The Story of Oruawharo

Written by . . . D.M. Luke,  Assistant Research Officer. N.Z. Historic Places Trust. 10 March 1978

The story of Oruawharo, near Takapau in the central Hawke’s bay began in 1853. When John Johnston (later Hon. J. Johnston), following a visit to Hawke’s Bay with his cousin, Alex St. Clair Inglis and a friend John Harding, successfully applied for a lease of 9,280 acres of land. Other areas were added over the years to the initial holding and, at one time, the property comprised 17,726 acres.

John Johnston arrived in Wellington in 1841 on the Prince of Wales bringing with him his wife and three children. After a period in business, he founded his own firm – Johnston and Co., general merchants, which is now part of the Dominion brewery empire. Wellington’s Johnston Street recalls his name to present and future generations.


For many years, John Johnston took an active part in public affairs – he served for example almost continuously from 1857 as a member of the legislative council – and applied himself closely to his business interests. He was himself not personally associated with the Oruawharo property, having granted grazing rights to his cousin, Inglis and to Charles Gully (a relative of John Gully, the well-known artist). When they went to their Springhill station (at Onga Onga) in 1865, Johns second son Sydney (born in Wellington in 1841 and educated at the Jesuit College of Stonyhurst, Lancashire) took over the management of his father’s property. He was at Oruawharo at least as early as 1862. For about three years he lived in a primitive hut on the property until his marriage to Sophia Lambert, of the nearby Tangarawa Station in 1865.


Under Sydney’s management, considerable changes were made to the property including the ploughing of land for the first time, the growing of oats and wheat, the construction of a sheep dip and the erection of fences. There was also some stocking of the property with cattle. About this time, a cottage was erected which was enlarged in 1870. Despite the demands of Oruawharo, Sydney Johnston was also manager of his fathers Tamumu station near Waipawa, which had been bought in 1865, as well as another of his father’s properties at Clive.


Major milestones were reached in 1879 when Sydney leased the Oruawharo property from his father and then, on 2 October moved into his new house – the present Oruawharo homestead. This was built primarily of Totara and Matai with some use being made of pumice between the rooms for the absorption of noise. The local newspaper reporter wrote the following description...

Mr. Sydney Johnston’s new house at Takapau, now almost completed, is a spacious, solid and elegant building. It is sixty feet by seventy feet with a twenty-five foot stud. The front is beautifully set off with large bay windows and a balustrade in level with the upper story. On the side facing the railway there is a large balcony, with a floor three inches thick, and tightly caulked. A brick stair overlaid with concrete and having a splendid rail, leads to the entrance vestibule, next to which there is a large hall. The building comprises twenty-one rooms, all firmly plastered. The nurseries were dadoes, as precautionary measures against juvenile tendencies to scratch plaster. To the upper story there is access by three different stairs. The culinary departments with apparatus of the most approved kind. Baths with warm water apparatus are also provided. In short, everything that tends to administer to domestic comfort and convenience is provided. The whole structure combines elegance of design with masterly workmanship and solidity. Mr. Tringham of Wellington was the architect and Mr. D. McLeoud of Waipukurau the contractor for all the work, the plastering being sub-let to Mr. McGuire of Wellington. The workmanship reflects the highest credit on Mr. McLeoud and all others associated with him. The house is situated about quarter of a mile from the railway line at the base of a gentle undulating ridge planted with trees. The situation can be made both beautiful and picturesque.

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Despite the size of the original structure, Johnston enlarged it in 1899 by the addition of bedrooms and a ballroom, his last being provided with a magnificent carved ceiling and fireplace surround, the work being done by craftsmen brought out from Bavaria. It is, perhaps, not surprising that Oruawharo is one of the largest private homes ever to be built in New Zealand. By this time, too, Sydney Johnston was the owner of the property, having inherited the place on his father’s death in 1887.

In the hey-day of Oruawharo, the Johnston’s employed a domestic staff of twelve including a parlourmaid, cook, lady’s maid, chauffeur (the family owning a car – a Decauville – in 1907) kitchen maid and gardeners.

