Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 13, May 1970

By Harold (Hal) Thorp

My main emphasis will be on Land Development which of course stems from Settlement. The first European land settlement can be said to have taken place in this district nearly 130 years ago. My grandfather, Joshua Thorp landed in N.Z. in the early 40's and my father (Alfred) was born at Manaia near Coromandel in 1842. Grandfather later sailed up the Waihou River as far as Puke and after dealing with Maoris (mainly the Chiefs Tukukino, and Tairia) eventually bought some land and built a house on the hill, which is now Mr. Wight's farm. He and a Mr. McCaskill, who had land near Hikutaia were therefore the first settlers.

Their efforts at development were small, but demonstrated that the land was fertile, and could produce good crops. They imported cattle and sheep and so had to develop grassland for grazing. There were no roads, but the river made a highway for their small boats to take produce to Auckland. Marketing of produce was difficult and one item from a Diary of 1854 is indicative. "Shipped cattle on Schooner to Auckland. Landed them at Freemans Bay where they took to the scrub. Spent the next two days rounding them up".

By 1860, after my grandfather's death, my father and his brothers purchased more land on the Waihou and Ohinemuri Rivers. By this time there was more settlement all down the river to Thames. With the finding of Gold at Thames, many people arrived, and after things settled down, Thames became the administrative centre for the district. The search for land grew, but the search for gold was greater, until the opening of the Ohinemuri Goldfield in 1875. Gold had been found in Ohinemuri much earlier, but much persuasion was needed to get the Maoris to sell their land. After the rush, there were many disappointed miners. There was little or no free gold, and it was years before companies were formed, and capital was available to deal with quartz-reefs. All these happenings had no direct effect on land development, but roads were built and land was surveyed.

Some sections of hill country were made available, to men with miners rights. One man could select 50 acres and if his wife got a miners right too, she also could have 50 acres. This land was within the Goldfields area, but was only leasehold. There are still evidences of these blocks all round the district, though some of them were later freehold.

On privately-owned and leasehold land, development was slow because apart from wool, produce was hard to sell. However, some bush was felled, and some swamp land was drained, but it was not until the end of the century, and the advent of refrigeration, that real land-development took place in Ohinemuri. The first dairy factory was built on the Thames Road, opposite the race course, on land later owned by the late Mr. G. Buchanan. This was a private factory, run by a man called Wesley Spragg. The settlers round the Paeroa-Komata area, then decided to form a Co-op. Hence The Thames Valley Co-operative Dairy Company was formed, with an initial supply from 200 cows!!

From that time, land development went on apace, and demand for land grew. There was the vast area of the Hauraki Plains, known then as "The Piako Swamp", and there was also all the foothill and range country, much of it within the mining district, and owned by the Govt., as also was the Hauraki Plains. The Hauraki Plains Act was passed in 1908, and about the same time blocks of bush-land were surveyed in the Goldfields area to make them ready for settlement.

On the plains land, drainage department engineers, drew up a scheme for the protection and drainage of the whole area. This area was from the West of the Waihou River, to the Western Ranges. Most of this work was concentrated on the Piako River which was cleared of willows and snags, and stopbanks were erected on the foreshore, and up both banks of the river to Kaihere. In conjunction with these works, canals were also dug, to straighten the river, and also to give more efficient drainage to land, away from the main rivers. Much of the early work was done by hand, e.g. at Orongo and Kaihere but with the advent of machines was speeded up. This work was never really completed, and although it was handed over to Drainage Board authorities, the main outlets were found to be inadequate and the control of the whole district taken over by the Hauraki Catchment Board. This Board brought down a. scheme to improve and extend all the main work in the area, at the same time leaving local control in the hands of local authorities. Work is now nearly completed, and much land has benefited, with the possibility of many thousands of acres being brought into productivity.

The first ballots for sections, were held in 1910, and were continued, as developed areas became available. Mistakes were made in the early days, in opening up some areas too soon, e.g. Orongo & Kaihere. The total result of all this work has been amazing, but the potential of the area is tremendous and it will be many years before the ultimate is realised.

Now turning to the Eastern Waihou and the hill country. Progress was made here even before the Hauraki Plains Act was passed, and thousands of acres of land were in production between the Waihou River and the hills. At this time we were having trouble with flooding on the Waihou and Ohinemuri Rivers. A bad flood was experienced in 1907 and a more devastating one in 1910. These floods were attributed to the silting of the rivers, by mining tailings from the Ohinemuri Goldfields.

