Matiu/Somes Island is the largest island in Wellington Harbour. From it’s central location in the body of water, the encircling hills encompass the entire horizon. The 25-hectare island is protected as a scientific and historic reserve, providing protected habitat for rare plants and reptiles such as tuatara and invertebrates such as weta. A long and varied history of human occupation has left a fascinating legacy and palimpsest of relics.
This is probably the best place to appreciate the magnificence of Wellington Harbour. The rugged setting is demarcated with ridges and fault induced landforms. The light playing on the water and comings and goings of the port add to the dynamics. From Matiu / Somes, there is a fuller appreciation of Wellington’s compact layout, with the urban and natural in close proximity. The urban development is concentrated on flat, gentle land between ridges and is masked by the hills.
The island is open to the public from 8.30 - 5.00 pm daily. The Circuit Track is 2-3 hours return.
Access to Matui/Somes Island is by ferry. East by West run a scheduled service between Queens Wharf and Days Bay, stopping en route at Matui/Somes Island. Phone (04) 499 1282 for further information or visit www.eastbywest.co.nz.
On arrival at the main wharf, a DoC ranger will supervise a pack inspection at the whare kiore to ensure no rodents have stowed away in your belongings. A brief orientation talk introduces the track network and salient sights.
Most features of interest on the island are discovered via the Circuit Track, which interconnects with the centrally located service buildings and DoC field centre via subsidiary tracks. Most surfaces are metalled, grassed or tar sealed.
Climb the tar sealed access road from above the main wharf, passing the toilets, and loop back. The Circuit Track branches left and right, shortly after the monument and graveyard.
Following an anticlockwise loop, continue along the west coast with views of the Wellington Fault Escarpment and City, to above Te Papa o Tara (Shag Rock) and the elevated sea caves.
Pass the oxidation pond and lighthouse and skirt the southern edge of the island. Misty views of the receding hills towards Pencarrow Head and the mouth of Wellington Harbour open up before the track heads north along the east coast.
Shortly after entering the forest, watch for the weta motel, a hollowed log attached to a tree with a perspex covered ‘room’ inhabited by weta.
To explore the DoC field centre, continue along the tar sealed access road at the start/finish of the track. The World War 2 gun emplacements are signposted further south past the other service buildings.
Geologically Matui/Somes along with Mokopuna and Ward Islands are the peaks of a ridge created by the tilting of the Wellington Fault.
Matiu was named around 900 years ago by Kupe, the great Polynesian explorer, after his niece. He also named nearby Mokopuna and Makaro (Ward Island). It is thought Te Whanganui-a-Tara (Wellington Harbour) was first settled by Tara and his people around the 15th century. Originally from Hawke’s Bay, they eventually made home on the Miramar Peninsula (Te Motu kairangi). By the 18th century, Ngati Ira, a west coast iwi, had infiltrated the Ngati Tara lineage through marriage.
Due to the lack of abundant kai moana, Matiu was an unfavourable location for permanent settlement. From mid 1820’s Ngati Mutunga and Ngati Tama from north Taranaki had formed part of a confederation of tribes under Te Raparaha and used Matiu as a stopping off point on voyages. Although 2 pa were erected by Ngati Ira in the 18th century, little remains of them today.
The island is named after Joseph Somes, deputy governor of the New Zealand Company, who bought the island in 1839 from local Maori.
As Wellington Harbour began welcoming more vessels, the need for a lighthouse to complement the Pencarrow Head light became increasingly apparent. A navigational aid within the harbour was imported from Britain. The 14-foot cast iron tower and lantern began operation on 17th February 1866, at that time one of only 8 lighthouses in the country. Luminescence was obtained by burning colza (rape seed oil) until 1878, when paraffin oil (kerosene) became the preferred fuel.
Concerns over the low intensity of the light prompted a new lighthouse to be introduced on 21st February 1900. The fuel-hungry light had a range of 26 miles and was refined with a more efficient burner in the 1910’s. The light is still operational today, although it was converted to electricity after World War 2.
Stores and fuel for the light and keeper’s family, who lived in a 6-room cottage nearby, were landed in the bay below and hauled up the tramway, the remains of which are still evident today.
In March 1872, Matiu/Somes Island was first used as a quarantine station, amid fears of contagious diseases such as smallpox entering the colony. Over 40 people, mainly Italians, are buried on Matiu/Somes Island, most between 1872 and 1876.
Purpose built accommodation was later used in World War 1 to detain enemy aliens, facilities later augmented with a hospital. During World War 2, the station was used as an internment camp and subsequently as an animal quarantine area.
