St Mary’s Church in Ūpokongaro

St Mary’s Anglican Church in Ūpokongaro makes an impression on most people passing through that small settlement, 12 km north of Whanganui. Its distinctive steeple seems a bit wonky. But it’s not – apparently it’s due to the effect of a three sided spire set on top of a four-sided tower.

The church was designed by Whanganui architect Edward Morgan and built in 1877 by local builder John Randal. The building and the section cost £344, local residents raising their share of the money through subscriptions and a successful concert at John Kennedy’s store. The Bishop of Wellington, Octavius Hadfield, consecrated St Mary’s on 20 July 1879.

2. St Mary's Church 1958

 St Mary’s Church, Ūpokongaro, 1958. Ref: 1800.755

Four stained glass panels link to the Montgomerie Family, stalwart St Mary’s parishioners. Depicting the evangelists, they were designed by Francis Philip Barraud and manufactured by Barraud, Lavers and Westlake of London in 1892. Two were installed to commemorate Captain Alexander Montgomerie, a founding member of St Mary’s and a lay reader during its early years, who died in 1890. The other two commemorate his brother Archibald W Montgomerie, who died at Mākirikiri in 1877. The Montgomerie Family is commemorated in other memorials in St Mary’s.

Young Archibald Montgomery also died in 1877. Aged only 23 and on his way home to Whanganui from a trip abroad, he was drowned in the Avalanche disaster off Portland Bill in the English Channel. The Avalanche collided with the Forest, a Nova Scotian clipper, and sank immediately. Of the 94 people who lost their lives, 21 were Whanganui residents.

Henry and Frances Montgomery, young Archibald’s parents, commissioned stained glass windows from an unidentified English firm in 1879 as a memorial to their son. The centre panel depicts the Ascension and the left panel features the storm on the Sea of Galilee with Christ walking to the rescue over the waves. The right panel illustrates St Peter trying, unsuccessfully, to walk on the waves.

The church was extended in 1892 when the chancel and the vestry were built. The bell, cast in London in 1896, still rings out today. The church has been re-roofed several times and the steeple repaired in 1953, requiring another major fundraising effort by local residents and a successful Wanganui Savage Club concert. Otherwise the building today is much the same as it was in 1901 when the interior was first lined.

The Owen family also made an important contribution to St Mary’s during its 25 years. Hayward Arthur Owen was appointed churchwarden in 1876 and kept his accounts in this book, including those for the building of the church in 1877 and the chancel extension in 1892. The book shows, in the 1881/1882 year, when Thomas Stephens was paid for the temporary vestry and Robert Hughes for painting the church and the fence.  A contribution was made to the purchase of the first parish register and the church benefitted from the proceeds of two entertainments, one in the new “Court House Theatre” in Ūpokongaro.  The overdraft, however, was still more than £92.

Philip Macdonald, St Mary’s treasurer from 1950 to 1969, was a local farmer with a love of architecture. His design for the church lychgate was later used by Whanganui architect Don Wilson to prepare plans for a memorial to Annie Eliza Cowper, formerly of Kukuta. Her son, Charles Robert Cowper, left a generous bequest to St Mary’s that enabled the lychgate to be built in 1958.

St Mary’s Sunday School was held in a room behind the church from 1904 to the early 1970s.  1938 was an important year in the history of St Mary’s. A local committee was formed in September to “inspire greater interest in church matters throughout the district”. Jessie Woon was appointed honorary secretary. Her report for that year noted that the committee had encouraged 20 local families to subscribe, had a successful shop day at McGruer’s in town and a dance in the Ūpokongaro Hall. The Church and schoolroom were both re-piled. Jessie, however, was worried about the birds having access to the church roof. The original leadlight windows in the nave were replaced in 1968.

St Mary’s is registered with the New Zealand Historic Places Trust as a Category 1 historic place. In Whanganui, it is the oldest church still on its original site.

