Māori settlement in the Whāngārei Harbour
Whāngārei was originally the territory of Ngai Tahuhu. The rich volcanic soils near the Hātea River were cultivated and fish, shellfish and birds were collected from the nearby swamps, river, harbour and forest.
During recent work associated with the Kamo Bypass, earthworks have exposed archaeological remains relating to settlement and land clearance in the Kamo area in the thirteenth century. At the entrance of the Whāngārei Harbour a midden in Smugglers Bay has evidence of early occupation including early types of minnow lure.
These archaeological sites are in relative close proximity to the Hātea River; in fact the Hātea River is half way between both sites. There are no radiocarbon dates for the Hātea River area but the assumption is that it would have also been settled at a similar time because of the environment and close proximity to other early sites.
The nearby maunga of Parihaka to the east of the historic area was fortified with pā and ditches, terraces and kūmara pits cascading down the main ridges towards the harbour and river. The name Parihaka is derived from an event where Kupapa, a rangatira of Te Parawhau performed a fierce haka on the cliffs while defending the pā - hence the name Parihaka. The Parihaka pā and an attached open village, or kāinga, were both known as Tawatawhiti.
Within the historic area itself, there is extensive evidence of horticulture, with the remnant stone-field systems which include puke, stone walls, and stone lined terraces. There are also scatters of midden in the area which indicates the meals of those tending their crops.
Such an attractive environment meant that this became a contested landscape and by the beginning of the 1800s, the land around Whāngārei Harbour was occupied by several tribes connected by blood ties and part of the Ngāpuhi confederation.
Whāngārei became a staging post where taua (war parties) would gather before heading south in waka to take part in a series of inter-tribal conflicts that have been called the Musket Wars. Whāngārei, because of its coastal accessibility, bore the brunt of many retaliatory expeditions by the southern tribes of Waikato and Ngāti Paoa as they sought utu for the injuries they had suffered at the hands of Ngāpuhi.
The Whāngārei Heads were visited by Captain James Cook in November 1769 and Samuel Marsden in 1820 records that Māori life was disrupted, with villages destroyed and an atmosphere of fear and alarm very evident among the people. This perspective was confirmed by Dumont D’Urville Captain of the S.M. I Astrolabe who in 1826 mapped the harbour’s entrance, and described the remains of deserted and destroyed villages. It is probable that the kāinga of Tawatawhiti was also deserted around this time.
The arrival of European settlers
The first European house in the Whāngārei Harbour was built on Matakohe Island in 1832 by Gordon Brown, a flax trader. In 1833 the house was sacked by a Waikato taua (war party).
The first permanent settler in Whāngārei was William Carruth, a Scots settler, who purchased just over 390 hectares from Ngāti Kahu in 1839, encompassing much of the future commercial area of Whāngārei. Carruth was joined by his brothers Robert and John, Mr and Mrs Pollock, their servants and a Mr Simmons from Wellington.
The Mair family
Gilbert Mair had visited the Bay of Islands in 1820 as a ship’s carpenter on the whaler New Zealander and on the return voyage back to Britain the vessel carried passengers Reverend Thomas Kendall and the rangatira Hongi and Waikato. In 1824 he left England for the last time on the whaler Mariana and was employed by the Church Missionary as ships carpenter building the Herald (55 tons), which was constructed of timbers salvaged from the wreck Brampton (wrecked December 1823 approximately 3 kilometres north of Paihia) and timber from nearby Kawakawa. The vessel was launched in 1826 making it the second New Zealand built vessel. Gilbert was engaged as the sailing master.
Gilbert’s future wife Elizabeth Puckey arrived in Kerikeri in 1819 with her parents William and Margery Puckey. Gilbert and Elizabeth were married in 1827 at St. James’ Church, Sydney, by the Reverend Samuel Marsden. Unfortunately their wedding was marred by the death of her parents who died of alcohol poisoning soon after the event and were buried at the Rocks in Sydney.
