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Lake Papaitonga - Sir Walter Buller and history

Kete Horowhenua2020-01-27T18:36:36+00:00
Papaitonga is a 61.8 ha dune lake in the Horowhenua coastal plain.
GPS latitude40.6425
GPS longitude175.2254
LocationBuller Road, Levin

There are two islands, Motukiwi and Motungarara. The reserve is an important refuge for birds that depend on wetlands or lowland forests for their survival.

The area was settled by the Muaupoko people during the early part of the 19th century but they were driven from the area in 1822 by Ngati Toa people led by Te Rauparaha. Te Rauparaha had narrowly escaped death at the hands of the Muaupoko previously in an incident that claimed the lives of his son and daughter.

In 1897, Sir Walter Buller aquired an area including Papaitonga with the intention of protecting the land around the lake for future generations, In 1901, 27.5 ha of bush were formally established as a reserve. The lake was added to the reserve in 1991 and today 122 ha are protected there.

The entrance to the reserve is at the end of Buller Road, 5km south-west of Levin off State Highway 1.

Papaitonga reserve contains rare plants and wildlife and fragile habitats. Dogs, fires and other activities that may cause damage, such as hunting, mountain biking and trail bike riding are not permitted. Visitors should stay on the formed tracks and defined lookout areas at all times. Access to the islands on the lake is not permitted.

For Buller's account of Papaitonga see his article "The Story of Papaitonga; or, A Page of Maori History".

It was reported in The Evening Post of 15 April 1904 that:

Sir Walter Buller's fine house at Papaitonga, close to lake Horowhenua, together with the contents, including a valuable collection of curios belonging to Percy Buller, was destroyed by fire on Tuesday night.

The house was insured in the Standard Office for £350, and the furniture in the same office for £225.


About midnight on Tuesday the six-roomed homestead on Sir Walter Buller's properly at Lake Papaitonga was destroyed by fire, with all it contained.

There were in the house at the time Mrs. Spicer (wife of the caretaker, who was away in Otaki), her three daughters and son and a visitor. Mrs. Spicer thought she heard some one call her and got up. On getting to the passage she found it full of smoke. In the front room the lining above the mantelpiece was blazing.

She awakened the sleepers, but little could be done to save anything. They tried to get a piano out but could not, and the flames began to get a firm hold of the building, and the inmates had to take to the open air.

Beyond some clothing belonging to young Spicer and the visitor (Mr. Martin) nothing was saved.

The loss to Mr. Percy Buller is great, for he had a piano, many valuable curios, a choice collection of books, and general furniture in the house. The building was insured in the Standard for £350, and the furniture in the same office for £225. Mr. P. A. Buller states that he will rebuild shortly.

Mr. Spicer, the caretaker, lost heavily. When the stables were burned on this property a few months since he lost £50 worth of furniture stored there, and by the fire on Tuesday night he has lost every article belonging to the family, valued at £100.

The fire appears to have been caused by the subsidence of the breastwork of the chimney.

In the Evening Post of 5 August 1911 there is a report donations to the Dominion Museum from the collections of Percy and Leo Buller:

Some time ago the late Mr. Percy, Buller presented his fine collection of foreign butterflies, which have been so much admired lately when exhibited, to the Dominion Museum, and the late Sir Walter Buller, his father, was, during the whole of his life, a contributor to the collection.

The museum has just received from another member of the family, Mr. Leo Buller, two canoes which were on the beautiful Papaitonga lake. One is a large war canoe called Te Ranga, about the size of the one in the museum, and the other is a small light craft of very perfect workmanship, presented to him by the late Major Kemp (Te Rangihiwinui, called Karere-a-Mahuri). There are very few specimens of this small light craft now existing. Steps will be taken shortly to bring those canoes from the lake to the museum.

Sir Walter Buller died in 1906 in England at his daughter's residence.

Details of his will were published in the Evening Post on 2 October 1906:




LONDON, 24th August.

It is announced this week that Sir Walter Lawry Buller, K.C.M.G., F.R.S., of Wellington, New Zealand, and of Pondtail Lodge, Fleet, Hampshire, barrister-at-law, formerly Native Commissioner and Magistrate in New Zealand, a director of the United Gold Mines of West Africa, the Federated Mines of Rhodesia, and the Blue Spur and Gabriel's Gully Consolidated Gold Company, has left estate in the United Kingdom of the gross value of £15,462, of which the net personalty has been sworn at £14,914.

Probate of his will, date 22nd December, 1894, with three codicils, has been granted to his sons, Mr. Arthur Percival Buller and Mr. Walter Leopold Buller, barristers-at-law, both of the Royal Societies Club, St. James-street, London, to each of whom he bequeathed 100 guineas. He left £500 to his sister, Mrs. Lilla Bourke, £200 and land costing £800 to his grandson, G. Madocks, £5000 to each of his sons, Arthur Percival and Walter Leopold, and to his daughter, Mrs Laura Madocks, and he left the Papaitonga Estate and £21,000 upon trust for his said children for life, with remainder in each case to their issue.

