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January 2021 ∙ Issue #238

Writing the Waikato War

Shaping Our Country (Part I)



by Michelle Ann Smith


‘[This] has been the busiest, gloomiest and most exciting fortnight I have ever passed. The war has suddenly left Taranaki and broken out here.’1


So wrote Rev Vicesimus Lush, Anglican minister, in his journal on July 19th 1863. Only a month before, he had speculated that the fighting was not expected to ‘extend beyond the Taranaki.’2 With war breaking out within his parish borders, rather than hundreds of miles away, Lush stopped being a casual observer of events, instead becoming closely connected with them. We are fortunate to have surviving copies of Lush’s journal, and that of Pukekohe settler, William Morgan; men who lived or worked in the wider district. Alongside newspaper articles, their writings inform us of colonial life - personal and generic, interesting and mundane - in the mid-nineteenth century.3

Official sources relating to the New Zealand Wars are often a collection of government letters that give little in the way of information regarding ordinary settlers, who bore the brunt of the war with little recourse or recompense.

Newspapers and settler journals are therefore invaluable sources, but they must be read with a word of caution. Each is underscored by Victorian attitudes and perspectives, which are often contradictory, prejudiced, and give a one-sided or biased history of the conflict.4 Nonetheless, Morgan and Lush’s journals are worth perusing in order to get an idea of how local settlers, and the district they lived in, were affected by the war, a glimpse of which I give here.

Between June and December 1863, the district’s residents found themselves embroiled in the Waikato War. Drury became a military and naval centre, and stockades or redoubts dotted the small towns and countryside of south Auckland. Maori who did not swear an oath of allegiance to the British queen were deemed rebels. Some Maori fought on both sides, and those who remained friendly were often viewed with suspicion. Some settlers, such as George Cole of Papakura, believed the war was both unprovoked and avoidable.5

Most of the local fighting took place in the Mauku-Tuakau-Waiuku areas of the district. However, skirmishes occurred in the Hunua Ranges, at KiriKiri, Drury, Ramarama, Pukekohe, and Bombay, with losses or injuries on both sides (men, women and children). With the exception of Ihaka Takanini, the deaths of local Maori are mostly unrecorded, although Morgan occasionally cites unverified statistics.6 A number of settlers were killed defending their homes or working their farms.7 The newspapers spared no detail for their readers, often at the expense of actual fact.

One such case is the Calvert affair, whereby Lush took exception to the biased newspaper reporting:

‘I heard a few particulars respecting young Calvert’s death which placed it in a different light…the very day before the natives attacked the Captain’s house, his son Sylvester had yoked four bullocks into the dray and driven it up to the abandoned native kainga, Keri Keri, in order to pillage…whatever the natives had left in their hurried departure.’8

Not only had 18 year old Sylvester planned to steal, he threatened an old Maori woman, guarding the village, with a revolver before taking what he wanted. His father, in the meantime, stole two horses and put them in his paddocks. The next morning, a number of Maori men approached the Calverts' home, and a skirmish ensued. According to the newspapers, the ‘gallant’ Captain Calvert apparently single-handedly defeated 30 to 40 Maori warriors with only a sword in hand!

Newspapers described this as an ‘unprovoked assault…on an unoffending family’; a narrative meant to incite fear and anger. However, as Lush noted, the ‘aggravation on the part of the Calverts [was] suppressed by the newspapers’ with Maori being portrayed as ‘a set of blood thirsty savages, ready to kill the first white man they see.’9 Colonial settlers became ‘innocent’ bystanders, and soldiers were ‘gallant men’, victims of those who committed innumerable outrages in the name of the Maori king. Yet any atrocities against Maori were heavily sanitised or unreported.

Local men were keen to assist in the defence of the district even though they might find themselves fighting against those they once called friends. A sense of duty to Crown and homeland overrode those friendships. Men such as James Sangster Wilson (Clevedon), William Macgregor Hay and Captain William Jackson (Papakura), James Cossey (Drury), John Mackintosh Roberts (Hunua), and Major Speedy (Mauku) signed up to assist government forces in a variety of voluntary and paid roles. Voluntary rifle corps helped man stockades and took to patrolling the roads, and Jackson initially enlisted over 60 local men in the Forest Rangers. Rev Norrie, the district’s Presbyterian minister, was enlisted as military chaplain, adding the camps at Drury and the Waikato redoubts to his already large parish. He did not see any action but was placed, at times, ‘in great danger.’10

