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George Clarke – bridge-builder extraordinaire

When the Church Missionary Society devised the notion of developing an inland mission at Waimate North where European agricultural skills could be taught to Māori, along with Christianity, work began in earnest.

Construction of the first houses at the new mission began in 1830, though there were a few obstacles to overcome – not least of which was the need to cross the Waitangi River to access the potentially rich farmland of Waimate North.

“The river crossing was an issue – particularly after heavy rain,” says Mita Harris, the Manager of Te Waimate Mission, now cared for by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust (NZHPT).

“It’s likely that the missionaries would initially have used fallen tree trunks as a way to cross rivers, which probably did the job for foot travel – but once they started using wheeled carts a different standard of bridge became necessary.”

Enter George Clarke – one of the better educated lay missionaries who had arrived in New Zealand in 1824, and who had run the small mission school with his wife Martha at the Kerikeri Mission Station.

“George was a trained gunsmith, but clearly had a wide range of other skills that were very useful in what was basically a frontier situation in the Bay of Islands,” says Mita.

“Another missionary – weaver and flax dresser James Hamlin, who had arrived in New Zealand in 1826 – recorded that he and George began working on the bridge site in May 1830.”

The two missionaries – along with a team of  Māori labourers – sometimes camped on the building site, and at other times made the 9.5km trek from their home base at Kerikeri.

“As you’d expect, building a bridge in the middle of the bush was not straightforward. Local trees were pit-sawn and shaped to provide beams and abutments that would eventually be used to span the 19.5m gap,” he says.

“The different parts of the bridge were secured by iron screw bolts and spikes – all of which were handmade.”

The result was New Zealand’s first European-style bridge located close to where Te Waimate Station is located today – a ‘humpback’ bridge with beams rising at an angle from both sides of the river, and secured in the middle by a collar tie and a series of struts and supports. At its high point, the bridge stood 7.3m above normal water level, including its handrails.

Sadly, the bridge no longer exists – but a great example of the carpentry skills of the missionaries and  Māori labourers can still be enjoyed today.

Te Waimate Mission – completed in 1832 – is New Zealand’s second oldest surviving building and was constructed for George and Martha Clarke, who helped establish the Church Missionary Society mission at Waimate North.

The house itself was designed and built by George Clarke with help from local Māori that he had trained. In a letter to his father in September 1831, George told of a “New Zealander” he had trained to make window sashes: “He has made 6 pairs and according to my judgement has made them very neat”.

“Te Waimate Mission was once regarded by many as being one of the finest homes in colonial New Zealand,” says Mita.

“It is the picture of Georgian elegance with its symmetrical design and dormer windows. It was here that George and Martha Clarke lived until 1839.”

In 1840 Clarke reluctantly took on a ‘bridge-building’ role of a different kind when he became Chief Protector of Aborigines (referring to Māori ) in 1840. Clarke was expected to protect Māori interests on one hand, and to act for the Government in land sale negotiations on the other – a virtually impossible position to be in.

The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography summarises Clarke as having “a genuine sympathy for Māori people”, and whose general intentions were “unselfish” – though makes the point that “the same could not be said of most settlers”

It goes on to say that Clarke’s “placid temperament enabled him to get along with others easily [and that] as protector, Clarke made a positive contribution in the early years of European settlement.”

Te Waimate Mission – George and Martha Clarke’s home for eight years – is cared for by the NZHPT, and open to the public every day over summer.

For more information on NZHPT properties in Northland visit www.historicplaces.org.


Updated on 23rd July 2015