A city’s business heart beats to the ever-changing rhythm of economic influence. Depressions and recessions take their toll, but where one enterprise fails another takes its place. Most cities have a nucleus of family businesses which ride out the storms, regardless of the financial weather. Hastings has at least five of these businesses which continue to prosper. The first in this series on old family businesses in Hastings is Kershaws, probably the oldest of them all.
Served HB from cradle to grave
By MARION MORRIS
Staff reporter, Hastings
The year was 1879 and a young certificated cabinetmaker, who had served his time in Auckland, arrived in Hawke’s Bay.
William Kershaw knew settlers were flocking to the area and he had a skill to sell. They would need furniture for their homes and equipment for their land. They would need cradles for their babies and coffins for their funerals.
In Napier he found another young cabinetmaker by the name of Page and it was not long before Page and Kershaw, cabinetmakers and undertakers, opened for business in Tennyson St.
Such was the beginnings of Kershaws, now in Heretaunga St west, Hastings. The firm is now being managed by a fourth-generation Kershaw and namesake of his great-grandfather, William Kershaw.
Still holding the reins, albeit lightly, is William’s father, Gordon, who remembers much of the firm’s early days. “I understand that my father decided to move to Hasting and run his own business. His first premises were in Market St. After a couple of years, in 1885, he moved to Heretaunga St west, where we have remained to this day.”
Gordon Kershaw heard some stories from his father about his grandfather – he wished he had listened more carefully.
“I believe he was keen on the horses and on the spike he kept on his office desk there was a mixture of order forms, business notes and race tickets.
Records of the firm were few, he said, but one that has survived the 111 years was his grandfather’s original cashbook.
Its entries read like a Hawke’s Bay history book:
Thomas Tanner, Frederick Nelson, the Knight brothers, Cr Arthur Beechcroft, Nelson Bros NZ, and Shanley are some of the names in copperplate heading the pages.
Prices charged seem unbelievable.
Thomas Tanner’s account showed:
Erecting cottage £35.
Material £20 14s 6d.
A second cottage was priced at £67 8s 3d.
James Ebbett’s page reads:
Making five 16ft-sheep troughs £7 5s 0d.
A Mr Braithwaite, Mangateretere, was charged £1 10s 6d for 150 superfeet of kauri.
It was usual in Kershaw’s early days of business to receive orders for household lots of furniture.
For £300 the firm would make a bedroom suite (including wirewove bedspring and mattress), a diningroom suite (table, four chairs and sideboard), and sittingroom furniture (sofa and two armchairs).
Some of that furniture still exists in the home of Mrs Harry Jackson, Havelock North.
She remembers the day she ordered it and Mr William Kershaw’s words.
It was 1928 and times were hard for Hastings’ businessmen.
“Mr Kershaw said to me: ‘Thank you very much. If you hadn’t ordered this furniture I would have had to sack my men’.”
Mrs Jackson was impressed with her furniture and in 1932 advised her cousin, Mrs Jean Whitworth, to do the same and order the £300 household package.
This order was to become a legend within the firm and to warrant a newspaper report.
When completed Mrs Whitworth’s order was loaded on to a truck for transport to her home in Ongaonga. Somewhere between Hastings and its destination the truck slipped off the road and down a bank and the furniture was so badly damaged that the entire order had to be remade.
The second generation in the business was Gordon’s father, George Kershaw.
“He was an engineer and worked in Wellington and at Nivens in Napier. When the First World War was declared he joined the Royal Navy as an apprentice engineer and served on the Tofua.
“He went in as an officer and was stationed at Dover on motor boat patrol. He was involved in the Zeebrugge affair when the old harbour was sunk to trap the Germans.
“After the war, when dad came home, he started a furniture business in Waipukurau where he met and married Florrie Butcher.
“He remained in Waipukurau until the 1931 earthquake when he was able to terminate his lease.
“In Hastings my grandfather’s shop and factory was flattened. The ground floor was rubble – the top storey relatively unharmed sat on top of the pile.
Later that year George joined his father in Hastings.
After the hard times of the Depression there followed what Gordon Kershaw describes as probably the firm’s most prosperous era.
“Just prior to and after the Second World War business was brisk.
“Dad bought a 1937 Ford V8 Snipe Deluxe from Johnny Peach for £375.
“The firm was replacing its old solid tyre trucks. We bought the first truck in Hawke’s Bay which had back wheels the same size as its front wheels.
“Dad used to tell the story of the old Saxon truck who’s gearbow [gearbox] fell out as he was driving it across Waipawa Rd. It was parked where it stopped by Ted Windley’s garage in Otane for years.”
It was a time of great activity in the factory. Shop fittings were needed even more after the earthquake and there were still houselots of furniture being ordered.
Kershaws made wirewove mattress bases (Gordon said there are still boxes of the heavy bolts used in their manufacture in their store). They made kapok mattresses and they made the machines which made them both.
“We never bought any equipment. We made it ourselves. The kapok machine which teased out the good quality Island kapok we used was worked by one of the firm’s employee, Jack Thompson.
“He would get his sideburns covered in fluff. He was always known as ‘Kapok Jack’.”
Cycled from Napier
Two other of the firm’s employees at the time were Napier men who used to cycle to Hastings each day.
“My father told me they used to ride into the slipstream of the bus and get here that way,” said Mr Kershaw.
Mr Kershaw’s entry into the business did not happen immediately after he left Nelson College.
He worked for about a year at the Maple Furniture Company in Wellington where he learnt all aspects of the trade before returning to Hastings and setting up a small carpet-laying business.
He joined his father in 1956.
The best coffins
The undertaking side of the business was still flourishing then.
“We used to say Kershaws and Samuel Tong made the best boxes around. The best heart rimu or Japanese oak was used – 22-inch boards of solid timber, they were.”
Mr Kershaw remembers driving the hearse and recalls his father telling him of the days when they would hire a horse and cart from Gabby’s – a firm where Bate Hallet is now.
Undertaking then was done with the help of the district nurse who used to lay out the bodies.
“We had to lift them into the box,” he said.
There is a link between Kershaws and another Hawke’s Bay furnishing firm, Treachers of Havelock North.
Mr Kershaw said Ted Treacher served his time under Kershaw’s Teddy Matthews and his brother Geoff Treacher was the last apprentice cabinetmaker Kershaws had in their furniture factory.
Now William Kershaw the second is managing the firm. And like his father before him, he too did not go straight from school into the business.
He learnt the carpentry trade with Rex Wilson Construction Company with whom he remained for nine years. He has been in the family firm for about 12 years.
Photo captions –
Today’s team, from left, Mr Gordon Kershaw, Mrs Ngaire Kershaw and son Mr William Kershaw. In 1906 Kershaw’s could sell you a pram, make you a spring mattress or bury you.
Heretaunga St east after the February, 1931 earthquake, looking west from the corner of Warren St. The top storey of Kershaw’s shop at the extreme right sits on top of the collapsed lower storey. On the left can be seen the collapsed premises of F.L. Bone.
The first Hastings Kershaws. From left Oliphant, picture framer; Kingswell, polisher; H.T. Thompson, cabinetmaker; F. Marbrook, foreman; W. Kershaw, proprietor; G.H. Kershaw, son; E. Matthews, apprentice; J. Moran, shopboy.
The beginnings of Kershaws. Page and Kershaw in Tennyson St, Napier, 1879. Behind the shop and factory is the residence of Dr Herman.