The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 9 (December 2, 1935)
Kawau—Island of Dreams. — Memories of Sir George Grey
The Island of Kawau lies in the Hauraki Gulf, about thirty miles from Auckland. Its rugged hills draw the attention of the voyager as the vessel turns in from the open sea.
Its history goes back beyond the first beginnings of Auckland. Before 1840 manganese was being mined there, and that led to the accidental finding of copper ore. From the time of the discovery, Kawau hummed with activity. Governor FitzRoy had made an extended grant of Kawau Island on account of the mining industry, but when Captain Grey arrived, he demanded restitution of all land exceeding 2,560 acres from those who had obtained extended grants. The owners put up a determined fight for their grants which were held under the Seal of the Colony. Eventually Grey took two cases to the Supreme Court, and lost both. One of these, Queen v. Taylor, concerned the ownership of Kawau. Once this was satisfactorily settled, the mining company resumed operations.
At one time over four hundred people, miners and their families, lived on Kawau, but after some years the copper ore was no longer obtainable in payable quantities, and the population of the island rapidly diminished. The homes of the pioneer men and women have tumbled to decay, and the children whose voices rang across the quiet bays are now old men and women. Soon old Kawau will be but a legend among us, marked for a little while longer by one chimney stack standing solitary above the saltwater-filled shafts, and by the walls of another ancient building in Bon Accord Harbour, in which furnaces once roared and the molten copper flowed from the retorts.
It is interesting to look upon the humble mementoes of that time, now gathered together in the Old Colonists’ Museum at Auckland. The sight of the worn brass candlestick and the heavy glass salt-cellar used at Kawau, carries our thoughts back to-the days of our great-grandmothers, those brave pioneer women who came across far seas to find all their world within the four walls of a tiny cottage beside the mine at Kawau. There are also the four crucibles for testing minerals, in use at Kawau from 1843 to 1860, and old-time gun cases and tools donated by one who was a worker there in the old days. I knew the old man well. He spent the evening of his days at Brown's Bay, and often we sat together on the warm sand under the shade of a pine tree, talking of early days on Kawau.
In the Museum may also be seen two water-colour sketches made by Lieutenant Morton Jones, of H.M.S. Pandora, in 1851. These two views, one landward, one seaward, of Momona Bay, now called Bon Accord Harbour, show the mine manager's house which was afterwards adapted by Sir George Grey for his own residence. In the sketch, cottages and garden plots are shown where the Governor later made his beautiful gardens.
These few relics of the copper-mining days on Kawau should have a peculiar interest to all New Zealanders, for we must remember that manganese and copper were the first minerals mined in the Colony. Neither coal nor gold had been discovered at that time.
There are old men and women in Auckland to-day to whom Kawau in their childhood meant Fairyland. Looking down the long vista of years that lie between, they once more see the sailing boats setting out from inlet or river mouth on the opposite shore of the mainland. The south-westerly wafted them across the four miles of blue water, past the many islands, and into the great harbour of Bon Accord. Sails were lowered and boats gently beached. They had come from bare farmsteads where there was little time or money to spare for beautification. They had come to Kawau.
From the moment their roughly-shod little feet touched the shingly beach, Fairyland opened before their wondering eyes. Fathers and mothers stopped to exchange greetings with the courtly gentleman who had come to the edge of the strand to welcome them, but the children sped on to the wondrous gardens. There they wandered hand in hand beneath towering palms and great trees laden with blossoms, strange to their eyes, for in that fairy garden were gathered together flowers and shrubs and trees from many a distant land. Rose bowers led to green sward, where surely the elves danced on moonlit nights, while under the mysterious sighing pines they some- page 34 page 35 times found gaily painted toadstools, as surely intended to serve as tables in fairy banqueting halls. The beauty and the fragrance of the many flowers cast a spell, never to be broken, over these young hearts. At times, in their wanderings down grassy paths, they came upon a shrub or a flower before which they would stop to exclaim that if was the same as the one which Sir George Grey had given to mother. He was very generous with such gifts, and many a cottage garden on the mainland opposite Kawau to this day contains a prized tree or shrub from his garden.
Through the open doors and windows of the great mansion—Sir George threw his whole house open to these humble friends and neighbours—eager young eyes gazed on treasures of crowded cabinets and pictures that they, in their ignorance, did not know were not to be matched even in the wide world beyond the seas. One boy, who penetrated unbidden into a book-filled room, was there found on his knees before a volume of rare prints, too fascinated by its beauties to hear the step which paused beside him, until the gentle pressure of a hand on his shoulder made him look up abashed into the blue eyes of the owner of this treasured room.
Soon he was telling Sir George Grey of all the books he had read and the difficulties of getting more. He followed his host from one bookcase to another, while quaint old volumes of the first days of printing—old black-lettered Bibles—were spread open before him. Manuscripts gilded by the patient hands of cloistered monks who had become dust hundreds of years before New Zealand had ever been heard of, were put into his hands, and their beauties pointed out with winning simplicity. It was the lad's introduction to a great library and to a great scholar. He never forgot that crowded hour, nor Grey's kindness in bringing him under the notice of his friend, the minister on the mainland, who became his tutor—it was long before the days of board schools.
Until the last few years you might sometimes have seen a grey-haired old gentleman in the stately chamber of Auckland's Public Library, where the city has housed the Grey collection—one of the most munificent gifts to a city that the world can show, and one which will ever draw to it the student, the historian and the bibliophile. Perhaps we hardly yet realise that we have in our midst treasures so unique. The old man first saw them on a summer day long ago in the library at Kawau.
