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Historic Poverty Bay and the East Coast, N.I., N.Z.

Gisborne Harbour Board

Gisborne Harbour Board

Floods Destroy First Inner Haven

During the early days of European settlement in Poverty Bay most of the shipping business was handled on the south-west side. Large vessels stood off Wherowhero (Muriwai) and small craft were towed up the Waipaoa River as far as Harris's loading bank at Opou. Only small schooners and cutters took the risk of nosing their way into the Turanganui River, which was described by Captain Cook in 1769 as being marred by having “a Bar on which the Sea sometimes runs so high that no [ship's] Boat can either get in or out, which happened whilst we laid there, but I believe that Boats can generally land on the N.E. side of the River [Boat Harbour.]”

Captain Read, who had built two small jetties within the river, was permitted by the Auckland Provincial Council in 1872 to erect a public wharf on the western side, and, to enable him to recover his outlay, he was allowed to charge wharfage dues over a period of 15 years. G. Harris was sent from Wellington to act as collector of customs. In October, 1874, Captain J. B. Kennedy was appointed harbourmaster, and, during the following year, the gullet at the entrance was widened and deepened. When the borough assumed control of the harbour in 1877, all the foreshores were native property, and William Adair had taken over Read's wharf rights. It had only a small landing place which the Highways Board had built at the foot of Gladstone Road in 1875.

In 1877 Captain T. Chrisp (who had become harbourmaster in 1875) designed an outer harbour, “protected by a mole running along the line of reef to the buoy, and enclosing an area of 200 acres of safe anchorageground, having a depth of from 12 feet to 20 feet at low water.” The ratepayers, by 132 votes to 12, approved a proposal to raise £50,000 for the work, and Captain Read offered to advance the money at 9 per cent. interest. The project was held up in the hope that the Government would grant an endowment to enhance the security and that it would take over the foreshore rights from the natives. The Legislative Council rejected a proposal that an endowment of 20,000 acres should be granted.

Reporting on the port in 1880, Sir John Coode (the eminent British harbour engineer) held that substantial improvements within the river would not justify the heavy expenditure that would be involved. He recommended page 409 that a solid breakwater pier should be built off, but slightly to the east of, Boat Harbour. His plan provided that the pier should be linked with a masonry root (extending for 550 feet) by an open iron viaduct 1,410 feet in length. Under his scheme, sheltered quayage to the extent of 1,600 feet in a depth ranging from 21 feet to 30 feet would have been afforded. The estimated cost was £246,000.

In 1884 control of the harbour was vested in a board. Its members (who met for the first time on 19/2/1885) were: W. Sievwright, G. Matthewson and A. Graham (Government nominees), C. A. de Lautour (mayor of Gisborne), G. L. Sunderland (chairman of Cook County), J. Townley and T. J. Dickson (representing the borough ratepayers), and J. Sunderland and W. K. Chambers (representing the county ratepayers). A. Graham was appointed chairman. Valuable foreshore endowments, including the site upon which the Kaiti freezing works now stand, were granted to the board by Parliament upon condition that it might lease but not sell them. Upon a similar condition the board received the Tauwhareparae block of 44,044 acres. In 1890 portions of this block were leased on a rental basis of 1½d. per acre. The rentals now (1949) range up to 6/7½ per acre, and the block affords the board an income of £6,690 per annum.

By 998 votes to 5 the ratepayers, on 15 April, 1885, sanctioned the raising of £200,000 to build, at or near the site reported on by Sir John Coode, a refuge for vessels of large tonnage. The rating district comprised the borough of Gisborne and the areas which now form the counties of Cook, Uawa, Waikohu, Waiapu and Matakaoa—in all, 3,088 square miles. A special rate of 1d. in the £ on all rural lands, and of 2d. in the £ on town property, was part of the terms. As the nucleus of a 1 per cent. sinking fund, £25,000 of the loan moneys had to be set aside. The issue was an outstanding success on the London market, £899,000 being offered at an average price of £102.

Appointed engineer in July, 1885, John Thomson, B.E., drew up a plan which showed a mole running out 2,270 feet from the eastern bank of the river into 30 feet of water. Included in the scheme was a bridge near the mouth of the river to connect the mole by tramline with a goods shed on Waikanae Beach. Complaint was made by J. Thompson, R.E., that the idea was similar to that which he had placed before the board in July, 1885. However, neither a demand which he made upon the board for £2,187 as compensation, nor a petition which he sent to Parliament, bore fruit. Mr. Thomson told the Marine Department that to anyone acquainted with floods on the West Coast (South Island) those which were experienced in Poverty Bay were scarcely worthy of the name. Snags, he said, did not reach the river; they were caught by intervening fences!

