Williams, Peter William Gerard Interview
Today is 7th March 2019. I’m interviewing Peter William Gerard Williams, formerly of Waipoapoa, Maraetotara; and he is going to tell us something about his family since they came to New Zealand. Peter, you’re on air.
Thanks, Frank. Now basically my family in New Zealand originated when Henry Williams came to New Zealand and resided up in Paihia in the 1830s.  He was part of the Church of England; had been in the Royal Navy before that, so very familiar with boats, so he found living in a place like Paihia where everything was done by boat … he could handle all that. And he’s notable really for writing, or translating, the bible into Māori with the help of his two daughters. He spoke fluent Māori, so that was all done. He was actually shown on the old original ten shilling note.
The Treaty of Waitangi Chiefs and military and everybody else involved in signing, sat around this table and Henry Williams was the only one that didn’t have a headgear on.
So anyway, that was way back in 1840; and then since then most of his family sort of moved down to the East Coast, North Island, round the Gisborne area, north of Gisborne. In those days it was sheep farming, and wool developed the country; and we’ve been involved in farming every since. My father, Paul Williams, was the son of Dr Jack Williams. He was one of the first pupils at Christ’s College … used to sail all the way down from Paihia to Christ’s College and stayed at Christ’s College all the year; at the end of the year he’d sail back up to Auckland and up to Paihia. And then he was sent off as a young student to university in England, and became a doctor and a surgeon – and of course the horrors of being a surgeon in the First World War – and basically ended up back in Gisborne as a GP. [General Practitioner] He delivered myself and my twin sister Wendy who’s now Wendy Falloon. Our family consisted of Wendy and myself as twins born in 1938, and then my sister Bobbie born in 1941; and then much later my brother Gerard Williams, called Gerry, and he’s eleven years younger than me.
So during the war [World War II] … my father was in the Navy during the war … and basically we had a house rented at Wainui Beach, [Gisborne] – the Wickens’ house. We lived there for about five years during the war and from a children’s [child’s] point of view it was a wonderful place to be at the beach; went to school … started school at Kaiti School in Gisborne.
When the war finished my father came back – not a very well man, but he came back – and in 1947 we moved down and bought a small block of land we called ‘Wainui’ after the beach, and that was between Puketap [Puketapu] and Taradale. And funnily enough when we were at Wainui Beach, my sister and I used to be told by my mother after lunch, “Go and sleep in the caravan – don’t want to see you from lunch until three o’clock. Go in the caravan, read a book or stay there.” The very next year we left, and there was a tidal wave – big earthquake, tidal wave – 1947; and that tidal wave picked this caravan up, took it out to sea and it reefed. So we could’ve been there, so we were quite lucky. That tidal wave actually was a big one and it went right up to Turihaua Homestead, right up through pine trees and nearly got to the homestead, it was really … really a big one.
When I got to the new property down near Taradale you couldn’t even see the hills for the rabbits. And there were black ones, white ones, piebald ones, and my father taught me to shoot with a .22. Well, the first rabbit I shot was from the hip, just pointed at the hill, pulled the trigger and a bloody rabbit dropped dead.
[Chuckles] There were that many of them?
There were so many of them. And then a lot of the guys back from the war had not much to do, and they used to go rabbit hunting and they caught so many rabbits through strychnine poisoning; and then of course they kept the pelts. So bit of old No 8 wire bent over, and they would just skin a rabbit and put the pelt over with the No 8 wire. And you could drive along the road for a long way, and just see dried out pelts sitting on the fence there. It was … bit of money in it, I suppose.
And so that was my first farming experience, so I’m more or less brought up on the farm, riding horses, and my younger sister Bobbie was a very good rider. We all rode horses in the Pony Club for a start, and basically went to school. I went to Hereworth in 1948, having been going to Puketapu School and riding my horse up there with my twin sister, Wendy; then as we got a bit older I went off to Hereworth for four years, and then to Christ’s College for five years. Started Christ’s College in 1952 and left in 1956, and those were wonderful years really. Made so many friends, North and South Island; played a lot of sport, generally grew up, came home in the holidays and played tennis and … it was a great life really, in good old sunny Hawke’s Bay. What happened after school was the important thing.
Okay. Connolly, the Minister of Defence for the Labour Party, announced that they were not going to have compulsory military training any longer, which went down like a lead balloon with all the young men; it was a wonderful thing. It taught everyone a bit of discipline, got everybody out of bed and got ‘em cracking. What a contrast to the year 2000s where half the young people are on the dole; they don’t have to get out of bed and do anything, they’re just looked after. Basically that was a wonderful thing for the whole nation, and we were so nationalistically proud of being New Zealanders; flew the flag and take on all comers. But now [there] seems to be a different philosophy, where no one cares about anything much – such a shame.
Anyway – so my father wanted to take my mother to England after I left school, and I promised that I would look after the farm for him and my sister would look after the house. But prior to that I’d been overseas, and I came back from overseas just to do this … look after my father’s farm. So on St Patrick’s Day in 1961 I took off as a young fellow, about twenty-one; and took the ‘Wanganella’ to Sydney and had a job at the Sydney Show grooming bulls for an Australian breeder. And my best mate Paul Thomas was over there doing the same thing and we were going to catch the ship to England; and basically the bull breeder said “No, you can’t leave this job until we’ve won all the prizes.” And we were doing really well, and so he offered to pay us an air fare to get to Brisbane to catch the ship. So we won a few prizes there, got put on an aeroplane, and I wouldn’t know where we were going but we ended up in Brisbane [chuckle] … overnight flight. Got put on the ship and had a wonderful trip to England; took about … bit over a month.
Overseas trip for me lasted about eighteen months; about a year, England and Europe. I worked in [a] little town called Shipley in Bradford, in a wool combing company; worked for about three or four months in that just to get a bit of money going and a bit of interest going. The worst part about that was seeing the best New Zealand wool going down the same hole as the worst Australian [chuckle] and South American wool, just to make carpet cheaper. We were in a three-storey department … sort of a building where the top fellows were … well, they were from northern England, and you couldn’t really understand their accent; and the next ones down were Pakistanis and the ones on the bottom floor were Polish. And everybody hated everybody else; and we were warned not to fall down the hole otherwise you never know what could’ve happened to you. I lived there for about three months in digs, and they were just like Coronation Street all over again. Got out of bed, it was dark; and [by] the time we got home it was dark; and … you never saw the light of day really. Had a good trip around Europe, largely with Paul Thomas; and basically that was all over when we all had to go home.
