The New Zealand Wars: A History of the Maori Campaigns and the Pioneering Period: Volume I (1845–64)
LOOKING DUE EAST from the higher part of Pukekohe Town one will see on the skyline, a mile and a half air-line distant, an isolated dot of white. In the late afternoon the speck of a building becomes a heliograph when the westering sun strikes flashes from its windows across the valley. This is the little Presbyterian church of Pukekohe East, a monument to-day to the pluckiest defence in the South Auckland War of 1863. Stockaded and occupied as a garrison-house by the settlers of the place, it was the scene of an attack by a strong war-party of Kingite Maoris, against whom it was held successfully by only seventeen men until reinforcements arrived.
The Pukekohe East church, two miles from Pukekohe Railway-station by the road, stands in a commanding position on the eastern and highest rim of a saucer-shaped valley, the crater basin of an ancient volcano, about half a mile across at its greatest axis, east and west. The lower lip, facing Pukekohe Town, has been eroded through to the level of the old crater-floor, and a small stream, rising in the bushy slopes below the church and flowing through a swampy valley, issues from this break. The trench, 6 feet wide and 3 or 4 feet deep, which surrounded the church is still plainly to be traced; a regular grassy depression about 1 foot deep remains, and the small flanking bastions are well marked. Splintered bullet-holes can be seen in the building and in a gravestone on the edge of the hill. The church is a plain little building with tiny porch and belfry; it was built in 1862 of totara and rimu. In dimensions it is only 30 feet by 15 feet. Unlike the Mauku Church of St. Bride's, the building itself was not loopholed, but was defended by a surrounding stockade in which openings were cut for rifle-fire.
Ground-plan of Pukekohe East Church Stockade, 1863
The south-east angle (front), facing the road and covering the right flank and the entrance, was defended by Joseph Scott and James Easton.
The stockade was built at a distance of 10 feet from the church all round; outside it was the trench, the earth from which was thrown up against the timbers. The stockade consisted of tree-trunks, small logs from the bush, averaging about 6 inches in diameter, and not set upright, as was the usual way, but laid horizontally on one another and spiked to posts. This wall was to have been 7 feet high all round, but it had not been completed when the place was attacked, and was not more than 5 feet high in most places, and gave poor head cover. The stockade was to page 275 have been reinforced with a front of thick slabs set upright outside and spiked to the logs, but this work had only partly been carried out when the Maoris delivered their assault. The timbers for the walls were hauled from the bush across the road in front of the church on the east and south sides, and some of the material (slabs) was brought from Mr. Comrie's homestead, where it had been cut for a new house. Rifle loopholes were cut in the upper and lower logs, about 10 inches in length, vertical, by 3 or 4 inches in width. In places the logs did not fit very closely, and Maori bullets came through the interstices. The taller men had to stoop to avoid the enemy's fire; the top logs of the stockade had not been spiked on when the attack came. The defence work, as measured by the trench depression in the ground to-day, was 21 paces long by 13 paces wide at the flanking bastions.
On the 31st August Lieutenant Lusk found the stockade in an incomplete state, and made the Volunteers strengthen the foot of the log wall by piling up the earth from the trench. The garrison neglected, however, to clear the bush to a safe distance from the stockade.
The Pukekohe East Presbyterian Church
This historic little church still bears marks of the Maori attack in 1863. There are two bullet-holes in the front of the porch (one of these, however, appears too small and clean cut for the large-calibre bullets of the “sixties”), and there is one inside in the rear wall, above the pulpit, besides several splintered bullet-holes in the ceiling. The shingled roof has been replaced by iron, but the original ceiling lining remains. Outside in the rear wall, high up, there is another bullet-hole. This was drilled by a shot fired from a rimu tree which stood on the steep side of the gully below the church. A Maori was shot down from the upper branches of this tree during the fight. In the burying-ground the oldest memorial is one which made a target for a bullet fired from the rimu tree. This gravestone bears an inscription to the memory of “Betsy, the beloved wife of William Hodge, who died July 3rd, 1862, aged 24 years.” In the back of the tombstone there is a large splintered bullet-hole. The stone is just outside the south-west corner of the stockade line.
