In the shadow of THE WORKS
Growing up in the Bay
The Whakatu Works slaughterhouse dominated many families’ lives from 1912 until it closed on October 13, 1986. SHIRLEY McKAY, of Akina, Hastings, shares her memories.
The “Whakatu Works”, owned by Hawke’s Bay Farmers’ Meat Company, was like a benevolent giant to many families. It housed, employed and supplied recreation grounds and hall for the local community.
The company, formed by a co-operative of farmers in 1912, purchased land at Whakatu and killing of stock began in January 1915. It became the largest stock processor in New Zealand with many record kills of lamb and mutton.
My father Gordon Painter began work as a fellmonger in the early 1930s. His hands ached at night after a day of pulling wool from pelts. He moved to the construction and maintenance department under the guidance of Charlie Goffin, then Bert Boyle. Eventually, Dad worked his way up to being in charge of the labourers and truck drivers.
About 1943, when the Whakatu Hall was refurbished and attached living accommodation was upgraded, our family moved in, with Dad as part-time caretaker.
There were always willing helpers to sweep and rewax the floor after a function.
What fun we kids had, skating around the dance floor on soft sacks to spread the wax.
Dad joined the Works Volunteer Fire Brigade and the men organised dances, with free buses from Napier and Hastings to the hall. These occasions were very popular, featuring dance bands led by Les Henry, Joe Brown, Phil Waldin, Mick Painter, Snow Chaplow etc. The firemen also arranged and performed in concerts at the Whakatu Hall, and many locals will remember five or six of them performing “The Doll Dance”.
An array of pastel-coloured costumes were made by their wives of materials from the Works. Mutton bag and calico tutus, wigs of dyed raw wool which were a carrot/ginger colour and their pelt slippers had matching pastel calico bows. Ivena Pothan, a well known Hastings dance teacher, was approached to teach the men steps to the tune of Oh you beautiful doll. She agreed on condition they perform at a “Fun Session” concert held at the Municipal Theatre in Hastings. Ready to face the danger of fighting fires those same men needed courage fortified by homemade parsnip wine to perform on stage.
Great excitement spread around the community when Dad drove the new fire appliance into Whakatu from Wellington. Kids clamoured for a ride and one of the treats before Christmas, after the usual party and visit by Santa Claus (Dad), was a ride on the “fire engine”.
Every Monday night at 7.30 the siren sounded and the firemen practised in the works grounds. They competed at fire-fighting competitions and won trophies, but there were a few hilarious moments with Dad in his fireman role. Not long after the Brigade was formed the siren went up and Dad was rushing through the house looking for his boots. Mum found them and chased him around the table calling his attention. She then knelt down to tie the laces as he put them on.
“What are you doing woman? This is a fire not a party.”
With that he jumped on his bike and pedalled madly to where the fire appliance was stationed near the back of the works.
I am the eldest of five children and we had a carefree and safe childhood at Whakatu. Of course, there were a few incidents which were not so rosy. We had moved to a larger house down the road when a few drunken youths thought it funny to throw large stones on the iron roof in the middle of the night. It was like being woken by explosions. Then another bad occasion happened to my brother’s small Australian terrier, which rode happily on the front carrier of his bike while he delivered papers. Mickey was viciously kicked in the night near our back fence and later died.
I don’t remember being forbidden to go near the works building and there were occasions when I was sent to the butcher shop with its sawdust floor and cool interior, or to collect mail from the first floor, before these services were built out in the community. Except for the warmth of the boiler room, I think we were content to stay away from the environment of killing. My brothers loved riding in the shunting engine around the works on special occasions.
An uncle’s farm or friend’s orchard in the district were pleasant places to visit. The swimming hole at the river near where the Chesterhope Bridge is now was popular. The baths built at our school in 1940 was the means of teaching us to swim. Tennis courts, which produced excellent players, and a bowling green next door became a popular club taking part in competitions. A works team played rugby at several venues between Hastings and Clive and at one time hockey was played in a paddock behind the works. Boys on their bikes had a “speedway track” on the riverbank nearby and my youngest sister led a “band” on roller skates, banging pots and pans around the yard and down the road.
