The most amazing New Zealand Wars dioramas you’ll ever see!

Many many years ago, before I was into wargaming as a hobby, I visited the Tawhiti Museum. Since then, I have always wanted to return, but never got around to it, despite it being only three hours drive away.

But that was fixed last weekend when I finally made my return visit. And what an amazing experience it was, especially now that I am wargamer, and even more so because I have a particular interest in the colonial New Zealand Wars.

The museum is the creation of one man, ex-art teacher Nigel Ogle. In 1975 he and his wife Teresa bought the 70 year old Tawhiti Cheese factory near Hawera, on the North Island of New Zealand.

As a child, Nigel had delivered milk to the factory with his father in their farm truck, but he could never have imagined that he would one day convert that same building into a museum.

Nigel started out as a wargamer, but the model-making side quickly became his passion. What started out as a hobby and a small private collection, grew rapidly with public demand to become the focus of an impressive visual history of the South Taranaki region.

The museum uses life-size exhibits and scale models to capture the past in a series of super-realistic displays. All the displays – including the life size figures created from moulds cast from real people – are designed and built on the premises.

The thing I was most looking forward to seeing were the many dioramas depicting New Zealand’s history, including the inter-tribal Musket Wars and the later Colonial Wars. Here’s an example of one of these huge dioramas, which we will look at more closely in the following pictures.

By the way, most of the photos in this posting are 2000 pixels wide so make sure you click on the pictures to enlarge them so you can pore over the amazing detail. I can promise you it is well worth it!

A British artillery battery and a bullock cart of supplies splash through a creek and along a rough road. These figures appear to be around 54mms tall. They are not commercial products, but have all been created by Nigel in his workshop.

Apologies for the reflection in some of these pictures. It is difficult photographing displays behind glass without getting such reflection. You’ll occasionally spot parts of the chequered shirt I was wearing, for example in the rock formation below the ox-cart in the above pic!

Further along, the artillery column has been held up by a rockfall onto the roadway, which a team of sappers are busy clearing.

And my chequered shirt strikes again!

The column’s destination is this busy camp on the cliffs above the sea. There’s so much to see in this picture – unloading carts, men relaxing, a cooking fire. Note the Coehorn mortar stored beside the tent on the left.

Nigel makes extensive use of a technique known as forced perspective, where he uses smaller scaled figures in the background to give the impression of distance.

Further along, a detail of soldiers is gathering water from a creek, and passing it up the cliff in a bucket chain.

In the background is a small blockhouse and a moored paddle steamer.

I think that camp kitchen is worth another closer look. The detail is simply amazing, with every soldier posed actually doing something.

I love how the tents even have guy-ropes that are properly cinched, and how there is so much clutter on the ground around them.

This pic also gives you another look at Nigel’s use of forced perspective.

All of the above pictures are pieces of a long diorama based on the paintings of Lt Col Edward Arthur Williams, an artillery officer in the British Army. In 1865 he took part in General Cameron’s three-month march from Whanganui to the Waingonogoro River. His paintings depict the day-to-day life of the soldiers on the march.

If you are wondering why you haven’t seen any red-coated soldiers up till now, it is because in 1860s New Zealand the British Army wore blue serge jumpers instead of their scarlet coats.

However, the diorama in this picture portrays an earlier incident from 1834 that involved Redcoats, the first action by British troops on New Zealand soil.

The family of the whaler Jacky Guard were among a group of Pākehā (Europeans) captured by Māori after the barque Harriet ran aground on the Taranaki coast.

Jacky Guard and other men were released when they promised to return with gunpowder to ransom the captives. Instead, he secured the support of the New South Wales Governor for a rescue mission. Meanwhile, Betty Guard lived under the protection of the chief Oaoiti.

When HMS Alligator arrived in Taranaki with soldiers of the 50th Regiment, the Māori assumed they had come to negotiate. Instead, Oaoiti was bayoneted and captured on 21 September.