And I took a trip back from England to New York, and spent a week in New York staying in a … as a young man nearly twenty-two years old … in a flat of four young ladies that were American girls. And basically I was famous, because I could go and buy the alcohol and they weren’t allowed to – they weren’t old enough, you see. Then I took a train up to Boston and stayed with a man in the United States Navy who my father had met during the war, and he took me up to Cape Cod, and … spent a week there really, doing all sorts of things. And then I flew to Chicago and spent about a week in Chicago at a university called Evanston … a North West University at Evanston, about thirty miles north of Chicago. And then after the last night at this university in which the university won the gridiron match against another university … I’ve never seen a party like it [chuckle] … on the aeroplane to go to down to Phoenix, Arizona; stayed down there, Sky Harbor Airport, and maybe four or five days around Phoenix, in which time I drove up in a bus to see the Grand Canyon. Absolutely brilliant trip through the United States for a whole month. Got to Los Angeles and then San Francisco, and then flew out to Hawaii on the way to Australia, hopefully to try and become a wealthy young man in [the] wheat harvesting business.
But when I got to Sydney it was just on Christmas time, and I met a stud stock consultant there, working for a firm called Goldsborough Mort; and this bloke called Andy Sprite, said, “Peter”, he said, “I’ll give you a job as a jackaroo on a cattle station [in] western New South Wales, so get yourself to Mascot Airport, seven o’clock in the morning, and I’ll fly you up there with your suitcase. And if you like it you can leave your suitcase there and stay, otherwise I’ll fly you back no charge.” So I flew all the way out there, landed on this place, drove round in the first Toyota Land Cruiser I’d ever seen with the supervisor and Andy Sprite, and went down the quarters; and I said, “Just leave my bag there, and I’m going to stay here.” I stayed there for about four or five months I guess, as a jackaroo; looking after the stud stock, and riding horses, and generally being a jackaroo. And then I finally came back home, and that was the time when my father said he wanted to take my mother to England, so I stayed and looked after his farm. I really wanted to go back to Australia and live, but I never got back.
From there, basically when my father got back home, I went off down to Homewood Station as a farm cadet really, and worked for Fred Tatham on Homewood Station, east coast Wairarapa – for two years we were there, and that was a wonderful part of my life, being well looked after by the Tatham family, and learnt a lot down there, had a lot of fun.
Then I had to go up and do some work elsewhere; so I did – I went to Mangaohane Station, and spent two years at Mangaohane where Hugh Chisholm was the manager up there. It belonged to the Chambers family, and Dudley Chambers actually drove me up in his white International truck; and I was up there for two years; hardly ever came home, but learnt a lot up there.
That’s off the Taihape Road ..?
Yep. Mangaohane is … well, closer to Taihape than what it is to Fernhill … quite a long way up.
And so then farming was sort of coming to a situation where I wanted to be a farmer but I wanted to own my block of land, and I wanted to learn a bit about ballot farms and how they ran, because that seemed to be my way of getting into a farm – a ballot farm. So basically, I noticed that a lot of the Lands & Survey [government department] properties suddenly went from about sixty percent to a hundred percent lambing over a period of about two or three years. And we were astounded at all this, and it wasn’t just because the shepherds were good; it was mainly because they discovered selenium and cobalt.
And so I left Mangaohane and went to work for Lands & Survey on a big place between Rotorua and Taupo, and worked there for about … bit over a year, and learned all about this; and then I came back to Hawke’s Bay. And I lived with my parents, and I used to drive my little Volkswagen up the road to Moteo Station which … the back end of it was bought by an Englishman called Henry Maurice Jones.
Now all this time of course I was a young man, and looking around; and I’d met Mary-Lou Holden. And I knew the Holden family very well, they were friends of my family anyway. And basically Mary-Lou and I became friends, and when I went overseas she was still a schoolgirl. When I came back to work she went overseas; and basically we finally got together in 1964, ‘65 and got married at the end of 1965 … 14th December 1965 actually … at Poukawa in Poukawa Church, and had a wonderful wedding at Mana [Lodge], Poukawa, the home of her parents; and that was Ralph Holden and Mary-Lou’s mother, Phyllis, Jill, and Dennis, Mary-Lou’s older brother and sister. I’d known the family for some time, but Mary-Lou and I got together and got married then.
It was a bit difficult, because when I was up at Lands & Survey they were pretty casual, and they’d leave a young man like me all weekend with nothing much to do; so I joined the Army again, having been in compulsory military training. Went into Papakura and passed the test to get into the Special Air Service. This is not really … this is the Territorials, but they were a bunch of young men who were there to replace the regular SAS in Borneo at the time. They had a communist terrorist outfit trying to take over Malaysia, and basically our troops were up there … there was quite a big campaign … and we were there to replace anyone that got shot up. So we were pretty well trained, and I spent a lot of time going from Rotorua to Papakura in the Special Air Service, just training with them.
However, that came to an end and the campaign wound down, and I decided – get married, carry on with farming. So I was a young man working for Henry Maurice Jones as his stock manager, and basically worked there; but Mary-Lou and I, when we got married we had a honeymoon up at Paihia … had our honeymoon on Urupukapuka Island, which is where Zane Grey used to have his fishing lodge way back in the 1920s; lovely honeymoon. Came back, and I worked with Henry Maurice Jones who very kindly built us a brand new Lockwood house, and you know, we lived there for the first three or four months.
But I was then offered the manager’s job at Waipoapoa, which was up the Maraetotara [River]. And so that’s the next stage of my history where in March 1966 Mary-Lou and I went to live up there; took over Waipoapoa. No staff on it – staff had all left, and so I was right into it. What a beautiful opportunity to get up there and make a start.
So … I used to have a little Volkswagen, but treated it like a Ferguson tractor really, with [chuckle] mud grip tyres on the back, ‘cause I can remember driving up the top of Waipoapoa in probably February. The grass was so long it was higher than the roof of the car. And got up the top there and looked around; from the top of Waipoapoa you could see from Mahia Peninsula right down to Cape Turnagain; you could see Bare Island; and looking west you could see from Manawatu Gorge right up to the hills at the back of Wairoa. And at the back of Wairoa was Whakapunake; the right-hand side of it is where Te Puna Station was when my father was managing, when I was born before the war; and so you could see where I was born from up there at [the] top of Waipoapoa. And my father used to look at Whakapunake and say, “That’s Whakapunake, where the ducks fly backwards”, [chuckles] because of the strong winds.
