Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 37, September 1993
By Beverley Williamson
When my parents, Philip and Madeline Williamson, arrived in Whangamata early in 1919, there was no road, the only access being by coastal steamer from Auckland every six weeks or by bridle track from Hikutaia or Whiritoa, to which there was a rough clay road from Waihi. Another track led from the head of the harbour to Opoutere. Hence their furniture and other possessions were landed at the Port, on the sand near the present wharf, and taken to the house, a mile away, by a horse-drawn dray. Goods for Watt's store, at what is now Moana Point, were often taken by punt, also drawn by a horse. Other common means of transport were sledges and konaki, the latter a kind of sledge with rear wheels and a runner in front. The road link from Waihi was extended as far as Parakiwai in 1923, and then vehicles could be driven down the Otahu Estuary at low tide. The clay road reached Whangamata later in 1924.
In 1923, Philip's mother made her only visit from London to New Zealand. Philip met her in Auckland, having left horses and buggy in Waihi. They took the train to Waihi and continued by buggy, but the tide was in. It was also raining. There was nothing for it but to leave my grandmother's stack of cabin-trunks, suitcases, etc. covered with a tarpaulin, dress her up in oilskins, and walk to the river, cross it on the horses without saddles, putting their feet up to keep as dry as possible, then walk on. She arrived cheerful and unharmed but very wet, and thinking she had come to the very end of the earth. This opinion was reinforced as the days went by - no servants, Philip wearing very old working clothes, the country system of exchange (this really baffled her - some fruit for a piece of home-killed meat), and so on.
The few settlers at this time were mainly concerned with farming, or fishing near the Port. Among the farming families were the Martyns, Palmers, and Watts, some of whose descendants still live in Whangamata. There were also the few odd and interesting characters. One was Phil Dancer, a Cockney, whose only possessions were often a dog, a gun, a sense of humour, and a remarkable ability to survive. His early life in England must have included the career of an accomplished poacher, and he was never at a loss to find a way to keep his larder stocked.
At the head of the harbour was the hotel, about half a mile from its present position. Both this and Watt's store were focal points, and much local news was discussed there. People crossing the harbour were at times held up by the tide and had to wait for it to go down at either of these points. Mail was brought once a week from Hikutaia by pack-horse as far as the store, from which any for the hotel or further on was collected by local people. Large parcels had to await the boat from Auckland. There were no buildings along the beach and few people even bothered to use it, though we enjoyed many picnics there. The flat land behind the beach was in scrub, across which sometimes mobs of semi-wild cattle roamed.
Most modern amenities now taken for granted were of course absent, though there was already a telephone line to Hikutaia, built and maintained by the settlers themselves. Naturally there wasno electricity. Wood-burning fires and stoves, and kerosene lamps and candles were used, and boil-up coppers and wooden tubs for washdays. My parents' house was at first not even weatherproof - a malthoid roof leaked badly, so that when there was heavy rain from the east they had to camp on the west side of the house, and vice versa. Not for three of four years were they able to get corrugated iron to replace the malthoid and to enjoy a weatherproof house.
Before the road to Waihi was constructed, really ill or injured people had to be carried out on stretchers, or sometimes a launch could be obtained to take the patient as far as Bowentown. There was, however, a wonderfully dedicated district nurse. Nurse Jarrett, from Paeroa, who would ride over from Hikutaia whenever she was notified of an emergency. Darkness or bad weather never deterred her if the call was urgent. She also made regular routine visits.
There was no school until 1930, so the few children had to be taught at home or sent away. The Martyn family in the Wentworth Valley were granted a "household" school - a teacher was provided by the Education Board, while the family gave her accommodation and a school-room. Other children could attend, but distance between families generally made this impracticable. Some, including myself, joined the Correspondence School, lessons being sent from Wellington every fortnight and work supervised by parents.
In spite of difficulties, life was pleasant enough. Gardens provided fresh fruit and vegetables, and other stores came in bulk by sea every six weeks -100lbs of flour (we had to make our own bread), 70lbs of sugar, etc. and kerosene in four gallon drums, which made useful buckets afterwards when fitted with wire handles. Watt's (later Goodfellow's) also provided necessities.
Perhaps because of isolation, the settlers were quite a sociable lot and made their own fun. On the more serious side, there were meetings of the Settlers' Association. These were held in the evenings and followed by supper of tea, or something stronger for the men, and cakes etc., and of course a good chat. Then there were "basket" socials held at the hall or the hotel, advertised as "gents a shilling, ladies a basket", the equivalent of the "plate" of today. If the social were a fund-raising affair, the baskets were auctioned before supper. Music for dancing was provided by a piano or a concertina, or, if no instrument available, by combs covered in tissue paper. Everyone turned up to these socials, even if it meant crossing the harbour at low tide, muddy and slushy always. Sports meetings were always held on Boxing Day, and on some other occasions, in the hotel paddock. This was naturally in the interests of the publican and things tended to be lively by the afternoon. After the road to Waihi was constructed, a policeman was usually invited to give any necessary help in keeping order, but it was not unknown for him to be seen acting as assistant barman instead. The state of the riders afterwards can be imagined. Some fine illegal betting enlivened this event, especially if there was on policeman present.
Boat Day every six weeks gave an excuse for a picnic, if fine, and if the boat came in at a suitable time. From our house, we could see the masts coming in at the heads, and we would often phone the Valley folk to let them know that the boat had arrived. Everyone then converged at the Port, the men helping to unload, with women and children looking on. At first, all goods had to be manhandled between boat and shore, the incoming cargo being dumped on the sand whence it was dragged up by horses. Later a jetty was built, accessible to the boat at high tide. Later still a better wharf was constructed with a tramline leading to a shed in which goods could be stored. A horse-drawn trolley conveyed goods from the boat to the shed.
Although the boats continued to be very important for conveying heavy goods, the clay road to Waihi became the general access from about 1925. Mr Lindsay Martyn, who was brave enough to tackle dairy farming, used to take cream once a week to Waihi in a small horse-drawn vehicle, taking a whole day for the return trip. Soon the first motor vehicle appeared. Norman Palmer, one of the farming family in the Wentworth Valley, went to Thames one day and bought an old Ford truck. Although he had never driven before, he managed somehow to get it to Whangamata, a notable feat of skill and endurance. Later, when he realised he should have a licence, he drove to Waihi to get one, and on telling the authorities where he had just driven from, was not required to take a test! The first car, or possibly the second, was driven in by an indomitable lady, Mrs Enos Bond, whose two brothers, Bill and Jim Goodfellow, lived in Whangamata. Motor journeys often took several days, the mud proving too much for inanimate vehicles, and horses were frequently called out to get them out of a sticky (literally) situation. On one occasion, when my father had just set off on his horse from Waihi, he saw a car starting at the same time, and called out, "I'll race you home!" He did, by several days. This is surely a far cry from the present day, when cars stream from Waihi on a good sealed road to a thriving town and seaside resort. But do folk today really have much more fun?