Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 52, September 2008
(By Gray Townshend, Ngatea.)
As an increasing number of settlers arrived during the first decade in the developing farming district of Netherton around the turn of the 20th century district meetings and social activities were held in one or two large farm sheds or barns.
By 1908 these settlers saw a need for a central meeting point for district functions. A public meeting in April that year decided to build a hall and within a month there was promised £50 ($100) towards the project, with a site and material also promised.
Local settler Mr Innis' tender for £34/18/9 ($69.89) was accepted by the hall committee and by August 21 the hall was officially opened by the Ohinemuri County Council's riding representative Mr A. J. Laughlin. A special ball was held to mark the occasion, the first such social event for the district.
The Netherton Public Hall was built on a ¼-acre (306 m2) where Hauraki Road and Awaiti Road met on the bank of the Waihou River. It was funded by raising 10 shillings ($1) debentures and was built of the best material available. It could be hired for religious purposes during the day.
Disaster struck during a major storm on March 29 and 30, 1910, with the hall being partially blown off its foundations. An Auckland Weekly News photograph showed the front of the original building blown off its foundation and leaning to the north.
A meeting of settlers in April, 1910, decided to demolish the severely damaged hall, and rebuild it on a more central site, near the Netherton creamery, close to the present-day Aratiki Honey Factory.
At the time river transport was paramount, and much of the milk for the Netherton creamery and later the cheese factory arrived by launch from the Hikutaia and Wharepoa. However this supply stopped when new cheese factories were built within those districts. By then, in the 1920s, there was sufficient number of dairy cows in the Netherton district and the developing area of Kerepehi to keep the Netherton factory fully supplied.
There were no metalled roads in the 1890s, and access to Paeroa, was via the Rangiora Road ferry, and through Komata, a distance of some 6 miles (9.5kms). The Puke Ferry was opened in July 1899, as a result of pressure by local settlers on the Ohinemuri County Council to give a more direct access to Paeroa and the railway station—2 miles (3.25kms). With increasing traffic the first Ngahina Bridge at Puke (now known as the Puke Bridge) was opened in 1915. It was replaced in the 1960s. with the present structure.
Early in 1906 a committee was formed in Paeroa to organise a regatta on the Waihou River between Puke and the Rangiora ferry at Netherton and this was held on March 5, 1906.
There were swimming, long dive events, Maori canoe races, canoe hurdle races, rowing pairs and singles for ladies and gentlemen, and the greasy boom. There was the keenly contested launch race (motor launches were becoming popular as river transport) with Spinks of Auckland winning with his speedy launch Togo.
This event was held for the next two years and then disappeared off the sporting calendar of the time. It was not until the 1920's that the annual Netherton regatta was re-organised and this time based on the hall and the factory wharf. It featured rowing, swimming, and launch races, the latter usually won by Morrison's boat from Hikutaia.
The Netherton Hack Racing Club held its first meeting on January 1, 1907 in Mr W. Moore's paddock. The meeting was an instant success and continued to gain in popularity over the next three years.
The Government and the Racing Commission of the day made changes to the regulations governing horse racing in New Zealand this forced numerous small country hack racing clubs to close by the end of 1910.
When the Netherton club wound-up the committee voted a substantial amount of its funds to the Netherton Hall fund.
It is hard to visualise the district at the time. Behind the recently opened Netherton School, tuis sang in the native bush and the Awaiti was still a wilderness. The first Netherton settlers of the 1890's on the river margin broke in farms up toward Paeroa, and soon after Old Netherton Road gave access to a second row of farms.
The original settlers when they arrived found some visible remnants of Maori pa still on the riverbank, deserted after the slaughters and enslavements by the Ngapuhi invasions of the 1820's. Neither Awaiti Road nor S.H. 2 from Durman's corner toward Paeroa existed. On the small holding still at Durman's Corner the Lands and Survey Department built a house for a works supervisor who was in charge of the gang of Austrians (referred to as Dalmatians) hand-digging the Awaiti main drain.
The late Tom Johnson described how local youths went pig hunting in the 1910–15 period in the block now surrounded by Awaiti and Pukahu Roads, and State Highway 2, an area which was higher ground and never flooded. By comparison, until the Awaiti Canal was dug in the 1920s, the whole Wani Road area became a winter lake. In those days Waihou River flooded across the low ground between Rollitt's and Goble's farms on Awaiti South Road and the water filled, for weeks or even months, hundreds of acres of the Awaiti basin.