1. St Mary's Church in matchsticks

 Model of St Mary’s Church, Ūpokongaro, made of matchsticks. Ref: 1968.60

In its collection, the Museum has a remarkable matchstick model of St Mary’s made by Jack Higgins, who lived in Ūpokongaro for over 70 years. As a hobby in his later life, he made matchstick models of local buildings in the area. His model of St Mary’s is very accurate, down to the precise alignment of the spire.


Fiona Hall was Acting Curator at Whanganui Regional Museum from 2002 to 2003. She curated an exhibition titled The Church by the River, and this article is based on her text.

Dandelion Coffee

Dandelion coffee is actually an infused tea, but it is used as a coffee substitute, having the appearance and, to a degree, the taste of coffee. It is made from the dried, roasted and ground root of the dandelion plant. It is important that the right dandelion roots are used, from the Taraxacum species, distinguishing it from other weed plants that look like yellow daisies. The roots of large healthy dandelions plants are harvested and processed into coffee. It has become a popular health or tonic drink, sometimes as an alternative to true coffee, especially in the USA.

Dried dandelion root coffee was being produced commercially at Ūpokongaro in the nineteenth century by farmer William Caines. In 1853 Caines had acquired 105 acres of land on what is now the Kaiwhaiki Road. He cleared the heavy bush gradually and ran sheep and cattle. He used a punt and waka for transportation between his farm and Whanganui.

1. Dandelion Coffee Tin

A tin of Taraxacum, Dandelion Coffee, made by William Caines of Upokongaro 1880-1890 (ref: 1951.41.3)

Finding ways of ensuring a cash flow was important for settler farmers in the district. Brick-making was another source of income for Caines. His bricks were made of clay from his property and rammed by hand into wooden moulds. He also made white-pine roofing shingles, and later tōtara shingles, sold for 12/- per thousand, delivered.

And the coffee seemed very promising. Caines grew the dandelions in rows in his garden, just like any other crop. After the plants had flowered they were dug and the roots dried. They were then ground in a hand-operated wheat mill, said to have been brought to New Zealand by one of the British Army regiments stationed in the district. A large iron flywheel was attached to give momentum to the actual grinder on the main shaft, the raw material being fed through the funnel as the grounds dropped from the mill chute. The machine could be operated by one person at the crank-handle.

The mill is in the Museum collection, as are two one pound tins of the coffee, which is a deep brown colour and has still has a distinct “coffee” aroma. Tins of “Pure Dandelion Coffee” were produced from 1880 to about 1890, sold for the most part in the Ūpokongaro area. Although there is no record of the amount produced, it appears that there was a reasonable demand for it.

2. Dandelion Coffee Label

An unused Taraxacum label (ref: 1802.1110.2)

The coffee product was named “Taraxacum”, Taraxacum officinale being the botanical name of the dandelion. The label, printed locally by A D Willis Printers of Wanganui, states that the product was grown and prepared by “William Caines, Pikopiko, Upokongaro, Wanganui.” The label also declares that the dandelion coffee as prepared by Mr. William Caines, “Contains all the medicinal virtues pertaining to the plant, which are of an opening and cleansing quality and therefore very effectual for obstructions of the Liver, Gall and Spleen, and Diseases that arise therefrom. It is also beneficial in cases of the Urinary Organs, being powerful in cleansing imposthumes and inward ulcers in the urinary passage and, by its drying and temperate quality, heals them. In Progressing Consumption, the use of the Pure Dandelion Coffee will give the sufferer great relief.”


Libby Sharpe is Senior Curator at Whanganui Regional Museum.

A Treasure Trove of Moa in Whanganui

Last week the Moa Gallery opened at the Whanganui Regional Museum in Stage I of a visible-storage project that sees the entire moa bone collection out of boxes in the basement to where people can see it, both in display cases and on the internet. But why is the moa collection so important? Why put it all on display?

