Storms, rats and bad odours: Experience the 1840s journey to New Plymouth with NPDC's Puke Ariki

25 May 2018

Storms, rats and bad odours: Experience the 1840s journey from England to New Plymouth with NPDC’s Puke Ariki

The sights, sounds and smells – dirty linen and vomit included – of the voyages of the first organised Pākehā settlers to New Plymouth are being brought to life in a new exhibition by NPDC’s Puke Ariki.

The Plymouth Company exhibit, opening soon in the Taranaki Life Gallery, has taken two years of planning to put together and captures what it was like to make the long sea journey from England to New Zealand/Aotearoa.

“The attention to detail put into the exhibition by our team of curators is just amazing,” says Puke Ariki Manager Kelvin Day.

“We’re trying to tell the story of what that voyage was like for the 1000 or so settlers who came over from Devon and Cornwall to a new life in Taranaki.

“What I love about this exhibit is it has given us the chance to experiment with new ideas and introduce new technology while working with experts from Taranaki, New Zealand and across the globe.”

Some of the innovative ideas and displays in the exhibit include:

  • Visitors will get the chance to sample some voyage smells via an interactive display. The odour experience will include rope and tar, dirty linen, musty and vomit sourced from AromaPrime in the UK.
  • Taranaki videographer Keith Finnerty filmed rats which will be projected onto the floor – plagues of rats were a major problem for the settlers.
  • And the rats had to be trained in Wellington to run in the right direction!
  • Staff sailed on the R. Tucker Thompson in the Bay of Islands to recreate the movement of a sailing vessel. 
  • An Auckland company has replicated the meals the Pākehā settlers would have ‘enjoyed’, complete with a pewter dinner plate.

The exhibit includes many artefacts from the Puke Ariki collection, including items brought over by the settlers such as a 200-year-old doll. Also on show is an enlarged copy of a significant artwork, housed in Germany, that shows the Ngāmotu foreshore in 1841.

The settlers gave up everything for the chance of a new life, often driven by desperation and poverty as well as the promise of new opportunities away from England’s rigid class structure.

The journey took months and the first brave souls who set off in 1840 faced storms, sickness and death. The William Bryan arrived at Ngāmotu on 31 March 1841, bringing 134 Britons who would lay the foundations for New Plymouth in a new land amongst Māori. A further five ships followed over several years.


Plymouth Company fact file:

  • To get free passage (free tickets) steerage passengers on the ships had to be vaccinated against smallpox and to provide ‘the most satisfactory testimonials as to their qualifications, character and health’.
  • Rats ran riot in New Plymouth during the first years of the settlement. When the rodents swarmed people waged war on them using gin traps, snares and poison. Settler Josiah Flight recorded personal kills in his diary. His highest daily tally was 58.
  • Once they settled in New Plymouth women began marrying earlier than in England, with nearly half married before they were 20. The new generation had a birth rate of an average of 10.4 children, rather than their mother’s average of 8.3.


Puke Ariki fact file:

  • It opened on 15 June 2003.
  • It is the world’s first purpose-built, integrated museum, library and visitor information centre.
  • Puke Ariki has three long-term galleries (Takapou Whāriki, Taranaki Naturally and the Taranaki Life) and components of these get changed out regularly.
  • The temporary exhibition space shows touring exhibitions that are either curated in-house or brought in from other museums.
  • Te Pua Wānanga o Taranaki/Taranaki Research Centre is also housed at the site.


Visitors to the Thompson’s Hut can take a step back in history as the revamped attraction opens its door for the first time ever at NPDC’s Puke Ariki.

The hut, which was built around 1920 and gifted to the museum in 1977, has had a makeover to create an interactive experience on what life was like in Taranaki in the 1930s.

Situated in the Taranaki Life Gallery, visitors had previously only been able to stand at the entrance to check out the interior but the hut has now been opened up to the public.

The refreshed interior includes a digital projection photo album. This interactive display allows visitors to read about local people and their stories. The hut also includes replicas of 1930s furniture built in-house by Puke Ariki staff based on items in the collection.

The hut is made from tōtara and was built as a station-hand’s quarters on Bill Thompson’s farm in Tāhora. 


Caption: Puke Ariki exhibitions installer Tamara Lewis working on The Plymouth Company exhibit.