Between 9 and 10 o'clock on Monday morning, the 14th September, while some of the men were cleaning their rifles and others engaged in the cooking-shed a few yards in front of the stockade gateway, a single shot was fired from the bush on the page 277 right front. The puriri forest almost surrounded the stockade; on the side first attacked it was within 40 or 50 yards of the defences; some isolated trees were nearer, and at most parts the bush was not 100 yards away, and logs and stumps gave cover for attackers. The first shot was followed by a charge. In an instant scores of figures leapt out from the trees, fired heavily on the stockade and on the riflemen running for shelter, and rushed down on the log fence, darting from stump to stump, some firing the remaining barrel and reloading, others reserving their fire for close quarters. With the warriors was a woman, armed with a single-barrel gun, a cartridge-belt buckled about her waist. The little clearing, so quiet a few moments before, was filled with the bellowing of heavily loaded tupara and the sharp crack of rifles. High about the other sounds rose the screaming voice of the Maori amazon as she exhorted her warrior comrades, “Riria! Riria!” (“Fight away! Fight away!”)
The defenders of the stockade numbered seventeen. They were Sergeant Perry, Privates Joseph Scott, Elijah Roose, William Hodge, George Easton, James Easton, and three generations of the McDonald family (Alexander McDonald, his son James McDonald, and grandson James), besides nine volunteers enrolled as special constables. The young boy, James McDonald, pluckily helped by carrying out ammunition from the church to the riflemen. There were three other members of the garrison J. Comrie, J. B. Roose, and T. Hawke, but they were absent when the attack was made. Comrie and Roose, who had been on leave to see their families, were returning on horseback from Drury when they saw the church was attacked, and they galloped back to Drury for reinforcements.
Sergeant Perry's first order to his little force was “Fix bayonets!” He ordered them on no account to fire a volley. The reason was that while the defenders were reloading their muzzle-loading Enfields the Maoris might charge in. Each man ran to a loop-hole, and in a moment the outer wall was bristling with bayonets projecting through the rifle-slits. Independent firing began, and for the next six hours the settlers and their comrades the special constables fought a battle against many times their number of brown skirmishers, who kept up an extraordinarily heavy fire from behind trees, logs, and stumps, and from the tree-tops, and others from the shelter of a house (Easton's), about 100 yards away, above the gully on the defenders' right flank. Every tree along the ragged edge of the bush on the front and the flanks covered its musketeer. Most of the Maoris, after the first rush, took cover on the right front, where some of the ancient puriri survive to-day.
From a drawing by A. H. Messenger]
The Attack on the Pukekohe East Church Stockade. (14th September, 1863)
Captain Joseph S. Scott
Captain Scott (No. 3 Company, Pukekohe Rifles, 1872), of Epsom, Auckland, is one of the three survivors of the Pukekohe East Church Stockade defence. At the time of the attack he was a private in the newly formed Forest Rifle Volunteers, Pukekohe Company, numbering twenty-three all told.
Soon after the first dash of the Maoris had been stayed, the attackers, as they fell back to take cover, seized the defenders' dinner of meat and potatoes, which was cooking in iron pots in the shed in front of the stockade. It was a perilous enterprise, within a few yards of the log wall, and several warriors fell dead or wounded, but the natives succeeded in carrying off the pots, and feasted on their contents in the gully below the right front of the church.
Hour after hour the firing continued in the smoke-filled clearing. The powder-grimed garrison, with smarting eyes and parched throats, stuck manfully to their posts, firing with care, for their ammunition was running short. It was only the sight of the bayonets projecting from the loopholes that prevented the Maoris from charging over the unfinished stockade. The angle holding page 281 the narrow gateway on the right front of the stockade was defended by two men, Joseph Scott and James Easton. They had the hottest work of all, for most of the attackers were concentrated on that section of the front. Both were good shots and did not waste cartridges.
Many Maoris fell; the dead and wounded were swiftly removed by means of supplejacks fastened round the ankles by men who crawled up on their hands and knees; the fallen one would be seen disappearing over the face of the hill into the valley, or hauled by unseen hands into the cover of the bush.
