JOHN CALLAWAY of the COROMANDEL
A New Zealand Pioneer  

The Coromandel is a peninsular of land, originally a volcanic range, projecting from the north-east coast of the North Island of New Zealand.  It is noted today for dramatic scenery of bush-clad bays and inlets, red flowering Pohutukawa (Christmas Trees), and Holiday Homes.

A hundred and sixty years ago, it was visually much the same, there was a lot more forest, but very few buildings or people. 

Not long after the first arrival of Captain Cook on New Zealand shores in 1769, the Royal Navy began travelling the 12,000 miles here for Kauri spars, for a fleet that would do battle with Napoleon.  Giant Kauri trees offered long lengths of straight, knot-free timber. 

Before long Kauri was found to be a particularly good building timber, and became the quality timber of the Pacific in the nineteenth century.  It is said that many of the buildings destroyed by fire after the San Francisco Earthquake were built of NZ Kauri.

Called bush, New Zealand forests can be almost as dense as jungle, and were difficult to access.  Sadly the Kauri were decimated, despite the difficulties, and the remaining trees are now heavily protected.

Although there was to be a Gold Rush there in the 1850/60s, it was for the Kauri that the Coromandel was noted. 

Comprising two major islands, the North Island of New Zealand was settled by Europeans earlier than the South Island, but the settlement was by Missionaries and Traders after the 1820s, following transient sealers and whalers.  The terrain was difficult, the weather often wet, and there were considerable numbers of Maori people living there.  Although the Missionaries formed very strong and valuable associations with the Maori, land disputes with new settlers led to violence and warfare in the 1840s and 1860s.

The South Island on the other hand, was settled initially under selected immigration schemes in the 1840s and 1850s.  The settlers met easier terrain and weather, and there were few Maori present.

It was not until the 20th century that the North Island, and more particularly the northern half, came to match the prosperity of the South Island. 

New Zealand has an extensive indented coastline, with many bays and river inlets.  Shipping was therefore the main means of transport, particularly for the North Island, until the Main Trunk Railway was completed there in 1908. 

Roading in the North Island really remained poor until after the Second World War.  

Exactly when John Callaway arrived in the new Colony is not yet known, or even whence he came, but it was probably around 1840, maybe from the south of England, and it was into a vigorous, testing environment. 

Presumably a carpenter by trade, he was able to negotiate timber cutting rights with a Coromandel chief, in exchange for the construction of his house, and established a timber mill at Kikowhakarere Bay, just north of the later Coromandel Township. 

He also evidently had some association with, or carried out work for, Frederick Maning, an early trader and timber merchant, who became Judge of the Native Land Court.  John built a house for Maning at the Bay in the late 1840s.  Through their family misfortune, he was able to take over the house, and lived there for a number of years.  Callaway House.

He married the daughter of a Maori Chief, said to be of the Arawa tribe from the thermal area of Rotorua, and became well-known and prosperous in the region. 

John would have cut Kauri logs in the hills behind the Bay and, by means of Kauri dams and bullock teams, brought the timber to the coast.  Most would then have been taken by schooner or barge across the Firth of Thames to the growing settlement of Auckland, then small, today New Zealand’s largest city and seaport. 

No date for the construction of the house is known, but it may have been around 1848, making Callaway House the oldest known structure in the region. 

The oldest New Zealand building is the 1822 Kemp House at Kerikeri, the oldest church, the 1831 Christ Church at Russell, both Missionary structures in the far north Bay of Islands.  There were no planned settlements in New Zealand before 1840, the year regarded as the beginning of our Nation, with the formal accession as a British possession, and the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. 

It can be appreciated that there are few older buildings in the Country. 

As can be seen from pictures in the NZHPT Website, Callaway House was a small low, single storey bungalow-type structure, with hipped/peaked roof and verandah, smaller when built than seen today.  The roof would have been shingled, the walls weatherboard (US clapboard).

Early New Zealand houses in the bush were fairly basic structures, commonly of raupo/thatch, with temporary materials and construction.  This building would have matched the better houses in Auckland at the time.    

Callaway House had deteriorated badly over 160 years, but the Kauri construction remained essentially sound, assisting the restoration work.  Unusually for most surviving houses, the plan layout had been little altered. 

John Callaway’s descendants, as with many of our early settlers, have merged into the life of the Country.  A son served with distinction in the South African Boer War of 1899, and it is believed there are family members living in Auckland today. 

We do not know a great deal of him personally, and there is a need for research into his background and life, but John Callaway was a true pioneer of New Zealand.   

Warwick Kellaway
November 2004

~ Photo by David Elliot, from New Zealand Historic Places Trust web site