Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 25, November 1981

By Audrey Argall-Glasgow


As Paeroa had no nursing facilities my Aunt, Miss Clymo who had bean trained in a big London Hospital, was asked by the local doctors to start a Private Hospital there. We arrived by train, crawling through much swampy and desolate looking country to buy the most suitable house and chose one in Moore Street. This was quiet and residential as only later was the present station erected. The old one stood where there is now a small playground at the bottom of Belmont Road.

There were two excellent doctors, Dr. Smith, trained at St. Bartholomews, London, the typical old time doctor, always carrying his little black bag, and clad in an ageing black frock coat. During the 'flu epidemic, and the end of the First War he had nearly killed himself having to do so much work single handed with untrained helpers. He always spoke highly on one of these, Mrs. Pitkeithy [Pitkeithly ? – E]. "A bit short on hygiene" he said "but her patient did remarkably well." At one time a man was run over by a train. His mates volunteered to recover the remains, but all retired, unable to face the terrible sight. Then along came Mrs. Pitkeithly with a wheelbarrow and shovel, and did the grisly deed.

Dr. W. W. Little was a much younger man, painstaking and brilliant. After the last War he became a specialist in Tropical diseases, but died soon after. When he had a difficult or unusual case he would sit up most of the night, reading it up in his medical journals. Such a small town was fortunate to have such dedicated medicos. And no matter how poor the patients were, how unworthy, when these men knew that they would never be paid a penny for their unstinting care, no patient ever suffered, and all were given good attention.

We started out with the idea that people would at least try to pay us, but were quickly disillusioned. In the first year or two a large percentage made no attempt to pay, but we gradually weeded out the blatant offenders, and when the Public Maternity Hospital started, although we lost some patients we also lost our non-payers.


The first time I visited it, when the taxi had taken us past the Thames road, I asked, in all innocence "and when do we reach the Town?"

It was not much to see, only a long straggling main road, and vary little else except a few side streets. The Dairy Factory had closed, most shops were one storied and old fashioned, with rough sections in between. The only noticeable buildings were the four hotels, and two banks. Entertainments were held in a dilapidated hall, near the river. There were a few dances a year, eucre evenings, with the really keen players avid to win the big prizes, and of course black and white films, with Serials which ended with the heroine lying bound to the rails, while the train rushed towards her. "Come again and see what happens next week!"

After the Depression lifted, great improvements were made ... the imposing new Post Office and office buildings, the swimming baths, good new shops, the ANZ Bank, 2 big oil firms were established, and a new theatre where films could be shown to advantage - as these improved and talkies appeared patrons had to book if they wanted a seat on a Saturday night..."One Night of Love", "The Desert Song", "The Ghost Train", are samples of excellent fare provided.


The Public Works were very important and employed a large staff. Their chief work was controlling the river. The Waihi, and a few other mines were still working, as well as Waikino Battery (supposed to be the largest in the world), continued to pour its waste into the long suffering river. Years before, the wily miners who must have known what would happen, had, for a comparatively small sum, arranged with the more innocent farmers to do this. As these mountains of debris gradually silted up the river serious flooding occurred as far dawn as the Thames itself. There were always floods after very heavy rain. At times much of Paeroa was under water, especially along the Puke Road, where one would see houses and cattle standing on small oasis surrounded by water.

The P.W.D. built miles of stopbanks, but every flood some of these were breached, and the farms suffered. They employed a considerable number of young men ...a welcome source of manpower at the local dances. They were busy clearing large areas of bush, surveying roads, treating unprofitable country such as the Waihi Plains. This had been considered quite hopeless but is now fertile farm land. Streams, which had formerly rendered roads impassable in wet weather, were bridged.

Waihi Beach was all open then, with only a few simple cottages at one end. The beaches on the way to Whangamata were mainly occupied by Maoris. When the District Nurse visited them she would drive as near as possible, and they would come to meet her with a horse or sledge.

The now populous township of Whangamata consisted of the big hotel at the end of the harbour and a few fisherman's cottages. Heavy stores had to be brought from Auckland by coastal steamer as the road from Waihi was little more than a track, and the many creeks made it impossible in wet weather. I made three separate attempts before reaching Whangamata, although there had once been a thriving mine - the Wentworth, there, with much heavy machinery.

When the daughter of Mr. Williamson went to school from their farm he had to ride with her over the old goldmining tracks as far as Komata on the other side of the hill. And when holidays came, he rode in, with a spare horse, to collect her. It was wild there in other ways. When the hotel keeper died they held an old fashioned Irish wake. It was such a success that the following morning no one in the hotel was capable of lifting the heavy coffin on to the lorry. Finally outside help was found, the lorry met the impatient funeral cortege which was waiting near Waihi, and the funeral ended decorously with a grand hearse.

