Topic: Athenree Homestead: An Early History by Ellen McCormack

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An article written in 2016 by Katikati Historian Ellen McCormack about her relationship with the historic Athenree Homestead. The history ranges from the 1880s to 2010.

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My connection with the Stewart family and the Athenree homestead begins in 1881 when my great grandparents, Donald and Maria Macmillan and family arrived in Tauranga on the “May Queen” as members of the Stewart settlement to Te Puke .On arrival  Donald was spokesperson for the new settlers who were given  a great welcome by the Tauranga townspeople.

Donald was apparently not impressed with the land allocated to him in Te Puke, as it had a big gully running through it and he could not see the sea, so the family rented a house in Tauranga and in 1882 purchased “Castle Grace” from the Louch family at Kauri Point in Katikati.

In Adela Stewart’s book “My Simple Life in New Zealand” Adela mentions driving the eight miles to the lovely home of friends whose little daughter was to be christened in the drawing room. Adela wrote that “…there was a large gathering of mutual acquaintances for the ceremony and then a sumptuous repast of so many courses that we were filled with admiration and astonishment.” This was the christening of my great aunt Lillian Maria Macmillan who was born on the 26 February 1883 at Castle Grace.

Castle Grace, Kauri Point Road, Katikati (1900)

Castle Grace, Kauri Point Road, Katikati (1900). Photo: Emily Surtees Photographic Collection.

Adela’s neighbours were Canon and Frances Johnston at ‘Hillside’. Mrs Johnston’s diaries are a joy to read especially in conjunction with Adela’s book. In 1900, Evangeline [Daisy] Macmillan married Frederick Thomas Crommetin (Fred) Johnston. In Adela’s book she mentions the young couple having made a tennis court and every Wednesday there was a meeting at which the heads of the families provided tea in turns.

Many of the single women from both the Stewart and Macmillan families were teachers and boarded together during their training days in Auckland staying with Cecilia Stewart, the widow of George Vesey Stewart junior who was drowned at the Katikati Heads in 1892.

Again from Adela’s book in 1902 “On July 6th at our school afternoon service, Violet Adela Macmillan, to who I stood godmother, was christened.” Violet was the daughter of Charles and Ethel Macmillan and granddaughter of Donald and Maria.

Violet kept in touch with Adela, Hugh and their son Mervyn when they returned toEnglandand visited them several times during her overseas travels.  Violet told me that when Adela returned toNew Zealandin 1912 (to publicise her book) that Violet and her mother took Adela to lunch in Tauranga before Adela journeyed on to Katikati the following day. Adela died that next evening at her sister in law’s home “Twickenham” in Katikati and is buried in the Katikati Cemetery.


My Simple Life in New Zealand

This is the book written by Adela Stewart after her return to England in 1906. As Adela related incidents about her 28 years of life inNew Zealand, many of her friends found her life so interesting they suggested she write a book. Adela wrote the book from the daily events in her diary and it is from this book we learn so much about their struggles, lack of communication with the outside world and the many problems associated with early life in New Zealand.  Adela’s book has been the most valuable asset in the restoration of the homestead and a great inspiration to us all.  

My own relationship with the Homestead is very personal. I went to school with John Rapley and Maurice (Snow) Browne who were both a few years older than me.  School in those days was from the primers to high school so we were one big family with most of us related to someone else at school.

The relationship between the Stewart’s, Macmillan’s, Rapley and Johnston families has continued through to the generations of today working all together at the Athenree homestead.

Athenree Homestead, March 1899

Athenree Homestead (March 1899). Photo: Emily Surtees Photographic Collection.


The Years of Ruin and Decay 

A few of us who had watched the Athenree Homestead deteriorate talked amongst ourselves about the possibility of restoration and in 1984 John and Colleen Rapley re-purchased the land that had been owned by John’s family many years ago. Then the homestead and approximately five acres were subdivided off and an approach made to the Western Bay District Council to purchase the property. All this took years but we never lost interest and many ideas were formulated for the future.

