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Society History


After 1953 each current Governor-General accepted the position of Patron of the Society.  In 2008, in a departure from this practice, Emeritus Professor Judith Binney honoured the Society by accepting the position.  After her untimely death, Dame Anne Salmon, Professor of History at the University of Auckland accepted the position and is our current Patron   

The Society set themselves the task of collecting information concerning the names, location and history of local pa sites around Whakatane.  They also formed the nucleus of a museum collection. 

The Society went into recess in 1939; the words “WORLD WAR II” being written in large letters on the page after the minutes of the last meeting.  It must have been sudden, because there is no indication that that was to be the last meeting.  In fact, it later received a letter in reply to one written as a result of a resolution from that meeting.

Some members of the first Society on a field trip to the Hillcrest Estate in November 1933. 
 L-R: RW Archer, CC Southey, Father van Beek (President), WG Beckett, RS Baker, J Connolly, Dr JC Wadmore.  Seated: Hira Hotene.
 PHOTO: Whakatane Museum & Gallery [p11677]

In September 1952 the late Mr HD London, known as "Jack" to members & friends, called a public meeting to gauge the interest in forming a historical Society.  The interest taken by a large number of Whakatane townspeople guaranteed the birth of a Historical Society which they decided to call the "Whakatane & District Historical Society". 

At the first meeting of the society, held on 1 October 1952, the following officers were elected:

Patron: The Hon. W Sullivan MP

President:The Very Rev. JG Laughton

Vice President: Mr IS McHarg

Sec/Treasurer: Mr HD London

Hon Solicitor: Mr JD Buddle

Council: Rev W Rangi, Mr A Breward, Mr C Kingsley-Smith

William Sullivan was also at one time Mayor of Whakatane , and was later knighted for his public services
(the Whakatane Museum has in its collection the KCMG awarded to Sir William).

After 1953 each current Governor-General accepted the position of Patron of the Society.  In 2008 Professor Judith Binney honoured the Society by accepting this position.  During the first meeting a Constitution was drawn up with the aims and objects of the Society taking precedence.  Over the past 57 years the majority of these objectives have not changed, especially those dealing with the formation of a museum and the recording of local history in published form.

By 1958, following several historical displays, members of the Society felt that the time had arrived when consideration should be given to the establishment of a repository for the artefacts and archives that had been collected.  The donation by Gordon Ellis of a valuable collection of early New Zealand historical books, and a collection of artefacts from the Urewera was placed in the care of the Historical Society and provided impetus for moves to establish a permanent home for the Society's collection.

With the establishment of a fund raising Committee a campaign was launched to raise money for a Museum.  In the mean time the collection was housed in the home of the Society's curator whose home took on the appearance of a museum.  The firm of Alleman, Land, Heaney and Associates were approached and plans for a museum were drawn up.  The final plan provided for 5,200 sq ft. The original intention was that the Museum should be erected by 1967 when Whakatane was to celebrate its 100th year of European settlement.  But fundraising had not progressed as expected. The project took second place behind other celebrations.

Two key members of the Society, President HGD (Dave) White and Anton van der Wouden, spent many hours setting up the exhibition and readying the museum for opening in February 1972.  The vision of Dr Wadmore & Sir Peter Buck was at last realised forty years after they had suggested a museum for Whakatane.

From 1972 to 1976 no permanent staff were employed by the Borough Council for the Museum, and the Historical Society managed the Museum with a volunteer roster.  Dave White, Anton van der Wouden and Errol Westgate made extensive contributions with their time, Anton being basically a full time unpaid curator.  In 1976 Anton van der Wouden was appointed full time Curator of the Museum, on a salary as a member of the staff of the local District Council.

In 1978 when the first extension was being added the Society once again made a major financial contribution to the Museum.  Funding assistance was provided for new display cases.  During this time the floor space of the Museum was doubled. 

During the 1990s the Historical Society assisted the growth of the HD London Library with donations to purchase books and the microfilm of the Tauranga Newspaper Bay of Plenty Times from 1872-1911.  In 1996, with assistance from the Beacon, Whakatane Genealogical Society, Whakatane District Council and the Lottery Grants Board, the Society purchased a microform reader/printer for the Museum at a cost of $19,000.  This has proved to be an invaluable resource and is constantly used and appreciated by the researchers who spend time in the Library. 

The Society again, in 1990, when fundraising began to double the Museum Space, contributed significant funds towards the project, at the same time conducting a district-wide fund-raising campaign.  Members of the Society made personal contributions of $12,000 and the Society donated $25,000 of its surplus funds to the extension project. 

Also at the time of the second extension fundraising project $7,000 was raised through the efforts of the Secretary Errol Westgate for shelving and display furniture in the new Gallery.  The Whakatane Beacon and Trust Bank bought the extra wide shelving to house the back copies of the Beacon newspaper from 1939.  The Society purchased three large tables for the research library reading room.  Later on the St John Ambulance Association and Bay of Plenty Power Board purchased mobile shelving to house their archive collections in the research library. 

