Matawai, Gisborne, NZ

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This page provides information about Matawai and its history. Henry Korte, Chris Korte and Fred Korte were among the first settlers in the Matawai district in 1903. Details of their farm, Ruanui, are shown on a separate page.

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Matawai is a small settlement in the northeast of New Zealand's North Island. It is located on the upper reaches of the Motu River on State Highway 2 between Gisborne and Opotiki at an altitude of 540 m.

The township presently has about 30 residences, petrol station, police station, a store, tearooms, fire station, primary school, public hall, Marae and two churches. Robb Bros Ltd operate a road transport company from Matawai.

Map showing Matawai

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Township History

Matawai in 1926

Matawai in 1958
The hotel is in the lower left corner, and the school top center.

Matawi 1913

Matawai in 1913
The building bottom right was Hustler's Store for many years, built in 1908 for Arthur John Hustler. Neal's Boarding House is further along the road on the left.
Photo from Gisborne Photo News

According to the Waitangi Tribunal Report (2004) Ngapotiki of Te Aitanga a Mahaki had customary rights over land in the Matawai, Motu and Raukaroa districts. Land was purchased from the Maori owners between 1873 and 1880, with Colonel Thomas William Porter, the Government Purchasing Officer, completing the purchase of the Motu Block (25,653 ha) and Waikohu Matawai Block (13,993 ha) by 1880. The Government subsequently surveyed the land and made it available for European settlement.

Matawai had its beginnings soon after 1900 as the district was settled, the bush cleared and farms established. Matawai did not warrant an entry in the 1905 New Zealand Post Office Directory, with residents being listed under the Rakauroa entry. On 29 September 1908 the Motu Valley Settlers' Association was formed in Matawai with the following members: C Buscke, H Bulst, J Johnstone, H Korte, J J Marshall, J E Haisman, W Baird, J Bryant, C Simpson, J Pigott, M Doyle and H Riddick. Matawai School opened in 1908 and the Matawai Public Hall in 1910.

Charles Neal opened a boarding house and store in 1908, where the Matawai Hotel currently stands. The first postal service was provided from the store. Arthur John Hustler opened a second store soon afterwards. Both buildings can be seen in the 1913 photo of Matawai. The 1910 Post Office Directory lists 25 farmers and settlers in Matawai, and 24 contractors who were clearing bush in the district.

The township of Matawai came into existence in 1912 as the railway from Gisborne to Motu was being constructed. The route of the railway and land for the Matawai railway station had been selected.

Sections for the Matawai township were surveyed and made available for sale in 1912. The Poverty Bay Herald reported the planned auction of sections on 21 June 1912 (see below). The subdivision was 58 acres with sections ranging from a quarter to nine acres in area. Over a hundred sections were sold in the auction on 22 June 1912. A further 32 sections adjoining the railway station were sold by Hensen and Green on 12 July 1912.

Poverty Bay Herald

To-morrow, at 1 p.m., Messrs Williams and Kettle, Ltd., offer for sale at Barlow's garage, on behalf of Mrs E. A. Mortleman, sections in the township of Matawai. These sections offer special inducement to investors and others by reason of the fact that Matawai must in the near future be a prosperous and flourishing township. Apart from certain railway advantages likely to accrue to this township on account of its position, there are the vast timber forests in the locality, which are now being actively milled; the timber from which, must come to Matawai as its outlet. For dairying purposes the land in the neighborhood is unsurpassed, and there is no doubt that this will soon be one of the flourishing industries.

The road from Matawai to Gisborne (now State Highway 2) was in relatively poor condition due to a shortage of road metal, as illustrated by the section under the Otoko viaduct in 1912.. The poor state of roads made the railway important for transport of people and goods.

In January 1913 the township was starting to develop. Four railway cottages had been built and excavation of the railway yard was completed. Matawai was on the fringe of the remaining timber country and sawmills were operating (F, Halls, Drummond Brothers, Sloan Brothers) or preparing to open (McLeod Brother). A further three mills were planned. It was estimated that 25,000 feet of timber per day would be produced from the first four mills (approx 60 cubic meters of sawn timber per day). The township had two stores and a number of scattered buildings. The site for a new schoolhouse had been excavated in readiness for building. The Settlers' Saleyard Company had secured a site for their stock yards adjoining the railway station. A site was offered for a new Post Office. By June 1913 it was reported that there were six general stores in Matawai and another being erected.

The Matawai community was diverse by 1926, dominated by farmers, but a range of ocupations listed in the Post Office Directory: blacksmith, boot maker, butchers, carpenter, carrier, clerk, contractor, district nurse, gardener, labourers, lorry driver, mail contractor, postmaster, railway gangers, railway station manager, road men, saddler, stationer and store owners.

