St Thomas’s – a Church in Ruins

As late as the 1950s friends recalled seeing stone ruins of St Thomas’s Church at the corner of St Heliers Bay Road and Kohimarama Road. I, too, can remember them. We asked then, and now, why the former church lay in ruins, seemingly abandoned? How long had the stonework been deteriorating and what was the future of the land on which the church once stood along with its scattered gravestones?

The answers reveal one of Auckland’s oldest churches, planned soon after the town was chosen as the new colony’s Capital in 1841.

And research shows that no story about the old church, St Thomas’s, would be complete without including St John’s College in the narrative: the two, their founder, their people and their close proximity, became inextricably linked in the story about an area once called “The Tamaki”. Today we know this area as Meadowbank, St Johns and Kohimarama.

St Thomas’s ruins in 1948
Whites Aviation, National Library of New Zealand

In short, St Thomas’s opened in 1845 but within 20 years had to be closed and was abandoned. Nearly 100 years later a new church arose on the spot in 1957, very much in the mould envisaged all those years before by sponsor of the original church, the Bishop of New Zealand, George Augustus Selwyn.

Bishop George Augustus Selwyn
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collection 7-A51

Bishop Selwyn arrived in New Zealand in 1842 as the first head of the Church of England for New Zealand and established his headquarters in Waimate, Northland. He travelled extensively to investigate the Mission’s needs: his long walks through bushland and along forest tracks in both the North and South Islands are legendary, some of them traversing territory of inhospitable Maori.

Wanted: A Church

It was on a visit to Auckland that the Bishop followed up a request from the scattered settlers at The Tamaki who sought his support to build a local church. Selwyn travelled the 7 miles (12 Km) from Auckland-town to meet them. The Bishop liked what he saw. Not only did he agree to a church, but he quietly began formulating plans for much bigger Church involvement at The Tamaki.

The settlers wanting a church were farmers, traders and land speculators… colonists who had been attracted to Tamaki despite its remoteness and distance from Auckland. Among them, pioneers and notables: men whose influence steered the developing colony. They included  Major Bunbury who had fought Napoleonic Wars and was posted  to New Zealand as Commanding Officer of the Armed Forces: William Spain who came as the Colony’s first Commissioner of Land Claims (accompanied by his wife and her mother, Dame Annie White):  William Church, officer in the Auckland Battalion: Joseph Newman, an early settler, dealer, temperance-man and, later elected member of the first Auckland Borough Council and Provincial Council, and Chairman of the Stock Exchange. Then there was John Guilding, Officer at H M Customs who traded a large tract of Tamaki land from the Maori: (Sir) Frederick Whitaker, 5th Premier of New Zealand: Alexander Shepherd, Colonial Treasurer and Sampson Kempthorne, architect, surveyor and politician.

A local place of worship would save these “country folk” the long trip into town to attend Sunday Service at the sole Anglican church in Auckland, St Paul’s which was under construction. It would be a trying walk, or on horseback, along unformed cross-country roads and tracks to the town-centre. The voyage by boat, either from Kohimarama Beach or Hobson Bay, around to Commercial Bay on the shores of the town could take longer still – and with risks – given weather and tides. The plea for a church at The Tamaki was welcomed by Bishop Selwyn. It fitted perfectly with his deep personal commitment to rapidly advance the Anglican Church in New Zealand, to convert the heathen and support Christians. He gave the green light. He might also have been thinking of the adage that a Bishop is only as good as the churches he builds, and that others knew his preference: “churches are made of stone – chapels of wood”.

A Site is Given, Work Begins

Selwyn and the settlers must have been pleased when one of their number, Alexander Shepherd, the Colonial Treasurer, made a personal donation, about 5 acres (2 ha) for the new church on a knoll overlooking the rolling ferns, bush and woodlands. Local Anglicans pledged donations to help pay for the new building and townspeople also subscribed. No time was lost. By December 1843 it had been decided construction would be of stone with a wooden shingled roof. It was designed by Rev. Frederick Thatcher who planned it as a chancel for a much larger church which, it was perceived, would soon be required to cater for the growing population. Tenders were invited for the work.

Daily Southern Cross newspaper, 9th December 1843

Just one week after tenders closed the church’s foundation stone was laid by the Acting Governor, Lieutenant Willoughby Shortland, on December 21st 1843, St Thomas’s Day. Whereupon it was announced that the new church would be called St Thomas’s. A large crowd from both town and country attended the ceremony, the newspaper of the day reporting a respectable number stayed to partake in  “refreshments of every description provided for them by the Tamaki gentlemen, who deserve very great credit, not only for the very handsome manner in which the proceedings were conducted, but more especially for the extraordinary zeal which they have exhibited in this early stage of the colony in supplying their district with the means of religious worship”.

The stone for construction came from the plentiful, natural, supplies on the nearby lower slopes of Maungarei (Mount Wellington). It was black basalt, thrown up when Maungarei erupted, estimated some 10,000 years before, one of the youngest of numerous volcanic cones around Auckland. The material was carted to the site by horse-and-dray, locals assisting as part of their contribution. Facings were to be made of sandstone which would be sourced from the cliffs at St Heliers Bay on Auckland’s waterfront. Sand, plentiful along adjacent beaches, would be used in the mortar. Thousands of wooden shingles for the high-pitched roof were ordered from a sawmill on the Coromandel Peninsula.