On the south-east face, just on the road-boundary of the church-grounds, not more than 20 yards from the stockade, stood a large puriri tree. Some of the Maoris climbed the tree, and from the cover of the thick flax-like growth of wharawhara, or astelia, in the forks of the main branches, fired over the log wall. One at least of these snipers was shot. Another of the attackers, firing at the garrison from the roof of Easton's house under cover of the wide slab chimney, received a bullet as he incautiously exposed his head and shoulders for a moment, and came tumbling to the ground.
Some of the Maoris came up so close that they threw sticks over the wall and challenged the defenders to come out in the open. One warrior took cover behind a puriri stump just outside the stockade, so close up that he was unable to move to load his gun and had to crouch down low under the loopholes. The woman Rangi-rumaki gave inspiration to the attack with her loud cries of encouragement—“Riria, riria, riria!”—but even her example and her war-shouts could not prevail upon her men to hurl themselves upon the sharp steel that glinted in the rifle-flash from each fire-aperture.
The first reinforcements were joyfully greeted by the outnumbered little garrison about 1 o'clock in the afternoon, when Lieutenant Grierson and thirty-two men of the 70th Regiment arrived from the Ramarama post. Grierson had heard the firing at 10.30 a.m. Skirmishing with the besiegers at the edge of the bush, they advanced at the double across the clearing and joined the defenders in the stockade. It was the salvation of the garrison, whose ammunition-supply was very low; some men had only a round apiece remaining. The strengthened force now was able to keep the Maoris close to their cover.
A detachment of the 1st Waikato Militia, under Captain Moir, with three carts containing ammunition, reached the stockade from Drury in the afternoon, and there was a sharp encounter with the Maoris in the clearing. One of the Militia was shot in the knee and wounded by a tomahawk-cut in the head. About 4 o'clock in the afternoon the sound of British bugles was heard in the bush, and 150 soldiers of the 18th Royal Irish and the 65th charged page 282 across the clearing and engaged the Maoris, who were then within 40 yards of the stockade. The troops were led by Captain Inman and Captain Saltmarshe; the latter received a severe wound in the mouth. The fighting that followed, lasting for about an hour, was chiefly on the right front and flank of the church. Many of the Maoris held the cover in the hollow immediately below the church-ground on the south side, and stood their ground there until several had been killed. Five natives were buried here, on Easton's land; the spot is in a field sloping steeply to the gully, just outside the churchyard fence on the south, a few yards from the road. The British loss was three killed or mortally wounded, and eight wounded. Not a man of the stockade-defenders was struck by a bullet; the one casualty was a slight wound inflicted by a flying splinter of wood. The garrison's only loss was a good dinner, which had gone into the Kingites' stomachs. The little church showed many a scar and splinter of battle; the upper parts were well riddled with bullets, and many of the window-panes were either perforated or broken.
A curious incident of this combat was narrated by some of the defenders. A native pigeon, dazed by the firing and the smoke of battle, and frightened out of the bush by the yells and shooting of the Maoris, flew on to the high-pitched roof of the church and remained there for some time, unhurt by the bullets that whistled about it. The beautiful kereru perched in such a precarious sanctuary seemed a harbinger of hope and an omen of success to the hard-pressed settlers. The story is one of those legends of the past of which it is difficult now to obtain confirmation. Captain Joseph Scott says that he did not himself see the pigeon; it would be difficult for most of the defenders to see anything on the ridging from within the stockade, owing to the narrow space between the log wall and the church. However, he considers the incident is probably authentic. The Hon. Major B. Harris, M.L.C., who was on active service in the district at the time, though not a member of the Pukekohe church garrison says, “I believe it is true that a bush-pigeon settled on the roof of the church during the firing, and was regarded by the defenders as a mascot, or a bird of good omen.”
Paerata Bluff and Burtt's Farm
A fortified pa of the Ngati-Tamaoho Tribe, named Te Maunu-a-Tu (“The War-god's Lure”), stood on the western end of the Paerata ridge in ancient days.
On the day following the engagement a detachment of Militia, from Drury, arrived to garrison the church and relieve the volunteers and special constables. Sergeant Perry, in recognition of his capable leadership in the defence, was given a commission as ensign in the 2nd Regiment, Waikato Militia.