My late husband Wayne had always admired the beautiful old house and at one stage we had even thought of buying the house so between us we were smitten. Wayne had spent his life in the building and timber industry so he was a great asset to the project.

Long before the Athenree Homestead Trust was formed in 1995, Maurice (Snow) Browne, John Rapley, Wayne and I [and a few others when available] were quietly working away at the site. There were many years of ruin and decay to be disposed of.  The house had also been used as a hayshed and was full of rotten hay, wire, junk and bones of all shapes and sizes.  To get to the house was a struggle through the bamboo that had spread everywhere then past the huge disused old water tank that was just another item to be disposed of. The whole house was deep in mud as the roof was collapsing so no visit was possible without gumboots. There were no floors, except in the drawing room and part of that ceiling was full of shrubbery, and we braced other walls to keep them standing. We all came from a farming background so the lack of power, water and electricity at the homestead was not seen as a problem to any of us. Snow and John lived near theHomestead but for Wayne and I it was a 120 km return trip to our home at Matapihi.

Athenree Homestead (1968)

Athenree Homestead in 1968. Photo: Tauranga City Libraries.

Snow Browne had a light truck and we spent day after day filing his truck which he then took to the dump just down the road. By the time Snow came back we had another load ready for him. A potter had used the ballroom as his factory and the mess was incredible with it taking days to even dig out all the rubbish from the fireplace in the ballroom. It was a real nuisance to continually find remnants of pots scattered throughout the whole property.

We had absolutely no funds so paid for everything ourselves including all   materials needed on the building site, photos, files etc. All office work was done from our own homes at our own cost.

In those early days many people were against the project and threats made to burn the homestead down. We were considered a bunch of ‘loonies’  and were told in no uncertain terms that the building was beyond repair and it should be destroyed before even a dollar was spent on such a crazy project. 

We were constantly ridiculed, personally abused with continual negativity via the press. Residents were apparently concerned that if the Western Bay of Plenty District Council purchased the property, the cost of the restoration would fall on to rate payers. Burn it down was the plea from the complainants and on many occasions we had to stay on the property to stop this actually happening, especially near Guy Fawkes. Other supporters also spent days there ‘on guard’.

At one stage I remember Snow Browne got in his truck and drove toWellingtonto discuss our project with historians, politicians and anyone else who would listen to our cause. Snow gained valuable contacts and support from many quarters and this gave a great boost to the project.

Our meeting with the members of the Western Bay District Council to discuss them buying the property from John and Colleen Rapley was another memorable day. We needed numbers, not just three or four of us, so I contacted numerous friends in Tauranga to be present during the morning tea break for the Council members. I asked our friends them to tell any Council member that they spoke with what a great idea it was, a wonderful tourist attraction and anything else they could to help the project. Most of our friends had no idea as to where the homestead was even situated, nor did they know any Katikati history, but talk they did and obviously did a great job as thanks to two Councillors from Katikati area, Allan Goodyear and Ted Harris the property was purchased.

Later the mayor, the late Graeme Weld, told me that he was absolutely against the project as he felt the house was well beyond restoration. However in later years he became our greatest asset, even arriving with his wife in his vintage car to one of our fund raiser events. He gave us continual support throughout the years.

At one stage we were banned from the property for safety reasons and tape was placed around the site.  However we managed to pull down the back section of the house as the weight of it was pulling down the main part of the homestead. Fortunately the homestead was very isolated so we were able to continue most days without any hindrance.  

Ellen McCormack at Athenree Homestead (May 2011)

Ellen McCormack at Athenree Homestead (May 2011). Photo: Lee Switzer.


Building Re-Piling and a New Roof 

In 1995 the Athenree Homestead Trust Incorporated Society was formed. John Marshall wrote over 80 letters requesting funding to re-pile and re-roof the building. He attended interviews with masses of documentation relating to the Stewart family and the history of the house and its present condition. It was through John’s great effort that we received our first grant of $65,000 from the Waikato Trust that enabled us to re-pile and re-roof the building.

