150th Anniversary – Gunboats on the Waikato

It is hard to believe that New Zealand’s longest river was once patrolled by naval vessels equipped with cutting edge weaponry – but that is exactly what happened one hundred and fifty years ago.

It was the spring of 1863 and the British invasion of the Waikato had ground to a halt at Meremere.  I commemorated the start of this campaign in this earlier post, where I also mentioned the role played by the Great South Road; an arterial route cut through the bush to link Auckland with Queen’s Redoubt – but this wasn’t the end of the line.  Where the Great South Road ended an even larger highway began – the Waikato River.

Steam powered gunboats such as the Pioneer and the Avon used the river to take the war deep into the Waikato.  The specially designed Pioneer was one of the first vessels anywhere in the world to be equipped with revolving gun turrets, which allowed it to fire at different targets without having to manoeuvre the entire vessel each time.  This revolutionary technology made the Pioneer particularly well suited for river operations.  Revolving turrets had first seen action only one year earlier – on the USS Monitor during an engagement in the American Civil War.

Initially the Pioneer and Avon patrolled the Waikato River on reconnaissance missions – scouting out Māori defensive positions upriver in what I’m sure must also have been intended as a show of force.  These industrial leviathans must have looked impressive but they didn’t intimidate the defending warriors.  Imagine the surprise of the crew of the Pioneer when they came under cannon fire from a Māori ‘battery’ of three ship guns at Meremere.  The gunners were accurate but the ammunition was makeshift and did little damage to the armoured gunboat.  The only confirmed casualty was a barrel of beef.  Musket fire from eager warriors did even less damage

Illustration of the gunboat Pioneer off Meremere. Collis, William Andrews, 1853-1920 :Negatives of Taranaki. Ref: 1/2-015500-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22726568

Illustration of the gunboat Pioneer off Meremere. Collis, William Andrews, 1853-1920 :Negatives of Taranaki. Ref: 1/2-015500-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22726568

Meremere was a formidable defensive position that prevented the British from advancing further into the Waikato, but General Cameron hatched a cunning plan to take the position from behind.

Heaphy, Charles, 1820-1881. Heaphy, Charles 1820-1881 :Mere-Mere from Whangamarino Redoubt [1863]. Ref: C-025-011. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23138553

Heaphy, Charles, 1820-1881. Heaphy, Charles 1820-1881 :Mere-Mere from Whangamarino Redoubt [1863]. Ref: C-025-011. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23138553

On 31st October 1863, exactly one hundred and fifty years ago today, the gunboats Pioneer and Avon led a flotilla of barges up the Waikato.  In the early hours of the morning they transported six hundred British soldiers upriver and dropped them off behind Meremere.  Cameron’s intention was to attack from both sides at once, but the Māori warriors soon realized they had been outflanked and abandoned their position.  The only items they left behind for the British to capture were the cannonades that had fired on the Pioneer, three small canoes, a few paddles, two carved heads and one musket.

The British tried to pass this off as a victory, and they had indeed captured Meremere without loss, but it had cost a considerable amount of time and money.  The sentiment felt by many settlers at the time is well reflected here:

Press, Volume III, Issue 326, 16 November 1863, Page 2 Courtesy of Papers Past

Press, Volume III, Issue 326, 16 November 1863, Page 2
Courtesy of Papers Past

The turrets of the Pioneer can still be seen today, one at Ngaruawahia and one at Mercer.  Also the wreck of another gunboat is on display at the Waikato Museum.  These relics are reminders of a time when the Waikato River saw the use of cutting edge naval technology during a conflict that played a significant part in the shaping of this country.

I encourage all of you to use the 150th anniversary of the Waikato Campaign as an opportunity to learn more about New Zealand’s history.

© Lemuel Lyes

Categories: Uncategorized

46 replies »

  1. Pleased to make contact with another history geek. I have just completed a trip up the Waikato river, starting from Port Waikato, taking the right fork at Ngaruawahia and finishing at Pirongia (Te Rore to be ore exact) the upper limit of navigation for the armoured paddle steamer Avon. Purpose: to visit all the sites on the river during Cameron’s campaign, after ooking at all the old images and news cli[pings I could find. It was a good trip.

    • Great to meet a fellow history geek! I’m extremely envious, as I haven’t spent much time in the Waikato myself and certainly haven’t yet had the opportunity to check out any of the sites associated with the 1860’s campaign. I’m sure it would have been a fantastic trip!

