Story: Northland places

Page 8. Russell

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Township behind Tāpeka Point on the inner reaches of the Bay of Islands. In 2013 it had a population of 720. The main business, aside from serving the needs of its population, is providing for thousands of tourists. They arrive by sea as well as by road because Russell provides a sheltered anchorage, where dozens of yachts and cruising launches cluster. A variety of cruises and tours leave from Russell, which is the base for many of the big-game fishing charter boats. The town is also the headquarters of the Bay of Islands Maritime and Historic Park.

Early days

Russell is a historic spot, dating from the early 19th century and known until the early 1840s as Kororāreka. In the 1830s it was a lawless trading centre where whalers, seafarers and merchants mixed with adventurers, deserters and escaped convicts from Australia. From 1833 there were attempts to impose British law, culminating in the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840.

Few early buildings have survived fire, but along its tree-shaded beachfront road there is a hotel that holds the country’s oldest licence, a quaint old police station, and several restaurants that claim historic origins.

Sending signals

The signal flagstaff on Maiki Hill had been donated by Ngāpuhi leader Hōne Heke Pōkai. After the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, he became increasingly unhappy at the way British authority was undermining that of Māori chiefs. He saw the British flag as a symbol of this process, and so cut down the flagstaff.

The flagstaff

Towering above the township is Maiki Hill, topped by a flagstaff. In 1844–45 its signal flagstaff was cut down by Māori four times as a protest against the government.  In 1845, war broke out when Kororāreka was attacked and many buildings were destroyed. The flagpole was eventually re-erected by Maihi Parāone Kawiti in 1858.

Historic buildings

One of the oldest church sites in the country is Christ Church. First built in 1836, it survived the sacking of Kororāreka in 1845. It was transformed to its current design in 1871. The churchyard has been used since 1836 and some well-known people are buried there. They include the Hokianga chief and government supporter, Tāmati Wāka Nene, and naval personnel killed during the 1845 war.

Another early building is the Marist mission printery, known as Pompallier. In 1839 Bishop Jean Baptiste François Pompallier established the headquarters of what was known as the Catholic mission to Western Oceania at Kororāreka. His Marist priests built a two-storeyed printery, which also operated as a tannery and storehouse, in the mission compound. But in 1850 Pompallier’s priests were assigned to work elsewhere and in 1856 the building passed to James Callaghan, a tanner. It was used as a grand private home from the late 1870s. Thought incorrectly to be a bishop’s palace, the house was bought by the government in 1943. In the 1990s it was restored as a printery. It is under Heritage New Zealand care.


Locality behind Okiato Point, 7 km south of Russell. After the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, Lieutenant-Governor William Hobson purchased land there to establish the colony’s first capital. It was named Russell after the leader of the British House of Commons. However, the capital was moved south to Auckland in 1841, and the settlement burned to the ground in 1842. Nearby Kororāreka was renamed Russell. Today, Okiato is a holiday resort.

How to cite this page:

Claudia Orange, 'Northland places - Russell', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 July 2024)

Story by Claudia Orange, published 12 Dec 2005, updated 1 May 2015