When the river protection works of the Waihou and Ohinemuri Rivers Improvement Scheme reached Netherton, in the early 1920s, the stopbank line was right through the hall, and so it was shifted by the Public Works Department to its present site opposite the school, and the supper room and kitchen were added. Tennis courts were laid and a pavilion built adjacent to the hall on an acre of land fronting Old Netherton Road.
In the late 1920s the talkie pictures had arrived, and a local entrepreneur then showing movies around the various halls around the Plains persuaded the committee to install a projection room, an expensive sheet metal lined structure, and ticket sales box. Financial stringency of the Depression, and the advent of better roads to Paeroa with its new purpose-built movie theatre, meant that the Netherton movie shows ceased, leaving the hall committee, who had borrowed from the bank to do the up-grade work, financially embarrassed.
George McAlonan of Thames, who worked on Awaiti farms from 1930 to 1935, recalls:
"On the first evening my employer John Wakeham got his Essex Super Six two door saloon out and took me to Netherton Hall. What did I see but an old tin shed !! In all my life I had never seen a corrugated iron building that wasn't a chicken shed or a pig house but as soon as we were inside I got the surprise of my life , to find if nicely finished with seating all round, and a 40-voice choir rehearsing on stage - the Netherton Musical Society "Wow !!"
"The conductor was "Old" Mr Welch, the pianist Mrs Skudamore, Manageress of the Netherton Farmers Trading Co store, and Mr Wakeham sang bass. Well I must say it was a lovely introduction to New Zealand for me as I sat listening at the back of the hall, and at half time I was surrounded by young fellows who said "Here's a New Chum."
"What's your name ?" "How old are you ?" "Where are you from?", Who are you working for?" etc., etc. At the next practice they had me singing bass. I didn't even know that my voice had "broken" as I had been singing soprano in the school choir only 8 – 10 months before. What a great start in a new country! Such friendly people! At the rest period, Mrs Skudamore would break into some dance music, and we younger folk enjoyed a nice sociable half hour while the "oldies enjoyed a few hands of euchre in the supper room.
"Not long after some of us put our heads together and decided to try to form a band. Our first practice was at Skudamore's house on 5th October 1931 (from memory). We had no instruments other than mandolins and Tom Bain had a violin, but it worked well and soon after some of the others got saxophones etc. I remember Mervyn Potter got a sax, and also Claude Martelli. Soon after, the society bought a drum kit, which I played, and before long we had established regular Saturday night dances and for ten weeks during the winter a euchre tournament in the Supper room for the older folks.
"At the end of the evening, the drummer was always the last to leave, after packing up all his gear. One evening I left my transport, horse and gig, outside the hall, the horse tied up to the fence. When I went to go home, the lads had taken the horse around the fence and backed it into the shafts on the other side !! It was a good laugh all round – for me included.
"Our band was later led by George Vercoe a very versatile musician who played the piano, and for the Paeroa Municipal Brass band trombone and euphonium He was also a competent music arranger.
"I enjoyed the social New Zealand atmosphere of life in Netherton which was a revelation to me, especially because of the contrast after London, where people generally found it difficult to get close to and socialise with neighbours. There was a friendly aura about the hall, and in those days it certainly held its place as somewhere special in the eyes of the community. In fact people came from the surrounding communities such as Hikutaia, Kerepehi, and Paeroa"
Some financial relief for the committee was gained in the latter half of the 1930's through the decision of established dance bands to make Netherton the venue for their weekly dances, as it had the advantage of having no local constabulary to enforce the law prohibiting consumption of alcohol within one mile of a dance hall.
The dances flourished largely because gold miners from Waihi and coal miners from Huntly and their partners would travel and meet at Netherton. Decorum was not always maintained and on at least one occasion a line up of the opposing miners to settle some difference with fisticuffs occurred.
The headmaster of Netherton School at the time, Bill Malcolm, was less than impressed at the repeated disorder, and occasionally called the police to restore some order. He was blamed by dance patrons for the attendance of the Paeroa Constables, Maiden and Dalbeth to enforce the alcohol ban. On one occasion disgruntled revellers threw the school house's wooden gates into the Awaiti main drain, and they were later retrieved from near the floodgate.
