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The New Zealand Wars: A History of the Maori Campaigns and the Pioneering Period: Volume I (1845–64)

The Attack on Burtt's Farm, Paerata

The Attack on Burtt's Farm, Paerata

On a partly wooded upswell of land at Paerata, midway between Pukekohe and Drury by a branch road, stands an old farmhouse of the substantial kind built by the frontier pioneers. “Glenconnel” is painted on the road-gate, but its name in 1863 was Burtt's Farm, a name associated with one of the incidents which proved the spirit of the settlers who remained on their farms after the outbreak of war. The homestead was attacked by a party of Maoris on the 14th September, 1863, the same day as the Battle of Pukekohe East Church Stockade, a few miles away. Burtt's Farm is three miles from Pukekohe by the road which diverges to the eastward of the railway-line at Paerata, then crosses a stream flowing from the Tuhimata hills, and winds up a steep hill, terminating on the westward in a bold bluff like a battleship's ram bow. The southern and south-western sides of the hill are wooded, and many great oak-like puriri shade the approach to the homestead. Sweet-peas and roses climb the front of the dwelling, a comfortable old place, with the high-pitched roof and wide veranda that distinguished the homes of the early days. James Burtt, an Auckland merchant, page 284
Photo, J. C., 1920] Burtt's Farmhouse, Paerata Hill

Photo, J. C., 1920]
Burtt's Farmhouse, Paerata Hill

built this place about 1859, when heart of kauri and totara and the best rimu were used. There are two bullet-holes, made by large-calibre balls, in the front weatherboards near a window on the veranda, and another hole drilled in 1863 is to be seen in the front of a square, strongly built workshop of pit-sawn timber in rear of the farmhouse; the building is almost hidden in ivy.
On the morning of the 14th September a war-party of about twenty Maoris from the Lower Waikato, chiefly Ngati-Pou, came up through the puriri and rata forest on the south side of the Paerata ridge and surrounded the homestead. The occupants of the place were Mr. Watson, manager for Mr. Burtt, and his family, three sons and two daughters, and two farm workers named Knight and Hugh McLean. The men had rifles, and they were accustomed to take their arms with them when they went to their work about the farm. That morning Watson and one of his sons (Robert) were engaged in putting up a fence some distance from the house, and McLean and the eldest son, John Watson, were ploughing near the bluff on the west, a third of a mile from the house. Mrs. Watson was lying ill in bed in the house. The attack began about 10 o'clock, when shots were fired page 285
From a water-colour drawing by Major Von Tempsky, 1863] The Maori Attack on Burtt's Farmhouse

From a water-colour drawing by Major Von Tempsky, 1863]
The Maori Attack on Burtt's Farmhouse

The three figures on the right in the picture are Mr. Hamilton, Miss Watson, and Alex. Goulan.

at Watson and his son, and the boy Robert, a lad of fourteen, was mortally wounded. Watson and Knight took cover, and replied to the Maori fire with their rifles until they had exhausted their ammunition. They were cut off from the house by the Maoris, about a dozen of whom had commenced firing into it. In the other direction the ploughman McLean and young John Watson, a lad of eighteen, were at work when they heard shots, and running towards the house they found it surrounded by natives. Ten Maoris engaged McLean, who used his rifle bravely against them, while Watson got the ammunition ready. The cartridges were soon expended, and McLean ran down the hill eastward, chased by several Maoris. John Watson, taking off his boots, ran for his life to summon help. He caught up with one of his brothers, William, who had been sent off by his father for assistance. They gave the alarm at Drury, and an armed force was soon on the way to raise the siege.

In the meantime ten or a dozen Maoris were firing into the page 286 doors and windows of the house. Mrs. Watson, in her terror, got under the bed for safety, while one of the daughters ran through the thickly planted garden at the side unobserved by the Maoris, and under cover of the bush raced down across the slopes and up the opposite hill to the home of the nearest neighbour, Mr. James Hamilton, half a mile away to the east, near Tuhimata. Mr. Hamilton and his employee, Alexander Goulan, had already heard the firing, and had armed themselves with Enfield rifles and bayonets (they were Militiamen), and were coming to the rescue. Taking advantage of the bush cover, they opened fire on the Maoris, who were peppering the house briskly with their guns. Keeping well concealed and firing rapidly, they drove the Kingites off from the house into the puriri bush. Imagining that they were attacked by a considerable number of pakehas, the Maoris retreated, and the relieving-party met Mr Watson and his man, who had been cut off from the home, and entered the house to find the invalid woman very frightened but unhurt.

A party of troopers (Mounted Artillery), under Lieutenant Rait, presently galloped up from Drury, followed by forty infantry-men; but the Maoris by this time had retreated into the forest. The courage and prompt action of Hamilton and Goulan deserved all the praise bestowed by the military, for they had not hesitated a moment to come to the rescue, against great odds, and by their skill in using the cover around the house they succeeded in concealing the weakness of their party.