Sir Walter Buller left his collection of Maori curios, birds, etc., and pictures of New Zealand life to his sons in equal shares, requesting them to retain this collection in the family, but if they should not wish to do so, first to offer the collection as a whole at a fair valuation to the New Zealand Government, for the proposed National Maori Museum, and subject thereto that the first offer of the collection of birds should be made to the Hon. Walter. Rothschild, "who has in his museum at Tring the finest collection of New Zealand birds." And he made the following bequests: —

  • £1000 upon trust to found a Maori scholarship, to be called the Buller Scholarship, tenable by Maoris, but not by Europeans or half-castes;
  • £100 to the Bishop of Wellington for St. Paul's Cathedral and the work of the church, of which he was a member;
  • £100 to the Wellington Benevolent Society;
  • £100 to the Wesleyan Church, in the Wellington districts of which his father, the Rev. James Buller, was "so distinguished an ornament" ;
  • £50 to the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Wellington;
  • £50 to Dr. Barnardo's Homes;
  • £50 to the Home for the Aged Needy at Wellington;
  • £50 to the Wellington Convalescent Home;
  • £5 on each Christmas Day to his old servant, Margaret Ross.

The residue of the estate is left in equal shares to the children of the testator.

In November 1911, the Evening Post published an article on the proposal that Lake Papaitonga could become a National Reserve following the cutting up of the estate of the late Sir Walter Buller. The article has detailed descriptions of the lake and its surrounds. It starts:

'Very few Wellington people have set eyes upon the little lake called Papaitonga, but it may soon become much better known. Negotiations are now going on which will probably result in the purchase of the lake and its shores, where the late Sir Walter Buller had his home.

The bulk of the estate has been cut up and sold by the executors of the estate, and realised big prices; but the pretty homestead and the immediate environs of the lake, with the native forest thereon, are retained by the family, whose desire is that the place shall become a national reserve for all time. The only trouble in the way is the price. Ten thousand pounds is asked, but it is understood that the Government considers this too much. However, it is to be hoped that a mutually satisfactory arrangement will be made, and that Papaitonga — "The Beauty of A South" — will become a State park and botanical garden, and that the lake will continue to be what Sir Walter Buller made it, a sanctuary for our shy and vanishing native birds.'

Click here to see the rest of the article.

It was reported in the Evening Post on 15 April 1904 that:

In 1932 an article by James Cowan about a train excursion to Lake Papaitonga, published in The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 7, Issue 5 (September 1, 1932) (pages 31-36):

It starts:

'Papaitonga, the objective of Wellington's second “Mystery Train” excursion, on Sunday, August 14th, could well be described as quite off the beaten track. It is not visible from the railway line, although within an easy walk of Ohau Station, and it is very little known to Wellington people. Yet its beauty and its romantic history combine to give it an interest of a very special character; and its seclusion from the routes of travel heightens its charm to those who see it for the first time. Access to the place was granted by the kindness of Mrs. Hammond Murray, whose property it is.

Papaitonga, also known as Waiwiri, is a lake of about 100 acres in extent, containing two islands. It is situated about three miles to the south of Lake Horowhenua, and is, like that lake, shallow over the greater part of its area, and is drained by a winding creek flowing through low-lying land to the sea.'

Click on the above link to read more ...

It is interesting to see how perspectives change over time. This extract from a thesis by Jacky Bowring, Lincoln University in 1997, provides a different view of Buller.

The significance of topography to the picturesque is also demonstrated in the Horowhenua where an area of hilly country
contains a lake dotted with islands. Sir Walter Buller, a pioneer natural historian and nature conservationist, immediately
appreciated the setting of Lake Papaitonga when he first saw it in the 1850's.

Buller eventually gained possession of the lake after the forceful eviction of the local Maori people, continuing a legacy of
removing unwanted occupants and their dwellings from picturesque estates. In England, Joseph Damner had removed the
medieval village of Milton Abbas from his estate to allow for a Brownian design around his new house in the 1752, and
Lord Harcourt destroyed the ancient village of Newham in 1756 and relocated the villagers discreetly out of sight.

Buller epitomised "The man of wealth and pride" in Goldsmith's mythical The Deserted Village:

"But times are altered; trades unfeeling train
Usurps the land and dispossesses the swain;
Sweet smiling village, loveliest of the lawn,
Thy sports are fled, and all thy charms withdrawn;
Amidst thy bowers the tyrant's hand is seen,
And desolation saddens all thy green:
And only one master grasps the whole domain.”

Park's description of how Buller transformed the landscape at Papaitonga after he acquired it in 1892 resonates with
Goldsmith's lines:

"The view from the house-site down to the lake was landscaped with fashionable ornamental trees, and a
patch of lakeside native forest. he called the Garden of Maui was planted up in the design of 'an epitome
of native flora'. Maori canoes and a pataka, important pieces he had collected, and now in the National
Museum, were placed on the islands and the lake shore.
Together with its forested rim now surrounded by 'smiling farms', Papaitonga had become a theatrical
landscape reminiscent of the great landscaped English estates of the 18th century with their Greek and
Italianate sculptures and acropolis."

Buller's landscape garden illustrates the way in which the indigenous buildings of the Maori were incorporated into the picturesque vocabulary.