Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 56, September 2012
(by Glenice Middendorf, daughter of the late John (Jack) Milroy and Margaret Sayer, daughter of the late Grace Morran)
When looking back over the family histories of Mackaytown and Karangahake, there is one name that stands out—Milroy—they have been at Mackaytown for over 110 years with two members of the family still firmly entrenched there on land where their great-grandparents had set-up home.
While the Milroy family have their roots deep into South Africa and back further in England, the Mackaytown Milroys originally came from Australia.
Alexander Milroy was born in Bendigo, Victoria, Australia, on December 28, 1857, and he was eldest of nine children of Peter and Bethia (nee Bell). He spent his early years in both Heathcote and Alexandra in Victoria.
Gold fever took over and Alexander followed the various "rushes" through the Australian states. He was a contract driller, mainly drilling the hard quartz seams to allow explosives to be used to recover veins of gold. The drilling equipment used was known as the "widow maker", because the quartz dust created by the drill was inhaled and settled in the operator's lungs and finally led to their early untimely deaths.
Alexander's occupation brought him to Great Barrier Island in September 3, 1897, where he was the drilling contractor for mining companies seeking the rich minerals held by that island. It was when here he met his cousin Ann, or Annie, daughter of his uncle John Milroy, who with Ann Finlay (nee Dunn) lived at Maketu, a small settlement between Drury and Clevedon, which was settled by Cape of Good Hope emigrants.
Anne's family emigrated from South Africa and spent some time in Thames, and she attended the Parawai Primary School and the Kauaeranga Boys' School.
During the period of Alexander and Annie's courtship they kept in touch by pigeon post—the first air mail service in the world. Alexander used the service from Great Barrier to Auckland, where the tissue paper message was taken from the pigeon's leg and then posted by surface mail to Annie.
In December 1902, the couple married at The Manse, Papakura, and they moved to Karangahake, where Alexander continued as a contract driller. He had a gang of workers including his brothers-in-law Michael Finlay and T. Mensforth. They received payment of £2/5/- per foot drilled at the Woodstock mine. Alexander also had an interest in The Scotia Extended claim of 25 acres at Waitekauri.
There were four children from the marriage: Bethia Annie (May-November, 1904); Jean Margaret (June 1, 1905—April 28, 1970); Grace Rosanna (August 6, 1907—October 3, 1992) and John Alexander (Jack) (December 2, 1908—September 17, 1986). Jean and Grace attended the Mackaytown School.
By 1912 the drilling dust had clogged Alexander's lungs to such an extent that he was unable to continue working in the mines. Annie applied for and won a 100-acre land ballot at Kopuarahi. The section was mostly covered in bush with 10 acres of stumps. While Alexander set about clearing the land and building accommodation Annie and the family moved to Thames in August, 1912, where the children attended school and Jack started his schooling at the age of five years.
No sooner had the family moved on to the farm and the new home, Alexander's health took a turn for the worse, and he could no longer continue clearing the land. They sold that farm and purchased a smaller, cleared block at Wharehoe on the Thames side of the Wharehoe Stream between Matatoki and Kirikiri, on the Paeroa-Thames road. The children attended the Kopu School but even this area of land proved too much for Alexander as there was further deterioration in his health.
The family was on the move again, this time to a 5-acre block of land at Buckland, near Pukekohe, early in 1915, but this move was only short-lived as by the end of 1917 the Milroy family moved back to Albert Street, Mackaytown, just two doors from their original little cottage. The new home was of four rooms, a kitchen, a parlour and two bedrooms and lean-to at the back, with concrete paths and a large concrete yard. An unusual feature of the house was that it had a cellar which was welcomed by Annie as she could store her large range of preserves and jams.
There was running water with a tap in the kitchen, one tap over the washhouse tubs and two outside garden taps. On wash days it was Jack's job to light the fire to boil the water in the copper, which stood in the back yard. Bath day was Saturday mornings with a tin tub placed on the floor of the wash-house.
The children went to the Karangahake School and the whole family gradually settled back into life in Mackaytown.
