Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 20, June 1976
By DAN McPHERSON
It is now some years since we formed the Society in 1964 and I am highly honoured that you have again asked me to address you and recount some of my memories of the Waihi of earlier days. I am delighted to find the Society still in good heart with enthusiastic Committee members and a wide public. I shall never forget how Mrs. Nell Climie persuaded me to become the first President and the splendid generosity of Tom and Mrs. Gordon in throwing open their lovely gardens and donating the month's takings to our infant Society. I regret that for some time circumstances have prevented me from attending the monthly meetings but I assure you I have kept in close touch, especially through the recording of the history of our District. After all, that is our prime purpose - to compile for posterity, the story of the Early Maori Occupation, the indomitable gold-seekers and the early settlers, traders and administrators. And that story is very dear to me.
I first came here as a little boy in 1899 from Coromandel where I was born, and started school at the old "Central" under the much-loved Miss Roberts. Mr. Benge was Headmaster at the time. My earliest memories of Waihi are of the small shingled cottages, the lamp and candle lighting, the poor roads and streets and the horse-drawn vehicles - especially the six & eight-horse coal-waggon teams.
The northern approach to the town was very wide for when one stretch became unusable another was laid alongside it and the road broadened from near the present Station almost to the Hospital site. The lack of trees and the unsealed roads aided heavy frosts and we crunched over 3 inch icicles as we walked to school. The Plains area was just a dust bowl with stunted scrub and fierce dust-storms. Wild ponies roamed the area, and my brothers - much older than I - used to rig up temporary stockades to catch them. The lack of phosphate in the soil was discovered by the Agricultural Dept. and when it was applied, it transformed the Plains and I was delighted when I returned in 1923 to see the flourishing farms. I saw Dick Seddon open the Waihi Branch of the railway in 1905 and a little over twenty years later took an excursion-load of pupils to Tauranga to see the opening of the Bay of Plenty Branch by Gordon Coates.
There was only the one school when I started, but about that time the Central was made a District High School, and, with the influx of miners from overseas, mainly from Australia, the roll grew to over a thousand, so, to relieve the congestion, the East School was open in 1907.
Two years later in 1909 the South School was opened where Mr. H.T. Gibson was the first Headmaster and in 1920 transferred as Head of the District High. "Gibby" laid a solid foundation and a high standard in the educational history of Waihi. He was my first H.M. when I returned to Waihi in 1923 to teach at the Dist. High. Mr. Gibson left at the end of 1923 as also did the First Assistant, Mr. Armstrong. Mr. Smith was the new H.M. and I became the First Asst. for the next eleven years. Mr. Morris followed Mr. Smith and when he left to become Principal of St. Stephens College at Bombay, Mr. Lightborne took over the reins. In 1930 the School was burned down with the loss of all the records, and our classes were spread all over the Town. My Form of sixty was crammed into the small hall at the Anglican Church.
In 1931 when the School was rebuilt it was turned into an Intermediate with a Secondary Dept. attached. Mr. Slevin, an old boy of the School was appointed H.M. Primers and Standards One to Four transferred to the East and South Schools. Pupils in Standards Five and Six from the South and East now attended the Intermediate. The Secondary Dept. was highly successful and, in Miss Edna French's time, topped the percentage of passes in Matric. for the whole Dominion. But schooling did not finish altogether at the Secondary, for a good many of the pupils went on to the renowned Waihi. School of Mines under that fine man and dedicated teacher, Viv. Morgan. Many of its graduates hold highly responsible positions in N.Z. and overseas at the present time.