In 1830, the married couple purchased Te Wahapu in the Bay of Islands, where they ran a trading station providing the missionaries, settlers, visiting whalers and local Māori with goods. The business expanded and the trading station grew into a large establishment that included a wharf, and a nearby industrial complex that had sawyers, boat and boot makers and a blacksmith. The family also expanded with six children being born in the Bay of Islands.
Gilbert Mair’s signature is on an official translation of He Whakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Nu Tirene/ the Declaration of Independence of New Zealand (1835) as an English witness to certify that it was a correct copy of the statement of northern Māori rangatira. An important document, He Whakaputanga was recognised by the British government in 1836, forming one of the reasons why the latter felt that Te Tiriti o Waitangi / The Treaty of Waitangi (1840) was required to make New Zealand a colony of Britain. Mair also built New Zealand’s oldest remaining church, Christ Church in Russell in 1835. Caroline Mair (the eldest daughter) records: ‘But the most important event of my early recollection was the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. My eldest brother (Robert) and I were present with our parents, and I proudly remembered assisting Mrs. Busby to lay the luncheon tables for the governor, Captain Hobson, his staff and the assembled guests’. This first signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi / The Treaty of Waitangi occurred outside James Busby’s residence at Waitangi in February 1840. Mair and fellow settler James Clendon were used as an example of Pākehā buying up land against the wishes of the Governor by Moka, rangitira of Patukeha in his speech condemning the private purchase of lands. This speech was given immediately prior to the signing.
The Mairs’ Arrival in Whāngārei
In 1839 Gilbert Mair purchased land 5000 acres called the Hatea Block in Whāngārei for the sum of £300 pounds, the deed was signed by 17 Māori signatories. Also known as ‘Mair’s Grant’, the land covered much of Whāngārei (the areas now known as Mairtown, Kensington and Otangarei), with the exception of the land owned by William Carruth. By 1842 the Mair family had sold Te Wahapu and relocated to Whāngārei as the economics of the Bay of Islands was declining due to changes in shipping, taxation and increasing tension due to unfulfilled promises of the Te Tiriti o Waitangi/The Treaty of Waitangi which resulted in warfare three years later.
Gilbert’s son Robert Mair has provided an account as a 12 year old boy entering Whāngārei Harbour for the first time where he describes rowing up the mangrove-enclosed river to their new home Deveron, named after the Mair family home in Scotland. Deveron was above the river and a small stone jetty or landing was made and used for unloading building materials and stores. Robert also records that a road was made by Māori for his father; it was a “sailor’s road” and went straight up the hill with no compensation for its steepness. Most of the road made for the Mairs has disappeared due to development of Hātea Drive but a small remnant is still visible within the historic area, just above the landing.
Life was uneasy in the two to three years after the Mair family’s arrival in Whāngārei, with discontent amongst northern Māori. In 1845 all the European families in the Whāngārei District self-evacuated by sea to Auckland after the sacking of Kororāreka / Russell. They returned after the end of the Northern war in 1847. Deveron had been looted but the house was still intact. The family continued to increase in size and they had twelve children who went on to contribute to colonial New Zealand in manifold ways.
When their father died in 1857, Robert Mair (the eldest male child) took over the family farm and assisted his mother (who died in 1870) with looking after the younger children. Some of the children became significant members of New Zealand colonial society, with two brothers William and Gilbert becoming famous for their military careers during the colonial wars against Māori. William was present at the tragic battle of Orākau Paewai. He was disgusted with the behavior of the Imperial troops and in a letter to his brother Gilbert he comments he is sick of war and was horrified by the killing of women.
Gilbert Mair’s military service included fighting with the Arawa Flying column against Te Kooti in Te Urewera for which he was awarded the New Zealand Cross.
In later life when Te Kooti had been pardoned (1883) he met Gilbert Mair at Matata on the Bay of Plenty Coast. They both gave each other gifts as a mark of respect as former combatants. Although the two Mair brothers had been at the fore front of the fighting their actions speak of hard, dedicated men who never lost their humanity. William and Gilbert were comfortable in both Te Ao Māori and Te Ao Pākehā and so after military service became official interpreters, Land Court Judges and Crown Land purchasers.
