When Victoria arrived by Waka

Legend says these stained-glass windows at Old St John’s Church were gifts from Queen Victoria. Photo: Nick Empson

Luke East looks back at an unusual event in Te Awamutu – 171 years ago.

By Luke East

It must have been quite a sight to see the majestic Queen-Empress, resplendent in her finery, floating down the Mangapiko river in a waka towards you – albeit in the form of a lithograph of Franz Xavier Winterhalter’s famous 1845 painting.

Queen Victoria was New Zealand’s first sovereign and was the only Queen-Regnant that her subjects, scattered across more than one-quarter of the world, had ever known and would ever know; in the words of Māori, she was ‘the great white Queen’ to whom they had ceded their sovereignty and pledged their loyalty.

She never visited New Zealand, yet there was a strong bond between Victoria and the people of New Zealand. New Zealand’s first sovereign had a fierce intellect and took a keen interest in the affairs of the colonies (in later life she took a particularly strong interest in the affairs of India and became fluent in both Hindi and Urdu).

There were two lithographs which bobbed along the river to Te Awamutu in 1850, one was of Queen Victoria on her own and the other was of the Queen with Prince Albert and five of their nine children. In the portrait both Albert and Victoria wear the regalia of the Order of the Garter (established in 1348) and the Queen wears a tiara of diamonds and emeralds originally designed by Albert and subsequently passed down the generations to the current Duke of Fife (the great-great-great grandson of Queen Victoria).

The significance of the lithographs, one of which is in the collection of the Te Awamutu Museum, is that they were sent as a sign of gratitude for the gift sent to her by two Waipā Chiefs. It was not then, and is not today, the Queen’s practice to accept gifts – yet on this occasion she did, not only accepting them but sending the lithographs to the Chiefs in response.

Legend has it that the stained-glass windows which illuminate the altar of Old St John’s Church and depict the last supper and St Peter’s ship are also gifts from Queen Victoria.

Victoria’s reign intersected with a period of great change and innovation, it was during her 63 years on the throne that a great many of the things we now take for granted first came into being, from women’s suffrage to the postage stamp.

She may never have visited Te Awamutu, but Victoria certainly made an impact here; for around six generations people have worshipped in front of the stained-glass windows she is thought to have gifted to the parish church and almost as many have enjoyed leisure time in the park which bears her name on Teasdale Street.

When, in January 1901, Queen Victoria’s passing ended her long reign a great many Te Awamutu residents gathered in the streets to mourn her as our first sovereign she left an indelible imprint on our nation.

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