Historic Paremata barracks
Not much remains of the Paremata Barracks these days, but nevertheless, the relic is the only remaining example of a colonial stone-built military fort in New Zealand.
The barracks were built in 1846, at a time of unrest between Pakeha and Maori.
Now a fenced- off jumble of bricks, the barracks once cut an imposing figure looking out to Porirua Harbour.
The site was of great significance to Maori.
The fort, positioned at the head of the harbour, was intended to be the centre of a military encampment that would counter any attack on Wellington by warriors Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata.
Although the relationship between Maori and the earliest European settlers in Porirua had been generally peaceful, the involvement of the New Zealand Company led to some violent disputes.
Governor George Grey arrived in Wellington in 1846.
His troops began to construct fortifications in strategic positions around Porirua. He soon had his eye on the Paremata site, because it would give the soldiers a direct view of anyone making their way into the harbour.
Soldiers arrived at the site on April 29, 1846, after a week-long boat trip from Wellington, and were welcomed by cold, wet conditions.
The weather, along with rotting tents and poor rations, led to a threat of mutiny.
This disappeared, however, when Grey decided he wanted to make the barracks a permanent structure, saying: ‘‘A good barrack for 50 men . . . I think it had better be a comfortable brick barrack and not block house.’’
Builders initially had trouble because they couldn’t find firm ground on which to build the foundations.
There was also difficulty locating bricks – the ones made in Porirua didn’t last – and taking them across the harbour was time-consuming.
By the time the barracks were completed, Te Rauparaha had been taken prisoner, and the war had moved out of Wellington.
The type of building chosen was over-ambitious.
It took so long to complete that it was of little use in the war, and cost the colonial government a small fortune.
The top floor of the building, with two turrets at opposite corners, was occupied by troops.
The ground floor was divided into four main rooms – three for officers and a kitchen for the troops – and there was also a store room that held two cells.
In the years following, an officers’ kitchen and guardhouse were built.
According to Rev Richard Taylor, a writer and missionary with the Church Mission Society, the building was very beautiful, and reminded him of ‘‘the castle of Chilon on the lake of Geneva’’.
A township was formed just north of the barracks, with a grocery, butcher, ironmonger and inn. The school was the first in the district, and the largest outside central Wellington.
Several earthquakes took their toll on the barracks in October 1848, and a crack formed from the bottom to the top of the building.
It was evacuated, and men were forced back into makeshift huts, but finally left in 1852. Another major quake caused further damage in 1855.
It was said that Maori believed the destruction caused by the earthquake was the result of a tapu imposed on the area by Te Rangihaeata.
After the troops left, the village lost customers and fell into decay.
The inn was turned into a residence by the Walker family, who repaired the dilapidated barracks. The top floor became a hay loft, and the ground floor was used as a barn.
One of James Walker’s sons built a wooden slide from the top of the east turret wall to the ground, and greased it with butter so he and the village children could toboggan down.
Walker, who was patron of the Plimmerton Football Club, agreed to goalposts being built on the flat land opposite the barracks.
A football team called the Magpies was formed. They wore black and white jerseys.
The Walkers moved to Plimmerton in 1910, and the barracks fell into further disrepair.
It wasn’t until 1959 that a serious effort was made to uncover the site, which had been largely grown over.
In 1959, 20 archaeologists, backed by the Dominion Museum and the National Historic Places Trust, spent about a year excavating the site and revealing the original structure.
They were upset when vandals scattered the brickwork of the original entrance over the 12-metre by 11-metre excavation site.
The area has suffered more damage since, including more recently by vandals who took stones from the structure and created a large hole in one of the remaining walls. In 2004 a chain link fence was put up to discourage further vandalism.
The site is registered by Heritage New Zealand (formerly the Historic Places Trust).
Now: What’s left of Paremata Barracks, after nearly 150 years.