Alexander and Annie had interests in the Maoriland Mines Limited at Waitekauri, but by now Alexander was virtually an invalid and finally passed away on December 16, 1918. Annie and her three school-aged children moved for a brief period into King Street, Paeroa, before returning back to Albert Street on the corner with Littlejohn Road.
There were two main mines working when the Milroy's returned to Mackaytown, the Talisman and the Crown, but by the early 1920 they had both closed and many residents of Karangahake and Mackaytown left the once thriving area.
After attending the Thames High School Jean became a pupil-teacher at the Karangahake School during the time of the well-known Nellie Scott (later Donaldson and Climie).
Jean then went to Auckland Teachers College and after qualifying, she taught at the Maungapohatu School in the Urewera region, and then offered to teach in Maori Mission schools. In 1938 she became a volunteer missionary for the Presbyterian Church. After a period as land-girl in the Nelson district during the Second World War, Jean was teacher-missionary in the Kawerau and Waiohou areas. Unfortunately she was killed in a motor accident near Whakatane on April 28,1970.
While at the Thames High School Grace excelled at tennis, a sport she pursued most of her life. In June. 1936, she married Albert Morran and they settled on the corner of Albert Road and Victoria Street, Mackaytown. Albert worked at the Victoria battery, at Waikino and then he joined the Ministry of Works at its Puke Bridge depot. There were two children, Rosalie (1943-1949) and Margaret, (1941--).
After Albert's death in 1954 Grace returned to the workforce, taking a position in Turnbull's Shoe Shop in Paeroa. Later she was in the office of the Paeroa College and then became the College's typing and commercial teacher followed by being appointed the College's senior mistress.
When Grace's daughter, Margaret, married Brian Sayer in 1961, the newly-weds built their home next to her house at Mackaytown.
Jack married Alma Power, from another of the district's pioneering families, in December, 1935. The next year they commenced a poultry farm on their Mackaytown property, which became the White Leghorn Stud and Hatchery. In its heyday up to 2000 day-old chickens were produced each week from May to October for the poultry market.
The hatchery occupied almost all the one side of Albert Road. Later, to meet the changing market demands, they changed to White Leghorn-Black Orpington cross. Breeding the pullets was stopped in 1963 and from then to 1997 eggs were produced for the local market. Jack's son, Graeme, assisted with the poultry farm until it closed. Graeme and wife Helen, still live on the Milroy property.
Ten years after Jack's wife Alma died in 1957, he married Claudia Clarke and built a new home in Albert Street above Kitchener's Corner. Today this home is occupied by Mary, Claudia's daughter and Rex Gamble.
While on holiday in Australia, Jack died on September 17, 1986, and is buried in Kalgoolie, Western Australia.
Over his twilight years Jack commenced to record his life experiences for his family. His boyhood memories of Mackaytown and Karangahake make interesting reading. Some of his memories were:
"Dad now walked with a stick and had plenty of rests. Occasionally I accompanied him up to the town—a long walk sometimes being relieved by hitching a ride on the tail board of some delivery boy's cart.
"I remember that one day while talking to one of his old friends, he was asked why he bothered to pack up and come back to Karangahake. He replied: 'I think that anyone who has lived for any length of time in Karangahake would always want to come back if he could'. Certainly Karangahake seems to be one of those rare places that has an unexplained magnetism for those who knew it in its hey-day.
"Life was governed and controlled by the Talisman whistles, which could be heard in the furtherest corners of Mackaytown. They were at 6 a.m., 6.30 a.m., 7 a.m., 7.30 a.m. and 8 a.m. Then at 12 noon, 12.30 p.m. and 4 p.m. These whistles came from the Talisman power house situated across the bridge at the top of the town.
"The number of morning whistles were necessary as some miners had to go further around the gorge or higher up the mountain to their work. Those working at Talisman No. 2 or No. 4 levels would have to leave Mackaytown about 6.30 a.m.. Those at No. 8 level could wait until 7 a.m., while those working in the lower parts would leave at 7.30 a.m. Work started at 8 a.m. on the surface—underground travelling was done in company time.