By 1936 the police station, previously located at Motu, had been established at Matawai. A constable has been based in Matawai since then.

Rupert Bilham and Robert Beil had established a garage in Matawai by 1938 on the site of the present petrol station. In the 1950's petrol was also available from Hustlers 4 Square store and the current PGG Wrightson store.

Dairy farming became established in the district once the railway began operating. Dairy farmers separated cream from the milk and sent cream to Gisborne for butter making. The skim milk was fed to pigs. In 1926 eight dairy farms were listed in the Post Office Directory. Following the closure of the railway in 1958 dairy farming ceased in the district. Dairy farming made a return to the district in 2009 with milk being transported by road out of the district for processing.

Sheep and beef cattle farming became the main type of agriculture in the Matawai district. The volcanic soils of the district require regular application of fertilisers to maintain pasture and livestock production. Numerous airstrips were established in the district during 1950-1960 for aerial application of fertilisers. The district also has deer and goat farms.

Motu Railway

Matawai Railway Station

Matawai Railway Yard, 1913
Image from Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries

Matawai Railway Station

Matawai Railway Station
Train leaving Matawai Station for Gisborne in 1954.
Photo from Gisborne Photo News

Port of Gisborne
0 km Gisborne opened 26 Jun 1902
Palmerston North - Gisborne Line (1942)
Park Racecourse
6.0 km Makaraka opened 26 Jun 1902
Ngatapa Branch
Kings Road (MB)
17.3 km Ormond opened 26 Jun 1902
20.8 km Kaitaratahi opened 10 Nov 1902
Tunnel No 1 - 185 m
29.0 km Te Karaka opened 13 Apr 1905
Tunnel No 2 - 258 m
32.2 km Puha opened 3 Jun 1907
37.5 km Waikohu opened 28 May 1908
Mahaki, ex Waihuka Tunnel Siding
Tunnel No 3 - 45 m
Otoko viaduct; 113 m long
50.4 km Otoko opened 6 Apr 1912
Rakauroa viaduct
60.3 km Rakauroa opened 2 Nov 1914
66.0 km Summit; 566m above sea level
Tunnel No 4 - 90 m
70.8 km Matawai opened 2 Nov 1914
78.5 km Moutohora (terminus) opened 26 Nov 1917
76 cm gauge private tramway
Moutohora quarry

Gisborne to Motuhora Railway showing stations and when station was opened.

The Gisborne to Motu Railway was part of the proposed railway from Gisborne to Auckland. The railway had been proposed since 1886, but it was only local agitation in 1897 that began to get the project moving.

The "first sod" of the railway was turned by Sir Joseph Ward (the Minister of Railways) on 14 February 1900. The railway from Gisborne reached Ormond in 1902, Te Karaka in 1905, Waikohu in 1908, Otoko in 1912 and Matawai in 1913. After the railway line reached Matawai in April 1913, the Public Works Department provided limited train services from May 1913 until 30 October 1914 when the station and completed works were handed over to the Railways Department. The final five mile (8 km) section of the railway from Matawai to Motuhora (renamed Moutohora in 1952) was opened on 26 November 1917. The 49 mile (80 km) line cost 627,000 pounds. Extension of the line to the Bay of Plenty never eventuated.

The line had four tunnels: one on either side of Te Karaka, one at Mahaki and one on the Gisborne side of Matawai. The bridge over the Waihuka River at Waikohu was a combined rail and road traffic bridge. Viaducts were constructed at Otoko and Rakauroa.

The rail journey from Matawai to Gisborne took approximately three hours and the return journey four hours. The train typically consisted of an engine, two passenger carriages,  numerous trucks and a guards van. Two trains up and two trains down per day was the usual between Motuhora and Gisborne for many years. 

The line began operating at a profit transporting passengers, cream, sheep, cattle, timber, road metal and general freight. It was reported in 1917 that the five sawmills operating in the district cut 5,740,000 super feet (approx 13,500 cubic meters) the previous year, mainly rimu (59%) and white pine (37%). Most of this timber was transported out of the district by the railway.

A metal quarry near Motuhora provided a large tonnage for the railway, with metal being used for road works in the district and for track ballast on the Gisborne to Wairoa railway. More than 200,000 yards of Motuhora metal was used on the Gisborne-Wairoa line, usually with 30 ballast wagons a day leaving Motuhora during construction of the line.

Passenger services ceased in January 1945 as NZR Road Services buses began to offer alternative transport. Competition from road transport caused the line to start losing money by 1952. Maintenance was suspended and the line closed on 14 March 1959. The railway was taken up and station buildings and bridges sold.