In 1996 the Museum displays were updated and reorganised.  In addition to the huge volunteer contribution of the Society's members a donation of $5,000 was made towards the project.


Whakatane Museum - as described above.

Whakatane High School Prize - The Society sponsors the JC Wadmore Memorial prize at Whakatane High School for the best Student in 5th & 6th form History. The prize consisting of book vouchers has been supported by the Society for more than 25 years. It is hoped through sponsoring such prizes that Students are encouraged to take an interest in Historical and heritage issues.

Fort Galatea - The Society brought pressure on the Lands & Survey Department to protect the Fort Galatea site. The efforts paid off and the site is now protected and the Department of Conservation has erected 5 signs to explain the history of the site. 

Kapu-te-Rangi - In 1967 the Governor-General announced two gifts to the people of Whakatane. The first being 358 acres of land at Kohi Point and the second 10 acres of land centred on Kapu-te-Rangi (Toi-kai-rakau's pa), a site which has the longest known history of any spot in New Zealand. The Society had for a long time sought to gain recognition of these sites and to protect them for future generations. 

Guerrin's Mill Site Memorial - The Society played a Major role in the creation of a memorial to Jean Guerren. Unveiled on June 1965 the memorial celebrated the memory of the gallant Frenchman Jean Guerren who defended Te Poronu Flour Mill to the death. The unveiling brought to a successful conclusion a dream the Society has cherished for 10 years.

The Memorial is situated on the roadside of the Whakatane-Taneatua main highway and lies some 100 metres from the actual site of the mill.  The monument contains one of the grindstones supplied by the Government to replace those destroyed by Te Kooti in 1869. The second Millstone can be found at Wairaka Marae at the base of the flagpole. Mr D.C. Butler, Chairman of the Whakatane County Council accepted the Monument on behalf of the people of the District and formally handed it over to Mr Ken Moore, President of the Society, for safe keeping. 

Scholarship Trust - described below.


During the Society's first six years, 1952-1957, members were supplied with Newsletters.  In 1958 the Society's Council decided to publish a Journal - Historical Review - starting with 4 copies a year.  Now in its 57th year, members receive two copies a year.  Historical Review has been a success and the Society has 400 members listed throughout New Zealand and overseas.  In 1984 the Tauranga Historical Society amalgamated their Journal with the Historical Review, which now has the sub-title "Bay of Plenty Journal of History", and now take 100 copies of the journal for their members.

Probably the most important change was in 1979 when the Society decided to purchase its own printing press.  This allowed the Society to publish the Historical Review and a number of Memoirs and Monographs and books on various aspects of local history.  The output of the Historical Review would not have been possible without the help of many volunteers whose input continues and is essential in keeping the work of the Society continuing. 

Monographs and Memoirs for the Society continue to be published with the most recent being a Memoir on the Kohika archaeological excavations near Matata. 


In 1959 Dr Gordon Ellis bequeathed to the Whakatane Historical Society an important collection of rare and early New Zealand Books.  In accordance with his wishes the collection is known as the "Gordon Ellis Collection". Dr Ellis was a serious and discriminating collector of books dealing with the history of New Zealand particularly the 18th and 19th centuries.  Among the books donated are Angus's New Zealanders, and valuable books by Nicholas 1817, Cruise 1823, Polack 1840, Dieffenbach 1843 and a set of 8 volumes and a folio of plates being Captain Cook's accounts of his voyages to New Zealand and the South Seas.

Whakatane was particularly fortunate that Dr Ellis chose to leave his collection to the town where he settled in 1951. The funds Dr Ellis left to the Historical Society continue to accrue interest and are used to purchase further books for the Museum Library adding annually to the impressive collection.

Two further bequests, from Rev. Starnes and  Gordon Coates, of rare early New Zealand history books, helped build up a very valuable collection of books; many no longer available to buy anywhere.


A Research Library located in the Museum & Gallery in Boon Street.  The Library contains archives, maps, charts, plans, photographs, scrapbooks, personal files, newspapers and books. A number of Periodicals is also held and include various historical journals: New Zealand Geographic, New Zealand Genealogist, Journal of the Polynesian Society, New Zealand Journal of History, Archaeological Association Newsletter and many others. Included among the archives are records of Whakatane County Council, Whakatane Harbour Board, Records of clubs and organisations, school records, family papers and immigrant diaries. 

The Library also has a large selection of War publications such as the Times History of war, Official History of New Zealand in WWII (47 Volumes) and The History of the Great European War 1914 (10 Volumes). A near full set of New Zealand Year books is held, New Zealand Statutes and Electoral Rolls. 

A varied selection of Newspapers is held including the very first copy of the first Whakatane newspaper, the Whakatane Times and Opouriao Advocate dated 11 February 1899.  Others include Opotiki News and Kawerau Gazette/Eastern Bay News and Bay Weekend.  The Whakatane District Council's newsletter Byways and BOP Regional Council's newsletter are also collected.  For those with an interest in Family Research the library has a copy of the HJ Fletcher index of Maori names, An index to the Maori Land Court Minutes Books for the Waiariki rohe, Post Office Phone lists 1925-1935, Cemetery Records, Electoral Rolls, Town Directories, and biographical files compiled from newspapers, publications and exchanges with families. 


