Nukumaru NZ Wars memorial, Whanganui

Nukumaru NZ Wars memorial, Whanganui

Nukumaru (50th Regiment) memorial, Queen’s Park, Whanganui.

Queen’s Park is situated at the heart of Whanganui, a large town on the west coast of the North Island. This memorial tablet stands on the Watt Street side of the park under an archway at the base of the Veterans’ Steps, which lead up to the Sarjeant Gallery. The memorial commemorates 11 private soldiers of the 50th Regiment who fell in action at Nukumaru on 25 January 1865.

The battle of Nukumaru was fought during Lieutenant-General Duncan Cameron’s west coast campaign of early 1865. Governor George Grey instructed Cameron to first occupy Crown land at Waitōtara, then engage with ‘hostile’ Māori further north. By late January, a large British force was camped at Alexander’s Farm near Kai Iwi, 15 km north-west of Whanganui.

On the morning of 24 January, 1000 troops marched north along the coast towards the Waitōtara River. The force comprised men of the Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers, the 18th and 50th Regiments, and cavalry. Although Cameron was in attendance, the force was under the operational command of Major-General Richard Waddy.

Late that afternoon the British force made camp near Lake Paetaia. The site, about 15 km north-west of Kai Iwi and 3 km south-east of present-day Waitōtara, was close to the Māori settlement of Nukumaru, which appeared to be abandoned.

Waddy set up defensive posts around the camp. While moving to their allotted position, 80 men of the 18th Regiment under Captain Hugh Shaw were fired on from Nukumaru. As the British advanced, the Māori fell back to an established defensive position. Shaw ordered a withdrawal, but returned close to Māori lines with a small party to recover a wounded man. Exchanges of gunfire continued late into the night.

Four troops were killed in action or died of wounds received during these skirmishes. The dead included Lance-Corporal Patrick Conlin (or Caulin) and Private Patrick Connelly (or Connolly), both of the 2nd Battalion, 18th Foot Regiment. Lieutenant Thomas Johnson (or Johnstone) of the 40th Regiment was one of those who fell ‘mortally wounded’. For his actions, Shaw was awarded the last of the 14 Victoria Crosses won by imperial servicemen during the New Zealand Wars.

The next day – 25 January – up to 600 Māori crept towards the British position under cover of flax and fern. At 2 p.m. they charged. Two outlying British defensive positions were overrun, with many men killed by pātītī (tomahawk). British cavalry and infantry entered the fray, with hand-to-hand fighting north and west of the camp. The attackers were finally driven off by rounds from two 6-pounder Armstrong guns.

Thirteen British troops were killed and 32 wounded that day. The British found 10 Māori dead after the engagement, but a later account by a Māori veteran of the battle suggested that 23 Māori were killed. Almost all the bodies recovered – British and Māori – were buried on the battlefield.

The British force reached the Waingongoro River – nearly 100 km north-west of Whanganui – on 31 March. It advanced no further and, despite having engaged the enemy at Nukumaru and Te Ngaio (13 March), it was regarded by many in political and military circles as a failure. This was Cameron’s last campaign in New Zealand; he left the colony in August.

Nearly three decades later, in March 1892, the remains of British troops killed in action at Nukumaru were exhumed after a fire destroyed the headboards and fence there. C. Burnett, honorary secretary of Whanganui’s Soldiers’ Monument Committee, wrote an account of the sombre, week-long task in his diary. Extracts were published in the Wanganui Chronicle on 5 April.

Burnett travelled to Nukumaru on 14 March. He was accompanied by Sergeant-Major McMillan, ‘Wilkins’ the gravedigger and ‘Williams’ the carter. The son of local farmer William Handley acted as their guide. That afternoon,

McMillan pointed out the remains of a mound at the N.W. end of the burying ground (which was situated on the top of a razor-back sandhill or ridge…), where he said a number of natives were buried in one grave, and pointed out that the soldiers were buried in graves commencing close to the … mound. Wilkins and his mate Williams at once began to dig

Burnett and McMillan left the site soon afterwards, so the rest of Burnett’s account is second-hand. He reported that Wilkins and Williams recovered the remains of 16 men during the week and were ‘quite satisfied that they have got all the remains within the enclosure.’ This number corresponds with evidence from other sources, which state that Lieutenant Johnstone – the 17th man killed at Nukumaru – was buried at Heads Road Cemetery in Whanganui.

The Nukumaru remains were reinterred in Whanganui on 19 March 1892. The hilltop site now occupied by the Sarjeant Gallery had been selected for the Queen’s Park lion memorial, which was unveiled there on 19 December 1893. The memorial and the troops’ remains were relocated to their current position at the foot of the Veteran Steps about 1919. It is currently unclear when the 50th Regiment erected this gravestone-style memorial, which is situated nearby.

