The first mill built in the Northern Wairoa was on the banks of the Aratapu creek around 1865/66, the second at Mititai in 1866, this one was not a financial success and closed down soon after. The third kauri timber sawmill in Northern Wairoa was built in 1871 at Te Kopuru for Charles and Henry Walton and Walter S Grahame as these men had considerable kauri on properties up the Wairoa river.


Charles Walton provided the machinery specifications to a local newspaper as follows[1]:


“No 1.        Specification for four high-pressure cylindrical single-flued steam boilers:

The whole of the said boilers to be 27 feet long and five feet 3 inches diameter; each boiler to be furnished with the under-mentioned fittings:

2 water gauges, either Needham’s or Bailey’s of Manchester; one of Mather and Platt’s mercurial gauges; one of ditto’s dead-weighted safety valves; one ordinary lever valve, &c; three cast-iron frames for boiler to rest on in brick work, with 2 dampers and frames, chains, weights pullies, &c.  The boilers to be tested to 100lb. hydraulic pressure before leaving the maker’s hands.


No 2.         Specification for one horizontal high-pressure steam engine, 30-horse power.

The fly wheel to be 12 feet diameter, and not to weight less than 7 tons.  One main driving wheel 8 feet 8 inches in diameter and one pinion wheel 4 feet 6 inches in diameter.      


No 3.         Specification for three horizontal high-pressure steam engines, each 14-horse power

The cylinders to be each 14 inches diameter, 2 feet stroke, 100 per minute.  Each fly wheel to be 10 feet diameter, and to weigh about four tons.


No. 4.        Specification for one donkey engine for feeding boilers, with 6-inch steam cylinder and one 4-inch ram pump, covered with brass.


No. 5.  Specification for millwright’s work, shafting and gearing.


No. 6.  Specification for machinery required for a saw mill:

One timber frame, capable of taking logs of any size up to 71/2 feet x 7 ½ feet x 50 feet long; to be strong enough to carry five saws, 3 feet stroke.  To be driven direct by one of the 14-horse horizontal engines previously noticed.  One 5-feet frame, to be strong enough to carry 36 saws, 3-feet stroke.  One 4-feet frame, to be strong enough to carry 30 saws, 3-feet stroke.  2 rack benches, to take in 5-feet saws, capable of cutting 2 feet 2 inches deep, with strong cast iron beds, and wrought iron tramways.  One machine for planning, jointing, tonguing and grooving either in one compound operation or singly, and to be capable of working any size of timber up to 5 inches x 14 inches.

 Amongst other things in this specification are grindstones driven by steam, patent saw-sharpening or grinding machine for mechanics’ shop, to run at a speed of 2,000 R P M; 2 travelling cranes, with longitudinal and cross motion, the cranes to lift 12 tons, with the aid of 2 men; 2 crabs, to be worked by power, &c., and capable of lifting 12 tons.”


“The total weight of metal used in the construction of machines … exceeds 300 tons; and the value of the machinery, when completed, will exceed pounds 10,000”.


“When Messrs Robinson and Son had completed the order for the machinery, they issued circulars to the leading engineers in the Kingdom, inviting them to inspect it.  This invitation was accepted by about one hundred gentlemen, who expressed their unanimous approbation of the machinery”.


Thomas Robinson & Son sent out 2 Engineers, Messrs Firth (Thomas Firth) and Shepherd (Joseph Shepherd) to see to its erection.[1]


A Thomas Firth and Joseph Shepherd travelled to New Zealand on the ship “Liverpool” ex “Cossipore” which arrived in Auckland on 5 March 1866.  Thomas Firth drowned in the Makaka creek, Te Kopuru on 17 February 1867.


The “Cossipore” departed London on 15 October 1865 on a voyage which took 400 days, not all the time at sea.  A few days out from London she started leaking and had a sprung mast, so she returned to Plymouth for repairs.  Her immigrants were transferred to other vessels and her cargo was unloaded and stored at Plymouth until the repairs were carried out.  On 12 July 1866 she recommended her journey to New Zealand.  This journey was not without incident. On arrival in New Zealand in late November 1866 the general cargo was landed in a “shocking condition”.[2]


The original purchasers declined to take delivery of the machinery due to the salt water damage.  Samuel Cochrane & Son auctioned the machinery on 26 August 1867 – terms cash.[3]  Mr Alley purchased the machinery on behalf of the original purchasers.


The excavations for the foundations of the mill were started by Mr Charles Walton, but during the delay he died (12 October 1869, Maungatapere) intestate.[4]


On 3 March 1871 an advertisement in the Daily Southern Cross newspaper called for tenders for the “erection of a saw-mill, engine house, boiler-house, chimney, &c with all necessary excavations, at Te Kopuru, Wairoa River, and Kaipara”.  The advertisement was signed by JA Walker and J Shepherd.


A contract was awarded to a Mr Doyle of Auckland and was worth about

£2,000 which were completed in December 1871.[5]




John Walker over saw the construction of the saw mill as well as the installation of the machinery.

Mr. Walker remained in charge of the mill and the business until 1879 when he resigned as manager and a year later the mill and property was sold to Messrs. Brown and Campbell.




