Volume 10

The Church, the Choir and the Billygoat Incline

David Wilton

Three or four years ago, I was invited to browse through a large filing cabinet of uncatalogued photos at the Thames Historical Museum - I think they hoped I would be able to identify some of them! Amongst a mass of photos and other documents, I found a real gem - a school exercise book with a set of photos (with handwritten captions) of a St George's Church (Thames) choir picnic in the Kauaeranga Valley in the early 1920s. The photographer was one E. Donnelly of Rolleston St, Thames. I quickly realised that I had met the photographer (Effie Donnelly) in my childhood (1950s and 60s). My parents had known Effie and her sister Mabel, who lived in their parents' old house in Rolleston St, and we had visited them several times. (Effie and Mabel owned a clothing shop in Thames, and my father had a small knitwear factory, so there was a business connection between the two families.)

Fig 1: The Donnelly sisters, c.1960s. There were 12 children in the family altogether and they were known as the 'Donnelly Dozen'

I also realised there were other threads to this story - the choir had traveled on the Kauaeranga kauri logging tramway, which included the famous Billygoat Incline; a well-known bush railway engineering feat. The photos showed previously-unseen views of the incline, and of the entire Kauaeranga tramway system and logging operation. This was of particular interest to me as an archaeologist, as I had surveyed and recorded the tramway system and other logging sites in the Kauaeranga (e.g. Wilton 2008). Effie's photos were generally of comparable quality to those of well-known kauri cameraman Tudor Collins.

Fig 2: Setting off on the choir picnic, early 1920s (Effie's original captions have been included on the enlarged photo, where possible)

Another thread was the original St George's church building, which was next door to the Donnelly residence, and that probably had at least some influence in Effie's decision to join the choir. As part of my archaeological investigations around Thames, I had seen a photo of the original church building in Rolleston St and set out to find the exact site. Using old photos and street directories, I determined the church was at the property now designated 816 Rolleston St - next door to the Donnellys, who were at 814 (south of the church). The old Donnelly residence is still in situ, and I remember it well by sight, from childhood visits. I'm not sure who currently owns it.

The 1897 Auckland Directory (Thames section) shows, Donnelly, J. miner living at the same Rolleston St address in Fig 3, so the house is likely to be well over 100 years old, and an archaeological site in its own right.

Church of England activity in the Thames area dated from 1833 when a mission station was built at Puriri, on the Waihou River. The swampy conditions and unpleasant climate resulted in the station being moved to Parawai (south Thames) in 1837. Following the opening of the Thames goldfield in August 1867, local Anglicans met in January 1868, at Butt’s Hotel, Shortland, to discuss the building of a church. The first St George's Church was opened in May 1868, at 816 Rolleston Street, on land gifted by local iwi Ngati Maru. The Rev Vicesimus Lush was appointed the first resident vicar of St George's on 22 November 1868. To accommodate the rapidly-growing congregation, a new church was opened at the corner of Mackay and Mary Streets in 1872. This property had also been gifted by Ngati Maru. The original church remained in use as a Sunday School and was relocated to the Mackay Street site in 1909 (Hays 1968). (It is still in situ.) Effie Donnelly was born in 1900 and probably would have attended Sunday School in the old church building while it was next door to her home (and probably after it was moved to Mackay St).

Fig 3: Contemporary view of the Donnelly
residence at 814 Rolleston St.

Fig 4: Circa 1875 photo, looking north west, showing both original and new St George's churches. The Donnelly residence was in the lower left corner, about where the printed caption is.

Fig 5: Contemporary view of St George's church in autumn

Captain James Cook was the first European to note the rich timber resources of the Coromandel area. On 20th November 1769, Cook, accompanied by biologist Joseph Banks and several crew members, sailed up the Waihou River in a small boat, to the area now called Netherton. Cook observed:

'.. we found a tree that girted 19 feet 8 inches, six feet above the ground, and having a quadrant with me, I found its length from the root to the first branch to be 89 feet; it was as straight as an arrow and tapered very little in proportion to its length …We saw many others of the same sort.' (Reed and Reed 1951 p.70).