Building of the Breakwater

A start was made early in 1886 to build the breakwater under the day labour system. Sir J. Coode's recommendations were departed from in respect of design as well as site. As no plan had been placed before the ratepayers, W. L. Rees and others who favoured the building of an outer harbour off Stony Point complained to the Government. Parliament validated the loan poll, but insisted that, before any more money was expended, the ratepayers should again be consulted. On 14 November, 1888, the ratepayers, by 600 votes to 30, approved the expenditure of a further £40,000. The balance of the loan moneys was required to be invested with the Public Trustee.

By 1890 1,100 feet of breakwater (running into a depth of between 12 feet and 14 feet at low tide) and a portion of the groyne had been built at a cost of £105,000. A sandspit then formed alongside the breakwater, page 410 and the depth at the entrance to the river was reduced from between 3 feet and 4 feet to between 2 feet and 3 feet at low tide. At this juncture the board made default in the payment of the interest on the loan. As New Plymouth was in a like predicament, an outcry arose in political circles. Mr. Thomson resigned. It was held by C. Y. O'Connor, C.E., and Napier Bell, C.E., that, if the Thomson scheme had been completed, it would have been a failure.

Upon Mr. Bell's advice the dredge John Townley was obtained in 1902. Although she proved useful, the sandspit kept on recurring. [She remained in commission until 1929, and was sunk on the northern side of Young Nick's Head in June, 1931.] A further section of the groyne was then completed. The Marine Department vetoed a proposal by L. H. Reynolds, C.E., that sluice gates should be built below the junction of the Waimata and Taruheru Rivers, but permitted the Turanganui River to be restricted to some extent on the Kaiti side just below the Gladstone Road bridge. In 1907 F. W. Marchant, C.E., submitted a plan of an outer harbour, off Pa Hill, which he estimated would cost £330,000. Legislative authority to take a poll on a proposal to borrow £400,000 was not availed of.

Upon the arrival of the dredge Maui from Scotland on 7 May, 1910, high hopes were raised that a satisfactory inner harbour would be gained. She cost £34,000 and was capable of excavating to a depth of 26 feet. Working under favourable conditions, she speedily cut a channel, 120 feet wide and 16 feet deep at low water, from the mouth of the river to the wharves. To counteract the range at the entrance, the breakwater was extended in 1911, but the old nuisance of a sandbank reappeared.

When J. A. MacDonald, M.I.C.E., became the board's engineer in February, 1912, he hurried along the work of widening and deepening the channel. In December of that year s.s. Takapuna was able to begin a wharf-to-wharf passenger service between Gisborne and Napier. Among even larger vessels which came into the river was s.s. Kaitangata, which was 289 feet long and drew 17 feet. In February, 1914, H.M.S. Philomel (2,875 tons) had no difficulty in berthing close to the Gladstone Road bridge, although she was drawing 17 feet. A loan poll on 17 December, 1913, which was carried by 1,105 votes to 469, provided, inter alia, £107,000 for new works, including a further extension of the breakwater. Waiapu gained exclusion from the harbour district.

Destructive Floods

A startling change came over the scene in 1916, when a series of siltbearing floods between May and October destroyed the inner harbour. Where, previously, there had been a depth of 16 feet 6 inches at low water, there was now only 4 feet 6 inches. Further floods spoiled three attempts that were made during 1916 to restore the channel. The stern, uphill battle continued throughout 1917, but another series of floods was experienced. By March, 1918, a depth of from 8 feet to 9 feet had been obtained, but floods obliterated the gain. The Maui was laid up in June, 1918. She was taken to Auckland in 1920, and lay there until 1927, when she was hired by the Marine Department to do some work at Westport. The State bought her in 1929 for £16,000, but reconditioning, to bring her up to survey standards, cost the board £9,370.

