Helensville Museum
Helensville & District Historical Society Inc     Click to enlarge images
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McLeod's sawmill, Helensville 1863  
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Kauri log, Wests Dome Valley  
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The Mahi on the Kaipara, 1947  
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The TSS Minerva  

Kaipara Harbour & Milling

Kaipara Harbour
Forestry, Timber & Milling


Helensville Museum has an extensive range of shipping and harbour photographs and pictures, (including the Arthur West Memorial Harbour collection), written records (newspapers and documents) for research and display cabinets of articles.

A floor to ceiling map of the harbour and hinterlands is one of the major exhibits in the Kaipara Room (Old Schoolhouse) and has the wrecks, strandings, mill sites and wharves marked.  Written details of the ships wrecked and stranded is also available.

The Kaipara Harbour is situated on the west coast of Northland, New Zealand, about 80 km north of Auckland.  It is one of the largest (at least the longest shore line) in the southern hemisphere.

The harbour entrance, though seven kilometers wide, has a dangerous bar, which proved the burial ground of numbers of ships in the early years of trade and settlement round the New Zealand coast (details available at the Museum). 

Nevertheless the Kaipara Harbour was an important pre-European waterway, for trade, war parties and general communication, including travel to Te Awaroa (Helensville) for Maori Land Court hearings.  Largely because of the rich stands of kauri trees, the harbour was very important from the earliest days of European traders and settlers.

The two major ports were Dargaville on the Northern Wairoa, and Helensville on the Kaipara River.  Large sailing ships negotiated the bar, the harbour and the winding Kaipara River to berth at Helensville to load timber, flax and other goods.  Large concerns like Stewarts Stores indented their goods directly from overseas to Helensville by ship.

A lighthouse was situated at Poutu on the North Head, and Captain Stanaway was the first official harbour pilot, appointed in 1854 when Kaipara was declared a port of entry.  The Kaipara Port was closed in 1947.

After the decline of the kauri timber trade in the 1890s, the harbour was still used to transport logs (by rafts).  West’s “TSS The Minerva” worked log rafts round the harbour for 23 years from 1922-45.

Competition between the various steamship companies on the Kaipara is legendary and fortunes were made and lost. Until the mid 1940s when the Brynderwyn Hill road was constructed, the major routes to the north west were train from Auckland to Helensville, and by harbour steamer to Dargaville.  Among the well known steamers on these runs were the “Aotea”, “Bellbird”, “Wairua”, and “Ruawai”. The “Ruawai” had a famous last trip from Helensville round the coastline to Auckland as the “runaway steamer” at the close of its life on the Kaipara in the 1940s.

Shelly Beach (Aotea) was an important Maori and European settlement on the Southern Kaipara, and at one time had a church, a hall, a statue to Queen Victoria, houses and a wharf. Largely due to the efforts of long-time resident and  Rodney District Councillor Hec Nicholls a wharf was rebuilt at the end of the 20th Century.

Fishing - both for trade and recreation - has been an important harbour use, and for a period from the 1940s shark fishing was a lucrative trade, largely carried out by Scott Bros and Scrivens.  Mrs Flora Thirkettle, who came as a widow with her family to the Kaipara in 1957, has become famed as a hard worker in the fishing trade, and has been dubbed “Queen of the Kaipara”. 

Recreational use, annual regattas and tourist trips are still popular activities on the Kaipara.

Wynne HaySmith, February 2006


  • A History of Helensville and the Kaipara, by C S West
  • Men Came Voyaging, by C M Sheffield
  • Tall Spars, Steamers and Gum, by Wayne Ryburn



Helensville Museum has an extensive range of milling, shipping and harbour photographs and pictures, written records (newspapers and documents) for research and display cabinets of articles.

Helensville’s early European settlers were drawn by the mighty Kauri, which grew in the local hills and valleys, easily accessible to the waterways of the Kaipara River and harbour.

Prized for the long straight trunks of the kauri rikkers (in demand for spars of the sailing ships) and for the clean straight grained timber of the mature trees for building purposes; Kaipara’s kauri found a ready market, both within New Zealand and overseas, transported on large, masted ships.  The Australian market was particularly influential in the local economy, and the slumps which caused mill closures on the Kaipara and elsewhere, were related to the demands of overseas, particularly Australian buyers.

