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Life in Early Poverty Bay

The Grand Old Lady — Mrs. Townley Glances Over the Past. — “We Were One Big, Happy Family

page 123

The Grand Old Lady
Mrs. Townley Glances Over the Past.
“We Were One Big, Happy Family.

Gisborne, nowadays, is once again troubled with the problem of an inadequate water supply and the “City Fathers,” ever and anon, cast around in search of a fresh source to supply the increasing demands made on the system. It is, however, merely a case of history repeating itself. Fifty years ago, even with the scanty population of those days, difficulty in this direction was a continual cause of worry. But, at that time, it was not a question of a leaking pipe-main, for the font of the town's supply was merely a spring, situated right in the town, close to the position now occupied by the Wi Pere Memorial in Read's Quay. Here, in those good old days, Gisbornians gathered with buckets and cans and obtained their daily supplies of water for washing and cooking. It was the only supply pure enough for these purposes, for all other available water was merely from the river or had gathered in wells after rain, and required boiling before becoming fit for human consumption. Use of the impure water often resulted in a disease commonly known then as “Gisborne fever.” When this single spring ran low, then, the town's water problem became acute.

“That Wild Place.”

This feature of old Gisborne days was related by Mrs. John Townley in the course of a chat on life here in the early days. Mrs. Townley, who was ninety years old on May 6, came to Gisborne, or “The Port” as it was then called, fifty-four years ago. Prior to that she had spent ten years in Napier, whence she had come from the Old Country. Reports often reached Napier, in those days, of wild doings in and around “The Port” and this part of New Zealand was considered a good place to be absent from. Mrs. Townley recollected that, only two months prior to their leaving Napier, her husband had jokingly asked how she would like to live in Gisborne. She had replied that nothing in the world would make her go to “that wild place.” “Yet,” remarked Mrs. Townley whimsically, “there we were, two months later, setting out for Gisborne to start a branch of our firm.

Mrs. J. Townley.

Mrs. J. Townley.

“We were very pleasantly surprised, however,” Mrs. Townley continued, “The people here were wonderfully friendly and we were soon entirely at home. Gisborne townsfolk, then, were a very happy little family page 124 and everybody knew everybody else. When any celebration was held, the whole town attended.

“I well remember the little concerts we used to have,” she continued. “Everybody, of course, came along and all contributed items, whether they had talent or not. Newcomers were always great fun and were usually hard to get on to the platform at first. They always be came alright afterwards, perhaps because, after they had heard the rest, they felt they didn't perform so badly after all.

Trips Up the Rivers.

“Another of our favorite amusements was to go for picnics up the river. As usual, everybody joined in and we had splendid times. There were always plenty of small boats for hire and quite a fleet often used to set out from about opposite the Wi Pere Memorial early in the morning. Impromptu concerts were all the rage on these trips, too. Whenever anyone wanted a change, it was always a trip up the river that was suggested.

“Of course,” commented Mrs. Townley, “we had only the rivers. Roads were too bad to go far on, and there was nowhere to go to anyway. On one occasion a man set out from town to drive to Ormond and reached there two days later. Travelling by the roads was not at all enjoyable in wet weather! Of horses we had only a few, and fewer still of traps and carts—so it was always the river.

“There were no bridges at that time,” proceeded Mrs. Townley, “and so little row-boats were absolutely necessary. And the river was far more attractive in those days and was far more navigable, too. Some of the smaller visiting craft, the ‘Pretty Jane,’ for instance, from Auckland, came right up the river, but others stayed in the roadstead. A pilot boat went out to these and landed cargo and passengers, when the bar was in good order, in the vicinity of the present Post Office. When the bar was bad, however, the pilot boat berthed near the Cook Memorial.

Late Mr. J. Townley.

Late Mr. J. Townley.

“Mail-days were naturally our great days,” Mrs. Townley remarked. “Everyone gathered about the Post Office and waited anxiously while the letters were being sorted. The Post Office, by the way, was then in a chemist's shop, owned by a Mr. Stubbs, on the present site of Mr. E. D. Smith's shop. Later, the authorities put up a tin shed about where the Post Office now is—just a tiny place with only room enough for a single bed, a small table, an oil heater, a few mail-bags and a chair. The man in charge slept there and when anyone wanted to inquire about the mail, a tap at a small window and the calling of the inquirer's name brought either a gruff ‘No’ or a hand containing letters or papers. They seemed to have very taciturn officials in the Post Office then.”

Early Church Services.

Church services in Gisborne fifty years ago, Mrs. Townley related, were carried on in a small building later placed on the site of the present page 125 Townley's Buildings. This building had originally been at Adair Bros.' corner, but was moved along the street on rollers. Ministers of different religions took the services on successive Sundays and church-goers attended all services, no matter which minister happened to be presiding.

The only really established church at first was out at Matawhero, where a Presbyterian minister held regular Sunday services in a small building. Gifts of land from the Government, however, to the various denominations soon led to the establishment of separate services. One church was situated near the present Kaiti freezing works and was largely attended by the Natives. Here the late Archdeacon Williams usually took the service, but was occasionally assisted by Maori clergymen. A Maori pa was situated nearby and the greater number of its inmates attended services regularly. Most of the land now called Kaiti was then very swampy and wet.

“We had plenty of dancing in those days,' concluded Mrs. Townley, “and we thoroughly enjoyed it, even without fox-trots and the jazz. There were sawmills out at Makauri and the bushmen often came into town for some amusement. They were very keen on dancing and always ready for it. Sometimes we held out little evenings in two or three rooms of a private house and at other times in one of the stores. Eveybody joined in, of course, and there were always several good pianists about, with occasionally a violin or fiddle to make a good orchestra. Some of the Maoris came along and thoroughly enjoyed the fun, but, later, when more pakehas arrived, the Maoris became fewer and many of them moved away from the town to more sparsely-set-tled parts inland.

“Gisborne townspeople,” Mrs. Townley repeated, “were just one big family in those days and I think everyone enjoyed life, even though the work was hard and the conveniences few.”

Ormond School Drum and Fife Band in the 30's.

Ormond School Drum and Fife Band in the 30's.

page 126
Mission House After the Waerenga-a-a-Hika Fight in 1865

Mission House After the Waerenga-a-a-Hika Fight in 1865