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St John's Church Māori NZ Wars memorial

Old St John’s Church, in Arawata Street in Te Awamutu, is Waikato’s oldest surviving building. Constructed in 1853, it was originally part of a Church Missionary Society mission station which had been established near Ōtāwhao pā in 1841. New St John’s Church was built in 1965 alongside the old church.

This memorial obelisk stands in front of new St John’s Church. It commemorates Māori supporters of the Kīngitanga who died from wounds received at Hairini and Ōrākau between February and April 1864. Their remains were interred on or near this site at the request of George Selwyn, the first Anglican Bishop of New Zealand.

About 1200 troops led by Lieutenant-General Duncan Cameron reached Te Awamutu at dawn on 21 February 1864 after a daring night march from Te Rore which outflanked a defensive line centred on Pāterangi. Cameron immediately pushed on to Rangiaowhia, 5 km further east. Following an engagement in which several troops and a dozen Māori – including women and children – were killed, Cameron withdrew his forces to Te Awamutu.

That night and early the next day, the Māori defenders left their positions on the Pāterangi line. They reoccupied Rangiaowhia and began entrenching a defensive position on Hairini Ridge, between Te Awamutu and Rangiaowhia. On the afternoon of 22 February, the British attacked. After a brief artillery bombardment, troops rushed the position and the 400 Māori defenders fell back. British casualties numbered 22, just two of whom were killed. Māori casualties may not have reached double figures.

More than a month later, on the morning of 31 March, the British attacked a fighting pā that had just been built at Ōrākau, 4 km south-east of Rangiaowhia. Most of its 300 defenders – up to a third of whom were women – were Tūhoe, Ngāti Raukawa and Ngāti Maniapoto; others represented Waikato and East Coast tribes. In command was the Ngāti Maniapoto chief, Rewi Maniapoto.

For three days Ōrākau’s defenders repelled all British attacks. Short of food, water and ammunition, they could not fight for much longer. In the early afternoon of 2 April, the British sought their surrender. The defenders responded with their now famous declaration of defiance: ‘Ka whawhai tonu mātou, āke, āke, āke! / We shall fight on forever!’

Later in the afternoon, Ōrākau’s defenders left the pā and broke through the British lines. As they headed south towards the Pūniu River, mounted men of the Colonial Defence Force and Royal Artillery ran them down. The Māori suffered heavy casualties; up to 160 were killed, and 40 wounded. British casualties were 16 killed and 53 wounded, some mortally. Ōrākau was to be the last engagement of the Waikato War.

There is evidence that at least 36 European and six Māori men were interred at St John’s cemetery during and after the war.

In February 1880, local residents expressed concern at the state of soldiers’ graves in St John’s cemetery and urged the government to grant a sum ‘sufficient to defray the expenses of erecting a stone obelisk’. Inscribed with the names, such a memorial would ‘save from oblivion the memory of those Europeans and friendly natives who lost their lives in the Waikato War.’

In July 1880, concerns about the ‘sadly neglected state’ of the graves remained unresolved. The Waikato Times reported that ‘several of the memorial slabs have rotted away and now lie underfoot, and unless some steps be taken all record of “the poor inhabitant below” will be lost.’ Reverend J. Phillips continued local efforts to persuade the government to erect a memorial.

In 1882, Sergeant Joshua Foster of the New Zealand Constabulary Force compiled an official report on soldiers’ burial grounds in Waikato. At St John’s, Foster found graves of officers and men who had died at Ōrākau. The ground was overrun with scrub and nettles, and the headboards were dilapidated. Foster also reported that:

‘on the west corner of ground, two boards had been erected by the soldiers of the 65th Regiment to the memory of the natives who fell in the action at Rangiaohia and Orakau. The boards are in a good state of preservation only requiring painting and recreating on four new puriri posts.’

Later that year, £12 10s was allocated for repairs to the graves.

On 21 October 1884, the Waikato Times mentioned a Constabulary Force visit to St John’s that had taken place two years previously, when ‘a sergeant and party of A.C. were sent here to improve (?) the graves’. The mounds marking the graves were levelled – ‘dug over’ – and the tablets inscribed with names removed. The party had, according to the Times, done everything possible to ‘efface the memory of the dead from the minds of the people’. It is unclear whether the sergeant mentioned was Foster.

To compound matters, the much-anticipated memorial had not transpired. It was ‘still in the quarry, and by all appearances likely to remain there’. One visitor thought it ‘strange that nothing was done to honour the memory of those who lost their lives in the service of their country’.

In April 1885, a deputation from Te Awamutu’s town board welcomed the visiting Premier, Robert Stout. John Teasdale asked Stout ‘whether an obelisk, or some monument, as promised by a previous Government’, would be erected at St John’s. According to the Waikato Times, the Premier ‘went down to the churchyard and took notes on the subject, and said it would be looked into’.

In 1888 the government erected a general memorial at St John’s. This was dedicated to imperial and colonial troops and kūpapa – Māori allied to the government – who had died during the Waikato War and were interred nearby. It would be another 30 years before a separate memorial to the Māori fallen was considered appropriate.

The Department of Internal Affairs eventually became interested in the Māori graves at St John’s cemetery. On 11 June 1913 Edith Statham, the Inspector of Old Soldiers' Graves, suggested that a ‘small monument’ stand over a plot of ground in which it was believed six kūpapa were buried. She envisaged a memorial like that erected at Ōpōtiki. Auckland monumental masons McNab and Mason were contracted to undertake the work in early 1914.

The project took an unexpected turn. While researching the memorial’s inscription, Statham discovered that the Māori interred at St John’s were not kūpapa. This was confirmed by F.W. Clarke, Minister of St John’s, in a letter to the Department dated 17 March 1914:

‘They were not friendly natives but men wounded in the battles of Hairini and Orakau and who died in the field hospital at Te Awamutu. I think you will agree with me however, that it would be a graceful act on the part of the government to show a kindly appreciation of the conspicuous bravery of the Maoris even though they fought against us. I feel sure it would do much to cement the friendship of the two races especially in this district.’

Clarke suggested an inscription dedicated to these ‘Maori warriors’. His proposal was approved by Statham, who felt that it would ‘do much to cement the good feeling existing between us and our sometime foe’. The next day Clarke wrote again to the Department, suggesting changes to the proposed inscription. He wanted to replace the word ‘warriors’ with the word ‘heroes’, and add a Māori translation. In his view, it was ‘absolutely necessary to have it in Maori if it is to fulfil the object in view’. Clarke also sent these changes directly to McNab and Mason.

James Hislop, the Under-Secretary for Internal Affairs, responded to Clarke nine days later. While Hislop accepted Clarke’s suggestion regarding the Māori translation, he did not agree with the substitution of ‘heroes’ for ‘warriors’. However McNab and Mason had already inscribed the memorial with Clarke’s wording, which remains on it today.

The St John’s Māori memorial was unveiled by Bishop A.W. Averill of Auckland on 11 June 1914. Two months earlier a memorial bearing the names of Cameron and Rewi Maniapoto had been unveiled at Ōrākau on the 50th anniversary of the battle.

Additional images



Face [A]:
Erected by the N.Z. Government / in memory of the Maori heroes / who fell in the battles of / Hairini and Orakau – 1864 / many of whom lie buried / beneath or near this stone.

Face [B]:
He kowhatu / whakamaharatanga / tenei mo nga / tangata Maori itoa / I hinga I te whawhai / ki Hairini me Orakau / I te tau 1864 / he maha o ratou kua / tanumia ki konei

Further information


Images: Margaret Marks, 2006 and 2008

How to cite this page

St John's Church Māori NZ Wars memorial, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated