Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 49, September 2005
By B R Thorp
A recent scan of a history book of the Ohinemuri County called "No Easy Riches" revealed that there was scant detail covering Waihi Beach.
The town, as it stands today, is the result of a long administration by the Ohinemuri County Council, the more visible signs being some of the streets named after Council staff, eg. Jenkinson (County Engineer) and Didsbury (Engineer).
The purpose of this article is not to present a detailed history, but to explain or draw a picture of what Waihi Beach was like in the two decades prior to 1960. The reason: - this picture does not exist today as Waihi Beach is well into its second phase of existence with the removal or modification of existing dwellings, new subdivisions, plus all the amenities of modern living.
The picture I paint will be extremely surprising to many, but it is a microcosm of what existed in many parts of coastal New Zealand.
But firstly some historical background.
Waihi Beach was largely deserted as there was no access road from Waihi. Access was via the Athenree Gorge, across the estuary at Athenree (horse transport only), through the dunes to the beach and then four miles to the north end.
With the advent of motor transport in the 1920s, a narrow, winding road was formed down the steep escarpment directly to the beach. The express purpose was for the Waihi Borough Council to establish a large number of leasehold sections at the North end for the establishment of a rehabilitation settlement for the Waihi miners. For the miners, there was no water supply, which prohibited the use of septic tanks. Even so, on the minute allotments (approximately 1/10 acre), septic tanks could not function. It is doubtful if any of the miners ever recuperated sufficiently to return to work. Many died from either the continuous damp or the continuous dust in the mine. The Waihi Borough Council had little money to effect any improvements to the settlement. The Ohinemuri County Council administered the rest of the land and the boundary between the Borough and the County was Leo Street (down from the Shell Service Station) and also included a short Dillon Street, with all the sections being freehold.
Subdivision took place slowly southwards from this Leo Street boundary by the Ohinemuri County, beginning with the Shaw Estate subdivision, followed by the Wilson Estate subdivision (the present shopping centre). All these sections were 1/5 acre. The County Council eventually took over full administration of Waihi Beach from the Waihi Borough and pioneered the first water supply and sewerage scheme.
Waihi Beach in the 1940s and 1950s
As indicated earlier, the settlement's southern limit was Dillon Street, which contained seven or eight houses, in the County zone. Beyond that stretched a wilderness of sand dunes stretching the four miles to the Bowentown Heads. This very undulating system of dunes had its own ecosystems, from swamp to barren patches of sand, but largely stabilised (unlike New Zealand's West Coast dunes). These dunes had remained largely unmodified for many thousands of years and ignored by human interference. Only fragments remain today.
Waihi Beach (North end) became popular for day trippers and holiday makers from the early 1930s and into the 1940s and 1950s, the "Beach" was a mecca for people from all over the Waikato, both rural and urban. Several Hamilton buses (Bonnici Coach Lines and later, Hamilton Buses) brought Hamiltonians over every Sunday through the summer and parked on the beach (see photo). Others camped, and those who could afford to, built their own baches or rented existing cottages. All the activity occurred within one square mile at the North end. Swimming was confined to this area - the rest of the beach was considered unsafe, and was not patrolled by the Surf Club.
Dairy-cum-grocery shops appeared on nearly every corner. Up to seven of these existed with the proprietors living on the premises. The two doing the most business were Mullin's and Brown's. A feature of these shops (and others) was that the shop counter was right on the footpath edge and sealed the interior off from customers - who did business standing on the footpath. At night, shutters came down to seal the building off.
How could so many dairy/grocers exist? Living conditions for holiday makers was very spartan and refrigerators were extremely rare, so it was necessary to shop every day for each day's requirements. Also, ice creams and soft drinks were very popular sellers.
There was one well-patronised camping ground in the centre of the village. Tents were jammed together and extended from the foreshore, across the road to the main camp and then into the "overflow" area, at the back which was part of the farmer's paddock. The facilities, cookhouse and ablutions were stretched to the limit. It was common for families to camp for up to six weeks, with the breadwinner travelling back to work. This camp still exists today. Major amenity number two, was the Surf Club which had been built well out on the foremost sand dune. All the original dunes gradually disappeared with the enormous foot traffic over the years, leaving the building rather exposed, and it has since been re sited. The Club itself was a leading club in New Zealand and often hosted the New Zealand Championships, the McLeay family being prominent both in and out of the water.
