Whittaker, Helen Interview

Good morning. Today is Tuesday the 20th of April 2021. I am Lyn Sturm and on behalf of the Knowledge Bank I’m about to interview Helen Whittaker of Hastings. Over to you now Helen.

Right. So I was born in Thames in 1947. I was the third daughter of a third generation farming family on the Hauraki Plains. My great grandparents were [a] pioneering farming family, breaking in native bush to productive dairying farm in the early 1900s. I had very hard working parents and when my father needed to give up farming in his mid-forties due to ill-health – he was a polio sufferer at the age of three and had no muscle in his right leg from thigh to foot – he continued to work extremely hard to support his family, as did my mother all her life. They were great gardeners, community people and providers. They both lived long and very useful lives.

I went to Thames South School as a primary school, followed by Thames High School. I was a school prefect, a junior and senior sports champion, and held school and regional swimming records. I rode from the age of twelve; I went through the Pony Club ranks, showing and hunting, until I left Thames to train as a school dental nurse in Wellington, 1964. I graduated with honours in 1966 and worked in dental clinics and country districts from the Waikato to the King Country before shifting over to Hawke’s Bay in 1969.

I met Jeff Whittaker on the ski fields of Mt Ruapehu and married in 1969, a marriage which lasted twenty-three years. Jeff had two young children which [who] I assumed responsibility for, and then my two sons were born in 1970 and 1977, completing a family of four and a busy household.

Jeff became mayor of Havelock North in 1987 – it was a separate borough in those days – and held the position for nine years. As mayoress I was involved in all things community, and one of the major achievements was a very active position in the fundraising for the current Havelock North Library. Over that time we also fund raised for a local kindergarten; I instructed at Pony Club for many years, and took care of a busy household.

In 1996 we shifted from Havelock North to Pakowhai Road, Hastings and took over Wilson’s Nursery. Don Wilson was an institution in the early days of horticulture and nurseries in New Zealand and serviced the whole of the country with orchard and ornamental trees. He worked this business ‘til he died in his nineties, and at that stage the property was very run down. [The] days of the modern garden centre as we know it today were just evolving. We built a new house on the property which I still live in and would not change a thing thirty-four years later.

Jeff pursued politics, standing as a National candidate in the Tukituki electorate, becoming elected in 1992 and then followed his own pathway. The garden centre and nursery became my life, having opened a second branch in Waipukurau in 1988. It was a seven week a day [day a week] business; very demanding, perishable commodities which knew no timetable, and we grew most of what we sold. I employed twelve or more staff at any one time, [and]

I had one son at university and the other still at school. We became a member of the national Greenworld group, which was a buying and promotional independent throughout the country, and I was Chairman [Chairwoman] of the Board of that for three years.

I sold the garden centre in 1994, retaining the land, house and garden. [I was then] asked to help at a steel manufacturing business in Napier, Hawke’s Bay Manufacturing, to set up a marketing and development department soon after, and this quickly went from a part time to a full time occupation and successfully established a niche furniture range of product and services for the commercial hospitality sector.

In 1999 I established my own business, Hawke’s Bay Design, to pursue commercial hospitality accommodation industry with design, procurement and fit out services. I was supplying furniture from Hawke’s Bay Manufacturing as well as a wide range of other suppliers. This business ran successfully for fifteen years, with projects in the top sector of motels and hotels from Kerikeri to Te Anau and most places in between.

I married Charles Eddie [Edward] Cook in 2003. Eddie was born in the UK, [United Kingdom] but having had a successful career in the marine industry as an engineer and skipper in the super yacht sector, he arrived in New Zealand in 1997. Once he retired from sailing, he became an integral part of Hawke’s Bay Design, allowing another facet of the fit outside of the business to develop. Hawke’s Bay Design was sold in 2016, and after working out active contracts, I took full retirement in 2018.

I treat my wonderful garden as an indulgence, and I feel particularly lucky to have the time and the health to put into it. It further develops season after season; we’ve just recently brought one paddock into the garden so we now have about four acres of garden here. My husband, Eddie, is not a green gardener, but he’s an excellent hardscape gardener, and responsible for a lot of the structures in the garden and the sculptures and the artwork.

