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Jade River: A History of the Mahurangi

Ronald H Locker
First published 2001. Published online 2014–. This online edition is a work in progress…


Pages ix–xiin printed edition

Preface to payback for all the pleasure

Philip Kilmore oil on linen, Mahurangi

Dr Ronald H Locker: “In truth, the real excuse for this book is that it is a labour of love, a kind of payback for all the pleasure the river has given me.” oil on linen Philip Kilmore Mahurangi

Since this is not the first history of the Mahurangias published 2001: Mahurangi River. Technically, Locker’s history is primarily about the Mahurangi estuary—the tidal Mahurangi River and the Mahurangi Harbour. Throughout, the online edition of Jade River: A History of the Mahurangi has largely standardised on Mahurangi Harbour, for the harbour, and Mahurangi for the district., some excuse for its writing seems called for. Tribute is also due to those who have gone before.

The first history of the district was the work of the late Terence Otway, son of a former postmaster of Warkworth. It was only natural that, as a history student at Auckland University, he should choose the place where he had grown up as subject for his master’s thesis. A History of Warkworth, 1950, was, like most theses, destined for a file, but fortunately a copy came to the Warkworth Museum. It was not entirely wasted, since some of its material reappeared in the later history by Keys, who had been a major oral source for Otway.

Credit for the first published account belongs to H Jack Keys, former teacher in Warkworth, and later editor of the Rodney Times. His contributions to the life of the district have been so substantial and diverse, that he was honoured with the Queen’s Medal in 1988. Mahurangi: The Story of Warkworth, New Zealand was written to mark the centenary of the town in 1954. It remains the comprehensive chronicle of Warkworth, a useful source on the early history of the Mahurangi but now out of print.

The late Harold Mabbett, a former headmaster of both Warkworth and Wellsford district high schools, had roots in the district, and was commissioned to write a centennial history of Rodney County. The result was The Rock and the Sky: The Story of Rodney County, 1977. Set within much wider boundaries, it puts the Mahurangi into context with its hinterland.

Considerable space is devoted to the Mahurangi and its town, then the hub of the county. Mabbett went to extraordinary lengths to collect family histories of the area, and in that field his work is unlikely ever to be challenged. Mabbett’s other notable history, The Great North Road: Auckland–Whangarei Section, 1981, has proved the richest source of information on the connection of Warkworth to Auckland by road, subject of a chapter here.

About three years after this book began, a new history of the area appeared. Warkworth Roundabout, by Harry Bioletti, 1991, is an oral history of the Mahurangi district, a valuable collection of reminiscences of old inhabitants. It was followed by a smaller, successor volume, Tales of Mahurangi, 1993. The author was also a teacher for many years, at Mahurangi College. He is an experienced historian, well-qualified to write local history. He has been prominent in local affairs, and a long-term chairman of the Friends of the Mahurangi. I am particularly indebted to him for discovery of the Hodgskin letters from HMS Buffalo. Harry has also written an update of The Rock and the Sky, titled Rodney Coast to Coast, taking the history of Rodney County on from 1977 to its reorganisation in 1989. He has also written an account of the American ‘occupation’ of Warkworth during the last war, titled The Yanks Are Coming (1989).

This book is deeply indebted to its predecessors, on which it has drawn heavily, but it does not attempt to duplicate their strengths. As research has progressed a great many sources have come to light that were not available to these earlier authors, allowing the filling of gaps and correction of errors. The focus of this history is on the Mahurangi Harbour, although it by no means ignores its town or surrounding districts. It gives much attention to earlier history; in fact it begins some millions of years before its predecessors. I admit to a severe thinning out after the last war. It makes no systematic attempt to record local body affairs. On family history it has been highly selective, a necessary limitation which may disappoint some, but save others from boredom. Families have been presented largely on an entrepreneurial basis, resulting in a kind of industrial history. In attempting to present a portrait of the Mahurangi from earliest times, I have used as far as possible the actual words of the diverse procession of visitors, who recorded what they observed from practical, professional or aesthetic motivations.

