A long-standing Whanganui family, a well-known local property, an amazing museum-like collection and a long-hidden secret make for a fascinating tale.

There is more of the story to come when further information about the secret can be revealed, but read on to find out about one of Whanganui's identities and his remarkable life.

Archibald (Archie) Campbell Robertson was a man of many talents - an artist, sculptor, woodcarver, skilled taxidermist and builder.

He built a launch and a house, which remains the first house on Papaiti Rd past Waireka Rd, for his brother.


The photograph of Janet Withers and David Thurrowgood accompanying this story shows a mantelpiece that Archie carved for a sea captain who was a friend of his father's.

The captain died before the piece was finished.

The captain's wife, who was returning to England, did not want to take it with her but stipulated that it should be exhibited at the Christchurch Exhibition in 1906/07.

It won a gold medal at the exhibition.

The mantelpiece remains in Archie's descendants' care.

And Archie was an avid collector with an extraordinary range of artefacts from around the world, housed in a specially built room at the family home, Waireka Estate, in Papaiti.

His daughter Janet Withers shared her father's story and her memories of growing up surrounded by objects that were not your usual household items.

Janet remembers her father as a very modest man, for all his talents, and one who loved to share his knowledge.


"I remember an occasion when the radio wanted to interview him and, after much protest, he agreed on the condition that his name was not mentioned," Janet said.

"It was a very strange interview with lots of 'Mr ....'.

"He had a way with animals and, as a child, I remember there always seemed to be a dog with a plaster on a broken leg, or a cat or dog recovering from surgery - the district vet clinic.

"My father was amazing and spent ages explaining everything to me. We had a human skeleton which he got from England and it was set up in a cupboard. He taught me all the names of the bones. When I started my nursing training, that was one thing I didn't have to learn.

"There was a kiwi skeleton and a kiwi egg. It was amazing how the egg could only just fit inside the kiwi. I understand it's the biggest egg per size of any bird in the world.

"I used to lap it all up. I was very lucky."

Archie Robertson and daughter Janet, aged 11.
Archie Robertson and daughter Janet, aged 11.

Although the collection was not open to the public, Archie would welcome anyone who wanted to have a look at it.

"He was happy to share what he had knowledge-wise," Janet said.

"My father was great friends with the director of the Dominion Museum and he would stay overnight when he came through Whanganui and they would talk into the small hours."

Avid collector Archie Robertson at his home Papaiti.
Avid collector Archie Robertson at his home Papaiti.

Archie's collection included ancient weapons from his father's collection; a huge moth and butterfly display in which each was identified; African antlers, heads and weapons; and a large collection of birds from all over the world.

A large number of Maori artefacts that were in the collection have since been gifted back to museums in the districts they came from.

Part of the wide-ranging collection.
Part of the wide-ranging collection.

The first item Archie taxidermied was a rare mountain leopard that died at the Aramoho Zoo on Somme Parade.


It, along with a seal that came ashore at Kai Iwi beach, was given to Whanganui Regional Museum.

The museum also received Archie's collection of moa bones, some of which were mounted.

More later on the moa bone collection and the secret it was hiding ...

After World War I, Archie lived in England for a year, spending time with a great friend who was an English authority on birds.

"They lived in York and would go over the moors and bird watch," Janet said.

"When my father came back to New Zealand, [his friend] Mr Hewitt sent an example of all the English birds."

Animals from around the world formed part of the collection.
Animals from around the world formed part of the collection.

In the early 1920s, Archie travelled to Australia to get skins of Australian animals. They were shipped and arrived in Wellington on March 23, 1923.

Archie was a skilled taxidermist and mounted skins of kangaroo, koala, bandicoot, platypus, flying possum, wombat, kookaburra "and several small strange looking rodents".

"There were two skins not mounted and these he placed in a very large drawer that he had made to house his large collection of moa bones," Janet said.

Janet doesn't know why Archie left those skins in the drawer but they remained there until the collection was broken up in the late 1990s when Waireka Estate was sold.

Archie Robertson on a moa bone dig.
Archie Robertson on a moa bone dig.

The collection was divided up among the family and some items were given to museums in New Plymouth, Kawhia and Raglan. The remainder was sold at auction in Auckland.

However, Janet was "very loathe" to part with the English bird collection because of its history so it was arranged to loan it to John McCosh, who operates Kahutara Taxidermy Museum in a purpose-built log cabin in South Wairarapa.


When McCosh came to pick up the bird collection to take to Wairarapa, he was offered two skins that had been languishing in the moa bone drawer for years.

He had the skins, which were those of a Tasmanian tiger (thylacine) and Tasmanian devil, on display in his log cabin gallery which has a steady temperature and is dark which prevents skins from deteriorating.

A visit by Alan Tennyson, curator of vertebrates at Te Papa, and a group of students led to the next chapter in the story.

Tennyson recognised the thylacine skin and its significance.

The thylacine, also known as the Tasmanian tiger or Tasmanian wolf, was a carnivorous marsupial.

It had a striped back and a coughing bark.


Tasmanian tigers are classified as extinct, with the last known animal dying in Hobart Zoo in 1936, but there have been repeated claims of sightings, none of them confirmed.

Tennyson contacted Dr Stephen Sleightholme, based in the United Kingdom, who is project director of the International Thylacine Specimen Database (ITSD).

There is significant scientific interest in the thylacine and the ITSD is a comprehensive study of all specimens that are known to remain.

In recent years scientists have sequenced the thylacine genome and now believe they may be able to clone the Tasmanian tiger, bringing it back from extinction.

After the skin was found at Kahutara Museum, there began a long correspondence between Janet and Australian scientists which led to a process to repatriate the thylacine skin to Australia.

The process is still being finalised but an announcement about the significance of the skin, which is incredibly well-preserved after being kept in the dark for many years, and its future is expected soon.


It will be another chapter in the remarkable story of Archie Robertson and his family.

The Robertson family gathered at Waireka Estate in 1990.
The Robertson family gathered at Waireka Estate in 1990.

The Robertson family and Waireka Estate

GS Robertson, his wife Frances, four children and house and farm staff came to New Zealand in 1876 on the ship Avalanche.

They bought land at Papaiti, near Whanganui. Waireka Rd was the track to the top of the farm and there was a cottage at the end of the track where son Noel stayed when he was working at that end of the farm.

Two more sons were born after the family arrived in New Zealand. The youngest, Archie, was expected to remain at home to care for his ageing parents. Usually a daughter would stay at home, but the daughter in the Robertson family was married.

GS Robertson was one of the people who built St Mary's Church at Upokongaro and the family attended services there, travelling across the Whanganui River by punt to go to church.


The children used the punt to get to school at Upokongaro until the punt was lost in a flood in about 1935.

In 1911 the family built a new house, known as The Grennan and later Waireka Estate, on the south side of Waireka Rd.

The family home The Grennan, later known as Waireka Estate, around 1912-1915.
The family home The Grennan, later known as Waireka Estate, around 1912-1915.

Archie inherited the property after the death of his parents. By that time, most of the land had been sold and only 13 acres remained. He added a room to the house to store his growing collection of artefacts.

After Archie died in 1970, his daughter Janet Withers and her family moved into the house and kept the collection going. However, when Janet became matron of Kowhainui hospital in Whanganui, she had to move into town as she was required to live near her workplace.

Janet's daughter Margaret-Anne and her husband John Barnett took over the family home and opened Waireka Estate to the public, with John becoming custodian of the collection.

The Barnetts moved on in 1999 and the property was sold.


"It was a bit sad when it went out of the family," Janet said.