  2. I am looking for material about the ‘Gymnotus’ a strange craft built by my great-great grandfather Richard Bach and bought to NZ. First used on the Auckland harbour but then spent most of her life on the Waikato river. She was 60 feet long and 6 feet wide she was often referred to as a steam canoe but she wasn’t a canoe at all. Occasionally spelled as ‘Jim Notice’. I am especially interested in what happened to her.

    • Hi Roger, I hadn’t known about the ‘Gymnotus’, what a wonderful family story!

      Since I wrote this post there has been a book on the Waikato Riverboats published, you can read a review of it over on the fantastic Dressing the Lines blog. I haven’t read it yet, and while I’m unsure if it will mention civilian vessels such as the ‘Gymnotus’ it could still be of use.

      To start with I’d recommend getting in touch with the Voyager New Zealand Maritime Museum in Auckland, the Waikato Museum and also taking a look on Papers Past to see what newspaper articles relating to the ‘Gymnotus’ have been digitized. Let me know how you get on, I have to say I’m curious!

  3. Hi Lemuel- I have found just one article at the NZ Maritime Museum-it’s in the NZ Marine News Vol.26(2) 1975 and written by someone under the pseudonym ‘Mathew’ so I can’t follow that up. It tells pretty much the same sort of information that I already had. How the ‘Gymnotus was bought to NZ on the barque ‘Josephine’ on 27th March, 1963 (Richard Bach and his family having arrived
    on the 9th February). She was certainly an unusual craft and ran across the harbour from about the foot of Albert Street in Auckland across to Northcote and to Devonport carrying up to 25 persons per trip (sans Crinolines!). She was however not well suited as she had a low freeboard and so she was sold and transported up the Parnell Rise pulled by bullocks and the towed from Onehunga to Port Waikato. I have lots of details and even a drawing of her but around 1975 she disappears. She had a regular run from Port Waikato up river to Nguarwhaia and the up the
    Waipa to Alexandra and up the Waikato to Cambridge. She was the only craft on the river capable of going up the Mangtawhiri River as well. 20 hp steam engine and twin screw-unusual at the time. Tried Papers Past but adverts for her service stop abruptly around 1875. Will check out the other sources you mention. I have the bones of an article. Thanks.

    • You have some great material there – I’d love to read your article once you have finished! She sounds like a pretty remarkable vessel. I’m curious about where she ended up. Good luck finding out what happened to her!

  4. Hi, if possible I would like to contact Roger Strong, re the Gymnotus.
    I did the illustrations for Grant Middlemiss’ book, recently published, and would like to draw up more of the very early boats.

  5. Hi,…Last week I canoed through Meremere to Mercer…I noticed alot steel structure along the eastern side of the river.Look like they could of been some kind of wall.Cant find any imfo on them,are you able to enlighten me.
    Regards Allan

    • Hi Allan, sounds like a lovely trip! Unfortunately I’m not a local and don’t know that part of the country very well (although I’d like to visit!). Sounds interesting, perhaps the museum might help.

  6. One comment re your claim that the psPioneer had rotating turrets. My extensive research, and that of Grant Middlemiss, suggest that her Copulars where fixed and the naval guns where able to be rotated inside to align with multiple ports in the walls of the copulars. Naval guns used in the copulars, as the army carraiges simply could not fit.

    • Hi Harry. I hope your research is coming along well!

      My source for the claim about the revolving turret was this article by Heritage NZ: http://www.heritage.org.nz/the-list/details/7647

      It refers to them as “revolving gun turrets” but then later in the article describes the turret in more detail, “The Mercer gun turret was designed to include a 24-pound rotating artillery gun within a circular cupola measuring 3.6 m. in diameter and 2.4 m. high. Constructed of riveted iron plates, the cupola incorporated four artillery ports at regular intervals around its circumference, through which the gun could be fired.” Does that description match your findings?

  7. Hi, I am a descendent of William Winstone. In pages 5, 6, and 7 of the book “The First Century – A Century Review of Winstone Limited” the transporting of the Gymnotus is mentioned, including the difficult traverse of the Razor Back of Kakaramea Hill. I hope this is of interest. If you like I can forward you copies of the relevant pages. Unfortunately I am unable to help as to the final fate of the vessel.

  8. Hi Guys
    I regret to advise that my mate Harry Duncan passed away on 12 June this year. He had retired in January this year and moved to Pho Quan Island Vietnam where he died of a heart attack.
    We are keen to keep his memory alive, as he did so much to foster interest to early New Zealand steam ship history.
    Kind regards
    Grant Middlemiss

    • Hi Grant,

      Very sorry to hear this news. Thanks for letting us know. I know that many New Zealanders with an interest in our maritime heritage spoke very highly of his illustrations. I’m sure that they will continue to inspire others to develop an interest in the subject.