Bigger Plans

Meanwhile, Bishop Selwyn was putting in place his own plans for The Tamaki. He had not forgotten how impressed he had been with the place. He was preparing to move his headquarters from Waimate in the Bay of Islands to Auckland and wanted to continue educating the youth at The Tamaki. His idea was to establish a preparatory school and a college where boys and young men, native and european, “without distinction of persons”, could attend school to study a wide variety of useful subjects. His objective was that some candidates would emerge suitable for the clergy.

At the same time he would establish a community surrounding the college to serve all who worked and studied there, as well as the population of the district.

Critics said The Tamaki was too far out in the country from Auckland, but Selwyn ignored them and named the college St Johns with the main buildings to be built on a site adjacent to St Thomas’s Church, which was already under construction.

Bishop Selwyn’s extensive plans were made public in October 1844 when it was reported that he had purchased a large block “at the head of Hobson Bay” from Frederick Whitaker, land formerly owned by John Guilding. It was about 1,000 acres (400ha) and extended from upper Hobson Bay (today’s Orakei Basin) across the isthmus with a long narrow block reaching the water’s edge at the Tamaki inlet, known today as part of Glen Innes and Point England.

The Bishop had earlier put Sampson Kempthorne to work to design plans for the community: a collegiate school and a theological college as well as a native boys’ school, a native teachers’ school, an infant school, and a chapel.

Tenders were called for construction of the first buildings.

Daily Southern Cross 5th October 1844

“Allotment 3 at the Tamaki” refers to the area fronted by both what is now known as St John’s Road and Kohimarama Road as seen on the map below. The site for St Thomas’s is Allotment 11 and the shaded area indicates land which was later administered by St John’s Trust Board.

St Thomas Tamaki’s Website

Sampson Kempthorne was an architect and surveyor who had come to Auckland in 1842 from London where he had been designing, mainly, workhouses for paupers. Once here he helped Selwyn with the design of several buildings, including St Stephen’s Chapel in Parnell: like St Thomas’s it was under construction in 1844, both being built of local stone.  Kempthorne was now engaged on a much bigger project: designing a cluster of buildings at The Tamaki to replace huts and the “Cathedral Tent” temporarily providing shelter on-site.

(Selwyn realised that there were few churches in the new colony when he left England so he brought with him a small marquee tent which had been gifted to him  This could be pitched wherever he went in his new See, providing a pop-up church, hence the name “Cathedral Tent”. It was used for services during Selwyn’s first visit to Nelson on 28th August 1842 and seated a congregation of about 200 for whom tough-hewed planks were provided as kneeling boards. All services on the day were well attended – in Selwyn’s own words… Native Service at 8 o’clock; English Sunday School, 40 children, 9½ o’clock; English Service, 11 o’clock; Native School, 1 o’clock; English School, 2 o’clock; English Afternoon Service, 3 o’clock; Native Afternoon Service, 4½ o’clock”. It’s certain the Bishop would have conducted evening services, too, but was frustrated by lack of lighting in the tent!)   

In November 1844 the Bishop transferred his headquarters to Auckland bringing with him from Waimate about 20 foundation students for the new school. Author and historian, Innez Isabel Maud Peacocke, (1881 – 1973) known as I. M. Cluett, described what she knew of those days. “The students, English schoolboys, Maori lads and native servants, as well as adult students, had to live in tents on the banks of the Purewa creek, partly sheltered by native bush, but subject to easterly gales which often overthrew the tents and drenched the occupants. Later, raupo whares replaced the tents and then the new college buildings”.

The creek, at the head of Hobson Bay, served as the port for the College, upstream from the present Orakei Basin near the Purewa Cemetery and where the railway line was later constructed, completed in 1928.

It was Selwyn’s blueprint that everyone connected with the college would contribute. I. M. Cluett again: “Everybody worked, young and old, native and European. Clearing, digging, planting, carpentering, weaving, religious instruction and secular learning went on side-by-side with farming operations and industrial pursuits. Selwyn wanted to make his college self-supporting. No one worked harder than the bishop himself, with heart, hands and brain”.

St Thomas’s Opens

Less than a half a mile (or about a kilometer) away the construction of St Thomas’s was well under way, rapidly taking shape. Its black stones contrasted with the snow-white mortar, its high-angled shingled roof dominated the landscape. Also evident, the loopholes, slits through which guns could be fired in the event of enemy attack. Clashes in the North were still going on and it was feared the Maori may travel to Auckland to continue their fight. The church could be a refuge.

As Christmas approached progress was closely monitored and it was agreed services would be held on 22nd December, the nearest Sunday to St Thomas’s Day. Morning Divine Service was thus the very first service in the new church followed by evening devotions. Locals, well-pleased they now had their own church were joined by some Auckland townspeople and Officers of HMS Hazard, the gun-ship prominent in the conflict with natives near Kororareka (now Russell) in Northland. “Neighbours” from St Johns College also attended. Rev. William Cotton, the Bishop’s Chaplain to the College, took both services accompanied by a group of native students from the college. The “Daily Southern Cross” newspaper – …” they added much to the solemnity of the service, by chanting the Gloria Patri and singing the 100th psalm in English. To instruct the native in our language, so as to understand and perform part of Divine Service in this manner, is the best foundation for their certain civilization, and future knowledge of the truths of Christian religion, as well as of fulfilling the beautiful expression of the Prophet – ‘Those that be planted in the house of the Lord shall flourish in the courts of our God’.”

