The man and I have been away on a short break to the Bay of Plenty. We have visited the place often. The man spent the first seven years of his life here and has the finely tuned instincts of a homing pigeon. Fortunately, I enjoy the area too.
This time round we stayed at Omokoroa, a laid back beach community, which is about 14 kilometres from downtown Tauranga. Like all good holidays, the days were spent doing what we wanted, when we wanted. Perfect.
As part of this trip, the man and I decided to visit the The Elms in Tauranga. It was our first to this home and we were mightily impressed. Originally called Te Papa Mission House, it was built for the Church Missionary Society (CMS) over an eight year period. On its completion in 1847, Archdeacon Alfred Nesbit Brown, his wife, Charlotte, and their two children, Alfred Grant and Marianne Celia, swapped years of living in a basic raupo dwelling for life in this substantial kauri residence, considered by many to be New Zealand’s finest late Georgian house.
In 1873 the Archdeacon and his second wife, Christina, purchased the home, various outbuildings and 17 acres from the CMS and renamed it ‘The Elms’. Alfred predeceased his wife and on her death, the property bypassed the Archdeacon’s only living child, Marianne Celia*, being left instead to Christina’s nieces. Unusually, the house remained in this family until 1999, when it was sold to the Elms Foundation, a charitable trust.
On the day we visited, the grounds were stunning. Now considerably smaller than the original 17 acres, it is planted with old fashioned English flower beds, beautiful English trees and New Zealand natives in sympathy with the age of the house.
After wandering around the garden and looking through the windows of an assortment of outbuildings including the library, which is reputed to be the oldest in New Zealand, bake house, dairy, and a rebuilt chapel, we opted for a guided tour. The man and I consider this well spent money: a good guide we have found will add breadth and depth to a visitor’s experience far in excess of either the most comprehensive guide book or audio tour. In this case, the tour was on demand – yes, folks, the man and I had our own escort and she knew her history.
By using both pictorial records and expert input, the house is being faithfully restored to original by the trust. Unlike many historic homes, the furniture in situ belonged to the family – this is thanks, in part, to the cavernous cellar under the house, which although designed as a hideaway for the occupants in case of attack became a default storage facility for the family’s discarded chattels in later years.
The room that brought the history of the place alive to the man and me was the dining room. Sporting a huge, sectional, mahogany table which had been brought out from England by the Archdeacon, this was the room where the English officers who were to engage in the Battle of Gate Pa the following day (29 April 1864) dined with Brown and his family. Christina played the piano, prayers were said, and, according to records, a jolly good night was had by all. By nightfall the following day, all the military men who had been present at the dinner had lost their lives in the conflict, bar one.**
The Mission graveyard is a short walk away from The Elms and buried between the graves of Brown, his family, and other civilians are the mortal remains of all the soldiers and sailors who died in the Battle of Gate Pa, and in the later skirmish at Te Ranga. This is also the final resting place for some of the Maori warriors who perished in the same conflicts. ***
Like all good tours, we left feeling that we had gained an understanding of life at that time in history and a need for further information. To this end, we drove to Gate Pa. One hundred and fifty odd years later, there is little evidence of a bloody encounter being fought here. Dotted along the concrete path, however, are storyboards of the battle. One board mentions that in the tree filled gully bordering the site the remains of fallen warriors killed that day lie in unmarked graves. A poignant reminder that a ‘to the death’ fight had taken place in this now tranquil park.
During the drive back to Omokoroa, the man and I discussed The Elms and Gate Pa. We had enjoyed dipping our toes into the history of the area. The guide had done a superb job: she had told the story of the house and the times. She had whetted our appetite for more information. She had also, unknowingly, provided us both with a kernel of an idea.
You see, in our reconstructed life, the man and I want to give back. I should say give back again – we have been involved with volunteering before, but we got too busy and forgot to factor it into our lives anymore.
The problem we were facing was we didn’t know where we wanted to put our energies. Volunteering in a historic home is, we think, the answer. I can see myself being a guide. The man fancies helping with maintenance. It is doable.
By giving back, we are contributing something worthwhile to society. For us, it is an important part of living a balanced lifestyle. It will go on the list.
*Marianne Celia Brown, known as Celia by family, married Rev Dr. John Kinder.