To early settlers, the Upper Hutt valley was a wilderness to be tamed, full of high-standing timber to be felled for the growing settler population down the river and across the harbour.
The first pakeha to make his home in this damp and gloomy valley was Richard Barton, formerly a steward on the Duke of Sutherland's estate 'Trent-ham', who cleared a section to build a seven-room house for his new (second) wife Hannah Mary Butler, daughter of pioneer missionary George Butler, and a fluent speaker of Maori.
Their home was not far from the Ngati Tama settlement of Whirinaki, where local chief Te Harawira built a chapel and where travelling clergy took the occasional service.
At the first-ever Church of England Synod in Wellington, Te Harawira offered this chapel to the Church. His offer was declined owing to complications with land title, but Wellington bishop Charles Abraham reported that 'a clergyman or deacon schoolmaster would be well supported at Whirinaki in the Upper Hutt.' Richard Barton, synodsman for the Hutt, clearly had the bishop's ear as well as influential friends, one of whom - George Palmer - would soon offer a corner of his 100-acre landholding just north of Mr Barton's to the church as a base for a new parish.
The following year, John Edward Herring was brought from England, where he (and possibly his wife Margaret) had been studying at St Augustine's College for missionary work. After some months in Wellington studying te reo Maori, the couple travelled north in October 1861 to visit their future home.
Margaret Herring was not encouraged. 'Our first impressions are not favourable,' she wrote home. 'We have seen it only under rain such as would make the place look forbidding. . Woods, woods, woods on each hillside with a few tiny houses dotted along.' She could not work out where the 300 settlers in the valley were living: 'I cannot see houses for more than 100, and these are the families of men employed in the sawmills.
'Ed trudged down [from Barton's home] to the Maori chapel in the lower road this morning and saw some of his future flock, and this afternoon he took the service (in a store lent for the purpose) which the Bishop had been expected to take. There were about 20 people, and we had a really hearty sort of service, though we did sit on planks in a shop, and our parson stood behind the counter.
'We took refuge from a heavy shower as we came from service in a house which is our probable future home. It was really a most indescribable specimen. Unless it is completely metamorphosed - which I believe Mr B[arton] intends, I doubt whether Ed will condescend to take possession.'
Less than three months later, the newly-ordained Revd Herring rode up to his future parish. On Sunday 27 December 1861 he attended the Maori service in their 'neat little native chapel', did some visiting and preached his first sermon - again in a store - to a full congregation. Next day Bishop Abraham and architect Frederick Thatcher arrived to look at the district. Mr Barton offered a house and horse paddock to the new vicar, who was however dismayed at their condition: 'At present the ground is covered with the trunks and branches of trees, and until they are burnt off, looks as repulsive and desolate as possible'.
In 1861, Bishop Abraham had had hopes of formalizing joint ministry for Maori and Pakeha and joint representation at a mixed Synod, but owing to the 'disturbed nature of our relations with them' the matter was put aside - and apparently never revisited. Revd Herring was licensed to both 'the Natives and the Europeans of the Upper Hutt' and the new parochial district was carved off from the Lower Hutt at the 1862 Synod. At the 1863 Synod absentee land-owner George Palmer was thanked for his 'liberality' in allowing the church to choose six acres on his land at Trentham and Pauatahanui. A Mr G Hart also gave 3 ½ acres at Maoribank, known as Fern Ground, for church purposes, but it was not so well sited as Mr Palmer's block on the edge of McHardy's [sic] Clearing, then close to the centre of commercial development in nearby Fortune Lane. The land was transferred to the diocese for £21 [equivalent to $2244 - not much for 6 acres] and tradition has it that Mr Barton gave the purchase money.
The sawmillers and farmers who would comprise the congregation liked this site - central to the still-forested valley and close to stores and the security of the blockhouse. In March 1863 the diocese approved plans for a small wooden church to seat about a hundred people, and Synod that September voted £100 [about $10,000] which helped pay for a small wooden church [link here to the St J's page and Thatcher's design]. Plain and functional, clad in iron (to withstand forest fires), the Church of St John the Evangelist was opened on 27 December 1863; the small red triangular window in its east wall was its sole decoration and still remains as a talisman of this historic building.
By the time the church was opened, Mr and Mrs Herring had returned to the lower valley. 'We have a clergyman, the Revd Amos Knell, ministering to the English in the Upper Hutt and to the Maoris up and down the Hull Valley,' Bishop Abraham reported to the 1864 diocesan synod. ''I opened a neat church capable of holding nearly 100 people at Trentham last December, on the Festival St John the Evangelist, and I understand the congregations have been good and steady.'
|Annual return for Upper Hutt, 1863-64:|
Church members: 96 English, 50 Maori
Baptisms: 23 English, 6 Maori
Average number of communicants: 7 English, 20 Maori
Marriages: 1 English, 1 Maori
Burials: 1 English, 1 Maori
Margaret Herring's letters, 1860s (transcript in Upper Hutt library);
Wellington diocesan synod reports, 1859 on;
Upper Hutt, reflections from the past by Joseph M Keneally (1980) and
Upper Hutt: The History by J A Kelleher (1991);
St John's This is Your Life script by David Newman, 1986;
Revd Kendrick's Parochial District of Upper Hutt: Record of Events in Its History, 1935.]