      Best Regards,


  9. Lemuel, I grew up at Mercer and worked for many years with Roose shipping Co.I was told that Harry Innes, of Waikato Brewery bought “Gymnotus” and had her shortened and a popular marine engine fitted, probably a “Thornycroft” She was used for delivery of his popular beveriges to riverside settlements.Another old historian from Hamilton had a photo of what was supposed to be “Gymnotus” speeding under the Victoria bridge. Harry Chalinor was his name, he will be gone now and I don’t know what may have happened to his huge archive collection. I corresponded for several years with the late Harry Duncan and helped him where I could with the boats.I was one of the last masters on the river with an open ticket and have driven tugs from the rocks at Cambridge to over the bar at Port Waikato.
    regards Ray Morey

    • Hi Ray,

      Thank you for stopping by. That is a fascinating bit of information about the Gymnotus!

      Roger Strong left some comments here – he has a family connection with the Gymnotus. I wonder if he is familiar with the photograph you mentioned. I do hope that a copy has survived.

      It sounds like you had quite the maritime career yourself!



      • I have been researching the ‘Gymnotis’ for some years and have built up quite a file which I am happy to share. She is sometimes referred to as ‘Jim Notice’ which gives us a clue as to the number of people who were functionally illiterate in those days. Gymnotis is the scientific name of the electric eel I believe. The only illustration of her that I am aware of is a drawing and a painting made from the drawing -or the other way around! She was iron-60 feet long and approx. 6 feet wide and although not very suitable as a ferry in Auckland , she was very suitable as a riverboat. A steam engine drove a twin bladed propeller. All references to her in Paper Past cease around the middle of 1875.

    • Hi, Can anyone inform me of the purpose of all the steel structures along the Waikato river banks around Mercer……cheers Allan

      • Hi Allan, I don’t have the answer but hopefully someone else might see this and be able to help. A number of knowledgeable researchers stop by here from time to time. Fingers crossed that someone knows the answer!

    • I neglected to add that Gymnotis was never armed nor was she ever owned by the government. She was owned by a man who had the contract to supply troops on the Waikato river. She was the only boat that I can find that was capable of running up the Mangatawhiri stream such was her draught. She ran as far as Cambridge on the Waikato and Alexandria on the Waipa. Papers Past shows her advertised weekly run.

      • Hi Roger. The Avon regularly ran up the MANGATAWHIRI Creek, as far as the Naval camp which was established there at the beginning of the Waikato war. This was located approximately between the motorway bridge as it is now, and the Pioneer Rd bridge. Avon was the first steamer on the river and had side paddles which could forward and reverse independently. I ran up there myself a few years ago in a little boat.

      • I am dismayed that I spelt Gymnotus incorrectly. Glad to know that the Avon also went up the Mangatawhiri River. My point was I guess that the Gymnotus had a shallow draught andf also that as she was screw driven she could navigate both shallow and narrow rivers. I think that the thing that strikes one about sidewheelers is their incredible width compared with something like the Gymnotus that was both narrow and shallow-a factor that made her suitable for rivers but not for the Waitemata harbour.

  10. Lemuel, those steel structures are comprised of railway lines driven into the bottom and then another tied to the tops to make a fence which gives support to willow saplings that are also driven into the ground. these grow and form a wall to trap sand and sediment and prevent erosion. They were constructed all up and down the river by the contractor from Mercer whose name escapes me. They were also built and used as training walls for flow control.
    Down at Tauranganui there are a couple of rows of timber piles, these were driven by Ceasar Roose and were always known as “The Groins” these had the same purpose, to train the water flow and create a channel but it didn’t work. The deep water always flowed out and around to Maioro bay on the north bank.
    Peter Kelly’s note will refer to “Gymnotus” return to Auckland by “Winstone Ltd.” So if someone can find out when the Bombay deviation was opened then it will give a date of possible return.
    Harry Innes first operated from Ngaruawahia as “Innes Cordial and soft drinks before moving to Hamilton and opening Waikato Brewery.I think he had Gymnotus at Ngaruawahia.
    regards ray

    • Hi Ray, In the book “The First Century – A Century Review of Winstone Limited” it refers to William Winstone moving the Gymnotus from Auckland to the Waikato, not Waikato to Auckland (Pg 6). I am not aware that William was involved in returning it to Auckland. The book says it was built in England in sections to be used as a ferry on the Auckland Harbour. I can send a copy of the page to anyone that is interested.

