Charlie Dawes: Everybody’s artist photographer

The Hokianga Harbour - Te Hokianga-nui-a-Kupe ("the place of Kupe's great return") - is the ancestral home of many Northern iwi, including Ngapuhi. By the 1830s it was also the heart of the New Zealand timber industry, with the small settlement of Kohukohu at its hub.

C P Dawes. Ships at the Kauri Timber Company Wharf, Kohukohu. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1572-208.

Kohukohu no longer resembles the bustling township it once was. But through the work of local photographer Charles Peet Dawes we can see for ourselves the people and communities of the Hokianga in the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth, before fire, cars and intensive farming changed the landscape completely.

Image: C P Dawes. Group portrait of the Te Puhi Maori group, the Otene family from Te Karaka, Hokianga. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1142-D385.

C P Dawes. Kohukohu. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1572-953.

Charlie Dawes ran a photographic studio in Kohukohu from at least 1892 to around 1925. Many of his portraits were taken outdoors, often with a white cloth as a backdrop. He took photographs of customers posed with their horses, family groups, social gatherings and events, and was commissioned to photograph crops, livestock and houses. He also took many photographs for his own interest.

Image: C P Dawes. Everybody’s artist photographer. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1572-1220.

Image: C P Dawes. Unidentified girl. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1142-D257.

In 2018 over 1650 of Charlie’s negatives were donated to Auckland Libraries by descendants of the Dawes family. Together with a box of negatives rescued from an Upper Queen Street junk shop in the 1970s, and 475 glass plates found in Kaitaia in 2012, these make a total of over 2100 photographs – the largest single collection of Charlie Dawes material in New Zealand and a fitting memorial to the life and work of this humble Hokianga resident.

Despite spending many years in less than ideal conditions Charlie’s glass negatives were protected in their original boxes and remarkably few were found to be broken. The negatives were cleaned, and then digitised. The images can now be seen on Kura Heritage Collections Online, and were the subject of a Heritage Collections exhibition - Charlie Dawes: Everybody's artist photographer at Tāmaki Pātaka Kōrero | Central City Library in 2019.

Heritage Collections team member Harriet Rogers cleaning a Charles Peet Dawes glass negative.

This glass plate negative has been coated in varnish to protect the emulsion, a technique associated with wet collodion photography, suggesting that Charlie Dawes learned his skills from someone who was active before the general introduction of dry plates in the 1880s.

Image: C P Dawes. Hone Re’s children. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1066-9938.

Inevitably not all of Charlie’s negatives have survived intact. But it has been possible to piece together some of the broken plates. This rescued image is part of the collection of negatives found in Kaitaia and appears to show a group of potential ferry passengers sheltering on a verandah at the Kohukohu waterfront. Rather incongruously they share their refuge with a plough, and a man in the process of having a shave.

C P Dawes. People gathered on a verandah at the Kohukohu waterfront. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1142-D475.

Charles Peet Dawes lived most of his life in the Hokianga, but was born in the town of Swadlincote, on the outskirts of Burton-on-Trent, England in 1867. The eldest son of Ann (Peet) and Samuel Dawes, he came to New Zealand with his parents and two siblings in the Boyne, arriving in Lyttelton in February 1879.

Many of the ship’s passengers were bound for Timaru, but by the mid-1880s Charlie and other family members had found their way to Kohukohu on the Hokianga Harbour. Here Charlie married Jessie Allen (nee Bryers, widow of William McIlreen Allen) in 1901, and had children Rachel Peet (1902), Ada Ann (1903), Christina May (1904), Pearl (1907), and Abner Earle (1908).

Charlie often photographed his wife – “Sweet Jessie” – and children. This outdoor portrait was taken on 31 March 1907 and shows Jessie with their four daughters Ada, May, baby Pearl and Rachel.

Image: C P Dawes. Jessie, Ada, May, Pearl and Rachel Dawes, 1907. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1572-212.

Charlie’s brother Ernie also appears in many of Charlie’s photographs, as – surprisingly – does Charlie himself. The brothers used a huge felled puriri as a prop for this self-portrait.

Image: C P Dawes. Charlie and Ernie Dawes. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1572-388.

Despite being the centre of Northland’s kauri timber industry in 1900 Kohukohu had only around 300 residents. It was probably out of necessity, therefore, that Charlie Dawes became something of a jack-of-all-trades, combining photography with working as a carrier, mailman, nightsoil collector and orchardist.

He did find a ready market for his photographs in some of the illustrated newspapers that proliferated in New Zealand in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Photographs were generally submitted speculatively and were not always accepted. His photographs recording the “dog tax war” unrest in Rawene in 1898 were published by the Auckland Weekly News, albeit without acknowledgement.

Image: Auckland Weekly News. 21 May 1898. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, AWNS-18980521-3-1.

Image: C P Dawes. The arrested men at Rawene. From left to right: Romana Te Paehangi, Hone Mete, Hone Toia (standing), Wiremu Te Makara, and Rakene Pehi. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1572-425.

Similarly, the introduction of modest means-tested Old Age Pensions provided the topic for a photographic essay about Māori applicants in the Hokianga, which appeared in the New Zealand Graphic in March 1899.

Image: New Zealand Graphic. The Maories and the Old Age Pensions. 25 March, 1899, p356. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, NZG-18990325-356-5.

Image: C P Dawes. Pension claimants at Rawene Courthouse. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1572-768.

In his will dated 26 May 1932 Charlie left his “camera, lens, negatives, papers and chemicals connected with photography for the use and benefit of my daughter Pearl..” The bequest was revoked in 1940 and instead the camera equipment went to Charlie’s son Earle.

In 1898 James Lancaster & Sons of Birmingham, England claimed to be world’s largest manufacturers of photographic equipment with over 200,000 cameras sold. Large numbers found their way to New Zealand and Charlie purchased one of them.

Image: Charlie Dawe’s J Lancaster & Son camera. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1572_realia_05.

Despite missing its lens, Charlie’s Lancaster camera has survived remarkably well – as has this diverse and significant collection of his work.

Author: Keith Giles, Principal Photographs Curator, Heritage Collections. 


  1. Photographer, orchardist, mailman, carrier and - nightsoil collector! Truly a man with an eye (and nose) for business!

  2. Kia ora, Fantastic photos and superb quality. This is the first time our family has seen photographs of my grandmother as a teenage girl, with her father and brothers - the Young family! Thank you for taking so much care of them and for this great blog.


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