Stone Wall Country

Dry stone walls snake across Northland’s landscape everywhere there has been volcanic action. I have been researching them for many years and have written two books about them – I will post about those books later.

As a result of all this I have a huge collection of photos of these walls, both old, recent and under construction. I also have many contacts in the walling community who continue to construct new walls and do restorations. The dry stone wall story continues and I would like to record more about them. Hence this blog.

Dry Stone Wall
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Farm Features

stone wall trough
Trough

These two features are in/on walls built on the Mathews farm, Maunu, Whangarei, by Dalmatian families Pivac and Slacko during the depression. The stones on this land are very large and the walls are also very large. There are 5 miles of walls on the original 400 acre farm which is now subdivided. Later the Mathews family built some of them, having learnt the skill from the Dalmatians.

Ladder

There is some very fine concrete work, like the trough and buttress-like ends to the walls, on this farm.

stonewall farm

Buttresses

Buttress

Walls can end in many ways. There is the plain full stop, with no deviation from the design of the wall. Then there is the creative way where a buttress of many shapes and sizes can make a more elaborate ending and give the waller some room for imagination.

This wall was built by Fred and Jim Osborne in 2021 on the boundary between out garden and farm.

Round Buttress

Two of these round buttresses mark the new entrance opened in an old wall in Church Rd, Kamo. Waller unknown.

Similarly this buttress and its pair handsomely mark the entrance made recently in a wall built in the early 1900s in Amalin Drive, Kamo. Built by Fred and Jim Osborne.

Dry stone buttress

Something entirely different in that it doesn’t end anything, just makes an emphatic statement on the side of the road beside an entrance. This was built by Clarke Abbott, a walling enthusiast who restored walls and built creative dry wall structures in his garden in the 1980s.

Dry Stone Spire

New Entrance

Entrance

This short length of new entrance was built recently in the Karanui subdivision, West Kamo. Although off the volcanic country it is very close to intensively stone wall country. He has built several other dry stone features on this property. There is no shortage of stone available in this area.

Construction

Walter Tipene, trading under the name Northland Stone Masons, trained under Dr Rock, aka James Mckenzie. He can be contacted at northlandstonemasons@gmail.com or 02102596719

stone wall
Kamo

Continuing Stone Wall Tour

Stonewallers
Laurie, Ian and Jim, L-R

We caught up with Jim Osborne, Stone Waller, and his helper Ian, working on a new wall on Otaika Valley Road, Maungatapere. Laurie was able to see their work in progress, a short wall with a right angled junction, with all the construction method on view.

Construction discussion
Laurie and Ian discussing construction
Tools and stone
Tools and stone used on the job.

Jim works full time with Ian in the Whangarei district and is booked up well ahead. His contact is j_d_osborne@outlook.com or 0211628352. Jim started walling with his father, Fred, 20 years ago. Fred started out working life as a brick layer but taught himself dry stone walling and worked at that full time when there was work available. Fred was part of a group in the 1980-90s who agitated to install protection for the existing walls and organised workshops, publicity and restorations, greatly raising the awareness of the walls’ historic and landscape values in the Whangarei district.

view from the road
View from the road with a few capping stones in place.

Australian Visitor

From now on I will post blogs with a mixture of subject matter as I collect new information, catch up with modern wallers on the job and revisit some interesting and different sites from past research.

This week Laurie Atkins, a dry stone wall enthusiast from Victoria, Australia, has been in Northland. I took him on a ticky tour around some of Whangarei’s walls taking a few photos myself as we went.

Whangarei
Laurie measuring 2 meter wall beside the walkway to Pukenui Forest.

Laurie wanted to measure some features and so we stopped in Amalin Drive, West Kamo, where there are walls going back to the late 1800s and early 1900s, some very high, 2 meters in fact. There has been a lot of subdivision in this area so we looked at how this has been managed in relation to the walls.

stone structure
Tank Stand

We also stopped to look at some different structures, like a tank stand, a pillar and a consumption wall.

consumption wall
Consumption wall

Where the land was covered in far too much rock to use in walls consumption walls were built, using huge amounts of stone and of course without capping stones. This wall is 2meters high in places.

Wallers

The men who built the earliest drystone walls in New Zealand came from many different backgrounds. They can be broadly be divided into three groups: those who built walls on their own land, those who worked for wages or contract to build walls for others, and those who worked on various government-subsidised work schemes. Most worked in only one district, but some were professional, full-time wallers and worked at many different sites and on structures other than walls, like railway, bridge and harbour embankments. Some of the contracted builders were farmers themselves, financing the development of their farms by building walls elsewhere for wages. For those who were not full-time stone wallers the occupation was seasonal, fitted in when farm work was slack. It appears that stone walling was included in the list of farm work undertaken by casual labourers in the same way as scrub-cutting, hay-making, ditch-digging and fencing. In the winter many men moved from the sodden gumfields to the free-draining volcanic lands, changing occupation from gum diggers to wallers.