I have added some impressions of my own: a view of Mahurangi through the eyes of one who has had a lifetime love affair with the place. I have been accused of seeing it through the rose-tinted glasses of childhood. There is a grain of truth in this, but my judgement of its worth has remained unshaken by the years, and by travel around the world. It will always be my special place. In truth, the real excuse for this book is that it is a labour of love, a kind of payback for all the pleasure the Mahurangi has given me. The writing of it has proved to be an extension of that pleasure. It is the crystallisation of a longtime hazy idea, made possible by time available in retirement.

A fondness for walking and boating, has taken my wife and me into many odd corners of the place, often in trespass, and always finding something new of scenic, historic or scientific interest. Many lacerations have been sustained in ‘new routes’ through thickets of scrub or gorse, or through oyster-laced mud. We can claim a better than average acquaintance with its ridges and valleys, its bays and tidal creeks. In short, we have been over the ground. The signs of the incorrigible scientist also show through in this account. For this I do not apologise, but hope that this bias may encourage others to read the landscapes and shorelines with more seeing eyes; to make new discoveries on familiar ground.

The would-be historian is constantly aware that opportunities have slipped through the fingers. Often old people who would have had great stories to tell have died just before one heard of them, or before one could get to them. Some have died since I talked to them. They were not, on the whole, a generation that wrote much down and their tales tend to die with them, or to be passed on imperfectly to descendants. However one soon generates an ever-lengthening chain of survivors whom ‘you must see’. Such conversations have been a most rewarding part of the experience. We have met and talked with many wonderful people. I am grateful to those who have shared their memories so willingly.

Some members of a later generation, with a keener sense of history, have gone to the trouble of writing their own family histories. A surprising number of these, often well-researched accounts of important families, can be found in the archives of the Warkworth Museum. This rich resource is listed elsewhere.

There are several particular resources which I must acknowledge with gratitude. The files and photographic collection of the Warkworth Museum and the patience of its curator Nick Davies in opening them, have been invaluable. I am especially indebted to archivist, Mrs Verna Mossong of Glenfield. When Civic Trust Auckland took over Scott Homestead in 1973, she began collecting information on families for a booklet. This did not eventuate, but she kindly offered me her file. I expected something slender, but received a voluminous pile. This file was my launching pad and proved a treasure trove. Ms Margaret Stevenson of the Wainui Historical Society has produced much useful material from her files. Mr Stan Gittos of Warkworth, whose hobby of collecting old local photographs, has produced a superb collection, now lodged in the Warkworth Museum. The library of the Auckland Institute and Museum and the remarkable New Zealand collection of the University of the Waikato Library have both served me well. Without the help of Mr Graeme Murdoch and Mr David Simmons my attempts to write the Māori history of Mahurangi would have fallen far short of acceptability.

Jack Keys alerted me to the existence of the Harry Moore news-clipping file. Former town clerk and Warkworth’s first librarian, Moore assiduously clipped Rodney items from newspapers of the day (1864–85), and pasted them into a leather-bound ledger. The book has passed down the family. Its present members have kindly made it available for copying. Harry’s ghostly hand has been of enormous value to me in bringing together in print, local material that would otherwise have had to be tediously retrieved from microfilms of the whole papers. Many pearls of great price are embedded in the minutiae of this Victorian journalism. These clippings have been supplemented by the microfilm copy of the New Zealand Herald at the University of Waikato, particularly in writing of the escape of the Māori prisoners from Kawau.

Writing local history is both frustrating and exciting. It takes several years before scraps embedded in the memory begin to form patterns, before bells begin to ring in the mind at the mention of a name or place. Local events begin to make sense against the broader history of the times—as a student of New Zealand history in general, I have tried to put local events into the national context. Events are seen in quite different perspective as more facts emerge. The number of occasions on which gap-filling surmise proves to be well astray is chastening. Often one must choose between accepting the uncertainty of oral tradition, and having no story at all, or wasting a colourful tale. There is always the thrill of unexpected discoveries: old documents keep surfacing, relevant paragraphs turn up in unlikely books, new persons turn up with new stories. Nothing is ever cut-and-dried. In this open-ended business, it is hard to decide where to stop. My word processor has proved an invaluable tool for keeping abreast of this continuous modification. Yet I am aware that this history will go to press with as many imperfections as its predecessors, and that by then, if time allows, there will be things I would wish to change.