So 1966, up there managing Waipoapoa station for two families. One of them was a Williams family from London – these two young men, Simon and Euan Williams, whose father had been killed in the Second World War – they’d never been to New Zealand; they just inherited half of Waipoapoa, which actually used to be part of Te Apiti Station. Basically the other half was owned by four McKay brothers: Commander Dennis McKay who was part of the Royal Navy, and then three other brothers. What the hell were their names? Dennis, Colin and Brian … yeah. The McKay brothers who owned the other half of Waipoapoa – they’d inherited Waipoapoa which originally was part of Te Apiti.
How big was the total station then? Waipoapoa?
Oh, it must’ve been about ten thousand acres. Yeah. I’ll get back to the start of Te Apiti in a minute, but we’ll go to Waipoapoa; but basically, the McKay brothers, apart from Dennis who was Commander Dennis McKay of the Royal Navy, they’d all been to Wanganui Collegiate, but the rest of them were orchardists down in Nelson. And so they’d inherited this farm. They didn’t know a great amount about farming and so they used to consult me about … not the fact that I was just a manager, but I soon became the supervisor. And finally, it didn’t take long before the Williams brothers wanted out, and so I bought them out about 1970 … ‘69 it was, signed all the papers … 1969 bought the Williams out. So then I owned half of Waipoapoa along with the McKay brothers.
And then of course farming became like it always has been – it has its ups and downs. In those days wool was the thing that paid the money and paid the bills; lambs and cattle weren’t too bad. And then we had the rural downturn; we had interest rates go up to twenty-three percent, I think they went up to, and basically Mary-Lou and I more or less stopped everything. Just existed. Put the discs away and stopped all the development; couldn’t afford to topdress; and we just kept the place going and producing for about three or four years until things caught up. And then interest rates came back down again with a big rush, and in that time the McKay brothers were wanting their money out of farming, mainly because farming didn’t seem to be going terribly well and they were getting older. So one by one they said, “Will you buy my share?” And Mary-Lou and I were struggling, but we kept it going. The property was too good a place to subdivide, so I was mortgaged up to the eyeballs with help from Mary-Lou as well.
We stayed there and farmed it; most of the time I had one tractor driver who was a fellow called Ken Nicholas, who had been a British merchant seaman, and he’d jumped ship going to South America and ended up in New Zealand, and the two of us kept the place going for a year or two. I had a number of very good young men, shepherds who worked for me – two of them had been cadets at Smedley, [Station & Cadet Training] and came – and I said, “You can work for me as shepherds; you won’t get the manager’s job, but you can work for me no less than one year, no more than two years, and then you can move on.” And they both turned out to be very successful farmers in their own right.
Now in the end the McKay family were out of Waipoapoa, and that’s when Mary-Lou and I decided to build a new house on Waipoapoa, which is still there today. We’re both very lucky that we had a son who wanted to be a farmer, and he went off to learn farming from a number of different farmers, but [noises on recording] he’d been to Lincoln University as well, and then on a trip overseas; and came back and so I was very lucky to have a son that wanted to go farming.
In the meantime of course, all those years I call the hard, difficult years, the children were growing up. We had Kirsty and Susan and Richard in that order; and Kirsty and Susan went off to Woodford [House] and Richard went – after Hereworth – down to Christ’s College; so we had all the kids boarding at a certain stage, and that was a fairly big hurdle to handle. But we seemed to get by, and everyone did well at school – did very well indeed – and went off to university.
What to say about the girls, too – it’s been about my life, and my farming life and that …
Well, they’re all part of the family …
Yeah. It’s like an old gramophone, getting the old brain working.
So the girls did very well at Woodford; went off down to university and basically did very well there, and went off into the big wide world like they all do. Kirsty finally got married to Warren Barclay, who is one of the sons of Ross Barclay from Gisborne, and basically she now lives in Auckland.
Sus went off to university, did a Marine Biology degree. And she … you know, all our family are good skiers and that. We used to have, you know, quite a lot of sport and skiing and so on, and they all do … very much involved in skiing. Sus is such a keen skier; she ended up eventually … after doing a lot of interesting work, computer programmes and that sort of thing … she ended up in Ohakune. And she met Murray Brown, and she now has my only granddaughter, Coco, and her older brother Rupert Brown; and so Susan and Murray and the kids lived in Ohakune for some time, and they’re now living back in Havelock North.
Kirsty married Warren Barclay; they started off in Wellington but soon went to Auckland. And of course four boys in their family, so as time goes on the boys all go [went] through school … Auckland Grammar … and then came out the other end as university students. Where they are today is two of them [at] university, and one of them, the third son, Ben, got into a lot of trampolining, and finally got into skiing – shall we say freestyle skiing. He became very proficient at ski jumping or whatever; they go down the mountain and hit a ski jump, and do several somersaults and come back backwards – there’s so many different things he can do; just practiced at it, Ben, for years, and he’s now part of the New Zealand ski team as a fifteen year old, currently in the United States doing very well at that. We wish him well.
Anyway, then Richard of course is up on the farm. He was married to Nadine Barker, a Tauranga girl, and they have been up there for a long time and they now have two sons. Young Jasper is, as we speak, second year at Lindisfarne, and he’s a rower. And his younger brother, Henry – that famous name, Henry Williams – he is a student at Te Mata Primary; he seems to be quite an athlete at the moment, following probably after his mother, Nadine, who’s a bit of a runner. She runs half marathons and that sort of thing. So I’m very lucky to be the grandfather of seven grandsons and one granddaughter, and they all live in the North Island, unlike so many of my friends whose family now live in Europe or Australia and they’re not seeing as much as they should of their grandchildren.
So that more or less gets me up to the modern day, and more or less tells you how I got into Waipoapoa for a start.
Well that was a really big challenge for a young man, going there with no people to run it.
Oh, well I was lucky I had been to big places like Mangaohane, you know, it wasn’t too big for me, it was like getting round a quarter of Mangaohane for example, you know. Some of these big Lands & Survey blocks I worked on …
Have you been back to Mangaohane?