The reasons for commemorating the men listed on the two plaques that flank the Nukumaru memorial plaque are also unclear. It is possible that these men were veterans of Nukumaru or other New Zealand Wars engagements in the Whanganui region. The two flanking plaques may have been added later, after the central Nukumaru memorial was erected.

Some of the names on these flanking plaques are easy to identify. ‘T.D. Cummins, Wanganui Yeomanry Cavalry’ is almost certainly Senior Sergeant Thomas Dick Cummins of the Wanganui Volunteer Cavalry. In 1871, Cummins won ‘the first Cavalry Champion Belt that has been shot for in the Colony’.

However, many plaques contain discrepancies that make positive identification more difficult. ‘T. Wixcey, H.B.M.’, for example, is almost certainly Hawke’s Bay militiaman Thomas Wixey. ‘Wellington Ranger C. Tuffin’ may in fact be Wanganui Ranger George Tuffin, while ‘J. Dempsey, Wanganui Militia’ is likely to be Private James Dempsey, Napier Militia.

Many of the names, or close variants of them, appear on lists of officers and men of the colonial forces who were entitled to receive the New Zealand War Medal for their services. Of those men positively identified, their absence from the official casualty lists suggests that they survived the New Zealand Wars.

Additional images

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Sacred / to the memory of / Jonathan Fisher, / Smith Hargraves, / Joseph Gould, / William Erwin, / George F. Poole, / William Vine, / William Land, / Michael Murphy, / John Renny, / Henry Paris, / Robert Ridyard, / of the 50th (Queen’s Own) Regiment / who were killed in action at / Nukumaru / on the 25th January 1865, / This stone is erected by the / officers, / non-commissioned officers / and privates of the / 50th (Queen’s Own) Regiment.

Left-hand plaque

C.H. Parker 18th R. [Regiment] /
J.J. Hunter [18th Regiment] /
H. Crawley [18th Regiment] /
W. Forsyth [18th Regiment]/
J.K. Revell T.V. [Taranaki Volunteers] /
C. Greenway [Taranaki Volunteers] /
J.W. Hoskin [Taranaki Volunteers] /
G.W. Grey [Taranaki Volunteers] /
E. Wright [Taranaki Volunteers] /
J. Jones K.I.C. [Kai Iwi Cavalry] /
J. Handley [Kai Iwi Cavalry] /
S. Wright [Kai Iwi Cavalry] /
R.R. Adams 3rd N.R. /
C. Tuffin Wel.R. [Wellington Rangers] /
T. Wixcey H.B.M [Hawkes Bay Militia] /
W. Bishop C.T. /
S. Curtis T.M.S. [Taranaki Military Settlers] /
C. Billinghurst 65th R. [Regiment] /
G. Carson A.M. /
Hori Kerei N.C. [Native Contingent] /

Right-hand plaque

T. Hickman A.C. [Armed Constabulary] /
J. Collard [Armed Constabulary] /
G. Thomas [Armed Constabulary] /
J.W. Griffiths [Armed Constabulary] /
J.E. Drummond [Armed Constabulary] /
J. Stevenson W.M. [Wanganui Militia] /
J. Anderson [Wanganui Militia] /
J.M. May [Wanganui Militia] /
G. McCulloch [Wanganui Militia] /
J. Dempsey [Wanganui Militia] /
J.E. Wilson [Wanganui Militia] /
J.W. Russell W.Y.C. [Wanganui Yeomanry Cavalry] /
G.S. Davis W.Y.C. [Wanganui Yeomanry Cavalry] /
E.N. Liffiton [Wanganui Yeomanry Cavalry] /
A. Strachan [Wanganui Yeomanry Cavalry] /
W. Gibson [Wanganui Yeomanry Cavalry] /
B. Sherriff [Wanganui Yeomanry Cavalry] /
T.D. Cummins [Wanganui Yeomanry Cavalry] /
D. Lind [Wanganui Yeomanry Cavalry] /
G. Armstrong [Wanganui Yeomanry Cavalry] /
A. Kincade 18th R. [Regiment] /
J. Farrell [18th Regiment] /
R. McConacle [18th Regiment] /
T. Carey [18th Regiment]

Further information

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1 comment has been posted about Nukumaru NZ Wars memorial, Whanganui

What do you know?

april hill

Posted: 30 Aug 2012

Hi, I think there is a possibility that the sgt major McMillan mentioned is my great great grandfather Thomas McMillan who was a drill sgt in the 2nd batallion of the 18th royal irish regiment. I would be interested in hearing from any other McMillan relatives.