Historic site: Paremata Barracks

"It is part of my creed that the only poetry is history, could we tell it right."

- Thomas Carlyle.

 
Image of Paremata Barracks, 1981.
Paremata Barracks, 1981.
Photo from Pataka Museum Collection, at Porirua Library ref B.9.16.
 

Why Barracks were built at Paremata Point

 
Image of Te Rangihaeata. Image of Governor Grey.
Te Rangihaeata (left), Governor Grey (right).
Photo of Te Rangihaeata from NZ Electronic Text Centre.
The New Zealand Wars: A History of the Maori Campaigns and the Pioneering Period: Volume I: 1845–1864 James Cowan, F.R.G.S. R. E. Owen, 1955, Wellington.
Photo of Governor Grey from Pataka Museum Collection, at Porirua Library ref P.1.27
 

While the establishment of the earliest Pakeha settlers in the Porirua area was largely a peaceful affair, the involvement of The New Zealand Company and the improper acquisition of land in the wider Wellington area soon led to violent dispute between Maori and Pakeha. By the early 1840s, settlers had formed militia and constructed fortifications. For the conventionally trained British troops the guerrilla tactics of the Ngati Toa warriors under Te Rangihaeata were difficult to counter.

In 1846 the newly appointed Governor George Grey arrived in Wellington with fresh troops from Australia and capital and proceeded to create a series of fortifications around the area to secure key strategic positions and help quell the unrest.

Paremata Point was chosen for strategic location

The Paremata Barracks were constructed in 1846-1847 on a key site at the head of Porirua Harbour. The site was selected for its strategic location. The objective of the troops to be stationed there, as Grey recorded in his instructions, were to prevent the threat of a build-up of enemy forces in the rear of Port Nicholson, to free the coast road to Wanganui from Te Rangihaeata's blockade and to prevent the escape by sea of anyone fleeing down the north branch of the harbour. This last point was especially important as Te Rangihaeata's main pa, Pauatahanui, was located on the Paremata Harbour.

The men who built Paremata Barracks

Two hundred and twenty men were landed in April 29 1846 from the 58th, 96th and 99th Regiments from the HMS Driver, HMS Calliope and the Slains Castle after a voyage that lasted a week to fortify the site with defensive earthworks and later a stockade in anticipation of the construction of the Barrack's building. On their arrival they first erected earthworks and then a rather flimsy stockade – with equipment borrowed from civilian road-making gangs. The conditions on the site during a cold, wet and bleak winter were very hard, the tents rotten and leaky, provisions often ran low as ships would sometimes take up to six weeks to reach Paremata, and the construction of the barracks building was very late in starting, leading to possibly the first mutiny of Imperial troops on New Zealand soil.

But Grey wanted something more permanent. "A Good Barrack for fifty men … I think it had better be a comfortable Brick Barrack and not Block House." The plans were drawn up by T H Fitzgerald and consisted of a two-storey building with two towers on opposing corners that were, rather optimistically, intended to take cannon. In May 1846 tenders were called for the construction of the barracks which were to be of stone.

 
Image of Edmund Spencer.
Edmund Spencer.
Edmund Spencer was the Sergeant Paymaster of the 65th Regiment, the Royal Tigers. He arrived in New Zealand in the 1840s and was stationed at Paremata Barracks.
Photo from Pataka Museum Collection, at Porirua Library ref P.1.26.
 

The successful tenderer, James Wilson, began work in September and almost immediately struck trouble with the foundations which had to be given additional reinforcing. This and other problems delayed progress and it was not until September 1847 that the barracks were handed over to the Imperial forces. By this time their strategic importance had gone, as Te Rangihaeata had already begun his retreat from Pauatahanui to the Otaki region. During the brief military life of the Barracks, the main troops to be based there were the 65th regiment (Royal Tigers).

Immediately problems besieged the Paremata Barracks

Once the barracks building was complete, a number of serious defects with the design and construction were noted, including the poor quality of the site-made bricks to the fireplaces which backed on to the main magazine and could not adequately contain the fires; the wooden floor of the adjacent storeroom was set alight by this fault. When the small cannon in the towers were fired for the first time, the building shuddered so much that no-one dared use them again. In early 1848 a guardhouse, separate kitchens for men and officers and a cleaning shed were erected at a cost of approximately four hundred pounds – rather a waste of money, for in October 1848 the barracks were so badly damaged in the Wellington earthquake that they could no longer be used. From that time until it was returned to civilian control in 1852 it was used as a powder store, and the troops returned to their huts and stockade. As the conflict in the area abated, troops were withdrawn in 1852 and the land and remains of the building eventually passed over for farm use. A further earthquake in 1855 brought down the top storey of the building and left the remainder damaged.

The Wairarapa Earthquake severely damaged the Paremata Barracks

In early 1848 a guardhouse, separate kitchens for men and officers and a cleaning shed were erected at a cost of approximately four hundred pounds – rather a waste of money, for in October 1848 the barracks were so badly damaged in the Wellington earthquake that they could no longer be used. From that time until it was returned to civilian control in 1852 it was used as a powder store, and the troops returned to their huts and stockade.

Militarily the site of the barracks, and the purpose for which they were built, was excellent, but the type of building had been over-ambitious and it took so long to complete that it proved to be of little value in the war. In future, similar fortifications would be more quickly constructed with timber. But few of its successors would equal its charm. It was, according to the Reverend Richard Taylor, "very beautiful" and reminded him strongly of "the Castle of Chillon on the lake of Geneva". Today all that remains are the crumbling remnants of the foundations.

The Paremata Barracks today

 
Image of Paremata Barracks, 2007.
Paremata Barracks, 2007.
Photo by Russell Murray.
 

By 1950 the Barracks were in a state of ruin. Although protective action was undertaken in 1959 and 1960 by Heritage New Zealand, and the Ngati Toa Domain Board, the perimeter fence was removed in 1980 and the site continued to deteriorate, the condition and scale of the ruins reduced over the following years by vandalism and poaching of the stones. The remains currently exist in a semi-stable condition and are managed by Porirua City Council.

Source of information

  • New Zealand’s Heritage, the making of a nation, Part 18, Paul Hamlyn Ltd, 1971.

Continue to Gear Homestead or return to Paremata, Papakowhai and Mana.