Work continued and St Thomas’s was formally opened in May 1845, the Bishop himself officiating.


Water colour of St Thomas’s Church. Undated, but the painter CEC was active in the 1850s
National Library of New Zealand A-143-001

Threat of Invasion

Almost immediately the church had been consecrated and dedicated to prayer and peace, it was the rallying point for wartime contingencies. The government saw a mounting risk to the new Capital, Auckland, of invasion by the Maori as they extended their hostilities south from Northland. The government decided to set up a militia to protect the people of Auckland and in this St Thomas’s became one of the reporting points for recruits. Charles Ligar, Lieutenant-Colonel of the Auckland Battalion, N. Z. Militia, ordered all able-bodied European men to get ready for active service and to be prepared to undergo training for no more than at least 28 days annually. “Those residing at the Tamaki are required to meet at the Tamaki Church on Wednesday the 28th and Thursday the 29th instant, at the hour of 10 o’clock, a m, for Muster and Division with a view to the organization of the Auckland Battalion of Militia. By command of his Excellency the Governor”.

While many men trained and were issued arms, the Militia was not called on in conflict except for a small contingent that went North in action against Hone Heke’s followers.

Further, fuller, measures were taken towards 1860 when local troops, and Regiments from abroad, were engaged against the Maori: the New Zealand Land Wars.


Some of the Tamaki locals (as has been mentioned) were notables, not shy to speak out, even if they did not always own up as to identity.

The first surfaced not long after St Thomas’s was officially opened. “Mogta” wrote a Letter to the Editor in July 1845 putting up a stink about a piggery that had been established to serve St John’s College. “The solemnity of the service at St Thomas’s ,” “Mogta” wrote, “and the devotion of the congregation, are now, every Sabbath, interrupted by the noise of pigs and dogs confined close to a hovel, not many yards distant from the Church… …occupied by a person carrying on the trade of a butcher to St. John’s College. Who… … can – and will – immediately remove the butcher to some more appropriate spot than the confines of Tamaki churchyard?”

The roads to and from, and within, the district were nothing more than tracks: mud in the winter and dusty in summer. They followed old foot tracks in many cases which had wound around wooded areas, gullies, stony pits and swamps. So locals were pleased to see the Surveyor at work with his map-book. Well, not everyone. “Mogta”, again, in correspondence to the editor, December 1845, harshly criticised alignments throughout the city and the roads to Epsom and Tamaki. “Most palpably the best specimen of this injudicious system, is to be now seen, in consequence of the College and opposite land being enclosed, from St. John’s College to the Tamaki Church. There are four turns in the road, all nearly at right angles, within the distance of a quarter of a mile, fraught with imminent danger to any unfortunate Jehu, or horseman, blessed with a hard-mouthed, runaway animal”

It’s safe to say no one took any notice of “Mogta”: the “turns” he mentioned are there to this day, a little less than right-angles now, and one a traffic island. But sealed and cambered, they’re much more easily traversed in modern cars!

Friendly Rivalry

In the early 1840s considerable rivalry and banter existed between two early settlements, Epsom and Tamaki. Residents of both districts argued public funds for their local roads and amenities. Tamaki (St Thomas’s 1844) and Epsom (St Andrew’s 1845) vied to get the first church.  Farming was also compared between the two districts, with the press joining in. The Daily Southern Cross, February 1844: “…we must say that there is nothing in the Tamaki to compare with the plains of Epsom. We were quite delighted some days ago with the cultivated appearance of Epsom and the richness and the abundance of the crops”. Land prices escalated in both places with invitations for “industrious agriculturists to take up cultivation”.

However, in a few short years Tamaki had turned the tables somewhat.

In 1846 the “New Zealander” newspaper welcomed a bumper harvest. “… wheat has yielded much greater returns per acre this year, and we think, we may safely state, that 30 to 35 bushels, per acre, is the average produce in the Waitemata district. But on the farm of St John’s College the product on one field, sown with the Essex Golden Drop, was above 45 bushels per acre”.

In 1850 William Hall of Tamaki took out the ploughman’s contest and St John’s College was among prize winners at Agricultural Shows for both stock and produce.

A New Name

Bishop Selwyn bestowed a new name on part of the Church’s considerable holdings at The Tamaki, central to which was St Thomas’s Church and St John’s College. He named it “Bishop’s Auckland”, dedicating it “…as an institution which, it is hoped, may be hereafter the nursery of the ministry and the centre of sound learning and religious education to the islands of New Zealand”. The name which appears to have been used for the first time in 1845, mentioned in a Church Almanac, published on the St Johns’ College own press, and stamped “Bishop’s Auckland” as its address.

Bishop’s Auckland quickly became a community, described by A. L. Ruddock’s recollection in the Auckland Star, April 1939, of his conversation with an elderly woman of the time. “Travellers were given hospitality, scholars of both races taught side by side, the sick nursed (the hospital was available to all), the farm worked, and many craftsmen, such as printers, carpenters, shoemakers, etc, plied their trades. I used to go each Sunday to school in St. Thomas’s at the Tamaki and was taught there by a member of the college”.

