Pioneer turret NZ Wars memorial, Ngāruawāhia

Pioneer turret NZ Wars memorial, Ngāruawāhia

Nine steamers plied the Waikato and Waipā rivers between 1863 and 1870 to supply the British and colonial military forces stationed in the area. This river fleet was a key means of implementing British strategy during the Waikato War (1863–4). General Duncan Cameron’s plans required complete British control of these waterways.

Three paddle-steamers – Avon, Pioneer and Koheroa – served during the Waikato War, along with four armoured barges and several smaller barges. The fleet enabled the rapid movement of forces and supplies into the Waikato heartland; they also allowed the British to scout, shell and outflank Māori positions.

Cameron began assembling an armoured fleet before the invasion of Waikato on 12 July 1863. The paddle-steamer Avon was purchased in Lyttelton and fitted out for war at Onehunga in 1862. It was armed with a 12-pounder ship’s gun and a Congreve rocket tube, and iron-plated for protection from enemy fire. In addition, four armoured barges were prepared as troop carriers.

Pioneer was the first naval vessel built for the New Zealand government. The shallow-draught paddle-steamer was constructed at Pyrmont, Sydney, by the Australian Steam Navigation Company at a cost of £9500 (equivalent to more than $1 million today). Pioneer was launched on 16 July 1863, left Sydney under tow on 22 September and arrived at Onehunga on 3 October.

The vessel was a flat-bottomed, stern-wheeled paddle-steamer, 43 m long with a 6 m beam. Twin 30 hp engines and a 3.7 m (12 ft) stern wheel enabled a top speed of 9 knots (17 kph). The vessel was fitted with two iron turrets measuring 2.4 m high and 3.6 m in diameter. Positioned fore and aft, these protected 12-pounder Armstrong guns and provided loopholes for troops firing rifles and small arms.

Pioneer’s engine room and other important components were well armoured. On the Waikato River near Meremere, the vessel came under fire from an old ship’s gun acquired by the King Movement. While one round penetrated plating and spoiled a barrel of beef, Pioneer was largely undamaged by the improvised projectiles.

The ship was purpose-built for use on the Waikato River. Although constructed from 3/8 inch (9.5 mm) iron and weighing 304 tons, its draught was only 0.9 m when carrying hundreds of men.

Pioneer was manned by officers and men from Royal Navy ships, including HMS Curaçoa. Its service was comparatively brief. Pioneer was wrecked on the Manukau Bar in 1866 after breaking its moorings at Port Waikato.

This turret from Pioneer stands in the Waikato town of Ngāruawāhia near the confluence of the Waipa and Waikato rivers. It was presented to the town by the government in 1927 and is now located on The Point, close to the band rotunda and the First World War memorial.

Ngāruawāhia, the home of the Māori King, was occupied by the British in early December 1863, soon after their hard-won victory at Rangiriri. For the next few months The Point was a staging depot for the campaign to conquer the fertile land between the Horotiu (upper Waikato) and Waipā rivers. No trace remains of a redoubt built nearby on the site of earthworks that had been hastily thrown up by the Kīngitanga force.

The second Pioneer turret is located in the small town of Mercer, some 50 km north of Ngāruawāhia via State Highway One. Despite being used as Mercer’s police lock-up and later incorporated in the local First World War memorial, it retains more original features than its twin.

Apart from Pioneer’s gun turrets, the major surviving relic of the Waikato River fleet is the iron hulk of HMS Rangiriri, a sister vessel to the Koheroa. This arrived from Sydney too late to see active service but landed the first military settlers at Kirikiriroa (Hamilton) on 24 August 1864. It ran aground on the east bank of the Waikato River in 1889 and served for many years as a retaining wall and diving platform. In 1982 Rangiriri was excavated and moved to its current site opposite Waikato Museum. In 2009 the hulk was lifted, treated and moved to a purpose-built shelter above flood level.

Transcript of information panel


The Pioneer gunboat was built in Sydney / for military operations in the Waikato and / was part of the river fleet used in the British / invasion in 1863–4. It played a crucial role / in transporting hundreds of troops up the / rivers, and was capable of carrying 500 / troops at a time. After the war it was used / for transporting supplies and European / settlers. / It was an iron flat-bottomed stern-wheel / paddle steamer of nearly 3000 tonnes, with a length of 43 metres and a beam of 7 metres, drawing only 1 metre of water when / fully loaded. It was built of 9 millimetre / bullet-proof iron and fitted with four watertight compartments. / Its two gun turrets were pierced for 12 / pounder Armstrong guns and rifles. One / stands here, as a reminder of the war, which / led to the confiscation of Waikato lands. / The other turret is at Mercer.

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4 comments have been posted about Pioneer turret NZ Wars memorial, Ngāruawāhia

What do you know?

Ray Morey

Posted: 21 Apr 2016

I don't think the "Pioneer" ever went beyond Rangiriri. The river beyond the present location of Rangiriri bridge was a maze of shallows and moving islands and at Ohinewai the river ran through a sunken forest. The maori themselves had dug a narrow canoe passage through this obstacle which was later enlarged.
I grew up on the river and worked for Caesar Roose for many years.
regards Ray

Graeme Kenyon

Posted: 16 Mar 2014

Well done. A small point of information: the Pioneer, being very long and a stern-wheeler, was not very manageable and was unable to go up the Waipa river, she never got as far as Te Rore. That section was covered by a smaller vessel, the Avon (actually the first of the iron-clad gunboats on the Waikato. She had independent sider paddles and could turn in her own length.) It was the Avon that got as far as Te Rore. I don't think the Pioneer ever went past Ngaruawahia, at least on the Waipa side.


Posted: 14 Mar 2013

Hi Jimmy - check out the Waikato War: and King Movement Response to war: topics.

Regards, Jamie Mackay


Posted: 13 Mar 2013

This whole text just tells me about the pioneer, I'm looking for what actually happened in ngaruwahia during the waikato wars.