial government or those who had personally offended Te Kooti and his cause. The attack was well-planned and very specific, with Te Kooti stating precisely who was to be killed, namely those Europeans or part-Maori now occupying George Read's claim to which Te Kooti had rights. Also, 'the Maori deaths were ... no more random than those of the Europeans'. Amongst them was Paratene Potiti.

Leonard Williams recorded that: 'the only four buildings left at Makaraka and Matawhero: viz. the Schoolroom, a building lately occupied by Fergusson, Espie's old store, and an outhouse at Newham's. There were at least 25 buildings burnt, and everyone who remains in the place will have to begin all over again.' A few more people were killed the following day. Te Kooti did not immediately leave the area, but returned to loot and burn remaining property. On 16 November 'Jimmy Wilson lay hidden in Bloomfield's house and saw Hau Hau [sic] go by in great numbers. They burnt all the remaining houses at Matawhero, with the exception of the schoolroom'. Jimmy Wilson was en route to get help for his severely wounded mother, Alice. The story of Alice Wilson's survival after lying for four days in an outhouse is one of the often-repeated stories relating to the raid. Another boy claimed as a hero was Charles James who acted 'in a daring and most noble manner' by running from Biggs' house to give warning of the raid.

The raid was described as 'a series of shocking atrocities memorable in New Zealand history as the Poverty Bay massacres'. A belief that the Matawhero Church was used as a refuge during the raid 'is without foundation'. Intensive research by Mackay of each resident European's fate revealed that people had either passed through Matawhero some hours before the raid or had hidden in or close to their own homes or had fled.

Williams retrieved the harmonium from Matawhero and put it into the Gisborne courthouse for safe storage. The harmonium's lid had been wrenched off and a pig had been incarcerated in the schoolroom's vestry which was in 'a great mess'. Williams records that on 22 February 1869 'Messrs. Harris and Goldsmith came over this morning to a meeting of the Matawhero Schoolroom Committee. The accounts are just square'. Apart from one further reference to the harmonium, Williams' diary entries regarding Matawhero cease.

The sparing of the school-church is believed to have been deliberate as it had been built with Kahutia's permission. Its connection with the Anglican Church may also have been a factor.

The schoolroom continued its connection with the history of Te Kooti when it was used by the militia as a camp area from 21 to 30 March 1870. The Kempthorne diaries record that hay, horses and men were sheltered and housed there while awaiting news of Te Kooti on another of his sorties towards Poverty Bay. By 1872 Matawhero was again a relatively concentrated settlement of European farms and a few businesses including a hotel.

On 11 May 1872 a Presbyterian minister purchased the Matawhero schoolroom for use as the first Presbyterian Church in Poverty Bay.

In contrast to the introduction of the Methodist and Anglican denominations in New Zealand, 'Presbyterianism reached New Zealand ... not as a missionary movement, but as a settler faith ... a transplantation of Scottish religion and culture...'. In 1840, under the auspices of the New Zealand Company, John Macfarlane, a member of the Established Church of Scotland, arrived in Port Nicholson. Macfarlane established the first settler congregation in the colony and officiated at the opening of the first Scots Church in New Zealand in January 1844. The Hawke's Bay Presbytery was founded in 1865. By the 1860s Presbyterianism in New Zealand was well-established in its several forms of the Scottish Church, Irish Church and the Free Church of Scotland. One factor was the close-knit sense of community of the smaller more remote districts: 'Everywhere the real driving force in providing the land, buildings, finance and support ... was the determination and generosity of a few influential, reasonably prosperous lay people.' This was certainly the case in Poverty Bay, as during 1872 the Presbytery of Auckland considered the matter of establishing a church in the Poverty Bay area, at the request of the residents in Gisborne and the Matawhero district who had been influenced by Rev. George Morice. Morice was the second minister of St Paul's Church, Napier who after he retired settled in Poverty Bay where he held the first Presbyterian services in the district. Poverty Bay,

though within the province of the Auckland Presbytery, has been placed under the care of the Hawke's Bay Presbytery, for the double reason that it lies nearer to them, and will be the means of strengthening them so soon as it becomes a settled charge. Through the exertions of the late Moderator - the Rev. Mr Morice - a Church has been secured, as also there have been secured ten acres of land for a glebe; and the Committee hope soon to see the members of our Church there gladdened by the appointment of a minister over them.