Women, on the other hand, were often bundled off to a place of safety. For those with the means, and the contacts, Auckland became their sanctuary. Fifty families from Pukekohe took shelter in the Drury Presbyterian Church in mid-July, after the Merediths were killed.11 Women and children from Clevedon sought refuge in Papakura in late September, arriving in the early morning in bullock drays, having been roused during the night by command of the government which, according to Lush, ‘insisted upon them leaving the district instantly’. Threat of attack was imminent. The night was ‘dark and wet…the roads so heavy they could not get along faster than about 3 miles an hour so it was morning before the poor creatures reacht Papakura.’12

Yet life continued despite the disruption and displacement, resilience sitting alongside fear. Mrs Wallis, one of the Clevedon party, had only been in Papakura half an hour when she gave birth to a daughter, remaining ‘wonderfully cheerful’ throughout the ordeal.13 A number of local churches were transformed into stockades, and many were left riddled with bullet holes. Morgan noted that the Presbyterian church in Pukekohe was taken over by the rifle volunteers and special constables, and Lush described how the Papakura’s Presbyterian church was ‘barricaded with three-inch planks…loopholed for rifle firing from within.’14

Even Bishop Selwyn was undeterred and continued with Sunday services in Papakura’s Anglican church amongst the bedding and furniture of his parishioners. While congregation numbers declined, the men who turned up to church often came armed, much to Lush’s horror.15

For Papakura and districts, as elsewhere, the involvement in the war was a significant and defining moment in its history. Development stalled due to the loss of Maori and settler resources and manpower. Riding through his parish, Lush noted a ‘complete absence of all life…everywhere there seemed a total cessation of labour’.16

The financial cost of the war was high, as was the loss of lives. For settlers, ‘the wars joined other hardships in a frontier land’; some had to rebuild their homes and livelihood. For Maori, their population declined significantly, and many who left the district did not return. Their lands were confiscated, and used by the government to entice more settlers to the colony under the Waikato Immigration Scheme. What was justified as punishment for rebellion, and seen by the strengthening colonial government as a way for low-cost expansion, only caused angst to all involved.17


  1. The Auckland Journals of Vicesimus Lush 1850-63, ed. Alison Drummond, Christchurch, 1971, p. 238. 

  2. ibid. Journal entry: 1 June 1863. 

  3. Lush, the twentieth child of Charles Lush of London, was born in 1817, graduated as a clergyman from Cambridge University, married in 1842, and set sail from Gravesend in May 1850. Lush wrote extensively about his experiences in New Zealand, from the time of his arrival in 1850 until his death in 1882. Morgan was a printer by trade and had arrived in New Zealand in the early 1850s, taking up land in Pukekohe East in 1858. He wrote prolifically in his journal, and was the Drury correspondent for the Daily Southern Cross during 1863. 

  4. Matthew Wright, Two Peoples, One Land, Auckland, 2006, pp. 13-14.  

  5. George Lewis Cole, claim for land under the Naval & Military Settlers and Volunteers Act 1889, Archives NZ, Wellington, LS 69 8/388. Letter written by George Cole (father), December 1893. 

  6. On 17th July Morgan noted that in one engagement one British soldier was killed, while upwards of 20 Maori lost their lives. See p. 48. In more recent times, deaths of local Maori have been acknowledged by plaques in cemeteries such as that at Pukekohe East. 

  7. Including: Merediths (Ramarama); Job Hamlin (Papakura); Coopers (Clevedon); James Hunt (Hunua/Papakura); Mr Scott snr (Pukekohe East); Robert Watson (Paerata); Hugh McLean (Paerata); Mr and Mrs Fahey (Ramarama). 

  8. Lush, p. 245. 

  9. Lush, pp. 245-246; Daily Southern Cross, 27 July 1863; Daily Southern Cross, 25 July 1863. Morgan wrote this report. 

  10. Thomas Norrie, claim for land under the Naval & Military Settlers and Volunteers Act 1889, Archives NZ, Wellington, LS69 25/1522. 

  11. Morgan, p. 48. 

  12. Lush pp. 248-249. 

  13. Lush p. 249. 

  14. Morgan, pp. 65-66; Lush, p. 243. Pukekohe East Presbyterian church. The church had openings cut into it for rifle fire – it was stockaded not loopholed. 

  15. Lush, pp. 241, 246. 

  16. Lush, p. 242. 

  17. Wright, pp. 8, 153. 


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elocal Digital Edition – January 2021 (#238)

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