From Hellhole to Tourist Delight - Russell
1 November 2022
If you’ve been labelled the “Hellhole of the Pacific” it must be a hard slog back to respectability but Russell has pulled it off. Admittedly it took 200 years and a name change (from Kororāreka), but nevertheless it is now one of the most delightful holiday destinations in the Bay of Islands.
Russell is a charming town, off the main tourist drag, but very easily accessible.
Māori were well settled here when Europeans arrived and found a fertile, sheltered harbour with the remains of many local pā sites attesting to long-term residency. Known then as Kororāreka it was a small coastal community which was recognised by seafarers as an ideal place to rest and restock. Its reputation as a hellhole came from the whalers, convicts and other adventurers who established it as a useful but lawless trading centre in the 1830s. Attempts to enforce British law culminated in the treaty signed by local chiefs and British representatives just across the water at Waitangi in 1840.
Today there are two ways to reach Russell; both involve a ferry. (There is a third way avoiding ferries but it’s a long drive.)
Stop in Paihia and take the passenger ferry across the bay – a delightful 15-minute cruise which goes every half hour or so in summer, every hour in winter. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to get those gorgeous offshore photos. When you land at the pier in Russell you can step into the tourist office for all the information you want. This ferry is a great choice if your accommodation is in Paihia or if you’re on a day trip.
Alternatively, drive 10 minutes to Ōpua and take the vehicle ferry which shuttles back and forth all day. A few more minutes driving on the other side and you’ll be in Russell complete with your own transport.
Russell is charming, quaint, peaceful and historic. It’s not known for its designer shops or wild night life – although there was dancing in the aisles at the Town Hall when we went over for a Dave Dobbyn concert some years back. If you want bright lights you’d best go to a big centre, but if you’re after a pleasant day drinking coffee in the sun with interesting places to visit, a good dash of history, some nice walks – here’s your ideal spot.
I like wandering, but if you prefer expert information take the tour bus. It departs from the wharf and the local guides will tell you plenty of colourful stories about Russell’s European beginnings as a place of violence and ill repute. They’ll explain how the lawlessness came about, how local Māori reacted and how the whole mess erupted in the Battle of Kororāreka. You will marvel at how peaceful it all is today. And Russell is hilly so the tour bus will get you around without making you puff.
Otherwise ask at the tourist office or look for the map at the end of the wharf and do one of the four heritage walks. My favourite will take you on a flat walk round town past all the places of interest including old buildings, old trees, an old cannon and an old whaling boat. I can recommend it if you’re happy to be independent, you don’t want hills, and you’re looking for coffee en route.
It’s de rigueur to walk along the narrow waterfront. From the north end you’ll pass a splendid cottage which served as custom house, then police station and is, apparently, now the local policeman’s residence (lucky officer). It has a massive 200-year-old Moreton Bay fig growing outside.
Next door is the magnificent Duke of Marlborough Hotel which claims to have been “refreshing rascals and reprobates since 1827” when it was established as Johnny Johnston’s Grog Shop. Johnny soon changed the name to The Duke of Marlborough in an effort to bring some elegance and respectability to his establishment and he managed to obtain New Zealand’s first liquor licence in 1840.
The building was burnt down during the Battle of Kororāreka in 1845 and again in 1931. The existing building originally housed telegraph workers down the coast at Cable Bay. It was shipped to Russell and manoeuvred into place by steam traction engines in 1932. Since then it has undergone many renovations to produce the elegant building it is today.
The Duke sits right on the waterfront and there’s a verandah along its full length. Step into the reception for a taste of old glamour – a chandelier, gilt mirrors and a fine old wooden staircase. If you’re looking for top-rate accommodation book yourself into one of the waterfront rooms. They’ve recently been renovated and they’re splendid, just the place to sit and watch the sunset.
Keep walking past The Duke along the waterfront and you’ll come to the main town square with its supermarket and other interesting little shops. Here is the end of the pier where you’ll find a map and information about the heritage walks. Snap it on your phone and you’ll have all you need for a fine walk.
The waterfront is lined with pōhutukawa trees planted 90 years ago by the Russell Progress League, a society formed to beautify the town. Enthusiastic locals replaced the pine trees that previously stood there, with the iconic New Zealand Christmas tree. It was a farsighted venture and the trees will be there for another hundred years. It would be worth a visit in December just to see them flowering.
A little further you will see an old cannon pointing out to sea. It acted as ballast when it was brought to New Zealand in 1840 and was used to defend the town against Hōne Heke in the Battle of Kororāreka 1845.
This battle was provoked after Heke chopped down the British flagstaff on Maiki Hill for the fourth time. Local Ngāpuhi were disenchanted with increasing British control. They were disappointed that colonisation had not brought them more prosperity and dismayed that Māori sovereignty was being undermined. When the capital of New Zealand was moved from nearby Okiato to Auckland they felt the economic loss and believed they had been poorly treated by the English whom they had befriended and protected.
Hōne Heke had originally presented the flagstaff to Governor Hobson intending it for the United Tribes flag. With the British ensign flying instead, and the reality of British rule which was quite different from what he had expected, Heke resolved to chop down the pole. It was a symbolic act to indicate his dissatisfaction with life under the English.
