The Elms | Te Papa Tauranga

The Elms | Te Papa Tauranga sits on the site of Otamataha Pā on Te Papa peninsula in the Tauranga city centre. The Elms was built as a mission, established under Reverend Brown in 1838 and holds an important history of Aotearoa New Zealand.

The Elms | Te Papa Tauranga
View of Maunga Nui & Te Papa Mission, Tauranga (Richard Taylor, 1839). From The Elms' collection, on display in the mission house. Used with permission.

When I visited The Elms, I met with manager Andrew Gregg, who knows the site, the buildings, and the history inside out. He was kind enough to give several hours of his morning to me to take me around the site.

Ohamataha Pā was incredibly large with up to 500 hundred people living there, with palisade walls out well beyond the confines of what is now The Elms’ property. It included the land that now makes up sections of the motorways and out through to the urupā (Tauranga Mission Cemetery) that sits near the sandspit. The last hapū to reside at Otamataha Pā were Ngāti Tapu and Ngāti Tamarāwaho. In 1828, during the musket wars (1807-1837) the pā was sacked and abandoned, with the site deemed tapu.

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Reverend Brown's medicine chest. From The Elms' collection, on display in the library. Used with permission.

The Elms was built as a mission, established under Reverend Brown in 1838. When they arrived, Brown and his family lived in a raupō house for several years while building their residence. In spite of the need for a house, the first building to be completed on the site was Reverend Brown's library. It is a lovely little building filled with books and other remnants of Brown’s life including his medicine chest.

Something that surprised Andrew was the fact that Brown arrived with an ‘Improved Magneto Electric Machine’ as well. In what was a complete coincidence, the week of my visit I had listened to a podcast about vital electricity and our desire right from the discovery of electricity to use and test it on ourselves. Brown’s machine dated to the 1820s – more than a hundred years after people started experimenting with electricity on themselves and others – and thanks to what I had learned in the podcast I was able to convince Andrew I was a lot more knowledgeable than I really was on the subject.

If you read about my visit to Te Aroha, you will read about the rheostat machine adding an electrical current to the bath. Electricity and health was not a passing phenomenon: almost 100 years after Brown arrived with his machine, electrified baths were happening in Te Aroha.

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Close-up of a quilt made and used by the family while living in the house. From The Elms' collection, on display in the mission house. Used with permission.

Inside the family home, Andrew took me into one of the bedrooms with an enormous and beautiful embroidered patchwork quilt. The first thing I noticed was the heart. The heart as a symbol is analogous with love. And to find it just sitting on a bed in the mission house, was symbolic of how the house and property were looked after. The Elms exists almost entirely through coincidental circumstance and a dedication to a legacy, to the love of extended family.

Reverend Brown and his first wife Charlotte had two children; Marsh who died young, and Celia who married John Kinder. After the death of his first wife, Brown remarried a woman named Christina Johnstone who inherited the house upon his death in 1884. In 1887, Christina died. She left the house to her sister, Euphemia Maxwell, who brought her two daughters, Alice and Edith, there to live.

Alice inherited the house from her mother, Euphemia. And in 1949, when she passed away, the house passed to her nephew, Duff, and his wife, Gertrude, who moved up to Tauranga from New Plymouth. The house passed to the original owner's second wife's sister's daughter's nephew. After Duff’s death, in 1998 ownership of the property passed to The Elms Foundation.

A recent addition to the site that opened during the COVID-19 pandemic is a new building to acknowledge the shared history of the site, of the pā and of the mission station. Planted around it are Māori and European plants to represent the two people and the two cultures. You can now see kūmara mounds, as well as plants used in rongoā Māori.

There is so much to The Elms, far too much to write down. I would highly encourage people to visit and take a look for themselves. And if you can, see if you can find the Bullock & Reynolds inhaler or a bottle of Duff’s prescription medicine that are both on display.