Historic Kawau Island

Kawau Island in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf was the site of one of New Zealand’s earliest mining ventures. Later it became the island home of Sir George Grey, one of New Zealand’s most influential and controversial political figures. 

Kawau Island Historic Reserve was created to protect Mansion House, Sir George Grey’s former home, and the gardens and landscape he created, together with sites and relics from the historic copper industry. 

More information about Mansion House and gardens.

The reserve is a popular destination for visitors arriving by ferry or pleasure craft.

Today about 10 percent of the island is protected as publicly owned reserves managed by the Department of Conservation. The remainder of the island is privately owned with a small resident population. 

History of Kawau

Kawau is associated with the early  ancestor Toi te huatahi from whom comes the island’s traditional name ‘Te Kawau tumaro o Toi’. The island is reputed to have been settled by descendants of Toi and later by descendants of the crews of the Arawa and Tainui canoes.

For three centuries the island was occupied by the people known as Ngati Tai who were later defeated by the Te Kawerau iwi, specifically Ngati Manuhiri. 

During the 18th century there was continuing conflict between the resident Kawerau and the Marutuahu confederation of tribes from the Hauraki area over access to the shark fishing grounds.

Kawau was later abandoned after the musket war raids in the 1820s by Ngapuhi, and remained unoccupied until the 1830s. In this period the Ngati Manuhiri hapu of Te Kawerau  and Ngatiwai returned to the island and the adjoining coastline where they remain to this day.

After protracted debate over ownership Kawau was sold in the 1840s to W.T. Fairburn of the North British Australasian Loan and Investment Company.

Historic copper industry

Historic photo of Kawau Island coppermine engine house.
Historic photo of Kawau Island coppermine
engine house

Copper was discovered by accident. The original mining operations were to extract  manganese. Copper was mined from 1844 until June 1852 when the mines were inundated.

There were up to 300 people living on the island during this period. Mining villages were located at Mansion House Bay, Two House Bay, Sunny Bay, Schoolhouse Bay, Dispute Cove and Miners Bay. 

The copper ore eventually became difficult to extract, because most of the mine workings were below sea level and had to be constantly pumped free of water. 

Problems were also encountered shipping the ore to the Northern Hemisphere. In 1849 a smelting works was built to partially process the ore on the island. A rival smelting operation was built on Motuketekete Island.

Eventually flooding and competition between two companies working the same ore body led to closure of the mine in 1852. There were further attempts to reopen the mine in 1854-55 and 1900-02, but it is likely that little copper ore remains.

Coppermine engine house and smelting house

The ruins of a sandstone building built to house the steam engine and pump which kept the mine free of water is one of the more visible relics of the copper industry. Built in 1854 during an attempt to de-water the mines, it is very similar to engine houses found in Cornwall, the home of many of the Kawau miners. The enginehouse is located beside the mine workings at Mine Point.

Another ruin which can be visited or viewed by boat is the old smelting house in the Smelting House Historic Reserve, on the north side of Bon Accord Harbour. A busy industrial complex and village which once stood on this site is now marked only by the sandstone walls of the smelting house building. 


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