Chief Tāmati Wāka Nene tried to liaise between Heke and the British but his influence did not prevail and led to a breakdown in the relationship between Māori factions. Tāmati Wāka Nene went on to support the British against Heke.
It’s a steep climb, but if you walk up the hill you will see the flagpole as it is today and the views are spectacular. Take my advice and drive up. You’ll get exactly the same view and have more breath to enjoy it.
By the time Heke cut down the flagpole for the fourth time the British had brought in reinforcements and were ready to defend themselves. There was much misunderstanding between the two sides and the Battle of Kororāreka flared up in March 1845.
The British eventually evacuated the town and it was looted and ransacked by Heke’s men. Much of the town was razed but the two churches were declared neutral and not to be damaged. Nevertheless stray musket balls reached Christ Church and the holes can still be seen today.
Christ Church is one street back from the waterfront and reputed to be the oldest church in New Zealand. Services are still held here but it has also become a popular tourist attraction. The cemetery has some notable gravestones, in particular that of Chief Tāmati Wāka Nene, as well as original settlers, whaling crew and soldiers killed in the battle. Inside, the pews are covered in cushions which have been hand embroidered by locals. They depict native plants and birds and many other whimsical and historical illustrations. Handcrafters will enjoy looking at the fine handiwork.
Keep going along the waterfront to the museum. Here is the Tāmati Wāka Nene Reserve where you can ponder Russell’s remarkable past while sitting on a seat made out of bricks rescued from the chimney of the great chief’s original cottage. Call in at the Museum for interactive displays, a full history of the town and a chance to buy souvenirs. Take a look at the tiny whale chase boat housed in a nearby shed and marvel at the courage of the men who put to sea in this tiny craft in pursuit of the great creatures of the sea.
Then walk on for the best part – Pompallier Mission and Printery at the south end of the waterfront. It’s worth a visit to Russell for this alone. The guides will tell you it is New Zealand’s oldest surviving industrial building and New Zealand’s oldest rammed earth building. I love it.
The land was bought by French bishop Jean-Baptiste Pompallier in 1839 so that he could establish a Catholic mission. He set up a printery and tannery to produce leaflets and prayer books in Māori. Thousands of texts were printed and distributed free.
Take the tour to learn all about it. It’s enormously interesting. The guides explain how the building was erected using local materials – sand, rock and timber. The old tools and forms they used to accomplish this are still in place. Layers in the walls show how they were slowly built up in situ with manpower and patience.
There is a splendid printing press which was brought out from France with all the necessary accoutrements and workers. Your guide will explain and demonstrate every part of the process – selecting letters from the upper case or lower case, arranging them upside down and back to front on a composing stick, setting each line of print on a galley tray to make a page, correctly orienting four pages on a sheet and fixing them tightly in a chase, making a proof copy to check for mistakes then sending to the printer for printing. Everything was meticulously and expertly done by hand without even the aid of good lighting.
Behind the house are the tanning pits. A tannery was linked to the printery to provide a ready supply of leather for covering books. In Pompallier’s day the scene would have been hellish with the filth and stench of the abattoir, fat rendering, urine pits, tanning pits and half-cured hides. The process included soaking in a barrel of urine from local chamber pots, scraping skins to remove hair and fat (which was then used to polish the hides or make candles), soaking in a tanning solution made from Tasmanian Blackwood, then rubbing, trampling, skiving and working to make the leather pliable and ready to cover books.
Today the tannery is only used for demonstration purposes and is much more salubrious. The next part of the tour takes the visitor upstairs to the binding room. Here the sheets would be folded to make four pages and assembled into sections. The sections would be hand sewn together, glued, attached to end boards and finally bound in leather. The folded pages would be cut open and the book was then ready for distribution.
Local ladies have a small bindery on site where they produce handmade notebooks using these same skills. The notebooks are available for purchase in the gift shop.
Phrases we use today which have come from this industry include ‘upper and lower case letters’, ‘mind your ps and qs’, ‘cut to the chase’, ‘a dab hand’ and ‘skiving off’. The tour will give you a real insight into how such industries have influenced the language.
The printing house became a private residence in the 1850s. Owner and saddler, James Callaghan, continued to work the tannery. Later residents renovated the house, covered the tannery and cleared Bishop Pompallier’s original whare and outhouses. Gardens and orchards were laid out and the hillside was planted as woodland. The house was used for army barracks during World War II and the property subsequently slipped into disrepair until it was handed over to the NZ Historic Places Trust (now Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga) in 1967. At the end of the 1980s the tannery was rediscovered and the property was closed for a complete restoration.
Today it is an excellent place to spend an hour or two, and has been recognised as a Tohu Whenua – one of Aotearoa New Zealand’s best heritage experiences. At the end of the tour take some time to wander in the garden. Much of it was planted in the 1880s resulting in some fine and gnarly old fruit trees today. The woodland planting on the hill behind the house is full of birdlife, and if you make it to the top – a short, sharp climb – you’ll find a seat where you can sit and catch your breath while you admire the view.
Before you leave call in at the gift shop and café to pick up souvenirs and take a little refreshment. The Bay of Islands is a great tourist attraction and Russell may be the very best part.
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