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John Cowell’s House at Te Pahu

July 15, 2017

By the mid-1880s the Pakeha settlers of Waikato and Waipa county councils were at last confident that the turbulent times of the previous twenty years were finally over.

The Waikato War was fast fading into history, the difficult issues arising out of the massive confiscation of Maori land, as a reprisal for the war, were apparently settled, if not completely forgotten by Maori. The troublesome Te Kooti had also been finally tamed and the railway from Auckland to Wellington was under construction. Only a few aging disgruntled Maori, it seemed, still grumbled about the injustices of the war and the loss of their lands. 

It is not generally known however that a number of very early Pakeha, who had settled in the region well before the war of 1863 or the Treaty of Waitangi of 1840, also had land confiscated by the New Zealand Government under the provisions of the New Zealand Land Settlement Act of 1863. 

These early pioneers were of a different calibre to those who followed them several decades later in that they were absorbed into the Maori community. While some missionaries spoke disparagingly about them, like the early whalers, they fitted into their new lives without conflict or major disruption.

One of these men was John Vittoria Cowell who settled in the village of Pouwewe on Kawhia Harbour some time in the late 1820s as a very young man. Here he established a successful trading enterprise with flax and other raw commodities between Kawhia and other costal settlements and probably also Australia.

By the time of the Treaty of Waitangi and the establishment of British law, in 1840, Cowell had married Keke Tumohe of Ngati Apakura and had been given land in a number of places by his wife’s people. 

On one of these blocks of land, at Te Pahu near the present township of Pirongia, John Cowell built a house for his family. His trading enterprises must have been profitable as the house was a substantial kit set building purchased from England and shipped as deck cargo on one of the early immigrant ships. The kit was then transhipped up the Waikato River and into the Waipa river at Ngaruawahia before being unloaded and erected at Te Pahu. The timber however shipped to England from New Zealand some years earlier. 

The original house several out buildings have been added to over the years and was probably used an accommodation house for travellers as well as residence, at least until the Waikato War broke out in 1863. Cowell also had trading stores on both sides of the Waipa River and another large house somewhere west of the river but none of these other buildings have survived

The Te Pahu, house, named Homewood, was strategically placed where the original tracks from Kawhia and Whaingaroa (now Raglan) met near the Waipa River.

After the war Cowell’s land, along with almost three million acres of Maori land, was confiscated in spite of his protests that he had not taken part in the conflict. His sympathy for the Maori cause was considered sufficient justification.

Part of the Cowell 10,000 acres was granted to Charles Edenborough, an officer in the Waikato Militia, for service during the war. Like a number of other militiamen, Edenborough sold off some of his property, probably to finance development of the remainder. Homewood and surrounding 600 ha of partially developed farmland was bought by Isaac Hodgson and Margret in 1874 and their descendants lived there for several generations until the early 1950s. The property then had a number of owners until it was it was purchased by Les and Heather Garrett in 1966.

At that stage the distinctive wooden two storied homestead was about 120 years old, in a dilapidated condition and due to be demolished and replaced by a modern brick house. The Garrets however were not prepared to see the historic building destroyed and made it a condition of the sale that it was left standing, a decision they often thought may have been a mistake as the enormity of the restoration task became a reality.  

This work was secondary to dairy and beef farming for many years while Mr garret followed his trade as an engineer. Mr Garret died in 2010 But his widow still lives in the house which is surrounded by mature trees and gardens and about three ha of the original farm full of plants, bulbs and shrubs descended from seedlings brought over from Sydney in the 1840s.

Among her many memoirs Mrs Garret, now 80, still has the original title deeds, printed on silk, and many other reminders of a little known early settler who, like the Maori people of Waikato, lost so much in the aftermath of an unjust war they tried to avoid. Among these, scribbled on the internal wall boards, are the names of several famous visitors to Homewood dating from 1841, including the pioneering explorer Ernest Dieffenbach.   

Descendants of the Cowell and Hodgson families still live in the Waikato region and their homestead, now painstakingly refurbished, still stands occupied and loved alongside on the old track which became Hodgson Road.