Four days later, Betty and her baby daughter were located at Te Namu pā, which was attacked and burnt. Betty and Louisa were exchanged for Oaoiti. On 8 October, John Guard junior was freed at nearby Waimate. Fighting continued for several days.

In 1835 a committee of Britain’s House of Commons condemned the level of force used during the rescue mission. Humanitarian groups such as the Church Missionary Society argued that unrestrained colonisation must be avoided to protect Māori.

The New Zealand Armed Constabulary was formed in1867, with constables used as both soldiers and sworn police. The Constabulary was paramilitary in nature, with many serving in the New Zealand Wars.

These large-scale models show how the men of the Armed Constabulary looked on campaign. That’s not kilts they’re wearing, but blankets or shawls, which were more comfortable to wear in the bush than the uniform trousers when tramping through the rugged bush.

Paradoxically, many members of the Armed Constabulary were Māori. Here are some more Armed Constabulary, including several Māori constables.

In a much smaller scale than the above pictures, this is a 1:75 model of the earth-sod redoubt at Turuturu-mokai in 1868. The scene is busy with Armed Constabulary soldiers, supply wagons arriving from the Waihi Stockade three miles away, and sheep grazing among the logs of recently felled bush.

The redoubt was small, about 20 metres square with two circular bastions, built on low ground and was protected by parapets only 1.5 metres high and a trench 1.8m deep.

On 12 July 1868, sixty Māori warriors from the Ngaruahine hapu (sub-tribe), along with Imperial Army deserter Charles Kane, launched a pre-dawn raid on this redoubt, killing 10 and wounding six of the 25 Armed Constabulary garrisoned there.

In the final years of Imperial Army operations in New Zealand, General Chute undertook a route-march around Mount Taranaki (the volcano in the background of this diorama), first striking inland and returning down the coast.

The purpose of Chute’s march was to destroy the capacity of Taranaki Māori to wage war, by burning villages and destroying livestock. By 26 January 1866 Chute’s force had reached New Plymouth and on 9 February his ragged and exhausted troops returned to Whanganui.

Note how some of the soldiers are wearing havelock covers on their hats.

Troops were heavily involved in building roads through the bush during the wars, so they could move around quickly. Many of these soldier-built roads are still the basis of today’s highways.

Here you can see men making wicker gabions, filling them with rocks, and emplacing them as abutments for a river crossing.

This large scale vignette portrays Gustavus Ferdinand von Tempsky (left), who had a reputation as an intrepid leader during the New Zealand Wars. He was a flamboyant and apparently fearless soldier, and a strong disciplinarian who was nevertheless popular with his men.

Von Tempsky was born into a Prussian military family in Königsberg (Kaliningrad) in 1828, and trained at a cadet school in Berlin. He abandoned his military career shortly after graduating to seek his fortune on frontier goldfields in California, Victoria, and from 1862 on New Zealand’s Coromandel Peninsula.

The outbreak of hostilities in Waikato in 1863 led to the formation of volunteer units to supplement British regiments. Once von Tempsky had taken out British citizenship, he was granted a commission in the Forest Rangers, an irregular colonial force which the authorities believed could match the bush fighting skills of the Māori.

In January 1868 von Tempsky was appointed to command a unit of the Armed Constabulary.

Von Tempsky met his end during the Taranaki campaign against Tītokowaru and his followers. He was fatally shot in the head while attacking a position at Te Ngutu-o-te-manu on 7 September 1868.

You’ve probably already noticed this in some of the previous pictures, but one of Nigel’s real skills is recreating the lush New Zealand landscape. This diorama of the Battle of Te Ngutu-o-te-manu is a particularly good example of this.

Māori toa (warriors) perform a haka (war dance). In the background is Mount Taranaki, the conical volcano that overshadows the Taranaki region.

To the left is a beautifully carved storehouse built on a pole to prevent rodents from getting in.

The Māori developed complex fortifications called pā.

This model depicts a typical Māori pā . Wherever possible a pā would take advantage of natural defences such as gullys and cliffs. These defences were improved with lines of palisades and deep ditches.