      • In Papers Past there is a mention sometime in the 1920’s from one of the Winstone family about moving the Gymnotus cross country to Mercer by bullock teams. I am afraid this is a not true as I have traced the actual move which was really quite short from Mechanics Bay to Onehunga. The idea of dragging such a heavy hull all the way to Mercer is simply ridiculous when it could be floated. A firm of engineers in Onehunga restored her engine/boiler and she was towed to Port Waikato. I am not sure why someone remembered an event that never happened. From memory the first day across the isthmus they only made around 500 yards so although she was only 60 feet long being made of iron she was very heavy even without her engine and boiler. I can provide a more detailed description if anyone is interested.

  11. Hi Lemuel, Dave Annetts is the name of the contractor who erected all those steel works up and down the river. He bought the old “Douglas” farm and flaxmill at the end of “Douglas Road” mercer
    “Gymnotus” is a species of eel.

  12. Lemuel, those steel structures Allan B refers to are there to hold willow saplings as they take root. This is to control erosion and redirect water flow. They are all up and down the river.regards ray.
    Also, the “Rangiriri” and “Koheroa” were never “Armed Gunboats” they were constructed too late in the war and were only ever transport launches. They were built with loop holes in the bulwarkes which allowed soldiers to lay on the deck and fire their muskets with a small degree of protection. Another idiosyncracy in the design was that the engines were non reversing-meaning that the vessels had to be “poled” around to turn about, hardly a good feature of a ship of war.

    • Thankyou Ray Morey for the information on the steel structures in the Waikato river. I have been unable to think of any possible use…….cheers

  13. I am still looking for more information about the ‘Gymnotus’ which was bought to New Zealand in a kitset form by my great-grandfather Richard Bach. As far as I can find she was almost certainly built with the English canals in mind as her dimensions meant that she could have easily have fitted into the canal locks of the day. There is as far as I can tell only a single drawing of her and I have been unable so far to find what became of her. She certainly was different than most of the boats on the Waikato as she had a two bladed propeller and wasn’t driven by side wheels. Her shallow draught and narrow beam made her very suitable for river work.

  14. Roger, I would be interested in the details re the movement of the Gymnotus. The Winstone history version is that it was shifted in sections, one of those sections requiring 13 horses, and being transported via Otahuhu, Papakura, and Drury to Mercer. The Razor-back of Kakaramea Hill providing a real challenge.

    • This story seems to have started around 1924 but is quite wrong. Another boat – another time – who knows. The facts are in the newspapers of the time.
      Newspaper ‘New Zealander’ 23 February, 1864 page 5 ‘ ‘ The Steam canoe Gymnotus, which has been purchased by Mr. Simpson, of Otahuhu, for service on the Waikato river, was, on Saturday and yesterday, taken from the beach in Mechanics’ Bay by means of fourteen bullocks. The weight of the canoe was such that blocks and tackle had to be resorted to in ascending the Parnell rise, and the process of parbuckling being so slow, the day was spent with only some 500 yards of progress being made.’
      and later:-
      from the Wellington Independent 17 th, March,1864 page 3:
      ‘The N.Z.S.N. Co’s S.S. Wonga Wonga, Captain Cellem, From Manukau, Waikato, Raglan, Taranaki and Wanganui, arrived in port on Tuesday morning at 7 o’clock. She sailed from Manukau on Sunday morning, 6th inst, at 8 o’clock, arrived at Waikato at noon same day, having towed round the steam canoe Gymnotus. Sailed from Waikato on Monday at 10:30 am, arrived at Raglan…….
      Somewhere I have the name of the firm and engineer from Onehunga who did the actual job of taking out and then replacing the engine and boiler. I will post it when I rediscover it……
      You can see from the first description just how heavy the iron Gymnotus was. To think that instead of just taking the shortest and most obvious route that they would actually tow her miles over poorly formed roads defies logic. Whatever our ancestors were -they certainly were not that stupid!
      Roger Strong

    • I have some additional information from Papers Past and from a book I have just acquired ‘Bow Waves on the Waikato’ by Graham Vercoe which has on page 37 the very same account of the Gymnotus being moved by up to 13 horses overland to Mercer. I imagine that this a quote from the Winstone book. And yet again clearly stated in the Wellington Independent of 17th March,1864 under the title of ARRIVAL OF THE WONGA WONGA says that she ..’She sailed from Manukau on Sunday morning, 6th inst. at 8 o’clcock, arrived at Waikato at noon the same day, having towed round the steam canoe Gymnotus.’ So we know that the S.S. Wonga Wonga active on the coast at the time towed the Gymnotus around from Manuaku to Port Waikato on Sunday 6th March, 1864- and that the journey that took 4 hours.
      It seems to me that Winstone account is an almost perfect example of that most dangerous thing in history – a ‘fact’ that is incorrect but gets repeated and printed and somehow becomes ‘correct’ even though it is fact a lie. I realise that in this case it’s not very important but now it still exists and a ‘fact’ when it is wrong.
      I would love to hear some comments.

