by Graeme Lay
This is the third and final in the series series by author Graeme Lay. An abridged version was published in the Sunday Star-Times on 30/8/09.
In the Kiwi way, the news that a book about Whangapoua’s history was being written soon spread. People rang to tell me their stories, called in to talk, emailed or sent photos. People whose families had been closely associated with Whangapoua – such as the Mangakahias, Hortons, Denizes, Hawkeswoods, Smiths and Colmers – had precious material which they willingly shared with me. For instance the Smith family, whose forebears had been pioneer kauri millers and dam builders, held a graphic unpublished account of the logging era, written by Rowley Smith (1891-1967), which I was grateful to be able to draw on.
Chapter headings for the book now suggested themselves: pre-European tribal life, kauri deforestation and milling, the mining boom and bust, pioneer farming, ‘rehab’ farming, reafforestation, coastal subdivision. Writing a local history, I came to realise, is like working on a very large jig-saw puzzle. Key pieces were missing but had to be found to complete the entire picture. Why did Alberta McLean have a stone wall built around her homestead? (To keep the local stallions away from her pedigree ponies). Could the once-grand house that Harold Bull built in the Opitonui valley be the same dilapidated one that rehab farmers Len and Annie Colmer were allocated in 1950? (It was). Again, talking to elderly people usually provided the missing pieces, as well as bringing the district’s history to life. As the story moved into the second half of the twentieth century I was able to talk to people who had been part of Whangapoua’s history, such as farmer Len Colmer, now living in a retirement village in Thames, and early bach builder Ken Peace.
Several people had recollections of Whangapoua’s most extraordinary resident, Alberta McLean (1886-1964). She was the daughter of an upper-class English couple, Henrietta and Charles Ridley, who had been the controller of the English royal household. Alberta drove an ambulance in World War One, married and divorced twice and in 1929 emigrated to Whangapoua. There she bought land, built a 13-bedroom homestead, farmed sheep and bred Siamese cats and polo ponies. She was reputed to be the first person to ride a horse and gig over the rugged range to Coromandel town. Childless, she left her estate to various charities, including the SPCA, and donated her corneas to Auckland Hospital. I was able to interview the eye surgeon who removed Alberta’s corneas and transplanted them into another of his patients.
A founding family of Whangapoua were the Denizes, whose story runs right through the district’s narrative. ‘Punga’ Denize was a pioneer farmer and it was pastoralist Bert Denize who allowed people to camp on his land by the Te Punga stream from the 1950s through to the 1980s. Bert’s son Rob, a lifelong Whangapoua resident, was an invaluable source of information. Sometimes he’d ring me to put the record straight. ‘Rob Denize here, Graeme. That topdressing airstrip that I told you Dad built in 1961? I checked and it was actually1962.’
Rob and his wife Wendy, who taught at the local school at Te Rerenga for longer than anyone else, today live in the homestead that Alberta McLean had built. I interviewed Rob on the front deck of the homestead, and observed that it was virtually the same as it had been in the 1930s, with its frontage deck, grand dining room and stone wall surround. And in the hall, along with Denize family photos, I noticed a portrait of the formidable Alberta, still looking as if she owned the place. The jig-saw puzzle that is Whangapoua’s history was complete.
Whangapoua: Harbour of the Shellfish :A History by Graeme Lay, is published by the Whangapoua History Project Group. The first print run has sold out and the book is currently being reprinted.
An abridged version of this story was published in the Sunday Star-Times on 30/8/09