Cottages were erected to cater as temporary accommodation for those who arrived in “their new land” without lodgings, including “pensioners” fetched by the Government from England in October 1847. These were ex-active servicemen, average age in their 40s, who came to New Zealand as assisted immigrants with their families to join the local militia, helping meet the threat posed by Maori. They were known as “Fencibles” and the first to arrive were accommodated at St John’s until their houses were finished at Onehunga, Panmure, Howick and Otahuhu.

But the name Bishop’s Auckland did not endure much beyond the early 1860s and then it was confined to describing the area immediately surrounding St John’s College. Today the names Meadowbank, Purewa, St Johns, Kohimarama and St Heliers have taken over.

Notable Celebrants

As mentioned, there was at first no chapel at St John’s so college staff and students made their way to St Thomas’s for Sunday services. This meant a number of notable clergymen officiated at St Thomas’s, including Bishop Selwyn himself, Bishops John Patteson and Charles Abraham and Archdeacon John Lloyd. Congregations at St Thomas’s knew no denominational barriers… and they heard sermons from some of the most illustrious churchmen in New Zealand.

Staff and their families, helpers and the youthful students from St John’s attended St Thomas’s each Sunday, among them a local, Joseph Atkin, as well as James Stack and Henare Taratoa, the young chief whose conduct at the storming of the Gate Pa has made his name immortal. St Thomas’s was also place of worship for the first students to come from Melanesia under Selwyn’s education scheme, and who would leave their names prominent in Church records:  Siapo, Thol, and Apale.

But the weekly visit to St Thomas’s from the College came to an end in 1847 when St John’s own chapel, The Chapel of St John the Evangelist, designed by Frederick Thatcher, was completed and consecrated.

St John’s Chapel, 1870s
Watercolour by Rev John Kinder – Auckland Art Gallery

It was the end of an era for St Thomas’s although services were often conducted by clergy from “over at the College”.

Old Stone Buildings

St Thomas’s was not alone being built of stone. One other church, and other stone buildings, were constructed in Auckland about the same time. Considering what happened to both churches its appropriate to look at these buildings.

Coldicutt House

In the mid-1840s farmer William Coldicutt built a house on his Mt Eden property, said to be the first dwelling in Auckland built of stone. It survives.

1960’s view of Coldicutt House
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collection

This old stone construction survives – No 753 Mt Eden Road is in private ownership, now a Historic Place.

Potter’s Cottage

Another pioneer farmer, William Potter, also built a stone house on his considerable holdings at Epsom. It was constructed in 1845 of local stone from the nearby One Tree Hill (Maungakiekie) volcano.


Potter’s house on Manukau Road near Green Lane, Epsom, 1919.
James D Richardson – Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 4-150

Allowed to run down over the years, the house was demolished in 1967 to make way for a road. Its historical value was recognised and it was removed, stone by stone, to the Museum of Transport and Technology, where it was re-built as part of Pioneer Village. It survives today.

St Andrew’s

In the late 1850s the Melanesian Mission was moved from St John’s College to land purchased by Selwyn on the waterfront at what was then called Kohimarama. The cluster of buildings consisted new wooden structures, one transferred from St John’s – and several stone buildings, the material fetched from Rangitoto Island. It’s thought Reader Gilson Wood drew the plans for the new structures while Benjamin Strange was trusted with the masonry. Known as St Andrew’s, it opened in 1860 and included schoolrooms, residences, a printery and a chapel.  The Mission did not endure on this site… the stone buildings were considered too cold for Pacific Islanders in winter and the mission’s base was transferred in 1867 to the warmer climes of Norfolk Island. The buildings at Mission Bay, as this bay was subsequently known, were then used as an industrial school, a naval training establishment and, from about 1915 it was taken over by the New Zealand Flying School operated by pioneer aviators, Walsh Brothers. They trained pilots for war-time service: the aircraft, revolutionary flying boats, were moored in the shallows and the harbour provided the student pilots with their “schoolroom” for take-offs and landings.

Restored Melanesian Buildings at Mission Bay:
the Norfolk Pines survives

One or the former Melanesian Mission buildings, the Mission House, survives. It was a museum for decades from 1928 and from 1984 it has been a restaurant set in the beachside park shared by two Norfolk Pines which were planted prior to 1860 by Bishops Selwyn and Patteson, no doubt brought back from Norfolk Island on one of their pastoral visits.

Albert Barracks

The wall encircling Albert Barracks was started in 1846 to enclose about 20 acres (9ha), headquarters for the militia. The 12-feet (4m) high walls were fortifications, complete with loopholes in case of maori uprising. This showed great faith in the basalt used in the construction which came from Mt Eden. The blockade was never tested against the enemy and some of the wall was torn down around 1870 with other parts demolished over the decades to make way for development. A section survives within the University of Auckland campus.

Re-enactment: shooting through loopholes in the remaining section
of Albert Barracks wall, University of Auckland

The Deanery

In 1857 a stone house was constructed at the corner of St Stephens Avenue and Brighton Road, designed by the notable Frederick Thatcher which became known as The Deanery.


Early drawing of the Deanery

Bishop Selwyn lived there while awaiting the completion of Bishopscourt. The Deanery still exists: now leased as a medical clinic.

Kinder House

Another building overseen by Bishop Selwyn was the double-storeyed Kinder House in Parnell, also designed by Thatcher. It was residence for John Kinder had been appointed Master at the Church of England Grammar School and was completed in 1857 by stonemason Benjamin Strange who had also worked on the Deanery. The rock came from Rangitoto Island. Kinder House survives, a popular heritage tourist attraction in Ayr Street.