Gilbert became disillusioned with the bureaucratic machinery that had been designed to dismantle Māori ownership of their land. In addressing Te Arawa in his ohaki (dying speech) he told them to hold fast to their land and not let it go.
Robert, the eldest, donated some land by the river because of the superb native bush and swimming hole which became Mair Park as a gift to the people of Whāngārei. Located close to the historic area, this is now part of the green belt which is an integral part of the city.
Whāngārei and the Hātea River 1850-1898
In 1850 there were but four European settlers homes in Whāngārei, all on the western bank of the Hātea River – which at that time formed the initial nucleus of Pākehā settlement. During the 1850s more settlers arrived and in 1853 John Grant Johnson the Land Commissioner arrived in the district and brought large acreages from Māori. European colonisation had begun in earnest by the end of the decade, when there were European farms dotted over the district and a village at Whāngārei.
The harbour was the focus for the new settlement of Whāngārei and in 1866 coal from the Whau Valley mine was transported by horse drawn trucks along a 1.8 metre wide railway. On the Hātea River was Taurangahaku (‘fishing/landing place of yellow tail’) which was marked by two large rocks. These rocks were used in the 1866 construction of a coal chute erected within the historic area for the loading of vessels. The trucks were lowered down the hill to the riverside by means of a large drum – the full trucks winding up the empty ones. This reflects early exploitation of the North Auckland coalfield at a time when the use of this resource for mechanised industry in New Zealand increased.
The commercial wharf (downstream of the bridge) in the town basin became the focus for the town of Whāngārei and by 1881 there was a steam train that ran along what is now Walton Street to service the wharf.
The first Whāngārei Bridge was constructed at Te Ahipupurangi-a-ihenga (the town basin) in 1898 and it was a swing bridge. The reason for the swing bridge was to allow the passage of vessels upstream of Te Ahipupurangi-a-ihenga to the Mair’s Landing area for the transport of goods and coal.
Mair’s Landing in the 20th century
It is not known exactly when the land was transferred out of the Mair family ownership, but it appears that the first Certificate of Title issued after the initial Crown Grant was to Eliza Drummond in 1928. The Drummonds were one of two prominent local families associated with the Mair’s Landing area in the first part of the twentieth century, the other being the Pickmeres.
Ongoing problems with the swing bridge mechanism of the Whāngārei Bridge meant that a fixed bridge called the Victoria Bridge was built in its place in 1936. This prevented further maritime activity and development in the Mair’s Landing area, though it was still accessible to pleasure craft and row boats. This is reflected within the historic area through the remains of small boatsheds and slipways made of basalt from the nearby horticultural field system of Tawatawhiti.
The Mair’s Landing area remained in the ownership of the Drummond family until 1991, when the land was transferred to Whangarei District Council; it is currently proposed as a reserve. Now a quiet backwater, Tawatawhiti / Mair’s Landing Historic Area is an important cultural, historical and archaeological landscape that informs us of people’s lives along the river since pre-European times.
The historic area is located on the western side of the Hātea River and comprises a roughly triangular piece of land sandwiched between the Hātea River and Hatea Drive. It is covered in native bush and weeds. Some of the historic sites such as the landing, the coal chute and the remains of boathouses extend into the river. The land is proposed as a reserve by the Whāngārei District Council.
The site today
Rubbish and weeds are scattered throughout the site, it is neglected and regarded as a waste area. Where the site is close to Hatea Drive rubbish has been thrown down the bank into the vegetation, this includes bicycles, car tyres, hubcaps, broken glass and plastic. Where there is no dominant canopy there is an explosion of wild ginger (Hedychium gardnerianum) and wandering Jew (Tradescantia Fluminensis), however in the dominant low light canopy area there are invasive species but it is typically Northland coastal forest. In the native section the stone fields of Tawatawhiti are not easily visible; they may exist under the dense cover of weed species but this has not yet been ascertained. This is last remnant of the horticultural field systems that were once on the western side of the Hātea River but have disappeared due to the development of the city of Whāngārei.
In the historic area are remnants of the horticultural field system that was part of the kāinga of Tawatawhiti. Most of the visible archaeological evidence has been destroyed by the development of the modern town of Whāngārei. This area has survived because of lack of modern development.
