Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 55, September 2011

(Reprinted from the Hauraki Plains Gazette, October 1, 1951.)

By courtesy of the Thames-Hauraki Historical Society the story of the formation of the Thames Valley, of its settlement first by the Maori, and then by the white man, from Captain Cook's visit in 1769 to the coming of the missionaries, who were followed by those in search of timber and finally the draining and development of the now fertile lands of the Plains has been made available to the Gazette.

The story is a preliminary outline of what will later form part of a section of a comprehensive history of the Coromandel Peninsula and Thames Valley. Much of the information has been made available to the society by Messrs Murray McCaskill, R.Gillespie and Miss Dorothy Coxhead.

The Thames Valley is what is known as a graben, or a huge ditch formed by the falling in of an earth block. That is, in the far off geological past, when the Coromandel Peninsula was a range of spouting volcanoes, there was a violent earthquake or series of earthquakes and either at once or in stages, a block several miles across and 70 or 80 miles long slid down probably well over a 1000 feet as into a vast abyss.

For a long time the Waikato River flowed into this wide chasm, while the land rose and sank, but always the filling went on, sometimes under the sea, sometimes on land, as the floor of the valley rose and fell above or below sea level. The Waikato River finally changed its course, after leaving vast pumice deposits and the Waihou and Piako Rivers continued the work. Near the present shoreline at Thames a bore-hole was able to go down 1200 feet without finding the bottom of the silt.

As the sunken block extended back approximately to Matamata, a distance of 45 miles from the shoreline with its prodigious amount of say 90 to 100 cubic miles of spoil brought down by the rivers over the ages, not taking into account the many more hundreds of feet thickness about a dozen miles wide under the sea shading off towards the entrance of the Firth of Thames 30 to 40 miles further on. Owing to the way it was thus built out, even at Matamata, 45 miles from the sea, this great flood plain is only 200 feet above sea level.

It was only at that end, in the upper Thames Valley that there was any great extent of dry land during Maori times, and indeed, comparatively, recently during European times. Maori settlements, therefore, clustered most thickly in the upper valley, around Matamata, and were also found along the borders of the lower valley, especially where streams from the hills joined the rivers, as at Puriri, on one or two raised "islands" in the midst of the swamp, as at Kerepehi, or along the narrow raised tongues or levees of flood plain built up immediately alongside the rivers.

The meandering sluggish Waihou and Piako Rivers when they flooded tended to deposit the silt which would make firm ground along their immediate borders, only more or less dirty water for the most part filtering through the thick growth to the extensive spaces between, which built up at a slower rate, till in the normal course of events, the rivers would tend to invade these low places and change course. Thick growth of peat, however, making a soft swollen filling for quite extensive low lying basins, tended to prevent this. The Maori names tell a story—Kopu, hollow place; Kopuarahi, extensive hollow place; and Waitakaruru, stagnant water.

Year by year, in these hollow places between the meandering and choked up rivers, soggy sphagnum moss grew layer on layer, ever further from the silt or clay deposits below, to a depth of as much as 40 feet, till the upper layers were almost pure wet carbon, with hardly any mineral content at all. The successive layers lived on one another, so far as soil minerals were concerned, and hence are practically useless for growing anything to this day. The streams from the western hills never reached the sea by any recognisable course at all, but discharged into the vast morass which remained more or less full of water summer and winter, the haunt of eels and waterfowl.

Along the mineral-rich, silt-bound flood plains by the rivers grew tongues of scrub and white pine forest, and often bordering flax, while near the sea where the Waihou River meeting the sea currents, deposited continual supplies of silt, further enriched by salt water mineral, there was the big Turua white pine forest.

