Overlooking the cement works, Limestone Island, Whangarei Harbour. Price, William Archer, 1866-1948 :Collection of post card negatives. Ref: 1/2-001783-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand

The Island's history

Matakohe-Limestone Island has been many different things to many different people over its lifetime. The name Matakohe was given to the island by local Maori in reference to its appearance as a headland when viewed from down the harbour- "Mata"- that was cloaked in kohekohe trees, hence "kohe".

Maori History

The island has long been a significant site for local Maori. Since the late 1700s Te Parawhau have held mana whenua over the island. Sitting as it does in the middle of the access way to the upper Whangarei Harbour, the island was a strategically important site for Te Parawhau and the island's summit was the site of the Matakohe pa site, a terraced pa.

Maori also used the north-face of the island for a very large kumara growing operation - almost the entire face was extensively cultivated to create a ditch and mound system. This  site provided perfect growing conditions for the warmth-loving kumara; the perfect gradient and north-facing aspect to capture late afternoon sun and great drainage from the friable soils. This meant that kumara could be grown later into the year before needing to be stored for winter. The ditch and mounds and storage pits are still present on the island today.

The Te Parawhau tribe remain Tangata Whenua and Kaitiaki of Matakohe, and the cultural and spiritual significance of Matakohe remains as important today for Te Parawhau as it has been for centuries.

European History

The paramount chief of Te Parawhau, Te Tirarau, established good relationships with the European settlers in Whangarei, Maungatapere, Tangiteroria and Dargaville in the early 19th century.

The first European to settle on Matakohe-Limestone Island was Gordon Browne in 1830. He lived on the island with local Maori, making a living by processing flax into fibres for export to Sydney for rope making. He built the first European style 'house' in the Whangarei habour district here, with pit sawn timber walls and kauri shingle roof. He lived on Matakohe until a raiding party from a Waikato tribe attacked the island in 1832 and burned his hut to the ground.

In 1840, Robert Carruth arrived in Whangarei and recognised the need for a small ship to trade between Whangarei and Auckland. He saw the availability of good deep water launching sites on Matakohe and set up his operation here, with Te Tirarau's blessing. He successfully launched a cutter named 'Trial' in 1842 and established the first regular shipping between Auckland and Whangarei.

In 1845, Matakohe and the 'Trial' played another significant role in the early settler history of Whangarei. Hone Heke and his men had just ransacked Kororareka (Russell) and intended to do the same to Whangarei. The settlers asked the local chiefs to give them early warning of the raid with a signal of '2 muskets firing' and the Trial sat anchored off Onerahi ready to transport the settlers to safety. Settlers from isolated areas gathered on Matakohe and remained there until the signal was given. They then boarded the Trial, along with the settlers from Whangarei town who had canoed from Limeburners Creek, and set sail for Auckland. The raid proper however never happened as Te Parawhau chief Te Tirarau forbage Hone Heke from attacking the settlers-  "before the axe strikes the pakeha it must first strike me".

In 1846 Robert Carruth returned from Auckland to build a second ship, a schooner he later named 'Oranoa', meaning narrow escape. Upon his return to the island he realised Matakohe-Limestone could provide a great supply of limestone for manufacturing slaked lime, which was in heavy demand in Auckland to make mortar for the building boom. He undertook a five-year lease from Te Tirarau and began quarrying  and shipping Limestone to Auckland. This business continued until 1850.

The Walton /Edge Era

Meanwhile, a Yorkshireman, Henry Walton had arrived in Whangarei. He married Te Tirarau's niece Kohura, in 1846. She died after the birth of his son in 1847 and Walton later married Pehi, Kohura's sister. After her death in 1856, along with his son from measles, Walton returned to the UK. In 1857, recognising the growing demand for slaked lime and hydraulic lime in New Zealand he returned, with the intention to establish a lime works on Matakohe-Limestone. He obtained a lease from Te Tirarau and set up the works, building the first brick kiln on the island in 1858. He then employed George Edge as his on site manager for the works.

George Edge remained on the island as manager for the next 20 years as the works grew, producing first slaked lime and then later hydraulic lime. Additional kilns were built as well the single-mens quarters (built from hydraulic lime in 1874), which remain standing on the southern side of the island. George Edge also ran the local post office and a trading store on the island as well as a shipping agency for Te Tirarau who owned a vessel named 'Petrel'. His children were the first Europeans born on the island.

Following the Native Lands Act that gave official title for the island to Te Tirarau on behalf of Te Parawhau, Walton purchased the island off Te Tirarau in 1865 for £70. Edge continued to manage the works for Walton until 1876 when the island was sold to John Edwards for farming purposes.

  Cement works, and employees, Limestone Island, Whangarei Harbour. Price, William Archer, 1866-1948 :Collection of post card negatives. Ref: 1/2-001782-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://beta.natlib.govt.nz/records/22884109  

Taking cement to the next level

In 1880, a man named John Schaw Rutherfurd began exploring the potential of making a new kind of cement that had been developed in the UK, from the island's limestone. Rutherfurd took samples of limestone from the island and produced arguably the first Portland cement manufactured in the Southern Hemisphere. Based on his successful trials he then obtained a lease from Edwards and re-established the quarry and cement works.  By 1884 the cement works was in full swing again. Thanks to the quality supply of limestone and the deep water access for ease of shipping cement out and coal in, the works prospered.