Burtt's Farm people were escorted into Drury, Mr. Watson carrying his mortally wounded son. The boy died in the military hospital. After their departure the Maoris returned and sacked the house. A few days later the body of Hugh McLean was found in the swamp, shot through the heart; his rifle had been carried off.

Burtt's Farm now was made the headquarters for a time of a Flying Column (or Movable Column) formed, under the command of Colonel Nixon, for the purpose of scouring the tracks in the bush between the Great South Road and the Waikato River. It was also used by Jackson's Forest Rangers as a convenient field base in scouting-work around the district.

John Watson's Narrative

The following account of the attack on Burtt's Farm is contained in a letter (7th May, 1922) from Mr. John Watson, of Riversdale Road, Avondale, Auckland; he was one of the two boys who escaped from the Maoris and ran for help to Drury. Mr. Watson is the last survivor of the family. After confirming the narrative given in this chapter, he wrote:—

“The Paerata farm, belonging to Mr. James Burtt, consisted of 900 acres. The road going over the Paerata Hill cut the farm in two page 287 sections, the homestead on one side and the bluff on the other. There was a very high rata tree growing on the bluff side of the road, towering above the rest of the trees in the clump of bush there; it could be seen for miles around. My father was on Paerata farm in 1859; the rest of us went out in 1861. At that time there was no one living within three miles except Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Samuel Luke. The latter lived down in the valley behind the Paerata farm; he was very fortunate, for he and his wife left for Drury two or three days before the raid in September, 1863. The Maoris camped in his house the night before they attacked us, or the night after.

“As you correctly state, Hugh McLean and I were ploughing on the bluff when the attack was made. The morning was beautifully fine and calm. About 10 o'clock we heard firing in the direction of Pukekohe East Church Stockade. It was not five minutes later when firing commenced at our house. We at once unharnessed our horses and turned them adrift. Then we made for the house as fast as we could run. Instead of keeping the direct road which led through thick scrub and tea-tree we made a half-circle round the bush and came out in the open in front of the house. It was well we did so, for otherwise we would have been tomahawked, as four or five of the Maoris came from the road we always used except this time. When we were about 400 yards from the house we saw five or six natives come up the rise from where we afterwards were told they attacked my father and brother and the man Knight. McLean opened fire on them. He had a rifle. I had nothing unfortunately; I left mine at home that morning. The firing brought out of the scrub the Maoris who were lying in wait for McLean and me, and we had five more on the other side closing in on us like the letter V. Their fire became too hot for us, and we had to retreat. There was no cover for us to take shelter in. I took the road to Drury, and McLean turned to the right, in an easterly direction. There was a redoubt with troops about two miles from Drury that could be seen from our side; it would be between two and three miles across country, more than two miles nearer than Drury, but it was through fern hills and swamps. Undoubtedly it was for this redoubt McLean was making. I preferred to keep the road to Drury; I was afraid of the swamps after winter rains. As we took different directions one half the Maoris followed McLean, the others followed me and kept up a running fire. I had some narrow escapes, but I got out of their range when I was half-way to Drury. McLean, after getting about half-way to the redoubt on the south road, got stuck in a swamp, where he was evidently shot at close quarters.

“Our retreat drew at least ten of the Maoris from the attack on the house, and enabled my father and Knight to join Mr. Hamilton and Alex. Goulan, who stuck to their posts until a detachment of Mounted Artillery arrived. As soon as I arrived at the camp at Drury and reported they were in their saddles and off, but when they got to the farm the Maoris disappeared.

“When my brother—the one who was with my father and the man Knight—was shot by the Maoris he took cover in a thicket of scrub. He was able to tell us before he died that he heard the natives passing quite near him, but they did not find him. That was how he escaped being tomahawked.”

Regarding his sister's share in the events of that perilous morning, Mr. Watson said:—

“There were two girls in the house, my sisters. When the firing commenced, Mary Ann—she was the one that had the most pluck to do anything—rushed out of the house to let a watch-dog off the chain, but the dog was so furious about the firing she could not undo the strap. page 288 She had to return to the house for a knife to cut the strap. While she was doing so she was fired on, but escaped. The dog then rushed into the bush. He was a savage one to strangers: it took the Maoris some time before they got him killed. In the meantime Mary Ann made off as fast as she could run for Mr. Hamilton's. When about half-way she met Hamilton and his man, who had hurried off when they heard the firing. As to Mr. Hamilton arming my sister with a rifle [as shown in Von Tempsky's sketch], I do not remember hearing about that, nor do I think it was possible for him to do so, because it is not likely he and Goulan would take more arms than they could use. If Von Tempsky sketched her carrying a rifle he could have done it when he was billeted in the house. He with Captain Jackson and Captain Heaphy—afterwards Major Heaphy, v.c.—put up in the house at night for three weeks. The Forest Rangers had no tents. Colonel Nixon and the Flying Column were camped on the road on the top of the hill. It is quite likely that Von Tempsky sketched her for amusement. Everyone connected with the attack is dead but myself—my sisters and all. Before Von Tempsky came to New Zealand he was in the California gold rush, and at night I have heard him telling the other officers of the wonderful adventures he had.”