Following closure of the railway, the Matawai to Gisborne metal road was upgraded and tar sealed. The road was realigned and in several places the realignment used the former railway route.

The former Matawai railway station is on the Motu road, about 1 km from the Matawai Hotel.

Several photographs of the railway are shown on a separate page.

Matawai School

Matawai School in 1926

Matawai School in 1926 with the classroom building (right) and residence (left).

Matawai School opened in 1908 in temporary accommodation. The school moved to Matawai Public Hall in 1912 to accommodate the increasing number of pupils. On 15 September 1913 the school moved to the present site with completion of school rooms to accommodate about 100 pupils. Two further classrooms and a staff room in an additional building were opened in November 1955. Following closure of the Motuhora School, the school building with two classrooms was moved to Matawai School.

Several other local schools closed as their rolls fell and children were bused to Matawai: Homebrooke School closed about 1948, Koranga School closed in 1951, Rakauroa School closed at the end of 1945, Keretu School closed in 1938, Otoko School closed in 1997 and Wairata School closed in 2001.

In October 1958 the school had a roll of 203 children. In 2008 the roll was over 70 children and nine staff.

The Matawai School has held regular celebrations of the 1908 opening. The Jubilee Booklet from the 1958 celebration can be downloaded or seen on a separate page.

Matawai Halls

Matawai Memorial Hall, 1955

Matawai Memorial Hall, 1955
Photo from Gisborne Photo News, 2 June 1955

Matawai Memorial Hall, 2016

Matawai Memorial Hall, 2016

The first Matawai Public Hall opened on 22 July 1910 with a concert followed by a dance. The opening was reported in the Poverty Bay Herald and transcripts of articles about the Hall are on a separate page. The first Hall was located on the Motu Road about 330 m from the State Highway 2 intersection (The Hotel), on an acre of land donated by Messrs Hensen and Greene. The Hall building had an iron exterior, but was lined and ceiled throughout with local oiled rimu. The main hall was 30ft x 40ft, with a lean-to, 30ft x 12ft attached, subdivided into three rooms with movable partitions, which for everyday use was used as a school. At the opening, the expected usage was for religious worship, political meetings and social gatherings.

The second, present, Matawai Memorial Hall opened in 1952 following fund raising after the Second World War. When growing up, I attended the Memorial Hall for ANZAC Services, movies, meetings, school concerts, dances and to use the library housed in the building.

In 2016 the 64-year-old hall was refurbished as part of a $75,000 upgrade. The memorial foyer now houses the Motu, Rakauroa and Otoko honours boards alongside the original Matawai one. The honour boards list men from the district killed in the world wars.

Matawai Hotel

Matawai in 1926

Matawai Hotel

The Matawai Hotel was originally part of a larger hotel at Motu. A third of the Motu Hotel was moved to Matawai about 1933, and the remainder was moved to Ormond near Gisborne. The Hotel was moved because business in Motu had declined as a result of the railway construction and the opening of the road from Matawai to Opotiki through the Waioeka Gorge in 1932. Previously, the main road from Gisborne to the Bay of Plenty had been through Motu.

The Hotel had seven upstairs rooms, five single and two double, an annexe that sleeps four, seven drovers cottages and three bedroom owners accommodation. There was also a public bar, a kitchen, a large dining room and a number of ancillary rooms that could be used for small functions or for an overflow of late night guests. Most of the out-buildings have now been demolished.

The hotel is now (2017) closed for business and is a private residence.

Matawai Post Office

Matawai Post Office Opening

Matawai Post Office opening in 1921.
Image from Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19210811-37-4

Matawai Post Office

Matawai Post Office in 2010 (closed)
and the telephone exchange building on right.

As mentioned above, the first postal service in Matawai was provided from about 1908, from Neal's store and boarding house, where the hotel now stands. A telephone office, with connection to Gisborne, was opened in March 1908.

The Matawai Post Office building, across the road from the hotel, was built in 1920, with Mr E W Emmerson of Matawai securing the building contract. The building had accommodation for the Post Master behind the office. The Matawai Post and Telegram Office was opened in 1921 as shown in the photograph.

When an automatic exchange replaced the manual telephone exchange in the 1960s, the exchange was housed in a new building beside the Post Office.

The Post Office performed a wide variety of functions on behalf of the Crown, including the provision of postal, telegraphic, telephone and banking services. In addition the Post Office assisted in the administration of associated functions in other areas of government, for instance, pension payments, motor vehicle registration and radio inspection. Matawai Post Office acted as a births, deaths and marriage registration office from 1916.

