The Brown family homes: from raupo to weatherboard
On New Year's day 1838 Alfred Brown and his family left the Bay of Islands for the Bay of Plenty aboard the mission schooner Columbine. Three days at sea coping with a lively seven year old boy and an eight month old baby would have been no pleasure cruise. Charlotte must have been relieved to disembark at Te Papa and to exchange the creaking, cramped and eternally moving ship's cabin for the comparative luxury of a single room in a raupo house, which, though small, had at least the merit of being on terra firma.
A House of Raupo and Rushes
It took Brown and his Maori helpers a mere 10 weeks to construct more spacious accommodation from raupo, or rushes, the only readily available construction material on the treeless peninsula. Although Charlotte could not have known that this would be her home for as long as nine years, she did her best to make it as friendly and comfortable as she could. Dimity curtains dressed the windows, substantial furniture brought out from England filled the rooms. A brick fireplace, built by Brown himself, provided a cheering warmth in the cooler months. Lady Martin, wife of the chief justice of New Zealand, who arrived at Te Papa after a gruelling ten day journey from Thames, gives us a glimpse of the "comfortable Mission-house". She wrote: "The house was all of native workmanship; the outer walls were of raupo, and the inner walls and ceilings reeded after the best Maori pattern. The windows of the bedroom were overhung with roses. One hardy shoot had worked its way through the roof and hung down in the room."
The First Buildings
The two carpenters who were living at the mission station had no shortage of work. Brown's priorities put the construction of a library and a chapel before a house for himself and his family. Kauri for the building projects was brought from the Coromandel, and probably sawn into planks by the carpenters themselves, for the indentation of the saw pits can still be identified on the northern lawn. Any available timber was put to good use: two heavy beams of tropical hardwood from a sailing ship were incorporated into the foundations of the building. It is interesting to note that insulation was considered desirable long before the development of Pink Batts: the wall cavities of both the house and the library were filled with dried rushes, for coolness in summer and warmth in winter.
So pleasing was the design that many visitors assumed the house had been prefabricated "at Home" and shipped out in parts for re-erection in New Zealand. The similarity of the building to the Bay of Islands' Waimate mission house, though without a verandah, hints that the plans may have been supplied to Brown by the Church Missionary Society.
Fire - the work almost undone!
An unfortunate incident took place in December 1845, when a fire lit to melt glue accidentally set the carpenters' workshop on fire. The flames, fanned by a westerly gale, threatened to destroy all the mission buildings, but the valiant efforts of the mission Maori and Charlotte Brown confined the damage. Imagine the heartbreak of remaking all the carefully wrought doors, window frames and other joinery, which had been stored in carpenter Cavanagh's shed.
The Elms Mission House Completed
The work was eventually completed. Charlotte described the start of the move into the new house to her husband: "We are well and more comfortable than we should have been in the poor old house. You can form but little idea of the present state of desolation. Cavanagh has taken down all the boards and brought quantities of cobwebs and dust into full view. I have taken all the boxes I could into the library, and have had all the drawers brought into the hall to spare myself the trouble of going to and fro to the other house. Our bedstead and two wardrobes remain there. Should you return before our room is finished, we can manage very well in our old quarters. It will, even then, be more secure than a tent. I shall not allow Mr Fulloon (another carpenter) to attack Celia's room till ours is occupiable lest we should be in too much of a muddle. It is now raining heavily and I am on the lookout for leaks".
The interior layout of the house provided for three bedrooms a sitting room and a dining room on the ground floor, with an open plan area on the upper level reached by means of a most elegant swan neck staircase, which led from a large hall.
The building has undergone remarkably little change. Some of the surrounding land was sold in 1913 to raise money for essential maintenance. At this time extensions were made to the northern side of the lean-to structures on either end of the house. This allowed the installation of modern plumbing in one, and a kitchen in the other. The internal walls remain unchanged, although the wall and floor coverings have been altered according to contemporary fashions. The elegant French windows on the front rooms made privacy difficult for Duff and Gertrude Maxwell when visitors wandered around the gardens they so generously opened to the public.
Alice Maxwell's brother, Ebenezer, writing in 1935, leaves a description of the mission house that we recognise today: "The dwelling is a quaint old house, with many French windows, to all of which there are slatted green-painted shutters. It is all sound, and is kept in excellent repair; and it is, except as to its internal furnishing, and the iron over the shingles, as it was originally built. Probably the first wooden building erected south of the Bay of Islands, it is certainly the first mission building erected, and the oldest still standing and in repair south of the Bay of Islands." How wonderful that the same can still be said so many years later!
The Elms historic house museum, the oldest European heritage site in the Bay of Plenty, is an essential stop for all visitors to Tauranga. From this traditional English home, Maori were given the opportunity to learn about Christianity, and were educated in reading and writing, as well as agricultural and domestic skills.