When Rewi Alley returned to New Zealand to rehabilitate after suffering serious wounds on the Somme in World War I, he met his old high-school friend, Jack Stevens, in Christchurch, who had been in the Air Force in Egypt and was planning to take up land in Taranaki under the Returned Soldiers Rehabilitation Scheme. Jack Stevens invited Rewi Alley to join him and together they pooled their war gratuities and that of Rewi’s elder brother Eric (who had been killed in France) to apply for a government loan to buy a farm in the Moeawatea valley. The valley is situated about 40kms inland from Waverley [North Island, New Zealand], over difficult roads that Rewi and Jack subsequently spent much time maintaining. The round trip to Waverley to collect supplies took Rewi two days by horseback.
Although much (but not all!) of the road is now sealed, the trip from Waverley to Rewi Alley’s Whare still takes an hour by car. If you’re keen to make the journey – read on! Driving directions are provided at the end of the article.
The Alley and Stevens whare [farmhouse] was originally a four-room cottage, built from locally-milled materials by Government builders, was purchased by Rewi and Jack in 1921 along with 800 acres of land extending south to the Ngarahu Road and Tarawhiti bridge. Rewi and Jack added a kitchen and bathroom extension to the back of the whare and a wool shed was constructed in the paddock opposite in which he and Jack were able to shear 100 sheep/day.
By working like slaves often up to 16 hours a day, clearing bush, sowing grass and fencing, they were able to increase stock numbers up to 1000 sheep and 100 cattle. Despite their hard work, the Lands Department took most of the wool cheque and the only way they could survive was by working on the roads, making butter and shooting pigs. In 1926, the wool price slumped from 29 to 2 pence per pound, it became clear that the farm could not support two people. So in 1927, Rewi Alley rode off the farm taking only a backpack and leaving the land and buildings to Jack Stevens. Jack hung on there for a few years and eventually married and moved to the South Island leaving the farm to return to Government hands in 1930.
Although Rewi Alley felt he had failed, there is no doubt these were highly formative years and he later said “It brought me down to earth and taught me much. It taught me the value of simplicity and a host of other things. I learned a lot there of struggle and the basic things that have kept me in good stead. Life at Moeawatea gave me an ability to face up to the cold winds for days and smile. It cleared away a lot of war dreams” ( from ‘Rewi Alley, An Autobiography’, 1986).
After Alley and Steven’s farm returned to the Government, it was leased for grazing by neighbour Jim Campbell until 1946, when Campbell’s farm was bought by Matt Hammond, a dairy farmer from Kohi. Hammond also purchased the improvements on Alley and Steven’s farm in 1957 and had staff living in the whare most of the time, until he sold it in 1962. Graham Annabelle who lived at the top end of the valley then owned it from 1962 until 1972, when it was purchased by Ernie Mathews who first began farming in the valley in 1950 when he bought land from the Hughes Bros. [Ernie spent almost his entire life living alone in the Moeawatea valley and was buried on Syd Hughes’ original farm in 2009.]
Restoration of Rewi Alley’s Whare
During the 70’s and 80’s, the whare was used mainly by possum and pig hunters and fell into a state of disrepair. Some of the timber cladding was lost and replaced by corrugated iron but the essential structure of the whare remained intact. Renewed interest in Rewi Alley’s history and the publication of Geoff Chapple’s book [“Rewi Alley of China“] in 1980 led to the formation of a group of people dedicated to restoring and preserving the whare.
Ernie Matthews and Alan McPherson initially re-piled the building. Then at Easter 1988, David Harre and Tom Newnham from Auckand re-roofed the house with money donated by the Auckland Branch of the NZ China Friendship Society and also the Whanganui Branch of the NZ Historic Places Trust [now Heritage NZ]. David Harre was later able to initiate a full restoration project with the Conservation Corps under a government employment scheme. Over a six-month period the whare was taken back to its original dimensions and a new outbuilding was erected, in the same style and materials, immediately behind it to provide a separate kitchen and sleeping accommodation. An official re-opening ceremony was held on 28 July 1989 when the then Minister of the Environment, Phil Goff, reopened the house.
After restoration it was planned to have maintenance of the building administered by the Whanganui Regional Community College but this failed to eventuate and in 1991 a committee of local people was set up by Rewi’s cousin, “Digger” Alley (of New Plymouth), to keep an eye on the place. This included Ernie Matthews, Maurice Alley, Marion Rainforth and Dave Harre.