In 1918, Mr. Reynolds submitted a plan for a harbour with two chambers. To obviate the silt nuisance, it provided that the river should be diverted on to Waikanae Beach. It was intended that only the western compartment (which would have stood between the river channel and the diversion cut) should, at the outset, be built, and that the entrance should be protected by a breakwater sweeping in an easterly direction page 411 from the end of the eastern wall of the cut. The other chamber was to have been built on the eastern side of the mouth of the river. Mr. Reynolds estimated the cost of the first section of the works at £568,000, and of the whole scheme at £869,000.

Parliament, in 1919, sanctioned the taking of a poll on a proposal to raise £1,000,000 for a harbour to accommodate vessels of large tonnage. Waiapu and Uawa gained exclusion from the proposed harbour district, but a small portion of Wairoa County was added. During 1920 the Reynolds plan was referred to a commission (W. Ferguson, C.E., Blair Mason, C.E., and Cyrus Williams, C.E.). They designed a straightout outer harbour. It would have stood on the eastern side of the entrance to the river, and would have cost £1,585,000. When the board intimated that it would be too costly, the commission submitted a modified plan to bring the cost just under £1,000,000. These plans, together with expenses, cost the board close upon £4,500.

There was much controversy as to whether the commission's plan or the Reynolds plan should be adopted. In 1922 Mr. Reynolds eliminated from his plan some of the outer wharves, and reduced his estimate to £750,000. The Board (J. Tombleson dissenting) then adopted it. The poll on a proposal to raise £1,000,000 was held on 9 August, 1922, and resulted: For, 2,197; against, 816. R. Campbell, who was appointed engineer, arrived from Australia in January, 1923. The board decided that the bulk of the work should be carried out by day labour. Some months were occupied by a large staff in compiling data, drawing plans, etc.

In October, 1923, the engineer sought permission to purchase the necessary plant. However, W. G. Sherratt proposed, and C. H. Williams seconded, that only the river section of the works should, at the outset, be put in hand. The motion was defeated by 11 votes to 4. Dr. J. C. Collins then moved, and J. Tombleson seconded, that tenders be called for dredging the cut, erecting the training walls, constructing the breakwater, and providing 1,000 feet of additional berthage. The voting was: For, 8 votes; against, 7. By the same narrow margin this decision was reaffirmed on 23 October, 1923.

Development of Kaiti Basin

Mr. Campbell, who held that the Reynolds scheme would cost £250,000 above the amount of the loan (£1,000,000), then proposed a modified plan, which omitted the outer breakwater, provided for a reduction in the depth of the channel, and included what is now known as the Kaiti Basin. This scheme (estimated to cost £500,000) was approved by the board, but the Crown Law Office ruled that it differed from that which the ratepayers had endorsed. On 24 April, 1924, the board went back to the Reynolds plan, with the addition of the Kaiti Basin. It also decided that all the work, excepting the railway bridge, the concrete wharves, the goods sheds and the breakwaters, should be carried out by day labour.

Among about £150,000 worth of plant that was obtained, the most expensive item was the dredge Korua, which, together with three steel hopper barges and a tug, cost about £64,000. [Between 1925 and 1931 the Korua excavated 1,920,000 tons of spoil. Together with two barges and a tug, she was unavailingly offered to Napier Harbour Board in 1934 for £8,000. In April, 1940, after she had lain idle in Waikanae Basin for nine years, she was sunk off Young Nick's Head.]

Tenders closed in September, 1925, for the main breakwater contract, but none came to hand. A property at Whareongaonga was then acquired, at a cost of £3,000, for a quarry, and scows and expensive equipment were procured. Attempts to build a small breakwater there to protect a jetty failed. The hulk Monowai was bought for £1,200, and, in November, 1925, page 412 it was sunk in the desired position. A few days later it was broken up by a storm. In May, 1927, on account of public dissatisfaction with the prospects, the quarry was closed. It provided about 6,000 tons of stone.

When the dredging of the diversion cut was finished on 1 July, 1927, it was found that the balance of the loan moneys would not meet the cost of completing the whole scheme. Approval was now given by the Government to a restriction of activities to the development of an inner harbour, with a berthing basin on the Kaiti side. Part of the land required was the site of the old Poho-o-Rawiri pa (1 acre 1 rood 5 poles). The native owners received £10,000 for it. On the casting vote of the chairman (Mr. Sherratt), the day labour system was retained.