It was these forests which first attracted the attention of Europeans to the possibilities of the region. The earliest was Caption Cook in the "Endeavour", the very first white visitor to these parts, who, on November 21, 1769, found the mouth of the Waihou River, which he named The Thames. He sailed up it for 14 miles and there landed to look at a "fine stand off timber": one tree being 19ft 8 inches in girth 6 feet from the ground and 89 feet to the first branch. His glowing descriptions brought others, the next ship being the "Fancy", which came from India in 1794 and stayed some miles up the Waihou River for three months, cutting 213 "very good spars", varying from 60 to 140 feet long. She was followed in 1798 by the "Hunter", which took a cargo of spars to China. In 1801 came the "Plumier", which was met in the Hauraki Gulf on her way out by the "Royal Admiral", which was directed to a forest three-quarters of a mile from the sea, evidently near Kopu.

It is interesting to note that this last ship took off two Europeans, who had been living with Maori for a couple of years, perhaps left behind by the "Hunter".


In 1815 the Rev Samuel Marsden made his first missionary reconnaissance up the Waihou River, followed by two more in 1820. The missionaries, Fairburn and Shepherd, made another visit to Thames in March, 1833, with the definite intention of looking into the matter of establishing a missionary station there. In October the same year a detachment of four missionaries led by Henry Williams, the others being A. N. Brown, Morgan and Fairburn again, went up the river to fix a site.

They came to a native settlement of Puriri, where they were astounded to hear the Maori joining in the hymn singing word perfect and giving response to the prayers. It appeared Native converts had already reached them. So a mission station was established that year at Puriri, occupied by Morgan and Preece, though in 1837 it had to be shifted to Kauaeranga, as Puriri proved too wet. A station was also founded in Matamata at the same time as Puriri.

Prior to 1820 there had been a chain of fortifications along the eastern borders of the Waihou River, which acted as a common highway from Matamata to the great pa of Totara, near Thames and so on up the coast. The section from Te Aroha northwards being held by the Ngati Maru or more correctly the Marutuaha, of which Ngati Maru are a section. These were broken and massacred by Hongi in 1821, when Totara Pa fell, leaving all in a confused state with much fighting and each pa in fear of the next and the Maori rather welcoming a snagged and blocked state of the Waihou River. By 1840 the missionary influence was more or less fully established throughout the North Island and fighting had died down when New Zealand came under the British Crown in that year.


So in 1842 the Thorps were able in safety buy lands near the present town of Paeroa from the Maori and settle there. For some reason there is little record available from then to the sixties save visits like the "Lady Martin".

After the main Waikato Maori Wars (1860-64) the way was open to further settlement, particularly at the drier Matamata end, where in 1865 Mr J. C. Firth took up a huge estate. Around 1880 he had desnagged the Thames or Waihou River to that point, at a cost of £10,000. The full story of Firth is an epic itself.


In 1868 timber cutting operations began at Turua, the Bagnalls from Prince Edward Island, Canada, taking over in 1877 and establishing a king of timber empire of the Peter B. Kyne variety, which lasted till the 1920s when, owing to their continuous operations and those of other and lesser firms such as R. P. Gibbons Limited, the huge white pine forests finally cut out.

"By 1880 all land in the Thames Valley except the Hauraki Plains was taken up in huge freehold estates and mixed farmed. On the dry strips at the base of the hills on both sides of the plains Maori settlements became denser and there were only a few white settlers here who lived among the Maori". (D. M. Coxhead).

"In 1876 a syndicate bought from the Government a large portion of the Piako swamp north of Hamilton, had spent £120,000 and lost it all, the net result of their efforts being a small area sown in clover". (Gillespie).

So that when it was proposed that the Government take up the drainage of the Hauraki Plains, an area of 160,000 acres of swamp, with a few patches of dry land scattered here and there within its boundaries, many denounced any such scheme as visionary and impracticable. In any case, if anything was to be done at all, it would have to be by the Government, as after the Piako swamp fiasco no private speculators would touch the area.