Kinder House 1869
Unknown – Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 7-A4581

Mt Eden Prison

The institution’s surrounding walls, cellblocks and outbuildings came later, constructed from the 1860s, but need to be included here as the largest structures in Auckland made of local basalt stone. It was mined in a quarry immediately adjacent to the original stockade on the slopes of Maungawhau, Mt Eden, the site of the present buildings.  Prison labour was used to gather the stone and in the construction of the prison’s perimeter wall and buildings which, with extensions, took some 30 years to complete.

The vast stonework of Mt Eden Prison
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collection

A new jail replaced the stone prison in 2011 but the majority of the old buildings survive, their resilience tested during fires, set by prisoners, that swept several wings in July 1965. Today the vast stone buildings, and most of the wall, still stand: abandoned, awaiting a decision about their fate.

These historic buildings all used plentiful, locally-sourced, volcanic stone in their construction showing it could be successfully used and it was both practical and durable: still standing after more than 150 years.

But two other equally historic stone buildings, the churches, failed.

St Stephen’s Chapel

The third stone construction by the Church in Parnell was St Stephen’s Chapel, built on the headland above Judge’s Bay, Taurarua, on Auckland’s waterfront. This was designed and built by Samson Kempthorne, believed devised to be the venue for the signing of the constitution of the United Church of England and Ireland in New Zealand in 1857. On the day the chapel was consecrated by Bishop Selwyn in December 1844 a large crowd gathered to celebrate, including a contingent from the brand-new St Thomas’s Church and from the embryonic St John’s College. Ceremonies included the first baptisms at the new church, three Maori children from Waiheke Island. This was appropriate as St Stephen’s was described as a “Native Chapel”, to be the focus of ministry to Maori.

But within days of its consecration it was apparent parts of the building were unstable. Subsidence was blamed. The structure continued to fall apart and in the interests of safety church services were discontinued, the place closed. On 29th June 1845 hurricane-force winds lashed the province and blew over those walls remaining upright.

Supposition was that the architect, Sampson Kempthorne, had not included enough reinforcing which caused the walls to stress. Others believed the sand, taken from the nearby beach and used in the masonry had not first been washed in fresh water to get rid of the salt. Engineers who studied the structure much later with modern scientific insight believed Kempthorne miscalculated the weight of the building and did not match it with sufficient foundations in the Parnell clay sub-strata.

Whatever, within days of opening the church had shown signs of failure and within 7 months it was in a heap of stones on the ground.

Ruins of St Stephen’s on the headland above Judges Bay, March 1852
Caroline Harriet Abraham – Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 3-111-23

Selwyn observed potato plants growing among the heaps of stones and remarked that it was an expensive vegetable patch!  He soon ordered a wooden chapel be built on the same spot as a replacement. Thatcher was the architect and work was completed in time so St Stephens could be the venue for the signing of the Anglican Church of New Zealand’s Constitution in 1857.

St Stephen’s Chapel today, overlooking the busy Port of Auckland

What of St Thomas’s?

The church at Tamaki was of the same construction as St Stephens and built about the same time. It, too, would eventually suffer the same fate as St Stephen’s.

Some deterioration of the masonry at St Thomas’s had been detected not long after it was completed, but there were no concerns it was unsafe.

But in 1859 an earthquake was blamed for sudden further weakening: a large gap appeared above the Western door. Services continued until 1864 when the building was considered structurally unsound – dangerous – and it was closed for public worship. The weight of the roof, not long having been re-shingled, was apparently compacting the stone in the walls in an accelerating collapse.

As was the case with St Stephen’s, the failure was blamed on poor judgement, the builders having used sand from Kohimarama Beach without thoroughly washing it to clean out the salt. Another possibility was that the window facings, made of sandstone procured at St Heliers Bay, were too soft to take the weight, or were not sufficiently durable against the weather.

St Thomas’s, just 20 years old, was abandoned.

It had heard sermons by leading clergymen, it had provided a spiritual home for locals and was the place of worship for many visitors including the late Premier, Right Hon. Sir George and Lady Grey and also officers of Her Majesty’s army and navy who fought in the war of 1845-46.

Members of the congregation, now without their church, were welcomed by St John’s College to join services in the chapel there. This reversed the Sunday walk of some 20 years earlier when St John’s staff and students, before they had their own chapel, trekked across to worship at St Thomas’s. Now the it was the other way around – people of St Thomas’s, without a church, went to St John’s for Divine Service.

In Ruins


The church and adjacent graveyard was neglected. In 1899 “Traveller” wrote to the Editor of the “New Zealand Herald” drawing attention to the state of the church yard, imploring those in the Church of England to attend to the upkeep of the place.

St Thomas’s Church in the late 1800s
John D. Richardson – Sire George Grey Special Collections 4-3350

The letter is riddled with fanciful and provocative thoughts such as the intention “…to lease the land to John as a market garden”. Of the overgrown graveyard the letter said “…what with gates down, cattle in, eating up the plants placed by loving hands, and gorse all over the place – verily cremation is far better!”.

That letter appears to be the first public criticism about the neglect of the ruins and surrounds.


Edith Searle Grossman, in a report in the “Otago Witness” gave an eye-witness account. “The north-east end is crumbling away, and overhead only the rafters of the roof are left.

