Topic: A bronze tablet tells the story of women's courage

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For the anniversary of the Battle of Gate Pa, Mrs Kathleen Hawkins, of Tauranga, looks into the part played by the European women before and after the encounter. This article appeared in the Bay of Plenty Times on Tuesday, 28 April 1964, and is reproduced here with their permission.

It does not take many steps to pass from the colourful beauty of Tauranga's much-prized Begonia House to the green quietude of the Monmouth Redoubt.

But by taking those steps you pass from the pleasant atmosphere of present-day prosperity to a spot that must be haunted through these latter days of April, 1964, by the memory of atrocities and dangers of a hundred years ago.

Today the only signs of strife visible here are four small cannons - one dated 1915, and the other three of Victorian pattern - and the big bronze tablet let into the green grass of the steep rampart.

And it is the inscription on this tablet which brings before our minds the ordeal which the women of Tauranga went through while the distant sound of gunfire might have reached them from Gate Pa.

Who these women were we do not know. We are even ignorant how many women and children were sheltered here. Probably they were not numerous: a few traders and some men connected with the coastal shipping made up the Pakeha population in those days.

A traveller shortly after 1864 says that, besides the Mission School buildings, there were then only four houses. And George Brier, a private in the Durham Light Infantry, whose delightful diary has been reprinted in the journal of the Tauranga Historical Society, writes that when he landed here in 1865 "there was not a dozen houses in Tauranga besides the houses belonging to the troops."

But few or many, the women and children had to be protected; and when the gathering of the Maori tribes looked as if real trouble might be expected, "the Colonel," presumably Colonel Carey, gave orders that all the English women and children were to go to the Mission House.

"Sort of barn"

Where they were accommodated we do not know. Miss Eliza Jones, whose account of her visit to the Archdeacon and Mrs Brown and also appeared in the journal of the Historical Society, tells of "a sort of barn in which everything is stored that arrives by sea." There was also the Maori School, which, from a sketch by Lieutenant Robley, appears to have been quite and imposing building.

Either of these might have been utilised; and there the refugees stayed for six weeks, while the danger of their situation must have been brought home to them by the order that they had to sleep every night "fully dressed, with emergency rations and a bottle of water by the side of each one."

But, eventually, the Colonel was not satisfied with this arrangement. Suddenly, a new order came. The women and children were to be taken, under a strong guard, to the blockhouse in the Monmouth Redoubt, where space was hurriedly made for them to sleep on the floor of what had been the soldiers' quarters.

If the British soldier of that day was like his successor of today, it is safe to guess that everything he could do to ensure the comfort of the women, and particularly of the children, would be done. One only hopes that something rather better in the way of provisions could be found for them than the "hot coffee and dry bread" for which Private Brier was grateful on his arrival at the same place ten months later.

Date unknown

It is not clear on what date the women changed their quarters; but almost certainly they would have been already on the Redoubt to watch HMS Esk sail up the harbour on April 21, bringing General Cameron and his staff. And five days later they would have seen the Miranda and other ships arrive with troops and guns.

A Maori who watched the landing tells that the "tall-masted ships landed their men and stores and big guns." And he was very impressed by the sight of the British troops. "Grandly did they march," he says, "their bright bayonets flashing in the sun, and their guns rumbling along."

But when the men marched out to Gate Pa on April 28, a time of weary waiting began for the women. On the 29th the rain poured down all day long. Each man had taken his greatcoat and cooked rations for the day.

From George Brier we learn that a soldier's daily ration at the time included 12 ounces of beef or mutton, a pound and a half of bread, potatoes, tea and coffee and some other small items. There was also a mention of "a dram of rum," but it is unlikely that all these things would have been in the packs carried out then.

Time dragged

For the women the time must have dragged sadly as they gazed through the rain at the grey water and the distant grey hills, and perhaps listened to the sound of distant gun fire, they might have envied the Maori women who, almost to the very beginning of the battle, stayed near their men.

By nightfall some news of the disaster to the British troops must have reached the Redoubt, and the following morning brought still darker news.

One wonders if the waiting women had the privilege of helping to prepare the Mission School for the wounded who were to be nursed there. On the following May 3 the little company from the Redoubt would probably have been among those who gathered in the Mission cemetery to hear Archdeacon Brown read the funeral service over the British dead.

But the women's trials were not yet over. It was decided that in the still troubled state of the countryside it was best that they should be sent to Auckland, but they had to wait some time before the coastal boat, well-known as "Sellar's Cutter," could take them there.

And then, in what we should call the acute discomfort of a small boat buffeted by stormy seas, they had to endure another week of misery before they landed.

And so they pass from the story of Tauranga. They played no very important part in it. Of them individually we know nothing, yet we are glad that, largely through the efforts of the late Miss Maxwell, they have their memorial in the tablet which has been erected on the spot where they bore their share of the miseries of men.

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