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Pioneering Reminiscences of Old Wairoa

A Mayor's Master-Stroke

page 80

A Mayor's Master-Stroke.

The above heading reminds one in a mild way of that outstanding move, carefully and quietly put over the French by Disraeli when he purchased from the Arab chiefs their interest in the Suez Canal, to the consternation of the whole world, and the historical incident serves to introduce this anecdote to the public. The present-day inhabitants of Wairoa who enjoy the luxuries and comfort of town life, such as they are, know very little about the scheming and planning of their public men in order to secure, and build up, something that the generations to come might be proud of. Coronation Square, as it looks to-day, is something to be proud of, and is greatly admired by every visitor to this town. The history of Coronation Square is interesting and it will certainly command a page in the records of the march of progress of the Wairoa Borough.

The site now known as Coronation Square was not very conspicuous for beauty or utility in the 'sixties, as it was covered with dense manuka scrub, sweet-briar, toi-toi, and stunted ngaios. A deep creek, the name of which is forgotten, crossed the square at the back of the present-day courthouse. It rose in the hills to the south of the Potaka block, a few miles to the west of the borough. On the highest part of the ground there was situated the Wairoa Land and Survey Office, a modest affair of wattle and daub, in charge of the late George Burton. Later on the site became an education reserve, and a fine public school building was erected when the drift of population page 81made the Kopu Road School out of bounds, the latter site later becoming a Chinaman's garden. For many years the Wairoa School was carried on there, and many children passed through it well fitted out and equipped for the battle of life. As the town developed, and the population was increasing rapidly, the number of children that attended the school soon began to increase, in a mild way, something on the lines of the white butterfly. The school grounds being adjacent to the public courthouse, it was almost impossible to carry on the business during the children's play-hour. On many occasions the Magistrates considered the question of combatting the nuisance, but were at their wits end, in fact, when one night Providence discovered a way out, and this very fine school building went up in smoke on the night of the annual election of the School Committee, and the site was left a vacant section.

The Justice Department may have had a hand in the game, for a site for a new school building was selected nearly a mile away from the courthouse. The old site then remained idle for a year or two, and later was about to be occupied by Mr. Brenkley, as a timber-yard. About this time Wairoa emerged from a town district into a full-blown borough, and this is where the story of Coronation Square begins.

Mr. Joseph Corkill was Mayor at this time, and a loan was raised for forming streets and footpaths, and included was an amount to build Borough Chambers, but as the Council had no suitable endowments, and no money to buy a site, the Council was up against a stone wall. The page 82Mayor, who, it is now proved, had his head screwed on in the right way, put a bombshell over the Council when he tabled the motion for taking the old school site, peaceably for preference, and forcibly if necessary, under the Public Works Act, After a good deal of discussion the Council gave the Mayor authority to take steps to secure the site. Sir Joseph Ward was Prime Minister, and the Mayor getting in touch with him, got a reply "Nothing doing." This area, he said, was an education reserve, and it could not be sold or "taken" as suggested—"Very sorry we can't meet you." This was not the end, however, as the Council had made up its mind to have that piece of land. The Mayor then went to Wellington and met Sir Joseph, and the battle re-started with the result that a few trenches were gained and an arrangement made that if the Council could give the department some reserves, equivalent in value, that an exchange of land might overcome the legal difficulties. The question then came before the Council, and it was agreed to give three and a half acres of reserves in exchange for nearly one acre of old school site. After a good deal of bartering as to values, Sir Joseph wired to the Council that the Department had agreed to the exchange. The Council immediately called for tenders, and commenced the erection of the Council Chambers. A few weeks later the Government informed the Council that the coronation of King George was to take place on a certain date, and to commemorate the event the Government would provide a subsidy of £1 for £1 towards the cost of approved memorials. The page 83Council immediately decided to build a band rotunda, and received the subsidy, so the band rotunda was completed, and the Chambers in course of construction when Sir Joseph went out of office, and Mr. Massey became Prime Minister. Soon after he took office he discovered that there was some uncompleted arrangements with the Wairoa Borough Council in reference to the exchange of lands, and wanted to know the position. After letters had passed explaining the uncompleted arrangements with the previous Prime Minister, Mr. Massey wrote to the Council stating that he could not see his way to confirm the deal, as the lands offered had no prospective value, while the old school site would some day become very valuable. The fat was now in the fire. The Council met in committee, and the Mayor had to take the greater part of the blame for the most uncomfortable position now reached. The Mayor, a much worried man by this time, and with the end of his political career well in view, decided to take the bull by the horns. Seeing that the band rotunda and the Council Chambers were both built on a piece of land without any title, Mr. Corkill realized the only thing left was to beard the lion in his den. He went right away to Wellington, met the Prime Minister, and tried to induce him to complete the deal, which still Mr. Massey could not see his way to do. Mr. Corkill then immediately put his cards on the table, and said to the Prime Minister, "I am now entirely in your hands. The position is: The Coronation Memorial, for which you have paid half the cost, and the Borough Chambers, provided page 84by the people, are nearly completed on that piece of land, now what are you going to do with me?" Mr. Massey immediately replied: "Do you mean to say, as Mayor of Wairoa, that you have built that memorial and the Council Chambers on a piece of land without a vestige of a title?" Mr. Corkill replied that such had been done on the understanding that the arrangement would be confirmed, and it was clone with the best intention, and in the best interests of the town; it would be a breathing spot for the women and children for all time right in the heart of the town; there was no personal interest or private gain to anyone, and he hoped the Prime Minister would now, knowing all the circumstances, help them out of a most uncomfortable position. This nice bit of Manx blarney had its due effect. The Prime Minister replied that it was a bold stroke and the most dangerous procedure he had ever heard of and he supposed all he could do was to confirm the exchange, and instruct the Crown Law Office to prepare the necessary forms which would be sent on to the Council for completion.

That is the story of how the Wairoa Borough became possessed of Coronation Square. About ten years later Mr. Corkill was still Mayor, and Mr. Massey, still Prime Minister, visited Wairoa, and was entertained by the local bodies, and by the ladies, to afternoon tea on the Square grounds. In the evening he addressed the public from the band rotunda "for which he contributed half cost." Mr. Corkill, in introducing Mr. Massey, reminded him that he was then occupying the rotunda, the grounds and the Council Chambers page 85about which they had had a squabble many years ago. Mr. Massey said he well remembered the whole business, which appeared to him outrageous at the time, but he now congratulated Mr. Corkill for the pluck and courage he had displayed, and he had to admit that it was a long shot, but was now convinced that he did the right thing, and he was pleased he had done his part in completing the transaction. Mr. Massey commended the Council on the lay-out of the grounds and the building. The idea, he said, was unique, and an object lesson for many towns larger than Wairoa.

Incidentally, may I add that Mr. Corkill had another battle to fight, just before the Chambers were built, for he had to meet the representatives of the Wairoa Brick and Tile Company round the Council table, and only by a narrow margin did he carry the day for concrete versus brick. Had he not succeeded the Council Chambers would probably have been laid low by the same earthquake which destroyed the post office tower, and Wairoa's beautiful town clock and chimes.

A Wairoa mother took her little daughter to a neighbouring town for a holiday and the hostess did her best but the fare was evidently not too appetising, being mostly rabbit. But by way of a change another day she asked her guests if they would like some "Welsh rabbit," whereon the little girl remarked, in what "Paddy" would call a "pig's whisper," "Mother, if its the worst of the rabbit we had yesterday, I don't want any."