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A history of the Tolaga Bay wharf

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East Coast Tolaga Bay


To help save Tolaga Bay Wharf please visit:


Save the Tolaga Bay Wharf
PO Box 41,
Tolaga Bay.
Nick Girling-Butcher
Phone: (06) 862 6606
Facsimile: (06) 862 6715
Email: savethewharf@charterfishing.co.nz


For a more general history of New Zealand


Tolaga Bay was visited by Captain Cook between 24 - 30 October 1769.

The Tangata Whenua (local Maori) were friendly and hospitable and granted the visitors the freedom of the bay. Wood and water were obtained and trade occurred between the inhabitants and the explorers. Banks and Solander collected botanical specimens.

An early tourism promotionThe Maori name for the place is Ou Auwoa or Uwoua, but Cook called it Tolaga Bay. This is possibly a corruption of 'turanga' - landing or halting place - which he took to be a proper name.

The area early attracted its share of pre-colonial traders who dealt in flax and bay whaling. Round these trading posts developed a series of small ports, among which was Tolaga Bay.

The site of Tolaga Bay township (252 acres) was bought by the Crown in March of 1875 for 505, at which time it was covered with gorse.

By 1875 Tolaga Bay was the largest European centre on the East Coast with 52 European residents, but generally settlement came late to the area. Sparsity of settlement and particularly a lack of roads led to the sea being the main means of communication, a situation which continued well into the twentieth century.

The isolation, sparsity of settlement and lack of roads of the East Coast of the North Island combined to give rise to a surf landing service for the inhabitants.

Mariners called it the "call at your farm service". It was largely run by seamen, many of them ex-whalers or navy men with experience in handling small boats.

It was achieved by the farmer droving a loaded bullock wagon into the surf to create a kind of temporary "jetty" to which the surf boat would be secured, while the ship lay in the roadstead awaiting cargo. This service lasted until well into the twentieth century.

The isolation of the Coast also bred parochialism which expressed itself in an extraordinary outburst of port development, with four ports being created over one hundred and sixty kilometres of coastline - Hick's Bay, Port Awanui, Tokomaru Bay and Tolaga Bay.

While Gisbome was the chief port of the area, these smaller centres had no wish to share the costs of development of that port.

This was typically illustrated by the indifference shown by Tolaga Bay residents to a poll among voters on the Gisborne Harbour loan, where only 29 persons bothered to vote, preferring to see improvements made to their own harbour.

Ships in Tolaga Bay
The coastal trade dominated the business of these outports where small steam coasters brought in supplies and general cargo and exported farm produce, mainly wool, grain and meat.

The development of a local freezing works, in competition with the large one at Gisbome, was often the factor that gave the promise of a substantial shipping trade.

Just after the turn of the century a Farmers' Co-operative Company had erected a wharf in the mouth of the Uawa River at Tolaga Bay, as a loading-out port for lighters taking cargo out to the ships in the roadstead.

Control of the wharf passed to Cook County Council, which sat as the Harbour Board after 1908.

As early as 1913 there was local interest in a jetty outside the river, partly due to opposition to rating for Gisborne's harbour development and the inadequacy of the existing loading-out system.

A freezing works was opened at Tolaga Bay after World War One, by which time the old wharf had silted up.

The Old Wharf In 1917 the Gisbome Sheep Farmers' Frozen Meat and Mercantile Company Ltd. ran a trading store at Tolaga Bay. They also had a trading store in Tokomaru Bay and had a major interest in the Hick's Bay Freezing Works.

This company already controlled the Gisbome lighter trade and now indicated an interest in entering the coastal shipping business. They challenged Richardson and Company and the Union Company's domination of the East Coast trade but the major companies prevailed.

In 1919 Tolaga Bay formed its own elected Harbour Board and rates were imposed on the Harbour District from early 1920 onwards.

The Before Picture In 1920 renowned marine engineer Cyrus J.R.Williams was appointed as consulting engineer to the Board. His initial report proposed a 900 foot road, a pier or jetty 1500 by 16 feet, a wharf 400 feet long and 51 feet wide, giving a depth at low water of 21 feet. The estimated cost was 60,000.

In 1922 a report was produced on procuring a I 00,000 loan to finance the harbour works. However, there was difficulty in getting the loan, which was not confirmed until February 1925, when the Public Trustee accepted a sinking ftmd of 70,000.

Between 1920 and 1924 there were various changes reducing the length, width and lowwater depth of the proposed wharf and in June 1924 the plans were approved by the Govemor-General.