The trees observed by Cook were almost certainly kahikatea, which later proved to be a little soft and prone to rot. Cook apparently didn’t notice any kauri, the tree that later was to provide a major industry for the area, and for NZ.

The opening of the Thames goldfield in 1867 produced a huge local demand for timber. The Kauaeranga Valley, in the ranges behind Thames, had a huge supply of kauri suitable for milling, and this was exploited until the late 1920s, when logging tapered off. By then, the Kauaeranga area had effectively been logged out.

The Billygoat tramway was an important part of the infrastructure established to log kauri timber in the Atuatumoe (Billygoat) stream catchment, a tributary of the Kauaeranga River. The initial extraction plan was to build a dam at the top of the 200m-high Billygoat Falls and drive logs over the falls to the Kauaeranga River below. However, the long free-fall meant that most of the logs were smashed on landing, and another method had to be devised. By the 1920s, the Kauri Timber Company (KTC) had taken over the Kauaeranga lease, and in 1921 conceived the idea of a tramway, to carry logs from the head of the Billygoat, all the way down to the Kauaeranga. The steep lower section was built by contractors Tony Voykovich and Frank Kumerich and had a maximum gradient of 1:2.7. These men, well-known local identities, had no formal engineering training and relied on their bush experience and plain common sense. It is understood that Tony Voykovich implemented cambering of the sharp curves of the Billygoat tramway to help keep wagons on the track.

Fig 6: Choir members pictured next to the tramway near Table Mountain, with a steam hauler in the background.

Fig 7: Choir members climbing down the Billygoat incline.

Fig 8: The steam hauler at the top of Billygoat Falls.

The steam hauler seen in Fig 8 was used to brake wagons loaded with logs on the way down (two wagons at a time were used), and haul empty wagons up again. Brakemen also rode on the back of each wagon to assist in lowering the load, which could weigh up to about ten tons.

The Billygoat Incline is regarded as a major NZ heritage engineering achievement, in terms of its spectacular gradient and innovative technology used to lower logs safely down the slope. Mahoney (1998 p. 56) describes it as:

'Arguably the most spectacular bush incline [in NZ] ... Unloaded bogies were pulled up, a minor feat. The real challenge was in the lowering. This incline dropped vertically 290 metres with a steepest grade of 1 in 2.7 over 1160 metres. Two loaded sets [bogies containing logs] were worked at a time in order to develop sufficient capacity in the incline. Although this was a lowering incline, a steam winch was necessary as it was a single track and the ascending and descending loads were not counterbalanced. A powerful Judd [Foundry, Thames] steam winch in a shed at the top was fitted with both band brakes and water brakes to give maximum control. The water brakes were like a turbine working against itself and would be boiling by the time an over-capacity load reached the bottom. The band brakes were held as a reserve. [Brakemen were also used on the bogies.] The incline included a curve near the mid-point. This was negotiated using special technology; a strong bracket fitted beneath the log bogies held the cable down near rail level and fed it into a series of rollers on the curve.'
Fig 9: Restored section of track on the Billygoat Incline (2015).

Fig 10: Choir members posing beside a large kauri tree; probably several hundred years old.

The exact location of the kauri tree in Fig 10 is not specified, but if it was anywhere near the tramway, its remaining life expectancy would have been fairly short!

There is no narrative to accompany the photos of the choir's eventful day out in the Kauaeranga Valley, but the weather looked fine, and I'm sure they would all have enjoyed their picnic! The photos taken by Effie Donnelly provide a poignant link between the archaeology, history and past generations of Thamesites.


  1. Hays, R. B. (Ed.) (1968). St George's Thames: 1868-1968, Thames Star, Thames.
  2. Mahoney, P. (1998). The Era of the Bush Tram in New Zealand, IPL Books, Wellington.
  3. Reed, A. H. and Reed, A. W. (Eds.) (1951). Captain Cook in NZ: the Journals of Captain James Cook, A.H. and A.W Reed, Wellington.
  4. Wilton, D. (2008). Archaeological site records for the Kauaeranga Tramway System. T12/1303, 1304, 1305, Wellington.
  5. Wilton, D. (2008). Billygoat Tramway. The Treasury Journal Vol 1 (2008)


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