Wanganui and the River Boats
White Settlers on the river.
by Anthony G. Flude. © 2001.
An early missionary, the Rev. Richard Taylor, recorded in his journals a grisly story which occurred in the year 1831. It concerned the arrival of one of the first landing parties of white men on the shores of the Wanganui River. A whaler captain, named Rowe, working from Kapiti Island, had made his way up the mouth of the Wanganui River in his small vessel, intending to trade or barter goods with the local Maori.
Putting ashore, Rowe and his two-man crew met several natives who were camped there and they were invited to have a meal with them. Rowe, unintentionally offended one of the party who refused to get off his boat when asked several times to do so. To his horror, the Maori suddenly drew out his mere and killed him with one swift blow to the neck. Rowe’s crew went to his aid but were overpowered. ['mere' - a flat carved Maori club, either of wood or greenstone]
The white crew member was also killed, but the other, a Negro, was spared, possibly due to the colour of his skin. He was held captive for several days before being released and allowed to return to Kapiti island in the whaleboat. Rowe’s, shrivelled and smoke dried head was later offered for sale to another white trader, who quickly declined the offer.
Other traders, hearing of the affair, made cautious approaches to the wide entrance and entering up the Wanganui River and regarded the river and its surrounds as hostile territory. John Niccol, who had married a maori woman born near Pipiriki, found he was welcomed by the Maori people when he called at Putiki pa, situated up-river from the coast. He traded with them, exchanging a keg of gunpowder for a number of pigs and returned on many occasions to barter for goods and produce.['pa' - an early Maori fortified village].
The Rev. Henry Williams, in 1839, went up the river and held counsel with the local chiefs, seeking to warn them against the impending possession of their land by the Europeans, requesting that he hold the land they wished to sell in trust for them.
Meanwhile, acting for the London based 'New Zealand Company', Edward Wakefield was already on his way from Wellington to Wanganui to try to persuade the chiefs to sell their land.
The twenty-five tribal chiefs had already agreed among themselves to sell land in the area to the white settlers and a final settlement was later made by Edward's uncle, Colonel Wakefield, of the land which was to be allocated to the new white immigrant settlers. It was agreed that the township of Wanganui was to be erected on the banks of the river a short distance from the coast.
In May, 1840, the first small 30 ton schooner to enter the river, the Surprise, owned by Jock McGregor and chartered by Wakefield’s son Edward, sailed over the sandbar with a cargo hold of goods to the value of £700 which was to be to be used as payment for the land. The goods included:- 10 double-barrelled shotguns, 50 casks of black powder, 2 casks of cartridges and shot, fowling pieces, 1000 flints, 100 axes, shirts and red blankets, tobacco, linen and a variety of general goods such as razors, hats, looking glasses, soap and fishhooks and coloured beads, etc., which were handed over to the Maori chiefs to distribute among themselves as full purchase price of the 40,000 acres of land on the Wanganui River and surrounds.
The land was quickly surveyed before the first group of settlers arrived aboard the 51-ton schooner Elizabeth on the 23rd February 1841. Passengers landed included John Nixon who built his first cottage, called ‘Sedgebrook’ on the riverbank where the present Moutoa Gardens are situated, Dr. & Mrs. Wilson and their son, Henry Churton, C.Niblett, Samual King and two sisters.
Not all the first settlers came by sailing ship and quite a number journeyed from Wellington on foot, bringing all their worldly goods with them. William Bell, his wife and two sons were among those who made the journey from Wellington to Wanganui overland and settled on land at Totarapuku.
The settlement grew rapidly with the opening up of the river. McGregor’s schooner made numerous trips carrying goods to and from the settlements. Small sailing vessels began to regularly trade between Wanganui and Wellington, carrying both passengers and cargo, which
included pigs and potatoes.
Another vessel, the 10-ton schooner, Sandfly, built on the Hutt river in 1841, also joined the trade to Wanganui. She made three voyages before disaster struck during a storm off Kapiti Island, where she dragged her anchors and drifted onto the rocks to became a total wreck.
In June 1841 the 11-ton schooner, Eliza, with a cargo of flour, sailed up the Wanganui River to discharge her cargo before picking up a shipment of whale oil from the whaling station operating at Castlecliff. Another 26 settlers arrived from London in November 1841 aboard the vessel Clydeside, 230 tons, while coastal schooners, the Neptune, Mana, and Jane continued to bring in other settlers from Wellington and the Hutt. In 1842, Captains Taylor and Watt brought in the 10 ton cutter Catherine Johnstone, and this little vessel remained trading on the river for some time.
From the early times it was realised that the entrance to the Wanganui River had to be negotiated with extreme caution and this factor limited the size of vessel that could attempt entry. The shifting sand bar had a depth from five to eight feet of water outside and from eight to twenty-four inside. Vessels captain’s were warned to watch out for smooth water before attempting to enter.
There is a prevailing westerly wind over the bar, and this was to claim the 50 ton three masted schooner, Harriet Leathart, in October, 1848. On arriving, the tide was out with only six
feet of water over the bar, so the captain stood off until morning. When the tide was full he made another attempt but found heavy seas at the river mouth. An offshore gale began to blow and while making another attempt the mainsails blew out and were carried away. By
2.30 am the seas were swamping her from stem to stern. At 3am she was aground
and stranded on the beach but with the efforts of the townsfolk and soldiers
the cargo, passengers and crew were saved.
The safe navigation of the Wanganui River relied on local knowledge of the bar and sandbanks and the number of partially embedded timber logs. The worst of these snags was called the ‘black snag’ near Putiki pa, where many small ships had been sunk.