World War One Internees
From the 1870s Julius Vogel initiated a policy of organised immigration as a way of attracting labour for Public Works Schemes. By luring emigrants to the New World with an assisted passage, the ‘Vogel Scheme’ hoped to furnish New Zealand with railways, roads and infrastructure. Among the 100,000 migrants to arrive in the 1870s were a small number of Germans, many of whom pursued their new life with gusto and determination, establishing farms, nurturing families and running successful businesses. By 1886, 5007 German-born people were living in New Zealand, the most notable enclave in the Moutere Valley near Nelson. Others fanned out from their disembarkation point at Wellington into the hinterlands of Manawatu and Rangitikei.
After the Boer War, Germany usurped France as England’s most hated country, a title firmly sealed following the outbreak of World War 1. New Zealand echoed the Motherland’s anti-German sentiments and peaceable German residents were suddenly vilified. H. Joosten of Karori was reported to police, neighbours expecting the pigeons on his roof to be spy communications. Around the country German owned shops were vandalised, businesses boycotted, and Lutherian bells confiscated. A man in Palmerston North was even found strangled with a Union Jack. The public called for all Germans to be interned.
At an official level, the British Government ceased recognition of German consuls throughout the British Empire. In August 1914 the New Zealand Minister of Internal Affairs gave orders for police to visit German consulates, calling on Carl Seegner (Auckland), F.A. Krull (Wanganui), Eberhard Focke (Wellington), Karl Joosten (Christchurch) and Willi Fels (Dunedin) to surrender all documentation. Any communication with Germany was seen as treason. The War Regulations Acts controlled aliens, forcing a daily report to police, prohibiting name changes and preventing departure from New Zealand. The 1917 Revocation of Naturalisation Act even allowed adult offspring of naturalised Germans to be denaturalised. In today’s parlance, these measures would have been termed ‘racism’.
The inconvenient issue of what to do with the German threat also loomed on the New Zealand Government’s radar. It was impractical to send the 6,264 Austrian and German-born residents home - they may even take secrets about New Zealand back with them. Internment of the whole lot was impractical. With papers seized from the consuls the Government hoped to source a list of naturalised men, who were still members of her ‘Landwehr’ - a trained militia reserve living a civilian life. Now that war was real, the New Zealand government were understandably paranoid at the presence of these reservists. This small stock of potential threats had to be interned and Somes Island seemed the perfect location.
Commandant on Somes was Major Dugald Matheson, a retired school teacher with little experience of military protocols, chains of command or upholding rules (beyond the classroom). His bigoted and teacher-like approach permeated his dealings with internees and he evidently pursued his brief on a power trip.
Some internments were hasty, including three German Army Reservist brothers, Ludwig, Otto and Michael Eder from Lower Bavaria, all of whom worked in the flaxmill at Foxton. They were seized on 10 August 1914 and taken to Somes, despite Ludwig being a man of local standing with character references from notable Foxton residents, his employer, Alexander Ross, and the Sub-Inspector of Police at Palmerston North. The conundrum authorities now faced was by locking up a man with five children, his family would then be reliant on government support - the Hospital and Charitable Aid Boards doling out a lifeline.
England had signed the Hague Convention on New Zealand’s behalf, the international accord stipulating the rules under which prisoners of war should be treated. The theory was all fine, but in practice the personalities entrusted with its implementation may have seen their responsibilities differently.
Early reports by the Evening Post praised the island as a pleasant place of detention, with German consul Eberhard Focke finding it ‘nice and tidy.’ Prisoners were allowed to fish, had decorated their rooms with toetoe fronds and had fires in each room. Most complained of boredom as their worst predicament.
Occasional visits by wives and families were strictly controlled. In the times when internees were not doing the labour, they grew vegetables, ran chooks, read, fished or swam. Although strictly they could not be forced to do work without pay, many found the diversion a relief from the boredom. Some quarried, 30 gardened, 40 made and sold boxes. The mayor and mayoress paid a visit, promising gifts of books, magazines and games, which they hoped coupled with the healthy exercises of tree planning, path making, gardening and outdoor work would keep mind and body stimulated.
Some saw this menial labour as convict work and letters smuggled out also complained of excessive labours and the unjustified use of the commandant’s stick. One dormitory had their door screwed closed for refusing to cart gravel up the pathway to their barracks, entry only being possible by use of a ladder. Rather than call a sentry or use the pail provided they decided to urinate out of the window on the sentry’ beat. Some were sent to Wellington for detention, others given physical drill as punishment. This became known as the ‘urine parade.’ In March 1915 Edward Bilke and Paul Wolf managed the three hours swim to Petone, but were apprehended.
