Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 41, September 1997
By Beavan Sutherland (7/12/94)
I have been asked for my recollections and impressions of Paeroa in the 1930s. I was a solicitor there from 1934 to 1937. Paeroa was an agricultural centre on the edge of the Hauraki Plains. I had been doing agency work for Norman O'Neill, who practised there. I had come to respect Norman and the manner in which he worked and my respect proved to be justified. He was as straight a man as one could meet anywhere. He had served in the Artillery in the First World War and had then taken over E W Porritt's practice which was extensive but some what run down.
I reported to Norman, who had arranged accommodation for me in a family hotel, the Commercial, run by the Fathers family. The tariff was, believe it or not, thirty shillings per week for all-in board and lodgings. This was 1934. Ernie Fathers had the licence, his wife Emma managed the house, Aunt Amos was the cook, and a good one, sons Walter and Alan kept the bar. Altogether it was a happy family, and within a stone's throw of my office.
Norman O'Neill had a staff of six or seven. There were two other solicitors in the town. Dick Carden was opposite. We usually used to act for one party to a dispute and Dick for the other. I recall a matrimonial dispute. In my youthful wisdom, I en-deavoured to bring the parties together. Dick, actuated by his mature experience, said, "I never endeavour to effect reconciliations." This was offered genuinely as advice to a young confrere. But now the clock has turned full circle. If the parties to a Mat-rimonial dispute proceed to Court, they are referred compulsorily, as a preliminary measure, to advisors who will proceed to endeavour to bring them together.
The 1930 Depression was just beginning to lessen slightly. A Mortgage Adjustment Commission was operating, in most cases mandatorily reducing the principal on mortgages. The alternative was for the farmer to walk off his farm, and that helped no-one, neither mortgagee nor mortgagor, and the farm went backward. Prices for farm produce had decimated and the mortgagor was unable to pay outgoings under the mortgage. So in many cases there were reduced under the authority of legislation.
My first disputed claim related to engineering work done by our client firm. The defendant had instructed the firm to carry out extensive repairs to his vehicle. There was little doubt that such repairs had been done, but the defendant was something of a 'bush lawyer' and he advanced technical arguments as to the operation of the internal combustion engine. I studied these in detail and learned a lot. The upshot was Judgment for our client plaintiff, with costs. The Defendant was prepared to pay for his experience and the Circuit Magistrate had little option in the matter.
He used to come through from the Waikato once or twice a month. Most of his work was minor criminal cases. There were two Police Constables stationed in Paeroa, Constables Maiden and Dalbeth. Judge my astonishment some fifty years later when I happened to be listening to a radio talkback. A listener re-counted that a boy had called on Constable Maiden one day and handed him a note. Maiden opened it and read, "Kick Constable Dalbeth on the backside for me." Maiden smiled and instructed the boy to hand the note to Constable Dalbeth. Subsequent developments were not disclosed, but it opened up to me a vista of life in Paeroa fifty years before!
The Constables' work must have been somewhat similar to work on the West Coast. So long as law and order were maintained by and large, the officers of the law were not unduly officious. Official closing time for the hotels was 6pm. The doors were closed at that time but that did not always mean that a drink could not be obtained at 6.15. Indeed, when the Maramarua Hunt Club were holding their ball, rules were somewhat relaxed.
In a place the size of Paeroa, one participated in most of the town's activities. I was drawn into rugby as a member of the long established Paeroa West Club. George Masters, the local bootmaker was my mentor. George had taken part in the First World War. I recollect his graphic descriptions of some of the mighty battles in which he had participated. He described the Somme and Pashendaele. What ghastly affairs they were! "The Somme ran red that day," said George, shaking his head. He no longer was an active rugby player but helped with administration. It was not long before I was secretary of the Paeroa Rugby Union, and then secretary of the Thames Valley Rugby Union. The latter included Paeroa, Waihi, Te Aroha, Hauraki Plains and ultimately Thames.
On one occasion, we were travelling to Te Kuiti by bus to play the King Country representatives. Mr Nicholson and his bus had transported many Thames Valley Representatives in the past. When near Hamilton, where it was raining heavily, the bus ran off the road due to the slippery surface. We careered down the river bank out of control. Fortuitously and fortunately, we crashed into a line of trees, instead of into the river. Many of the players were injured. I still carry a mark on the second finger of my right hand to remind me of the incident. Poor old Mr Nicholson, the driver, was deeply shocked. He got out of the bus. All he could do was run up and down the road uttering, "Oh my God! Oh my God!" The match had to be cancelled.
The other memory I have of playing for Thames Valley was scoring a try at Waihi against Auckland.
The rugby meetings were held weekly in our office. It was bitterly cold, with several degrees of frost outside. Then we would adjourn to the Gentlemen's Club and warm up with badminton. Many and various were the topics and arguments in the meetings. Sometimes we did not need to adjourn for badminton to warm us up. The heat of the argument was adequate to generate warmth! At these sometimes acrimonious discussions there was always someone on whom I could rely. This someone was Gordon McMillan. Gordon was blessed with a strong Scottish accent which always seems to me to fortify a voice. Our meetings sometimes rose in intensity. They would continue until it appeared they were rising to a crescendo. Then Gordon would intervene with his calming influence and pour oil on the troubled waters. The conclusion would invariably be reached along the lines suggested by him.