In 1896 the works was leased to the Portland Cement Company and then purchased outright for £2000 in 1906. Around this time there was a significant increase in demand for local Portland cement and the works were developed and refurbished extensively to meet this demand. The stately manager's house was built around this time, the cement structure of which is still standing. Fire damaged the works extensively in 1902 and again in 1915 but the works were re-built each time. By 1916 the cement works employed 260 workers the island was home to over 200 people, with its own school, tennis courts and hall. 

Eventually competition with the other local cement works and a dwindling supply of the necessary type of limestone rock on the island led to the cement works being amalgamated with the competing works in 1918 and moved to Portland, its present location.

After the cement works

Once the island works was abandoned, the island ownership past to first to a local farmer and then to agricultural lime manufacturers who continued to quarry the island for limestone, creating the northern quarry and the 'six-pack' quarry at the north-western end of the island. In 1950 this quarrying operation was run by Jack Fisher. He moved with his family to the island and restored the old cement works managers house, with the four children 'commuting' to school by row boat.

The Fishers lived on the island until 1956. Quarrying continued until 1963 and then the island was sold on to the Northland Harbour Board in 1965. The island became a fairly quiet place again, used for grazing and visited by the odd local fisherman or people exploring the ruins. It was also the site of the Harbour Boards quarantine waste incinerator for ships coming into port.

The Island makes some new 'Friends'

From 1965 until the 1980s the island was somewhat neglected. The previous years of industry and grazing had left the island virtually treeless and those that remained were suffering from serious possum damage. Animal pests and weeds abounded and the ruins were often the target of vandalism. Enter the Royal Forest & Bird Protection Society - Northern Branch, founded in 1986. The members had a new vision for the island; to see its cloak of coastal forest restored, native birds and other fauna returned, and to have the island open to the public as a reserve. A submission was made to the Harbour Board's draft 'Whangarei Harbour Study' and the lobbying began. This initial proposal for a reserve was declined by the Harbour Board for fear it would interfere with the use of the island for its quarantine incinerator and navigation beacons. They did however agree to manage the important natural and cultural features on the island under a management plan, with input from the Royals. Then, in 1989, a major restructuring of local government saw the City, Town & County Councils and the Harbour Board being dissolved and their assets redistributed. The future ownership of the island was once more in question. With more lobbying by the Royals, The Harbour Board agreed to gift the island to the outgoing Whangarei City Council (WCC), to become a public reserve.

However, in order for the island to have a future as Scenic Reserve, the mining rights had to be obtained from Golden Bay Cement, who had inherited them from their predecessor, the Portland Cement Company. Golden Bay Cement were approached by The Harbour Board and they immediately agreed to relinquish their rights. At a ceremony on the island in April 1989, Golden Bay Cement 'sold' their rights the the Harbour Board for a token $1. This cleared the way for the gifting of the island to the Whangarei City Council, to create a reserve 'for the wider benefit of the district'. The island was gifted to WCC on behalf of the incoming Whangarei District Council by the Harbour Board  at a ceremony on the island in May 1989. The future of island was still not quite secure though - a proposal for a hotel, casino and golf course on the island were only silenced once and for all when, after continued lobbying, the Council finally passed the motion that the island would become a Scenic Reserve in 1990.

Once the island was secure as a reserve, the hands-on restoration work could begin. It got underway with the first planting in 1989 and possum eradication and fencing work in 1990. The Whangarei Native Forest & Bird Society also got on board at this time, becoming a major driving force.  Money was extremely tight but passionate volunteers were in abundant supply and the restoration of the island continued to progress, thanks to small donations of money, plants, materials and labour from all corners.

In 1990 a management plan was drafted by the council that set out the guiding principles behind the project, with the mission statement "to develop the island so that its natural, recreational, cultural and historic values are protected and enhanced to the benefit of the Whangarei District". This plan also saw the creation of a new group to implement the plan on behalf of the Council. This group was called the Friends of Matakohe-Limestone Island (FOMLI), made up of the all the interested parties and individuals that had pushed for and supported the vision for the island including members from The Royal Forest & Bird Society, The Whangarei Native Forest & Bird Society, the Historic Places Trust, DOC, Northland Regional Council and iwi. This new group was launched as an Incorporated Society at a public meeting on March 14 1991, and continues to manage the restoration of the island today, over twenty years later.

Since this time, the island has reached numerous major milestones in the ongoing quest to restore the island. There was planting every winter from 1989, but the Society soon realised that a full time person was needed as well as the volunteers. In the mid 1990s, Lottery Board Grants provided enough money to get a small cabin onto the island and pay for a full-time Ranger. Other sponsors came on board and the project began to gain momentum.

The project took a quantum leap forward with landmark sponsorship by Golden Bay Cement. They agreed to sponsor all island activities for a five-year period starting in 1998.  A tractor, trailer, shed and other vital gear were obtained and predator and weed control programmes were put in place. It also meant a supply of trees to plant each year was secured. Golden Bay generously sponsored a further five years starting 2003 and continues as a major sponsor today.  

Click here to read more about the ongoing restoration process.



Much of the history above has been adapted from Tim Clark's history book 'More than just a little Island'. This fantastic book records the island's fascinating history in much greater detail, and can be purchased from the Society. Click here to find out more.