When it was put up for sale with its surrounding farm in 1931, the former dwelling of James Busby, built in 1834 and site of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, was in a poor state of preservation. A suggestion to have the spot preserved as a national memorial was supported by the then Governor-General, Lord Bledisloe, and Lady Bledisloe. Their Excellencies visited the property and decided to purchase it themselves for the nation.
The area comprised 2,300 acres and, as this was considered to be over large, at first only 1,000 acres were set aside for a historical reserve. The gift had been kept secret, but on 10 May 1932 it was officially announced in a letter to the Prime Minister, Their Excellencies expressing the wish that Waitangi should be restored as near as possible to its state of 1840, with perhaps one room devoted to housing historic relics. The gift was to be administered by a trust board including Government representation and, as Lord Bledisloe wished, representatives of families, both Maori and Pakeha, concerned in the signing of the famous treaty. Pending the setting up of the trust board and the completion of a deed of gift, a deed of trust was executed on 6 May 1932.
Lord and Lady Bledisloe consented to be life members of the board, of whom other original members were Riri Maihi Kawiti, representing notable Maori families; Kenneth Stuart Williams, a grandson of the Rev. Henry Williams; and Sir Francis Dillon Bell, as a connection of the Wakefield family. Sir Heaton Rhodes was included as a representative of the South Island, and Vernon Reed represented the Pakeha residents of the Bay of Islands; while Tau Henare, for the North Auckland Maoris, and Te Rata Mahuta, for the Maori people of the North Island, also had places. Ex officio members were the Prime Minister (G. W. Forbes); the Minister in Charge of Scenery Preservation (E. A. Ransom); and the Minister in Charge of Maori Affairs (Sir Apirana Ngata). Finally, Hon. J. G. Coates was selected as a person prominent in the life of the country. By the deed of trust these men were given power to obtain incorporation as a corporate body or board of trustees. Vacancies on the board were to be filled by the selection of persons considered suitable representatives for the particular vacancy concerned, and Governors-General, following Lord Bledisloe, might, if they so wished, be appointed to the board. By an amendment of 1958 to the Waitangi National Trust Board Act, it was made possible to include a representative of the family of James Busby. The first meeting of the board was held at Government House on 16 December 1932, with Lord Bledisloe as chairman. On 30 March 1933 the first meeting was held at Waitangi.
Lord Bledisloe made a further gift of the balance of his purchase, and proposed an afforestation scheme for beautification and as a source of revenue, to be shared by Government and Trust. An Endowment Act 1932–33, gave statutory force to the terms and conditions of the donors for the planting of exotic trees for timber. Lord and Lady Bledisloe hoped to have a bush and bird sanctuary in the hinterland, and in the early years there was much planting of native trees, greatly assisted by funds from the Robert Cunningham Bruce estate. It was also Their Excellencies' wish that sporting facilities be provided, and plans were made for a golf course. Eventually the Bay of Islands Golf Club, in conjunction with the Waitangi Golf Club, signed a 21-year lease with the Trust Board in 1950.
Another proposal of the donors was for a renovation fund, in the hands of the trustees, for the rehabilitation of the Treaty House and its surroundings; if the Government were prepared to follow suit, Lord Bledisloe offered to start the fund with a £1,000 donation. Plans were made for renovation and rebuilding of the original house, and this was completed two years later.
Waitangi had of course a prominent part in the 1940 New Zealand centenary celebrations, and a motor camp was provided to cater for visitors–in 1934 road access had been opened across the Waitangi River. The Maori people built a great canoe as their contribution. Previously, they had been responsible for building a whare runanga for which Lord Bledisloe had laid the foundation stone during the ninety-fourth anniversary festivities in March 1934. To mark the exact site of the signing of the treaty, a flagstaff with commemorative stone (once again an instance of Lord Bledisloe's generosity) had been erected and, when refitted in 1945, reached a height of 112 ft. Each year on 6 February (Waitangi Day), a ceremony is held to mark the anniversary of the treaty signing. In this, the Royal New Zealand Navy plays a prominent part, as do the northern Maori people – more especially the children.
At the outset, entry into the historic reserve was free but after 1937 admission was charged. The early years saw few donations and, indeed, during the first 18 months no revenue was earned or received for maintenance. A £500 gift enabled the trust to function and it was fortunate that running costs were few–local helpers assisted voluntarily as staff. War brought military occupation and administrative difficulties, and handicapped development. But in 1950 the Minister of Lands became administrator of the trust and in recent years some 350 acres have been developed by the Government for farming purposes. These have been handed over to the trust board as a source of revenue.
by Judith Sidney Hornabrook, M.A., National Archives, Wellington.
- The Gift of Waitangi, Reed, V. H. (1957).