The Hopkirk Brothers,
William and Joseph Hopkirk, owners of Whakakī Flaxmill at Tūhara, to the west of Iwitea, and also their brother Robert Home HOPKIRK, the manager of the Whakaki Flaxmill in 1889.

William and Joseph Hopkirk were born in Gattonside, Scotland in 1857 and  1858 to Alexander  HOPKIRK and Agnes Spottiswoode. Their mother died in 1870, leaving Alexander with  6 sons and a daughter less than 1 year old.  Alexander wrote letters to his brothers in America detailing his troubles, and need to leave Scotland to raise his family. Some of those letters can be found at this link: letters written from 1861 to 1907 by Alexander Hopkirk.
Finally in 1873, after considering travelling to the USA, and Canada, Alexander chose New Zealand. With the help of his brother Robert's 21 year old daughter Elizabeth, Alexander made the journey to New Zealand with his seven motherless children.
Though the article below states there were 5 sons, there was actually a sixth son who died in 1874, one year after the family arrived in New Zealand.

Below is the information about the Hopkirk Brother's Flaxmill operation  along with some fantastic old photos from 1889. Our thanks goes the wonderful Facebook page titled OLD WAIROA TOWN & COUNTRY and to Wayne Collins of this Facebook group for making this information available to our family and credit the William Williams Collection at the Alexander Turnbull Library.   Our thanks also goes to Raewyn Leigh Foot for letting our family know about the existence of this infoprmation.
The Old Wairoa Town & Country Facebook page can can viewed

At this link is a picture of Workers, bosses and the visiting party at Hopkirk Bros Whakakī Flaxmill at Tūhara, to the west of Iwitea, between Gisborne and Napier on the west coast of the North Island.  This photo was taken 3 September 1889 when it was owned by the Hopkirk Brothers, "A and J Hopkirk" We are making the assumption that "J" refers to brother Joseph, born in 1860, and not brother John Brown Hopkirk, born in 1867. From descendents of John Brown Hopkirk, he was a farmer, and he was significantly younger than Joseph, so the "J" probably refers to Joseph. Notice also, that yet another brother, Robert Hopkirk, born 1863, is mentioned as working at the Hopkirk Brothers Flaxmill.  So it is likely Robert was hired by his older brothers and unlikely that a younger brother would have been in an ownership position at the young age of 22.

Enlarged view of the left side of the photo.                  At this page is a little information about Carting of Flax for shipment
Enlarged view of the middle of the photo
Enlarged view of the right side of the photo


The history and details of the Whakakī flax mill industry are thin on the ground, photographs even rarer.

Earliest reference to flaxmilling at Whakaki is from 1870 when Brown & Turley brought the fly-wheel and boiler up from Port Ahuriri where it had stood on the wharf awhile. "So those interested, and, knowing localities, wonder how on earth, literally, such a weight could be conveyed to Whakaki over the notoriously soft beach and equally famous swamp. I would answer, a few planks, 38 bullocks, and no end of perseverance." The flaxmill was built for George Burton who had 8,175 acres of leasehold on Hereheretau. George died in 1880, he was chairman of the Wairoa County Council. Cuff's also had a flaxmill at Whakaki at the same time. John Hunter Brown took over the lease from George Burton in 1878.

In September 1889, at the time of this visit of Scottish Prof. Robert Wallace in writing his book on agriculture in New Zealand, the Whakakī flaxmill at Tūhara was owned by Hopkirk Bros. As to whom were they, the father, a recent widower, emigrated from Roxburghshire, Scotland to Wellington in 1873, bringing his young children - being five sons and a daughter.

The Hopkirk Bros were J. & A. Hopkirk, and they were based in the Manawatu. It was another brother, Robert (Bob) Home Hopkirk, who was living at Tūhara and managing the mill. Bob was 10 when he arrived in N.Z., and had done his time as a joiner and cabinet maker then ‘established himself’ (1888) at the Hopkirk Bros flaxmill beside the Wai-o-hine river, near Greytown.

In 1889 they expanded their operations to establish at Tūhara, and in 1891 they purchased the Soho Hemp-mill at the Shannon Ferry, on the side of the Manawatu River.

So, it was in July 1889 that Hopkirk Bros shipped a 7-ton flax mill engine from Napier, and as it was loaded onto a punt at Wairoa's lower wharf, the punt took on water and the whole lot sank. A diver was fetched on the next boat from Napier, and he arranged a chain sling and a temporary derrick was built at the end of the wharf. All went well and it was raised and loaded again onto the punt.

The punt was taken down river into the arm of the river that headed towards Kihitu. There it was off-loaded, and dragged along the beach to Whakakī lagoon, floated across the water, and off-loaded again and over land to the Tūhara flaxmill site, the Wairoa side of Iwitea.

For those wondering about ‘why not the road?’ there was no road until 1892, and even as late as the winter (August) of 1911, a bullock teamster hauling pile driving gear for the construction of the Nūhaka bridge, took three days to cover the 6-miles from Wairoa to Tūhara.

On the first few days of September 1889 when the party accompanying Prof Robert Wallace from Edinburgh visited - according to the few details I’ve been able to find - Hopkirk Bros had only been in operation for 2-months using the building built for George Burton in 1870.

It also was 1889 that the Tiniroto flaxmill’s operations began (powered by a 16’ overshot water-wheel - equivalent to 20 hp), and another in Tolaga Bay.

I don’t have access to details about the boundaries of the land John Hunter Brown occupied, however, it seems likely that the flaxmill was located on the ‘Whakakī Station’. And although he had been involved in cutting drains through swamp land to convert to pasture, Brown had a continued interest in the well-being of the flax and in May 1906 the paper reports on him having sourced seed from Waihua and planting out 100s of acres of flax.

In the book written by Prof. Wallace, he notes that “The right to cut the flax is contracted for by the mill owner at the rate of 30/- per ton of royalty paid for the finished produce. Sent to Britain for the making of rope and twine, it fetched 20 to 27 per ton.

In my next Post to do with the Tūhara flaxmill, I’ll explain to you how fibre produced by tangata whenua from the same leaves was fetching between 70 to 100 per ton.

By the way, this building was burnt to the ground on Sunday 13th February 1890 with the loss of 14 tons of flax and all machinery except the steam engine, but up and running again within weeks.

Hopkirk Bros were succeeded by 1893 in the ownership of the flaxmill by Bowron & Butcher (Bowron Bros being prominent wool buyers from Christchurch with offices as well in London, Napier and Gisborne a flaxmill at Omahu, near Hastings, and a butcher shop in Wairoa). In September 1902 the flaxmill was in the ownership of Bourke, who had wool-scouring operations in Clive, Greenmeadows, Gisborne and flaxmills in the Manawatu and Thames-Piako and who later established the flaxmill at Te Uhi.

Return to Home Page  or Alexander Hopkirk page with links to all three brother's pages

This page was last updated on June 11, 2020.