The former Pukekohe East Presbyterian Church stands on Runciman Road, 5 km north-west of the town of Pukekohe and about 50 km south of central Auckland. This distinctive boulder memorial stands in the cemetery beside the church. Dedicated to the Māori who were killed in action here on 14 September 1863, it marks the place where about six of them are buried.
In 1863, Pukekohe East was an isolated farming community on the fringes of Pākehā settlement south of Auckland. After the outbreak of the Waikato War on 12 July, the district’s men were formed into a company of Forest Rifle Volunteers and issued with arms. Twenty men – ten military settlers and nine special constables under the command of Sergeant Perry – garrisoned Pukekohe East Church.
The church, completed earlier in 1863, was roughly fortified. Volunteers built a 1.5-m-high log stockade around the building at a distance from it of some 3 m, with openings for rifles to be fired through. After an inspection on 31 August found the stockade inadequate, Volunteers strengthened its foot with earth. However, they ignored instructions to clear the bush to a safe distance from the perimeter.
Seventeen men were at the church stockade on the morning of 14 September. They included three generations of the McDonald family – Alexander, and his son and grandson, both named James. Between 9 and 10 a.m., as some men were cleaning their rifles and others were cooking, a single shot from the bush was followed by a charge by Māori.
Some of the garrison said later that the Māori ope (war party) numbered 300–400. But according to one of its members, Te Huia Raureti of Ngāti Maniapoto, the size of the ope did not exceed 200. It included an elderly fighting woman named Rangi-rumaki, ‘of determined countenance, and perfectly fearless’.
The war party was mostly made up of Ngāti Maniapoto, with some Upper Waikato Māori and Ngāti Pou. After travelling down the Waikato River by canoe it had landed near Tūākau, where there was a preliminary skirmish near Alexandra Redoubt.
On the march towards Pukekohe, its leaders had agreed that the war party would confine itself to fighting. Despite the looting by settlers of Māori property, they would ‘let no one touch anything in the settlers’ houses, or their stock, or otherwise interfere with their property.’ This agreement was violated by some Ngāti Maniapoto during the march, an act that was regarded as a bad omen for the forthcoming attack.
At Pukekohe East, leading sections of the war party dashed towards the church stockade:
Raureti and Maaka, with whom was the woman Rangi-Rumaki, saw a sentry on a stump outside the defences and fired at him; he ran inside the stockade, which enclosed a building [the church]. Rangi-rumaki was exceedingly active and courageous. She charged daringly close up to the stockade, armed with a single-barrel gun; round her waist was buckled a cartridge-belt. An old Waikato fighting-man, Rapurahi, was the leader of the charge, and the woman was close up to the front; Renata and Arama followed. When we reached the front of the stockade we saw the muzzles of the guns with fixed bayonets pointing at us, and we seized some of the guns by the end of the barrel and tried to pull them out through the loopholes, but the rifle-slits were not large enough to let the stocks come through.
The fighting continued for some hours. Māori removed dead and wounded comrades from the battlefield under intense fire. They crawled up on their hands and knees to fasten supplejacks round the ankles of the fallen, who were then ‘hauled by unseen hands’ into the cover of the bush.
Māori snipers climbed a large pūriri tree in the churchyard to fire into the stockade. Another attacker fired at the garrison from the roof of military settler James Easton’s nearby house.
At about 1 p.m. the first Pākehā reinforcements arrived – Lieutenant Grierson and 32 troops of the 70th Regiment from Ramarama. The arrival later that afternoon from Drury of Captain Moir, a detachment of 1st Waikato Militia and three carts of ammunition led to another sharp encounter in the clearing.
At about 4 p.m. the sound of British bugles was heard in the bush. Some 150 soldiers of the 18th and 65th regiments, led by Captains Inman and Saltmarshe, charged across the clearing towards the attackers, who were now within 35 m of the stockade. This final encounter lasted for about an hour.
The British lost three killed or mortally wounded, and eight wounded. None of the garrison was killed, and only one was slightly wounded. The upper parts of the church were ‘well riddled with bullets’, with many windows cracked or broken. Bullet holes can still be seen in the walls of the church.
Māori casualties were high. According to Te Huia Raureti, more than 40 men were killed in the battle:
Ngati-Pou suffered most; they had about thirty men killed. Most of the dead were carried off the field, but we had to leave them on the way, and some of the bodies were concealed in the hollows and the branch forks of large trees, among the wharawhara leaves, so that our enemies should not find them. We had no time to bury them.
The dead included Te Warena, Wetere Whatahi and Moihi Whiowhio of Ngāti Matakore, and Matiu Tohitaka of Ngāti Rereahu. Te Raore Wai-haere, Rewi Maniapoto’s brother, was wounded, as was Te Huia Raureti’s father, Raureti Paiaka.
Several Māori were killed in the final encounter, attempting to hold a hollow just south of the churchyard. According to the historian James Cowan:
Five natives were buried here, on [James] Easton’s land; the spot is in a field sloping steeply to the gully, just outside the churchyard fence on the south, a few yards from the road.
Nearly 60 years after the engagement at Pukekohe East Presbyterian Church, efforts began to erect a memorial over this Māori grave site. They were led by Edith Statham, Inspector of Old Soldiers’ Graves for the Department of Internal Affairs.
On 29 January 1920 Statham confirmed that, while no Pākehā soldiers were buried in the churchyard, between five and seven Māori were buried there. She suggested that a concrete or marble slab, or a small memorial, be erected to the memory of the Māori warriors who had fallen at Pukekohe East. Statham’s proposal was approved.
When Statham visited the church on 11 August 1920, she found that the burial place in the hollow had been ploughed. She suggested that a memorial be placed prominently in the cemetery, ‘which would make it a historical as well as a memorial stone.’
The church committee was not in favour of a slab memorial. Statham reported on 7 October that they wanted an obelisk from Auckland mason W. Parkinson. It appears that the government was expected to foot the £50 bill. The department decided that this was too expensive.
Statham tried again. In her view, it was not simply a memorial to the Maori; it would also bear witness to a battle of the Māori War. James Hislop, the Under-Secretary for Internal Affairs, was unmoved:
If at a later date it is decided to extend the functions of the Department and erect stones to indicate the place where engagements were held during the Maori War the question of … doing [so] at Pukekohe will be considered.
On 20 May 1927, Statham renewed her request for a memorial at Pukekohe East. Once again Hislop rejected the proposal:
It is now noted that the only graves in this churchyard are those of hostile natives who fell during the engagement round the church. Under these circumstances it is not intended to carry out any work at the present time.
The efforts of the tenacious Statham bore fruit after her retirement, presumably as a result of local initiative.
On 1 December 1929, Governor-General Sir Charles Fergusson and his wife Lady Fergusson unveiled this boulder memorial at Pukekohe East Church. Fergusson also unveiled a brass plaque inside the church. It is dedicated to the memory of 10 Pukekohe East military settlers who helped defend the church on 14 September 1863.
Two of the settlers named on the plaque were not at the church when the first shots were fired. On the morning of 14 September, James Comrie and John Roose were returning on horseback from Drury when they saw the church under attack. They galloped back to Drury – more than 10 km away – for reinforcements. It is likely that they arrived back at Pukekohe East with Moir and his detachment of 1st Waikato Militia.
In memory of Maoris / who lost their lives in the / engagement. 14th Sept. 1863. / Six were buried here
To the Glory of God / and in Memory of the Settlers and others who / defended this Church during the attack by Maoris / on 14th September, 1863. / The following Settlers took part.
James McDonald (Jnr)
John B. Roose