Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 56, September 2012
(by Mr D. Hamilton in co-operation with Mr C. Nicholson and published in the Hauraki Plains Gazette, January, 1948.)
My father and family arrived in Mercury Bay in the year 1886 by a well-known trading cutter of those days the "Janet Grey". The only means of reaching the Bay was by trading cutter, which was quite an undertaking.
The crew consisted of three hands, the skipper, Ned Cain, mate Charlie Hopkins (who later became a well-known captain in the Northern Steamship Company's fleet), who I shall mention later, and a crewman.
Mercury Bay in 1866, as can be imagined, was a very different place from what it is today, the flats being covered with dense tee-tree and wild birds, especially ducks and pigeons were plentiful. The main road was the beach.
Our first home was at Hamilton's Point. The point in the river still bears this name. We lived at the point for about two years, moving in 1868 to the upper mill, where my father was employed, and again moving to the Bay township in 1869 where my father had obtained work with the mill across the river near Cemetery Point.
The first manager of this mill "The Mercury Bay Timber Company" was a Mr McDonald, after whom Seward Point was named.
The first licensed hotel was erected in the year 1867 on the site now occupied by the present Whitianga Hotel, the name also given to the original house. The owner and proprietor was a Hungarian, Mr Thomas Carina, who afterwards became an outstanding personality of the district, later building a racecourse and owning several race horses, among them being the noted steeplechasers "Whakahihi" and "Fairplay".
He is also remembered as donating ₤50 for a sculling race which attracted rowers from as far off as Australia (well-known Australian rowers Messenger and Floyd). The race was eventually won by Messenger, who for a wager rowed a second race changing boats with the runner-up and again being the winner.
Names still familiar in the district with the early days of Mercury Bay are Middlemass, Lee, White, Wigmore, Meikle, Hamilton, Brown and Thom.
About 1870 Mr William White (father of Messrs Alex and Lionel White) arrived and started boat building. He worked up a good business, employing, at times, ten or a dozen men. (Mr Bob White still resides in Whitianga). Two trading boats built by Mr White were "The Mercury" (30 tons) and Effie Meikle (40 tons), these boats were built on the opposite side of the river to the present township.
The launching of these boats, as can be imagined, was a "red letter day" in the township and a mill holiday, young and old having a good time. The writer has good reason for remembering one of these launchings, as then only a lad, he threw some crackers into the crowd and one of crackers burnt a hole in Mrs Lee's wedding dress. The writer received a good hiding for his pains, hence the memories.
The names of the boats built on the township side were "Ettie White", "Brunette", "Blonde", "Blanche" and "Saucy Kate". The last is still in commission. A few years ago she was refitted, renamed the "Manovora" and purchased from J. J. Craig of Auckland for pearl fishing at the Pacific Islands.
The first master of the "Saucy Kate" was the late captain Charlie Hopkins, mentioned at the beginning of these memories, who about that time was the champion one mile runner of Auckland. He was also a good all round sport and a noted oarsman.
The erection of the second licensed hotel, built by Mr John Ferguson, took place about the year 1869.
Mr White, previously mentioned, took a leading part in all sport in Mercury Bay, also giving his time and assistance in arranging concerts and the various entertainments of the day. He was an ideal organiser.
In 1871, another event in the history of the Bay was the erection and working of a flax mill on the foreshore, in the paddock now owned by Mr Lyons. The mill employed some 30 or more men. About this time three families arrived in the Bay from Auckland in the "Mary Ellen"—Nicholsons, Browns and Seymours.
In 1872 my father took up some land in Whenuakite district and our family left the Bay for our new home. The land is at present farmed by the writer's sons, Hamilton Brothers.
Another event of some importance was gum digging on a large scale and the formation of the township Gumtown, now Coroglen. Gumtown was at the time a thriving township consisting of four stores, a butcher's shop, a saddler's shop and shoemaker's shop.
There were over 200 gum diggers on the gum field of Coroglen and it was a common sight to see as many as 50 pack horses, packing gum and provisions in and out of the various camps every day. Thousands of tons of kauri gum has been taken from these fields, two boats, the "Swallow" and the "Mary Ellen", running fairly constantly conveying the gum to the Auckland markets.