One Monday morning, senior pupils of the school enjoyed some entertainment after "Popeye" Harold, somewhat the worse for wear at a Saturday night dance, backed his Ford model A truck straight across the road and down into the drain. Fleming's wrecker, from Paeroa, with crane and hand winch, took nearly all morning to retrieve it.
When the hall needed a new piano for use by the dance bands, but lacked funds, Tom Vowles, a committee member, purchased a piano to ensure the continuance of the bands' attendance, and he was repaid on a drip feed.
Toward the end of the 1930s the hall was let in the afternoons for roller skating which proved very popular, but ruined the matai tongue and groove floor through splitting off the upper leaf of the grooves.
During World War II and immediately after the hall was much used, with farewell evenings for servicemen departing for overseas, welcome home nights for the returning men and frequent Patriotic Fund fund-raisers to finance the sending of home comforts to the boys overseas.
After the war there were also many weddings, which also involved prior kitchen evenings. Through the late forties and up to about 1952 because of the shortage of electricity generation capacity, there were daily power cuts from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. Lighting up benzine lamps about 10.50 p.m. was necessary to ensure the completion of the evening's proceedings.
Around 1950 indoor bowls started, and this highlighted the need to do something about the poor state of the hall floor. Finding a source of good matai tongue and groove flooring at that time of acute post-war scarcity was a major task. Eventually someone found contacts in Putaruru and one winter's day some of the committee with trucks owned by Jack Bennett and Harold Prout travelled to Putaruru and returned, heavily overloaded, with enough heart matai tongue and groove to lay a new floor.
To help finance this the committee made a new issue of 10 shillings ($1) debentures – with no date for redemption – the writer still has his! It is hard now to discover whether the initial debenture issue was made when the supper room was added to the building when the hall was shifted to its present site, or following the financial fallout from the movie projection room fiasco.
The hall was extensively used through the 1940's and 1950's. The Oddfellows Lodge, Young Farmers' Club, Country Womens' Institute, Women's Division of Federated Farmers, Federated Farmers, Netherton Drainage Board, and Indoor Bowling Club met regularly. Dances on a fairly regular basis resumed though these were now run largely as fund raisers by the sports clubs or the Young Farmers Club. Admission cost men 2/6 (25 cents) and ladies a plate. The dance organisers paid for the music from the two or three-piece orchestra, usually £1 ($2) per player plus a £1 ($2) for their petrol.
About 1950 Judd's foundry in Thames had recently started casting the first of the "pot belly" heaters – " Romesse" space heating stoves, and one was installed in the supper room. There was originally a single door in the north wall out of the kitchen, but fire regulations led to its replacement by the installation of the present double doors for egress.
Allan Laurent, the cheese factory manager, arranged for the paint for the roof which was starting to show rust. The hall committee carried out the work, mixing their own paint to the dairy company's specification using boiled linseed oil, aluminium powder, and terebine, giving the roof another possibly 40 years of life.
The closure first, about 1947, of the Post Office, then in 1956 the Netherton cheese factory, when Kerepehi milk powder factory opened, followed soon after of the adjacent Farmers Trading Co's Netherton store, marked the gradual decline of commerce in Netherton.
The Farmers Trading Co store was taken over by Sarjants Transport Ltd as their offices until it burnt down. Gordon Fulton built the new Netherton store alongside the Hall, but this succumbed to economic pressures in recent years. The concrete church, its rimu panelled linings became heavily borer infested, was dismantled in the 1970's.
The original townships of the Hauraki Plains were set up at distances about 8kms apart which was a logical and appropriate distance when farmers delivered their milk to the local factory by horse and cart.
At its peak around 1948, beside the surviving hall and school, Netherton boasted a Post Office, a cheese factory, a Farmers Trading Co store, a church, Stembridge's Garage, and three road transport firms, Sarjant's, Stembridge's and Jack Gordon.
Better roads and the wider range of commerce in the larger towns made townships such as Netherton in close proximity too limited to survive as economic centres, a trend which can be seen in rural communities throughhout both New Zealand and Australia.