"Three shifts were worked in the mines, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.; 4 p.m. to midnight and midnight to 8 a.m. These shifts were changed weekly. There were no smokos underground, but half an hour was included for crib (lunch). Crib consisted of a small package of sandwiches carried in the coat pocket and an enamel billy of tea held in the hand. It was a special billy on which lid was a cup with handle attached. Bottles were forbidden underground.
"The miners I met in those days all seemed to wear hob-nail boots, dungaree trousers with bow-yangs, (tied garters just below the knees to stop debris reaching the knees), an old suit coat over a flannel shirt, and an old hard knocker hat covered with drops of candle grease.
"Mackaytown was a wonderful place for children of all ages and there were quite a few fairly large families. The infant school was unused at the time and the school ground was our community play place. With the Smith family living opposite and the Sullings family over the back, we were never short of playmates.
"The hills around were not yet covered with gorse and pine trees and the fern and little blackberry were no obstacle to our hardened feet so that we boys could gallop anywhere we wished.
"Then there was the recreation ground, and the river full of dirty silt-laden water enclosing islands of snow-white silt and large stones washed down from the mining operations. We always had a tin of white quartz silt at home for scouring. These were great adventure places and our stamping ground extended from Doherty's Creek to Billy Marsh's farm on the Paeroa side of Turner's Hill.
"The Rahu was another exciting valley, with its winding stony fresh water creek and manuka covered slopes while further back there was continuous native bush forming the back bone of what we called the Coromandel Range. Modern maps refer to it as the Colville Range and south of Karangahake as the Kaimai Range.
"Of course the Rahu Creek was our main and official swimming place, though we sometimes swam in the Ohinemuri River, knowing that it was forbidden as it was poisonous and dangerous. We always made sure we did not put our heads under or swallow any of the water. Later I realised it was not that dangerous because, as a child, I had seen Billy Marsh's cows drinking the water.
"As the Rahu Creek had no decent size swimming holes, some of the older boys organised working bees to make a dam across the creek opposite Kulmar's (at present Graham Ball's property). Each family had to bring along at least four sacks. These were filled with clay from the bank and laid across and backed up with stones to hold them against the weight of the water. Boys and girls of all sizes joined in and the result was a fine, and to us children, a very large swimming pool that lasted the whole summer. This is where we all learned to swim. After the floods of the winter the dam had to be renewed for the next summer.
"The mines all closed and the batteries came to a stop for the two weeks after Christmas. The important part of this annual event was that the Ohinemuri River was clear and clean and some swimming was permitted, but not without some opposition and much cautioning.
"However the Rahu remained our great love and, when allowed during our Christmas holidays, I often spent the full day in the creek. Swimming, sun-bathing, exploring and hunting for 'crawkers'—our name for a small species of fresh water crayfish—which we found under the rocks and a fire was then made on which to cook them. I was not really fond of them and preferred blackberries, which grew large along the creek and on the road verges. The trip home would often take an hour.
"Eels were another matter and though Mum did not like the wriggling things, she dutifully cooked them, as they were probably a welcome addition to our food supply.
"The roads of Mackaytown those days were normal horse and cart era. They were narrow, rough and surfaced mainly with very course 4in metal. Unlike our modern country roads, which has two tracks to suit motor traffic, our roads boasted three tracks—one for each wheel of the cart and one in the centre for the horse. Consequently stone bruises were a continuous hazard and discomfort of childhood.
"All travelling was on foot along these stony roads, stone throwing was constantly indulged in. Anything and everything was a target—the odd tin can thrown under a hedge, a post, a kingfisher and even the cups on the telephone posts received attention from the more daring ones.
"We became so accustomed to throwing stones that they were our weapons of war and rival gangs would fight pitched battles. Duels were also fought as well as small skirmishes of short duration in which only three or four were involved. Don't think for one moment that stone throwing was all belligerent. Mostly it was competitive, such as target practice and long distance throwing and skipping stones on water."
No doubt many of the Milroy family memories were recalled during the golden wedding celebrations of Graeme and Helen on December 18 last.