I clearly remember the day that Wayne and I drove up the hill to the homestead and we were both very tearful with absolute delight, surprise and joy.  Men were everywhere, the building had been re-piled, and other men were putting on the new roof. It was all at last a reality. What we saw was absolutely unbelievable, the building was standing up straight and tall and looked amazing.

We knew from that day onwards people would at last be able to see what we were trying to achieve. There were still many doubters and complaints, but we had won the battle to keep the house.  The lovely old building was on the first step to coming alive again. It was still only a shell with huge problems still to be faced but at last we were moving forward.


Rebuilding the Upstairs 

Like everything else the stairs had to be re-built, and another exciting day for everyone was when we finally got to see the first floor portion of the building. We were like children with new toys saying look at this, then that and someone climbing in to at the attic and telling us about everything in there, including a few rat nests. All this with no safety rails or equipment, it was truly another step forward and a great day.


Borer, Fire Alarm, Sprinkler System & Chimneys

Urgent attention had to be given to the borer in the remaining timber left in the building and the purchase of kauri timber for replacement, kauri was very expensive but again we were determined to have an original authentic house with no shortcuts. The borer treatment was another huge expense that meant more fund raisers and applications for grants.

The paper work involved with grant applications was immense with many pages of questions requiring in depth research regarding the homestead, including the Trust audited financial accounts, references, at least two quotes from suitable suppliers. Many days were spent completing these funding applications with some being successful and others not.   

There was no water supply to the homestead but there was an old farm supply to a tap in the paddock and John Rapley was continually tramping over paddocks looking for a leak in the pipe. This was our only water available when we did our first ball in 2004.

Installing a fire alarm sprinkler system to give protection to the whole house was needed at the cost of nearly $20,000. As the main water connection was on the other side of the road, the next step was to get the Council to dig up the road and install a new junction. The problems and paperwork were continual.

Even though the chimneys looked in good order, new regulations decreed both chimneys had to be completed removed and reconstructed from below the base. This was another huge unforeseen cost, so we applied to several places for a grant and kept continually fund raising at every opportunity.

The decision was made to put scrim back on the walls, but to find a person capable of such a task was not easy, however eventually two elderly gentlemen achieved a perfect job. We left the history room without wallpaper to show visitors how scrim was used and it made a great base for the early history newspaper clippings time line of the house.


New Entrance to the Homestead Driveway 

The entrance to the property was on a rather dangerous sharp turn below the house and was very difficult for buses. More consultations and discussions were made with the Council and eventually the entrance was made further down the road with a turning bay.

Every time there was heavy rain the metal on the driveway disappeared on to the road way, so there was an endless task of repairing this.

Building a new house would have been easier and cheaper but we were determined to restore the house to its original condition. We continually applied for grants from any source available and were elated when good news was received.  We also began our own fundraising.


Historical Garden Plans and the Shell Path 

A member of the trust had studied Adela’s book regarding the gardens at the homestead and a very detailed plan was drawn for future plantings. Every plant mentioned was recorded and this has been a very valuable asset. While clearing the garden near the front door it was discovered that seeds that had remained dormant in the soil for over 80 years had germinated and were growing strong and vibrant.

The trees in the grounds were in a badly neglected state and during a storm one fell on the house while we were trying to secure the building. An arborist was employed and what timber could be saved was rescued and all the other trees on the property were trimmed and given a new life.

Some of these trees are on the Register of Historical Tree in the district. 

We were all continually re-reading Adela’s book and decided the shell path that was used by coaches to allow visitors to alight at the front door should be restored so that was another project and when completed it certainly gave the building back some of its original glamour.   


The Original Plan of the Homestead by Hugh Stewart 

As a constant researcher at the Tauranga Library I was delighted to find in a box of old papers recently given to the library plans drawn by Hugh Stewart of the homestead in 1878, plus all the original yearly reports from the Waste Lands Board on all the properties belonging to the Katikati settlers. What a find … to actually have the original plan in Hugh’s own hand writing plus all the other extremely valuable data regarding the building (see Katikati Advertiser article 23 January 2001).  