St Thomas’s 1901 “…only the rafters of the roof are left…”
Weekly News – Auckland Libraries Heritage Collection

The heavy wooden door has fallen in across the porch, and the floor is a deep hollow with the foundation pillars of stone visible. Of the floor, all that remains are a few rotten planks of wood lying athwart the stones or up on end. The arched window-spaces are vacant, and through them we saw visions of the misty blue and grey of the spring sky.


A storm in 1915 took its toll when the derelict roof fell in, leaving only the remnants of the walls standing in what to all appearances was an abandoned churchyard.


The Tamaki Road Board, tired of the “abandoned” land of the churchyard wrote to the Melanesia Mission suggesting the Board take over the plot so it could be reclaimed as an historical spot by caring local residents or converted for some other use. The reply from the Mission contained a great surprise when it was revealed that “… at an early date the site will be required for a new church”. Members of the Road Board expressed indignation at this suggestion, saying the ruins should be preserved. “A few years ago several loads of stones fallen from the ruins had been carted to Papatoetoe”, one member recalled, “and if something is not done soon the building will become nothing but a heap of stones. Residents feel the fallen stones should be replaced and cemented down from time to time. It is also a matter for regret that the section was not kept in proper order, instead of being entirely neglected as at present”. Bishop Averill said that, meantime, local volunteers were welcome to clean up the site.  This resulted in “EB” writing to the New Zealand Herald asking “Is it too late to awaken the members of the Melanesian Trust Board to their responsibilities, and to the desirability of showing reverence for the work done by Bishop Selwyn in the early days?” The Secretary of the Anglican General Trust Board corrected correspondents:  The property has nothing to do with the Melanesian Mission. It is vested in the General Trust Board of the Diocese of Auckland, in trust as a site for a church. The board has no power to hand the property over to the local governing body, and as soon as the need is felt, a church will be erected upon the property”.


There was an appeal for donations in 1925 led by the Vicar of St Heliers, who wanted to clean up the grounds at St Thomas’s “…now that the annual flowering weed, Watsonia, has been burned off”.

St Thomas’s ruins: time to think about restoration
John D Richardson – Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 4-3362

Money was sought to strengthen the walls from the inside, leaving the ivy-clad walls. “It has been suggested the ivy be cleared from the ruin, but many people will object to this, as without it the old walls would not only lose their picturesque beauty, but would probably crumble away rapidly for lack of binding and support. Restoration that will greatly enhance the beauty and dignity of the church grounds, and secure, for at least some years to come, the preservation of Auckland’s oldest and most picturesque”.

This mission moved writer/historian Elsie Morton to say that “St Thomas’s is our one and only ruin and is sufficiently picturesque in its decay to have found a place in the hearts of many hundreds of Aucklanders. They look on it with pride and interest, and rightly so, for it is the centre of a host of associations and memories connected with the establishment of Christianity in a new and uncivilised land. Within the little cemetery adjoining the church are some 16 or 17 graves. Some of them have long since fallen into utter neglect; others bear headstones showing who lies beneath”.


By this time the roof had all but vanished and local children were warned of the dangers of playing among the ruins. In October the Rev Jasper Calder proposed that the next Anglican Synod consider restoring St Thomas’s. The Auckland Historical Society knew that two of the original windows were stored at All Saint’s Church in Ponsonby and the group supported a restoration project.

As before, nothing substantial came of it, the ivy-covered ruins remained, further deteriorating.

St Thomas’ ruins with the red flowers of the Watsonia weed

The proposal, however, did result in a memoir published in newspapers at the time. An old (unnamed) Otahuhu resident recalled the ivy had been deliberately planted by Joseph Atkin, son of local pioneer, William Atkin. William had been one of the foundation members of the congregation at St Thomas’s, a dedicated Anglican who served the Church in many ways: Churchwarden and Synodsman. Joseph, the son, worshiped at St Thomas’s in his youth, attended the Church of England Grammar School in Parnell, then studied at St John’s College and graduated to the ministry. “In planting the ivy, he remarked that it would make an old English ruin in time…”.


Reverend Joseph Atkin
Mission Life: An Illustrated Magazine of Home and Foreign Church Work

The memoir continues “… the Reverend Joseph Atkin, like Bishop Patteson, suffered a martyr’s death in September 1871 at Nukapu, Solomon Islands”. He died of injuries inflicted by the natives there.


In 1945 there was further criticism of the overgrown, unkempt, ruins. A correspondent using the non de plume “Pro Patria”, drew attention to the “deplorable state of St Thomas’s ruins and cemetery” in the Letters to the Editor column in The Auckland Star. “Gorse and weeds have run wild; to the casual observer it is difficult to imagine there is a cemetery there at all. Surely the sacred graves of our early pioneers are deserving of more care and attention than this. The cost entailed in clearing the area of noxious growth would be more than amply justified. A “broken down” cemetery is a blot on any landscape, especially so when it’s located in a coming city suburb. Moreover, these very ruins are one of the few remaining relics of old Auckland”. The writer pleaded with appropriate organisations to clean it up.

Later Moves

In time those who had been dispossessed by the collapse of St Thomas’s had options other than to attend St John’s Chapel. In St Heliers the Church of St Philip opened in October 1898 and for many years it was a parish serving a much wider district than the suburb of St Heliers we now know. To cope with the increasing population of the district it was decided to divide St Philip’s parish and in 1955 a church was opened at Kohimarama to be known as St Andrew’s (later The Melanesian Martyrs’ Memorial Church of St Andrews).

