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Kawau Island Settlement   

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                     To rehabilitate the native flora and fauna of Kawau Island

                       To promote the conservation of indigenous species in New Zealand

                   To achieve sustainable land use on Kawau Island



The Beginnings

Located in the inner Hauraki Gulf Kawau Island has a long history associated with human activity. Kawau has been used as a base for centuries during fishing expeditions in the surrounding waters.

The present settlement originated in January 1840 when Mr W.T. Fairburn arranged to buy the island of Kawau on behalf of Mr Henry Tayler, an arrangement that led to sale of Kawau Island to Mr James Forbes Beattie, who was acting on behalf of the North British Australian Loan and Investment Company. The purchase cost 197 pounds nine shillings.

There was a delay in confirmation of the purchase due to a proclamation issued by Sir George Gipps, then Governor of New South Wales just three days after Mr Fairburn made the arrangements, but a Crown Grant in favour eventually resulted.

In 1842 another of Mr Beattie’s agents Mr John Aberdein was sent to Kawau Island to assess possibilities for a settlement based on pastoral farming and agriculture. Mr Aberdein reported favourably and early in 1843 Mr Beattie chartered the ship Georgiana in Sydney. The ship’s master was Thompson and the Georgiana cleared Sydney Heads, and headed for Newcastle in New South Wales under charter.

At Newcastle the Georgiana was loaded with cattle, sheep, farming implements, and stores before setting sail for Kawau. The total cost was one thousand and three pounds nineteen shillings and fourpence, inclusive of the freight. Mr John Aberdein, who had made preparations at Kawau received the shipment.

Meanwhile on nearby Great Barrier Island extraction of manganese and copper ore had commenced under the direction of Mr Alexander Kinghorne. A shipping service established and the Brig Tryphena of 136 tons was making regular trips between Auckland and Sydney under the command of Captain Horn.  Mr Kinghorne was given approval to prospect for manganese on Kawau, and before very long news was received that radically changed the direction of the little Kawau settlement, although some farming was to continue.

The Brig Tryphena was in Auckland on one of her regular visits at the time, and it appears that Henry Tayler was also in Auckland when he received news that copper had been discovered on Kawau Island.

Henry Tayler wrote the following letter (with postmarks “New Zealand. 12 Apr 1844” “Ship letter Sydney. May 5 1844”) to Mr Beattie in Sydney:

Auckland 12 April 1844

My Dear sir,

I have scarcely a minute left to write a few lines by the “Tryphena”.

I am quite delighted and I am sure you will be too, to hear that Kawau abounds in  copper.

I have just seen a specimen brought up here by Mr Kinghorne who has been superintending the copper mine at the Barrier.

 It is a very rich specimen of grey copper ore, the locality is exceedingly convenient for  working, and to cut the matter short, the place is worth, at least, from 20 to 80 thousand pounds!!!

Accept my warmest congratulations.

I am too overjoyed to write more if I had time at present.

Yours faithfully

(signed) Henry Tayler

The Tryphena sailed from Auckland on 14 April 1844 with the letter and passengers, a Mrs Wright and two children, and Messrs Joseph, Bradbury, and Keen on board, and a cargo of manganese ore. She arrived in Sydney on 5 May 1844.

The Kawau Company, formed by Mr Beattie, instructed another of their agents Mr John Taylor to engage a professional copper miner in Sydney. Taylor came to Auckland with instructions to employ miners and open the Kawau mine. He inspected the workings in November 1844, shortly after the mine had opened and then returned to Sydney, reporting to Mr Beattie that the copper prospects were good. His advice was passed on to the investment company back in Scotland where it was well received, and capital was increased to 50,000 pounds. A mining Captain (Ninnis), carpenter, and miners from Cornwall were engaged, and these men sailed from Falmouth in June 1845.

The start of mining

The Kawau company built a village for the miners and their families in the bay they called Garlick Bay (later Mansion House Bay), spending about 23,000 pounds. Included was a house for the mine manager (Ninnis) and a street with houses on either side for the workers and their families, and a jetty. Some of the families built houses at other nearby locations.  By 1848 there were about 220 people on the island.

A traditional Cornish Pumphouse was erected to house a 50 horsepower steam engine, driving a Cornish mine pump, after a smaller engine was found insufficient for dewatering as the workings extended.

The copper lode ran roughly north-south, outcropping on a steep spur on the coast where the main mine adit and Cornish Pumphouse was located. Some land was reclaimed at the end of the spur to provide a platform area for working and for stockpiling ore prior to shipment from a jetty at the mine location.

Although the lode could not be described as an extensive mineral deposit it was a rich sulphide orebody. However, an inappropriate grant of land (below high water mark) adjacent to the Kawau Company’s workings to Lawyer Mr Frederick Whittaker and Mr Theophilus Heale of Auckland caused considerable trouble. These persons proceeded to also mine the same copper lode, using the Kawau Company’s reclaimed land to enable their operations to be conducted. Briefly, the Grant was in exchange for a land allotment (No 16) in Auckland Town, wanted by the Surveyor General to commence a defence plan on Albert Hill. The landward boundary was defined as high water mark, so the Grant included the Kawau Company’s reclaimed land.   