The purchase of the ten acres and the Matawhero schoolroom, 'on May 11th, 1872 ... plus one acre of land around it, part of Matawhero No.4 Block, and owned by Capt. Read, was purchased by the church, Rev. J. [sic] Morice advancing the money himself'. It is believed that Read was using the building as a storehouse; Morice paid £50 for the building and an acre of land and later donated land to the church so that it could gain an income from it.

The first Presbyterian minister of the Poverty Bay charge was Rev. W. Heningham Root who arrived on 25 February 1873. Root gave his first service at Matawhero Church on 2 March 1873 at 3 p.m. Although based at Matawhero he also held services at Gisborne (in the courthouse), Patutahi and Ormond. The services in Gisborne were attended by other Protestant denominations. The congregation grew to such an extent that in October 1874, another church, St Andrew's, was opened in Gisborne. There was also discussion at this time about shifting the Matawhero Church into Gisborne. Having decided to leave it at Matawhero, further discussion ensued regarding whether the manse should be at Matawhero or Gisborne. The manse was built in Gisborne, at the rear of St Andrew's Church in 1876 and Rev. Root then lived there until leaving the district in 1878.

Matawhero was also thriving as land issues were settled and legalised through the Land Courts; it essentially remained a farming district. The Matawhero Aerated Waters factory was established by 1874 and the post office in 1893. In 1896 most of the residents at Matawhero were described as farmer or contractor, with a cheese factory manager, two blacksmiths, a schoolmaster, an interpreter and two hotelkeepers amongst the occupations listed. By 1901 they had a telephone bureau, a butter factory and an abattoir and in 1903 a fellmonger and wool works. The Matawhero stock saleyards served the farming district for many decades and its 'fortnightly and monthly sales are so largely attended that the prices realised are said to govern the value of stock throughout Poverty Bay'. In May 1875 there was a public meeting to discuss setting up a school, the evening classes being not sufficient. The public school was established about 1880 and by 1902 had an average attendance of 112 of the 150 pupils on its roll.

The Matawhero Church must have continued serving as a school for a few years, as 'the Education Board was still paying £10 per year for use of the building as a school till 1878'.

In 1880 several maintenance and construction works were undertaken: Agnew Brown paid for the erection of a fence around the church grounds; the building was painted at a cost of £7/7/6 for labour - the costs to be taken from 'funds in hand from the soiree'; and alterations were made on the church. Although these were not specified in the church records, the alterations are presumed to be the additions of the transepts so that the floor plan became a cross.


Physical Description


[1865-66] - Builders: unknown [Gibson, Cooper]

1980 - New roof: Gisborne Roofing Company

2002-03 - (associated work only on toilets and store adjoining): Nicoll Blackburne Architects, Gisborne

The church is situated in a rural area at the end of a no-exit road. Its fenced grounds include mature trees and flower beds and an area of lawn which is bordered on one side by the church and on another by the hall. The setting is peaceful with few visual or audible intrusions from outside the grounds.

The architectural design and character of the church is a representation of the Gothic Revival design of the mid-nineteenth century. The interior demonstrates a simple restrained use of materials, forming a robust interior typical of many Gothic Revival church buildings in rural townships throughout New Zealand. The restrained quality of design and detailing are typical of this design philosophy, and includes the use of exposed structural elements and the incorporation of materials in a direct manner as decoration in their own right.

The church has a rectangular body with chancel protruding at the east end, a porch protruding at the west end and a small porch protruding on the north side. At right angles to the church at its west end is a hall, designed to match the style and scale of the older building. Both have concrete piles, vertical board cladding and steep-pitched corrugated iron gable roofs. The ridge of the church is aligned east-west. Apart from the main roof-line there is a subsidiary gable on each side where there were formerly transepts.

All framing in the church is mortise and tenon construction. The interior walls are clad in vertical tongue-and-groove kauri timber. All windows are narrow four-light double-hung sashes and have a shutter each.

There is no window in the end of the chancel, but it has two side windows. The nave has been widened so there are lean-to roofs on either side of the church, creating today's floor plan.

All the church gables have finials, except for the chancel gable. This is topped by an open-frame belfry in which a bell is hung. A cross is fixed to the belfry supports running down the exterior chancel wall.

A gently sloping wooden ramp against the north wall gives access to a small area of decking outside the doors to the western porch and the hall. A single wooden door leads into the porch. A pair of wooden tongue and groove doors opens into the rear of the nave. Access from the porch in the north wall is through a pair of doors facing north. In the interior there is a centre aisle with a cross-aisle in front of the chancel; the north end of the cross-aisle leads to the porch doors and in the south end is a wooden built-in bench and an organ. The timber floor is exposed apart from carpet in the aisles and chancel. The floor boards are of different widths: in the newly-altered north porch some are 82 mm wide; in the sides of the nave they are 165 mm and 100 mm. The chancel floor is a step up from the nave.