Yep. Oh, quite often.
It’s a beautiful station, isn’t it?
Yeah. Yeah, it’s a young man’s block of land. And of course it’s now not the same big block, because the Kelly block has been bought by Plimmer, I think, from Wellington. And the other part … ah, who the hell owns that now? I’m not sure, but it was all one block when we were there. And I can remember my second year I was there, I was told to go up … one [or] two shepherds would go up there and we’d camp the winter out in a bloody old whare in the Kelly block; snow and … geez it was cold, but it was bloody good because you’d get up, and you know, always bloody good food. We had sort of half-breed merinos up there, and you’d kill a mutton; and a wooden fire, you know; so you’d damp the fire down – the last man out – and we’d put a great big roast in this bloody oven, and damp the fire down. That was about seven o’clock in the morning; frost outside and all the rest of it, or snow or whatever; and you’d be out all day and you’d come back, and the fire had been sort of just burning away, and that roast would’ve been absolutely perfect … yeah. And we had this fellow, Stan Dygys, who was one of those Polish immigrants. That’s part of my life, really. Do you know the Kepka family? Richard Kepka? Yeah – well you see Ian built the Waipoapoa house up there; I should mention something about that.
Yes. Yes, you should, because …
Her name was Janet, wasn’t it? Yeah. Is she still alive?
Well you see, all those Polish immigrants came out during the war. And I’ve spoken to Richard about it, and Ian about it, a lot, and … geez, it was a bloody tough life; when the Germans came into Poland and killed everybody. And Ian was one of quite a large number of boys that were sent out to Russia; lived in a sort of a prisoner of war camp, you know. He said one day they found a potato that was cooked and it had fallen out of the pot or something, and he and his mate shared this one potato, you know … starving little buggers. And then there was a period of time when the Shah of Persia, in those days, was down there in Persia, and they were sent down to Persia. And then Canada, Australia and New Zealand came in and said “Look, there’s something like fifteen thousand of these kids – boys and girls – we’ve got to do something about it.” And so they more or less went you know, five thousand each to Canada, New Zealand and Australia. And so this bloke, Stan Dygys, [spells] … Stan Dygys ended up on Mangaohane and you could hardly understand him … the accent, all this … just like Ian was when he was a kid. And by the time Richard comes along, his English was much better you know, and he was a real kiwi. And geez, they’ve been an asset to blokes … immigrants; they’ve all got great work ethics and that. But Stan was a rough bastard, but anything goes, you know? And I remember the boss saying, “Right – we’re going to footlog all the ewes”, you know, and he’d get in there, and – he was a tractor driver, but it was all hands to the deck you know, you’d drag these bloody ewes over the board and … footrot; it’s a prick of a job … that’s the way you did it in those days. Oh, no – we needed to dig the shit from underneath the woolshed you see, and Stan’d get in there, bare feet, just shorts, no shirt, covered in shit from [chuckle] head to foot. And we’d all be in there you know, doing our bit, getting shit out, and every second word was a swear word you know? But a bloody good kiwi, you know?
And when I got there the station bought a D4C Caterpillar tractor, and it was the first one I’d seen that had the forward reverse gear on it. Bloody good tractor, it really was, and brand spanking new. And anyway, he was the tractor driver, and we had it out on this Kelly’s block and he’d drive it all the time. If he wasn’t doing agricultural work he’d be building dams, and … And he built this dam – I suppose it would probably be May, and he was building that dam and one of the big winter storms came in; he’d been working all day and he left it parked on the dam wall, unfortunately. And anyway, it was such a hell of a storm – a new dam; and the dam wall sort of half collapsed, and the tractor went in sideways, so it was on the dam side. And it completely flooded it and it had to be dragged out by some heavy machinery and taken down to Palmerston North and [speaking together] drained out …
Yeah, it was all right. Yeah.
They were so much more powerful than the D4 … the D4C was.
Yeah. Well you see I’ve had a D4C up in Waipoapoa for about ten years now, or more. It was about third-hand I think, and the council used to own it. But anyway, I got it retracked and it’s been a hell of a good tractor. I was the bulldozer driver because I remember the topdressing pilot, Ken Johnston, coming up … “Oh, Jesus, Pete”, he said, “I just dug a huge track. Level all the hills out with that, mate.” You know, and … oh, that’s a bit of an understatement. [Chuckle] But basically if you get some other bugger on the tractor, well you know … well, he spends far too long on it anyway, and it costs a lot of money to run.
But having done all the stock work and seen where the stock’s going out, I knew where the crossings should be and I put a lot of culverts in, a lot of bridges, and a lot of tracks. And every so often you’d get a Cyclone Bola type of thing come along, and man! There’s nothing like that bloody big tractor to push the bloody slips out of the way.
I don’t know what else we can talk about, really.
You were going to say something about Ian Kepka ‘cause he built the first house …
Yeah. Just trying to think of the year … it was mid-1970s we built this house. Yeah. Okay. Mary-Lou and I’d been on the farm for about seven years … on Waipoapoa, living in what’d been the homestead at Waipoapoa; in actual fact it was a house that’had been built, and it started off with a rimu floor, a fireplace and pit-sawn timber. But when it got to the roof it didn’t have long-run iron; it had old oil drums from the farm sent down to be corrugated and sent back up and it was very short. And it was a fairly flat roof, so every time we got a storm the storm would blow the rain underneath all the drums, and it was leaking all over the place. And Mary-Lou really put up with a lot living in that house for seven years, and we decided to build a new one. And so our architect was John Scott; and young Jacob was a boy in those days – he came up and had a bit of a look and basically Ian Kepka was the builder. And Ian came all the way from Taradale, and a great gang of builders, and they built this lovely new home for us about 1972 from memory. And that made Mary-Lou’s life; made my life; it was an asset to the station, and it’s still a beautiful home now, now being lived in by Richard and Nadine and their two boys. But I just wanted to say what a great builder Ian Kepka was. Then funnily enough when Mary-Lou and I finally left Waipoapoa and came down to Havelock North we built a house in Hikanui Drive, No 58, and John Scott’s understudy … you would’ve known him too, ‘cause he lived at Haumoana … Stephen McGavock, yeah.
Is Steve still alive?
