Rose Ann Shepherd, who lived in a Kauri Tree

From Florence Keene's
'Under Northland Skies'.
(with permission)
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To have a home in a Kauri tree must be unique, but to be able to bring up thirteen children, including two sets of twins, in such circumstances seems beyond comprehension. Surely this is worthy of a place in the 'Guiness Book of Records'! It sounds like a legend of the Land of the Kauri, but it is absolutely true.

The kauri, king of the New Zealand forest, is a lofty and massive tree that can grow to a height of over 100 feet [abt 30m], and can have a girth of up to 55 feet [17 m]. It makes ideal, durable timber, for it has a huge trunk with its first branch sometimes over 55 feet [17m] from the forest floor.

It was in such a huge tree that Rose Ann Shepherd, her husband Richard, and their family made their home in 1882. She was born in Ensor, Warwickshire in England in 1849, while her husband, who was ten years older than she was, came to New Zealand from Ireland during the Maori Wars in the 1860's. After the wars he was given a grant of land on Great Barrier Island which he considered most unsuitable, so he looked farther afield for a place to settle.

First he went to Thames, where he met Rose Ann Good, and some time later the couple were married. After a short while in Thames, Rose Ann and her husband decided to go to Kawakawa (or Irishtown, as it was then called) where coal had been discovered in 1864. So about 1873 Richard, who had been trained as a clerk, opened a store for miners there.

The mine manager's daughter described the miners' cottages:-
"...depressing sort of places, all exactly the same, and consisting of a kitchen and one bedroom, two houses being joined together..."

No doubt Rose Ann had a house somewhat similar - possibly a little better, as her husbvand was the storekeeper. She found Kawakawa, especially the business area with its nearby tidal river, rather damp and foggy in the winter, and very liable to flooding.

In October 1874 she surprised herself and her husband by giving birth to twin boys, Robert and Arthur. It is hard to imagine how an inexperienced bride could cope with no modern conveniences whatsoever. But somehow she did.

It must have been very frightening for Rose Ann when the twins were barely a year old and Kawakawa had its biggest flood in living memory. Many settlers were trapped in their houses, others had to stand on the roof of their houses to escape the rising waters. On top of one she saw about ten hens miserably surveying the rising waters; she almost smiled.

As the flood rose higher she thought desperately as to what course of action she should take if the flood washed through her home too. Fortunately, she wasn't put to the test.

In 1882, when Rose had six children, her husband elected to leave Kawakawa and take up a grant of land in the headwaters of the Whangaroa Harbour at a place called Motuhunga, a few miles round the foreshore from Totara North. Richard must have been a man with great imagination and initiative, for when he studied his new property, he saw a hillside of mainly second growth bush, except for a huge kauri at its foot - a giant that towered over all the other trees anywhere near it. On examining it closely he found that it was rotten in the centre at ground level, but sound from about 14 feet [4.3m] upwards.

It was then that he was gripped by an idea so unbelievable, so unlikely, that he rushed home to tell Rose Ann about his incredible plan.

"Do you mean that we and our children should live in a kauri tree? I can't believe you are serious!"

Full of enthusiasm, Richard explained to Rose Ann just how he would do it, and tried to convince her of the feasibility of his fantastic, unorthodox plan. At that time she and the family were living in tents until suitable accommodation could be built. She didn't know what to think of Richard's outlandish plan, but at least it would be a quick way of having a roof over their heads. It certainly was difficult coping with six children between the ages of one and eight years under canvas.

"Well, Richard, perhaps we could do so until we can build something better." she said after some thought. Little did she think they would live in the kauri tree for 14 years!

At Totara North, a few miles round the foreshore from the Shepherds' home, was the firm of Land & Brown, Shipbuilders and General Merchants, and Richard wasted no time in selling the upper portion of his tree to them. He employed some experienced men to cut the top off his kauri about 12 feet [3.3m] from the ground. This in itself was a real feat, even for competent bushmen. The uppermost branches and the timber not wanted by Lane & Brown he kept for himself, and the rest he sold to the timber yard to provide himself with sufficient capital for financing his next step.