On the interior the walls have vertical tongue-and-groove lining with exposed framing and bracing. The roof is lined with unrebated boards and supported by scissor trusses. The beams are exposed as is all power conduiting. Chamfered posts support the roof rafters.

The chancel has modern furniture, some of which was remodelled in 1990. All the pews are of the same design, but two are shorter than the others. The nave is furnished with commemorative plaques, one being from Patutahi Presbyterian Church which has closed. Other furniture includes a few Edwardian and Victorian side tables but it is not known how these relate to the history of the church. The organ is modern.

The atmosphere of the building has been described thus:

Entering the building is a little like taking a step back in history. The welcoming atmosphere, wooden pews worn with use and its snugly fitting roof give it a peaceful air and many gather strength by visiting the church...

Alterations have been undertaken in a sympathetic manner, including the style of the adjacent hall and the toilet addition at the end of the hall.

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1865 - 1866
Construction of original building

1880 -
Side additions to form a cross

1892 -
Body of church strengthened - both sides of nave and west end extended.

1889 -
The roof was re-shingled, with yellow pine shingles replacing some of the kauri shingles.

1901 -
A door was put in at the end of the church opposite the pulpit, and a porch built. Roof re-sheathed in iron. Manse built.

1904 -
Open-frame bell tower erected and bell hung.

1954 -
Church re-blocked, raised and levelled.

1955 -
Front of the pulpit floor extended by 58 cm.

1956 -
Side room (vestry) added; Youth Hall built adjoining.

1956 -

1981 -
Belfry reconstructed.

Rear chancel wall found to be rotten, removed and replaced with an identically constructed wall. Side room (vestry) removed. Door moved from side of former transept to its face (below gable).

1987 - 1990
Completely repainted and refurbished, with new chancel furniture and organ.

2002 - 2003
Associated work only: toilets including a related effluent treatment system and store adjoining existing hall; removal of existing tank stand.

Construction Details

Timber, mostly kauri (cladding, shingles) and yellow pine (some shingles)

Corrugated iron roof


Concrete piles

Completion Date

28th March 2008

Report Written By

Lynette Williams and Jacqueline Maclaurin

Information Sources

Binney, 1997

J Binney, Redemption Songs: A Life of Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki. Auckland: University Press with Bridget Williams Books, 1997

Clark, 1972

Dorothy Clark, Matawhero Presbyterian Church 1872-1972; One Hundred Years of History; Te Rau Press, Gisborne, 1972.

Cleave's Auckland Provincial Directory

Cleave's Auckland Provincial Directory, Auckland


Cyclopedia of New Zealand

Cyclopedia Company, Industrial, descriptive, historical, biographical facts, figures, illustrations, Wellington, N.Z, 1897-1908

Elder, 1940

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

Gundry, 2000

Sheridan Gundry, Historic Journeys, East Coast Driving Tours, NZ Historic Places Trust Regional Committee, Gisborne, 2000.

Williams, 1932

W. Leonard Williams, East Coast Historical Records, Gisborne, 1932

Hawthorn, 1869 (1998)

J Hawthorn, A Dark Chapter from New Zealand History; originally published 1869; new edition Kiwi Publishers, Christchurch, 1998.

Jennings, 1990

Hugh M Jennings, (compiler), Christianity on the Coast, East Coast Christian Council, 1990.

Mackay, 1949

J A Mackay, Historic Poverty Bay and the East Coast, N.I., N.Z, Gisborne, 1949.

Matheson, 1990

Peter Matheson, '1840-1870 The Settler Church', in: Presbyterians in Aotearoa 1840-1990, edited by Dennis McEldowney, Presbyterian Church of New Zealand, Wellington, 1990.

McLintock, 1966

An Encyclopedia of New Zealand, Government Printer, Wellington, 1966

Salmon, 1980

J T Salmon, Native Trees of New Zealand, A.H. & A.W. Reed Ltd, Wellington 1980.

p. 70

Wilson, 1984

J Wilson (compiler), AA Book of New Zealand Historic Places, Lansdowner Press, Auckland 1984

Other Information

A fully referenced registration report is available from the NZHPT Lower Northern 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.