Tag Archives: fencibles

Fencible life

In the mid-1800s New Zealand was a fledgling British colony. Scattered settlements around the newly established capital of Auckland were vulnerable to attack from certain native Maori tribes and from aspiring French colonists. Retired British soldiers who had already seen at least 15 years active service in other British colonies, particularly India, were recruited to settle in the Auckland region. Their duties were hardly ‘military’: they were to patrol their own settlement and attend church service. There were four such settlements (in Onehunga, Otahuhu, Panmure and Howick) forming a line of defense against attack from the south and east. They were known as Fencibles, meaning simply ‘able to defend’, and being essentially of good character, tradesmen, usually married and in their 40s, they were ideal immigrants – just what the new colony needed. New Zealand offered many of the Fencibles an escape from the squalor of the Industrial Revolution or the despair of the Irish potato famine. Not that getting to New Zealand was easy. In the 1840s a sailing ship took around 100 days to reach Auckland from Britain. Conditions onboard were difficult. Once the excitement of the departure had passed the days at sea must have seemed interminable. Each family’s baggage allowance was limited to a wooden chest, measuring 80cm x 50cm x 45cm.

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Once the families came ashore their hopes were dashed of finding the two-roomed wooden houses (on 2 acres of at least partially cleared land) that they had been promised during recruitment. A tent on the beach was often their first shelter.

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Notice how the pillow (and the mattress) was stuffed with what appears to be twigs. This is mangemange (muehlenbeckia complexa), a native New Zealand plant which is wiry and springy and actually quite comfortable to lie on.

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As soon as possible the fencibles moved into huts made from bundles of raupo – New Zealand swamp reeds.

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Cooking could at least be done inside – the soot-darkened roof is from an open hearth in the centre of the dirt floor. Insects tended to live in the roofing so a sheet was slung over the beds as a sort of ceiling.

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Some of the raupo shanties had a wooden chimney, and although there was sometimes glass in the windows these dwellings must have been miserably cold and damp when it rained. No wonder the Fencible families rebelled: this was not much better that what they had left in Britain.

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An earth-sod cottage, with wooden chimney and fireplace for cooking

Gradually the wooden cottages were built and the scrub land was cleared. Sometimes larger, two-family cottages were built right on the boundary of two plots of land: a thin partition divided the cottage in half but provided scant privacy for anything above a whisper. At last though they had a brick fireplace, real beds and the chance to paper over drafty cracks in the walls with newspapers, pages from ‘The Illustrated London News” and even wallpaper.

 100B2786 A 2-family cottage

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layers of wallpaper and newspaper covered the walls (on the right)

100B2799 a long-drop toilet

In spite of the hardships the Fencible families generally flourished and real communities formed. Between 1847 and 1852 around 2,500 men, women and children were brought to New Zealand with this scheme. After seven years their cottage and land became their own property. Many of the families stayed in the  area and contributed greatly to Auckland’s growth and development.

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The Fencible and early settler period is brought to life at Howick Historical Village in east Auckland. The open-air museum was established by bringing together on one site buildings from Howick and Panmure’s Fencible period. All the photos in this article were taken at the village. As well as furnished dwellings, other buildings include a school, a courthouse, a pub, a church (where weddings are held) and a blacksmith’s forge. www.fencible.org.nz

Maria O’Leary, the wife Captain Robert Hattaway, one of the Howick Fencibles, planted these macracarpa trees on their farmland in the 1850s.

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The trees are now within the Cascades Reserve, a wetland area crossed by the Pakuranga Stream and Wakaaranga Creek, and adjoining the Howick Historical Village site. The waterways and their catchment area are currently being revitalized by Landcare Trust through a public awareness and environmental education campaign called ‘Volcano to Sea’. www.landcare.org.nz

100B2739  This track, paved with volcanic rock slabs from nearby Pigeon Mountain-O Huiarangi crossed the reserve, It was constructed by pioneer farmers in the 1840s.

Panmure – from Mokoia Pa to the notorious roundabout

The shoreline of the Waitemata Harbour, around which the city of Auckland sprawls, features a number of tidal inlets and estuaries. One of these is the Tamaki River estuary – it winds so far inland that at its head it is only a few hundred metres from Auckland’s other, southern, harbour, the Manukau.

Long before Europeans came to this region of New Zealand, Maori legend tells us that Te Moko Ika A Hiku Waru was a taniwha, a water spirit, that guarded the mouth of the Tamaki inlet. This creature gave its name to a strategic knob of land overlooking the estuary: Mokoia Pa was a fortified settlement there, home to the Maori Ngati Paoa people. In the 1820s the pa was attacked by a northern tribe and destroyed, and its inhabitants killed.

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Looking across the Tamaki River to Mokoia Pa site (to the right of the bridge). In the foreground the remains of an early 1900s cattle yard.

Little more than a decade later Europeans began to show an interest in the area. The Surveyor General, Felton Mathew, was keen to establish the young colony’s capital near the abandoned pa site. However Governor Hobson chose a site further west around the Waitemata Harbour, and the city of Auckland was founded there. Meanwhile frequent skirmishes between the native Maori and European settlers meant that the defense value of the strategic Tamaki estuary site wasn’t overlooked. Retired British soldiers were brought to New Zealand to help protect the colony. They were known as Fencibles, and by the mid-1800s Fencible families were living along the shores of the  estuary, near the former Mokoia pa site, in ninety-nine temporary huts made from bundles of Raupo swamp reeds. Thus the settlement of Panmure was created.

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As the Fencibles’ conditions improved they built better homes, mostly in wood. This is an unusual example of one in local volcanic stone. It was built near Panmure in 1854, and moved to its present site in Panmure in the 1970s by taking it apart and rebuilding it stone by stone. It is furnished in the style of the 1850s as a memorial to early settlers.

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With water transport preferable to the hazards of travelling overland, the Tamaki River played a key part in the new settlement’s development. For over a century, until the mid-1900s, the Panmure wharf was used by cutters and scows to bring in supplies and to take away produce.

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Crew from these vessels would frequent Panmure’s pub. The first of these was built in the 1860’s. In those days it was a much more attractive building than in today’s photo as it had covered verandas on the ground and upper floors. This wooden pub was replaced by the current Panmure Hotel in 1865, and the older building remained in use as Loomb’s Hotel until 1890.

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St Matthias Anglican church dates from the mid-1800s too, as do some of the graves in its adjoining cemetery.

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Panmure Basin is an almost-circular tidal volcanic crater – a break in the crater rim connects the lagoon to the Tamaki estuary. The basin is edged by a shaded walking path.

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Looking across the Panmure Basin volcanic crater lake at high tide. The path that circuits the lake crosses this little bridge where the lagoon flows into the Tamaki estuary.

For motorists, the roundabout on Panmure’s western boundary can be a little bit daunting: some drivers will even go to great lengths to detour this multi-road intersection. If you enjoy the challenge of getting into the right lane to negotiate Auckland’s largest and most infamous roundabout be warned: it is about to be replaced by traffic lights.

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With work well underway to remove the traffic roundabout, the sign this stands in its centre needs a new home.