[1] Papers Past, Daily Southern Cross, Volume XXII, Issue 2643, 6 January 1866, Pg 5


[1] New Zealand Herald, Volume LVII, Issue 17378, 27 January 1920, Page 8

[2] http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-Bre01Whit-t1-body-d95.html

[3] New Zealand Herald, Volume IV, Issue 1163, 6 August 1867, Page 2

[4] New Zealand Herald, Volume LVII, Issue 17378, 27 January 1920, Page 8

[5] Daily Southern Cross, Volume XXVIII, Issue 4592, 13 May 1872, Page 3


Two destructive fires occurred at this mill in its early days the planing mill, together with a large quantity of sawn timber, was destroyed in a 1883 and some years later the large mill was totally destroyed by fire


Te Kopuru mill fire, some aspect of the size of the mill buildings can be gained from the workmen standing to the centre

 left of the picture by the two pulley wheels

©Dargaville Museum


The above report of the 1883 fire appeared in many of the regional papers throughout New Zealand

© http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast

 As a result of the proximity of the timber mills a number of shipbuilding businesses sprung up. Possibly the most famous of these was James Barbour, his reputation as a shipbuilder was such that he was requested to construct a vessel at Dargaville. The site chosen for the yard was close to the mouth of the Kaihu creek. Some of the buildings can still be seen on the original site of the mill, the site is currently used by Kaipara Water who uses it as a base for their sand dredging business. The last vessels that Mr. Barber constructed were pearling boats for Thursday islands and other fisheries. In the 'White Wings' one of these little cutters, he left for Australia and neither he nor the boat was heard of again.

With the departure of Mr. Barbour, the shipbuilding industry of the district again declined and it was not until the Schooner Scow, “Alert”, was built to the order of a Mr. Tankard of Auckland 1901 that a new start was made. In that year Mr. W Brown came to open up the work again the site chosen for a new shipbuilding yards were at Te Kopuru. The name of Brown was well known in the shipbuilding industry in the country at that time.


In the year 1840 Mr. WP Brown started a yard in the Bay of Islands district, it was there that Mr. W Brown his son, learned the trade. Mr. W Brown subsequently came to the Northern Wairoa in 1901 to establish the firm of Brown and Sons; the yard was located in the Te Kopuru, by a small creek and with the addition of a few houses soon became known as “Brown Town”’, most of these homes were later re-located and two are currently on River Road in Dargaville.

A feature of this mill was the tall brick smoke stack almost two hundred feet tall, the mill closed down in 1916 and the chimney was toppled over and the bricks sold and recycled locally, the only other evidence of the mill are the remains of the reservoir overlooking the settling ponds for the Te Kopuru sewerage system.


The Scow “Alert” was the first of many vessels and other projects undertaken by Brown & Sons. His seven sons, six of whom were employed in the business, were all tradesmen in their own right. Two being shipwrights, two engineers, one a blacksmith, one a painter, the seventh son Edgar did not join the firm but established his own towing business. House building, general engineering and blacksmithing were amongst the jobs that they did, they also built many wharves and met the needs of the farming community installing water pumps and later milking machines. They also had one large contract for the Railway Department known as the “70 Mile Bridges Contract” and involved building bridges and stations at Te Hana, Topuni and Kaiwaka. 

Te Kopuru Mill in 1895

Te Kopuru Mill 1895 ©The Kauri Museum, Matakohe

Perhaps the most unusual and interesting job was the salvaging of the vessel “Wai-iti” which overturned at Mangawhare. Like many masters, in order to save money he attempted to move from the wharf without the aid of a tug, this was always a risky business. She was caught by wind and tide and was soon aground. Advised to secure her by the mast to trees and to swing the yard arms inshore to restore some stability the master refused and as the tide receded she rolled over. Brown and Sons were awarded the contract for £900 and after numerous unsuccessful attempts she was eventually righted, sold and towed to Littleton in July 1907 by the passenger steamer Wainui.


Wai Iti under sail

                            Wai Iti under Sail ©The Kauri Museum, Matakohe

Little is left to remind the passerby of the sawmilling industry in the village, the industry by its very nature in those times was somewhat dangerous, exposed driving belts, chains and saw blades caused many slight, serious and fatal injuries. Until the advent of electricity they were driven by steam and partial or complete destruction of mills was not uncommon. Mills that were burnt down were not always rebuilt and as the timber supply declined there was less inclination for their replacement, the last of the mills within recent memory was at Aratapu and operated until recently by Glamuzina and Sons and at its height employed some 25 workers, it ceased operation in the 80’s



The Wellington harbour boom constructed by Rope Brothers ©Museum of Wellington City and Sea Collection


The Wellington harbour boom constructed by Rope Brothers  ©Museum of Wellington City and Sea Collection

Another of the successful Shipbuilding Industries was the Rope Brothers. Basil, Jack, Ted and Bob started business as boat builders, carpenters and general contractors in 1910. They took over the joiners shop of Harry Sharp which was under the management of Ted Rope, this building can still be seen on Norton Street opposite the Te Kopuru School. One of the best remembered jobs was the Coronation Hall built in 1911. Ted Ropes home, which he built himself, can also still be seen on the right hand side of the Norton Street just past the hospital buildings. Many of the Northern Wairoa wharves and bridges were built by the Ropes who had purchased the pile driving business of Anderson &Sons.

This business grew into the biggest of its type in New Zealand, the Rakaia road and rail bridges both 1km long, the Wellington submarine booms 1 ¼ mile long driving 3,000 piles and the Portland Cement Works wharf 400 feet long were among some of the successful projects they undertook. Descendents of the Rope family still live in the Te Kopuru district.


The Motor Vessel (MV) Te Aroha pictured on its, welcoming journey to Dargaville passing Te Kopuru with Maungarahu in the background. The vessel had been bought by Avon Curel in 1999 and was being used in the Kaipara Harbour carrying sightseeing passengers around  the Kaipara. Built in 1909 she was a wooden coastal cruiser and was used in episode three of the TV documentary “Captains Log” sailing from the Kaipara Harbour to Queen Charlotte Sound in 2001.


You can watch the episode by following the link below