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

Chapter 33: The River War Fleet

page 308

Chapter 33: The River War Fleet

IT WAS NECESSARY to organize a small fleet of protected vessels for the Waikato River in order to carry the war into the Kingite territory. The first craft procured was the little paddle-steamer “Avon,” of 40 tons, 60 feet in length, and drawing 3 feet of water. She had been trading out of Lyttelton before the purchase by the Government. She was brought up to the Manukau, and at Onehunga was armoured for the river campaign. She was armed with a 12-pounder Armstrong in the bows. The work of making the hull bullet-proof was carried out by the engineer, Mr. George Ellis (now of Auckland), who states that the “Avon” was converted into an armoured steamer by having iron plates bolted inside her bulwarks. These plates were ¼ inch thick and measured 6 feet by 3 feet. The wheel was enclosed by an iron house of similar-sized plates, with loop-holes. “I put the same thickness of iron protection on some smaller craft,” said Mr. Ellis. “These were armed barges for towing troops. The gunboat-barges were each 30 feet to 35 feet in length; they had been open fore-decked cutters in Auckland Harbour, and were taken over on trucks to Onehunga. I armoured them with lengths of bar iron, ¼ inch thick and 3 or 4 inches in width, along the outside of the hull from the gunwale to the water-line. In the bows of each boat was a gun-platform for a 12-pounder. The troops were put into these barges, which were towed up by the steamers. The bulwarks protected the soldiers quite well, but the barges were never attacked. There was another vessel, the ‘Gymnotus,’ but she was not armoured. She was a curious-looking craft like a long narrow canoe, and had been built for ferry service on Auckland Harbour. She was the first screw steamer on the Waikato, and was employed in carrying stores up the river.”

The paddle-wheeler “Avon” was the first steam-vessel to float on the waters of the Waikato. She was towed to Waikato Heads on the 25th July, 1863, by H.M.S. “Eclipse,” and Captain Mayne, the commander of that ship, took her inside the Heads page 309 and anchored that night eight miles below Tuakau. Next day, watched with intense excitement by the Maoris, friendlies, and hostiles alike, she reached the Bluff, otherwise known as Havelock—Te Ia-roa of the Maoris—just below the junction of the Manga-tawhiri with the Waikato. She was not fired upon, contrary to the expectations of her crew, who expected a volley from the southern bank of the river at the narrower parts. Mr. Strand, of Kohanga, assisted to pilot the “Avon” up the river.

On the 7th August Captain Sullivan (H.M.S. “Harrier”), senior naval officer in New Zealand, took the vessel on a reconnaissance up the river, and near Meremere she became a target for Maori bullets for the first time. A volley from some Maoris under cover on the river-bank was replied to with the 12-pounder Armstrong. On several occasions later in the campaign the “Avon” was under fire. This little pioneer of steam traffic on the Waikato proved an exceedingly useful vessel. When the army reached the Waipa Plains she carried stores up as far as Te Rore, on the Waipu; it was near there that Lieutenant Mitchell, R.N., of H.M.S. “Esk,” was killed on board her (February, 1864) by a volley from the east bank of the river. Lieutenant F.J. Easther, R.N., was in command of the “Avon.”*

The second steam-vessel of war placed on the Waikato was the “Pioneer”—a name that more properly might have been page 310
The River Gunboat “Pioneer”

The River Gunboat “Pioneer”

This drawing, from a sketch in 1863, shows the “Pioneer” in seagoing rig. The mainmast was removed before she entered operations on the Waikato River.

bestowed on the “Avon.” The “Pioneer” was specially designed for navigation in shallow waters, and was a well-equipped river gunboat. She was built for the New Zealand Government by the Australian Steam Navigation Company at Sydney, and was an iron flat-bottomed stern-wheel paddle-steamer of nearly 300 tons, with a length of 140 feet and beam of 20 feet, drawing only 3 feet of water when fully loaded. The engine-room and other vital parts of the vessel were all well protected. Her most conspicuous deck feature was the pair of iron turrets or cupolas, 12 feet in diameter and 8 feet in height. Each tower was pierced for a 12-pounder gun and for rifle-fire. (One of these cupolas afterwards stood on the river-bank at Mercer for many years; it was at one time used by the police as a lock-up. It now forms the lower part of Mercer's memorial to the local soldiers in the Great War.)

The “Pioneer,” rigged for the voyage as a three-masted fore-and-aft schooner, left Sydney for the Manukau on the 22nd September, 1863, in tow of H.M.S. “Eclipse,” and, after a stormy voyage, reached Onehunga on the 3rd October. She was taken into the Waikato later in the month, after undergoing a few alterations, and until the end of the war was actively engaged in reconnaissances and conveyance of troops and supplies.