One of the other things that I’ve done since retiring is writing a book in conjunction with my cousin, called ‘Brothers in Arms’, and it explores three great-uncles’ experiences in the First World War [and] three uncles’ experiences in the Second World War. It also opened up, with the research we did, a lot of family history; and perhaps I could relate some of that to you now; at this point I am reading from the book. So ‘Whare Huna’, which translates to hidden house, was the name of the homestead that my great grandparents built on the Hauraki Plains. It’s also a name that we have adopted for our own property here, which we feel is appropriate because of the family association, but we are also a hidden home, a hidden house.

So, ‘the White family were amongst the early settlers on the Hauraki Plains. George Henry White and his wife Marion and their eldest daughter Bertha and youngest son Arthur took up a block of land on Bush Road, Kopuarahi, in 1913. The family were city dwellers who had lived in Christchurch. Mr White was a schoolteacher with a strong interest in science. Arthur, the youngest son, was a student at Christ’s College on a chorister’s bursary. His life was to become one of music and high church discipline. There were seven children in total – Hilda, Harold, Reg, Ernest, Dorothy, fitted between the youngest and the oldest siblings who were the only ones who would make the move to live at the Hauraki Plains. Things were to change rapidly for the family. Mrs White, Granny, won the block of land, covered with kahikatea and flax, in a ballot. Mr White, Grandad, and Arthur, the thirteen-year-old, moved up from Christchurch and built themselves a whare. They lived there for a year while they organised the building of the house. Kahikatea timber from the farm was milled by Bagnall’s Saw Milling Company, then operating in Turua, and used for the construction of the house. According to Mr Dedsall, who was part of building it, Henry and Arthur helped them. When the house was completed, Granny and Bertha moved up to join them.

The completed house was remembered by granddaughters Dora Connors, my mother, and Doreen Jennings, my cousin’s mother, who both lived in Thames. It had five bedrooms, a large drawing room and two fireplaces. Two pine trees were cut down every year to keep the fireplaces and the coal range going. Granny White was a wonderful cook and had a reputation of always being hospitable. Hilda’s daughter, Dora, my mother, was brought into the household after her mother’s death, at three weeks of age. She lived there with Granny, Grandad and Aunty B, known as Bertha. Dora remembers that the house was full of visitors who had to be fed and provided with cups of tea.

The Whites were stalwarts of the Anglican Church; Grandad White was secretary of the Combined Hauraki Plains Churches, and there were meetings, church gatherings, visits from Bishops and other dignitaries often. Dora remembers the two beautiful chairs that sat either side of the fireplace, which were presented to Grandad from the Combined Churches. The garden was a frequent venue for church fairs and garden parties. Church services [were] held at Kopuarahi School once a month and Bertha played the organ. Bertha would sing lustily … “You never out-sang Aunty”, Doreen [Dora] remembers, and laughs. Locals remembered Bertha on her horse, Silk, travelling round the Plains to dances and social events. In later years she used to take a bike around the district. At the age of seventy she got her driving licence. and earned the reputation of a notorious driver.

The drawing room had four distinctive panels high up in the room depicting soldiers in scarlet uniforms in battle scenes – the grandchildren remember that vividly. The friezes were still there when the homestead changed ownership in 1994. Doreen and Dora remember the many chiming clocks in the house; “I was always fascinated by them”, says Doreen.

Mr White, Grandad, was friendly with radio’s personality Aunt Daisy’s husband, Mr Basham, who was an engineer in Ngātea. The pair made the first radio on the Hauraki Plains. “They made it totally from scratch”, Dora explains. “It didn’t have a cover, all the valves were exposed, and it sat in the drawing room, and you could see the complete workings.” Two tall masts stood in the yard to provide the reception for the radio. Grandad White kept meticulous records for the weather for many years. At 9am he would go down to his little fenced-off area and take the daily readings. He had a rain gauge and a barometer that he made himself. He recorded cloud formations and wind velocity. He was renowned for being meticulous in all record keeping; he liked things to be ordered and tidied at all times.