The reclaimed land at Kawau was essential to the Kawau Company’s operations and without doubt they also intended mining the part of the copper lode now possessed by Whitaker and Heal as a result of the Grant. Protracted litigation and communications went all the way to Mr Gladstone in London as the Kawau Company desperately tried to get a just resolution while Whittaker and Heale continued mining. Up to 17 November 1846, according to customs returns, Whitaker and Heale had already exported 469 tons of copper ore valued at 7,840 pounds.

However there was a turn for the better when the new Governor George Grey arrived at the end of November 1845 for his first term in New Zealand. The Kawau Company petitioned him upon the subject and at the same time also petitioned Mr Gladstone on the injustices they had sustained through their agent in London. Mr Gladstone forwarded a copy of the Kawau Company’s complaint to Governor Grey and indicated the view that if the statements were true the Kawau Company had every reason to complain. 

Governor Grey agreed and after taking advice from the Attorney-General, an application was made to the Supreme Court successfully repealing the Grant to Whitaker and Heale. The Court (Lord Grey) recommended that the land between high and low water be included in the grant to the Kawau Company and that was done, defining the title boundary of Kawau Island as mean low water mark.

Whittaker and Heale not only mined copper ore from below high water mark but tunnelled toward the Kawau Company’s landward workings on the same lode, and because their shaft was to seaward and only protected from the sea by a timber collar at the surface the Kawau Company’s mine was already exposed to risk of flooding. John Taylor directed his miners to dig toward the sea, in the direction of the rival mine to confirm his suspicions and they reached the workings of Whittaker and Heal on the Kawau Company land, about 12 feet to landward of high water mark. Captain Ninnis, the Kawau Company’s mining engineer knocked down the partition of ore between the two mines and caught Whittaker and Heale’s men in the act. The connecting of the two mine workings directly to the sea through Whittaker’s Shaft led to flooding of both mines several years later when the timber collar inevitably failed.

Mine working and ore smelting

The Kawau copper lode is contained in silicified greywacke and dips downward at a high angle. Above ground water level the sulphide is well weathered and oxidised to sulphate, the blue copper sulphate being easily seen in the exposure on the spur. Lower down in the lode there is a transition through an enriched zone where copper from the weathered ore above has been transported and re-deposited, and below that again is the relatively unaltered primary ore of lower grade. Workings commenced in the enriched zone which about at the top of the permanent ground water region, and mine development then proceeded on three levels. As the mining progressed toward the unaltered primary ore the Kawau Company found in January 1847 that the sulphides underwent an exothermic reaction aboard ship. The shipments of ore, released from the underground pressure and exposed to the air heated and swelled dangerously on the way to smelting works in Wales. As a result some Kawau ore shipments were stockpiled in Australia and others disposed of at sea to save the vessel.

To overcome the difficulties a decision to build a smelting works was made in November 1848 with construction proceeding during 1849 in a bay on the north side of Bon Accord Harbour. Both the Cornish pumphouse at the mine and the smelting works building were made from sandstone blocks quarried at Matakana on the mainland.

A party of smelters was engaged in Swansea in Wales and sent out to Sydney where they worked for six months at Port Jackson, experimenting with Kawau ore stockpiled there before continuing on to Kawau.  At the Kawau works the sulphide ore was smelted and cast into copper regulus blocks and the slag was also cast into blocks. The casting was done in pits in the floor of the smelting house building. The copper regulus blocks of about two cubic feet in volume were then shipped overseas for further refining. Some of the slag blocks were later used to construct pillars at the landward end of the Mansion House Bay jetty in Bon Accord Harbour, and for foreshore retaining structures. It is thought that others may have been dispersed as ships ballast. 

Operations at the smelting works produced quantities of sulphur dioxide fumes as the sulphide ore was smelted and to avoid the acrid fumes the Welsh workers and their families moved further down the harbour to a place they nostalgically named Swansea Bay.

After the mine closed about 1855 Mr Alexander Harris continued to stay on as caretaker and to run a store and post office. He was there when Sir George Grey purchased Kawau in 1862 and his daughter Elsie became housekeeper for Sir George Grey.

Sir George Grey and Kawau

Sir George Grey was already familiar with Kawau from experience with litigation relating to the copper mining when he returned to New Zealand a second time after being appointed Governor of New Zealand in 1861. He purchased Kawau in 1862.

Even before copper was mined some land had been cleared and put in pasture for farming, and during the mining days native forest timber was used both for construction and for fuel.

By the 1850’s most of the land south of Bon Accord Harbour and out to the east coast had been clear felled and was in pasture. Local totara was used for timbers in the mine, kauri for building construction, and kanuka as a fuel. The house built in 1845-46 for Captain Ninnis, manager of the copper mine was enlarged by Grey not long after he purchased Kawau, and included distinctive kauri panelling and turned columns. It later became important nationally as Sir George Grey’s historic home and a well known heritage building in New Zealand.