Wallers at work
Harry Parkin and Manyard Gutry walling in 1974

The level of experience and skill varied considerably. Some immigrants from Britain and Croatia were experienced stoneworkers. Others, including Maori, picked up the skill from working with expert wallers and went on to work on their own.

Rbert Johnson
Robert Johnson built walls on the family farm from the 1930s

The history of stone walls in most districts is a continuing story. The land changes hands, new owners build more walls, maintain them, restore them or neglect them.

Modern Wallers
Modern wallers Fred and Jim Osborne beside restored wall

Construction

The reason for building stone walls was twofold. The stone littered the paddocks and needed to be removed to let the landowner develop pasture or crops. Fencing was needed to keep livestock in or out. By collecting up the stones and building the fences both requirements were met.

walls, pasture, stock
Stone walls, pasture, stock

Dry stone walls are constructed using the same principles whatever type of stone is used and where ever they are built. “Dry” refers to the fact that no mortar is used. The appearance of the wall will vary depending on the materials used but the basic principles of constructing the wall will be the same. Walls built in Scotland, Cornwall, Croatia, Whangarei, Auckland or the Bay of Islands, using widely different types of stone, will display the same basic design, even if they are called dykes as in Scotland. They may appear different but when their construction is analysed common basic principles will be evident.

Cletrac, stone
Collecting stones for clearing the paddocks and wall building with an Cletrac crawler in the 1930s.

The wall consists of four separate parts: two outer, battered or sloping walls, the filling, called hearting or heartstone, between these outer walls and the cap or copestones across the top.

Wall construction
Wall under construction

There is a minimum of tools used by most wallers.

tools
Tools commonly used by wallers

Ends of walls are called Quoins.

quoin
Quoins neatly finishing new pathway through old wall

History

The first walls were built in Northland about 1840 in the Kerikeri Inlet area by a professional waller, John Edmonds.

Edmonds ruins
Edmonds house ruins and dry stone walls

About the same time walls were being built in the Whangarei District, where early farming developed in the Maungatapere area, and close to Whangarei township in what is now Kensington suburb.

Bank Street Whangarei
Reed House and walls in Bank Street

Since then there has been continuous building with periods of greater activity, especially during the depression years when subsidies from the government for farm development led to stony land being cleared, walled and made more productive.

Dalmations
Wall built during the depression by Dalmations (Dali) on Mathews farm, Maunu.

Appreciation of the walls waned and it wasn’t until it became obvious in the 1980s and 90s that they were being destroyed at a great rate that enthusiasts banded together, organised workshops and agitated for the Council to enact by-laws protecting them, that the tide turned and a stone wall renaissance took place. 

Wall restoration
Dept Conservation Stone Wall Restoration Week 1966 Kiripaka

restoration
Clarke Abbott, Robert Johnson and Gerry Brackenberry restoring walls at Kiripaka 1996

Origins

Volcano
Maungatapere Volcanic Cone and Dry Stone Walls

The Northland landscape is dotted with volcanic cones. 300,000 – 500,000 years ago this land was on fire as the earth’s crust buckled and split. Fire fountain volcanoes spewed lava and rocks across the land, creating the landscape we see today – small cones, gentle valleys and frequent waterfalls. The hundreds of kilometres of dry stone walls we also see were created from the debris from these volcanoes – the rocks scattered across the landscape. From the beginning of pastoral farming on these volcanic soils, rocks have been collected and built into dry stone walls.

Stone walls
Hurupaki volcanic cone and stone walled farmland

Books

In 2010 I published Stone Wall Country – the Dry Stone Walls of the Whangarei District.

Book on Stone Walls

This was after four years of research interviewing several old, local identities who had since died. It was a fascinating journey and I learnt a lot about not only the walls and their builders but the local geology and history. This book has been re-printed several times and is still available to buy either directly from myself or in local museums and bookshops.

Email: ballardonthehill@gmail.com

In November 2021 I published another book on stone walls: Stone Wall Country – The Dry Stone Walls of the Bay of Islands and Kaikohe.  

Bay of Islands

This is available directly from myself and from two bookshops in the area: Paihia Bookshop and The Village Book Shop at Waipapa.