Even by the 20's Karangahake was only a shade of its former self but one could still see where the shanties of a large population had stood, and the remains of the hotels, while the few who had remained had interesting stories to tell of the boom days. Mackaytown was finished, though a few men were still seeking gold in the river silt, and during the depression several men kept themselves going by working small claims up in the two gorges.


There used to be a small Pa towards Mackaytown, but this vanished soon after we arrived, and we saw few Maoris except when they brought whitebait to sell.

Billy Nicholls, Chieftain of the Ohinemuri, and his family lived along the Te Aroha Road. His father had been a member of the Legislative Council, and Billy too, was clever. Their first born died before we came, but the rest were all born at Arohanui. After we had successfully nursed the eldest son, who had nearly died of pneumonia, they had tremendous faith in us. If the little finger of an offspring ached we would see the taxi drive up.. out would come fat chuckling Billy, his small sweet wife, Kahu, all the family and a small blanket wrapped invalid.

Near his home lived Granny Nicholls, the Matriarch. She was a fine type, with the traditional moki, and was greatly respected. She told me that she had once seen a taniwha in the Firth of Thames. It was yellow, and floated on the water, "It was a warning, so as we were in a small canoe we turned back and just in time, as a sudden storm came up, that would have destroyed us".

She was one of the last of her kind, and the tang for her was memorable. It lasted a week, the tents erected for the ceremony covering a large area. I believe relays of mourners wailed throughout, and notable Maoris flocked to the ceremony from all parts of the Country. Scores of pigs, sheep, and cattle were slaughtered and mountains of delicious food was served during the continual feasting.


Now that the initial effort to establish their farms were easing the country districts soon built their own tennis courts and Halls. Soon after we arrived Netherton Hall was opened, and they had splendid dances. Winters were bitterly cold, one sat around on wooden benches and there was no heating, so we all danced with great enthusiasm. For important occasions the music was imported from one of the larger centres, otherwise it might be just a small local orchestra, just a piano, or even just a concertina which was generally excellent.

The main roads had wide and deep drains on either side which could be dangerous. I remember one night when there was dense fog - the car lights were almost useless and past Netherton Hall we just missed tipping into the drain, so two of our escorts walked as far as the main bridge, guiding us with their torches.

Coming home, another night, I was rudely surprised when the horn of a cow grazed my cheek. She had been standing in the road and poked her head through the flimsy plastic curtain of the Model T.

One of the most important days in the calendar was Race Day, held near St. Patrick's Day. There were always good entries; it was considered one of the best of the many country meetings when people flocked there. The Annual Show was also a popular affair.

Other pleasures were visiting the old gold mines, blackberrying up Karangahake Gorge, or picnicking at Waihi Beach which was very old and deserted in those days. The Thames coast was much more accessible and some people already had holiday cottages there.

We also used to make Summer visits to Buchanan's Vinery, in the midst of the bush above the Reservoir. There were still eccentrics in those days, and he was one. He always wore a hat (he was commonly supposed to be completely bald) and if he liked you he would urge you to eat as many grapes as you liked, regardless of how few you bought. The clearing was surrounded by bush and birds. I often wondered how he managed to save the fruit. "I'll show you" he said and gave a peculiar whistle, and immediately a team of eager cats appeared and ran up and down the rows, chasing birds. He was the only man I have ever met who could make cats do what he wanted them to do!

Golf was played on the Racecourse which was flat and uninteresting, and had various local rules, regarding hitting sheep, and the racecourse railings. The space under the Grandstand was used as a clubhouse. It was large and gloomy. On Saturday afternoon we paid a woman to pour the tea and cut currant loaf for us.

During the worst of the Depression a number of unemployed men, many from Auckland, were housed in the Racecourse buildings, and were employed locally.

The present tennis courts, for which the Thorp Bros. were largely responsible, were a tremendous boon to the town. About this time tennis became very popular and all the little settlements, Netherton, Ngatea, etc started Courts, though much later many of them were neglected.

We even had a Physical Culture Club at one time, though this collapsed when the Army Sergeant instructor departed, for at one time we had a few officers to train Volunteers for the Officers Reserve. These proved most useful when the Second War came, one being Jack Conolly, who became a Lt. Colonel, was awarded the D.S.O. and became the Headmaster of Dilworth School, Auckland from 1951 to 1966.