About this time the Bishop of Auckland, Right Reverend W. J. Simkin, commissioned a survey of St Thomas’s ruins. Professionals… engineers and a stonemason… advised that the remnants still standing were beyond restoration. With this information it was decided to demolish the stone walls, mainly as a safety measure, and this work was carried out in June 1954 leaving a huge pile of stones in an unkempt churchyard.

A new St Thomas’s

Further population growth warranted another church within “the old Tamaki” – in 1957 a new church was built on the one-acre (.4 ha) site of the old St Thomas’s through the generosity of William (later Sir William) Stevenson. He asked architects to draw the new church in the style of the old and he laid the foundation stone on 21st December 1957, St Thomas’s Day, 114 years after the same ceremony for the first St Thomas’s. The completed church was dedicated by Bishop Simkin on St Thomas’s Day, December 21st, 1958. St Thomas’s separated from its mother church, St Philip’s, in 1966 becoming its own parochial district.


St Thomas’s Church today

What remains of the old St Thomas’s?

Selwyn’s vision of the Church’s involvement with the community (at parishes and at St John’s College) is a definite legacy found in the new St Thomas’s: It has facilities which it makes available for local people, groups and service organisations to meet in pursuit of a myriad interests.

Selwyn’s sentiment survives.

There are also physical remnants of the old church. Some of its stones have been incorporated in the altar of the new St Thomas’s.

The altar includes some stones rescued from the ruins

Other examples of the basalt have been worked into the gardens surrounding the church and a few were included in the stonework at the entrance of nearby Selwyn College. And at St Thomas’s’ –

among the stones in the church grounds I found a small sprig of ivy doing its best to get established between the rough volcanic rocks.

Ivy regenerating in the rocks: it once covered the ruins

I’m saying it was from the same plants cultivated by Rev Joseph Atkin all those years ago in his bid to beautify the ruins.

Not far from the walls of the original church is the orderly arrangement of headstones salvaged from the overgrown graveyard. It was announced at the time that this work was done that old wooden crosses and memorials had long since rotted, weather-worn.

Old headstones have been collected, re-erected

Most of these remember pioneers of the district, and of Auckland, who rest in the grounds – including the first burial, Dame Annie White, interred October 11, 1845. Her damaged headstone lies horizontal at the end of the row, its weathered inscription almost illegible.

The creation of a well-kept Garden of Memories in the grounds is in sharp contrast to the neglect graves suffered for nearly 100 years. And there’s a reminder of the nuisance the Watsonia weed once was when it so virulently thrived, over-running the site. A small (controlled!) patch remains beneath a tree in the grounds.

A clump of Watsonia remains, recalling it was once the scourge of the churchyard

The two windows from the original church have been returned from long-time caretaker, All Saints’ Church in Ponsonby: one of the old wooden casements is on display in the Church vestibule.

One of the 2 original surviving wooden framed windows

And St John’s College and Community?

Sadly, Bishop Selwyn’s vision was not realised. By 1853, some 10 years after his grand vision of a Church-based school, college and community at The Tamaki, his enterprise was failing.

What went wrong?

My reading of the situation suggests several reasons from around the early 1850s. The English School-style of teaching and the curriculum was not popular among the colonists: enrolments did not match expectations.

St John’s School: very English – the masters wore mortar boards.
J. D. Richardson – Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 4-3244

Finances flagged: the undertaking could not be supported by proceeds from school fees and the farm. As well as this, some of the staff at the schools disagreed with the syllabus and Selwyn’s blueprint that all students were expected to help around the community and on the farm. Other staff, some of them clergy, felt the Bishop was intransigent in his views which were based on English ideals but not practical in the colonial new Auckland, “inflexible rather than resolute” someone wrote.

Then towards the end of 1852 came a scandal. Homosexual activities among staff and pupils were revealed when Maori students became involved. Enquiries showed the behaviour had been evident since the institution was founded in 1845 and that those involved included some of Selwyn’s most trusted colleagues.

These factors ended the Bishop’s dream of the institution including free education for all-comers, which included a small school run by his wife, Sarah, and Mrs Purchas.

In April 1853 the College and Community was wound up as an undertaking. As mentioned, the Melanesian Mission moved to Mission Bay in late 1859 and other activities at St John’s were curtailed, except the theological college. In 1865 Selwyn announced at Synod that St John’s future lay in the preparation of candidates for Holy Orders. The site and buildings have been mainly used for this purpose ever since. But with some gaps, such as when it closed during the First World War after all the students and some of the staff enlisted on active service and, as the St John’s Trust Board website says “over the years the fortunes of the trust and college waxed and waned”. Methodists shared the facilities from the 1970s, the college later reverting to its own Anglican studies programme.

St John’s Legacies

The ongoing college, St John the Evangelist, has already been mentioned.

In its grounds are reminders of Selwyn’s endeavour – St John’s Chapel, Selwyn’s dwelling (now the Waitoa Room) and the Dining Hall, all built in the 1840s.