The Ohinemuri rivers had been declared sludge channels by the Government, to allow the mining companies to get rid of the tailings from the batteries. It was stated by the Commission, set up after the 1910 flood, that "1,000 tons of silt was being deposited in the Ohinemuri River every day". This silt, along with willow growth, had blocked the river channel. After submissions by the commission, the Waihou and Ohinemuri River Improvement Act was passed and a scheme was devised to improve both rivers - erect stopbanks to give drainage outlets to much swamp-land in the area. The Act was passed with no compensation clause to cover any damage or detriment caused by the works. There were many complaints from property owners who were not protected and who were 1eft inside the river flood area. However there was no redress, because the Govt. was finding all the money, as well as collecting most of the gold duty. This scheme was most protracted, and owing to the intervention of the First World War, was not completed until 1928; even then, it proved to be inadequate in the floods 1936, 1954, 1961. However it made possible the development of thousands more acres of valuable land. These rivers have now been taken over by the Hauraki Catchment Board which has brought down a comprehensive scheme of improvement, for the whole of the Waihou Valley area, giving complete protection and allowing many thousands more acres to be brought into full production.

Now to get back to the Eastern hill country - In 1910, sections were surveyed in the Goldfields area for selection, and most of them were taken up. This was tough country, mostly in heavy bush, and not very naturally fertile. Thousands of acres of this land were developed, often under adverse conditions with bad access. Even under easier conditions on the Waihi Plains it was very hard going. The soil was light and poor, wind wrought havoc. Many of these sections were known as "Hauraki Pastoral Leases". The leases were for 33, 66, or 99 years and the rental was from 6d to 1/6d per acre. All these leases were subject to timber rights and other restrictions, but generally they were allowed to be freehold at from 10/- to £1/10/- per acre. These prices seem low, but considering the cost of developing these lands, it was not low. It has often been said, that anyone prepared to take on this land, should be paid to do so. Some of those first settlers were:- Martin, Hubbard Bros., McCormick, Poland, C. Kennedy, Fitzgerald, Spence Bros., Evans & Gower, Wight, Barrett, Sheehan, Brown, H. Hill, J. Clarkin.

Before the advent of top-dressing, the production from this type of country was very poor, estimated at about 1½ sheep country. Consequently the development of these lands proceeded very slowly or was even allowed to revert to second growth and scrub. Noxious weeds also took charge, and the country became infested with gorse, blackberry and ragwort. With the advent of fertiliser, the whole scene changed and where possible, manure was distributed. On the steeper hills, this entailed the use of pack-horses and hand sowing. This was a very tedious and hard job, and entailed many man-hours. In the 1920's and 30's there was no other way. After the Second World War, when manure became available, we found that there were airmen to tackle this job. After many trials it became an accepted practice and proved to be an economic proposition. Prior to this time, land owners on easy hill country and such country as the Waihi Plains, had been benefiting from the use of fertiliser. Lighter soils were improved to a very high standard, until they were the equal of any in the country.

The potential for development of the hill lands of this district is beyond the perception of most people, even the heads of the depts. involved. This is demonstrated by the suggested closing of 200,000 acres of land in the Coromandel Range, from Te Aroha to the Cape, for use as a National Park! New Zealand cannot afford a luxury of this kind, when on development there could be an annual production from this area of $4,000,000. Apart from about 15,000 acres of peat land on the plains and apart from Water shed reserves and scenic reserves of about 50,000 acres on the Range, all the land in this area could be developed.

The Thorp brothers - Fielden and "Hal" have deep roots in this district where their Grandparents were the first white settlers in 1842. They have first hand knowledge of farming and toil but have also made a great contribution to the cultural life and progress of Paeroa. Their father, a Farmer and Surveyor, died in 1912. Their Mother who was born at Hikutaia School House, was the first Pupil Teacher at Paeroa School in 1881 and some of her descendants have followed that profession. She also took a great interest in the Paeroa Public Library.

Hal Thorp's work on behalf of Sport, particularly tennis and squash during the almost 50 years he has been Groundsman and Life Member of the Club has been publicly acknowledged by the naming of the playing area as "Hal Thorp Park". He is also a valued member of the local Repertory Society (a man of many parts!) His article in this Journal was the subject of a Talk at one of our meetings.