One man who pressed the idea in season and out of season was Mr H. D. M. Hazard, FRGS. He previously was connected with swamp district in Waiuku and Northern Wairoa. In 1895 he had his attention drawn to the possibilities of the Hauraki Plains, which up to then was limited to timber, with flax beginning to loom up, and fishing for eels and shooting ducks.

In 1899 he ran some trial levels there and induced the Chief Surveyor to come and inspect the area, and from then on he kept urging the Lands Department to undertake a drainage scheme. He claimed to have suggested the name "Hauraki Plains" to avoid confusion with the "Piako Swamp" between Hamilton and Morrinsville.

There proved to be friends in court. The Under-secretary of the Lands Department, Mr Wm C. Kensington, ISC, was an enthusiastic supporter of any plan to bring waste land into production, and is credited with the official inauguration of the Hauraki Plains scheme.

From 1902 onwards Government action began with the taking of a complete set of levels, at a cost of £1322 for this preliminary work. It is an eloquent commentary on the condition of the great morass that surveyors on levelling operations took a whole day to make a trip from Pipiroa to Waitakaruru, a distance of five miles and now a matter of 10 minutes by car.

Maori land holdings were an obstacle, the Crown owning very little of the swamps, which were mainly outside the land confiscation boundaries of the Maori land wars of the 1860s. Mr James Mackay, engaged as land purchase officer, worked with Hazard on the tedious business of buying land from assemblies of Maori and finally secured the greater part.


When serious engineering work loomed up a full time engineer for drainage operations was engaged in August, 1907, in the person of Mr W. C. Breakwell, who had successfully draining the Makarua Swamp, near Longburn. He first carried out a soil survey and with commendable promptitude had a report in by September, 1907. He set out three main divisions, which it is important to have in mind:

Class 1: Rich alluvial soil with surface elevation varying from one foot below to a few feet above spring tide level.

Class 2: Good peat land with the underlying alluvium generally above mean sea level and so situated that, after subsidence resulting from drainage, gravity drainage would be possible during the whole year, or would have to be assisted by pumping only during short infrequent periods.

Class 3: Generally deep peat land of poor quality which could be drained by pumping, because the surface would sink considerably below sea and flood level in the process of consolidation.

It was considered class 1 and 2 lands could be reclaimed at reasonable cost, being 122,000 acres, while in class 3 there were about 38,000 acres, to be left out of any drainage schemes at first, as cost of flood protection, draining and roading thereof was considered prohibitive. Of the 160,000 acres involved, 90,000 aces were now Crown land, of which 30,000-odd acres were unsuitable for settlement, while another 70,000 acres of Maori and freehold land would receive varying degrees of benefit from the scheme.


From August, 1907, following Mr Breakwell's appointment, to March 1908, £5070 went in preliminary work, so it was thought time to put matters on a proper financial footing. In October, 1908, the Minister of Lands, Mr McNabb, introduced the Hauraki Bill. This allowed a limit of £80,000 by way of loan, to be capital later from receipts of sales and leases, etc., all revenue (including rates) going to the Government till the amount was cleared, when local authorities could take over.

One source of revenue envisaged was flax milling leases, some development there having already been carried by various persons and firms along the mineral-rich borders of the water-courses where the bushes grew naturally. There was also provision to acquire various areas of Maori land and European freeholds which were in effect grid-ironing the blocks to be developed.

By now the Hauraki Plains was ready for drainage and farm development which has continued over the next 100 years to produce some of the richest farm land in New Zealand.

A dipper dredge dug out the canal ahead of itself

A dipper dredge dug out the canal ahead of itself by floating in the newly cut channel. Several of these dredges were used in the drainage of the Hauraki Plains.

From Swamp to Farm Land
Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 55, September 2011
A dipper dredge dug out the canal ahead of itself
One of several gangs of men who dug drains

One of several gangs of men who dug many of the drains on the Hauraki Plains.

From Swamp to Farm Land
Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 55, September 2011
One of several gangs of men who dug drains