No, he died – I went to his funeral about a year ago. Died far too young.
So funnily enough, we decided to build at 58 Hikanui Drive, and Steve and Jacob Scott came up and had a look at the site; and so we built this house with Ian Kepka’s son, Richard Kepka, who carried on in his father’s footsteps. And they did a wonderful job building a house at 58 Hikanui Drive for us, and it’s still got some characteristics of the John Scott design as you can see. But … just wanted to say what a great part of our lives the Kepka family and John Scott have put into building for us … designing and building.
Think what it was like in the early 1800s when it took six months to walk from Paihia to Hawke’s Bay or to Wellington, or to sail a boat from Paihia down the west coast … imagine they would’ve come down the west coast, would they?
To go to school in the old days? I think they came up the east coast actually. They used to go to Lyttelton, and then Wellington, and then Napier, and then Gisborne …
Yes, of course.
But I know old Jack Williams – he’s got a book that I’ve read – he only came home from Christ’s College once a year. They left school and they decided to go through Cook Strait and up the west coast, and there was such a hell of a storm … blew them right [chuckle] past Manukau Harbour, and they ended up in bloody Kaitaia or somewhere, and had to turn round and come all the way back. Half the holidays were all over before he got back home, but that’s what happened in those days. Yeah.
So during this period of farming and doing all this development work, you also had an interest in golf … when did that start?
Oh yeah. Right, well that’s a good point; when Mary-Lou finished having family really. Funnily enough, she was always a good golfer because her mother had taken her aside as a sixteen- year-old and said, “Come on – you’re going to come and play golf at Bridge Pa.” And her mother, Phyllis, had played a bit of golf, but she used to take Mary-Lou along; and Mary-Lou learned to hit a ball. And then of course, at times she could put a bit of time into it as she grew up, and others she was having family and so on. But she joined the Hastings Golf Club and played a lot of golf there over the years and became a single figure handicap; played a lot with the Hastings Ladies all round New Zealand, and thoroughly enjoyed it. And she always said to me, “Why don’t you play golf? Why don’t you play golf, Pete?” [Of] course I was one of these farmers that could hardly spare any time off the farm – it would’ve taken me at least an hour to drive to Bridge Pa.
And I’d always been keen on flying, and I wanted to be a private pilot; and so when my father became ill and I was about thirty years old – he wasn’t a very well man as a result of the war, and malaria and dengue fever, and being in the Navy for a long time – I used to go down and see him, and maybe only see him for an hour. And then I’d think. ‘Well I’ve come all the way to town – I’ll go out to Bridge Pa and have another flying lesson.’ And that all came together one day when my flying instructor, Herb Maxwell, said, “Okay, Peter”, he said, “that’s good.” We were doing a few circuits – he said, “Now I’m going to get out and go into the office, and I want you to do five more circuits.” And he got out of the plane and left me to it. [Chuckle] And of course you suddenly realise that you’ve got to bloody remember everything he says. [Chuckle] And so that was the start of my flying career, and I held a private pilot’s licence for fifteen years, during which time Mary-Lou was usually my navigator. And we flew North Island, South Island, or landed, you know, right down there in all sorts of places on the West Coast. And yeah – absolutely loved it – Wanaka, yeah – up and down the West Coast.
So did you have your own plane or did you use the Aero Club’s?
No – those were the years where interest rates were going up to twenty-two percent; and I thought. ‘If I buy an aeroplane, I’ll have to sell half the farm’, or ‘I’ll never own half the farm’, you know; and I gave it away, I thought, ‘No, I’ll just fly the Aero Club’s plane.’
We had a top dressing pilot called Ken Johnston, and he used to fly the Fletchers. And I asked him what the best idea was for an aircraft hangar when I built my airstrip and super shed on the farm, and he said, “Look, there’s only one thing to do. You build the doors on it so when you open the doors you can fly your aeroplane straight out.” He said, “What you do is, you have a boat winch at the end of the super shed, drag the plane in backwards and have it pointing straight out”, and he said, “all you’ve got to do is open the doors and fly out.” I could’ve got to golf in seven minutes.
You could’ve, too …
Yeah – and that was the whole idea of flying down; seven minutes instead of a full hour. But it never happened because of interest rates, and up and down farming and so on, so I never actually owned my own aircraft, I just flew the Aero Club’s one. I actually won a navigation prize one year, for flying for a good two weeks’ holiday with Mary-Lou, and we went right down all round the South Island and all the way back again; and landed at Franz Josef on one of the strips – and the Franz Josef strip you had to land in towards the mountains; well you had to land it first time … first go, otherwise you’d never get out of it …
Yes, no second chance … [Chuckles]
No. But it all worked well. So I loved my flying, and Mary-Lou loved her golf; and she used to go on golfing holidays and so forth. And basically one day when I got to fifty, she said, “Well Pete, you know you’re fifty – how long are you going to fly for?” And I said, “Well, I’ve been thinking about that myself, too”, because in the meantime the costs of flying were going up. And then of course when you get to about fifty, they turn round and say, “Oh you’re going to die tomorrow, so you’ve got to have you know, your heart checked, and ECGs [electrocardiograms] and all these things”; and all my good flying money was going on the medicals. There was never anything wrong with me, but I thought, you know, ‘To hell with it.’ So I flew for fifteen years, and then went; and she said, “That’s marvellous – now we can go and play some golf together”, which we did. She were great; she was a good golfer, and a good mate.
So of course, it means that unfortunately she died a bit young, Mary-Lou; she died when … we’d been in Hikanui Drive for probably fifteen years … Mary-Lou went to Auckland to have a knee operation; and she was fairly staunch, she wanted two knee operations at the one time because she thought that it would hurry the job along a bit. But unfortunately it didn’t work that way, and tragically she died in Auckland having this double knee operation at the age of sixty-seven, which was far too young, and totally unexpected; so it was tragic. Bugger … can’t think, Frank.
Once I started getting established down in Havelock North and retired, Mary-Lou and I were able to have some very good holidays overseas in which we played quite a lot of golf together, travelled round several different countries. We were very, very fortunate to have a family that were doing well for themselves, and we were able to get away and have holidays, and it was really a great part of our life; raised three kids and basically get [got] out there and have [had] a good time together, before she died.