A licensed house was erected and owned by Mr Hector McKay in 1879, who held an accommodation licence, this being replaced by a proper licence in 1881 when Mr George Loram and Con O'Shea erected the Waiwawa Hotel. About this time timber workers started to arrive, there being about 100 bushmen in the bush around Gumtown.
The steamship "Fingal", which was built specially to tender the larger vessels trading to the Bay, used to carry the cargo up the river as far as Cooney's corner, just below the farm occupied by Mr Gordon.
In the year 1882 the Waiwawa booms were built, the excessive driving for the bringing down of the logs also brought down snags and silt, etc., and this, in my opinion, is responsible for the silting of the river.
In about 1869 the first school was started in the doctor's residence at the old mill site across the river, the master was also the doctor. Dr Aggiz, who was the first school master, was also the first doctor for the district. The scholars paid a small fee for tuition. This was before free education was in force.
The school was a plain room with cracks in the walls owing to the timber warping. Through these cracks the pupils often peeped when the doctor would at times be called to attend patients in his surgery. Two years later a public school was erected on portion of the present cemetery hill.
About the latter end of 1882 the Kauri Timber Company bought all the mills over and the bush was beginning to be worked. The old mill was found to be too small and it was decided to remove it across the river, and the present township was greatly increased. The new mill commenced on this side of the river in April, 1883 (closed down in 1922).
The third licensed hotel in the Bay was built at this time, the proprietor was a Mr Woodcock, the house being named the "Empire Hotel".
The mill when it commenced operating on this side of the river employed 130 men, working in two shifts, day and night, and cutting about a million feet of timber per month. Boats called at the Bay and loaded timber direct for Australia. As can be imagined, the Bay was a very busy place in those days, and the mill was centre of attraction, being lighted at night by electricity.
In the writer's opinion the Bay at this period was a worker's paradise for the man who worked wood.
In 1881 the Mercury Bay Jockey Club was formed. Mr C. Wright was the secretary, and meetings were held twice a year, horses coming from the Waikato and Auckland. A holiday was declared on race day.
The writer remembers some funny incidents. In the middle of the race track in the early days was all flax and high tea-tree with several cattle tracks through it. One time a horse that was last when going out of view of the public slipped through the tea-tree and when coming into view was leading by some lengths and was eventually declared the winner. The rider was a Mr Jack Nicholson, at present a well-known hotel-keeper at Otahuhu.
Mr Nicholson was also well-known rower of these days and could always be expected to row well against all comers, he is also remembered for his good performances in a mile race although handicapped with a bad leg.
Popular Sports meetings
Another funny incident remembered of Mr Nicholson was the masquerading of his brother as a female at a dance and the failure of him to win "her" affections. Dancing was a popular pastime and Mercury Bay has always been noted for its good dancers.
I remember one sports meeting with competitors from the surrounding districts and Auckland, Mr Charlie Nicholson, who had just finished his night shift at the mill, won the one mile race, a popular winner and a real "dark horse".
At the end of the beach is a creek known as Ohoka and from the bush of the same name over five million feet of timber was brought by tram from the bush to the end of Buffalo Beach and then "rafted" to the mill. The Ohoka tram was the first tram used for bringing timber from the bush in the district.
In 1884 the laying of the Moewai tram was accomplished, this was considered a great undertaking as those days the road at the end of Buffalo Beach to the Moewai bush passed through heavy swamp. A number of people were predicting failure for the venture, but a Mr Monk, who had mooted the idea and had charge of the work, brought the venture to a successful conclusion. The tram was laid right from the bush to the mill yard and over 10 million feet of timber was brought of the bush on this tram.
Tragedy in the Bay
About 1885 an event happened that cast a gloom over the whole district. Mr Lees and Mr Norton were returning with six others in a rowing boat to the bush. The boat was swamped, Mr Lee and Mr Norton being drowned, the others were picked up by Messrs C. Nicholson, G. White and myself. Mr Norton was a well-known bush contractor.
In the year 1885 the writer went to work at the upper mill, at this time only 12 men were employed. In 1881 an event of some importance took place—the installing of two new boilers, a larger engine and other new machinery enabling a larger number of men to be employed. The two boilers mentioned were afterwards brought to the Bay mill and used as tanks for storing water. After the Bay mill closed in 1922, the boilers were purchased by the Mercury Bay Dairy Company and they are in use as tanks at the factory today.