The arrival in September 1857 of the steamer Wonga Wonga was an important event. The river had been made an official ‘Port of Entry’ and from then on Custom duties were levied, payable to the Town Board. This made available some funds to improve conditions in the port and deepen the channel. One year later, after many return trips to Wellington with cargo
and passengers, the vessel fouled a sandbank and hit a snag. Only little damage
was sustained but the incident showed the inherent dangers still existing on
During the Maori Land Wars in 1865, the small river steamer, the Gundagi, was used in the relief of the Pipiriki garrison which were surrounded by hostile Maori warriers. By August 1st, stores were running short and several attempts were made to get upriver to the besieged
garrison under constant attack. Finally the small steamer, Moutoa, under
the command of Captain Hansen, made the journey to Pipiriki to bring the badly
needed supplies for the garrison, its cargo hold containing eight tons of food
and forty sheep to feed the hungry troops.
Soon the hostilities died down in the district and the river and its surrounds became peaceful again. The river steamer, the Moutoa, built at Port Waikato in 1856, which had been hired by the military and ordered to Wanganui during the wars, was laid up in March, 1866 by her owners and offered for sale.
The successful use of the two steamers during that hostile time had proved the feasibility of up-river travel by steamer.
Captain Anders Sjoeberg, a Swedish sea captain, who was to later anglicise his name to Andrew Seabury for New Zealand citizenship, had captained several vessels that had sailed from Liverpool to New York with groups of Irish
immigrants. He arrived in Wellington, New Zealand in 1861-2 , shortly before the hostilities of the Maori Land Wars began in 1863.
Thought to be of Norweigian nationality by the local settlers, Captain Sjoeberg chartered the then laid-up steamer Moutoa in 1866, when he began an enterprising Wanganui Riverboat ferry business, which was believed to be the first commercial steamer service to open up on the Wanganui River.
Plying his small steamer up-river to Parakino from Wanganui and back with passengers and freight during August, September and October, 1866, when the river levels were high enough for the steamers draught, he was, unfortunately, ahead of his time, and the small number of travellers and freight made the business venture fail. On her final trip, the vessel ran aground while bringing down a detachment of troops stationed upriver. The Moutoa was re-floated and laid up again by her owners. She was eventually sold to a Nelson firm and left the port on the 27th May, 1868.
In 1876, an Act of Parliament provided for the Wanganui Harbour and River Conservation Board to be formed of nine members who’s task was to not only protect the river but also reduce the many navigation hazards and ‘snags’ along the stretch between Wanganui and Pipiriki. By 1880 many of the snags had been cleared.
A private company purchased a vessel called the Tuhua, built by David Murray, to run a ferry service but this vessel was to only operated for one season before it went aground at Karatia and was to became a total loss.
Arriving from Australia in the year 1875, Alexander Hatrick had been closely monitoring the activities on the Wanganui River for some years.
He decided that the time was right for his foundry firm to enter into the shipping business in 1889. His first vessel, the 189-ton barquentine St. KILDA, began to work the trans-Tasman run with timber, cargo and passengers, which proved a profitable venture.
In the year 1890 he ordered a flat-bottomed paddle steamer from London, which was delivered in sections and assembled in Wanganui. She cost the company £4,500, was 100ft in overall length and was licensed to carry 250 passengers. In April 1892, after several trial runs, she started a regular weekly service to Pipiriki with passengers, freight and mail.
Named the Wairere, she became so popular that they were forced to increase the service to three times weekly. She was joined by the stern driven vessel Manuwai in the year 1895. Business continued to grow and so did the fleet of vessels owned by Hatrick & Co. who added the vessel Ohura in 1897, which was capable of carrying 200 passengers.
His river fleet of ships continued to grow, the larger vessels over-shadowing the other smaller river steamers which plied up and down the Wanganui River with passengers and cargo. The service extended to the timber town of Taumarunui after the river was widened in 1903, as this was the terminal of the railway running south from Auckland.
In 1900 the vessel AOTEA began operating in opposition to the Hatrick fleet of riverboats. Captain Jack Allen, a part-maori, opened up the River Settlers Service. This venture, although successful at first, was to fail in the course of time due to the strong opposition and the vessel was taken over by Mr. Hatrick, complete with its skipper. The vessel was renamed the Waimarie after it joined the Hatrick fleet.
Mr. Hatrick ordered a houseboat to be built in the year 1904, which was to be moored on the right bank of the Ohura River, near the junction. The vessel had no power and its 92ft length by 20ft beam had to be towed to its anchorage.
Electric light, flush lavatories, hot and cold water were all on board, the vessel being most lavishly fitted throughout as a floating Hotel. The lower deck had 18 cabins, the upper deck, an open lounge with deck chairs, a smoking room, dining room for 30 people with a piano and a large social hall.
Many of the passengers from his other riverboats elected to stop-over for two or three nights in the luxurious and relaxed surroundings. Travellers from other parts of the world and within New Zealand, or train passengers disembarking at the railway terminal at Taumarunui, booked passage for a break from their long wearying journeys on Hatrick's steamers, taking a stop-over aboard the floating hotel.
Disaster struck on the night of the 25th August, 1933, when fire swept the vessel from stem to stern. The vessel had been closed down for the rainy winter months and there were only two of Hatrick's employees aboard who managed to swim ashore. Hatrick's grand floating hotel, constructed entirely of timber, burnt with flames shooting skywards from the upper decks, all the way down to the waterline.
The river services gradually declined through the 1930's and 1940's as improved roads made Wanganui and the river more accessable to cars and trucks.
By 1958 several Hamilton jetboat companies were running commercially up the river and its rapids with groups of thrillseeking tourists.
The grand old steamers were sold, became hulks, or found their last resting places buried in reclamation work being done at the shipping port, wharves, or along the banks of the Wanganui River.