St John’s Chapel today
St John’s Theological College

The chapel, the oldest surviving church building in Auckland and recognised as an Historic Place, was not the only Church to be built on this site. Bishop Selwyn and Frederick Thatcher developed distinctive architectural designs, now known as “Selwyn Churches”, a fixture in the calendar of New Zealand architecture. At St John’s College carpenters followed Thatcher’s plans to build churches on-site which would be dismantled, transported, then re-erected in distant parishes. This established the country’s first home-grown pre-fabrication process, building the wooden framework and panelling at St John’s and taking the “kit set” churches to wherever they were needed.

In the 1880s the need for another cemetery for the fast-growing city of Auckland prompted the Anglican Synod to ask the St John’s Trust for land for this purpose. 55 acres of the land originally purchased by Bishop Selwyn in 1843 was set aside for Purewa Cemetery, and on January 17, 1889, the first burial took place. Today this legacy of Selwyn’s purchase is managed by the Purewa Cemetery Trust Board.

Other land from the original estate was subdivided or sold, generating valuable endowment funds over the decades which have gone to St John’s Trust Board to further its objectives, principally education.

The Atkin Family

This pioneering family figured in the earliest days at St Thomas’s Church, but their contributions extended much beyond the church… and continue today.

William Atkin arrived in Auckland from England in 1842 and purchased land at The Tamaki which stretched right down to the waterfront now known as Kohimarama Beach and Mission Bay. He diligently farmed the land. He sold an area at Mission Bay to the Church for the Melanesia Mission in 1869 and cashed up in 1881, selling all his land. He was a devoted member of the Church and worshipped at St Thomas’s from the day the first service was held there. William and his wife had two children.

His son, Reverend John Atkin, as mentioned, graduated from St John’ College and was probably responsible for planting ivy that soon covered St Thomas’s ruins for decades. He died of wounds he suffered, along with Bishop Patteson, inflicted by natives in the Solomon Islands.

Daughter Mary Atkin was a life-long supporter of the Church and a keen worker in the interests of the Melanesian Mission. As a youngster she often met Bishop Selwyn and recalled standing on the cliffs above Kohimarama Beach waving farewell to his party departing on numerous voyages around New Zealand and to the Pacific Islands.

Her legacies are many. When Mary died in 1938 at the age of 91 she had made provision in her will leaving £1000 to the Mission and giving her home and surroundings to be used as a rest home by those connected with the Mission. (“Mary Atkin Cottage” survives in Kohimarama, recently renovated, it continues to be used as intended by its donor). Miss Atkin also gave an area to be developed as a children’s playground (Mary Atkin Reserve) and left money to provide a bursary for students of St. John’s College who train for Mission work.

Melanesian Martyr’s Memorial Church of

Melanesian Martyr’s Memorial Church of St Andrew today

Other bequests were made for the benefit of the Church at Kohimarama, including the land on which St Andrew’s Church was built. Most fitting, as the church has since been named The Melanesian Martyr’s Memorial Church of St Andrew in honour of her brother’s, and others’, sacrifice in aid of the Mission.

Atkin Road in Mission Bay remembers William and the family.


The first (and only) Bishop of New Zealand, Dr George Augustus Selwyn, left New Zealand in 1868 to return to England to take up the bishopric of Lichfield. His work in the new colony as priest, missionary, constitutionalist and innovator called on his considerable skills as politician, diplomat, sailor, explorer, a friend of the natives, builder, and traveller. His legacies are well-documented. Among them the buildings described above to which must be added Bishopscourt (Selwyn Court) and Selwyn Library in Parnell plus numerous other churches and chapels.

And not forgetting the unfortunate St Thomas’s and St Stephen’s.

His life was also remembered when Selwyn College at Cambridge, in Dunedin and at the high school at Kohimarama were named after him. Selwyn Foundation’s Villages at Point Chevalier and elsewhere honours his name. In Auckland, Selwyn Road, Selwyn Street, Augustus Terrace, Bishop Street and Lichfield Street have been named after the Bishop or for his connections. Other thoroughfares, originally called Selwyn, have been changed to avoid confusion. In Canterbury a river, district and electorate bears the Bishop’s name.


G. S. Grant, in his book “George Augustus Selwyn”, writes “The two most illustrious colonists of New Zealand are unquestionably Bishop Selwyn and Sir George Grey. Both have been signal benefactors to New Zealand, and both have been animated by noble, disinterested, and high-minded principles, aspirations, and motives of action”.


RCC March 2020





“Bishop Selwyn in New Zealand, 1841 – 1868, Warren E. Limbrick

“George Augustus Selwyn”, James Gordon Stuart Grant

Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga website

“History of St Thomas’s” a paper

“Innovative Burial Options” August  2017

“Mission Life: An Illustrated Magazine of Home and Foreign Church Work”, ed. Rev. J. J. Halcombe, M.A. (London: W. Wells Gardner, 1872), Vol. III Part I (new series),  transcribed by the Right Reverend Dr. Terry Brown: Bishop of Malaita, Church of the Province of Melanesia, 2006

“St Stephen’s Taurarua: the History and Significance of Judge’s Bay Chapels, Warren E. Limbrick

St John’s Trust Board website

St John’s Theological College website

St Philip’s Church, St Heliers, website

St Thomas’s Church, Kohimarama, website

“The Former Melanesian Mission Building Auckland Conservation Plan (updated 2016)”, prepared by Salmond Reed Architects for Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Final, February 2016

The Melanesian Martyr’s Memorial Church of St Andrew website

The Prow website