History: House saved villagers from volcano: David Keys reports on the refurbishment of the only Maori building in Britain

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The Independent Culture
NEW ZEALAND'S Maoris are planning to refurbish a 19th-century traditional Maori meeting house - located in the grounds of a stately home in Surrey.

Constructed in New Zealand in around 1870, the building was bought for pounds 80 by a British colonial governor, William Hillier, Earl of Onslow, who brought it to England in 1892 and had it re-erected at Clandon Park, his family home near Guildford, where it was used as a boathouse.

Research into photographs taken in the 1880s show that the building originally had intricate carvings around its door and window. But these carvings were never brought to England. Now traditional Maori craftsmen in Rotorua, New Zealand, are to produce exact copies, based on information from the 1880s photographs. Eight other carved panels from the front of the building had been kept for many years inside Clandon Park (now owned by the National Trust) and will soon be put back in their correct positions.

The meeting house is the only Maori building in Britain. 'It is an important structure from both an historical and architectural point of view,' said Peter Gathercole, a Cambridge University lecturer in Maori and Polynesian studies. In New Zealand there are up to 100 similar 19th-century Maori buildings. Maori culture is flourishing. The Maori population of New Zealand stands at just over 300,000 (12 per cent) and new traditional-style meeting houses are being built.

The Clandon Park structure came originally from the Maori village of Te Wairoa, a community 150 miles south east of Auckland that was destroyed in the 1886 eruption of Mount Tarawera.

The meeting house was the only building to survive, its steeply sloping roof allowing hot, wet volcanic mud to slide to the ground. Villagers who sheltered inside used the meeting house's long benches to prop up the sagging roof as the volcano destroyed the rest of their community. Outside the house, 153 people perished.

Te Wairoa was just two miles from the eruption - a disaster which covered 3,000 sq miles of land with mud and dust. The deafening roar of the volcano could be heard 300 miles away.

The meeting house was built shortly after the Maori Wars, a conflict in which the villagers, members of the Arawa tribe, had actively supported the British colonial administration. The building functioned as a part-religious, part-secular meeting place. Wedding feasts, ceremonial rituals, funerals and events for tourists would have been performed there. The figure at the apex of the roof probably represents the original ancestor from whom the people of the village were descended. The protruding tongues on some of the sculptures symbolise acts of defiance.

Clandon Park, West Clandon, three miles east of Guildford, will be open to the public from 1 April 1994, except Thursday and Fridays.

(Photographs omitted)