  15. Hi Roger, I totally agree about stories, possibly embellished over time by retelling, becoming facts. I guess that’s what makes researching things like this so addictive. A great advantage we have is the internet and as more and more becomes available on-line some mysteries are solved, and some new questions emerge. I wonder if the origin of the Winstone story is an embellished account related to the moving the Gymnotus from Mechanics Bay to Onehunga that you refer to.

    • Possibly Peter but I also notice that the Winstone story was originally written (as far as I can find) in the 1920’s, so some 60 years after the event. I also have a copy of a letter written in 1963 by P.G.Bach who I understand to have been Peter Bach the grandson of Richard and son of Thomas Bach Richard’s son in which he says that his father Thomas and Thomas’s younger brother Richard Jnr first came to new Zealand and saw the possibilities of a ferry and then went back to the UK and persuaded their father to come to New Zealand with the Gymnotus. But this doesn’t tally at all with the actual facts-the whole family came out and then Richard took his wife and the four daughters back to the UK and then came out again. So maybe the letter writer who says that he is 87 is simply suffering as we all might from a memory lapse in old age. I guess as a general rule someone writing about an incident – the nearer to the actual event, the better.
      The other thing is that it seems to me that if something seems too difficult to us in the present then it probably actually was too difficult at the time. Just think how poor the road south from Auckland would have been at the time. I realise that it was a military road but even so….

      • Hi folks, I would be vary wary of using quotes from that book “Bow waves on the River” he made a lot of it up, there are also errors in the Winstone story.
        And the guy who went up “the right fork of the river” actually went up the “Waipa” to Te Rore, and the Waikato above Ngaruawahia was known as The Horotiu river.
        regards ray

      • Hi Roger. I have also been brought up with the story of the Gymnotus, as told to me by my paternal grandfather. From what I recall, when the Bach family first came out to NZ there was something wrong with their design, possibly of the Gymnotus, so they went back to England to correct it. Then came back again, presumably on the Josephine. I wonder if this ties in with what you know.

      • Hi Michelle,
        I am really curios that you were ‘bought up’ on stories of the Gymnotus – or Jim Notice as sometimes recorded.
        Personally I have never connected that trip back to the UK that the Bach family -well most of them made, with Gymnotus. Doesn’t seem logical to me. Going back was most unusual as it was 1.expensive 2. dangerous and 3 time consuming. Besides the Gymnotus seem to have been his own invention and also seems to have been devised for use on UK canals. What could he have possibly have required in the UK that couldn’t have been cheaper done in NZ? He and his sons were engineers…..
        The engine was designed it seems to run on coal but at first used across Auckland Harbour they ran it on manuka wood which must have been awkward to say the least. Coal had been discovered but was not readily available. We do know that Richard Bach was a poor business man.
        That letter from Peter I have and it contains some very basic errors – which is hardly surprising as it relies on memory.
        Keen to continue this discussion. Its a while since I looked at my notes. I never did discover what happened to Gymnotus.

        Roger Strong

  16. Hi Ray
    I am not sure but maybe I am the guy you mean who “went up the right fork of the river”, I never quite got to Te Rore, as far as I can tell. Te Rore in those days was the name given to a part of the Waipa which was adjacent to Cameron’s headquarters. I had an interesting time working out just where that was – went back a few months later and sussed it out.
    I put the whole story together in a book called “None Days of the Waikato River” although I realise that the right fork is actually the Waipa – and in those days some people referred to the left fork as the Horotiu.
    It was an interesting trip, starting out from Waikato Heads – and the history research that went with it was the main purpose. I was especially interested in the Harrier’s Boat Station at Mangatawhiri. In the process I found some old journals and maps (from the UK National Warchives) which had never been ubished in New Zealand.
    I did another trip up the “Horotiu” also, but did not write that up.
    I would be keen to correspond with anyone who is interested in the history of the war of the Waikato and Waipa rivers.
    Best wishes

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