However worse was to come. Fritz W.G. Rodtnick recorded his experiences, now reproduced in David McGill’s book Island of Secrets. They make grim reading. He was taken to a small beach at the northern end of the island nicknamed Kultur Bay, and repeatedly beaten, punched and kicked. He was then made to sign a document he could not understand and threatened with further abuse.
As far as most of the public were concerned the diluted reports of these actions were mere retribution for the atrocities the Germans were carrying out in the war. The guards took it upon themselves to carry out unjustifiable punishment on innocent people, whose only crime was their ex-nationality. Offences that warranted punishment included not saying ‘Sir’ to the commandant or not agreeing to fight with guards. Albert Ziegler, for apparently laughing at roll call was beaten and given 8 days locked in the cowshed. Other sentences included solitary confinement for weeks on draughty concrete floors, 7-21 days hard labour on bread and water, extreme physical exercise such as walking along the cliff face on the seaward side of the sheep fence or being awoken every hour on the hour for roll call. Two internees tried to commit suicide and seven went mad.
American Consul Alfred A. Winslow visited in March 1915 as a response to the allegations of brutality. He later reported to the Evening Post that a little ‘Kultur’ was good for subordination. Two more visit in 1916 in April and November were markedly different. In the earlier visit internees had spoken favourably of the Major and his staff, but the tune changed by November. Apparently the Major had addressed them all, as one prisoner recorded: ‘I know some of you are respectable people, but as a Nation you belong to the most contemptible, most vicious country in the world. I hate your people, I hate your government, I hate your damned Kaiser who is one of the dirtiest and filthiest curs that ever stepped on a throne. I have two sons fighting for their country’. The speech was delivered brandishing revolvers.
When news of maltreatment reached Count von Luckner in 1917, interned on Motuihe Island, he was outraged. Furthermore there had been 19 cases of appendicitis. He sent a letter to Minister of Defence Sir James Allen and to Governor General Liverpool. His informant on Somes had been Engineer Krause, another crew member of the Seeadler, Luckner’s ship which had been captured near Fiji.
Karl Mertin, William Knab, Alfred Kraut and Hugo Kosel escaped on a makeshift raft to Ngauranga. Kosel, who had a gammy leg was left behind while the others took a taxi to Wellington, only to be dropped off at the police station. Kosel later died of exposure. Although the papers reported the incident matter-of-factly, word on Somes Island’s conditions was out. Further paranoia came from reports that letters were smuggled out by bribed guards, which coupled with the high-profile intervention of Von Luckner would undoubtedly spill the beans on a bungled operation. Information and people were escaping from a heavily guarded island where civilian prisoners had been badly treated. The potential for embarrassment was high.
McGill sums up the situation perfectly. ‘Officials knew the public thought prisoners deserved everything they got because their lot were killing our boys over there. The new Zealand backyard of Somes Island proved at times nearly as vicious as the European war front itself.’
By late 1918 a military inspection party interviewed internees but found no wrongdoings. Matheson summarily wrote of the internees characters, dismissing them as unsavoury people, whose actions justified their punishments. As for appendicitis, that was due to the Germanic habit of stewed tea, eating enamel and too many mussels. The report was sent to the Minister and Governor General, who summoned the only German speaking Supreme Court judge, Frederick R. Chapman, to conduct a thorough investigation.
Judge Chapman’s undertaking took 22 days, in which he heard reports from 113 witnesses. Allegations ranged from Henry Peterson’s possessions being rifled through, John Globke being forbidden from seeing his pregnant wife, guards constantly drunk and lack of access to dentists and medical facilities. One recurring theme was Major Matheson’s persistent doling out of physical and verbal abuse. As spokesperson, Karl Joosten stated there had been ‘underfeeding, neglect, slander and wanton ill-treatment.’ He further pointed out that internees were in fact civilians, denied the right of providing for their families and blocked from avenues of complaint. In fact their only crime was their nationality. ‘Dispassionate historians will find the records of Somes Island Internment Camp for Civilian Internees a black page in the book of this dominion’s history.’
Chapman, known for his intolerant attitude towards complainants, dismissed most of the evidence, citing that most witnesses were of dubious character. Most evidence, especially concerning Matheson, he thought ‘exaggerated’. Reading his report in the AJHR, he uses the word so frequently it looses all conveyance. He also noted that many German civilians not interned were also clamouring at the doors to get in – their businesses unsupported and freedoms tightly leashed.