In those days of the twenties and thirties, Waihi was noted for its activities in football, cricket, swimming, cycling, athletics, boxing, basketball, bowls, shooting - you name it ... Waihi had it. I did a good deal of coaching in the various sports in those days and thoroughly enjoyed getting out with the pupils from all the Schools, including the Convent, both after school and at week-ends. In 1925 I took the Thames Valley Schoolboy Reps - nearly half of them Waihi boys - to Auckland to compete in the Provincial Shield Tournament. Auckland beat us in the final that year, but in 1926 we brought the Shield back to the Valley. In 1927 we brought it back and again in 1928. The N.Z. Rugby Union awarded us the Vancouver Cup given for schoolboy football in N.Z. The Mayor of Vancouver entrusted it to the All Blacks on their return through Canada from Britain. When the Shield was played for last year in the Valley I thought it would be a good idea to contact some of the earlier players for a "get-together". I was in for a surprise for no less than 13 of the 1925 boys turned up - some bald, some grey but all the same fine fellows as of yore. If the dining-room of the hotel where we held the dinner had been larger we'd have not had to limit the gathering to 54 Old Boys.
There were five strong senior teams - including Katikati - taking the field in those days, and I was very disappointed, on returning again in 1963 to find only one team in Senior grade. There is only one remedy - the coaching and encouragement of the young folk. Also there is no greater deterrent to the growing disorderliness than to have them engaged in some form of manly sport. I know that there are many organisations doing splendid work in this direction, but there are not enough of them.
Waihi had a flourishing Boxing School with at least five champions, and an equally successful Cycling Club with members holding their own with N.Z.'s best. Our swimmers and athletes too were in top class and many of N.Z.'s best came to compete against our local talent. The Municipal Band and the Fire Brigade gained the highest honours on several occasions in the Country's annual competitions and we were very proud of them.
I was Hon. Sec. of the Swimming Club for many years and had the idea of filling the Baths with the hot mineral water that was pumped from the Martha Mine and ran down the street channels. I sent samples of the water to several analysts, including the Govt. Analyst, and all replies were favourable. In fact one reply queried why we should go to Rotorua when we had this type of water running to waste. However our only little son was smitten with meningitis at this time and died after being 29 days unconscious in the local hospital, my wife's health broke down and we very reluctantly decided to leave Waihi. Some time later the Mayor, dear old Billy Wallnutt, wrote asking for the data I had collected and the scheme was carried through. Why it petered out after a few years I have never been able to find out.
And now a word about the miners. I have been associated with many types of men in a long life and I can say with absolute sincerity that the miner was second to none. When one contemplates the perils he had to face in explosions, rock-falls, air pollution, down below sometimes to nearly 2,000 feet in extreme temperatures, one must admire him. You would all know the story of the falling cage going down 1,400 feet at terrifying pace with 13 men on board, I can still remember the hush that fell over the Town that afternoon and how relieved all were to learn that none of the men had been killed. The miner knew what a hazardous life meant and was determined to give his children the best education he could and was ever ready to support all school activities. (That reminds me that he ran a popular school of his own situated at the Black Hill and whenever you saw a ring of men frequently lifting their eyes & hands to heaven and then towards the earth, you could rest assured that they were not praying). You all know the story of the mining industry and I will not go into it but I would like to pay tribute to the men who performed the herculean task of damming the Waikato River at Horohoro [Horahora – E] and stringing the towers and wires over the mountains, valleys and plains to bring electricity to our area.
The old Academy Theatre could tell many a tale of top grade entertainment from world-renowned entertainers like Bland Holt, Nellie Stewart and Julius Knight in the early days. Then when I came back in the twenties I joined a long line of enthusiastic entertainers in putting on concerts and plays for various local causes such as the hospital, the Plunket Society. On one occasion we engaged an Australian producer, Lintz, who put on a show with over a hundred in the cast, and who rehearsed the various group of dancers and players for 3 months. The show ran for over a week and then was put on in Paeroa and in Te Aroha. Then we had our Queen Carnivals for various good causes and I had the pleasure of staging the Coronation Ceremonies.
And last, but not least, we had our own Black and White Minstrel Show and dear old Harry Armour (now 90 years old), was one of the corner men and I was Mr. Interlocutor.