Volume 6

Walter Callaway

Geraldine Dunwoodie

John Walter Callaway was born in January 1873 in Kikawhakarere, north of Coromandel. He was known as Walter to differentiate him from his father, John. He also had the Maori name of Wata Te Wahahuia.

His father, John Callaway, came from Cornwall in 1838, going first to Adelaide and then to Wellington and Auckland. He was one of the first Pakeha settlers in this region having arrived at Port Charles in 1842 where he worked for a timber company. When this company became insolvent he trekked over the Moehau range to Kikiwhakarere where he was initially made a prisoner by Chief Paora Te Putu. On a trip to the Bay of Plenty during the 1840s, he met Walter’s mother Huihana Hopa Te Arawaere who was a high-ranking Maori princess of the Te Ngare tribe, a sub-tribe of Ngatirangi. They married in 1852 and settled at Kikowhakarere where they raised a family of seven children. Walter was the sixth. The family house still stands there.

Callaway House, Kikowhakarere.

When he turned five Walter was enrolled at Driving Creek School, just north of Coromandel, a long walk for a little boy. In addition to learning reading, writing, and arithmetic, he could also tap into his mother’s traditional knowledge, and he built up a deep appreciation of the Maori language and culture. He also enjoyed music. He had an impressive voice and could play the violin and piano well. One of his favourite pastimes was to exercise the horses on the tidal flats at Kikowhakarere.

After the death of his mother in 1883 he was sent to Tauranga to live with his elder brother Robert. In 1884 he re-enrolled at Driving Creek School, finally leaving in 1886, at the age of 13, to start work to help support his family. He started in his father’s mine near Driving Creek, and at a pit sawmill at Kikowhakarere. Before long he became independent enough to develop his own business interests. He turned to gold mining, and within a few years his interests extended throughout the peninsula – Whangamata, Hikutaia, Tapu, Tairua, Mercury Bay, Mata, Coromandel Town, Kuaotunu, Gum Town and Waihi.

Local Coromandel papers mentioned that Walter was strong and athletic, that he cut a dashing figure in his formal outfits, that he enjoyed the dancing and that he featured prominently with his singing and musical items. By the mid-1890s he was mainly based in Kuaotunu, and there he developed his marksmanship after the establishment of a Shooting Club there. Rugby was another of his passions and he was selected to play for a number of teams throughout the peninsula depending on where he was based. Walter was fit and strong and his equestrian skills and marksmanship were much respected so it seemed only natural that he enlisted as a member of the Coromandel Volunteer Rifles.

Walter was probably unaware of the rumblings of war on the other side of the world but in September 1899 he read the Government’s appeal to the five national military districts, wanting men for the Transvaal. They were to be single, at least second-class shots, and were to be prepared to join at Wellington at an early date. It was reported that Walter was one of the first to join, perhaps led by a sense of adventure, perhaps by a patriotic drive to support the Motherland, and perhaps because of the prospect of becoming a warrior which was part of his family’s heritage. This South African War or Boer War can also be called ‘New Zealand’s forgotten war’, as few people know much about our involvement. In spite of the directive that ‘no native troops should serve in South Africa as this was a white man’s war,’ Walter left on 20th October 1899 in the First Contingent of 214 men.

They arrived in Cape Town on 23rd November 1899 being the first colonial troops to arrive for duty. The New Zealanders were thrust straight into the conflict without much time for preparation. On the 18th December 1899, George Bradford of Paeroa, one of Walter’s comrades, was seriously injured and died 10 days later – the first New Zealand overseas casualty and the first British colonial to be killed in battle. From the outset Walter made his mark. He volunteered for the dangerous challenge of being a despatch rider and scout, and he was praised in the Auckland Star for the way he carried out these duties. His participation in the stand at Driefontein earned him the Driefontein Clasp to be attached to his medal ribbon.

Walter’s Queen’s & King’s South Africa Medals.

After many engagements, the first Contingent returned to Pretoria in October 1900 to prepare for the homeward voyage, finally arriving in Wellington in January 1901. Lance-Corporal Walter Callaway returned to Coromandel where the citizens of Coromandel Town organized a parade to welcome him home. However he was keen to return to the war arena and was given promotion to Regimental Sergeant-Major of the 24th Company of the 7th Contingent. 667 men set sail for South Africa on 6th April 1901.

The action this time had changed to guerrilla warfare and mounted New Zealand officers were a valuable asset to the British war effort. There was a lack of logistical support and while constantly on the move they had to look for ways to survive, often scavenging and plundering, and conditions were harsh. In July 1901 Walter was injured while making a heroic rescue. He was described as dangerously wounded (which meant he had little chance of living), and he developed a malaria-type fever. For three weeks he was in a critical condition at the end of which he wrote what he thought would be his last letter to his family in Coromandel. At this stage an operation was performed – without anaesthetic. Walter’s strength and determination prevailed and he astonished everyone by making an extraordinary recovery, and in early December 1901 he was invalided home.

Welcome Home, Coromandel Town

Walter still wanted to be an officer, and in February 1902 applied for a commission. Unfortunately this was turned down on medical grounds. Armed with a positive report from the District Health Officer, he promptly applied to join the 9th Contingent, and his persistence was rewarded, He returned to South Africa for a third time, arriving in April 1902. He continued to apply for promotion, eventually being granted commission as Lieutenant. After hostilities ceased the British moved quickly to repatriate their troops and Walter left for home again in July 1902. Nearing Wellington, without warning Walter’s body became covered with skin eruptions and he was diagnosed with smallpox. The outbreak was a serious threat to New Zealanders and Walter’s was the first case of smallpox the country had encountered. Men were quarantined to Soames Island in the Wellington Harbour – small, bleak and icy-cold, which resulted in deaths due to fever and pneumonia. Walter was later removed to a hospital where he remained in strict isolation.

Walter was a man of firsts:

  • The first Maori to serve abroad, in a time when Maori were officially excluded.
  • The first Maori lieutenant, and probably the longest serving soldier.
  • the first case of smallpox in this war.
  • The first case of smallpox in New Zealand.

Walter’s war injuries as well as the smallpox he contracted left him not as strong as he has been when he left for the war. His injuries narrowed down his options for work but luckily he qualified for an Imperial Pension.

In 1907 Walter married Lillian Robinson, a resident of Devonport. Her family had previously lived in Thames so it is possible that Walter knew her in the pre-war days. The newly-married couple settled in Kuaotunu where Walter continued his gold mining endeavours. Walter and Lillian later moved to Tauriko near Tauranga where he settled on 80 acres of land which had been his inheritance from his mother. However farming proved too much of a challenge with his deteriorating strength. He became more reliant on crutches, eventually losing the use of both legs.

In 1918 Walter left his Tauriko farm and moved to Devonport. He employed a farm manager and negotiated an arrangement where half the profit came to him, thereby helping ease financial difficulties. Walter’s health deteriorated further and his war injuries caused intolerable suffering. On 16 September 1926, at the age of 53, he died in his Huia Street home. He was buried in the nearby Neill’s Point Cemetery at Devonport.

His headstone reads: ‘Lieutenant Boer War – a small reminder of his considerable contribution to New Zealand’s forgotten war’.

An obituary to Walter in the Bay of Plenty Times praises him for his bravery and gallantry as a soldier. It ends by saying that he was ‘a notable example of great courage under unbearable suffering.’

Walter & Lillian Callaway, Devonport


  • 'Walter Callaway: A Maori Warrior of the Boer War' by Mike Dwight. Print House, Hamilton, 2010.


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