The Mahurangi Magazine

Select Page

Jade River: A History of the Mahurangi

Ronald H Locker
First published 2001. Published online 2014–. This online edition is a work in progress…


Pages 120–122in printed edition

Canadian Maritimers to New Zealanders

Lake Erie scow stamp

Great Lakes Irony: Only New Zealand-built scow, the Lake Erie, to be immortalised as a postage stamp, lacks the sole unique feature of the antipodean model—its ingeniously planked, stemmed bow. image Shutterstock

Sheltered coves and good timber were prerequisites for ship and boat buildingas published 2001, here and throughout: shipbuilding. These the Mahurangi coast had in abundance, but the third ingredient was shipwrights.

Outstanding among the pioneers of the industry here were the Scottish immigrants from the Maritimes, in particular Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Islandas published 2001: the Atlantic seaboard of Canada, in particular Nova Scotia, populated largely by Scottish, many of them refugees from the Highland Clearancesas published 2001: Highland Clearances, following the Battle of Culloden in 1746. Other immigrants from Britain brought shipbuilding skills acquired on the Canadian coast.

In Europe, the navies and merchant fleets necessary to maintain colonial empires, had depleted the supply of timber for building wooden ships. But across the Atlantic were unlimited supplies of conifers and hardwoods of the right quality, and hardy and resourceful settlers with imported shipwright skills. So there arose in Atlantic Northeastas published 2001: the North American maritime provinces, a vigorous industry building wooden ships, an enterprise that would survive long after the European yards had turned to iron. It was here that the schooner was developed, with its efficient fore-and-aft rig, needing only a small crew. It was to become the coastal vesselas published 2001: small ship of choice around the world, and to become dominant on the New Zealand coast and in New Zealand yardsas published 2001: shipyards. A scan of Lloyds’ Register of the times confirms the importance of the North American industry. Many immigrants to Australia and New Zealand, including ancestors of my own, came in ships built there.

But life was hard on the Maritimesas published 2001: on Nova Scotian coast coast. The growing season was short and unreliable, the winters long and hard. Icebound harbours halted fishing, a mainstay. Food supplies for people and animals tended to run out before spring returned, and there was no way of bringing in extra stores. Scottishas published 2001. Here and throughout: Scots, uprooted once from their turbulent homeland, were prepared to start all over again in search of fairer climes. They began by building their own ships to move their families.

Of those who chose New Zealand, the Nova Scotians and Prince Edward Islandersas published 2001: Nova Scotians of Waipū are the best known. In fact, their settlement was dispersed from Whangārei to Ōmaha. Pulham, an early settler, tells how the advance guardas published 2001: advance guard of the Nova Scotians arrived in Auckland, via Melbourne, September 1853, and sent a party north in a whaleboat to find a site for their special settlement. Since they camped for about six weeks in George Darroch’s bay, they must have thought seriously about Mahurangi. They explored all corners:

…looking for a suitable place to settle, but could not find one to suit them, although they said there were some beautiful ‘glens’ and admired the scenery and fishing grounds.

But these canny Maritimersas published 2001: Scots were determined to get it right the second time, and wisely chose the easier lands around Waipū.

It is hardly surprising that some of these settlers, and others of similar background, chose to continue building ships, using kauri and pōhutukawa, rather than the hackmatack, oak and elm they were accustomed to. So, along this coast sprang up yards bearing Scottish names, where the shipbuilding tradition passed to the third or fourth generation.

The Meiklejohns, a family with seven sons, were well-established shipbuilders on Prince Edward Island. The father, Captain James Meiklejohn, began an apprenticeship as shipwright on the Leith in Scotland, but went off to sea, as far as China. He returned and finished his apprenticeship, then went back to sea. He was second mate when he quit his ship in Prince Edward Island, to marry Catherine Mustad, of Huguenot and Scottish descent. There he stayed, to establish himself as shipbuilder, sometimes sailing his new ships across the Atlantic for sale in Britain. After twenty prosperous years the family decided to emigrate. They built the brigantine Union in 1856 for this purpose and sailed her on a wandering two-year voyage. In Cape Town, Governor Grey recommended New Zealand. They sailed on to Sydney, where they sold the Union and shipped to New Zealand, settling at Whangateau Harbour, Ōmaha. Their vessel also ended up in New Zealand, wreckedDr Ronald Locker, in the print editions, has her ‘lost with all hands on the Manukau Bar, bringing coals from Newcastle to Onehunga in 1860’ on the Kaipara Bar.

The Meiklejohns built their schooner Pioneer at the time they were building their first house. In all they built 16 schooners and brigantines, and five scows over the years 1859–91. The business soon became a partnership of brothers, managed by John, who had arrived later, after marrying. By 1872 he was building on his own account.

The Meiklejohns have the important distinction of building the first New Zealand scow, the Lake Erie, in 1873. It is credited to the youngest son Septimus, in association with its owner, fellow Nova Scotian, Captain George Spencer, who was familiar with the timber scows of the Great Lakes. A clumsy thing with square ends and leeboards, she proved a slug. Davey Darroch told how builder and owner were sailing her up the Firth of Thames one night and were elated to realise they were gaining on a light ahead of them. Came daybreak and they saw it was a cutter towing a large boiler to Thames. However, Septimus’ second attempt, the Lake Michigan of 1876, was a big improvement, with a centreboard and with better lines.

By then the new concept had caught on. At Pakiri in 1875, George Sharp built the Lake Superior, converted in 1878 from leeboards to centreboard. At Mahurangi in 1876, Rufus Dunning built the Lady of the Lake and John Darrach built Lake St Clair. These were the only two scows ever built in the Mahurangi. These five early Lake scows were experimental, but they established the shape and the worth of the breed, setting the scene for a new and vigorous phase of shipbuilding to begin in the north. It was a third-generation shipwright of Mahurangi who was to become the greatest scow builder of them all: David Mackey Darroch took over at Ōmaha and sustained its fame as a shipbuilding centre from 1883 to 1913. It was Davey’s two sons, Harvey and Watt, the fourth generation of Darrochs, who built the last scows (see later).

The Mathesons had been seamen and shipbuilders in Scotland, and had carried on this tradition for 30 years in Nova Scotia before they too decided to join the migration. Duncan and Angus Matheson built the little Spray in Nova Scotia in 1856. After narrowly escaping being frozen in for the winter, they sailed her by the same route to New Zealand. The ship went immediately into the trans-Tasman trade. Within a few months the family had also discovered Ōmaha, where they settled at what became known as Matheson Bay. There they built six vessels, 1864–99, and also continued their seafaring, becoming well known coastal and blue-water skippers.

There were other Maritimeras published 2001: Nova Scotian builders scattered around the coast from Whangārei to Coromandel. Within Rodney County, Donald McInnes was a prolific builder at Mangawhai, while McQuarrie and McCallum built at Leigh and later at Auckland. There were various other builders at Pakiri, the Wade and Ōrewa. These are not included here, although ships built at Matakana and Waiwera are included as part of the wider Mahurangi district.

Ship and boat building The trade of the shipwright was employed building other than ships, not least of all the essentially coastal, but also southwest-Pacific, vessels built at Mahurangi. As published in 2001, Jade River: A History of the Mahurangi standardised all boat and shipbuilding the latter, which was both grandiose and inaccurate. Mahurangi boatbuilding’s largest examples were but half the tonnage of vessels customarily categorised as ships. Certainly, none was remotely large enough to sensibly be ship-rigged.