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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 139–144in printed edition

Great lesser boatbuilders of the Mahurangi

Nelson and Betty Lawrie’s Rose Cottage, 1941, Motukauri beyond

Near Ninety Years Grants Island: Even when captured in the background of this 1941 image of Nelson and Betty Lawrie’s Rose Cottage, Motukauri had locally been known as Grants Island for nearly 90 years, as the result of William Grant’s adjacent boatbuilding enterprise. Perhaps the 175th anniversary of the launching of Grant’s schooner Naumai might be an auspicious juncture at which to restore the island’s indigenous name and vegetation. image Mahurangi East Residents and Ratepayers Association

A number of other boatbuilders worked briefly on the Mahurangi or nearby. Builders at Mangawhai, Pākiri, Ōmaha, Ōrewa and the Wade are not included here. The appendix lists those who built at Waiwera, Pūhoi, Mahurangi and Matakana, that is, built at Mahurangi in the wider sense. Some left only an entry or two in the shipping register. Others married into Mahurangi families, and are better remembered. Their stories are told below.

William Grant

William John “Tar” Grantas published 2001: William Grant, born in Golspie, Sutherland in 1817, was an early immigrant to New Zealand, arriving on the Blenheim at Port Nicholsonofficially, since 1984, Wellington Harbour; Te Whanganui-a-Tara in 1840. He came to Auckland in 1842, and on to Mahurangi, where he worked as a sawyer. He is said to have built his two vessels on the beach near the island that bears his namebut should long since have reverted to Motukauri, and been replanted. In 1853 he purchased 80 acres there, and three lots in the Mahurangi Village, and became a farmer. He married Hawakirangi, who bore him two sons and a daughter, Rawinia, a Sullivan ancestor. Tar Grant is remembered as donor of the site of the Mahurangi church, which he helped to build. On Sundays he regularly rang its bell. At the ripe age of 98, he was buried in its yard.
His brother James followed him to New Zealand about 1850, and took up adjoining land on the edge of the village. James and Anne Grant founded another well-known Mahurangi family.

George Bagnall and sons

The Hon. George Bagnall of Prince Edward Island, and his family were among the complement of the Pākehā. His title arose from his seat on the Legislative Council there. His grandfather, Samuel, had been a wealthy tobacco planter in Virginia, but as a loyalist had lost his estates in the War of Independence and had taken refuge in Nova Scotia. George married Martha Stevenson, and by 1864 they had ten children, seven of them sons. George was eager to keep his family together but saw no way of doing this on the island, where farming land was at a premium. The free land grants in New Zealand appeared to offer a solution. His eldest son, Lemuel, refused to come without his love, Sarah Wallace. Although they were young, the families agreed to a wedding in time for the couple to sail for New Zealand.

It has already been told how George Bagnall and his two eldest sons, Lemuel and William, although they had been farmers and grist millers, learned to be shipwrights under the tutelage of master shipwright, John Darrach at Matakana. Their land grant near Matakohe proved impractical and was never taken up. After Darrach had departed to Mahurangi, the Bagnalls built one more vessel, the Onward, 1867, at Matakana. Unable to sell her to advantage, they hired a crew and put her into the coastal trade. William and Lemuel served with the crew. George lodged his family in Auckland and set out to make his fortune on the Thames goldfields, but had no luck. Instead, he and the boys found themselves building houses on wages. They also built one for the family at Thames and moved into it in 1869. Recognising that the real gold lay in timber, they leased the Turua mill from the Hauraki Sawmilling Company. The whole family moved there in 1879. After setbacks, they bought out mill and timberlands. The mill cut only kahikatea. The family established an enormously successful trade in the timber, in great demand in New Zealand and Australia for butter boxes. George died in 1889, and his widow in 1906.

When a box factory was established in Auckland, the family became known as “the butterbox Bagnalls”. In 1903 Lemuel moved there to take control. He had already entered politics as representative for the Thames on the Provincial Council, 1873–5. In Auckland he was soon immersed in civic, educational and business affairs. In 1910 he became mayor. He figured on the boards-of-directors circuit, notably that of the Kauri Timber Company. He died in 1917.