On Saturdays, a treat was to catch the Napier bus going to Hastings for the “pictures” with maybe threepence or sixpence (5cents) to spend if we’d done all our chores like cleaning the brass (hated that job). It was amusing boarding the bus when the boiling down of offal was in full swing. The smell was awful but we had learnt to tolerate it. Passengers coming through the area were quite open in their disgust, wrinkling noses, hastily finding handkerchiefs to blot out the offence.
The war hardly touched my young life. Dad was in the Home Guard and he was among the men working in essential services. We all knew if the conflict continued many of those might be called up.
Another highlight of living at Whakatu was the Salvation Army Sunday School. They never worried what denomination we came from. The teachers taught us hymns, played on a little pedal organ, and gave us the good word. We enjoyed being taken into Hastings to celebrate the church anniversary, hosted to lunch and a rousing service with a brass band playing completed the outing.
My parents did not own a car until the 1950s but we went for great picnics to the beach or rivers on the back of an uncle’s truck. We had three uncles with trucks so it depended on who was available with his family as to where we would go and when. Even to the A&P Show wearing our latest summer finery we’d arrive on a truck. Rather windswept but too excited to care. There was also the railway picnics travelling on the train to Eskdale Park.
We were fortunate to have a large extended family and often on Sunday there would be a gathering at our house or a relative’s. After tea the card games saw keen competition, a fun favourite was “Stop the Bus”. There was the piano music too. Several family members could play so we never lacked variety.
I remember the small general store in Whakatu being run by the Dillon, Gallagher and Bernstone families over the years. It was moved later to the opposite corner and still operates. Everyone liked going to the shop and often a squabble would erupt on whose turn it was to collect the bread. The magnet was the nice fresh loaf and the “fat bread”, (a loaf pulled apart left one half with layered petals). How our mother coped with almost hollow loaves I don’t know.
The other event was the arrival of the “books”. There was the Girls Crystal Magazine, one or two comics and the English Women’s Weekly in our order. We didn’t have money to spend on sweets but sometimes we were handed a few with mum’s groceries.
Memories still remain of the coalman, with an inverted sack over his head and shoulders like a hood, carrying in a full bag of coal on his back to tip into our bin. He and another truck driver would regularly deliver coal to the works houses and Len Jaffrey’s jovial banter amused us. The milkman ladling milk into our billy; and the fresh fish van are among early memories. Mr Findlay the butcher from Clive with scales swinging in the open door of his van, also the bread delivery van from Clive.
Mangateretere School seemed a long distance away walking on a frosty morning. Gradually we all acquired bikes, albeit second-hand, but it was a much preferred way of covering the almost three miles to school. A bus was provided in later years.
I caught the bus to attend the Napier Girls’ High School, then trudged up the Brewster Steps with other bus girls. The travelling time on the bus was opportune for completing my homework most mornings. My sister followed the same routine later but my other three siblings went to Hastings for Secondary School.
The radio was an important part of our lives, Mum listened to parliament broadcasts while she did the ironing. We had to be quiet while Dad listened to the news each night and the whole family loved the Dad and Dave episodes. I enjoyed the local children’s session with “Uncle Ed and Aunt Gwen” and it was particularly exciting when our school choir was taken into the Napier studio to sing.
Sadly, after a prolonged battle to keep going, Whakatu Freezing Works closed down on October 13, 1986. The dominant works whistle was silent. It was a traumatic time. But perhaps an everlasting memory for many will be the men on the slaughter chains singing their hearts out in beautiful harmony.
Photo caption – SMOKESTACK: The new chimney being raised at the Whakatu Works. Shirley McKay’s father, Gordon Painter, would have been working on this.
Photo caption – VOLUNTEERS: Whakatu Fire Brigade 1946 – Standing, from left: Firemen E.A Jones, *A Ferguson, *W G Morley, *C E Rapsey, J O Cooper, *H Lang, *S H Smith-Pilling, *J V Thomson, *H Franklin, N D Wiley, G J Richdale.
Sitting, from left: Firemen * W J Rowe, *C E Taylor, Foreman *J R Cunningham, Dept. Supt * R W Simon, Supt *C H Goffin, Foreman *L C Smith, Firemen *F W Warren, C H Hawkes, *G T Painter.
Inset: Late fireman *R C Larsen. * Denotes Foundation Member.