Looking back the restoration of the Homestead was an incredible project but there was never a negative thought at what we were doing, we all just got on with what needed to be done at the time. One of us always seemed to know the right person for any extra help required and that drew more assistance from other people and enlarged our numbers of supporters.

We opened the homestead every Sunday during January and February and charged two dollars. This was very successful and visitors started to warm to the restoration. We erected a time line in the history room and this gave people the story of the early years and the photos showed the absolute ruin that the homestead had once been.  

However I do wonder what happened to all the furniture and other items that we all donated to furnish the house, as there was real history behind some of the furniture, including two of my grandmother’s antique wooden chairs that had been very lovingly restored by my late husband.


Friends of the Athenree Homestead 

As interest grew we started a group called “Friends of Athenree Homestead” and for $5 per year a family could visit the homestead at any time and we also sent them a yearly newsletter. This was very popular and many Rapley and Stewart family members, whose family had later lived in the homestead as long as the Stewarts, became great contributors to the restoration.


The Summer House 

A Summer House was mentioned in Adela’s book so we decided to erect one on the front lawn, having no idea as to where it would have originally been situated.

Imagine our surprise when a few years later photos were found with Hugh and Adela standing by the summer house and it appears to be almost on the exact spot where we have erected it.

The photo showed steps leading to a viewing platform above the summer house and a flag pole, so this could be a project for a later date.

Captain Hugh and Adela Stewart (1900)

Hugh & Adela Stewart next to the Summer House in 1900. Photo: Emily Surtees Photographic Collection


Overseas Visitors 

Doreen McBride 

Doreen was a writer, researcher and storyteller from Ballymoney Hill, Banbridge, and had read about the Katikati settlement in “Ulster Folk Life”. This is the magazine of the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum where she then worked.  She also read that the settlement had lost its unique character and almost disappeared.

In February 1990 while on working holiday in New Zealand Doreen decided to visit the town her self and arrived on a bus on a rainy night with no contacts and no bookings. Both motels were full but she was directed to friendly Vera Rouse for a bed and breakfast stay.  Vera phoned me to see if I could help with giving Doreen some early Katikati history, so off I drove over 50kms to collect her and take her back to our home at Mt Maunganui copy everything I had on my files that would be of interest to her to take back to Banbridge. She was absolutely delighted with all that I gave her and then back to Katikati as she had another appointment. A 200 km round trip in seven hours but the publicity was great.

During an interview while on this trip Doreen said “People here tend to think the old Athenree homestead is too far gone, but if they could see what is being restored inIrelandthey would think again" (Reference: Katikati Advertiser 20/2/1990).

Doreen returned to Katikati in 1996 when she gave a storytelling session at the Country Pumpkin and raised $192 towards the restoration of the Athenree homestead.

In 2001 Doreen returned again, this time with her husband and they stayed at our home in Tauranga where she gave another storytelling session with more funds for the homestead.

Noel Mitchel 

Noel Mitchel from Queen’s University in Northern Irelandcame back to Katikati on a visit. Noel had visited Katikati in 1975 for the anniversary and re-enactment of the settlers’ arrival one hundred years previously and met Arthur J. Gray the author of “An Ulster Plantation”.

Noel was delighted to consent to an interview with a reporter from the local paper and talk about the historic value of “Athenree” and to compare it with  Balance House in Antrim as he was a member of the “Ulster Trust’ who administer the property and the trust had restored Balance House from  a virtual ruin. 

The value of that newspaper item was immense as locals seemed to place a lot more faith in the views of overseas historians rather than a group of “loonies”

For many years Noel returned to Katikati almost annually, bringing tour groups of his old university contemporaries and always giving great publicity to the Homestead and the whole history of the early settlement. I am still in contact with Noel and his wife Barbara and Noel recently turned 91.

Barbara & Noel Mitchel at Katikati (April 1991)

Barbara & Noel Mitchel at Katikati (April 1991). Photo: Ellen McCormack. 

Trevor Hall 

Trevor is Assistant keeper of collections at the Irish Linen Centre at Lisburn Museum in Antrim and his knowledge and help has been incredible with knowing the area that the Stewarts came from, also he is a relation to William John Stewart and Sarah (nee Turner) who arrived on the Carisbrooke Castle in 1875 as part of the Stewart settlement.