The first recorded European sawmiller in the area was John McLeod.  John had left his native Novia Scotia and worked in California and Australia; finally making a success of managing a mill for Henderson and Macfarlane on the Whau river, in Auckland.

He returned home, was re-united with his family, and persuaded them to travel south, first to Australia, and then on to New Zealand.  John and his brother Isaac settled in Awaroa in 1863.  John built a sawmill which stood about where the Grand Hotel now stands.  He cut most of the timber from the Awaroa Valley.  John McLeod built the Coal Wharf (north of the Railway Station), and loaded most of his timber into vessels there.  John and his wife Helen built their home on a hill (now Nelson Street), and so Helensville was named - (Helen’s Villa). The mill only ran five-six years. The present Helensville McLeods are descended from Isaac and Janet.

About 1880 the Helensville Timber Company built a large mill at the bend of the river where the old Dairy Company buildings now stand.  It employed about fifty men, and ran for ten years.  The railway link to Auckland was in place by then, and some timber (logs and sawn) was railed to Auckland, but most was shipped to Australia. 

In 1886 a group known as the “Melbourne Syndicate” bought the company (and all the standing timber they could).  The company was known as Kauri Timber Company, and although it had closed the Helensville mill by 1890, the company name is still active in Auckland over a hundred years later.

This site was used by Coulthards, who ran a mill from 1902-1905, cutting rimu and totara, as the kauri was cleaned out.

For a short time in the early 1890s, the Douglass family who had come to Helensville to be involved with shipping on the harbour, ran a mill in the area now known as Creek Lane (entrance to Riverside walkway).

The West family has been associated with milling and forestry on the Kaipara from 1884 to the present day.  Brothers Arthur, Edward and John West brought a woodworking plant from Thames and set up business in the Mill Road area in 1884. 

They sawed some logs, but most of their business was making chairs and general wood turnery.  The factory was burned in 1888, but rebuilt as a mill which ran until 1892 when a slump caused the closure of many mills on the Kaipara.

Arthur West moved his family to Mangakura on the Hoteo River and later set up a mill there, run by a water wheel.  The Mangakura mill was taken over by Arthur’s son, Charles in 1911 and the business shifted to Helensville in 1917.  A mill was built at the north end of the town, between the river and railway (now reached by West Street).  There had been no mill in Helensville since Coultards closed twelve years earlier. 

Kauri was cut out by now and attention was largely focussed on kahikatea (white pine), which was in demand for butter boxes to serve the growing dairy industry of the north.  There was also a steady business supplying fruit cases for local orchards, and as far afield as the Pacific Islands.  Charles West was one of the first to realise the significance of planting radiata pine as an alternative timber crop and established plantations on family land at Unahirere, (Mt Rex).

In 1922 Charles West bought a steamer TSS THE MINERVA which for 23 years was used to tow log rafts from all over the Kaipara to Helensville.  As other northern mills closed in the post-war years, Wests were called upon to cut large kauri and other native trees required for specialty purposes, such as boatbuilding.  After Charles West retired the business continued as a family concern, run by his three sons, Roger, Arthur and Peter assisted by other family members, and many long serving employees. The last family owner was Peter West who sold the business in 1975 to Les Comer.  The mill was dismantled in 1977.

Roger and  son Neil West ran a sawmilling business, firstly as a portable mill, then set up on a permanent site at Punganui (north of Mt Rex) until the 1980s, and C S West’s grandson Alan Moore, and grandson-in-law Clyde HaySmith also ran a portable mill, which in 2006 is still at Alan’s Mt Rex farm.  Great-grandson, Bruce Clunie has a small mill (on the Unahirere block).

In 2006 the riverside/railside site used by Wests now supports a variety of light industry and a post yard.  A timber mill is once again established in the Mill Road area but south-west of the earlier sites. The main timber now processed in radiata pine.

Wynne HaySmith, February 2006


  • A History of Helensville and the Kaipara, by C S West
  • Men Came Voyaging, by C M Sheffield
  • Tall Spars, Steamers and Gum, by Wayne Ryburn

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