During the 1990s tenants were living in the buildings and they maintained the house and gardens to a variable standard. But in 2001 it became clear that major maintenance was required. The cladding was temporarily repaired and the whare was repainted in January 2002 by Dorothy Waymouth, Mike Eagle, Anita and Alan McPherson and Maurice, Dorothy and Malcolm Alley.
Ernie Mathews continued farming in the valley until well into his 70s when ill health persuaded him to pass farming responsibilities over to his nephew, Henry Mathews, who farms in the adjacent Waitotara valley. However, Ernie retained his interest and concern for the future of the historic cottage and, in 2004, he agreed to go ahead with the formation of a Rewi Alley Moeawatea Trust consisting of himself and two Alley relatives, Dorothy Waymouth and Maurice Alley, to administer and maintain the whare.
Over the last 10 years the Trust has upgraded the bedrooms and kitchen in the out buildings. A new bathroom and toilet have been added between the buildings and a septic tank has been installed.
The Moeawatea whare is now the only remaining home of Rewi Alley in New Zealand. It also serves as a reminder of the harsh and isolated conditions that the ‘rehab’ farmers were expected to endure when they returned broken and battered from the first World War. The rehab cottage is the only one remaining of the 100s built for returned servicemen who were sold marginal land in the Whanganui/Taranaki hinterland by the government and who, like Rewi and Jack, were later forced to abandon their farms when economic conditions worsened (see” The ‘Bridge to Nowhere’ | NZHistory, New Zealand history online).
Only two (non-residential) farmers now farm in the valley, although it was once a settlement of a dozen farming families for which the Alley whare was the local Post Office Agency. The steep erosion-prone hills [formed of mudstone, siltstone and sandstone, known locally as ‘papa’] have now reverted to manuka scrub and apart from beef cattle and a few sheep most of the land is now used for Manuka honey production (see Makowhai Station | Settlers Honey Hot n’ Cold!). Beehives are therefore prominent during January and February and the roads are maintained to allow access for beehive trucks.
Although there is no electricity, visitors can stay overnight provided they obtain a key from the Trustees. The trip is best undertaken in a 4WD [4 wheeled-drive vehicle] and should only be attempted in dry weather. The road is closed by the South Taranaki District Council during the winter months. Mobile phone coverage in the valley is poor but a telephone connection from the whare is usually operating during the summer.
How to get to Rewi Alley’s Whare – Driving Instructions
Important: We are certain that having read the above article many of you will be keen to make the journey. But do not rely on Google Maps Driving Instructions to get there as unfortunately their instructions are quite wrong (and include roads that do not even exist!). Any attempt to follow Google Maps will most likely result in you getting “horribly lost”. The roads are narrow and dangerous and we’d like to help you get there safely – so we’ve prepared a sketch map and accompanying notes to help you navigate your way to Rewi Alley’s Whare safely.
If you wish to make the drive to Rewi Alley’s Whare:
- Print out a copy of our sketch map showing the route from Waverley to Rewi Alley’s Whare (for a PDF of the map click here) and take a note of the accompanying details below. For users of Satnav the co-ordinates for Rewi Alley’s Whare are: -39.5581389 174.6408056
- Only attempt the 48km journey in dry weather during the summer.
- Turn up Kohi Road 1km north of Waverley. Then northeast up Okahutiria Rd which travels along a razorback ridge for about 20km.
- Pass the Nukuhau Rd turn off and you will come to the Moeawatea Road on the left: Proceed carefully down the Moeawatea Road which has a dirt surface. Note that it is closed in winter.
- Close all gates, cross the ford at the Tarawhiti branch of the Whenakura river and proceed along the Whenakura Valley Rd for about 3 kms.
- The Rewi Alley cottage is first on the right.
If you wish to enter the whare or stay overnight:
- you will need to obtain a key from Maurice Alley (Palmerston North) in advance – Phone 06 357 0362.
- The NZ Herald article about Rewi Alley’s whare.
- The web article “A Life of Deeds and some little fame – Rewi Alley“, by New Plymouth author, Rhonda Bartle.
Although this article is well written, there are inaccuracies in it: e.g. Jack Stevens did not marry until after Rewi Alley left and the farm had reverted to the Government.
Because Rewi never married the supposition was that he was homosexual. However, this is without foundation: Rewi did not like to talk about the extent of his war injuries – when he was shot in the Battle of the Somme, the bullet passed through his right buttock and out through his inguinal [groin] region causing severe urogenital damage and likely impotency.
3. The Historic Places Trust refers to “Rewi Alley’s House”: http://www.heritage.org.nz/the-list/details/5448
Maurice Alley [Rewi’s nephew]