Heritage: Havering’s links with New Zealand

Napier House and New Plymouth House

Napier House and New Plymouth House on the Mardyke Estate were named after cities in New Zealand. - Credit: Hayley Anderson

Local links with European settlement of New Zealand were strong, but Havering people had little idea that this Britain of the South belonged to the Maori people

Britain annexed New Zealand in 1840 through a disputed treaty with some (not all) Maori leaders. 

An early enthusiast for colonisation was Lord Petre of Thorndon Hall near Brentwood: one of his twelve children emigrated there.

The North Island city of Whanganui was originally called Petre. In 1844 settlers insisted the name was “universally disliked” and urged adoption of the original Maori version. 

The waterfront in New Zealand’s capital, Wellington, is still called Thorndon Quay.

Settlers wanted to create a replica southern Britain.
In 1860, Lord Petre caged three red deer from Thorndon Park and sent them to the Nelson settlement on the South Island. Within six years, the stag and two hinds had become a thirty-strong herd. By the 1920s, they were a pest.

Local people emigrated to New Zealand. Martha Thompson’s family left their High Street, Hornchurch home for Nelson in the 1850s. 

She married a Scotsman called Rutherford. Their son Ernest (later, Lord) Rutherford became the famous pioneer nuclear physicist. 

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Romford’s Catholic priest, Father Colomb, was sent to Greymouth on the South Island, where he drowned crossing a river in 1871.

After an Army career, Colonel Benjamin Branfill retired into poverty. His pension was small, his Upminster Hall estate yielded little income and he’d split from his “expensive and worldly” wife. 

In 1880, he too took refuge in Nelson, choosing a place called Brook Street (perhaps it reminded him of home), where he started to build a replica of Upminster Hall. 

An amateur painter, he supported himself giving art classes. In 2013, the Nelson Mail published an article – it’s online – about Branfill’s self-portrait of himself at the easel. 

His weirdly pointed white beard and moustaches resemble a propeller. His thumb protrudes through the palette: some people fear he’d cut it off!

In 1916, New Zealand troops arrived in Hornchurch from the disastrous Gallipoli campaign. A convalescent hospital was established at Grey Towers, a Victorian mansion now remembered in Grey Towers Avenue. 

Hornchurch people welcomed their colonial cousins, exchanging hospitality and entertainment. For the first time, locals became aware of New Zealand’s Maori identity. 

A hut erected in Butts Green Road as a social centre was called Te Wharepuni (the meeting house).

One terrifyingly memorable night, twenty Maori soldiers performed the haka (a war dance, “very fearsome and haunting”), shaking a local hall to its foundations.

Christchurch feminist Ettie Rout followed the troops, establishing a clinic opposite the Black Bull, now the Fatling. There she distributed contraceptives to protect Kiwi soldiers from venereal infections.

Once disapprovingly written out of the official story, she is now a national heroine.

READ MORE: New Zealand woman who confronted safe sex taboo in Hornchurch

Sadly, the 2,500-bed hospital was dismantled after the war.
Local links with New Zealand then took to the skies. 

The celebrated pioneer female pilot, Jean Batten, made a celebrity visit to Elm Park in 1938. 

Al Deere, from Westport on the South Island, was a Battle of Britain pilot at RAF Hornchurch. 

Injured when his Spitfire was shot down as he took off, he defied the doctors and returned to combat within two days. King George VI visited the aerodrome to present him with the Distinguished Flying Cross. 

In 1944, an RNZAF Spitfire squadron operated from Hornchurch covering the D-Day landings.

In 1950, Havering’s New Zealand links headed towards an unlucky climax. The Mayor of Dunedin visited Hornchurch, where the local authority was building the Dovers Farm housing estate.

To honour the connection, Hornchurch Council named the principal road New Zealand Way, with streets commemorating Kiwi place-names, Auckland, Christchurch, Gisborne and Queenstown. 

Dominating the development were two tower blocks in Dunedin Road, named after the pleasant North Island cities of Napier and New Plymouth.

Six decades later, those skyscraper flats had become – so the Recorder reported – a “hell hole”. 

To general delight, Napier House and New Plymouth House were demolished in 2019. It’s sad that a friendly gesture to a distant country ended so unhappily.