In February, 1928, Mr. Campbell, who was anxious to proceed with the work of extending the existing breakwater, as well as with the inner harbour works, so that the diversion cut might be brought into use as soon as possible, asked the board to authorise the expenditure of £100,000 above the figure (£750,000) which it had assured the ratepayers, prior to the poll, it would not go without their renewed consent. Mr. Broadhurst moved, Mr. Williams seconded, and it was resolved, that the work on the breakwater should be stopped and that the balance of the loan moneys should be used to enable the Kaiti Basin to be further dredged and upon such other works as might be deemed necessary to complete the second section of the inner harbour. Mr. Campbell resigned on the ground that he could not accept responsibility for the Board's policy, and C. F. Marshall-Smith, C.E., was appointed in his stead.

The dredging of Kaiti Basin was completed in August, 1928, and the final gap in the diversion wall was closed on 26 October, 1929. By 1932 the basin was available for shipping. Additional berthages along the eastern side of the channel have also proved very useful. Vessels drawing up to 17 feet 6 inches can now (1949) safely enter or leave the basin during three hours before, or two hours after, high water. The capital outlay was £814,000.


Chairmen (under board control): A. Graham, 1885–87; W. Sievwright, 1887–88; W. H. Tucker, 1888–89; C. D. Bennett, 1890; J. Townley, Dec., 1890-Sept., 1918; F. J. Lysnar, 1918–21; G. Smith, 1921–25; W. G. Sherratt, 1925–29; J. Tombleson, 1929–38; J. A. Nicol, 1938–.

Engineers (under board control): J. Thomson, 1885–90; J. King, 1897–1903; D. A. McLeod (working supervisor), 1903–12; J. A. MacDonald, 1912–17; R. Campbell, 1923–28; C. F. Marshall-Smith, 1928–33.

Harbourmasters: J. Kennedy, 1874–75; T. Chrisp, 1875–86; H. J. C. Andrews, 1886–88; Bennett, 1888–90; A. Thomson, 1890–02; W. Cumming, 1902–13; Probert (acting) part 1913; J. Benton, 1913–15; A. Carson, 1915–39; G. McK. Smart, 1939–.

Secretaries (under board control): J. Bourke, 1885–91; J. W. Witty, 1891–1912, and then assistant treasurer till February, 1919; J. A. MacDonald, 1912–17; H. A. Barton, 1917–42; R. R. Baldrey, 1942–44; E. A. Khull, 1945–.


The busiest period experienced at the port of Gisborne lay between 1903 and 1916. In 1909, 491 steamers (696,198 tons) and 83 sailing vessels (7,987 tons) were handled. This aggregate was nearly equalled in 1914. In 1906, 142 sailing vessels (16,092 tons) paid visits, but, in 1927, only one (200 tons) called.

The first lighthouse at Tuahine Point was brought into use on 1 May, 1905. It was destroyed by fire on the night of 26 July, 1905. Its successor was equipped with the first acetylene light to be installed on the New Zealand coasts.

Harbour improvement schemes—even the ideas of laymen—were invited by Gisborne Harbour Board in 1917. About a score were received, but not one was entertained. In 1921–22 G. H. Lysnar brought litigation against the board on the ground that the Reynolds plan, which it had meantime adopted, was, allegedly, similar in some important respects (including the idea of diverting the river) to that which he had submitted. The board contended that Mr. Reynolds had advanced the diversion principle in 1892. A judgment given in Mr. Lysnar's favour in the Supreme Court was reversed by the Court of Appeal. He obtained leave to go to the Privy Council, but withdrew the proceedings. The litigation cost the board £4,661.

In July, 1948, N. V. Vickerman, C.E. (engineer to Auckland Harbour Board) informed the board that it would cost £2,860,000 to complete the Reynolds scheme. As an alternative (to cost only £410,000), he suggested that deep-water berthages, to page 413 accommodate vessels drawing up to 23 feet, should be provided within the entrance to the river. If the board decided to defer major works, it should, he considered, proceed, as opportunities offered, with developmental works on the lines suggested by Captain Smart (harbourmaster), viz., improve the entrance channel; provide more room within the lower reaches of the river, and make preparations for extra berthages. The board decided to embark, meantime, only upon the preliminary works.


John Tombleson (born at Barton-on-Humber in 1866) served as a station cadet in Hawke's Bay (1883–5). In 1886 he took up a property in the Waimata district, and, later, acquired Newstead (Makaraka). He served on Waimata Road Board, Cook County Council and Gisborne Harbour Board. His death took place in August, 1938.