Rose Ann worked side by side with her husband as he scraped out the decayed wood from the interior of the kauri, and acted as 'carpenter's mate' while he built a roof and then some seats around the inside walls. In the centre they put a table, and against the wall a fireplace lined with bricks made at the local brickyard at Totara North. Next, Richard built shelves around the inner part of the trunk, and then steps, like a [ship's] companionway up the side of the hill where the kauri stood. At first, all Rose Ann had for a floor was bare earth, levelled and smoothed, but later she had the luxury of a wooden one.

However, the kauri tree shell on its own did not give sufficient accommodation for Rose Ann's ever increasing family, so Richard built another storey on top of the first to provide several bedrooms, which were reached from a companionway built into the side of the tree. A shingled roof topped this unique home.

In October 1882, when Rose Ann and her family first arrived in Motuhunga, she had to care for three of her children; Jane, aged four, Lizzie, two and a half, and a toddler, also called Rose Ann, at home, while her other three children, the twins Robert and Arthur, and John, began their schooling at Totara North. What a long drag it was for such young children to walk each day!

First they climbed through the scrub, up and over the hill, then forded the Iwitawa River and another tidal creek before continuing on foot to the school. The children and their mother had to be very aware of the times of the tides, for if there were a high tide in the mid-morning, the children were late for school, while if the tides were late in the afternoon, they were late home.

There were times that Rose Ann woried herself sick when they were late home - had they been caught by the tide, or perhaps they had hurt themselves while scrambling over the hills? Often the reason for their lateness was because the tide was right for gathering shellfish, so they had taken advantage of the fact and spent time filling their school bags with these delicacies. This meant that they had to struggle home carrying heavy loads. She tried to be pleased with them, and not to think of the washing and drying of clothes as an inevitable result of her childrens' initiative!

Nevertheless, in spite of the hazards and distractions of their journeys to and from school, the childrens' attendance, according to the school records, was excellent. Over the years the only ones whose attendance was irregular was that of little Rose Ann, who was too delicate to manage the twice-daily walk, and that of Jane, the eldest girl, who frequently had to stay home to help with the little ones.

In 1888, at the age of 39, Rose Ann gave birth to another set of twins, Fanny and William, making twelve children to fit into her unorthodox home. All told, she had thirteen children, with the greatest space between births being two years. She must have had a wonderful constitution, and a still more wonderful temperament to be able to cope with and care for such a large family.

In those days there was no bridge across the river, and no tarsealed road sweeping around the foreshore as there is today, so Rose Ann's mail, groceries and other goods had to be collected by boat - probably by dinghy - from Totara North. When the mail came in the local people would go down to the wharf to welcome any visitors, and to chat amongst themselves. This little social get-together was a pleasure that she could really share, as she had so many little children to look after.

In 1896, when her youngest child was six, and she still had eight children attending Totara North School, Rose Ann, Richard and their family left their kauri tree home and went to live in Oratia, near Glen Eden, in Auckland, where they hoped there would be more opportunities for their children, the eldest now being twenty two years of age and ready to start out on their own.

It is interesting to note that the Shepherd's tree house was so sturdily built that a resident of Totara North remembered seeing its top storey being towed away in the early 1900's to be erected elsewhere.

Back in Totara North, the legend of the lady who lived in a kauri tree with her husband and 13 children was kept alive - especially at reunions when her grandchildren or great-grandchildren were present. At such times people related stories about this wonderful woman and her family with unbounded admiration:-

How her family had to walk 'up hill and down dale' and ford tidal rivers on their way to school; how on the way home if the fish were 'running' they would catch some and carry them home in their school bags, shirts, jackets or anything else to hand; and how she received them with mixed feelings when they proudly handed her their trophies with their garments smelling strongly of fish!

Yes, the Legend of the Lady who Lived in a Kauri Tree with 13 children for 14 years still lives on! .