Selling a farming dream

The Catholic church in Pūhoi was at the centre of the Bohemian community’s life. The artist, Ishbel Maria Hamilton-Gordon, made her name as an author, philanthropist and advocate of women’s interests.

Image credit: Roman Catholic Church at the Bohemian Settlement of Puhoi, 1887 by Ishbel Maria Hamilton-Gordon, Marchioness of Aberdeen and Temair. Ref: A-237-004 Alexander Turnbull Library.

Watercolour painting of a church in Pūhoi — it is surrounded by green hills, trees and a river.

The European settlement at Pūhoi was established by immigrants from Bohemia in the 1800s. Read about how these settlers were helped by Ngāti Rongo and worked hard to establish their farms. Find out more by exploring our collections and curated resources.

Read a story about the settlement of Pūhoi

In 1887, during a once-in-a-lifetime visit to New Zealand, Ishbel Hamilton-Gordon, Marchioness of Aberdeen and Temair (1857–1939), came across what she must have thought was a surprising and charming rural scene as she travelled through the wilds of north Auckland. She has left us her memory of the encounter with this painting of Pūhoi in its early years.

It puts me in mind of my great-great-grandfather, Anton Russek (1822–1897), and the dream he was sold when he and his wife, Margaretha, and their four children migrated to New Zealand in 1863—and also what he must have thought when he first saw this landscape. His family came from a farming community in Bohemia (now in the Czech Republic), where labour was poorly paid and land ownership was impossible for the average worker. He was one of those who heard the call from the enthusiastic and charismatic retired soldier Captain Martin Krippner (1817–1894) promoting New Zealand’s prospects. The Auckland provincial government had a scheme offering foreigners tracts of freehold land — 40 acres (16 hectares) per adult, and 20 acres (8 hectares) for children over five years old. New Zealand had fertile land suitable for farming in a climate similar to their own, so the story went, making the proposition even more compelling. Sixty-three daring Bohemian citizens trusted Krippner’s judgement and took up the challenge to travel to the other side of the world to join him.

The immigrants may not have owned their land in Bohemia, but they were used to well-established farms, with fenced and orderly pastures, and they arrived in New Zealand expecting to gain the same. Instead, when they travelled north from Auckland to their promised land on the Pūhoi River, they were conveyed in waka by people of Ngāti Rongo to a place upriver, deep in dense kauri forest. They would have starved if they hadn’t been fed and housed by Ngāti Rongo. However, having spent their entire fortunes getting to the place of their dreams, there was no option but to carry on and establish a community.

The Bohemians eventually made their living from the very trees they despaired of, clearing the impenetrable bush with axe and saw, hauling out the logs with bullock teams and developing prosperous dairy farms. After many years of back-breaking work, their gamble to emigrate finally paid off.

Story written by: Suzanne Hardy

Copyright: Turnbull Endowment Trust

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