This cross-section shows a pā from the early period before muskets were introduced to New Zealand. Massive defensive ditches and palisades protected the inhabitants and food/water supplies, as the most common way of taking a pā was by laying siege and starving out the defenders.

Once muskets became commonplace, the Māori quickly adapted their pā construction to smaller fighting pā’s with zig-zag trenches, double palisading, loop-holed interior buildings, screened divisions within the pā, and observation towers. Later, when facing British artillery, bomb-proof underground bunkers and passages were added.

Thousands of Māori died in the intertribal Musket Wars of the 1810s, 1820s and 1830s. Many more were enslaved or became refugees. Northern rivals Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Whātua led the way, but all the tribes were soon trading for muskets.

The crew of a trading vessel carefully lower muskets and ammunition to a large ornately-carved waka (canoe).

In 1831 the Te Atiawa tribe were besieged in Otaka Pā by rival Waikato seeking utu (revenge). With about 250-350 defenders against about 1,600 attackers, their chances weren’t good. But with muskets and three ship’s cannons contributed by the crew of the trading vessel Adventure, they managed after three gruelling weeks to inflict enough damage to send the attackers packing.

The three cannons were emplaced in bunkers built in the brow of the hill underneath the pā.

During the mid-1860s Pai Mārire (Hauhau) supporters believed that rituals would protect them against bullets. A ‘Niu pole’ with flags was a feature of Hauhau ceremonies. The ‘Riki’ flag or pennant was a war flag, while the ‘Ruru’ flag represented peace. The relative positions of these flags on the Niu pole indicated whether the spirit behind the gathering was peaceful or hostile.

With the warriors marching around the Niu pole you can see a man in British soldier’s clothing. Bent was a British army deserter found by a local Māori chief of the Ngāti Ruanui people in South Taranaki and who eventually became accepted as a part of the tribe. He fell in with Titokowaru’s followers in 1867 and fought with them against the colonists in Titokowaru’s War until their eventual defeat in 1869.

The museum cafe features this painting of Nigel at work. One thing I noticed in the picture is that he obviously favours Humbrol enamels over the acrylic paints that most of us wargamers tend to use!

Nigel was manning the front desk when I visited the museum. I asked him how many staff he had to help him create the amazing displays. He pointed to himself and said, ‘Meet the staff’!

I hope this selection of photographs whets the appetite of any readers who live in New Zealand (or who, COVID permitting, visit here!) to make a point of seeing this amazing museum. I have only portrayed a small sample of what the museum contains. You can easily spend an entire day there.

11 thoughts on “The most amazing New Zealand Wars dioramas you’ll ever see!

  1. Wow! An amazing exhibition, especially as it’s all the work of one (obviously very talented) man. Thanks for posting.



  2. Wow, also! His dioramas really bring history to life. As I will probably not get to visit NZ in this lifetime, this is the next best thing.

  3. Thanks for sharing that Roly, I am embarrassed to admit that spending 6 decades in NZ I know very little about the early Maori conflicts. I know you’ve only scratched a small part of the surface but you have whet my appetite and will be learning more and visiting the museum.

  4. Who hatet Artois … my wife and i visited Taranaki a few years back just to be able to see this museum and the factory where -sand moulded metal toys[Fun-Ho ] are made . Most of the dioramas you have presented are new to us … thank you for posting this article reminding me of that visit …we really enjoyed ourselves there . Tot sint …Nicholas John Papadopoulos , Auckland ,New Zealand .

  5. Sorry to be late to comment but I was saving it till I had time to really appreciate not only the wonderful models but all your efforts in presenting it so well. Your photos are amazing too. As a landscape painter I just stand in awe at the skilful representation of all that foliage in such detail. Thank you for the education and eye candy. Chris G, Gloucestershire UK

  6. This is a real gem Roly, thanks for making us aware of its existence…I will certainly try to get over to South Taranaki to visit this museum next time I am down that way.

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