The four small armoured barges, or gunboats, mentioned by Mr. Ellis were taken into the Waikato about the same time, and each of them was placed under the command of a junior naval officer. Midshipman Foljambe (father of Lord Liverpool, recently Governor of New Zealand) was in charge of one of these boats, which he called the “Midge” it was manned by page 311
The River Gunboat “Rangiriri” (Sister ship, “Koheroa”)

The River Gunboat “Rangiriri”
(Sister ship, “Koheroa”)

The New Zealand Government's iron gunboats “Koheroa” and “Rangiriri” were constructed at Sydney by P. N. Russell and Co. from designs by Mr. James Stewart, C.E., of Auckland, who was sent to Sydney to superintend the work. A correspondent gave the following description of the “Rangiriri” in 1864: “This boat, which can turn easily in the space of a little more than her own length, may follow the bendings of such a river as the Waikato in its narrowest part, and may either be used as a steam-tug, towing flats for the conveyance of troops, or may be armed with guns at each of the singular-looking portholes [embrasures] which are closed with folding-doors in the middle of the lower deck; while the bulwarks on each side are pierced with twenty or thirty loopholes for rifle shooting, and the covered platform or tower amidships will afford cover to a number of men whose fire commands the river and its banks. The paddle-wheel is placed astern of the vessel so as to take up less room. The first of these gunboats, the ‘Koheroa,’ was built in less than six weeks after Messrs. Russell got the contract.” Both vessels were sent in sections to New Zealand and put together at Port Waikato.

seven sailors, and was armed with a 12-pounder and a 4⅖ inch brass Coehorn mortar.

Later in the war two stern-wheel iron gunboats, called the “Koheroa” and the “Rangiriri” were procured in Sydney, and were brought over in sections and put together at the Government's dockyard and stores depot at Putataka, Port Waikato. The high bulwarks of each steamer were pierced for rifle-fire, and there was a gun-position on the lower deck amidships. The “Koheroa” on one occasion towards the close of the campaign went up the Waikato River as far as a point near the present town of Cambridge.

Without this river flotilla General Cameron could not have carried on the Waikato campaign. The gunboats and the troops they carried enabled him to outflank the Maori positions at Meremere and Rangiriri, to capture Ngaruawahia unopposed, and to page 312
After a sketch by Mr. S. Percy Smith] Putataka, Port Waikato, 1864

After a sketch by Mr. S. Percy Smith]
Putataka, Port Waikato, 1864

Extract from Mr. S. Percy Smith's diary: “10th October, 1864.—Pulled from survey camp at Maioro down to Putataka to take some angles and spend a couple of hours in looking about the place. There were the steamer ‘Koheroa’ undergoing repairs, the ‘Avon’ being dismantled, having done her work on the Waipa nobly, and the ‘White Slave,’ a new steamer, being built, besides the building of barges and boats. There are several large and good stores for commissariat purposes, both Imperial and colonial, barracks, and officers' quarters on a hill overlooking the dockyard; a few men of the 14th Regiment are in garrison.”

keep his army fed and equipped on the Waipa Plain. It was the great water-road into the heart of the country, Waikato's noble canoe highway, that gave the British troops command of the Kingite territory and prepared the way for the permanent European occupation.
Some small vessels were necessary for despatch and patrol work on the coast. The Colonial Government bought the s.s. “Tasmanian Maid,” 90 tons, renamed her the “Sandfly,” and armed her. Under the command of Captain Hannibal Marks, the “Sandfly” carried out useful work as a gunboat and despatch-vessel on the east coast, particularly in the Hauraki Gulf and in the coast operations near Maketu (1864). The “Sandfly” was protected against a sudden attack by canoe-crews by an arrangement of galvanized wire stretched between stanchions fitted on the bulwarks, thus forming a strong boarding netting. As a further defence, canvas mattress-cases stuffed with flax were provided, to be placed against the wire netting as a bullet- page 313
The British Screw Corvettes “Miranda” and “Fawn”

The British Screw Corvettes “Miranda” and “Fawn”

Before coming to New Zealand the “Miranda,” a fifteen-gun corvette, had been engaged in the blockade of Archangel during the war with Russia, 1853–54. She was employed in the Hauraki Gulf in the Maori War of 1863, and in 1864 was sent to Tauranga, where the Captain (Jenkins) and a detachment shared in the disastrous attempt to storm the Gate Pa. The “Fawn,” which was at Auckland in 1862, was a seventeen-gun corvette.

