Michael Fowler: Hawke’s Bay’s floods from 1867 onwards have always been the ‘worst ever’, records show

Boats at Waitangi used in the rescues at Clive the day after the 1897 Good Friday floods. Photo / Collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, 7853


William Colenso, who settled at the Waitangi Mission Station, Ahuriri, in December 1844, knew a thing or two about floods.

The site chosen by Māori for him and wife Elizabeth, he would describe as a “No Man’s Land” – a low-lying area, surrounded on three sides by the Ngaruroro and Waitangi rivers, in a tapu – or “tabooed preserve for pigs and for marsh and water birds and for eels”.

In a letter to the Hawke’s Bay Herald in January 1894 (of considerable length, and taking him 10 days to craft) 83-year-old William Colenso outlined his early experiences of floods at the Mission Station – including one on June 25, 1847.


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Despite the floor of the mission station being two feet (60cm) above the ground, the Colensos piled up furniture and took refuge while flood waters swirled into their home.

At 3am the next morning, two Māori in a small canoe came alongside the house bringing the news to the huddled and anxious Colensos that they had cut through the high beach bank, so the flood waters could escape. The Colensos then “devoutly thanked God” for the reprieve.

The following days the Colensos would be the first European family to suffer from material we have all become quite familiar with – silt deposited by flood waters.

He records silt being 10 to 18 inches (25 to 46cm) thick on the floor, and that “we worked hard all day getting two or three rooms put a little to rights”.


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Another flood, he said, deposited more silt than that.

Colenso noted in his letter that “the wise old Māori well knew of those floods, and in a measure were well prepared for them”.

As European settlers took up more land during the 1860s in Meeanee and Pakowhai for agriculture, they – despite warnings from Colenso even back then ‒ were caught out in June 1867.

From Mataruahou (Napier Hill) all that could be seen of Meeanee and Pakowhai was “a waste of waters, relieved only by settlers’ houses and the clumps of trees which indicated the site of a homestead”.

This event was called the worst flood ever experienced in Hawke’s Bay by Māori and Pākehā. And so each major flooding event since – including the recent 2023 Cyclone Gabrielle has been described as “unprecedented”, “New Zealand’s greatest disaster” – or “worst ever”.

A result of the 1867 flood was that the Ngaruroro “captured” the Wai-tio and Ohiwi streams before rejoining its path near Pakowhai.

Naturally, the settlers faced with heavy livestock losses, fences washed away, and houses engulfed in silt, wanted to prevent this from occurring again.

It was pointed out by the Hawke’s Bay Herald that while the settler population was then not significant – one day it would be – and if protection is not achieved, they could only graze stock on this land, with a means to quickly shift them to higher grounds.

Individual settlers made their own flood preventative measures by either plantings of willows or building stopbanks – and this had the undesirable effect of pushing water to other properties and flooding them.

Early European settlers could not understand why a seemingly trickle of a river or stream could in a matter of hours result in a raging torrent of a flood.


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A cohesive approach to river flood control was sought by forming four river boards: Taradale (1877), Clive (1891), Meeanee (1894) and Pukahu (1895).

Far from being a solution, these boards did not act with each other’s best interests, and could be described as “dysfunctional”.

Father Binsfield of the Meeanee Mission, whose property was on the frequent end of flooding (resulting in them leaving to their present location in Greenmeadows), often lamented the fighting between the river boards, and that the wealthier Taradale River Board could afford better protection. “The weakest goes to the wall, as is the case with the Meeanee River Board.”

The next major flooding event in 1893 saw Clive inundated when the Tukituki broke its banks near the Black Bridge.

A call to help to Napier by telegraph from the Farndon railway station saw mayor George Swan send boats by train from Ahuriri to within 450m of the Waitangi rail bridge, where they were launched to rescue settlers from high ground, or house rooftops. Two men lost their lives, but neither in Clive.

Only four years later, in 1897, the Good Friday floods devastated not only Clive again, but also Napier and Hastings.


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Clive’s calls for help this time were not immediately heeded. George Swan was busy on a taxi horse and buggy riding around the streets of his town comforting his citizens that the flood waters would not get higher (how did he know that I wonder?). The Ngaruroro River, backed up by a rough sea, found its way into the Tutaekuri River, via the Waitangi stream at Awatoto, and flooded Napier.

Napier eventually came to the aid of Clive with boats, but tragically 10 men lost their lives when their boats capsised. Two other men also drowned in the district.

Hastings had only two boats, which were kept busy taking people in the early morning from rooftops.

The river boards were abandoned in 1910 for one body – the Hawke’s Bay Rivers Board. It requested multiple engineering studies of flood protection, but progress was slow.

It was Esk Valley’s turn in 1924 and 1938 when major flood waters and silt caused significant damage. The main land use was then agriculture, and apart from homesteads, the silt was left in place, and grass re-sown.

The major accomplishment of the Hawke’s Bay Rivers Board was the diversion of the Tutaekuri from the Ahuriri lagoon in 1936 to a mouth at Waitangi.


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After protective works of stopbanks were subsequently completed on the Ngaruroro, the chairman of the board pronounced that a solution had been provided to the flooding problems of Hawke’s Bay. It didn’t.

The Hawke’s Bay Catchment Board took over from the Hawke’s Bay Rivers Board in 1944, and their scheme to divert the Ngaruroro from its mouth at Clive to a shared one with the Tutaekuri was finally completed in 1969.

So confident was the catchment board of their scheme, they too proclaimed it should protect the Heretaunga Plains from any further floods.

* Historian Michael Fowler will be holding his talk “Parawhenuamea: The Untamed Rivers of Hawke’s Bay” on Wednesday, June 28, 5.30pm at the Century Theatre Napier. Cost $20 + fees. Book online at Eventfinda.co.nz. Some door sales available. Proceeds to Surf Lifesaving New Zealand: Hawke’s Bay Search and Rescue Squad.

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