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Hero Stories of New Zealand

The Church in the Forest — How the Settlers held Pukekohe Stockade

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The Church in the Forest
How the Settlers held Pukekohe Stockade

OUR New Zealand frontiers were defended for many a year with military redoubts, stockades and blockhouses, chains of defensive posts garrisoned either by British regulars or by colonial troops. In the Waikato War not only was the South Auckland frontier studded with such works, chiefly earthwork redoubts, but some of the churches and farmhouses of the pioneer settlers were converted into garrison-houses and forts. A correspondent of that period, describing the remarkable sight of a country church being made bullet-proof and pierced with loopholes for rifle fire, remarked that it was “a visible transubstantiation of a bulwark of faith into a bulwark of earthly strength.” In many places the stout-hearted settlers remained to garrison the defence buildings and attend to their farms while their wives and children were in refuge in Auckland town.

So, in the midst of well-settled countrysides there are the scenes of war-time episodes often all but unknown to the present generation of farmers who enjoy the fruits of a land that once was held only by virtue of the rifle and bayonet.

In the beautiful farm country intersected by the Great South Road and the Main Trunk railway between Auckland and the Lower Waikato there is a little church that holds for some of us a story appealing more to a sense of the adventurous and the heroic in New Zealand settlement than even the battles in which British generals met the Maoris with horse, foot and artillery. page 79 This plain little wooden building, still bearing the bullet marks of 1863, is the East Pukekohe Presbyterian Church. It measures only 30 ft. by 15 ft. In the uneven turf of the churchyard one still may trace the outlines of the trench that once surrounded the place of worship. Just inside this trench, at a distance of ten feet from the church, was the stockade that saved the few defenders from slaughter by an overwhelming force of Maoris on September 14th., 1863.

This tiny church, built by the pioneer settlers of Pukekohe East, stands on the eastern rim of a deep grassy basin, an ancient volcanic crater, with its western side broken down. The building is seen on the skyline as one looks out from Pukekohe town, a mile and a-half away. Around it are the comfortable farms cleared from the olden puriri forest. Some of the huge old trees remain near the church, to remind us of the days when Maori musketeers perched in their branch forks and sniped at the hard-beset garrison of the stockade.

The defenders had had very little military training, but they could shoot. There were about twenty in all; more than half of them were farmers and bushmen and the others special constables or militia enlisted to help in the local defences. The only well-drilled man was Sergeant Perry, who was in command of the post.

Scottish settlers took the leading part in the defence of the church fort. The scant population of those parts was largely Scottish and Cornish. There was a family of McDonalds, three generations of them. Their two homesteads were within long rifle shot of the church. The three generations shared in the battle—the old page 80 grandfather, James McDonald; his son, Alexander McDonald, and a grandson, James McDonald, who was then a boy of fourteen. The two men used their long muzzle-loading Enfield rifles; the lad had no rifle, but he played a man's part by carrying ammunition from the store in the church and serving it out to the men at the firing loopholes.

In those war days of 1863 the site of the present town of Pukekohe was a swampy forest of tall kahikatea. The farm clearings were all to the east, on the slopes that trended up to the beautiful hills where Bombay settlement stands. The Presbyterian church was newly-built; it was opened only five months before the fight and was entrenched and palisaded soon after the war began. The inner wall was of small logs laid horizontally; they were kohekohe trees, squared on top and bottom of the logs, so as to lie flat; most of them were about nine inches in diameter. They were spiked to large posts. The loopholes, cut with the saw, in the uppermost logs about 4 ft. 6 in. from the ground, were three inches high and six inches wide on the inside, and slightly larger on the outside to give a broad sweep for a rifle. These firing apertures were cut in both the logs and the slabs which formed the outer part of the wall. The slabs were split kahikatea, which made a wall, set upright, 7 ft. high in most places. They were 2 inches thick and 7 to 12 inches wide. The slabs were nailed on to the logs all round except on the south side; there were not enough to complete the wall so some large sawn planks, 1 inch by 18 inches, were set in place there; that was the steep side above the gully. The north side was level clear ground.

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No logs showed on the outside of the work; it appeared there simply a slab palisade. The loopholes were about 5 ft. apart. In the fight there were two men at each of those facing the north, east and west, taking turns in firing and loading. The bush about the place was chiefly puriri, with tawa, rimu and kohekohe; the logs were nearly all kohekohe, because that small timber was easy to work. Part of the stockade was unfinished, so that the head cover there was not more than about five feet, and the taller men had to stoop when loading and firing. The whole defence work, as measured by the trench depressions to-day, was 21 paces long by 13 paces wide at the two flanking bastions. One of these bastions constructed for enfilading fire covered the gateway, fronting on the road on the east side of the church. This part of the defences was held throughout the fight by Joseph Scott (afterwards Captain) and James Easton, who were both good shots.

The attack on the stockade was delivered by a war-party of about two hundred men of Ngati-Maniapoto and Ngati-Pou, armed with double-barrel and single-barrel muzzle-loading guns and one or two rifles, and well supplied with ammunition. Some of them had been roving the neighbouring bush for a week or more before the attack; they fatally wounded an old settler, Mr. Scott, whose son, Joseph Scott, and several other men had a skirmish with them in the bush down in the valley the day before the fight at the stockade. Many of those warriors had come a long way, from the Waipa country; two of their leaders were the tohunga Hopa te Rangianini and the high chief Wahanui; another was Raureti Paiaka, whose son accompanied him. That page 82 son, the veteran Te Huia Raureti, told me the story of the fight from the Maori side. Here I shall give the narrative of James McDonald; he was the fourteen-year-old helper in the defence.