James Clare-built mullet boat Lupe

Lesser Mahurangi Boatbuilder Greater Auckland One: Champion New Zealand rower and prolific mullet boat builder. Pictured is the James Clare-built mullet boat Lupe, presumably off Rangitoto. image Boating New Zealand

James Clare

James Witten Clare was born in Wales just a year before he sailed on the Jane Gifford, with his father Samuel (a miner), his mother Comfort, and five older siblings. In the 1850s he was apprenticed to Thomas Scott. In 1862 he launched out on his own as boatbuilder, by constructing the small cutter Antelope, and in 1864, the larger Sea Belle. An old resident, unnamed, told how:

…the late John McGechie decided to build a vessel to carry his firewood to Auckland. She was named Sea Belle and was run by G. Clare (James’ brother, 12 years his senior) and J. McGechie jointly. The timber was cut by John McGechie and William Grant, and the timber that was not suitable for the ship’s planking was used for the building of a church. The timber was made into a raft and floated across to Scotts.

This implies that Scotts’ yard was used, but there is another claim that he worked in association with James Darroch (who had just taken over at Marriage Bay) and with brother George. It seems that the timber was cut by McGechie senior, pioneer settler in the Te Kapa. The ship was certainly for John McGechie junior, who became the cutter’s captain, but died prematurely of consumption in 1866, aged 23. In the previous year Clare had married Mary McGechie. The story of Clare’s epic row from Mahurangi to Auckland, to be at his brother-in-law’s funeral, is told elsewhere. He was an easy winner in the men’s rowing race at the Mahurangi regatta of 1865.

Clare went back to Auckland and set up a yard at the foot of Queen Street. Mary died in 1870, leaving James with an infant daughter. His new wife, Harriet, bore him seven more children.

No more of his ships appear on the register, but his son Charles said that he built several coastal cutters there and a whole fleet of cutters which he used to ship grain up to Motion’s Mill at the Whau, backloading the flour. He then went into partnership with Weymouth, and together they built many small craft. After Weymouth died, James carried on alone. His yard was then at the foot of St Mary’s Road. At one stage, when business was in depression (probably the late 1880s), he took his family to Tonga with a governess, sailmaker, boatbuilder Charles Robinson, and others. In Va’vau they built many small craft, probably not unlike those I have seen built there today, to serve the scattered islanders. Experience of a hurricane drove them home. When James died in 1902, his shipwright son, William, went into partnership with Charles Collings. The partnership produced many fine pleasure craft, notably early racing mullet boats. Other son, Charles Clare, was a shipsmith.

Thomas and Ben Short

The Short family arrived in Auckland from Essex in 1854. The father, Hercules Short, resided in Auckland. It seems he was a friend of the Scott family, since Thomas Scott junior was married at his house in 1862. It seems Hercules’ sons all had nautical experience.

Thomas went first to Mahurangi, almost certainly to work in the Scott yard. In 1859 he married Margaret McBrierty of the Mahurangi family. Thomas’ younger brother, William Benjamin Short, also came to the boatyard in Mahurangi, in 1862. In that year he married Julia Sullivan at St Matthews in Auckland. The Shorts would have worked on the later Scott ships up to their big cutter America in 1865. Thomas Scott senior had retired in 1863, and the Scott brothers ceased building (until the Gypsy a decade later). It is reasonable to suppose that the Short brothers worked with Scotts on the America, and took over when she left the slipway in 1865. In that year Shorts launched the cutter Hercules, named for their father. Thomas also took over the inn, of which he was gazetted as publican in 1865. The Shorts moved on to larger vessels: the schooners Stately,1866, and Fiery Cross,1868. These ships were built for Captain George Short, who ran them in the popular timber-grain trade between the North and South islands.