Basalt rocks of varying sizes have been stacked to form a rock wall 40 metre in length, varying in width 2 to 3 metres and to a height varying between 0.6 to 1.1 metres. The wall is associated with horticultural field systems on the rich volcanic soil. The removal of stone allowed suitable areas of cultivation; the wall was probably used as a boundary maker but also was used in the supply and control of water to the crops. There are four small lateral walls that could have been used to regulate water flow to the field systems which means that this stone wall has multiple functions.
There are also six stone lined terraces; these are often specifically constructed gardens to retain soil on steep slopes or where soils were thin. There are twenty puke (stone heaps) which are also horticultural in origin and were used to increase the temperature around plants. Associated with the gardening systems are scatters of shell midden that represents the meals of those who tended the gardens. The midden is composed mainly of cockle which would have been harvested in nearby estuarine waters. This is a complex horticultural landscape with archaeological features that allows us to observe Te Ao Māori before the coming of the Pākehā. The site has suffered damage through vegetation and the removal of some of the stone, but otherwise this remnant of the horticultural field system is remarkably intact.
The landing is constructed of basalt but is unlike the other structures; some of the stone has been extensively worked so that it has a fair face. The landing extends for eight metres into the main channel from the shore it is two metres wide. The top of the stones have been fair faced and have been laid in random course. At the end of the structure is a pair of stone stairs descending into the river both upstream and downstream. These have been constructed by someone with a good degree of skill as the stones have been faced and fitted together in an even course. The structure dates from 1842. Directly behind the landing is a small remnant of the road (a carriage way) which ran from the landing to the Mairs’ house (Deveron). Most of the road was destroyed during the construction of Hātea Drive but a section of 8 metres of road is still visible as a flattened area just above the landing.
Taurangahaku is the name of two large rocks that were used for fishing to catch and land haku (Yellow tail Kingfish). It is probable that the two rocks are still in situ and have been incorporated into the coal chute that was constructed in 1866. The coal chute is constructed of dry stacked basalt and is seven metres in length. It has two hardwood wooden posts for the securing of vessels and behind it a flat 10 x 3 metre platform which still has coal on the surface. Extending both upstream and down the river bank has been lined with basalt for a distance of twenty metres and there are remnants of other hardwood mooring posts. The vessels tied up here would have been small coastal vessels and the proportions of the coal chute reflect this. It is important to recognise that the coal chute is part of an integrated system of mooring posts and river protection.
There are remains of eight small twentieth century boathouses in the river margins in the historic area. They are characterised by low stone groins that extend in to the river. The rocks are stacked to make fingers and between these are the remnants of cradles in the mud on which the vessels were placed. The stones have been sourced from the field systems of Tawatawhiti. The stone was re-used to make the boathouses - this is apparent as all the puke have been harvested for their stone close to the river.
Construction of field system associated with Tawatawhiti
Construction of Mair’s Landing and Road
Construction of Coal Chute
Construction of boat houses and slips
Volcanic rock (basalt)
Public NZAA Number
31st October 2017
Report Written By
Nancy Pickmere, Whangarei: The Founding Years, Whangarei, 1986
Anderson and Peterson, 1956
Anderson, J.C. and Peterson, G.C., The Mair Family, 1956, Wellington.
Shakle and Phear, 2011
Shakle R and Phear S., ‘Archaeological Monitoring of the Kamo Bypass Stage 2 Works, Kamo Northland: Recording and Investigation of Sites Q06/581, Q06/607 and Q06/616’, 2011.
Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rārangi Kōrero 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.
Archaeological sites are protected by the Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act 2014, regardless of whether they are entered on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rārangi Kōrero or not. Archaeological sites include ‘places associated with pre-1900 human activity, where there may be evidence relating to the history of New Zealand’. This List entry report should not be read as a statement on whether or not the archaeological provisions of the Act apply to the property (s) concerned. Please contact your local Heritage New Zealand office for archaeological advice.
A fully referenced New Zealand Heritage List report is available on request from the Northland Office of Heritage New Zealand
Historic Area Place Name
Taurangahaku – Coal Chute