The concept to place surplus funds into a scholarship trust was suggested to the Whakatane & District Historical Society by the first Curator of the Museum Anton van der Wouden.  He envisaged a fund which would enable students whose home base is in the EBOP to apply for grants to assist with tertiary study.  At that time there were very few scholarships for EBOP students available.  The Society accepted the proposal for an Educational Trust and it was duly established.

In 1996 the Society granted $80,000 of its surplus capital towards the founding of the Whakatane Historical Society Scholarship Trust. The Trust provides scholarships for Students from the EBOP who are studying at tertiary Institutions.  Scholarships must be on an aspect related to New Zealand issues, and copies of completed works are deposited in the Museum Library. 

The Trust has a page on this website where more information is available. Click Here


Te Kohika pa was discovered in November 1974 by the then owner of the land Mr Phil Jessup, who was employing a dragline to drain part of the area.  A line of palisade posts standing upright were providentially exposed by the digger lining one side of the new drain.

Mr Jessup promptly informed Anton van der Wouden, the Curator of the Whakatane District Museum, who called in two experienced amateur archaeologists, Dave White and Ken Moore, from the Whakatane & District Historical Society.

The Society undertook an exploratory excavation and from the line of palisade posts and large quantity of artefacts that turned up in the drain and the excavated spoil it was soon apparent that this site was extremely important nationally, and too big for the Society to handle on its own.  So staff and students of Auckland University's Department of Anthropology were quickly involved and Dr Geoff Irwin started systematic excavations in May 1975.

Further excavations were conducted by Auckland University in the following two summer vacation periods.

The wetland site posed major technical problems as the excavations tended to fill up with water and had to be pumped out.  Also most of the many hundreds of finds were waterlogged and had to be kept wet before undergoing long-term treatment to preserve them. This was carried out in Auckland by the University under the direction of Mr Karel Peters and later of Dr Rod Wallace and Ms DilysJohns.  

The conservation treatment involves replacing the water in waterlogged wooden objects with a plastic called polyethylene glycol.  This stops the wood from shrinking and cracking when it is freeze dried afterwards.  The process is very slow because the polyethylene glycol solution has to make its way into the wood to replace the water.  A small object can take 6 months to treat and a large one several years.

This technique was so new to this country at the time of the Te Kohika excavations in the late 1970s that it had to be studied overseas by Mr Peters.  The Te Kohika collection therefore resulted in the creation of a whole new conservation laboratory at Auckland University, which has since become the country's leading one for the treatment of waterlogged material.

Though much of what we know about Te Kohika has been gained from the evidence found during the excavation process and the later study of the artefacts, a great deal has been obtained from related studies.

For example soil studies have given us the date of the dune on which Te Kohika was built, as well as an idea of what the surroundings were like at the time and how they changed. 

Pollen studies show what plants were growing nearby and that human activities started in the area around 1000AD.  Also that the absence of pollen from European species shows that Te Kohika pa was abandoned before Europeans arrived. 

Studies have also been made on such things as shellfish remains, fish bones and coprolites (archaeologist-speak for turds), which give a good idea of what the people and their kuri (dogs) ate.

All the wealth of information about Te Kohika pa and its people was brought together in Society Memoir Number 9 in 2004.  This was produced jointly with the participation of the University of Auckland Department of Anthropology, Ngati Awa and the Whakatane & District Historical Society, and jointly published by the Society and Auckland University Press.

The Te Kohika Collection

The major part of the Te Kohika Collection was brought back from Auckland to the district on 8 May 1998 by Geoff lrwin of the University of Auckland Department of Anthropology, accompanied by Pouroto Ngaropo representing Ngati Awa. 

The return of the Te Kohika Collection was first acknowledged at Umutahi Marae, Matata, before the taonga were welcomed at the Whakatane District Museum & Gallery. 

The Te Kohika Collection presented some complex ownership issues which required considerable negotiation between Ngati Awa and the Whakatane & District Historical Society who had been responsible for the recovery and preservation of the earliest parts of the collection.  Resolution was achieved with the signing of an agreement whereby the Society handed ownership of the collection to Te Runanga o Ngati Awa and with the appointment of Trustees to manage the Te Kohika Collection, comprising a majority of Te Runanga o Ngati Awa representatives, as well as a representative each from other iwi and the Whakatane & District Historical Society in recognition of their associations with the collection.  The Trustees have placed the Te Kohika Collection on loan to the Whakatane District Museum & Gallery for the time being.

The signing of the Agreement between the Society and Te Runanga o Ngati Awa on 24 March 1999. 
 L-R: Isobel Fox, Tiena Jordan (Society President), Hirini Mead (Runanga Chairman), Layne Harvey, Dave White, Noti Belshaw, John Wilson.
PHOTO: Whakatane Museum & Gallery [p8875]

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