Russell - New Zealand

Russell was the first capital of New Zealand and one of the first European settlements. The town is rich in history with a variety of shops and services that do not spoil the old charm. Hours can be spent in the museum tracing the towns history from the first European settlers, whaling and marine history. Even the headstones at New Zealand's first church have a story to tell. 

Shops include 2 supermarkets, bakery, liquor stores, video rental, hardware, news agent, chemist (drug store), business centre, famous fish & chips, antiques, gifts, fuel, fishing tackle, dive fills, attraction booking offices, hardware, fashion, antiques, pottery and more

Restaurants cater from cafe and bistro dining to award winning world class and even a vineyard restaurant nearby. Bars range from the famous Duke of Marlborough hotel to the Bay of Island Swordfish club. Entertainment varies from jazz in the "Duke" to summer rock bands in the marquee

Passenger ferries operate continuously to the tourist town of Paihia where additional shops and attractions can be found. A number of attractions leave from Russell wharf including the fast Excitor trip to the hole in the rock, R Tucker Thomson sailing ship, fishing charters and dolphin encounter cruisers. A medical clinic and chemist are also in the main shopping area. The wharf is a hive of activity with Paihia ferries, game fishing boats, tours and boats refueling coming and going.  If you are planning a trip to New Zealand, Northland is must for the itinerary and Russell is an ideal base to explore the region.


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General Information

A peaceful and picturesque township set deep in the Bay of Islands, Russell is renowned as a big-game fishing centre and as a holiday town of major historical interest. Its tranquility belies the frantic activity of its wild early days when, as the centre of the first European settlement, it was known as 'the Hell-hole of the Pacific'.

The town is linked by ferry to Paihia, Waitangi and Opua (vehicular), and can also be reached by road from Kawakawa and Whakapara. Originally a Maori village, the settlement was first called Kororareka ('sweet blue penguin'), but was renamed Russell after the country's first 'capital' (which was close by) and after Lord John Russell, Secretary of State for the Colonies and later Prime Minister of Great Britain.

Some History

'Hell-hole of the Pacific' The town began as the native village of Kororareka and acquired its first Europeans - ship deserters and time-expired convicts from New South Wales - after whaling ships began calling here for provisions from the early 1800s.
By 1840 Kororareka was the largest European settlement in the country, by which time it had become an important whaling, sealing and mercantile centre where hundreds of ships called each year.

Despite the efforts of the mission stations nearby it was very much a lawless frontier town, a jumble of Maori and European architecture jammed with gun-toting Maori and Pakeha, crowded with grog-shops and crammed with Maori ship-girls and adventurers of every breed. Its licentiousness was probably exaggerated by the missionaries, but the town certainly included the flotsam and jetsam of the world and well-earned its unsavoury title of 'Hell-hole of the Pacific'. Felton Mathew (1801-47), the country's first Surveyor-General, arrived with Captain Hobson and reported that Kororareka was 'a vile hole, full of impudent, half-drunken people'.

The first capital: Soon after his arrival and the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, Captain William Hobson purchased about 124 hectares at Okiato (near Russell) as a site for the country's capital. An ambitious plan was prepared but only one of its roads was ever built, leading inappropriately from Government House to the jail.

The infant township was named 'Russell' and for nine months was the 'capital' of New Zealand. Hobson, his choice opposed by his superiors in New South Wales, looked for yet another site and early in 1841 moved the seat of government to Auckland, where it remained until 1865. 'Russell' continued to house the Bond Store, a detachment of troops and the Police Magistrate, but its fate was sealed when Government House and its offices were burned to the ground in 1842. Soon even its name was lost. In an effort to escape its bawdy image, Kororareka, less than eight kilometres away, was renamed Russell.

Today the pleasant point of Okiato is sprinkled with holiday homes, including one which gained notoriety as the dream home of a drug dealer convicted of murder in the sensational 1982 'Mr Asia' trial in Britain. All that remains of New Zealand's first capital is a well, fenced off and on a reserve, near Okiato Lodge. Okiato. Turn off by NZ Historic Places Trust marker immediately before the descent to the Opua ferry 7 km from Russell and bear right.

Hone Heke and the flagstaff: Hone Heke Pokia (c. 1810-50), a nephew of the famous Ngapuhi fighting chief Hongi Hika and a signatory to the Treaty of Waitangi, is celebrated for his resentment of the symbol of British sovereignty, the flagstaff at Kororareka, which he felled on no less than four occasions. Heke was tall, clever and chivalrous, and only pride and restless ambition marred his greatness.

For years the local Ngapuhi had profited in their trade with the numerous visiting ships, and Heke had collected a £5 due from every ship to enter Kororareka Harbour. This happy state of affairs ended in 1841 when the Government imposed the first customs duties. These made revictualling at Kororareka more expensive and, coupled with a fall in the world price for whale oil, had the effect of discouraging visits from whaling ships. This loss of revenue combined with the widespread belief that the Treaty of Waitangi was only to be observed by Europeans until they were strong enough to seize all the Maori land, led to the celebrated first axing of the shipping-signal flagstaff on Flagstaff Hill in 1844.