He noted out of 4,015 Germans in New Zealand only 450 had been detained. ‘It must be conceded that a population such as this is pretty certain to provide a very considerable number of rough characters, and it is not surprising that at times there should have been insubordination.’ Major Matheson could not be labelled ‘the malevolent character implied in these charges…I have found much evidence pointing to a desire to do everything within his power and in his knowledge to preserve the health, comfort and well-being of the men committed to his charge.’ Many guards under charge had later been sent overseas on service, and Chapman was able to factor this into his one-sided argument from internees.
The imposition of physical drill he saw as an appropriate punishment, alluding to Major Matheson’s career with schoolboys. Some complainants he dismissed as of bad character, such as ‘German Charlie’, a hawker convicted of vagrancy. ‘I consider this man unworthy of credit, and would not act on his uncorroborated testimony.’
In conclusion, the hard labour was in breach of the Hague Convention, those resisting punishment had probably been treated ‘over-rough’ and the food was likely substandard. Some guards were not ‘of such character as to justify placing them in positions of responsibility’. The rest of the allegations were hearsay and beyond his jurisdiction to act on. During his stay on the island he noted the air of joviality contradicted the statements. His departing statement said he had endured the “painful task of listening to a contest between men who throughout exhibited much bitterness towards each other, freely imputing bad faith and other offences. In all my career I do not think I have seen so much evidence of bitterness and animosity.”
Although Secretary of State for Colonies in London received news of Somes Island internees, he obviously had more important matters to deal with. As far as he was concerned, internees were prisoners of war, not civilians, but the directive that work could not be offered without inducement never filtered through the chain of command.
At the end of the war the thorny problem of what to do with the internees materialised. The Ant-German League suggested sending them all back to Germany. Many had their naturalisation revoked. Matheson advised that 260 be deported, writing character references a la school reports in his recommendations. H.C Becker of Wellington was ‘aged. May be a burden on the State’, G.E. Englebrecht of Christchurch was a ‘useless member of society’, while ‘Red Fed’ E.M. Jenses of Auckland was a ‘dangerous socialist’. The government agreed with Matheson’s recommendations, as returning them to their country of origin would conveniently bypass any repercussions or comebacks.
For Helen Hensen, the possibility of deportation was so grave, she expressed her feelings in a letter to Prime Minster Massey. Her husband had revoked his German nationality, married an Englishwoman, been in New Zealand 27 years and had a son who was New Zealander. She turned the tables, asking Massey to consider what would happed if her husband died. They would have sacrificed their property in New Zealand, had no capital and would have ‘to make a fresh living in an impoverished country, and under the deadly disadvantage of being considered English.’ Her case was deferred.
On 14th May 1919 the Willochra sailed from Glasgow Wharf with 410 ‘German and Austrian prisoners of war.’ It was subdued event for which the public had not been notified. McGill says of their predicament, ‘..Many had left that country [Germany] years before to make a new home in New Zealand, never expecting to return. Without committing any hostile act – their only crime their country of origin – these men had been in a concentration camp for the duration of the war, and their punishment was not yet over.’ They were returning to a ‘bitter, bankrupt, devastated, post-war Germany.’
During World War 2, the highpoint of the island near the trig was used as a command post and position for 4 Heavy Anti-aircraft Artillery guns. The concrete structures supported 3.7 inch calibre guns, which could launch a 63 pound (28.6 kg) shell 10,000 feet into the air in 14 seconds. Turnaround time was 5-6 seconds. The holdfast (securing bolts) were set in a concrete slab at the centre, with the ammunition lockers ensconced in the same structure.
They were built between 1942 and 1943 and although they were never fired in action, formed part of Wellington’s defences against the threat of Japanese naval forces. The concrete skeletons of the 4 gun positions and command post are well-preserved today and mantled with an orange-yellow moss.
Since 1981, the Lower Hutt branch of the Forest and Bird Society have been replanting native species and a nursery has been established by the main service buildings to propagate seeds
North Island ▷ Wellington Region ▷ Wellington
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Beautiful DOC reserves, magical day spent looking at bids and Tuatara!
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It's a nice place to go for an adventure with little kiddies. Having a boat trip out, small walk around the island and listening to the DOC guide talk you through was pretty neat.
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Betty le Brech
Catch the ferry from either Wellington or Day's Bay in Eastbourne, get dropped off at Somes Island. Take your lunch and enjoy the walk right around the Island. No predators here, only geckos, seagulls etc. A great day out.
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On a good dat the scenic boat trip is awsome. The talk that the DOC guide gives you when you arrive is very informative. Great native birds.
Thanks to all the good people working for the NZ Department of Conservation - for all your hard work - making NZ more beautiful, accessable and healthy! Cheers 😍