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GOVERNOR GREY & HIS WAIKATO RIVER GUNBOATS

In late 1861 Sir George Grey returned to New Zealand for a second term as Governor, replacing Thomas Gore-Browne.
 
In these troubled times the Pakeha towns were crowded with settlers and new arrivals were anxious for new areas to be opened up for settlement.  Māori  were coming to realise that the Pakeha population would soon exceed that of their own, and that there would be increasing pressure to satisfy their need for land.  Much land had already been sold to the Crown. There was also concern regarding the loss of their land due to the activities of the Native Land Court under Chief Judge F. D. Fenton.  A movement began which decided it was time to resist further land sales and that in this regard it would be helpful for Māori  to unite under a single leader. Thus the kingitanga movement was born and the ageing Potatau Te Wherowhero of Waikato Tainui was selected to be the Māori  King.
 
Gore-Browne had lost the confidence of the British Colonial Office after his mishandling of the Waitara purchase which resulted in the Taranaki War.  Browne had voiced the opinion that Māori  needed a ‘sharp lesson’ to teach them who ought to be in charge of the country and had called for 3,000 imperial troops from Australia.  He had also led the British Colonial Office to believe a Māori  invasion of Auckland was imminent and thus obtained approval for these imperial troops to be retained for the defence the town.  Seemingly the Colonial office decided he was not the best man to handle this turbulent situation.
 
So that, in a nutshell, was the situation when Grey returned to New Zealand in 1861.  By that time he had been to Sandhurst Military College, seen six years with the military forces in Ireland, explored Western Australia looking for land suitable for settlement, was Governor of South Australia, where he faced difficulties with Aborigines whose lands had been stolen.  Next he was appointed Governor of New Zealand in 1845 but left in 1853 to serve as Governor of Cape Colony where once again he faced difficulty with race relations.  So Grey was not inexperienced in dealing with uncivilised races but he was burdened with an arrogant imperialistic attitude towards them.
 
On his return for a second term in 1861 Grey immediately ran into trouble in South Taranaki resulting in another outbreak of war.  Angered by the kingitanga movement’s resolve to halt further land sales he denounced them as ‘rebels’ and decided to make preparations to invade Waikato and take their lands by force.  His first action was to use the imperial troops to build a road between Drury and the Waikato River (Drury was connected to Onehunga by water) – the beginnings of the Great South Road.  He needed more troops and 3,000 were enlisted coming mainly from Ireland and the goldfields of Australia on low wages but with the promise of land.
 
Grey needed control of the Waikato River, the access to the heartland of Waikato, not only to attack Māori  settlements but also to move troops and keep them supplied with armaments and provisions.  The Waikato River and its tributary the Piako were quite shallow, too shallow to be navigable by the H.M. naval ships he had at his disposal.  Shallow draught paddle steamers were the logical answer and these craft could be used later to ferry settlers and supplies.
 
The first of these was the Avon.  The Avon was a side-paddle steamship built in Glasgow which was brought to New Zealand in sections and assembled in Lyttelton.  It had been purchased to ply the Avon River but this venture proved not to be a financial success.  Put up for sale she was purchased by the government and brought to the Manukau Harbour. In Onehunga she was fitted with armour plating and equipped with a naval gun mounted on a gun carriage and a Congreve rocket launcher.  While in the Manukau the Avon assisted in the search for survivors from HMS Orpheus which was wrecked on the Manukau bar on 7 January 1863.  The Avon had a length of 63 ft. (18m.), a beam of 15 ft. (4.5m.) inside the paddle boxes, and was powered by two engines of 16 nominal horsepower.
 
Next, four large sailing cutters were converted into armoured gunboat barges to be towed by steamers.  These were used as troop carriers and floating artillery platforms and were named Ant, Chub, Flirt and Midge.  They were not powered but could be rowed with 6 oars.  Two had a length of 30ft. (9m,) and the other two 35ft. (10.6m.)
 
While these preparations were being made in Onehunga a second gunboat was under construction in Sydney, Australia to be named Pioneer.  She had a hull length of 140ft. (42.5m.), a beam of 20ft. (6m.) and a draught of 2ft. 6 ins. (0.75m.) and was driven by overhanging stern-wheel paddles powered by two 30hp. engines.
 
Later, after the main engagements had assured control of the river, two more armoured paddle steamers were constructed for the government in Sydney.  Each had stern paddles but were to different designs: the Koheroa had a hull length of 80ft (24m.), a beam of 20ft. (6m.) and a draught when fully loaded of 25 ins. (0.63m.) powered by a 40hp engine and capable of a speed of 8 knots, and a similar ship named the Rangiriri with the same dimensions as the Koheroa but with a differently designed superstructure.
 
Each of the gunboats had coal fired boilers with the coal coming initially from Newcastle but later by coal which was discovered at Drury.  The Drury coal proved to be of better quality than that from Newcastle coal.
 
The gunboats enabled General Cameron’s forces to move deep into Waikato territory, into the highly productive lands of the Waipa Plains that were subsequently taken under the New Zealand Settlements Act of 1863, the act that describes the lands to be confiscated.  Towns were then established at places such as Hamilton, Cambridge, and Alexandra (later renamed Pirongia) for occupation by settlers.  After the war these towns continued to be serviced by the gunboats until road or rail access became available.  (Note that Te Awamutu did not exceed Pirongia in importance until the Main Trunk Railway was constructed through the town.)
 
It is also of interest to note that Grey refused to place the gunboats under the command of HM Navy, thus the gunboats can be said to be the foundations of the NZ Navy.
 
Dissatisfied with Grey’s performance and autocratic attitude, the British Government terminated his appointed in 1868.  After a short period in England he retired to his home on Kawau Island but later entered Parliament and became premier in 1877. In old age he returned to England, where he died in 1898.
 
Don HAYWARD
 
References:
 
Te Ara, The Dictionary of New Zealand
The Penguin History of New Zealand, Michael King
The New Zealand Wars, Vincent O’Malley
The Waikato River Gunboats, Grant Middlemiss
 
Te Reo MEI/MAY 2021 Vol. 28 Issue #2 of 4