For twenty years Kawau was the home of the “great Pro-consul.” For three years after his return from England he rested there before again entering the fray. His political enemies might be many, but his friends were legion and never a traveller sojourned in Auckland but was eager to visit Kawau. Thither came the royal Prince Alfred in H.M.S. Galatea in 1869. Statesmen, poets, historians and scientists rested there. They valued their privilege of listening to their host's cultivated talk and of viewing the beauties of his rare collections. There is no doubt that they also enjoyed the freedom of the island life. They sailed in and out of the many beautiful bays, and to the mainland. In the pages of Froude's Oceania we can read of one such visit to a settler's farm. There were wallaby to shoot; the waters abounded with fish, and the rocks were covered with oysters.
It was there, in the early days of the Maori war, that Sir George Grey sent for safe-keeping the Maori prisoners taken at the capture of Rangiriri. The Maoris have never liked Kawau. Water has always been too scarce, and shellfish, other than oysters, never plentiful. At the first opportunity, these enforced guests of the Governor made a speedy escape to the mainland. Surely these were the only visitors who willingly left the Enchanted Isle!
To-day one goes to Kawau by steamboat, or launch or yacht. The run takes three or four hours. The steamer lies beside the jetty in Mansion House Bay below the historic house, which is now a big summer hotel with adjacent annexe.
After passing the jutting headland of Whangaparoa, a beam sea struck the launch, and from there we tumbled about uncomfortably as we approached Kawau. Off the south end of the island four trawlers, with steadying sails hoisted, steamed slowly backwards and forwards. Occasionally a dense cloud of smoke hid them from our sight; then the evening sun would glint upon the glass of the wheel-house, and weird heliographs seemed to be flashed towards us. These little ships conjured up for one of the party visions of other little ships trawling in the rough waters of the North Sea for four long years, not for fish for the markets, but for mines!
The sun sank below the low hills of the mainland and darkness fell. As we turned the point into Bon Accord Harbour the lights in the windows of the summer hotel and on boats in the bay flashed a welcome. Thus, after many years, we came again to Kawau. That night we lay in Schoolhouse Bay, and never a ripple of the water disturbed our sleep.
During the days which followed, we many times slipped to quiet anchorage in one or other of the bays of the spacious harbour, within whose waters the shipping of the port of Auckland might find shelter. When the wind blew from the south-west we lay either in Mansion House Bay or further up in Schoolhouse Bay. When it changed into the north we lay snug, close beside the old smelter-house on the opposite shore.
In this country, where there is little belonging to our own race that is old, these four skeleton walls, built of native stone, and marking the vanished industry of a past generation, have a pathetic interest. Lying in the dusk on the soft carpet of moss at the edge of the strand, it was easy to imagine that the faint sounds in the bush were movements of those bygone folk, coming back in the faint moonlight to visit homes where now the ti-trees crowd together. If you are lacking in imagination, you will know that that breaking twig was probably caused by a wallaby. These quaint denizens of the Kawau bush were brought from Australia by Sir George Grey. Soon they became a pest, and denuded the island of most of its grass, destroyed its fruit-trees and many of its rare plants. In days past various attempts were made to shut them out of certain areas by means of wire-netting fences. These are now rusted and broken down. In the old days wallaby drives, with beaters and guns, were often organised, but since the island has been cut up among various owners, little is being done systematically to eradicate the wallabies. Nevertheless, sportsmen's guns manage to keep them down somewhat.
Towards the northern end of Kawau lies Vivian Bay, open to the ocean swells and the north wind that has swept the sand inshore into small sand dunes. Among the trees we found tracks of many wallabies in the soft sand and heard faint sounds as they fled before us. In the glade under the big pohotukawas we sat silent for a long time, and at length were rewarded by seeing a string of small fawncoloured creatures, whom our arrival had probably disturbed from their slumbers, hopping across the open space below where we sat. Climbing the hillsides against the wind, we reached a flat wind-swept crest, and stepped almost into the midst of a group of five great dark-grey fellows, who sat on their hind-quarters gazing fixedly at us for a full minute before leaping behind a clump of ti-trees. Had we carried guns they would not have waited, for they are very knowing creatures.
During a fortnight of delightful weather we took many trips into the various bays on the western side. Between Bon Accord Harbour and Vivian Bay lies the land-locked North Harbour, where a ship can lie safe from every wind that blows. Running down to the south end of Kawau, we came into Bosanquet Bay, where the men who built the Flat Rock Light had their camp. Owing to the many times that work had to be stopped because of bad weather conditions, it took over a year to complete the building of the light. A stream runs through a flat piece of land, one of the few flat places on Kawau, and this is one of the best of its few streams. Beneath the big taraire and puriri trees could be seen the remains of the camp, but further up the glade the banks were covered with exquisite ferns. It is one of the most beautiful spots on the island. Later that day we landed at the old copper mine in South Harbour. The engine house, built of rock, with its tall chimney stack, still stands. The lode went seaward, and, it is said, may be seen cropping up on the outer side of Tiritiri Island.
Once more we said goodbye to Kawau. As its bush-covered hills grew blurred by distance, we breathed a prayer that in the evening of our days we might yet again return to the Enchanted Isle and sail again its quiet waters.