George Smith (born at Auckland in 1864) was orphaned when he was 10 years old. He became a foreman carpenter on the Manawatu railway works. In 1903 he started in business in Gisborne as a builder, and, later, he also entered the sawmilling industry. The erection of Gisborne Intermediate School was his last big contract. He served on Gisborne Harbour Board for 20 years, and also on Gisborne Borough Council for several terms. In 1925 he unsuccessfully contested the Gisborne seat. He died on 21 September, 1943.

Frederick John Lysnar (a son of W. Dean Lysnar) engaged in sheepfarming at Waimata, Parikanapa and elsewhere. He served on Cook County Council, Cook Hospital Board and Gisborne Harbour Board. In 1920 he was an unsuccessful candidate for the Bay of Plenty seat. He was prominent in Turf circles. For some years he held the extensive property at Waiouru which became the site of an important military camp during the Second World War. He died in London in February, 1941.

James William Witty (born at Fifefield, England, in 1837) went out to Victoria in 1858, and, four years later, left the Bendigo diggings for Gabriel's Gully. In 1865 he joined Sergeant Scully's Company of 100 Otago recruits for active service on the East Coast. In conjunction with Ensign F. E. Hamlin he led a very successful native force against sympathisers with Te Kooti around Lake Waikaremoana. He was the “Father of Bowling” in Poverty Bay. He died in July, 1925.

Leslie Hunter Reynolds (born at Dunedin in 1862) served an apprenticeship with Kincaid, McQueen and Co., mechanical engineers, Dunedin, then he joined the Survey Department and qualified as a surveyor, and, later, he studied harbour engineering under W. Shields at Peterhead (Scotland). Sir John Coode sent him to obtain technical information with reference to harbour problems at Grenada and Port of Spain (West Indies) and at Table Cape (South Africa). He was then engaged by Livesey and Son, London, to assist in the work of estimating the cost of canalizing the Desaguadero River in Bolivia. In New Zealand he supplied reports on a number of harbours, water supply and sewerage schemes, and was the first consulting engineer to the contractors for the Arthur's Pass tunnel (5¼ miles in length). He died at Gisborne on 15 November, 1947.

John Thomson, B.E. (known as “Belltopper” Thomson, because he frequently wore a morning coat and a silk hat), returned to the West Coast (South Island) upon leaving Gisborne. F. W. Furkert, C.M.G., C.E., informed the writer that he served his cadetship under Mr. Thomson, who supervised the following works: Greymouth Harbour, Jackson to Otira railway, and the Great South Road to the Franz Josef Glacier. He added that Mr. Thomson also held a mate's ticket in sail, and that he was “a chain smoker of cigarettes.”

Robert Campbell (born in Scotland) served his apprenticeship with Denny Bros., shipbuilders, Dumbarton (1891–7), and then, for four years, was on the staff of W. Hill and Co. Ltd., engineering contractors, London. page 414 He was associated with the preliminary work on the Flinders Naval Base (Melbourne) and the Henderson Naval Base (Cockburn Sound, W.A.). During the Great War of 1914–18 he served in the A.I.F. for three years. He then became superintending civil engineer in connection with Navy Department works in New South Wales. In 1928 he returned to Sydney, where he died some years afterwards.

John Alexander MacDonald, M.I.C.E., received his early engineering training in England. He was appointed to the staff of the Engineer-in-Chief in New South Wales in 1879, and, 10 years later, became bridge engineer for that State. Under C. Y. O'Connor, C.E., he served as assistant-engineer on the Fremantle harbour works, having charge of three dredges and control of 1,000 men. He was appointed Deputy Engineer-in-Chief for West Australia in 1898, and held the position of Deputy Town Engineer in Johannesburg from 1903 till 1908. Upon retiring from the service of the Gisborne Harbour Board he was, for four years, engineer to Gisborne Borough. His death occurred in June, 1930.

When Captain J. H. Hawkes, master of the tender Tuatea for 24 years, retired in June, 1929, consequent upon Gisborne ceasing to be a port of call for passenger steamers, he was publicly presented with an illuminated address and a well-filled wallet. He had carried 300,000 passengers to or from Gisborne roadstead without a single mishap, although many of the trips had had to be made in stormy weather, necessitating the use of a basket, on a number of occasions, to lift passengers up to, or from, the deck of a steamer.