After 1917 when Kopuarahi School was built, one of the bedrooms was reserved for the schoolteacher who boarded with the Whites. A special bond was formed with Mr Tom McKay who almost became part of the family for many years. One of the bedrooms, which was perhaps used as an office from time [to time] had an interesting message scribbled on which the present owners have preserved as part of the history of the house … ‘Land drainage rates due 29th of March 1922’.

The house was known as Whare Huna, which means hidden house because of the many trees surrounding it. The Whites had a love of trees, planting ash, silver birches, hawthorn hedging and many natives. They planted belts of trees between the paddocks. Cabbage trees, many of which still remain today, were a feature of the garden. The children had the task of collecting the leaves and bundling them up for kindling for the fire. A large walk-in pantry housed shelves of preserves and jams using fruit from vast numbers of fruit trees in the front of the house. Mrs White was always generous in giving away produce from her orchard. On the section in front of the house today, is one of the original pear trees. Close to the two crab apple trees, several plum trees and pear trees are all remnants of the original orchard.

In the 1950s after Mr and Mrs White, Granny and Grandad, had died, Bertha had a section added to the back of the house and a second toilet and bathroom installed and this became her flat. Share milkers moved into the front section to keep the business and the farm going. Bertha nurtured extensive gardens which were renowned for beautiful roses. She was a proud foundation member of the Kopuarahi Women’s Institute, and carried on her work for that organisation. In the years after Bertha’s death, Whare Huna lost much of its former glory.’

I also have some of my own memories of Whare Huna, so again, reading from the book – and this is my own childhood memories:

As a child I spent many holidays at Whare Huna. In my eyes, it was a grand and beautiful. The gardens and grounds were a wonderful playground. There was always fruit on the trees, frogs in the water troughs, fresh milk and cream every day, lovely fine china plates and dishes, cabbage tree leaves in abundance needing to be tied in bunches for lighting the fire, and the fascination of the cows being milked twice a day, as well as the wide-open spaces. It was the home my mother Dora had grown up in and although Granny and Grandad passed away before I was born, it still had a feel for me of a grandparent’s home, despite being so big and generous. In the years that I visited, Bertha lived alone in the main part of the house and the share milkers lived in the far end. It was still a productive dairy farm. The drawing room was always my favourite. The window seat allowed you to look out into the garden with the great silver birch tree, and the forest behind. The high panelled walls and their painted murals of bright and dark mysterious war scenes were fascinating, and often I would choose to sleep in there on the bed-settee so I could look up at them. Every door had beautiful brass handles and the recess where the radio sat was made of dark oiled timber.

The fireplace seemed huge when I was young. It wasn’t lit often but when it was it roared and threw out so much heat. We used to play cards in front of it. There was also a painting on the wall of a little girl, sadly contemplating her spilt porridge when the three dogs lapped it up, one looking sympathetically at her. It was an absolute favourite of mine and now hangs proudly in my sitting room. I just love it as much today as I did then. The dining room table was always laden with newspapers and magazines, many of which had cuttings removed for future reference. There were little piles of newspaper cuttings all round the house, even under Bertha’s pillow and throughout her bed. It was a hobby, almost an obsession she had, as she was an avid newspaper critic until the day she died.

Bertha chatted and sang away as we were going about our daily routine. She frequently struck up conversations about the rights and wrongs of life and set a very high moral bar to live by. She was very good at popping in grammar and spelling lessons. I remember her as a kind and generous person and still have many lovely children’s books she gave me for Christmas and birthday presents, all inscribed with personal messages. The radio was always on in the morning to hear the news and tuned into the National programme for the rest of the day. I remember lots of classical music at high volume. I also remember the house being noisy to move around in. I can only think that that was because of the wooden floors. Whare Huna has always been a special name in our family and it was appropriate for Granny and Grandad’s property. We adopted the name for our own property in Hawke’s Bay which is set back and hidden from the road. I feel privileged to be able to carry on that tradition.’