Few people are now aware of the fact that in the early 20's the whole District had Prohibition. This was voted in by the Waihi miners to teach some greedy hotel keepers a lesson, for at that time the mining community was numerous and powerful. As the general public, (largely because they could ill afford it) were not very heavy drinkers, and not greatly inconvenienced, the miners arranged matters to their own satisfaction, though it was a farcical situation.

The miners arranged for a special train to run every Saturday afternoon. This started at Waihi, and stopped at every station to pick up thirsty men, who all carried capacious bags. Prohibition stopped at tiny Hikutaia! and there the train stopped. Everyone jumped out, rushed to the Hotel, situated conveniently nearby, and soon made a fortune. The train stopped long enough for the passengers to slake their thirst, and to fill their bags with the week's supply of liquor. They would then run back, and the happy trainload would return to the dry area.


A few brave people motored to Auckland, but the Bombay Deviation was a later development and the steep Bombay Hill was a menace to the cars of those days. Punctures were very frequent, engines boiled at the least provocation, and the blackened wrecks of many burned out motor vehicles lined the hill, which was not encouraging.


A very pleasant method of travel was by the river steamer at 12/6d return and for this you got two nights' accommodation, very clean and comfortable, though decidedly noisy as it stopped at many little landings along the river. One could leave Paeroa on Thursday night, shop in the city, spend the weekend there, and catch the boat home on Sunday night. I have most pleasant memories of gliding up the Ohinemuri River in the very early morning, with the willow fringed banks, and the distant Coromandel Ranges mirrored in the still water. As the river silted up the Wharf was moved downstream, from behind the Criterion Hotel, to a spot opposite the old Mission station until finally it was moved to the present position below the bridge.


Mr. W. Edwards was Mayor for many years. Mr. Poland (whose family are still farming locally) was The M.P., followed by Mr. Samuels, not a local, but a very active worker, who is chiefly remembered as the owner of El Arish, a famous show horse, who often performed at the Paeroa Show. Mr. Cassrels, owner of the Criterion Hotel and formerly much of the land around it, died in the early days. He was a highly born Russian Jew, his wife a most accomplished pianist, who afterwards ran the hotel. He had a beautiful daughter Olga, and two sons who lived in the town. We also had Miss Alice Kenny who had published an early New Zealand Novel.

The first child born in Arohanui was Audrey Davidson, now a grandmother, who lives near Rotorua. Our most memorable patient was little Marion Vercoe. She was the most lovely child I have ever seen, with tawny hair, topaz eyes and lovely features, with the rich colour of a heart case. We had Marion for months; she ruled the entire staff and recovered sufficiently to go home for a few months, but came back - this time, nothing could save her.


There was electricity, mainly used for lighting and nearly everyone used wood or coal stoves some of these being enamelled, which was considered a great advance. Telephones were fairly general, but the Exchange did not operate at night on Sundays or holidays. When a patient arrived, during these times, I had to bicycle two miles up for the doctor. It was usually at night, cold, wet and foggy at that!

There was no sanitation...just the Wee Housie, though Arohanui was superior in having a septic tank. It was embarrassing to meet the night soil cart, when returning from a dance, with a young man - the driver of the cart must have had a perverted sense of humour, whether you hurried or waited he would always to keep abreast.

Dust and mud were problems wherever you went, and patients would often have to wade through flooded fields to get some means of transport when their time came. It was not always an easy life. Washing days meant lighting the copper. In prolonged wet spells, clothes would be dried on a hanging arrangement under the kitchen ceiling.

I cannot think of any private home that had a refrigator [refrigerator - E] when we first arrived, though later some people had one run on oil. It was a great event when we had our first wireless and people would come in to listen to this new marvel. News, such as the Napier earthquake and the time a large University tramping Party was lost on Ruapehu, were all announced on the wireless, and it was wonderful to hear it all immediately in that way.

Most kitchens were lined with varnished wood, blackened by years of smoke which looked very dark and gloomy. Passages and Dining Rooms had dark linoleum round the lower walls, to keep them clean. Bedrooms were covered with cold lino, and a small rug; kitchen tables were of kauri, and were kept well scrubbed. Children helped with the milking on the farms, and walked to school. Their clothes were mostly made by their Mother, and if she had a large family the clothes would be handed down from one to the other. It was a different age.

T.B. was still a killer in those days, particularly amongst the Maoris. It is interesting to recall the District Nurse telling me that, inspite of their increase in population, local tribes were doomed as they fell such easy victims and soon only a pitiful number would survive.

This should give you some idea about the little town in the 20's, the District only a few steps from pioneering days.