Right on the water’s edge at Mill Bay, in Mangonui, is a pretty cottage, “Mabel’s”, built around 150 years ago, when Mangonui was a busy port, with whaling and the flax trade in full swing. It’s the perfect spot to explore this historic area from.
Mill Bay was named for the timber mill established here in 1880, to work the local kauri, which was much used for ships’ spars and building. In 1888 the mill was taken over by the Kauri Timber Company. Thousands of logs were floated down the Oruaiti and Taipa rivers to the mill, which covered 10 acres of land and had a steam engine, powering four circular saws. Millions of feet of timber were processed before the mill finally closed in 1915.
Nowadays Mill Bay is a picturesque holiday spot. “Mabel’s Cottage” was named after Mabel Thorburn who lived there in the 1950s. She was a great gardener and planted shrubs, climbers and flowers around the common land of Mill Bay. Mabel Thorburn Place is named for her. There are old plants that survive from her time – spring bulbs and an old rambling rose still flourish in the garden of the cottage. Richard Dunbar, who rents out the cottage to holiday-makers now, has continued the cottage garden feel, with a picket fence, French lavender and a magnolia hedge.
The history of Mabel’s Cottage goes further back, to Mabel’s grandmother, Margaret Rosieur. Margaret was born in 1843 and married Henry Rosieur, a brick-maker, in 1859. Originally from Paewhenua Island in the Mangonui Harbour, Margaret moved to the little cottage in Mill Bay, and worked here as a midwife, known to all as “Granny Rosieur”. Many babies were born in the cottage, and after a hospital was built, mothers from outlying areas would stay with Granny Rosieur until it was time to go to hospital.
The cottage was built in the 1860s. The exterior is rough sawn kauri, and the original kauri floorboards can still be seen in the old part of the house. Over time many additions had been made to the house, in a rather haphazard fashion. When Julie McDade and Alec Jorgensen bought it in 2010 they set about a complete renovation. The additions from the 1960s and 70s were removed from the back of the house, exposing the older part of the building. The renovation made the most of the historical nature of the building, and the owners have furnished the interior with tables and cabinets from the period. There are now two double bedrooms each with fantastic sea views. The large living area is kept cozy with a log burner. There are remnants from earlier times – the bathroom boasts a large iron bath along with the modern shower and toilet. There is also an outside toilet but these days it flushes. There is a full kitchen combined with dining room. It’s a comfortable and charming retreat, with beautiful views over the water.
From Mabel’s it’s an easy walk into town, where you can take the 3km Heritage trail to explore more of Mangonui’s colonial past, have a drink at the historic Mangonui Hotel, or try some seafood at what is reputedly NZ’s best fish and chip shop.
Across the bay is Butler’s Point. Butler House was built there in 1847 as the residence for Captain William Butler, who had captained whaling vessels and set up a trading post for whalers. By appointment you can visit Butler House, the whaling museum and gardens at Butler Point. It’s 150m by boat from Mangonui, or 15 minutes by car.
Looking over Mill Bay is Rangikapiti Pa Historic Reserve. This significant pa site is associated with Moehuri, an ancestor of the local iwi, Ngati Kahu. Legend has it that Moehuri guided his waka, Ruakaramea, into the harbour following a large shark, and this led him to name the harbour “mango nui” – big shark. Walk up to the terraced pa site, and enjoy the panoramic views over Mangonui and Doubtless Bay.
Postscript: Interestingly, another of Granny Rosieur’s granddaughters was Nancy Wake, who became one of the Allies’ most decorated war heroines in World War 2. A fiercely determined and courageous character, she worked with the French Resistance, and was dubbed “The White Mouse” by the Nazis.
Mangonui, Gateway to the Far North by Neva Clarke McKenna