History – Early shipbuilders

The David Darroch Shipyard, in Birdsall Road, Big Omaha, with the Southern Isle under construction, circa 1900.

George Darroch, his wife Nicholas and their five children arrived in New Zealand from Clyde, Scotland in 1842. They travelled on one of Auckland’s first immigrant ships, the Jane Gifford.

George, an apprentice shipwright, and his sons began boat building in Victoria Street in Auckland. The boats were launched at high tide into the tidal creek, which emptied into the Waitemata Harbour.

George found his niche constructing small vessels for the local Maori, who found them better than the traditional waka to bring their produce to the rapidly growing Auckland market.

The family moved to the Mahurangi area in 1850 to be closer to a readily available timber supply. They set up at a small bay just inside Dyers Creek, on the western side of the Mahurangi River, and continued building ships.

Warkworth, at that time, was dependent on the river and coastal routes to move goods and people, primarily to Auckland, their nearest market. Roading was minimal and often impassable, and the most reliable transport was by sea. For the Darroch family, ship building became their livelihood for the next three generations.

In 1853, the family bought six lots of land in Te Kapa inlet, on the eastern side of Scott’s Landing. There they built their home Cantyre and a new shipyard. For the next 15 years, George and his eldest son James turned out a new schooner every year.

Then began the era of the scows – the work horses of the new settlement. Scows were flat-bottomed, could navigate the tidal estuaries and would sit flat to allow stock and freight to be loaded. James’ youngest son David Mackey Darroch (Davey) became the most notable builder of the family. Before branching out on his own, he worked for John Meiklejohn at the upper shipyard, near Quintal Road. He built his first scow Una in 1883 there, but his masterpiece was the three-masted topsail schooner Eunice built at the yard in Birdsall Road, Big Omaha. He married Vida Meiklejohn and they had 13 children.

Among the 32 scows he built at his yard in Birdsall Road was the Jane Gifford, named after the ship that had brought his grandparents to New Zealand. This restored scow is moored on the Mahurangi River at Warkworth and is a poignant reminder of the vital role these early shipbuilding families played in our local history.

Information boards about the area’s shipbuilding days have been erected at the site of the shipyard in Birdsall Road and the nearby bridge.

Warkworth & District Museum

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