Exploring Russell, Former Capital Of New Zealand

by Karen Warren
A grey historic building in Russell, New Zealand

Why would anyone choose to visit a place known as the “hell hole of the Pacific”? Somewhere that was once full of brothels and unsavory bars, the scene of numerous violent uprisings? 

I pondered these questions as we crossed the Bay of Islands on the ferry from Paihia on New Zealand’s North Island

But the sight of yachts on the water and the smart buildings on the Russell waterfront was enough to convince me that things might have changed since the 19th century.

We spent a half day at Russell and wanted to share with you the places we visited. Hope this post inspires you to visit this area in the future! 

The Former Capital Of New Zealand

Formerly known as Kororareka, Russell was a Maori settlement for some centuries before the arrival of Europeans. 

A rock and a creek as a sacred place for the Maori settlement in Russell, New Zealand

Russell was originally a Maori settlement. Here we have a sacred place where the dead were washed. Photo credit: WorldWideWriter

But in the early 1800s it started to be frequented by whaling ships, and later by commercial vessels from around the world. Sailors spent their shore leave in Russell and the town soon adapted to provide the traditional activities for sailors with time to spare and money to spend. 

It is no wonder that when the naturalist Charles Darwin visited in 1835, he reported that it was full of “the refuse of society.”

For a short while, Russell was the capital of the new colony of New Zealand

However the capital soon moved southward to Auckland, and Russell went into decline. 

Poverty and violence followed, and the flagstaff on nearby Maiki Hill fell by Maori warriors on four separate occasions as a protest against the British.

But Russell has come a long way since then. Perhaps the first step towards its rehabilitation was the landing of a swordfish in 1913

This might not seem like a significant event, but it led to the Bay of Islands becoming an important destination for big game fishing

The American writer Zane Grey, a keen fisherman, was a regular visitor and helped to publicize the area. Although many of the old buildings remain, Charles Darwin would hardly recognize the place now. 

It still attracts hordes of outsiders, but today the visitors are tourists keen to explore the town’s heritage and to frequent its restaurants.

Following The Russell Heritage Trail

We picked up a Heritage Trail booklet at the Information Centre (The Strand, Russell 0202, New Zealand). 

There are many trails to choose from, covering the surrounding coastline, countryside, and the town itself. 

We followed the town trail, taking in sites of Maori significance, historic buildings, and the site of the old fish factory. 

Stop #1: Russell Museum 

Our first stop was at the Russell Museum, where we watched a video showing the town’s history and learned about the area’s settlement, first by the Polynesians and then by the Europeans. 

I particularly enjoyed the displays of Maori art in the museum.

An artwork of a Maori myth at a museum in Russell, New Zealand

The Museum contains artworks illustrating Maori myths. Photo credit: WorldWideWriter

Address: 2 York Street, Russell 0202, New Zealand

Admission & Hours: Click here for details

For More Information: Facebook | Instagram

Stop #2: Pompallier Mission 

Then it was to the Pompallier Mission, built in 1842 to house the Catholic Mission’s first printing press, which printed hundreds of books in the Maori language.

Although the building was later converted to use as a tannery, its religious origins were still apparent. It was slightly disconcerting to see Catholic icons side by side with the old machinery!

A Catholic icon and old machinery at the Pompallier Mission in Russell, New Zealand

You will spot Catholic icons as well as old machinery at the Pompallier Mission. Photo credit: WorldWideWriter

Address: 5 The Strand, Russell 0202, New Zealand

Admission & Hours: Click here for details

For More Information: Facebook | Instagram

Stop #3: Lunchtime at The Gables

Like all good walks, this one ended with lunch. We had an excellent meal at The Gables, on the waterfront. 

As I enjoyed my pea and ham risotto with scallops (highly recommended), I studied the history of the building. 

Built in 1847, it was once a hiding place for sailors who had jumped ship. It was later used as a shop, then as a Salvation Army boys’ home, before becoming the smart restaurant that it is today. 

Not too dissimilar to the changing fortunes of Russell itself.

The front of The Gables Restaurant in Russell, New Zealand

The Gables Restaurant is one of the oldest buildings in Russell. Photo credit: WorldWideWriter

Address: 19 The Strand, Russell 0202, New Zealand

Final Thoughts

Even with a few hours of exploring Russell, it was well worth walking through the former capital and seeing the Maori and European influences. The historical places and museums were interesting as they delved into Russell’s history. We hope you get to visit on your next New Zealand trip. 

Follow my adventures at WorldWideWriter

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