Since then … well I was in Hikanui Drive, I suppose three or four years, and decided that it was too big for me so I moved down … what’s it now, 2019 … the middle of 2018. I managed to buy Bray Place, which was just [a] brand new apartment overlooking Anderson Park. Anderson Park was in such a good locality, so I sold Hikanui Drive and moved down here, and now [I’m] leading a full retirement life with not too much garden; playing a lot of golf, lot of tennis, getting on with life as an eighty year old. And that’s where we are today.
Coming back to Maraetotara, you had a lot of good friends in that area?
Oh yes. Well when we first went up there of course we were the youngest in the area, and we were so well looked after by the oldest. We were next door neighbours to Gordon and Elaine Blackmore who lived up Tawa Road, and then further up was Chris McGillivray, and just down the road was John and Faye Palmer. And I can remember numerous occasions being invited to their places for various functions; and I can remember John Palmer ringing me up and saying, “Oh Peter, bring Mary-Lou down.” And they had, I think it was the hundredth anniversary of the Angus Association … something like that; and they held it at the Angus Inn, and I’ve never been to a party like it. [Laugh] Not that we were Angus, we were Hereford, but they were just so nice to us, looking after the youngest people in the district. So I remember that, that was a huge party; but they welcomed us, all those three families, with open arms.
And then just down the road of course, was Tony Parker. And Tony and Robbie had children exactly the same age as my daughters, and we all got together for many parties and many occasions in the district; and life went on.
And in those days of course the road was very much a shingle road all the way out from Maraetotara School. The Maraetotara School is worth remembering in the fact that it went up and down in numbers the way cycles of families went really; and sometimes some families’ children grew up and moved on, and younger ones came in. And I can remember Shirley Wood was chairman and I was secretary, I think, of the school in our heyday when our kids were there; and the numbers went from say, fifteen kids up to twenty-three kids, and they built a second classroom on. And it was going famously; then all of a sudden the cycle went the other way and children left.
All the shepherds left?
And then of course the new classroom was hardly ever used; and then the real downturn came when the farmers had sold the house at the front gate, sort of thing. And who came and lived in it? Lifestylers. Some lifestylers came and lived, and they’re not the sort of person that’s going to help you with dagging and your fencing, your shearing; and so the school deteriorated and deteriorated to the extent that the farmers owned the school bus still, but basically the school committee was run by people from out of the district.
And I don’t want to say too much more about that, except the school finally closed over ridiculous … I don’t know whether I should say this … but the country was going through what I think at the moment [time] was the worst thing; all this PC [politically correct] rubbish that goes on these days. So they had had a thing called a Noise Control Officer; and the guy that was running the school was a headmaster who lived in the house. And all the area round the school was farming, and basically they used to use Selby Palmer’s Te Aratipi strip for topdressing. And one Sunday morning the Fletcher comes down and topdresses all round the school, and the school master says, “This is not good enough”; went and got the Noise Control Officer. The Noise Control Officer comes up and he says, “No, this is not good enough – we’ll go straight up to …”
Yeah … “go straight up to Te Aratipi and see the pilot.” And he said, “No more flying”, he said, “That’s it – too much noise.” You know? So – there was something like a hundred and fifty ton of fertiliser sitting in Selby Palmer’s shed, and suddenly, no more flying. And what happens to the super? It went hard. Hard as concrete, you know, and so the rest of the farmers couldn’t get their topdressing done. Hell of an argument! Selby Palmer couldn’t get his own topdressing done because of all this other fertiliser still in the bin. And this just goes to show – all this PC sort of rubbish that’s going on these days – it’s holding the blimmin’ country to ransom. That’s the sort of thing that happens. Ridiculous! So that takes care of … But oh, we had some good times in those days.
You were part of the National Party, too?
Well, yes, if you want to bring politics into it, I think we all were. Politics comes into it, I think, definitely; I was a National Party supporter. Basically I didn’t want to get into anything too serious with it, but we used to have National Party meetings or pay a sub [subscription] … that sort of thing; very strong.
Funnily enough at Waipoapoa when I went there, there was a straight line boundary between the old Waimarama Station and Te Apiti Station. And the boundary was set on the East Coast by the Māori tribes – the Waimarama tribe and the Māori tribe that lived down at Kairakau Beach; and their boundary was Red Island … Red Island, sort of half way down the coast there. So there was a straight line from Red Island due west up to the Te Aratipi trig, which was the northern side of Waipoapoa, two thousand feet; and then further west to Ngapuke trig which is still on Waipoapoa, eighteen hundred and fifty feet. And so that boundary still exists today, and everything south of that was in Kiwi Keith Holyoake’s electorate called Pahiatua. And Kiwi Keith wouldn’t have a clue where Waipoapoa was, because even when we built our house and we had to get building consents, and inspect the site, the people from the Council had to come all the way up from Dannevirke. And they’d drive up to Hastings … “Where the hell’s ..? No. No, we don’t know where this is.” No one ever came to our place to check it all out because we were in the wrong county.
Anyway, I always wanted to be part of Hawke’s Bay because that’s where all of us Williamses came from. John Renton was the one that solved the problem. He said, “Pete, there’s only one thing you can do, and that is wait until somebody else on that boundary wants to sell and get in the other county.” And eventually it did happen, ‘cause that boundary more or less carried on way further west, you know. And so suddenly somebody did that, and we sort of made an application to the Council that we should go from Pahiatua electorate into Hawke’s Bay county; and that actually happened. And our rates went up of course, but at least we could ring up Council and say, “Look, we want something done to the road, or …” Yeah. And that’s how it worked. So yeah, Pahiatua electorate … we used to vote for it. And I knew Kiwi Keith came from Pahiatua, but honestly it was ridiculous. But now we’ve got Lawrence Yule, a local man, and you know, I can really talk to somebody in our electorate and have something done. That’s enough of politics.