The Governor agreed to remove the customs duties; Heke offered to renew the mast. For a time it appeared that the friction had ended but the American consular agent at the Bay of Islands encouraged Heke to go further. He is said to have described to Heke the successful American War of Independence waged against British colonial rule, and to have given him an American ensign to fly from his canoe. On 9 January 1845 the flagstaff fell for the second time.

The flagstaff was renewed once more, a £100 reward was offered for Heke's capture, and 'friendly' Maori were posted to guard the new mast. But so great was Heke's mana that only 10 days later he strode alone through the armed guard and for the third time felled the mast.

Foolishly, the Governor chose to replace the flagstaff, to sheath it with iron and encircle it with a blockhouse. Heke accepted the challenge. A diversionary movement drew the troops away, leaving the way clear to land by night, to surprise the blockhouses at dawn and, on 11 March 1845, to fell the flagstaff yet again. (In the 1980s the flagstaff again became a focus of protest against the continuing alienation of communally owned Maori land.)
The fall of Kororareka: After the flagstaff had fallen for the fourth time, Heke's men attacked the township. The defence was haphazard and uncoordinated. After a spark from the pipe of a careless defender had exploded the stockade magazine, the European population was evacuated and the day ended with naval ships in the bay lobbing the occasional shot into the town while Heke's men drank grog from the bars and loaded canoes with loot. The next day they completed their pillaging and set fire to the buildings, one by one, sparing only the churches and mission buildings. The naval ships sailed sorrowfully for Auckland, leaving the town a ruin, never to regain its importance.

So began the War in the North, 'Heke's War', which continued until Heke was defeated at Ruapekapeka in 1846. Heke was granted a full and unconditional pardon. He died four years later and was given a Christian burial.

Points of Interest
The waterfront: The Strand today has a serenity it seldom knew in the early days when it was crowded with grog shops overlooking a bay in which whaling ships from the world over lay at anchor.
The police station building (c. 1870) was originally the customs house, built when the Bay of Islands saw a considerable amount of overseas shipping and when the American whaling industry was still flourishing. The grog shops have long gone but the Duke of Marlborough Hotel claims to hold the oldest liquor licence in the country. Now mounted close to the beach is a cannon used in the defence of the town. At the southern end of The Strand stands the supremely elegant Pompallier House.

The waterfront springs to life when large game fish are being landed. Crowds gather to watch the weigh-in and to share the delight of the proud angler.
Christ Church (1836): Even were it not for the memorable events it has witnessed, Christ Church, as the oldest surviving church in the country, would have a special place in history. Unlike most of the very early churches it was built not as part of a mission station but by local settlers. Against the unpromising background of a bawdy brawling village, an appeal for funds was launched in 1834 and the building was completed two years later. Among the donors were the Rev. Samuel Marsden and the naturalist Charles Darwin who visited New Zealand in the course of his five-year voyage on the Beagle, during which he made the observations that formed the basis for his landmark work, The Origin of Species, 1859.

As the only building of consequence in the town, the church was used for a variety of purposes. It was in its role as public hall that a meeting was held here in 1840, immediately on Captain Hobson's arrival in New Zealand. The gathering saw Hobson perform the first official act on the shores of the colony as he read the Crown Proclamation which declared New Zealand to be a dependency of New South Wales and his Commission as its first Lieutenant-Governor. Within a week the first copies of the Treaty of Waitangi were signed across the bay.

The same year the church, while serving as a courthouse, was the centre of a sensational trial in which a local Maori was charged with the murder of a European. Anxious that he be dealt with according to Maori custom, a group of Maori tried to free the prisoner and only the timely intervention of an interpreter from the mission averted bloodshed.

During the 1845 attack on Kororareka (Russell) there was a clash on the southern boundary of the churchyard between seamen from HMS Hazard and Heke's men. Two Royal Marines and four seamen, killed before the Maori withdrew, are buried in the churchyard. The original headboard from their grave is inside the church. The church itself was badly damaged, and, despite repairs and later renovations, some scars have survived. On the north-west corner a weatherboard has been chipped by a cannonball from the Hazard and holes from musket balls are seen near the south-east and south-west corners.

Originally unlined, the church had a low roof, small windows and old-fashioned box pews. The building was renovated in 1871 when the present high-pitched roof was built, the old pews demolished and their timber used as panelling.

In the churchyard are many interesting graves, the oldest dating from 1836 (far left). Among them are those of Tamati Waka Nene (a Ngapuhi chief who was largely responsible for the Maori's acceptance of the Treaty of Waitangi and who fought for the settlers against Hone Heke), Hannah King Lethbridge (now known to be the second European girl to be born in New Zealand), Dr Samuel Ford (the country's first resident surgeon), members of the Clendon family (James R. Clendon was the first honorary United States Consul), the men from the Hazard who fell in the fighting, and a number of whalers whose headstones often tell of untimely deaths. Cnr Church and Robertson Sts. Allow 45 minutes.

