The front of Clendon House taken from down the path looking up through the garden

An introduction to Clendon House

In early colonial Aotearoa New Zealand, James Reddy Clendon seemed to be everywhere, and with irons in all sorts of fires. He was there in 1835 when Ngāpuhi chiefs signed the Declaration of Independence, and again at Waitangi five years later to witness a signing of Te Tiriti. A ship owner, then a key early trader in the Bay of Islands, Northland Māori nicknamed him ‘Tuatara’, because in his early, desperate days casting around for timber and cargo to fill his boat he seemed like a hungry lizard. Clendon variously held the roles of United States Consul, founding Chairman of the New Zealand Banking Co and Resident Magistrate at Rāwene, in the Hokianga, where in 1862 he settled with his second wife, Jane, and several children from both marriages. 

Dating from the early 1860s, Clendon House reflects James’ standing in the community as a prominent merchant – at Rāwene he established a store with a license to sell beer, wine and spirits – a magistrate and man of influence.  

But it’s the story of the impressive Jane Clendon, of Hokianga Māori and Irish descent, that the handsome kauri dwelling best tells. Only 17 when she married her 56-year-old husband, after James’ death in 1872, Jane was left with eight children under the age of 16 to raise and a mountain of debt. To keep the house, she sold kauri gum, timber, firewood, bark and homemade produce and generally worked her fingers to the bone. She also wrote extraordinary letters to her creditors which ultimately saved the house. It remained in the family’s ownership for more than a century until the then Historic Places Trust (now Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga) bought it in 1972. 

As a result of that continuity, the house came with a very extensive family collection. Wandering through you’ll see some of the Clendon’s original 19th Century furnishings and domestic items, along with social memorabilia – dance cards, ball notices and the like – art and photographs collected over many decades. It’s a highly personal mix and reflects the family’s trajectory from wealth to poverty and back again. The property’s knowledgeable hosts can clue you in to the highlights of the collection and put James and Jane’s story in the context of a period when the Hokianga was a bustling centre of trade and government administration, and a significant site of early Māori-Pakeha interaction.  

When you’ve finished in the house, spend time in the serene surrounding garden, which includes historic plantings and a date palm supposedly gifted by Governor Sir George Grey. After exploring Rāwene and perhaps having a bite at one of its excellent cafes, take the ferry across the harbour to the old timber town of Kohukohu. Home to charming historic villas, churches and commercial buildings, it’s also a hub for arts and crafts, with several galleries. Finally, hop aboard the 1940s launch Rānui for a Sunset Cruise or History Cruise around the upper reaches of the Hokianga.