From a painting by W. Forster] The Gun-schooner “Caroline,” 1863

From a painting by W. Forster]
The Gun-schooner “Caroline,” 1863

The small schooner “Caroline” (afterwards the “Ruby”) was used by the Government in 1860–63 as a despatch and patrol vessel on the west coast and in the Hauraki Gulf. She was armed with a gun. At one time she was commanded by Lieutenant S. Medley, R.N.

page 314
H.M.S. “Eclipse”

H.M.S. “Eclipse”

The “Eclipse,” first under Commander H. G. Mayne and afterwards under Captain (now Admiral) Sir E. R. Fremantle, carried out much useful service on the New Zealand coast, 1863–65. She was the first vessel of the British Navy to enter Waikato Heads. The “Eclipse” was a barque-rigged steamer of 750 tons, and was capable of steaming at 11 Knots. She had a crew of ninety men, and was armed with a 110-pounder Armstrong gun and a 68-pounder, both pivot guns, besides two 32-pounders. The “Eclipse” served on the Taranaki coast and in the Manukau, and later (1865) was engaged in operations against the Hauhaus in the Bay of Plenty and about the East Cape.

proof barrier. Another patrol-vessel was a fore-and-aft schooner, the “Caroline,” armed with a gun; she was used for a time in Auckland waters, and on one occasion took a party of Naval Volunteers on a cruise in search of a schooner trading in contraband of war.

Other vessels used on the Hauraki Gulf patrol were the s.s. “Auckland,” which carried two 12-pounder guns, and the cutter “Midnight,” 33 tons, armed with a 4-pounder gun and manned by a crew of fifteen Auckland Naval Volunteers.

The Naval Brigade, made up from the crews of the several naval ships in New Zealand waters, was a highly useful reinforcement to the land army. In October of 1863 there were five ships of the Australasian Squadron, all with steam-power, lying in the Auckland and Manukau Harbours. The flagship was the steam-frigate “Curacoa” (Commodore William S. Wiseman), mounting twenty-three guns—sixteen plain-bored 8-inch guns on her main deck, six 40-pounder Armstrong guns on her quarter-deck, and one 110-pounder Armstrong pivot gun on her forecastle. Her page 315
The British Troopship “Himalaya”

The British Troopship “Himalaya”

The ship-rigged steamer “Himalaya,” 3,570 tons, was a celebrated British transport in the days of the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny, and carried many thousands of troops to the East. She was built in 1853 for the P. and O. Company. On the 14th November, 1863, she arrived at Auckland from Colombo, bringing the 50th Regiment, numbering 819 officers and men, under Colonel Waddy, C.B. Captain Lacy commanded the “Himalaya.”

tonnage was 1,571 tons, and her engines were 350 horse-power. The “Miranda,” Captain Robert Jenkins, was one of the screw corvettes of the “Niger” order; she measured 1,039 tons, carried fifteen guns, and had engines of 250 horse-power. The “Esk” was the latest addition to the squadron. She was one of a numerous family of twenty-one gun corvettes, of 1,169 tons, with engines of 250 horse-power. Her armament was powerful for those days, consisting of sixteen plain-bored 8-inch guns, four 40-pounder and one 110-pounder Armstrong field-guns. The “Esk” was under the command of Captain John Hamilton; he fell in the assault of the Gate Pa in 1864.

The two remaining ships, “Harrier” (700 tons) and “Eclipse” (750 tons), were the guardians of the Manukau waters.

* Mr. George Ellis, of Auckland, who was engineer of the “Avon,” says:—

“Lieutenant Mitchell's death occurred in this way: We carried out rather dangerous work in the later stages of the war when running up and down the Waipa River. Sometimes we took shots at anything that offered on the banks, and even landed to go pig-hunting. One very warm summer day, when steaming up the Waipa near Whatawhata, Mr. Mitchell remarked that it was too hot to remain in the iron wheel-house and that he would go outside; he declared that he would not be shot that day. He walked out on to the open part of the bridge-deck, and Lieutenant Easther (in command) and Midshipman Foljambe (father of the present Lord Liverpool) followed him. They had not been long there before a sudden volley was fired from the scrub-covered bank of the river—the east or proper right bank. The three officers were close together, with Mr. Mitchell in the middle, and, curiously, it was only the man in the middle who was hit. The volley was fired at an oblique angle. Mr. Mitchell was shot right through the breast, and died next day. We never saw a Maori, so thick was the cover on the bank.”

The “Avon,” besides plying on the Waipa, made a number of trips from Ngaruawahia to General Cameron's advanced camp at Pukerimu. This perilous passage through the hostile country was generally made at night. The “Avon” was never fired at on this part of the Waikato—usually called the Horotiu above Ngaruawahia—but there were anxious moments when she was passing through the narrows, where the high banks closely approach each other, above the present town of Hamilton.