A growing public appreciation of New Zealand’s historic places was evident in the Scenery Preservation Act 1903 (and its later amendments). It emphasised the protection of natural over built heritage, but some historic reserves included pā and battle-site remains. These were placed under the control of the Lands and Survey Department.
Urban-based scenery preservation societies were also influential. The New Plymouth society broke new ground in 1903 when it called for the preservation of a building: the town’s picturesque and historic former hospital at Te Hēnui. Opened in 1848, it was one of four hospitals commissioned by Governor George Grey for poor Pākehā and Māori patients. Among those supporting its retention was Mary King (wife of businessman Newton King), who purchased it for £10 ($2,000 in 2022 values) and moved it to Brooklands, next to Pukekura Park. It was probably the first Pākehā building to be specifically kept for historical reasons.
A gruesome end
Reports that Carl Völkner’s body had been mutilated after his hanging caused a ‘thrill of horror’1 in Pākehā society. The detail that the Pai Mārire leader Kereopa Te Rau had swallowed the missionary’s eyes, describing one as Parliament and the other as the queen and English law, enhanced his mana among Māori but appalled settlers. Völkner’s remains were buried in the church cemetery and the church was later dedicated to St Stephen the Martyr.
During the 1910s some communities restored historic buildings that had fallen into disrepair. In 1910 the rotten timbers in Ōtaki’s Rangiātea Church (opened in 1851) were replaced, its pillars and roof strengthened, and it was given a concrete foundation. Ōpōtiki’s St Stephen’s church, built in the early 1860s by the missionary Carl Völkner, was also restored. Völkner became a Pākehā martyr following his 1865 execution for being a government spy by members of the Māori prophetic movement Pai Mārire. The event increased the church’s historical significance. Examples like these showed how restoration was a viable alternative to demolition.
Saving Government House
The idea that old buildings should give way to the new was challenged in 1910 when the government minister George Fowlds proposed demolishing Auckland’s Government House (1854) for a new university. Fowlds claimed the structure was in ‘a hopeless state of disrepair’, but his opponents showed this was untrue. They presented a 16,000-strong petition to Parliament against the proposal. The local member of Parliament, A. E. Glover, stated the petition showed it was ‘ridiculous to say the people of Auckland were not genuine in their desire to prevent the Government filching away what they had a right to regard as a heritage.’2 The debate simmered until 1916 when, following a fire in the building, the government decided to restore it and offer the university part of its grounds.
The preservation of historic sites also gained more prominence. In 1896 the government made Ship Cove in the Marlborough Sounds, where James Cook had refitted his ships and rested his crews during his late-18th-century explorations of New Zealand, a reserve. A commemorative monument to Cook was unveiled on the site in 1913.
In 1916 a debate erupted over the future of the Māori rock art sites in South Canterbury and North Otago. One idea was to remove them and place them in museums, but this was resisted by Canterbury Museum director Robert Speight, who successfully argued to preserve them in situ.
Preservation picks up
During the 1920s further historic places were preserved. These included:
- Acacia Cottage (1841), the former home of John Logan Campbell, one of Auckland’s founding fathers, which was relocated to Cornwall Park in 1921
- the Upper Hutt blockhouse (1860), which was acquired in 1916 under the Scenery Preservation Act and was preserved in 1927
- the Canterbury Provincial Council Chambers (1865), which was the first building to get specific legislative protection, in 1928. Its fate was uncertain after the 2010-11 earthquakes.
Taonga in museums
At the same time some Māori iwi and hapū placed valuable taonga in museums for safe keeping. Among these was the wharenui (meeting house) Hotonui (1878), built by Ngāti Awa and placed in the Auckland Museum in 1925. Other taonga were taken by the Crown. This included the Rongowhakaata wharenui Te Hau-ki-Tūranga (1842), which was confiscated in 1865 and placed in the Colonial Museum – now Te Papa. Under a 2011 Treaty of Waitangi settlement the wharenui was to be returned to the iwi in 2017. It was still in Te Papa in 2023.