Well just coming back to your stock – you had one problem that Hawke’s Bay people didn’t have; you had rainfall. You had grass that grew all year round …
Mmm. Yeah, well I can talk ‘til the cows come home about all that. Basically when I came to Waipoapoa it was all part of Te Apiti Station. And funnily enough it became Waipoapoa in 1914 – that’s when the road was built from the Havelock side up, and it finally got up to the Te Apiti boundary. And so the owners at the time, the Sunderland family, decided that Waipoapoa should be run as a separate block of land, simply because it had access to Havelock. And funnily enough that road was completed in 1914, which you know, was the beginning of the First World War. And it was definitely known by the shepherds from Te Apiti that had to be put up on Waipoapoa, which was considered to be the cold, hard block of land up there – always wet and rainy. They used to ride on a pack horse down to Havelock North and fill it up with beer; [chuckle] yeah – take it back up. And they had a whare [hut] on Waipoapoa, and the paddock was called Old Whare – it still is called Old Whare – not a very big paddock but it’s where their whare was. And if you dig a post hole anywhere in that paddock you can guarantee to strike a bloody bit of glass coming up. Yeah. So that was interesting; but it meant that Waipoapoa was only three-quarters of an hour away from town, whereas Te Apiti by road from Havelock was miles away; that was their big problem.
People often wonder why it was called Waipoapoa, and I asked Māori – we’ve had Māori working on the place and so on – the translation [is] Winding Water, but Poapoa could be anything from heavy rain to everlasting mists, and anything in between. And so the higher you got, there was quite a significant increase in rainfall from where the homestead was up to where the bush at the top was, another three or four hundred feet higher, another fifteen inches of rain a year, you know? But don’t worry, we’ve had some droughts too; the whole property goes brown, but we did have … our biggest asset was having springs that bubbled up. There’s one spring overlooking the ocean at the top of Te Apiti – it was like a four-inch pipe of water that’s coming out all the time. You know, so at eighteen hundred and fifty feet, where does that come from? Taupo’s only twelve [hundred and] fifty [feet], and Waikaremoana’s two thousand [feet], but it’s a long way away; and I reckon the water comes from the Ruahines, and just follows the limestone layer right under [noise on recording] the Heretaunga Plains and up the other side. And it still goes. Some years it’s better than others, but it hasn’t changed, and I don’t think the climate’s changed. We started off in very wet years when I was there, we had a hundred and twenty inches a year. And I can remember poor old Mary-Lou living in this old, old homestead where you’d open the kitchen door and the rats would be scuttling from one cupboard to the next; she’d lay in the bath and look up and she could see the rats jumping across between the cracks in the gib board. It wasn’t funny [chuckle] …
No, it wasn’t funny …
… it was horrible. For seven years we lived in that house, and no matter what we did to it … we did quite a lot to make it better, like re-roofed it and all the rest of it, but it was still pretty old, and not in a good position.
I always remember the first time I went up there; I’d never seen hay like it.
No, you’re quite right. Well those were the wet years, and you see, we had a hundred and twenty inches more than once. And to get things like the washing done … you know? I’ve seen two months solid we never had one day where we could dry clothes. And so the kitchen would have the wooden fire going all day, and you’d have thing on a pulley that obviously [???] And it was hard on the wives as well as on the staff; and just to get any major operation done like weaning calves or … forget about making hay. But you know, those years fluctuated, and now it seems to’ve gone down to … probably the lowest point at Waipoapoa would be sixty inches a year; but now it’s going back up again. And they can call it what they like; they can call it global warming, or global cooling, or …
It’s normal fluctuations …
It’s fluctuations, yeah. So you’ve got to learn to live with it.
But to get back to the stock – because we were part of Te Apiti, in those days old Richard Sunderland used to have a Romney stud, and Waipoapoa had the progeny of Te Apiti from Dick Sunderland’s Romney stud. And it was like that when I came; and then I didn’t think they were performing too well, so I stuck to Romneys because Romneys were producing good wool; basically stuck to Romneys. And I went down to Jock Duncan’s for a start, bought some rams from down there, but I think the transition of height from more or less sea level right up to the top of Waipoapoa – they didn’t seem to move that well.
And then Tony Parker came along, and he got right into it in a big way, and so I could go and buy rams and be back home by morning smoko. Crikeys! Instead of going all the way to the Wairarapa and buying rams down there from somebody; and the stock agent’d want to go to the pub all the way home and that sort of thing, so basically I stuck with Tony for a long time; very successful.
And then I had a stock agent called Don Shaw, who worked for Richmond’s, and Don was a big help to me. I’d known Don for years anyway, when I was at Mangaohane he used to live up there as a stock agent and round Taihape. And so he came up and after a couple of years or so he said, “Peter”, he said, “these sheep aren’t that big; you could put a bit of bone into them by going somewhere else, and why don’t you have a go?”
And then Mt Linton down in Southland were doing very well with their Romneys; and you know, I knew people down there and [I’d] seen some of the sheep. And I decided I’d go down there for two or three years and buy their rams. Well, I remember Don Shaw coming up after five years of this, and he said “I can’t believe these are the same bloody sheep, you know – they’re much bigger, and …” You know? It was Tony Parker’s background of creating dams and all the performance of the background. So I had Tony Parker’s progeny, but made a bit bigger by Mt Linton.
And I’ve got to say the highlight of my farming was nothing to do with me; it was the circumstances of the time where wool was pretty good money; it was $6kg. [Kilogram] And when I was docking one year – I always had my transistor radio and at lunchtime I’d turn on the news and the weather and have lunch with the docking gang – and along came the news, saying ‘Live exports to Saudi Arabia – no tails’; or at least leave the tails on and the balls in. And I thought to myself, ‘What the hell are we docking for?’ But being a breeder myself … you’ve got to cut the tails off. In those days they used to dock everything and so they were all wethers, and they are started off as wethers; and I had these wethers that were going [to] live export, $40-$45, having had 6kg of wool shorn twice a year at $6kg. And I remember plainly one of the shearers leaning over to catch them [at the] pen door, and he said, “Look at one of these wethers”, you know, and they were big sheep … “Geez, boss – buggers are like shearing a forty-gallon drum!” You know? And they’d drag it out, but once you sat him on his arse you’ve got to see the smile on the sheep’s face – it would just sit there and the shearers would go round them, and out the porthole. And then, nothing to do to them, you know? I didn’t even drench them. I cut down on ewe numbers and basically just went as many wethers as I could. And so I used to wean the lambs, and when I sexed the lambs I’d take all the male lambs that were really good, maybe a thousand lambs, and wouldn’t let Don Shaw even take a look at them. He never knew they were there, ‘cause he would take them straight to the works and cut their heads off. And I would think, ‘No, I’m going to keep them as wethers.’ And oh, I think after about three or four years I had three- and four-year-old wethers that were growing so much wool, and you didn’t have to do anything to them; they never even got fly strike. Put them out in the back paddock, and one bark of the dogs and they were up and back home in no time at all – jumped all the creeks. The best farming I ever did.
