By Karen Wrigglesworth
The earliest colonial settlers arrived in Whanganui in1841 but land disputes meant that many who had paid the New Zealand Company prior to leaving Britain had to wait more than six years to take up the land promised to them. In 1845 there were some 200 Europeans in Whanganui, and around 60 dwellings. By comparison, the Māori population along the Whanganui River was approximately 4,000, mostly in good relationships with the newcomers, but not with the New Zealand Company.
By late 1846 local unrest led Governor Grey to establish a military post at Whanganui. In December officers and 180 men from the 58th Rutlandshire Regiment, four Royal Artillery gunners with two 12-pounder guns, and two Royal Engineers sailed from Wellington aboard the frigate HMS Calliope and the Government brig Victoria. They also brought a small gunboat with a brass swivel gun. The troops set about fortifying the new town.
Rutland Stockade was constructed on what is now generally known as Queens Park (Pukenamu or Sandfly Hill) above the Repertory Theatre, and at that time, near the northern end of the town. It is thought to have been the largest stockade erected in New Zealand at a cost of £3,500.
The stockade measured 55 by 30 metres and included two strong wooden blockhouses, one at each end of the enclosed space. Palisading consisted of rough timbers and whole trees (some more than 25 centimetres thick) set closely together, sunk over a metre into the sandy soil and standing two and a half metres high. They were braced by two inner horizontal rails. The tops of the logs were sharpened, to shed water and prevent decay, and for security. Loopholes for musket fire were cut all around, and the two 12-pounder guns landed by Calliope were mounted at each end of the stockade.
Both blockhouses had upper floors that projected almost a metre beyond the lower storeys. They were the first defensive structures with overhanging upper storeys to be built in the North Island. During the subsequent wars of the 1860s most frontier blockhouses were modelled on the Rutland blockhouse design. The larger blockhouse, designed to accommodate 80 soldiers, consisted of two buildings. The larger, 24 by 12 metres, was set at right angles to the smaller, six by six metres. The smaller blockhouse had a ground floor area of 12 by six metres and was occupied by 20 soldiers.
The lower walls of the blockhouses were three metres high and built from thick timbers lined inside with two and a half centimetre boards. The main uprights were almost two metres apart and 30 centimetres square, with intervening spaces filled in with horizontal planks. Smaller bullet-proof scantlings (timber pieces) were used in the upper storey, which also had a six centimetre-thick floor. The projecting part of the upper floor could be raised on hinges between each girder for musketry fire. Both storeys were had loopholes with horizontal slits, 1.2 metres long and 15 centimetres wide, filled in with glass and shuttered outside. Māori called the large blockhouse the “peep house”, while Whanganui residents nicknamed it the “Acropolis”.
There was considerable difficulty in obtaining timber supplies for the large blockhouse, as most timber was upstream and on the opposite side of the river. In the end Māori supplied most of the timber, cutting and towing huge rafts of timber from 16 kilometres upriver (probably near Kaiwhaikī) to sell to the garrisons.
Rutland Stockade was completed by April 1847 and was garrisoned by the 58th Rutlandshire Regiment. The stockade saw action when Māori made a first determined attack on Whanganui in May. The attackers were repulsed by, but the situation was considered so serious that another stockade was erected at Patupuhou (or Patupuwhao) near where the bell tower now stands at Cooks Gardens. York Stockade was simpler in construction than Rutland Stockade, and consisted of barracks and a flat area surrounded by a high fence. It was completed by July 1847 and occupied by a detachment of officers and men from the 65th Yorkshire Regiment. York Stockade was never attacked but troops stationed there did take part in the Battle of St Johns Wood (which happened near where Collegiate now stands, on 19 July 1847).
Other early Whanganui defences included a Lower Stockade, which encompassed the Commercial Hotel and was built in 1846 on land now occupied by Trafalgar Square. There was also a fortified area known as the Lower Works on the corner of Ridgway and Watt Streets, below the Savage Club buildings.
Rutland and York Stockades were garrisoned by British Imperial soldiers until the late 1860s. Both were later used by the Armed Constabulary. Rutland Stockade was demolished in 1887.
About the author: Karen Wrigglesworth is a Whanganui engineer and writer, and a research volunteer at the Whanganui Regional Museum.