On November 13, 1924 Frederick Goodman of Kaitia Bridge, Gisborne, signed a contract with the Harbour Board for the construction of a wharf and road for the sum of 60,331. In February 1925 G.D. White-Parsons was appointed Resident Engineer and Inspector of Works.

Building the Wharf In August 1925 the approach road according to original plans was abandoned and the engineer provided new plans for a relocated road and shortened wharf. Miscalculations were probably due to William's unfamiliarity with the site. The contractor was paid a relatively large sum (5,000) for work already implemented.

During 1926 to 1928 the construction of the wharf progressed; heavy seas caused much damage to the new piles resulting in delays and the 70,000 loan being expended well before completion of the project.

View from top of structure In March 1928 Tolaga Bay Harbour Board began negotiations with Gisborne Sheep farmers Frozen Meat and Mercantile over the purchase of their "plant and moveable buildings".

It is not clear from Tolaga Bay Harbour Board meeting minutes exactly where the plant and buildings were located - the most likely place is the old Hauiti Wharf. Three buildings are mentioned in the minutes but in June, 1929 when F.Goodman successfully tendered for the removal and re-erection contract the shed is mentioned in the singular. In July the deal with Gisborne Sheep farmers Frozen Meat and Mercantile was finalised and by November the job was complete.

In 1929 Tolaga Bay Harbour Board resolved to buy twelve pairs of axles and wheels from New Zealand Railways at Otahuhu and an Austin industrial tractor (400).

These were apparently bought and operating by the opening of the wharf. Goodman's wharf contract included the supply and laying of railway track.

On 22 November the wharf and shed were officially opened. The Hon. J.G. Cobbe, Minister of Marine officiated. The opening was marred by a terrible accident when a truck pulling a rail wagon loaded with people down the wharf passed ships tied up at bollards; four women with legs dangling over the side had their legs crushed.
Problems during building
Photographs of the opening show completed railway flatcars and the seaward elevation of the cargo shed which bears no immediate resemblance to any of the buildings in the complex at Hauiti Wharf. However there may have been substantial redesign in the reconstruction of the fabric purchased from Gisborne Sheepfamers.

Evident in photographs of the opening is a large main building with a gabled hip roof, an open-ended lean-to where the railway tracks run through the building, and what appears to be a canopy (referred to as a 'verandah' in the minutes) over the loading docks on the I opposite side. Other details visible are paired horizontal windows, two skylights, water tanks and large ventilators on the main roof ridge.

Records show that the building existed more or less in its 1929 form on another site - it is possible that the fabric of the shed was already nearly thirty years old. Early Traffic During Building Later in 1929 the Tolaga Bay Harbour Board offices were shifted to the wharf shed; it was resolved to buy four M dropside - 3'6" gauge wagons, sleepers, points and rails." If these were purchased it is not clear where the extra track was located (in relation to the wharf and shed line).

Motor lorries (Messrs Bray and Co.) were to be permitted on the wharf. Deterioration of several piles was discussed at Board meetings. In June Gisborne Sheepfarmers requested the Board's permission "to remove that part of the old river wharf (Hauiti) extending to the high water mark" - this establishes their location and assists in tracing the origin of the Tolaga Bay wharf shed.

The opening of the Tolaga Bay Wharf in December of 1929 enabled larger coasters to load alongside and for many years the Richardson and Company coaster Kopara (1938) called regularly.

Open for business

Tolaga Bay's wool dumping plant and wharf were used by coastal vessels which took this freight down to Gisborne for transshipment.

In December of 1929, soon after the wharf opening, the Bencruachan, a ship chartered to Geo. H. Scales, was the first overseas ship to load at Tolaga Bay.

Despite the resistance from the Conference Lines, who believed there were too many "overseas" ports in New Zealand and were trying to restrict overseas shipping to major ports, over the next decade Tolaga Bay was served by Scales charter vessels Bencruachan, Benmohr, Benreoch, Benlawers, Benledi, Benarty and Anglo Canadian.

However, even as the Tolaga Bay wharf opened, improved roading and motor vehicles had begun to compete with coastal shipping, especially on short hauls. It was ironic that much of the cargo that passed over the wharf was road-making material, used to construct the road through to Gisborne, thus providing an alternate means of transport.

In May 1929 ratepayers who were sending their wool overland to Gisborne were written to by the Harbour Board, saying that the loss of revenue to the wharf had resulted in a rates increase.

Same view as before shot
The onset of the Depression greatly reduced the amount of cargo going through the outports generally. One hundred and thirty-two vessels worked Tolaga Bay in 1936, but by 1939 only 88 called.