So I’ll just finish with an update on my own boys, my own family. Currently, Tim and his wife Silke and their two children, Luca and Nina, are having a wonderful sailing experience in the Mediterranean. They chose to do this while they could with their children; they sold up their house, closed down businesses, sold all their possessions and left for Greece, [dog howling outside] just before the Covid lockdown. They got out the day before the last flight went out, and their dog followed them the following day. After initial problems with visas and Covid restrictions, they are now living the dream in Turkish waters, thinking that they probably will sail home – that would be about a two-year experience. So we’re thrilled for them that they’re doing just what they wanted to do.

And tell me Helen, is he taking lots of photographs?

He is. Tim is a professional photographer so he is just relishing the opportunities that he’s got over there, sending home amazing photos and videos. He also took his drone with him so he’s just getting magnificent coverage of their trip. That’ll be a book to be written in the future when he retires.

Michael, who is the entrepreneur of the family, is currently living, and has been for quite some time, back in Hawke’s Bay. He owns Te Mata Mushrooms. He’s also developing a lot of land in Hastings central business district. He’s got business interests throughout Hawke’s Bay. Michael has a fifteen year old daughter, Jamie, who is a delight, and has a new baby, Charlotte, who was a surprise package, and we absolutely adore her. She’s brought a wonderful new dimension to our lives.

Paul, youngest son, has [is] also off on a great yachting experience. In fact they’re ready to leave for the Pacific in about two or three weeks’ time, when the window of opportunity opens up. He has one daughter, Molly, sixteen, who is equally as excited about the trip. Molly … we’ve had sixteen years of absolute pleasure from that girl. She’s aiming to go into aviation; she’s recently just been to the Walsh Aviation Flying Academy where she won the Air New Zealand International Scholarship. She’s been a competitive swimmer for four years. She’s a little girl that [who] whatever she puts her mind to she achieves; so we have five wonderful grandchildren, all of which [whom] we adore.

Going back to Michael, he was in business when he was at high school, wasn’t he?

He was in business when he was at high school … that’s our entrepreneur. He did a business degree at Massey. And when he was at Massey driving a little old wrecked Datsun 1200 … Mr Wilson’s car from Wilson’s Nursery, he used to leave Palmerston North after lectures on a Thursday night and drive down to Queenstown where he owned a business; [chuckles] an ice cream parlour in Queenstown, and he used to go down about once a month to check up on it. He was down there all holidays. But he was also importing terracotta pots for the garden centre; and suddenly there was a container of leather lounge suites that arrived, etcetera, etcetera. So his life has been full of surprises and adventures.

Just referring to my first career, school dental nurse – and interestingly enough, just last weekend I went to the 100 Year luncheon for the School Dental Service. It was formed in 1921 and it was unique to New Zealand and it was girls that were trained to be dental operators in primary schools. Dental Clinics were attached to every primary school and we treated children up to the age of sixteen; we treated all their deciduous teeth … all their first teeth. We were trained in three training schools in New Zealand. There was a training school in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. At any one time there was [were] about three or four hundred girls being trained annually. It was a service that had tremendous results; we brought children’s oral health up from a very low standard right up to the point that dental nurses almost worked themselves out of a job. The service has evolved over the years into dental therapists, into oral health therapists and it’s now an autonomous degree that means that once you’re qualified you can operate on your own account. And we have those girls being employed – still associated with schools in a very different form than we were in our day – or working in private practice, or working in conjunction with dentists. But in our days we took control of a full roll, probably five hundred children. If the school didn’t have that number of children, we would have what we called sub-bases, where we would have country schools attached to our dental clinic. For instance when I was working in Hastings I was associated with Hastings Central School, but I worked Maraekakaho and Bridge Pa sub-bases, and I would go out to those sub-bases every six months for a period of about six weeks to do the revision for the children from the country schools. Pre-schoolers came in from the age of two and a half, and that would be initial visits when hopefully there was nothing to be done other than a little clean, and familiarisation with the dental clinic. We were always known as the ‘murder house’ [chuckle] – I think everybody in New Zealand knows that. But I would like to think that in our era we had equipment and facilities and experience to turn that image around. Many a time we would have children coming in to the clinic very nervous and going out very happily with little treats from the clinic, and one or two other things to help ease the pain. In my day of working in the late 1960s, we had very good electrical equipment. Prior to that it used to be treadle drills, etcetera, and that was probably when it really was the ‘murder house’. But we did full revisions, we did full oral hygiene cleans, we treated any cavities that were required in both deciduous teeth and in permanent teeth that were coming through. We did extractions; we did emergency care when teeth had abscessed, etcetera. So it was a full-blown dental treatment that we were qualified to give to children. And the School Dental Service – it’s well recorded – was a New Zealand thing that was developed, and it was held in esteem worldwide. There were no other school dental services, I don’t think, worldwide that met the standards of the New Zealand School Dental Service.

