Thursday, 22 October 2020

WHITIANGA WEATHER

Future follows seafaring past at the Robinson Road boat ramp

Much has been written about Mercury Bay’s long seafaring history. In 2019, the construction of the new Robinson Road boat ramp prompted a piece of research that shone the spotlight on the very early days of commercial activity in Whitianga.

As work commenced on a longer and wider boat ramp to accommodate larger vessels, Thames-Coromandel District Council, noting the remnants of a historic homestead and jetty, commissioned W Gumbley Limited to undertake an archaeological and historical assessment of the area surrounding the boat ramp. The subsequent report provided a snapshot of early settlement and development on both sides of the Whitianga Ribver. The author, archaeologist Matthew Gainsford, notes the work of several writers, including Jenny Bithell (in her book, “Guide to the History of Whitianga,” published in 1980) who recorded a short history of the White family and events preceding their arrival in Whitianga.

“In 1867, Bennett White was killed by the Hau Haus in retaliation for giving evidence in the Lieutenant Falloon murder case and his eight children then came up the coast and settled in Whitianga with their uncle, who was the first white settler to build on the west side of the ‘river,’ at Trelease Point about 1860,” Jenny Bithell wrote. Matthew Gainsford’s report concluded, based on several pieces of evidence - including a historic “Plan of the Homestead of Mr Geo White, Whitianga,” dated 1866 - that the White Jenny Bithell refers to is GW White, who constructed a homestead, stone store and trading post at Trelease Point (as the area where the Robinson Road boat ramp is located was known).

The archaeologist also examined the remnants of two jetties made of native timber in the area, once again matching what he found at the site to Jenny Bithell’s record. “A wharf (jetty) known locally as Abe’s Wharf, reputed to be the first wharf on the western side of the Whitianga Harbour was constructed at Trelease Point by an Abraham Trelease,” he wrote. “Mr Trelease owned the local slaughterhouse, working as a slaughterman, sometimes importing cattle from Tauranga to satiate demand in the area. A small cave under the rock known as Lovers Rock (which is also a recorded archaeological pā) was reputed to be used as a cool store. Much of the land surrounding Trelease Point was owned by Mr Trelease.”

The remains of five jetty piles from the probable Abe’s Wharf were identified, along with six piles from a second jetty east of the Robinson Road boat ramp, which corresponded with a structure visible in a 1944 aerial photograph.

A review of historic newspapers uncovered multiple articles that referred to Mr GW White from Mercury Bay. Furthermore, there is a connection in one of the articles between the White family and A Trelease, which supports the fact that the Whites owned a homestead and trading post at Trelease Point. According to the newspaper articles, the Whites were still residing at the homestead until at least 1918.

Geo White’s business interests are known to have traversed the Whitianga River to what is now Ferry Landing.  Close to where the Robinson Road boat ramp is situated, he constructed a stone store, claimed to be the first commercial building built on the western side of the river. “It is constructed from Te Ana sandstone which was quarried from the opposite side of the harbour and bricks from Auckland,” Matthew Gainsford’s report stated. “This was originally part of a trading post constructed by GW White in the early 1870s. The trading post may have been ‘the first house on the Whitianga side situated by the stone store.’ Known as the ‘Pig and Whistle,’ it was said to have been an illicit grog shop for bush workers and gum diggers. Interestingly, it is also said that meals and quarters were also available at the White residence for workers. Following its original use, it continued use as a dairy to store milk in the 1890s.”

While the archaeologist said the current condition of the homestead could not be determined as the remains were subsurface, development since the 1970s was likely to have had negative effects. He described the jetty posts as having high amenity value. “Not only do these structures relate to the White’s and Trelease’s occupation of the area, they can also be linked to a wider network of trade and inter-personal relationships within Mercury Bay and possibly further afield in New Zealand and internationally,” he wrote.

So as those new modern pleasure vessels launch at the new Robinson Road boat ramp, which eventually opened in October 2019, they follow the path of some of the very first trading boats that tied up in Whitianga and paved the way for the first seeds of industry to be sown in the town.

This article is based on the report of Matthew Gainsford, reviewed by Warren Gumbley, and is used with the permission of Thames-Coromandel District Council.

Pictured: An aerial photograph from 1944 which shows the White homestead at Trelease Point. The original site of the two jetties is just visible on either side. The stone store is obscured by trees. Source - Retrolens.

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The Mercury Bay Informer is a highly popular community newspaper, based in Whitianga. The paper is distributed throughout the Coromandel Peninsula, coast to coast from Thames to north of Colville.