George, apparently their brother, was a blue-water captain. He began as half-owner of succession of cutters from 1859. In 1866 he became sole owner and master of the Stately, the first of a sequence of larger schooners he owned up to 1895, including Darrach’s Agnes and Oamaru, Sharp’s crack cutter Sovereign of the Seas, and the elegant Jessie Niccol. In 1885 he was master of the large brig Nightingale, which he did not own, although his wife Martha and William Sullivan had quarter shares. The ship became waterlogged in the Tasman and was abandoned, although five of the crew returned and sailed it to Sydney, where it was sold. Short and the rest of the crew made a perilous voyage in an open boat to Auckland. George had even worse luck with the ships his brothers built for him (see below). He was fortunate to be master of another ship when he left Oamaru in 1878 in the company of Fiery Cross, which he owned. This latter sailed into oblivion.

The shipbuilding partnership of Tom and Ben Short ended suddenly in a double drowning. An Auckland paper reported:

On 7 January 1869 the cutter Three Sisters brought the body of William B. Short and his fourteen month-old son to Auckland for burial. Ships in the port flew their flags at half mast, as he was well-known in the shipping community of the port. He had been a settler at Mahurangi for seven years and married for two years, with no other children other than the poor little fellow who died in his arms. He had been drowned by the upsetting of a boat at Mahurangi.

Another account says that the family of three were returning under sail from a visit to friends when, their boat capsized off Casnell Island. The wife, Julia (nee Sullivan), a good swimmer, was saved after half an hour in the water. The child was found soon afterward, and buried after an inquest. Ben’s body was later found by his wife. The child was exhumed and buried with his father. A stone in the Symonds Street Cemetery records that William B. Short aged 23, and son John Hercules aged 14 months, drowned in Mahurangi Harbour 2 January 1869. By a highly improbable coincidence, Mrs William Benjamin Short later became Mrs William Benjamin Jackson.

Thomas Short went back to sea as master, probably after the hotel burned. He is listed in the register as mariner and shipwright of Mahurangi, and owner of the cutter Maid of the Mill, 1863–75. A note regarding marine “incidents” show that he was skipper of the Fiery Cross in 1873, and of the schooner Prince Rupert in 1875.

George Callan Sharp

George Sharp was born in Chicago in 1822, son of George Sharp and Maria (Carpenter). It is said that he grew up in Maine. He learned his trade working with his father, who built ships on the Great Lakes, in Maine and in Nova Scotia. He came to St Ann’s, Cape Breton Island, in time to become involved with the voyage of the first Waipu contingent, and may have helped to construct the Margaret. He sailed on her as ship’s carpenter in October 1851. The group paused at Adelaide, then at Melbourne, where the ship was sold. Sharp then found work on several other ships, 1853-8. In 1858 he signed off as an able seaman on Gazelle. This trans-Tasman trader had been bought by Murdoch McKenzie in 1853, and beginning in that year, served to ferry the Nova Scotians from their temporary home in Australia to New Zealand. This was probably the means by which Sharp arrived in New Zealand. His first years in the colony are not remembered, but the record resumes with his marriage at Matakana in 1866, to Susan Mayne, a nurse who was born in India, and came to New Zealand as a governess. There is a family claim that he “had a partner Darracq”. This indicates that he worked for Darrach and Bagnall, who were building at Matakana at that time and employed hired hands. It is probably no coincidence that Sharp began building at Matakana on his own account in 1866, the year that Darrach moved to Mahurangi. The register shows that only two ships were built by Sharp at Matakana (the family claims nine; the rest may have been small). Sovereign of the Seas became the champion cutter on the Waitematā for many years. It was lost as the escape vessel in the Tryphena murder. The man who commissioned the Charlotte, took her for a “trial sail” and never came back. Both stories are told below. The financial loss on the latter must have been a severe blow to a new boatbuilder. It appears to mark the end of his major enterprise at Matakana. It is likely that in the subsequent gaps in his record, he was working as shipwright in the yards of others.

Family say that during his time at Matakana, he used to row to Auckland once a month, until he built a little sailing lugger, named appropriately, Rownomore. Years later, Davey Darroch gave his luxury launch the same name.