Is it still continuing?

Yes, it’s continuing – it has evolved … it has evolved into a degree now of course, a four year degree, and the dental nurses are now autonomous, so they’re registered in their own name and they can go out and practise privately. A lot of them are contracted back to the DHBs [District Health Boards] to do the schoolwork. And there’s [there’re] mobile clinics that go round the schools still, and they’re operated by the dental nurses of today.

Is that the caravan with the giraffe on it or is that something different?

No, I think you might be right – I’m not absolutely sure, but I think that is right. We just did it; we were trained to do it, and we just did it. Interestingly enough, when I went down to Wellington to train, the girls that I met on day one and roomed with – we were all boarded in hostels, etcetera, and we were under strict supervision; we had very little freedom – but the girls that I trained with, we worked together, we lived together, and they’re still amongst my very close personal friends.

That’s wonderful.

Yes, it was an amazing few years of being a student in Wellington.

My love of gardening has been a lifetime love of gardening, probably coming from my great grandparents, my grandparents and my own parents. The property we live on at the moment is seven acres; more than four of that is garden now; I’d like to think there might be a little more creeping in [chuckles] if I’m lucky. But one incident that reshaped the garden as we see it today happened in 2017 when we were aware that there was a cyclone called Cyclone Cook – it was approaching New Zealand just before Easter 2017. As it got closer there were warnings for the East Coast, and it became more critical and it was predicted that it would make landfall round about six o’clock on Thursday. The intensity rating was higher than Cyclone Giselle, which was the cyclone that sank the Wāhine ferry in Wellington in 1968. By the time it was dark the noise and the ferocity of the storm was increasing, and we even wondered if it would be sensible to be sleeping upstairs that night. Round about nine o’clock on 13th April, 150 kph winds ripped through the property; with[in] an hour it was gone, with only the sound of light rain left. The damage was revealed at first light the next morning. The cyclone had taken out a wonderful over a hundred-year-old big oak tree, and twenty-two other mature trees on the property. Many more trees and gardens were damaged. Irrigation and pipelines were upended, pathways were destroyed. Many parts of Hawke’s Bay were very badly hit with that cyclone – fallen trees [and] power lines, closed roads and evacuation; fifteen thousand homes were without power for Easter. What followed in our garden was months of clean up and restoration, but also a time of re-design to fit the newly completed spaces.

The great positive from the cyclone had [has] been the fulfilment of many of those plans, with many parts of the garden redeveloped and revitalised, lifting the property to another level of design and beauty. Mother nature can never be predicted, and never be underestimated, and in a garden you’re in the hands of mother nature all the time.

Helen, on behalf of the Knowledge Bank I’d like to thank you very, very much for letting me interview you today, I really appreciate it and we wish you all the best for the future.

Thank you … very nice.

Original digital file


Non-commercial use

Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 New Zealand (CC BY-NC 3.0 NZ)

This work is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 New Zealand (CC BY-NC 3.0 NZ).


Commercial Use

Please contact us for information about using this material commercially.

Can you help?

The Hawke's Bay Knowledge Bank relies on donations to make this material available. Please consider making a donation towards preserving our local history.

Visit our donations page for more information.

Format of the original

Audio recording

Additional information

Interviewer:  Lyn Sturm

Accession number


Do you know something about this record?

Please note we cannot verify the accuracy of any information posted by the community.

Supporters and sponsors

We sincerely thank the following businesses and organisations for their support.