There are reports of guests for house parties arriving by train at the nearby Takapau Railway Station and then being brought to the house by horse drawn vehicles. Also the family had an objection to drying greens, consequently the family’s wash was railed each Monday to a laundry in Palmerston North and back again on the following Friday. As early as 1879, races were held at Oruawharo and, for a time, the town boasted two racecourses, visitors attending the meetings coming as a matter of course by rail.

Oruawharo was at the time the venue of a Territorial Army training camp. Preparations were well underway at the end of 1913 when a site was surveyed sufficient to house 6,000 men under canvas. Several special trains brought the troops in April 1914 and away again after the exercise. Unfortunately bad weather caused considerable unrest among the participants. The exercise ended on the 6th May with the battle of Oruawharo being fought complete with the “big shots” of the day being present.

Over the years, the property has been reduced in size and there are now some

2,850 acres in the hands of the family and carrying some 10,000 sheep and 480 head of cattle.

With Sydney Johnston’s death in 1917 while on one of his several visits to the U.K., the property went to his daughter, Miss Agnes Beatrice Johnston who, five years later, married J.C.Rolleston. Their son Christopher was born at Oruawharo in 1923.
He went to England to finish his education in 1938, returning to New Zealand in 1947 after military service with the Grenadier Guards in Germany. He took over the management of the property in 1952. Early the following year he married Jennifer Hyde – their daughter being born at the end of the year. As 1953 was the centenary of the property, arrangements were well advanced to celebrate the occasion when, on 19 March, Christopher Johnston was killed in a tractor accident on the property. His tragic death caused a sense of shock to be felt throughout the district and, of course, the celebrations were immediately cancelled.

After the death, in 1965, of Mrs. Rolleston (senior), the homestead and 62.5 acres of land were given to the Roman Catholic Church with the object of eventually establishing there a preparatory school for Roman Catholic boys. The last report we have on file is that of the house being used as a country restaurant with the balance of the farm lands being held in trust for Miss C.J.M Rolleston, daughter of Jennifer and the late Christopher Rolleston, who is living in England.


WW1, Oruawharo, and the Lemon Squeezer

During World War I a territorial army camp was established at Oruawharo, the Takapau divisional camp, and here was witnessed the
birth of the lemon-squeezer.

There was a spell of very wet weather and the hats collected water in the dents. Lieutenant Colonel W G Malone, later of Gallipoli fame, at that time commanding the 11th Taranaki Rifles had the idea of eliminating the fore and aft dent in the crown and pinching it with 4 dents so that the hat shed water. (Similar to Baden Powell’s style)

When the General Officer Commanding, Major General Sir Alexander Godley, visited the camp he noticed the change in hat style and requested Lieutenant Colonel Malone to explain. The Colonel drew attention to the fact that the 11th Taranakis as the only Rifle Regiment in the New Zealand Army did not conform to arms drill as practiced by the other 15 Regiments of the New Zealand Infantry. As a Rifle Regiment does not slope arms there was no need to pin the brim of the hat up.

As His Excellency The Governor General, Lord Liverpool, was Honorary Colonel of the Regiment and he came from the Rifle Brigade of the British Army he would be approached to approve the regimental dress distinction if the General would not accede to it. Permission was granted and the hat, later to be dubbed the “Lemon Squeezer” was introduced.

The New Zealanders of WW1 also wore a slouch hat. Their orders required that it be worn ‘Brim: horizontal. Crown: dented with a crease running from front to rear. The regimental flash to be sewn on both sides of the puggaree. When the New Zealand Expeditionary Force was raised for World War One, Lieutenant Colonel Malone was appointed to command the 1st Battalion the 5th Wellington Regiment.

As his Adjutant and Regimental Sergeant Major were also ex-11th Taranakis the Wellingtons hats were promptly changed to the

Taranaki style.

May 5th 1914 . . Riot at the Takapau Camp

Fixed Bayonets, Military Rioters, Charged By Police . .This ugly riot was big news in New Zealand and internationally at the time . . you can read a newspaper article here about the event.