Davey attributed the Wild Duck (Mahurangi, 1867) to Sharp, not Oxley as in the register and table in the appendix. This is quite probable as its joint owners were John Petin Oxley, a blockmaker, and John William Oxley, a shipchandler. They belonged to an Auckland family of whom five appear in the register as shipowners. John Oxley owned 293 acres in Waiwera in 1869.

Sharp moved on to Pakiri where in 1870 he built the very small6-ton schooner Isle of Beauty.

The next remembered output was at Tairua, where according to Davey Darroch, he built the schooner Belle Brandon (65 t) in 1873, and the cutter Coralie (29 t) in 1874. The register gives as builder, William Ben. Jackson, merchant of Auckland, (and later settler in Mahurangi) but he was the owner and unlikely to be the builder.

Sharp appears again with certainty in 1875, back at Pakiri as builder of the early scow Lake Superior (52 t) for local timbermen, Philip C. Dyer (formerly of Mahurangi) and Captain C. Holder. Like the first Meiklejohn scow, it had leeboards, but was converted to centreboard in 1878. In 1876 Sharp built his last and largest ship, the schooner Mary Queen (78 t) at Pakiri. His magnum opus had a short life, disappearing at sea seven months later.

In February 1879, Darrach’s topsail schooner Marmion,1874, was re-registered in Auckland to John Logan Campbell and partners, owners of the Te Kopuru Sawmill Company. She was to be delivered to her new master, Captain William Johnston, on the Kaipara, for their timber trade. Sharp undertook to deliver her, and seized the opportunity to make a fresh start. He embarked his wife, four sons and two daughters, and chattels, and sailed around to the Wairoa. There, on a creek just south of Te Kopuru, he established a new yard for ship repairs. A mechanically ingenious man, he installed a hand-turned flywheel as a power source in his yard. He was killed while rigging a ship in 1891.

His sons were all handy practical men. George and Harry joined the Kauri Timber Company, and became in succession its chief engineer. Tom founded the firm of Shipbuilders Ltd. in Auckland. The son of George junior, Clarence Sharp, of Snells Beach, has been a principal source of this history.

Dunning brothers

James Rufus Dunning arrived in Auckland in 1848 and in that year married Eliza Menary. After farming at Howick, he established himself as a general merchant in Auckland. Of a family of six, two sons, Rufus (b. 1853) and James (b. 1857) became shipwrights. Since both married daughters of James Darroch, it is highly probable that the brothers were apprentices in Darroch’s yard. Rufus married Margaret Mackey Darroch in 1874, while James married Nicholas Rogerson Darroch about 1885. The brothers apparently worked together, having gone into partnership with John Sullivan at Waiwera. Their period of building was brief: three ships in three years. The second was the very early scow Lady of the Lake in 1876, said to have been built in Mahurangi, probably at Darrochs’ yard, where James Darroch had given up the year before. In that same year, John Darrach built his only scow. So, 1876 marks the beginning and end of scow building at Mahurangi.

The launching of the last Dunning ship at Waiwera was reported in the New Zealand Herald of 12 May 1876:

On Monday evening last another coasting vessel was successfully launched from the shipbuilding yard of Mr John Sullivan of this place, by Mrs Sullivan — a schooner of good lines — copper bottomed, copper fastened and tree nailed, reflecting great credit on her builders, Messrs Dunning Brothers, shipwrights of Mahurangi.

Locals and a sprinkling of Pūhoi folk, 150 in all, enjoyed a supper provided by Mr Sullivan (who was also mine host at the hotel), and then:

…indulged in dancing till the short hours of morning.

The boatyard, in which Sullivan is described elsewhere as a partner, seems to have languished at this point. He relinquished his publican’s licence three months later. The Dunning brothers here vanish from the boatbuilding scene, no doubt victims of the slump that finished the other Mahurangi yards.

Rufus and Margaret continued to live at Marriage Bay at least into the early eighties.
James Dunning became a shipowner, and in 1898 was elected first Chairman of Directors of the Coastal Shipping Company, founded by prominent settlers in opposition to the McGregor Company. He died in 1922, although his widow, the first white child born in Mahurangi (1856), lived to be 100, dying at Devonport in 1957.