Some employees at the upper mill were well-known characters. "Chips", the mill carpenter—Mr John Allison—is remembered by the following incident. One day he was returning up the river with a companion with whom he had an argument on the way. When passing one of the islands in the river he suggested that his companion go ashore while he bailed the boat. After landing his friend, he rowed off and left him marooned for the night on the island.
Things Have Changed
Another outstanding incident in my memory is the meeting of Mr Ernest Choisey and Mr Tom Webster, who remained my life-long friends. Mr Archie Smith was the manager and contractor for whom the writer had the utmost respect.
The writer remembers on one occasion he asked for a rise in wages. Mr Smith replied: "Toots' man, when I was a lad I worked from daylight to dark for 15 shillings a week." But I replied: "Things have changed". He answered, hoping I suppose to change the subject: "Gladstone has got into Parliament in England." I was persistent and eventually I received a few shillings rise.
Another fine personality at the upper mill was the old 58th Regiment man Mr Nicholas Carthy, who had seen active service in the Maori Wars. Mr Carthy was a fine stamp of a man for the young lads at the mill, as he had the true military spirit which he imparted to us, making us clean, neat and tidy.
Goods on the Slate
At the upper mill we used to occupy our own separate small shanties which Mr Carthy used to make us scrub out each Saturday and tidy the surrounding area. This instance was indicative of the type of men in the district in the old days, old soldiers and sailors, rough men perhaps, but with hearts of gold and strictly honest. They had the confidence of the manager, which they never betrayed. The following instance will show the great confidence placed in Mr Archie Smith in their honesty and integrity.
The mill store was always left open with no storekeeper in attendance, and with goods, boots, and clothing. These would be taken from the store by the men as required, noting items so taken on a large slate kept in the store.
An outstanding character met at the upper mill was a Frenchman, John Le Foille, better known as "Pain Killer Johnny", because of his drinking "painkiller" by the bottle as a stimulant. I have known this man to drink as many as three bottles of "painkiller" in a day. The end of Le Foille's shanty was stacked thousands of empty "painkiller" bottles. He was employed as the saw doctor at the mill, and was a clever cabinet maker. Strange to say the drinking of "painkiller" in such larger quantities did not shorten his life, as he lived to the ripe old age of 90, dying a few years ago at the Great Barrier Island and I presumed he was interred there.
Fire Destroys Mills
The original mill was burned down in 1878 and the last upper mill was destroyed by fire in 1888.
In 1881, the mill being "cut out" I had my first experience of bush work. As was the custom in those days, when the mill was out of logs, the mill men were sent to the bush till the flood came and more logs were brought down to the mill.
I was sent to the Kopawai bush with several others and while in this bush I met a well-known "bush boss' Mr Ned. Birch, who was one of the finest bushmen of the day.
About 1881 the upper mill was selected by the Kauri Timber Company as the mill from which three large kauri planks were to be cut for exhibition purposes and forwarded to the Melbourne Exhibition. The log from which these planks were cut was 22 feet long. Two planks were 2 inches thick and 6 feet wide clear of sap or blemish and one plank was 1½ inches thick by 6 feet wide and were as fine specimens of kauri timber as could be obtained in the province.
In the year 1881 a rowing crew was sent from Mercury Bay to the Auckland regatta and won the four-oar outrigger canoe race. The crew was W. White, R. White, G. White, J. Brown and J. Seymour (cox). This race was won for two years in succession. The same men also completed in the whaleboat race. Mr W. White was also a noted builder of racing yachts, and competed successfully at the Auckland regatta with "The Ripple" and the "Contrabandteris". "The Ripple" was afterwards sold and for years belonged to a Wellington owner.
In 1844 Mr Leonard Lee erected a skating rink, which proved a great attraction and provided a great amount of amusement for many years.
In the year 1887 the first permanent post office was built and Mr F. White was the postmaster. The building today is now only used on election days in the district for a polling-booth.
Thus ends our reminiscence of those early days of Mercury Bay, and as our thoughts have travelled backwards we recall those chums of ours of the bygone days, many of whom have grown weary and passed beyond, and again, as can be imagined, our hearts dwell in the Bay where we spent so many of those happy old years.