North Island giant moa (Dinornis novaezealandiae)

North Island giant moa (Dinornis novaezealandiae)

Whanganui has been known for its moa bones since the earliest days of European settlement. As far back as the 1850s Anglican missionary Richard Taylor collected enormous bones from old pa sites and sent them to the eminent zoologist Professor Richard Owen in England. Owen was the first scientist to recognise that these bones could only be from a giant flightless bird, and coined the name Dinornis for them; a “terrible bird” in the same way a dinosaur was a “terrible lizard”.

Moa bones are found throughout the country, and collecting them was a popular hobby from the 19th century onward, so most museums in New Zealand have a moa collection. You can find the bones in caves from birds that wandered in, or fell down sinkholes; in dunes, where the shifting sand covered and protected their skeletons; or in swamps, where moa were trapped and sank into the mire, accumulating in huge numbers over the centuries.

The 1937 excavation at Todd’s Hole

The 1937 excavation at Todd’s Hole

As more of the pool was extracted, excavation continued as walls were built to hold back the liquid mud

As more of the pool was extracted, excavation continued as walls were built to hold back the liquid mud

One such moa death trap was near Ūpokongaro, up the Makirikiri Valley, in a swampy pool named Todd’s Hole on the Todd Family Farm. Beneath a thin crust of soil was a funnel of liquid mud full of moa bones, plus a few more from farm stock that had wandered in more recently. At first the bones could be just yanked out with an iron claw, but when the vast size of the deposit became clear, representatives from the Museum, with a £1200 excavation budget, began a proper excavation. Over 1937 and 1938 a crane, bucket and sluice were built, hundreds of cubic yards of mud sorted through by hand and about 2,000 moa bones extracted, cleaned and sorted.

Back at the Museum, the Curator George Shepherd began assembling skeletons from the pile of bones, putting together 10 in all. In those days moa classification was not well understood and many species were thought to be represented in the find, some from just a single bone.

Today with the help of DNA we can put the bones from Makirikiri into just three species: Mantell’s moa, a small species found around forest edges and wetlands; the bush moa, another small slender species that lived in the forest and seems to have been the most common kind of moa in the area; and the North Island giant moa, with gigantic females 1.5 m at the shoulder and weighing perhaps 200 kg, with males only half that size.

Photo of the Makirikiri Moa skeletons in the new Museum wing 1968. They’ve since been reassembled into positions more like those of a living moa.

Photo of the Makirikiri Moa skeletons in the new Museum wing 1968. They’ve since been reassembled into positions more like those of a living moa.

The skeletons were put on display in the Museum and the rest of the bones put in storage until they were re-examined in the late 1980s by moa expert Trevor Worthy. He was the first to recognise that the moa collection from Whanganui was of international importance. Although other large moa deposits had been discovered, especially in the South Island, most of those bones had been sent around the world, traded, lost, or destroyed. The Whanganui collection is one of the most important in the world because it has stayed almost completely intact, which lets scientists study an entire community of moa trapped in the swamp over thousands of years: their age, growth rate, size and male/female ratio.

These bony rings support the trachea, or windpipe, of a moa and are sometimes found in a pile in the middle of a very well-preserved skeleton.

These bony rings support the trachea, or windpipe, of a moa and are sometimes found in a pile in the middle of a very well-preserved skeleton.

The moa species that ate leaves and twigs would also swallow small stones, known as gastroliths or gizzard stones, to help grind up their food, in the same way chickens swallow pebbles and grit. Sometimes one or two kilograms of smooth stones can be found in a pile in a sand dune long after the rest of the moa skeleton has crumbled away.

The moa species that ate leaves and twigs would also swallow small stones, known as gastroliths or gizzard stones, to help grind up their food. Sometimes one or two kilograms of smooth stones can be found.

The goal of the Museum is to make this collection accessible by putting it all on exhibition and also by photographing, registering, and 3D-scanning the bones so everyone in the world can see them, not just people able to visit Whanganui. The whole process will be happening in the gallery itself, where visitors can watch and ask questions. We’re hoping that our moa collection will put Whanganui on the map, not only for moa biologists but for anyone interested in these amazing giant extinct birds.


Dr Mike Dickison is the Curator of Natural History at the Whanganui Regional Museum.