About Albertland

Nestled inside the guardian stone gates of Memorial Park in the bustling North Island, New Zealand town of Wellsfor stands the Albertland Heritage Centre.

While the park itself honours the fallen of the district in wartime, this modest boutique museum is both a memorial to New Zealand settlement and an interactive genealogical archive possibly without equal in many a much grander institution.

In its collection of artefacts and information is the essence of a people who settled the surrounding land in the 19th century and whose descendents are the core of today's community as well as a diaspora that now circles the globe - The Albertlanders.

For Albertland was the name given to a broad swathe of land bordering the huge drowned river valleys that make up the inland sea that is the Kaipara Harbour, one of the largest in the world. It covers 947 square kilometres with an 800 kilometre shoreline and is the basin of five rivers and more than 100 streams.

To the west, between South Head and Pouto on North Head, the mighty Tasman Sea booms across a sometimes treacherous bar. The stretch of water known as The Graveyard speaks volumes of ships and lives lost.

It was to the wild, but fertile, bush-covered catchments of this great harbour and its waterways that the first European settlers came in 1862, following in the footsteps of the tangata whenua, the Maori, then later seafarers, explorers and missionaries.

In England there existed then a National Association for Promoting Special Settlements in New Zealand. After the American Civil War curtailed immigration across the Atlantic, adventurous eyes turned southwards.

One William Rawson Brame advertised in the Birmingham Mercury his intention to form a 'Nonconfirmist Special Settlement Party for New Zealand' to settle a new colony, 'Albert Land', named for the recently deceased Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria.

The response was immediate. Before long 27 emmigrant committees were set up in London and hte provinces and detailed planning for the venture began.

In New Zealand a survey party sent out from Auckland identified the Oruawharo Block on the shores of the northern Kaipara as the centre of the new settlement of the Nonconformist Association. Later the Paparoa and Matakohe Blocks were added to the settlement plan.

The Oruawharo Block contained 30,000 acres of land and eight miles of water frontage but with Paparoa and Matakohe added, the combined range of Albertland was 70,000 acres and 30 miles of coastline.

A settler was granted 40 acres of land on arrival, with a further 40 for his wife, and 20 for each member of his family between the ages of five and 18 years. The first two ships to sail for Albertland were Matilda Wattenbach and Hanover, on May 29, with William Miles leaving on July 29, 1862.

Matilda Wattenbach made the passage in 93 days despite losing her main and mizzen top masts in a storm off South Africa. In all some 3,000 settlers were to make the voyage to the new land. Other vessels making the voyage were Gertrude, Tyburnia, Annie Wilson, John Duncan and Victory. King of Italy was probably the last Albertland ship, arriving in September 1865 although passages were also taken by individual settlers on a number of other craft.

For many, Auckland  was the end of the journey. The would-be pioneers heard about primitive conditions in the North, and so settled down and were absorbed into the business, trade and commerce of the young Auckland, or they moved onwards to other provincial New Zealand homes and farms.

Before leaving England settlers bound for the Albertland scheme had inspected their settlement areas on paper. The plans showed formed roads, property boundaries and township parameters. The land was almost in established pasture they were told. Some settlers had even provided themselves with wagon wheels among other agricultural implements, before leaving England, thinking the wide roads shown on their maps would allow the construction of wagon bodies in Auckland for a leisurely and comfortable journey north.

But after making the long sea journey, many settlers found dense bush and scrub grew to shoreline and simply setting up home on their allotted block required major bush clearing.

The first task for new arrivals was shelter from the elements and immediately work began on temporary homes, using whatever was available from the surrounding bush, split slab wooden sides and a thatch of nikau fronds, an open fireplace lined with ponga ferns and an earthen hearth and floor. Sacks would cover window openings and cooking utensils included an iron kettle, camp ovens and pots. Provisions would consist of flour, sugar, salt, tea, soap, candles, matches, rolled oats and a variety of seeds for a garden. Bags and sacks became very valuable items. Flour sacks, salt bags and rolled-oat bags were often made into underclothes and used for dishcloths and tea towels. Sugar sacks became oven cloths, curtains, floor mats, room dividers and even rain cloaks. They were also actually used to store grain and produce.

Tents were a luxury of the fortunate. A tarpaulin stretched over a frame of poles was more than many had.

By the Spring of 1863, steady progress had been made throughout the Oruawharo Block with 80 families, numbering some 220 souls living there. Paddocks had been cleared, in some cases fenced and sown in grass.

Port Albert was envisaged as a township with houses, artisans, tradesmen, business and professional people, a church, school, newspaper office, temperance lodge, public library, flour and sawmills and so on. Space was set aside for a customs house.

Around the perimeter of the town would be the freehold farms, a typical English town was transposed to the antipodes. Town lots were sold to speculators and never built on and by 1880 the dream of a town at Port Albert had completely faded. It all boiled down to a difficulty of access. With the advent of the railway link to Auckland passing through Wellsford, superceding maritime transport, the commercial emphasis of the region was swiftly transferred. But the Albertlanders remained on their farms, and in other towns that grew as natural centres along with Wellsford - at Te Hana, Kaiwaka, Maungaturoto, Paparoa and Matakohe, with others making their homes further north-west in Ruawai and Dargaville, the latter the northern Kaipara centre of commerce.

Today Port Albert is merely a dormitory enclave of Wellsford, and the 19th century bustle of the Albertlanders has faded into memory. But memory given a huge new lease of life as their descendents seek to discover the past, five and six generations onwards.

At the Albertland Heritage Centre, there is a gallery dedicated to one Harold Marsh and his pioneering work with a camera. The archives contain more than 7,000 of his photographs, on glass plate and film, many of them of family gatherings, of weddings, of public meetings and there are individual portraits, as well as panoramas, a comprehensive record of the life and times of his subjects, against the magnificent backdrop that is the Kaipara, the highway of the past. This impressive collection is complimented by an astonishing genealogical library that traces the lineage of the Albertlanders and their descendents.

From this treasured archive comes the book Images from Albertland.