William and Sarah’s first child was born in 1876 and in honour of the founder they named him George Vesey Stewart. Over the years this has caused great confusion as this family of Stewarts is not connected to George Vesey Stewart.

Trevor, his wife and young son paid a visit to the homestead in 2008 and he was delighted to see the progress we were making and gave us advice regarding the history room. Trevor is always available to assist with Irish research and has been a great help with Ulster history.     

Doctors' John and Betty Messenger 

John and Betty [both Doctors] were anthropologists from Ohio in America. They were studying Irish immigration and were very interested in the Stewart Settlements to both Katikati and Te Puke. These two wonderful people could see our vision at the Homestead and visited Katikati numerous times with again valuable publicity and generous donations.

During a visit in 2000 John said that when he returns to Northern Ireland he intends to wear his Katikati College rugby jersey and expects to create a sensation. “The college crest still carries the Red Hand of Ulster and that goes back a long way to Katikati’s Irish roots’’ he said. [See also: The WeekendSun 15/12/2000]

Their knowledge and support has been a huge benefit, John has died but I still write and send news of Athenree to Betty who still contributes to the homestead fund.

John and Betty Messenger at Athenree Homestead

Anthropologists John and Betty Messenger at Athenree Homestead in 1998.

Judy and Brian Boulanger 

It was a glorious day and members of the Trust  and as many volunteers as we could find were very busy preparing for a large old fashioned fundraising fair with many stalls and other activities.

Out for a drive and seeing all the activity from the road, Judy and Brian from England [who were visiting friends and holidaying in Katikati] drove up the driveway and asked if they could help. We were absolutely thrilled and delighted. They cleaned every room in the house, windows included, and that was a massive task, manned stalls and just filled in where ever needed. After the fair they were back the next day cleaning up, mowing lawns and helping in a hundred ways. Every two to three years they returned to Katikati and just carried on doing whatever was needed at theHomesteadas if they had never been away and always leaving a very generous donation. Today as I write this story Judy and her daughter Brenda are on another visit to New Zealand and have called in to visit me today in Te Puke (12 April 2016).   


Visit from the Prime Minister 

The visit by the Prime Minister Helen Clark, her husband, parents and other family members was another truly memorable day.

It was a private visit but as she was Prime Minister it was surrounded by several police and a little secrecy. Helen was the driver for one of the cars and immediately put us all at ease with her informality and amazing knowledge of the homestead.

I gave Helen and her husband a tour of the upstairs part of the building and there was a continual discussion between them both regarding various other historic homes and ideas regarding our project. Their knowledge was astounding and extremely helpful.


Portrait & Sash belonging to Captain Mervyn Stewart

The purchase of the portrait of Mervyn Stewart, father of Hugh, George Vesey and Mary (Gledstanes) Stewart (and others in England) that now stands in the ballroom is another wonderful story of people being in the right place at the right time.

Phillip and Marta Hamilton’s daughter Clare who was at the time living in England attended the auction and purchased the painting. Massive discussions were held as to whether funds should be spent on the painting, then getting it shipped to New Zealand, plus it needed to be framed. Finally it was completed and I can remember getting Bill Stewart in Tauranga who was out working on his farm to quickly come in to town to get his photo taken with the portrait and to give a real Stewart connection.

The next problem was where to store the portrait in the meantime as of its size and the homestead being under reconstruction. Again more animosity because the sentiment was, that the money should have gone in to the building and not the portrait. Fortunately the office of the Bay of Plenty Times saved the day and the portrait was installed there and it created huge interest at the time of the Centennial in 2000.

I spent most of the day introducing various Stewart family members to their own relatives. It was an incredible weekend with great publicity and established the Homestead at the forefront of the community and drew all the families much closer to the restoration.      

The McDonald family from Wellington who are descendants of Captain Mervyn Stewart very kindly donated the original sash on his uniform to the Trust and this is now in a glass case beside the portrait in the ballroom.