Some of these discussions arose because everybody, but everybody, wished to participate, and not merely participate, but win the battle. But thanks to Gordon, sense would ultimately prevail. I think my dislike for committee work originated with these meetings. Gordon had been the Agent for the New Zealand Loan & Mercantile Agency Ltd. Later when I returned from overseas, I learned that he had become Chairman of the Hauraki Plains County Council, an influential and important post, which I don't doubt he graced. One of my disappointments on returning was to learn that Gordon had passed on.
What maintained most practices was conveyancing, the bread and butter of the profession. It was normally uncomplicated. What justified the fees was the degree of responsibility which fell on the practitioner. If anything went wrong, he had to put it right. After a couple of years, I opened a branch office at what is now the thriving centre of Katikati. I imagine that its most famous citizen, to rugby men anyway, was Dave Gallagher, Captain of the 1905 All Blacks. It is a delectable spot in the Bay of Plenty which is not misnamed. One of our clients was George Alley, known as the King of Katikati, indeed the King of Te Puke also. George had made his fortune by bringing in thousands of acres of Bay of Plenty land, and plenteous it had proved to be. He cut the scrub off the land, disced and harrowed it, topdressed it with superphosphate and sowed a suitable mixture of grass seed. Not only was it good for George, but it gave a living for the young farmers whom he established on the land. I used to spend the week-end with him writing up his books. Additionally, we used to ride around his farms. Needless to stress, he was a shrewd developer and operator. "You see those rushes," he would say, "I leave them to grow. I have noticed that the stock nibble them for medicine."
During the Second World War Norman established a trust for George, the purpose of which was to establish returned soldiers on the land in the Bay of Plenty.
Returning to the subject of Paeroa rugby, I had many firm connections with Auckland rugby clubs; University, Manukau, Grammar, Grafton, Ponsonby, College Rifles and so forth. They were keen to come to Paeroa for a match, and we would arrange a dance in the evening. This proved popular. I had made friends with Rangi Campbell who was a talented Maori trumpeter and who ran his own band. Rangi provided the music for these functions. The Campbell family played different instruments, Lou on piano, George on bass, and Rangi, also known as Phil, led on the trumpet. I met George after the war. He imparted the sad news that Rangi lost his life, I think in Italy, while serving with the band. George carried on as one of the country's leading bass players. Indeed, the world renowned King's Singers got him to accompany them.
My off-duty time in summer was spent on the pleasant lawn tennis courts. The club was a strong one and played matches with other centres in the Thames Valley. The Thorp brothers, Hal and Fielden, were stalwarts of the Club. The Thorp family had settled in the district from Yorkshire very early. Their old home was at Puke, where the Waihou and Ohinemuri Rivers meet. The Thorp brothers had extended and had valuable holdings in other parts of the Plains. Hal ultimately donated the tennis courts to the Club, a generous gift. Another influential family in the district were the Buchanans. In fact, if George Alley was the King of Katikati, George Buchanan could be recognised as the King of Paeroa. He was the head of a respected family, a Director of the New Zealand Co-operative Dairy Co. Ltd., a successful farmer and landowner. His activities were subsequently assumed by his son Bruce.
Mention must be made of William Marshall, Mayor of Paeroa. A dignified personage, he was also Chairman of the Ohinemuri County Council. There is always someone who is prepared to step forward and perform these onerous tasks.
Keen tennis players were the Lee brothers, builders. Their name is carried on by Graeme Lee, (son of Ernie), who was Member of Parliament for the District and Minister of Internal Affairs. And the name Gordon McMillan is not forgotten. His son carries on an accountancy practice locally.
When war broke out, a Unit was formed of many of the young men of the district. This unit was severely mauled in the Middle East. Stew Talboys and Robbie Lamb were but two who gave their lives. Sacrifices such as this gave rise to the view that personnel from one district should be distributed among different units, which is admittedly often done. I was particularly close to Stew, having sailed with him. He was an only son, had three sisters, and his mother lived on into her nineties. Stew and I sailed from Auckland to London in the barquentine, "Cap Pilar".
Other well-known Paeroa residents of the thirties were, inter alia; Wynn Edwards, a former Mayor, Percy Williams, draper; J P Gamble, also draper; the Elleringtons of the Criterion Hotel; the Crosbies of the Royal Mail Hotel; Percy Hubbard, farmer; Howard Hare, J.P.; W D Nicholas, publisher of the Hauraki Plains Gazette; Doctor Little and Doctor Davis; Jones, a solicitor; Craig, the postmaster; Stan Hedge, chemist; Samuel, Bockett, Macaulay and Dixon, all bankers; Flemming, a garageman; Phil Brenan, a carrier; Frank Lockyer, a rugby selector; Day, a headmaster; and Gordon Lamb, a timber merchant.
The three years or so that I spent in the Thames Valley were happy years, I formed friendships that I never forgot. The Valley folk were extremely kind and openhearted.