Mangamahu District is a hill-country farming and
forestry community in the middle reaches of the Whangaehu River valley, 50km north-east of
Wanganui, New Zealand.
It is centered on the village of Mangamahu,
which is situated on river flats where the Mangamahu stream flows
into the Whangaehu river. Mangamahu has a primary school (25-30
children) which has been open since 1894 and a War Memorial hall
built in 1952.
The old hotel that was built in 1891, and the general store built
in 1885 were both closed in 1974, due to the decline in the wool
and meat trades in the 1970s. Many of the farms in the district
have now being converted to pine plantations.
The Mangamahu river flats were formed by huge mud slides or
"lahars" (c. 1200 and 1520 AD) flowing down the Whangaehu river
from the crater lake of Mount Ruapehu.
The river flat on which Mangamahu School is situated is the site of
an old Ngati Apa Maori camp-site named Kohanga.
occupied in summer by bird-snaring and eel-trapping groups from
further down the Whangaehu, and also used as a way station by those
travelling the trail up the ridge between the Whangaehu river and
Mangamahu stream, from the fortified pa at Manumanu
the mouth of the Mangawhero river) to Karioi, and then across the
Rangipo Desert and Lake Taupo to the Waikato and Rotorua.
Kohanga and Manumanu were destroyed during the musket wars in 1840
and 1843, and most of the surviving inhabitants of the upper valley
moved west to Parikino on the Wanganui River.
British colonists began buying the land in the 1870s. James
MacDonald was the first white settler, introducing sheep to his
clearing in the bush at 'Glenaladale' in 1872. His wife joined him
there in 1875.
During the 1880s the old Maori trail through Mangamahu was
developed into a bench track for pack horses (Hales Track). It
followed the Whangaehu river flats to the Mangamahu Stream, then
went up the northern ridgeline of the Mangamahu Stream to Bald
Hill, and on to Karioi. It gave settlers to access to the nearer
forest-covered hills of the area, (now Ruakiwi, Inzevar, Aranui and
Mt View farms) and enabled packhorses to bring wool from sheep
grazing on the high back-country tussock lands at Ngamatapouri and
Waiouru. From Waiouru the trail went on to Moawhango and then to
In 1879 Arthur Ellis and Allan Robinson bought 140 hectares on the
site of the present Mangamahu village. To assist the many settlers
and laborers moving up and down Hales Track, they developed a
supply store to which a post office was attached in 1889. Then in
1891 they built an accommodation house, and by 1894 this was a
licensed 12-bedroom hotel. A blacksmith's shop and saddlery were
added and served customers as far away as Taihape and
The Ridge Road
In 1891, work began on widening Hales Track into a wagon road (The
Ridge Road) and Merv Addenbrooke tells of the clouds of dust he
could see in 1905 as wool wagons moved down it in summer time. From
1894 to 1908, Mangamahu village was a busy district supply centre
with wagons moving up the Ridge Road to farms and railway
construction sites in the central high country as far away as
Ngamatapouri and the Waimarino, and with travellers going across
the island from Wanganui to Napier.
The tracks and roads in the hills behind the village were still
very difficult to negotiate and Royal Mail contractor Annie Shaw
(Barb Wire Annie) became a legend for her grit in getting her
pack-horses delivering the mail across the hills in the winter mud
from 1904 to 1910.
Then in 1908 the Main Trunk Railway line through the centre of the
island was completed and Mangamahu's importance as a transport hub
greatly shrunk. The Ridge Road was closed in 1922.