Pompallier House: Perhaps misleading both in its name and its elegance, the dwelling was, in fact, never Bishop Pompallier's home and it began as the austere mud printing house which now forms its inner core. Bishop Jean Baptiste Franc;ois Pompallier (1801-71), a Frenchman and the first Roman Catholic Bishop of the South-West Pacific, arrived in 1838 to establish the first Roman Catholic mission in New Zealand at Kororareka (Russell).

The mission buildings included a two-storeyed structure of pise; de terre (a mixture of clay, mud and ash commonly used in France) built in 1841-42 to house the mission's printing presses, which for several years produced booklets of religious instruction printed in Maori. Its roof was hipped and covered with shingles, the ground floor was of rammed earth and the windows were small and without glass.

After the sack of Kororareka (Russell) in 1845 and when it became apparent that the town would not regain its former importance, Bishop Pompallier moved the mission to Auckland and, in 1856, sold the building for £375 to James Callaghan, who used it as a tannery. It had been one of few buildings spared in the fighting

By about 1877 the building had deteriorated to the point of collapse when a new owner, James Greenway, acquired and renovated it, primarily because of a housing shortage in Russell. The pise; structure was strengthened and over the next few years the building was remodelled to become the elegant showpiece it is today. The outer walls, the verandahs with their Union Jack-styled railings, the chimney, door, windows and the lean-to at the rear were all added round the old building, completely enclosing the original structure. Timber from Bishop Pompallier's former waterfront house, demolished about this time, may have been used in the renovations.

Part of the remodelling has been removed to show the internal appearance of the ground floor pise; section as it was in Bishop Pompallier's time. Displayed inside is a permanent collection of items relating to the mission and the building. Included are the original Gaveaux printing press for which the inner core was built, various possessions of Pompallier and of the Callaghan and Greenway families, a display of whaling relics and intriguing early lithographs of local scenes.

The building is now the subject of extensive renovations as it had become seriously weakened by alterations which had also obscured its original function and construction. The building itself will be closed for a period, but visitors are welcome to inspect the gardens

Pompallier, after a lifetime of intensive work under conditions of great hardship, finally left New Zealand in 1868. He was appointed Archbishop of Amasie (near Paris) and died there in 1871. The Strand. Open daily (except Good Friday and Christmas Day), 10 a.m.-12.30 pm.; 1.30-4.30 p.m. Allow 1 hr. At the end of the beach next to Pompallier House stands the Bungalow, built in 1853 by Captain James R. Clendon, the first American Consul, and later used as a school by his daughter.

Nearby, off the southern tip of the bay, is the quaint hump of Mill Island, so named because the settlement's flour mill was built there to be safe from native rats.
Flagstaff Hill«« (Maiki Hill): The site of the succession of flagstaffs which fell to Hone Heke's axe and led to the sacking of the town. A memorial here records the episodes, but perhaps a greater attraction is a splendid panorama from Paihia through 180 degrees to the natural fortress of Tapeka Point, host to a pa site. Signposted at the north of the town. A road leads to the summit.

Shrine of St Peter Chanel: A simple, modern shrine which is unique within New Zealand. Father Chanel, a Marist missionary in the Pacific under Bishop Pompallier, was martyred in 1841 by natives of Futuna (a French possession in the Horne Islands, north of Fiji). Bishop Pompallier recovered his body and brought it to Russell, where it rested from 1842-47. Later the saint's body was shipped back to his native France. The martyr was canonised in 1954. End of Chapel St.

Bay of Islands Maritime and Historic Park Visitors' Centre: The Centre provides details and displays of the Park. See Bay of Islands Maritime and Historic Park. Southern end of foreshore.

Long Beach (Oneroa Bay): Situated on the other side of the peninsula from Russell, this is a glorious stretch of sand more suited to swimming than is the town beach. Signposted. 800 m. Refer Beaches for pictures

Russell Museum - Displayed here is a scale model of Cook's Endeavour and a small collection of items of historical interest. These include the original subscription list for the Christ Church building appeal (1834) and Colenso's own copy of his first printed placard (1836). The museum is a must see for every visitor to the area. Exhibits date back to the first European settlers and provide a fascinating look at early New Zealand and local history.  Located in York St. on the left as you arrive into Russell. Open daily, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.  The museum is administered by the Russell Centennial Trust Board.

Ngaiotonga Scenic Reserve and Russell Walkway: The 21-kilometre Russell Walkway, planned to extend to Whangarei, starts at the Ngaiotonga Saddle (20 km E of Russell on the Whangarei Road). The reserve here includes stands of kauri and other native trees. Details from the park headquarters at Russell. Short walks in the reserve lead to a spectacular kauri grove (20 mins) and to a twin-bole kauri (10 mins). A number of kauri still bear the scars of their being bled for gum.


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