Inflated rubber "lilos" could be hired adjacent to the Surf Club for sixpence per half hour. These were so popular that would-be surfers had to wait for "returns". The custodian was a big man and would have been the most bronzed pakeha man in New Zealand.
The other great attraction was the picture theatre (movies). A huge corrugated iron building was patronised every night of the week and often full to capacity. There were no windows, only wooden shutters which were only opened if it became very hot. There was one fire exit at the front of the building which had to be kept locked to keep out free loaders. The seating was cast offs from old city theatres, but this did not deter the patrons. Movies followed a set pattern. The first half consisted of two or three cartoons featuring Tom and Jerry, Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, Pluto, Felix, Bugs Bunny, etc., a Movietone newsreel, perhaps a travelogue and the shorts of an upcoming movie. These were known as "the shorts", during which time latecomers would arrive for the main feature.
In addition there were two dance halls, firstly the Cabaret and later followed by the RSA. The "Cabaret" was purpose-built and hosted some of the top bands in New Zealand, in particular Epi Shalfoon. Both halls were well patronised and it wasn't uncommon for male would-be dancers to patronise both halls in the same night! While liquor was consumed in cars, it was not a problem, and closing down was 1.00 am.
By the 1940s the Waihi Beach Tennis Club was well organised. With two hard courts, it was a case of booking in, or waiting. Tournaments were organised by the club for the more serious tennis players.
Another amenity provided by the Waihi Borough was the play area - sited towards the fishermen's cottages. This consisted of three swings, a slide and a "lullaby". These were obviously made in the Waihi Mine Foundry - very strongly constructed of steel and they lasted for many years.
What is a "lullaby"? Essentially, two swings joined overhead by a steel framework and the two swing seats replaced with a long, thick board on which up to ten children could sit. It provided a movement like no other -hence the title, "lullaby".
Under the hill at the North end were several fishermen's cottages. The men would, weather permitting, launch their open dories well before dawn. If one was quick to spot their return at 9 - 10 am, one could buy fresh Tarakihi from the boat. The dories had to be pulled up to dry land each day, with the use of ingenious lifting devices on large wheels (no 4 x 4s then).
Another early morning activity was the milkman. Fresh whole milk could be had directly from Mr Weedon's dairy farm simply by putting out your billy each night with one or two shillings. The milk was ladled from a large milk can carried on a chariot-like trailer or sulky, pulled by a willing horse.
A snapshot of the beach during the '40s - '50s would not be complete without a description of the buildings of the day because these are now fast disappearing or being modified beyond recognition.
The average "bach" or holiday cottage was asbestos cement sheeting (now known as fibrolite) exterior, with a corrugated iron roof. Others were totally corrugated iron, walls and roof. Some had weatherboards and some had corrugated asbestos cement for roofing. Most were simple structures with no decks. Interior linings were "Pinex" softboard and/or "Pinex" hardboard or the ubiquitous fibrolite, with one or two coats of paint. Bathrooms were rare and often consisted of a tap and wash basin. A cold shower was often outside on a slab of concrete - no hot water systems, only "Zip" heaters. Toilets were out the back (a little tin shed). To complete the picture, attached to the house was a large corrugated iron water tank on a stand, fed from the roof when it rained. A house often had two tanks side by side, as invariably single tanks ran dry. Rust and salt corrosion was a constant problem, particularly with hinges and iron fittings. Surprisingly, the corrugated iron withstood the elements extremely well, as all iron used pre-1940, was Australian made and of a heavy gauge. Much is still in use on farms around the Waikato to this day.
Primitive? Yes, by today's standards, but this was how New Zealanders liked it in those days.
Waihi Beach has changed immeasurably from the '40s, with easy access, subdivisions, water supplies, shops, services and modern conveniences. But for all that, for the thousands who came, Waihi Beach was the place to be each summer.
To finish the story on a lighter note, during 1942, the authorities decided that Waihi Beach could be an entry point for a Japanese invasion, so each night all the windows had to be blacked out with blankets, blinds, what have you. Then a warden would check every street and house for compliance. "Dad's Army" in New Zealand! What fun!