Trade was further reduced by the war which centralised shipping control and this was not necessarily reversed quickly after the war. During the war period a phone line was carried to the end of the wharf, Borer was found in the cargo shed; TBHB resolved to buy a new dumping plant (wool press) engine - a 17 h.p. Ruston horizontal diesel; a concrete foundation was built under the pumps for the dump; the lean-to floor, presumably the railway lean-to, was levelled and concreted; and there was ongoing concern about the deterioration of the ferroconcrete of the wharf.

Additions to the shed were discussed at Board meetings in 1941-42, priced and apparently completed. Kirks of Gisborne won the tender (695) and subsequently gave an estimate (48) for "the erection of an upstairs office and boardroom." The latter contract indicates that the addition was the weatherboard-clad western lean-to. In August 1942 the floor of the new addition was concreted at a cost of 94/17/6. In August 1943 it was resolved by the Board to make further additions "to run the full length of the existing building." Kirks' tender of 972 - a substantial sum - indicates that these additions were probably both the northern lean-to and an extended (in width) southern lean-to.

In 1952 part of the shed was let to the State Hydro Department.

Power was installed in the shed in 1953. Previous lighting was provided by a generator. It is not clear whether power was carried along the wharf.

The Tolaga Bay Golf Club was offered the Austin tractor for 10 1957.

In 1958 the Board wrote to the Richardson Line complaining about the poor service to Tolaga-Bay.

In 1959 the Board held discussions with the Minister of Marine with regard to the position of the Board's finances, shipping and general falling off of revenue due to decentralising of shipping, lack of fertiliser imports over the wharf and road competition.

In November 1960 the Harbour Board considered the falling off of trade to the port, and decided that rather than replace the existing Harbour Master (who had tendered his resignation), to pass the control of the wharf over to the Uawa County Council, who accepted. November 29, 1961 was the final meeting of the Harbour Board.

January 1998

In November 1963 the southern side of the wharf was closed to shipping due to damage and deterioration. A report on the condition of the wharf from a Mr Booth gave the structure a conservative 15 year life in 1965.

By now the cost of shipping wool from the Tolaga Bay wharf shed direct to Napier was higher than the cost of trucking from the wharf shed to Gisborne and shipping from there to both domestic and British markets.

I.H. Lowe (Lowe's Fishing Co.) was permitted to establish a fishing base on the wharf in 1968. In the same year a "six-wheeled" railway wagon was taken to Gisborne and apparently thence to Ferrymead Museum, Canterbury.

Most importantly, 1968 marked the closure of the port for shipping. The Harbour shed office rooms were let to Titirangi Station as a tea-room.

In May 1973 Cook County assessed the contents of the shed, sold some and gave (?) some to M.O.T.A.T., Gisborne. In July further wharf plant was sold as scrap.

In 1977 Cook County banned all vehicular traffic on the wharf.

The wharf shed was generally used for the storage of cray-fishing boats, tractors and fishing gear, including a fish freezer.

January 1998

The Cook County Engineer presented a report in 1984, on alternatives for the future use of the wharf building to Council. The authors J. Dwight.. and L. McDonald proposed "doing nothing", partial demolition, and "total restoration".

In 1995 the report above resulted in demolition of the decrepit 1940s lean-to, the earlier western lean-to being spared. However the main timber-floored original building was irreversibly (economically speaking) modified by the chain sawing out of a substantial area of timber floor, the removal of its foundations and the reversion to an earth floor to create "garage space" to be let for the storage of fishing boats and equipment.

The southern lean-to, being accessible to vehicles, was already being let for boat and associated storage. A large section of the removed floor was up-ended and, complete with floor Joists as studs, was used to wall-off the newly formed 'garage'.

Demolition iron from the northern lean-to was used to re-clad the original northern wall, including the 1929-34 loading-out doors, and a wide door-way was cut at the western end allowing vehicular access.

In 1989 the wharf shed was sold to Mr S.P. Destounis, fisherman, who has not modified the building since.

Broken Piles on Southern Side of Wharf

The wharf in 1998. No longer part of a registered port and considered too dangerous for vehicular traffic or berthage, the structure has evolved into a very popular fishing place for locals and tourists alike, and particularly for travellers, a challenge, because of its unusual length and the high scenic value of its environment.


To help save Tolaga Bay Wharf please visit:


For Bookings and Enquires contact Laila
Phone: +64 9 630 2665
email: lailaharre@gmail.com