Turmoil to tranquility

Gareth Cooke | VOLUME 23, ISSUE 2

The historic New Zealand town of Russell has been transformed from hell hole to tranquil seaside village and boasts some of the best fishing in the Pacific.

“A vile hole full of impudent, half-drunken people.” Felton Matthews, New Zealand’s first Surveyor General, had these less-than complimentary words to say about Russell upon his arrival in 1840. Nestled in the heart of the Bay of Islands near the northern tip of the North Island, Russell was, for a short time, an important mercantile centre and the commercial heart of the infant nation. At the time, it was the largest European settlement in New Zealand, but eighteenth-century Russell was also a troubled frontier town where the law was only loosely enforced.

The whaling crews, ship deserters and time-served convicts from New South Wales who frequented the town’s many grog shops and brothels helped Russell to earn the nickname “the hell hole of the Pacific”.

Originally a Maori village known as Kororareka, today Russell enjoys a serenity it seldom knew during its wild past. The drinking establishments are somewhat more refined and the clientele considerably more cultured. The last of the brothels disappeared with the whaling boat crews, and they have been replaced by tourists enjoying the history and attractions of a town considered to be the birthplace of modern New Zealand.

Fittingly, Russell is no longer thought of as a “vile hole” full of grog shops and brothels, but rather the first capital of New Zealand. The location for New Zealand’s first parliament buildings was seven kilometres from Kororareka. The town was named Russell after Lord John Russell, the Secretary of State for the colonies and later the Prime Minister of Great Britain.

Russell’s reign as the nation’s capital lasted only nine months. When the Government buildings and offices burnt down in 1842, it seemed the town would be consigned to the history books. However, in an effort to rid itself of its rough image, Kororareka adopted the name Russell and it is now a charming waterfront town. Rich in history, it has retained its old-world feel and several original buildings have survived from the town’s violent past.


Two streets back from the waterfront stands ‘Christ Church,’ the oldest surviving timber church in New Zealand. It is probably also the only church in New Zealand that still has damage from canon and musket balls in its exterior weatherboards. The scars are courtesy of a battle waged in the churchyard between seamen from HMS Hazard and members of a local Maori tribe, led by the warrior, Hone Heke. Six seamen were killed and their mass grave is still visible in the churchyard today.

Built by local settlers rather than as a mission station, Christ Church was unique for its time. Finance for construction came from donations and among those to donate was Charles Darwin, while on his five-year voyage on the Beagle.

A stroll around the churchyard reveals several pointers to the importance of Russell in New Zealand’s history. Headstones date back to 1836 and include one belonging to Hannah King Letheridge, who is believed to be the first European woman born in New Zealand.

With the first whalers arriving a mere 22 years after Captain James Cook discovered New Zealand in 1769, whaling was the colony’s first significant industry. Russell’s convenient location, shelter, fresh water, food supplies and ample timber for spars and shipbuilding made it the most industrious settlement in the nation.


As whaling gradually declined in the years after 1840, it became merely a chapter in Russell’s colourful past. The number of transient whalers slowly thinned, but just as whaling was doomed to extinction, another gift from the Pacific Ocean breathed new life into the town and continues to do so today.

American author and pioneering big-game fisherman, Zane Grey arrived in the 1920s and almost single-handedly established the Bay of Islands as one of the world’s premier game fishing destinations.

Grey set up camp on Urupukapuka Island in the Bay of Islands. From there, he launched his expeditions in purpose-built boats. Grey had such a rollicking time catching marlin, tuna, broadbill and mako shark that he was inspired to pen a book called Tales of The Angler’s El Dorado.


Russell was, once again, a capital, but this time the game fishing capital of New Zealand. Unlike its first tenure as the nation’s political capital, this is one title it has kept. Perched above the shops on the Russell waterfront is the new seat of parliament: the Bay of Islands Swordfish Club, which operates several tournaments over summer months.