The portrait finally arrived at the Homestead and was erected in the Drawing room in December 2004. It was a long drawn out deal but one not to be missed.

Captain Mervyn Stewart Painting (2000)

From left: Lynette Fisher (Harrison's Gallery), Ellen McCormack (Katikati Historian, Simone Buck (Harrison's Gallery) & Bill Stewart (second great grandson of Mervyn Stewart).


Athenree Railway Station 

Later we received the generous donation of the Athenree Railway Station. We situated the building at the bottom of the section completely away from the very historic house and outbuildings that we hoped to build later.  However new people, new ideas and this has now unfortunately been plonked right in the middle of where the out buildings were planned to be rebuilt and is now being used as a café’

Mayor Graeme Weld procured another railway station for us and part of it was added to the end of the building and became the “Ophir’ room, where Adela mentions in her book was an area where she could relax in the afternoon by herself. In 2008 we made this room a temporary kitchen and it served us well for many years. 

Athenree Railway Station (1919)

Athenree Railway Station. Photo: Debbie McCauley.


Information Kiosk & Picket Fence 

We erected an information kiosk down near the roadside so as people driving past could keep up to date with events and progress of the building.

The picket fence was a project in which the seasonal workers from Vanuatu played a large part. They were amazing workers and with some of our volunteers and pickets obtained from various sources a lovely picket fence was erected over the course of a few days.


Athenree's History Room 

Mervyn’s bedroom next to the ballroom became our history room with a time line just under the ceiling at the top of the wall. The time line was all newspaper clippings in chronological order and gave visitors an insight in to how the house was saved from its ruinous state, and beneath the time line we placed historic documents and events of the past.


Fundraising Books  

My Simple Life in New Zealand by Adela B Stewart

1n 1996 as one of our first fund raisers we reproduced Adela’s book “My Simple Life inNew Zealand”. To save costs we gathered together some friends and collated the pages of the book ourselves round a large kauri table at Snow’s home, all walking round the huge kauri table picking up a few sections of the book at a time. [Bay of Plenty Times 23/7/1996]  Snow’s kauri table is now the centrepiece in the ballroom at the homestead.

The book launch at the Balcony Café was a great success but we still did not have sufficient to pay the printer so Wayne and I purchased $1000 worth of books to on sell at a later date and another problem was solved.

An Ulster Plantation by Arthur J Gray 

Thanks to the generosity of Murray Gray, we were given permission to reprint his father’s book originally written in 1938. This book is a very valuable asset giving an insight in to the lives of the early settlers, their difficulties and their triumphs that led to the very prosperous town of Katikati today. The Stewarts and the homestead are well documented in Arthur’s book as well as the book covering a period of Katikati history that is little known today.  Murrayattended our book launch in 2000 and gave us a great publicity boost and he was delighted to receive a copy of the book with an extra section of old photos of the early days.

Athenree Homestead (May 2011)

Athenree in May 2011. Photo: Lee Switzer.


2004 & 2006 Balls 

To hold a ball in early May in a marquee on the top of a hill was again regarded as crazy, but for both Ball’s 2004 and 2006, it was the most beautiful evening with no wind, a near full moon and we all knew that Adela and Hugh were there with us. We hired a marquee, portaloos, tables, chairs and everything else that was required.

We did all the catering ourselves with the only water supply being a tap in the paddock near the house. A trestle was erected in Adela’s bedroom and from there we served the most fantastic feast to over one hundred people and everyone had an incredible evening.

Doctor Dorothy Potter and her sister (grand daughters of Adeline Salter who married Arnold Norrie at the homestead in 1908) came to the 2004 ball and were delighted with the restoration and have been very generous donors to the project (See: Bay of Plenty Times 11/5/2004 and Katikati Advertiser. 30/5/2006).

Trust Power Award 2000

Orange Day 6 July 2011

The Earth Cellar

Ophir Room

Nick & Anna Stewart 

This page was archived at Perma cc July 2017

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Athenree Homestead: An Early History by Ellen McCormack