Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 21, June 1977
By J.J. Anderson
Everybody over a certain age has their own memories of the Depression of the Thirties - some good, some bad, but mainly bad, except for perhaps the comradeships and loyalties developed under stress of the times.
My own memories were set into motion quite recently by a trip from Waihi Beach to Waihi, a commonplace thing, but this time it was with an acquaintance who asked me a casual question about the Beach Road and this question set me back at least forty years to when my beard was black and my economic outlook was exactly the same colour if not darker.
After the Depression arrived but before it was in full swing I was working on a farm at Matamata and it had become customary for the hired hand to be put off when the cows were out and for the boss to get in touch with you, if he wanted you, when the cows came in. The wages were £1 a week and board was allowed at 15/- per week. From this was deducted 9d from the £1 wage, 6d from the board allowance, plus a tax to be paid every 3 months to the Post Office. I came home for my 6 weeks unpaid holiday in 1931 or 1932 and registered as unemployed and found that my 19/- relief pay was nearly as good as farm wages and the fact I could get firewood, keep a reasonable garden and generally help at home, made me decide to stay with my parents.
For my 19/- I worked at Waihi Beach on what was at the time unproductive work but the fruits of it can be seen now. Drains around the Beach were dug - my area was mainly between Brighton Road and the Northern end of the Beach and houses are now built where we ploughed through raupo swamp. This job was interrupted by the building of the stone walls which line the creek through the camping grounds. The Borough supplied the cement, the Government supplied the men, I supplied some of the sweat and the rocks were local and free. Back to the drains; this time where the Church of England Church is and the back of the firestation. About this time the riots in Auckland caused an influx of directed single men to Waihi Beach where they organised their own living quarters, stayed for shorter or longer periods and were generally decent sort of fellows who worked shifting sand into the swamps we were draining.
On registering for Unemployment at the Post Office, the Postmaster handed to the Waihi Borough the names of the men registered and the Borough organised the relief work - mainly expecting 1½ days a week for the 19/-. Some of my work mates from memory were Jim Kemp, Dick Hunt, Len Bond, Bert Hunter, Sid Davis, Peter Jennings, Jack Shaw and McKee, whose christian name I forget.
About 1935-6 there was a big break-through, some of us joined the Public Works Department at 12/- a day for 6 days a week! From 19/- a week to £3.12 was nearly as good as finding an oilwell! We began work on the junction of Wilson Road and the Main Road on that stretch of swamp known in those days as the "Long Swamp". This was under the 13 B scheme and firstly we had to dig out the old, steel, smoke stack culvert (which I understand was carted out to the swamp and placed by Joe Ashby, from the Mine) and replace it with concrete culverts and then fill in over the top of it with clay from the bank which is at the junction of Wilson Road and the Main Road.
Originally the road had been built over ti-tree fascines and these we found to our sorrow were in remarkably good condition considering the years they had been in the swamp. Although by this time Bob Semple was Minister of Public Works his bulldozers had not reached Waihi Beach and it was all pick and shovel work but this was helped by Jack Angle's truck, on contract, if I remember rightly, on a yardage basis. We battered the bank back, shovelled it onto Jack's truck which thankfully was a tip truck, and spread it by shovel. This took us through till the end of autumn having begun the job early in the New Year and then we moved up to the area by Browns Quarry, then known as Moons Quarry in view of the fact that Mr Moon, who had lived at Waihi Beach, opened it.
Just above the Quarry was a deep gully that covered a large hairpin bend in the road. Our job was to culvert the gully, fill it with spoil and thus straighten and shorten the road. Again pick it and wheel it, tip it and curse it. Things must have been looking up, the gang was enlarged, some coming from Waihi by bike and of course, returning home the same way.
From time to time the rotten rock had to be blown to free it and we were put on contract, 1/3d per yard for blowing and shifting the rock. McKee was the shot firer and one week we didn't make on contract what we would have on wages. An uproar resulted, out came Wattie Smith the Chief P.W.D. Engineer from Paeroa and in charge of the Ohinemuri District but Gold [God? – E] bless him, he saw us right and somehow fiddled the books so that we at least got our weeks wages, and in the future had no more worries if we struck rock trouble as we had that week.
My last job on the beach Road was further up the gorge at Rocky Bend where we repeated the same performance as we had given at Moons Quarry. By this time things were, relatively speaking, picking up and jobs were becoming more available so that those whose home or dependants were not at Waihi Beach moved on.
For those of us who did not or could not leave the district the "plum" job was at Athenree Forest where the workers went on to Railway Pay of £4.5 a week. Twelve men were on the job at Athenree, building the roads.
[something missing here? – E] still exist and which enabled the trucks in to plant, work, and subsequently harvest the pines. Our camp was where the nursery is at the Athenree end of the Waihi-Athenree Gorge and if a colder place within ten miles could have been found I certainly would not like to stay there.
I remember Len Emerton, Jack Shaw, Ted Davis, Andy Mouat and Ben Burke, all but the first, who lived at Tanners Point, camped on the job from Monday to Friday in the classic PW's Tents, wooden floor, wooden walls, canvas roof and no fire place. There was a two-roomed cookhouse, part kitchen and part mess room which was the cook's domain. He cooked on an open wood fire with the help of a camp oven and we paid him 30/- each per week from which he fed us and kept what was left for his wages. As I remember he was a pretty good cook too, and despite the temptation he must have had to increase his own pay at the expense of the food bill he never did and we were well satisfied. Wire wove stretchers were supplied for the 2 men huts but we supplied our own blankets. Lighting was by candle except in the cookhouse which had kerosine [kerosene – E] lamps and our central heating system for the huts was a brazier of coals which often seemed to give off as much smoke as heat. The ablution arrangements consisted of an open air stand down by the creek with cold water in abundance and especially on frosty mornings some of our washing habits were perfunctory to say the least especially when breakfast was on at 7 a.m. to be ready for a 7.30 start for work.
Our foreman was Harry Williams from Kati Kati and the forester, or man in charge was a young man by the name of Cooney. Our working gear for the job could not have been more primitive, picks, shovels, slashers, barrows, but strangely enough no files to keep them sharp. These we supplied ourselves as we did with our wet weather gear of oilskins and leggings and wet gear was perhaps the greatest problem of all as there were no drying facilities except in our own huts, and above our leggings always seemed to be wet from fern, when we were breaking in a new stretch. Work had proceeded to the top of the knoll just at the back of the nursery when we started and was to go on for four miles and this section we completed in 12 months which was pretty good going even if it was only clay we were working with.
We were supposed to work until knock-off time at 4.30 and then walk home but as the road was pushed further back we would start the homeward trek so that we would be back in time to be cleaned up by tea time about 5 o'clock and even then we arrived home in the dusk in winter time. After that a game of cards, a lie on the bunk, a yarn with a mate and bed about nine completed our social life.
Maybe I have made some errors in dates and some details and this may well be excused, but some of the memories of those days are best erased and for the life of me I can't see how they could be known as the "Good Old Days."