Fishing tackle shops and a weigh station on the wharf are a fair indication that game fishing is now one of Russell’s main activities. Game fishing charter boats have taken over from whaling boats and sailing ships as the predominant vessel in the bay at Russell. A variety of charters are available, depending on target species, with some going as far afield as the Three Kings Islands, well to the north of New Zealand.

Warm water flows in from the north each December and with it come several species of pelagic fish, trawling the currents for food. Black, blue and striped marlin are prevalent and are the favoured trophy fish for anglers. Striped marlin, in particular, have been a regular source of world-record catches in the area. However, if the marlin are not on, then a variety of tuna species, including hard-charging yellowfin, provide plenty of thrills and fun.

Careful management of this resource is required, so the majority of marlin are tagged and released, but when one is brought to the wharf on a summer evening, there is a great buzz around the Russell waterfront as crowds gather for a peek at these magnificent fish.

Created during the last ice age when rising sea levels flooded river valleys and left 144 peaks exposed as islands, the Bay of Islands has remained largely undeveloped and is hugely popular with local and international boaties.

Several tourist companies offer short trips out to the bay, but the islands themselves are a no-go zone for developers or commercial operators.

There are no resorts, pubs, cars, or roads on the islands. Many are now reserves and managed by the Department of Conservation. With no provisioning facilities on the islands, Russell is still the first port of call for most vessels cruising the far north.

The Duke of Marlborough Hotel claims to have the oldest liquor licence in the country and is still serving thirsty mariners. These days, however, they are somewhat more subdued than those of previous generations.


Arguably the best-known character of Russell’s early years was Maori warrior, Hone Heke. His refusal to accept the ways of the European settlers led to bloodshed, war and a flagstaff saga that is now part of New Zealand folklore.

Russell’s highest point, Flagstaff Hill, was used as a signaling station for shipping and perched at its peak was, not surprisingly, a flagstaff. Heke chopped down the flagstaff four times in protest over government duties imposed on shipping. Until then, Heke’s Ngapuhi tribe had collected a £5 fee from every ship entering Russell and profited enormously from trade. The duties meant many ships by-passed Russell for Auckland.

In 1845, after the flagstaff was felled for the fourth time, Heke and his men attacked Russell. Defence of the town was clumsy and when a spark from a defender’s tobacco pipe caused an explosion in the stockade magazine, Russell was evacuated.

After looting the grog shops, Heke’s men set the town alight, sparing only a few buildings of significance. The navy half-heartedly defended the town by occasionally firing cannons into the shore, but the following day saw all shipping up-anchor and sail for Auckland. Eventually, a cease-fire was negotiated.


The Strand, once a favourite hangout of undesirable, boozing rogues, is now home to a collection of restaurants and cafes. Several offer beach-side dining and are among the finest in the far north district. The Gables Restaurant, in a creaky old wooden building that dates back to 1847, has an outstanding reputation.

Not all dining has to be formal, though. Fish and chips wrapped in newspaper and eaten on the waterfront can be as enjoyable as the more celebrated dining venues in Russell.

Tourists converge on The Strand in the evenings to enjoy a casual stroll on the waterfront and look out onto the bay that has been a lifeline to Russell since its earliest days.

Ferries run regularly across the channel to Paihia and a vehicular ferry from Opua cuts about 90 minutes off the journey, if traveling by road. Russell is still as easy to reach by sea as it is by land and the result is a casual, relaxed, ambiance that is more akin to an island lifestyle. Many necessities of urban life, such as traffic lights, have yet to intrude on Russell.

Russell has a permanent population of approximately 1, 100, but numbers swell dramatically during holiday months in summer. Although it has gone from a violent, law-less, town to a beautiful seaside village, there are many common threads between historic and modern Russell.

It is still a popular port of call for boaties, and transients still bring prosperity to the town. But the most poignant link to the past is that Russell is still intrinsically linked to the Pacific Ocean and what travels both beneath its waves and on its surface.