Pompallier Mission on the Russell waterfront was the perfect finale to the Friends’ Far North tour. Now surrounded by charming Edwardian-style gardens, the elegant French colonial two-storey building once stood in a tight enclave of mission buildings.

We learnt that Pompallier is New Zealand’s oldest industrial building. Between 1842 to 1849 the Catholic Bishop Pompallier and a small group of French Marist brothers operated a fully self-contained printing works, producing an amazing total of some 40,000 books. Latin, English and French texts were translated into te reo Māori, printed on paper shipped from France, then skillfully bound into books, using leather processed in the tannery operation at the back of the building. The skins came from the on-site butchery. During restoration work the original tanning pits were discovered intact under the floor boards at the back of the house, some with leather skins still soaking.

The enthusiastic and knowledgeable Heritage New Zealand guides physically demonstrated all the processes involved. We saw how the skins are first scraped of fleece, then cured in a series of vats, and finally pummeled with antique tanning tools to stretch and soften the leather. The most skilled worker in the room was a skiver who sliced the hide into three or more thin layers. In the printery we learnt how to set up the type, work the press and saw how all came together as a leather-bound book. A very lengthy and physical process.

Did you know that brushing the outside edges with gold deters mold and silverfish? And we were amazed to discover the vast number of printing terms in common use – wrong end of the stick, making an impression, out of sorts, cut to the chase, to coin a phrase…We had hands-on experience of their original meanings.