1901 to 1930, Merv Addenbrooke
Merv Addenbrooke was born at Mangamahu in 1901. He worked as a
bushman/fencer/shearer on local farms there until 1930. Merv's 1991
autobiography Home from the Hill
(in NZ public libraries
and also online) has detailed anecdotes about his childhood and
farm-working days in Mangamahu between 1905 to 1930. In 1930 Merv
married and moved to a dairy farm at Putaruru. He died in
1945 to 1955: a close-knit community
John Archer, born in Mangamahu in 1941, remembers the post-war
village as a caring, close-knit community. It had a school (with 12
pupils), general store/post office, a hotel, a bus and taxi
service, a general carrier and a timber mill. In the surrounding
district there were farmers, shepherds, fencers, roadmen, bridge
builders, itinerant shearers and scrub-cutters. In the 1940s, most
of the scrub-cutters were middle-aged Catholic men who could not
get a divorce, and who wanted to disappear from sight. But by 1948,
the first Fijian Indians scrub-cutters had arrived.
The dusty corrugated gravel road to Wanganui was a boneshaking one
hour journey while the River Road, from Mangamahu to Mount View,
was narrow and winding with steep bluffs and many slips in winter.
Not many people had cars, and at the Mangamahu store to meet Tommy
Thompson's bus each evening at 5pm was an important social
There were many sporting activities, especially rugby, golf and
pony club, but also tennis, cricket and badminton. The rifle
shooting club that had flourished in the 1920s and 1930s had died
out, but pig hunting was still popular.
The Tangiwai disaster greatly affected Mangamahu during the
Christmas week of 1953. A lahar down the Whangaehu river from the
Mt Ruapehu crater lake reached Mangamahu at 7am on Christmas
morning. Wreckage of a passenger train and dozens of bodies were in
the muddy flow. Over the next four weeks, local settlers recovered
the bodies of about sixty victims from out of the river gorges near
1955 to 1973, super-men
In 1951 the first topdressing planes arrived, spreading
super-phosphate to make more grass grow on the steep hills of the
sheep-farms. Not much fertilizer at first, but by 1960 the local
carrier was carting 2000 tonne a year to the various airstrips in
the district. Kellick's at Mangamahu, Lilburn's at Rata Flat and
Collins' at Aranui. The topdressing enabled much more wool and
sheep-meat to be produced, and Mangamahu bard John Archer describes
the unexpected social consequences.
The valley grew so wealthy,
from the super-pilots' loads
The farmers all bought big new motor cars,
and they tar-sealed our back-country roads.
The farmers' wives drove out every day,
to the big bright shops in town -
And the Mangamahu store went bankrupt,
the Mangamahu pub closed down.
In 1973 the price of oil skyrocketed, and this was followed by a
draconian right-wing government that abolished farm subsidies.
[Others would argue that subsidy abolition was a long-overdue
reform of both the national economy and farming practices.
Subsidies encouraged farmers to produce more than the market could
absorb, imposing a substantial cost burden on urban taxpayers.]
Sheep farming became uneconomic on the more marginal dissected
hills in the middle of the valley [which had always been unsuitable
for this type of farming, causing massive environmental
degradation] and "Queen Street farmers", investors from Auckland,
bought up thousands of hectares to plant pine plantations.
1980, Kaplan's sociology survey
Massey University lecturer Paul Kaplan interviewed every person in
Mangamahu to find out how social conditions affected farm
production. Two findings of his made the national news. He
discovered that when Mangamahu farmers reached the age of about 52,
they upgraded their farmhouse kitchens (and then sat in them all
winter, instead of getting out onto the hills and increasing
So to maintain productivity, said Kaplan, the farmer's oldest son
needed to be married by the age of 26. (The farmer could then trust
his son with 'the chequebook,' and the energetic and enthusiastic
young man would spend the winter on the hill-tops improving the
This comedy about two 1949 con-men had some woolshed and river
scenes filmed at Mangamahu. A suspension bridge was specially built
over the Whangaehu River at Tokorangi farm for a car crash at the
end of the film.
- M Campion, P Garland, J Morris The Road to Mangamahu, a
history of the Whangaehu River Valley from Reid's Hill to Mt
View 1988 ISBN 0473005506
- Mervyn Addenbrooke, Home From the Hill, 1990
- Paul Kaplan, Social Aspects of Productivity: Hill-Country
Sheep-Beef Farms in the Mangamahu Valley , 1979