Grey used Kawau as a retreat from a very busy life as Governor of New Zealand, entertaining many guests and proudly showing his house and gardens to the visiting public. As with the house, Grey made an early start on establishing extensive gardens of exotic plants. While the gardens were a magnificent creation his actions in introducing exotic animals and plants to Kawau Island were in time to have a profound negative impact on the Island’s native flora and fauna. Many of the animals Grey introduced did not acclimatise to Kawau and some such as deer were eventually hunted to extinction about 1960 but the marsupials possum and wallaby Grey imported from Australia in 1868-69 survived and the numbers of these animals eventually became governed simply by the vegetation they were dependent upon for a food supply. Grey no doubt thought he was creating a paradise for himself on Kawau, but made the mistake of not properly recognising what was already there. Even the British scientific journal Nature warned at the time that it was not appropriate to introduce animals to places where they did not belong. Grey's actions initiated a process which has almost destroyed the native flora and fauna of Kawau Island, the stability of the soils, and compromised the surrounding marine ecology as well with the silt released from the almost bare land surface.  

During Grey's time people associated with him lived on Kawau with their families, and as was the case during the copper mine days there was a fair measure of goodwill so far as occupation of land and the building of dwellings is concerned. Geologist James Hector recorded that there was a house in North Cove, on the south side, in the 1860’s.

Further development of the settlement.

As with the transition from the Kawau Company’s days, some of Grey's people remained on the Island when he sold it in 1888 to Mrs Eliza Thompson from Australia. Between 1892 and 1904 several people had an interest in Kawau. Names included James Thompson (Mrs Thompson’s husband), William Holgate, Mrs Fanny Buxton, and William Skeates. During that time others living on the Island included Mr and Mrs Burness, Miss Workman, Mr Doyle, Members of the Harris family including Elsie Harris, Mr Hicks-Ross, Mrs Halverson,

Mr T Xeira in North Cove, and the Lysaghts, who worked 80 acres of cleared land at the head of Bon Accord Harbour.

Eliza Thompson had the verandah added to the Mansion House, in a style completely in keeping with the earlier architecture. The verandah is so distinctive and appropriate that many assume it to be part of the original building. William Holgate, a mine Captain took an interest in the mine and lived on the Island for several years, and James Thompson, Mrs Thompson’s husband engaged the engineering firm of A and G Price from the Thames to dewater it in 1900. However, no production took place and the mine has been flooded ever since. The rusting Price fire-tube boiler remains at the mine site.

Andrew Joseph Farmer who was a former Mayor of Te Aroha purchased the Island in 1904, and it should be said that at that time the whole of Kawau was on one Certificate of Title. The landward boundary was Mean Low Water. The sum paid is not known but the Island was on the market for 16,000 pounds at the time.

A large annexe built by Farmer to the left of Mansion House burnt down about 1908.

There were many visitors to Kawau during the period and Farmer ran Mansion House as a boarding house, but it was not successful financially. The cost of the trip from Auckland on the ss Kawau, (a Logan built steamer owned by the Coastal Shipping Company) and two nights stay was seventeen shillings and sixpence. The Northern Steamship Company also ran popular excursions with the steamers Ngapuhi and the smaller Clansman.

At this stage the design of future development of the settlement was dramatically influenced when Farmer was compelled to subdivide the Island for financial reasons after a disastrous fire destroyed the grand annexe he had built only two years before. The basic essential need of every community is transport and access and on Kawau this is met by using boats and wharves rather than roads and motor vehicles. Under the laws of New Zealand every allotment must have access to a road or private road, or a navigable river or lake, or upon the seashore. In Farmer’s subdivision the design was to provide access to individual lots from the sea. At the time Farmer’s subdivision plans were deposited the land between low and high water was taken so that the seaward boundary of the new Certificates of Title was Mean High Water, which is the case today, except where further subdivision has taken place since.

Some farming struggled on, Kanuka for firewood was harvested for the Auckland market, and boat building of small wooden vessels was a notable industry. The number of jetties slowly increased as dwellings were erected on allotments created in the Farmer subdivisions.

Wallabies, eating the pasture intended for cattle and sheep finally drove the farmers out. In a last desperate attempt to control the wallabies 13,000 were shot on the pasture in one year, but they quickly increased again and farming was over three years later. With the pasture now no more than acres of scotch thistle and bare ground the owner Gerald Clark subdivided 127 acres at South Cove. The rest of the pasture land reverted to a monoculture of kanuka, one of very few native plants that the wallabies do not eat.

Attempts to establish small orchards and vineyards have since failed because of the wallabies and possums.      

The little Kawau Island settlement now has about 260 dwellings, mostly close to the sea and their jetty access. There are approximately 60 permanent residents, the majority of the dwellings being holiday and weekend retreats.


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Ó Copyright 1951-2005 E.R. Weaver Pohutukawa Trust New Zealand

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