The Post Office is now closed and used as a residence.


St Mary's Matawai Anglican Church

Matawai Anglican Church (front left).

St Bede's Matawai Catholic Church

Matawai Catholic Church on the main street (SH2).

There are two churches in Matawai, St Mary's Anglican Church and St Bede’s Catholic Church.

The Matawai Anglican Church was opened on 21 March 1917 by Archdeacon Williams and on 25 November 1917 the Bishop of Waiapu consecrated the church in the name of St Mary the Virgin. The organ was donated by Mr T Williams of Tuparoa. The architect was F de J Clere of Wellington and the building contractor Mr E W Emmerson of Matawai. The rimu furniture was made by the building contractor from local timber.

St Mary's is a small scale Gothic revival timber church, an example of a typical Clere country church having many standard features of his work, including vertical board and batten cladding and lancet windows with shallow trefoil head in rectangular frames. It is the twin church of the nearby St Paul's Motu, also designed by Clere.

Before the churches were built, church services were held at Matawai in settlers homes, the hall or the school. Anglican, Presbyterian and Catholic services were held, with the minister or priest travelling to Matawai for the service.

The Anglican Parochial District of Matawai was formed on 30 June 1916, including Matawai, Rakauroa, Otoko, and Motu. The Rev. John Pigott was the first vicar of Matawai Parish from 27 January 1916 until 1918. Subsequent vicars based in Matawai were: Rev. Doug Bloomfield Malcolm 1918-19, Rev A. E. Hunt 1920-21, Rev E. C. R. Beale 1922-24 and Rev C. E. G. Salt 1924-28. A 25 foot by 11 foot cottage was built as vicarage 1916 on the section next to the planned church by Mr Emmerson and was enlarged in 1920. In May 1928, owing to an unsatisfactory financial position, it was decided that the Matawai parish would became part of the Te Karaka parish again.

Jim Langer, who attended Matawai school with me, provided the following history of the Catholic Church. The Matawai Catholic Church of St Bede was built in about 1890 and was originally located at Ormond. It was moved in 1923 to the Waipaoa Flats, where a large flood in 1948 swept through the church. The church was dismantled after the flood and brought up to Matawai. Built from locally-milled rimu, the building still securely shelters parishioners on a rainy Sunday morning.


Matawai Marae

Matawai Marae buildings on the Motu Road.
The wharenui is called Tapapa (building on right of photo) and the wharekai is Rangimarie.

As noted above in the section on the Township History, the Ngapotiki hapu of Te Aitanga a Mahaki had customary rights over land in the Matawai district before European settlement. It is believed that the closest Maori settlement to Matawai was at Rakauroa - Makihoi Pa, on the Rakauroa summit overlooking the previous Rakauroa "township".

Relatively few Maori families lived in the Matawai district until the 1950s when many were involved in the upgrading of the Matawai-Opotiki and Matawai-Ormond roads (now State Hightway 2). The work involved widening the road to two lanes, removing numerous corners, construction of new bridges, quarying metal and tar sealing. Some families remained in the district after the period of construction and settled permanently.

Matawai Marae is located on the Motu Road, near where the first Matawai Hall originally stood. The whare moe (sleeping house) is the former Matawai Country Womens Institute building, moved to the Motu Road site in 1981. After fund raising the other buildings were constructed. The Marae serves the local Maori community. Matawai Marae primary affiliates with the hapu Nga Potiki and Ngati Matawai of Te Aitanga a Mahaki.


Matawai Saleyards

Sheep pens of the former Matawai Saleyards

In 1910 a meeting of the Motu Valley Settlers Association decided to investigate holding a stock sale at Matawai. The first sale was held in Mr Mortleman's yards at Matawai on 20 February 2011, with an offering of 4,900 sheep, 150 cattle and a number of horses. The prices realised and the sale was considered satisfactory. Successful stock sales continued to be held in Mr Mortleman's yards until 1914 when saleyards were erected near the Matawai railway station. The Matawai Co-Operative Saleyards Company Limited was incorporated on 4 February 1914 to manage the yards and sales.

The saleyards initially had facilities for loading railway wagons, and subsequently road stock trucks. A number of sales were held each year, for example in 1919 sales were held on 20 Jan, 10 Feb, 10 Mar, 7 Apr and 22 Sep. Mainly sheep were sold, some cattle, horses and occasional dogs. Farmer Co-Operative members usually maintained the yards and their wives catered for those attending sales, from a cook house (wood fired!).

The saleyards no longer operate, farmers preferring to sell privately or at Matawhero saleyards.

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