“The first shot in the fight,” said Mr. McDonald, “was fired about 9.30 in the morning; it was a Monday. We thought there might be Maoris nearby, but the ordinary work was going on. Our dinner was being cooked, in a shed which stood on the road in front of the church. One of our men, who was a sentry outside, fired the first shot, more by way of a lark than anything else. He called out, ‘Come on, boys, there's some work before us!’—perhaps he saw a head or the glint of a gun at the edge of the forest—and he fired into the bush in front of the church, across the road.

“There was a reply in a moment, a great scattered volley from the Maoris hidden in the bush, and the fight was on. From all sides they came running out of the bush; there seemed to be hundreds of them. Sergeant Perry ordered ‘Fix bayonets!’ and then ‘Independent firing!’ There was no volley firing. The men were cautioned not to waste shots.

“The Maoris, after the first charge, fought mostly from behind stumps and trees. One fine tall young warrior, very conspicuous and energetic in leading the attack, was heard calling on his men to come on to storm the place. If they had all been like him I would not be alive to-day. We did not have much ammunition; only about ten rounds per man. The first troops who came up to reinforce us had plenty, 70 rounds each, but until then it was an anxious three hours or more with us. There was one Maori shooting steadily from behind page 83 a rimu tree. One of our fellows, Corporal Donald, shot him at last.

“I was in and out of the church carrying ammunition and serving it out from the boxes opened in the church, and also percussion caps; these were in small packets of ten. Many bullets came through the walls of the church. Once when I was inside the building a bullet came right through the slabs of the wall and smashed a basin to smithereens. Yet not one of us were wounded in the fight.

“When the Maoris fell back after the fall of several men, some of them would come up on their hands and knees and tie supplejack vines to the feet of the dead and wounded, and presently the bodies would be seen disappearing over the side of the hill. During the first hour there were several attempts to charge. At times the firing had to be so rapid to keep the Maoris back that the rifle barrels became too hot to handle, and our men had to keep their fingers on the woodwork. But yell and shout as the leaders would the attackers wavered when they got near the stockade.

“The Maoris ate our dinner. The beef and potatoes were cooking in the open shed outside when the fight began. After repeated attempts, they got away with the pots into the bush. But they had several men hit, so the food cost them dearly.

“Two of our settlers, James Comrie and J. B. Roose, happened to be riding back from Drury when the church was attacked, and when they heard the firing and saw the Maoris charging out from the bush they turned and galloped off to the British camps at Ramarama and Drury for assistance. The first reinforcements reached page 84 us soon after noon. It was a great relief to see their bayonets glinting as they emerged at the double from the forest, for we were getting very short of ammunition. We gave them a cheer as they came in. These men were a small detachment of Regulars (the 70th Regiment) from the Sheppard's Bush redoubt, at Ramarama. They skirmished with the Maoris in the clearing and joined us in the stockade, and shared their ammunition with us. Then a little later a detachment of the First Waikato Militia came up with three carts containing boxes of ammunition, and they had a sharp encounter with the Maoris at close quarters. So we had plenty of cartridges now, and the firing went on hotter than ever.

“About four o'clock in the afternoon we heard a bugle in the bush, and presently up came about a hundred and fifty soldiers, of the 65th Regiment and the Royal Irish, the 18th, led by Captain Inman. Now the Maori and the pakeha forces were about equalised, and there was some hard fighting, a good hour of it, in the clearing at the bush-edge. The troops made a bayonet charge down the hill below the church and killed many Maoris. Altogether, the Maoris most have lost about forty men killed that day. The British lost three killed; we in the stockade had no casualties at all. But had it not been for the reinforcements, the attackers would have won the day, I'm sure.”

A curious incident of that hot morning's work was the visit of a bush-pigeon, which perched on top of the church and remained there through the fight. McDonald said he saw it sitting there, on the little pinnacle page 85 above the steeple. It came just after the firing started, no doubt frightened from the bush by the shooting, and it sat there amidst all the smoke and noise until after the first reinforcements came, after midday. It stayed like a bird of fair omen and good fortune, as indeed it was. It was a native pigeon, and the strange thing is that it was white, or mostly white, probably an albino bird. One of the garrison pointing to it said: “That bird is the best soldier of us all. See how steady he is under fire!” Someone looking up at the belfry after the reinforcements came, said, “Hallo, the pigeon's gone.” Good luck it brought; the garrison was secure then.

When the British troops made a charge down the hill in the rear of the church they shot a Maori in a rimu tree, just below the churchyard. They did not see him in the tree at first, but they heard the snap of a cap — his gun missed fire—and, looking up, they got him like a pigeon in the branches. After the fight, two Maori wounded were brought in—one was almost disembowelled by a wound, but was conscious—and the settlers knew them quite well. They used to come round before the war selling pigs and peaches.

Such is the brief story of an episode in which the farmers proved their fighting worth and in which a fourteen-year-old served like a veteran soldier. But there was no medal for that plucky boy; no mention in despatches. The score of defenders could all have been killed had the two hundred Maoris only realised their own overwhelming strength. But they could not bring themselves to meet the fixed bayonets that bristled out of the stockade loopholes.

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That little church, showing many a scar and splinter of the fight, remained a fort and bulwark for Pukekohe's “embattled farmers” until the tide of war had rolled far southward, into the heart of the Upper Waikato.