But then of course, along comes all the animal rights people, and they say, “Oh no, no – this is no good, you can’t sell sheep to Saudi Arabia”, and “they’ll all die on the ship”, and all the rest of it. But I made more money those years … was [the] old story, with myself and one man; but it was just easier farming, and such a pleasant way of farming, because you know, the shearing gang loved it; and up goes the wool bales on the truck, and yeah – we made money.
Which was the house that burnt down?
Oh, can we just stick to the stock?
Oh, sorry …
Yeah. And anyway – we haven’t mentioned cattle, you see.
So sheep was always the Romney when I was there, and the price of wool went down and down and down; such a sad thing because it’s a great product. And then I can remember the price of lambs going down to about ten bucks [$10] a lamb. People these days wouldn’t have a clue – ten bucks a lamb’s nothing really, and it was still wool that was paying some of the bills. And then it got down to … in those days we had eighty million sheep, and now we’ve got what … forty million, or less … twenty million. And so that’s one of the reasons. It’s always been a land use thing, but Waipoapoa’s definitely a stock place, and you know, I’ve had people come up and say, “Oh, you should plant the whole thing in pine trees”, you know. To hell with that – I’m a stock man.
And so with the rainfall we realised that actually we can carry more cattle in relation to sheep, so it was always the Hereford; we’d always had the Hereford. We had a problem after I got there, and the problem was dwarfism. And there was apparently some American bulls that … or bloodlines that came in, and it was introduced through that, I think. The dwarfism really worried me because every so often you’d see a calf that didn’t look right, and it never grew, and it … no, it wasn’t good. So my father, Paul Williams, he was a great friend of old Lew Harris, and they’d you know, been in bull breeding all their lives, Shorthorn and whatever. The old man, he said, “There’s only one way you can sort that out – a cross-breed.” And the thing is, what cross-breed d’you put over a Hereford? You can either put Angus or Shorthorn; we tried Shorthorn for start, and then we’ve had Angus, and mucked around with Simmental. My son, Richard, tried Simmental, and the thing is it got rid of the dwarfism, and now we’re back into Hereford again and look, I’ll tell you what – absolutely brilliant.
And the other thing with Hereford was that Fred Chesterman was just down the road, and Fred was getting well underway when I was getting underway at Waipoapoa. I remember when he had his first bull sale, and he was in fear and trepidation of how the thing was going to go and all that. And I thought, ‘Well, you know, give him a go instead of going miles away to buy bulls.’ Went down to Fred’s first sale and I bought lots … three bulls, Lot 1-6, so I bought [chuckle] … He was, “God! You’re paying far too much money for those bloody bulls”, you know. But you know, I bought them. And Fred brought them up in his truck the next day, piece of cake; I’d only spent about two hours down at the bull sale ‘stead of travelling for miles. And they moved well up to my place. And they’ve gone from strength to strength, the Chesterman family, they really have; and so they’ve been great neighbours and great district people. And so I stuck with them and stuck with them; but I thought, ‘Well’, you know, ‘you’ve got to have a look at some other bulls too.’ So Bob Gunson used to breed bulls, Herefords and that, and … yeah, so I bought quite a few from Bob over the years.
So I’ve been into Herefords for a long time, and after [the] dwarfism thing was solved, that was when my son came in. And he’s played around with cross-breeding with Simmental, but he’s now cut the farming down into … well, put it this way, when I was there I was right into breeding ewes and breeding cows. And suddenly you’d get a drought come out of the blue, and you’ve got to sell some stock. It’s all breeding stock you see, and my son thought, I think rightly, you’ve got to have some stock that’s trading stock; you can get rid of it. And so he’d go out and he’d buy weaner steers from way up the boohai somewhere, that would move well, and keep them for a year … sometimes keep them for two years; sell them when you wanted to. But, didn’t matter, if you had to sell them they were just the trading stock, you know, and as long as you made a bit of money out of them … So he had a little bit less breeding stock on the place but he could keep them through droughts, you know, and so on.
So we tried to farm with the way the seasons are; and the seasons to me are not terribly different from when I went there years ago. Well I’m eighty now, and I don’t think that it’s much different to when I was a little kid running round the beach seventy-five years ago, we always had dry seasons. I’m talking about the Gisborne hill country; but today the headline news is all about terribly hot or terribly cold; or there’s a storm in Alabama that’s … they’ve always had bloody typhoons in some part of the world, and hurricanes in others, and our country is no different, we’ve had some terrible storms. Now, when I went up to Waipoapoa and walked around – this was when I first went there and I walked right round the boundary, you know – you got up the top of Waipoapoa and there was a beautiful block … a hundred acres of bush. And on Cecil Wall’s side there were all these bloody great big rimu trees that had dropped … obviously the same way, from the from the southerly, and had dropped into Cecil Wall’s place and smashed the fence; just before I … it was 1926 all these came down. And I thought, ’What the hell happened in 1926?’ Oh, just another huge storm, the like of Cyclone Bola type of thing. And I asked old Cecil … clearly remember Cecil telling me that, “Well we had a drought, and then we had this hell of a rain; sort of north-easterly tropical depression came down, and probably twenty inches in twenty days sort of thing.” Which we’ve had before, and had after. “And then this monstrous southerly came, and all the trees were totally … the roots were wet and it just pushed them over.” But that just happened, you know; and if that happened again next year, some prick’d get up and say, “Oh, it’s climate change”, you know. “It’s terrible. There’s going to be a disaster in a few years’ time if this carries on.”
Another property you made mention of earlier – Mt Linton.
Isn’t that a beautiful station?
Southland’s got some great country, hasn’t it?
Yeah, but what was underneath some of that country? Bloody coal mine … oh, coal, yeah. But in those days they were allowed to mine it, weren’t they? And yet, you know, they’re still mining some of our best coal in New Zealand and sending it to India. So what’s that tell you?
Well what else have you forgotten?
There’s always going to be something.
That’s probably just about covered the field. So anyway probably that will do for the present. Thank you, Peter, for this opportunity – another page of Hawke’s Bay history.
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Interviewer: Frank Cooper