It would be hard to overstate the debt of gratitude Warkworth owes to the late Henry Phibbs and his wife Helen, now aged 92. Thanks to their foresight and generosity, the town has a riverscape second-to-none. It was the Phibbs’ who, in the 1970s, gifted 14 hectares of native bush on the northern bank of the Mahurangi River, opposite the town, to the Department of Conservation (DoC). Mrs Phibbs has since covenanted a further two hectares with the QEII National Trust to ensure “that Warkworth will never have to look across the river and see houses”. Jannette Thompson asked Mrs Phibbs why the area is designated a closed-access Scenic Reserve?
The area was grazed up until the 1920s so the bush that’s there is regenerating. Henry and I thought it best to keep it closed to protect the wildlife and to give the trees a chance to grow. I know DoC would love to put a path through but I sincerely hope they don’t and that the area remains closed to public access forever. There are very few places where trees and wildlife can be without human interference. We originally offered the land as a wildlife sanctuary but we were told it was too near Warkworth to be policed. We were asked instead if we would offer it as a “backdrop to Warkworth” and we thought this was ideal.
When did you arrive in Warkworth?
We were newly married when we came to Warkworth in the mid-1950s. Henry had only recently retired from the Royal Navy as a Lieutenant Commander. He’d served on battleships such as HMS Ramillies and HMS Prince of Wales and in command of destroyers. He’d first visited NZ when he took his first command on the Castle class minesweeper HMNZS Wakakura, during World War II. It always amazed me how a man who had lived a quite remarkable life and quite a privileged one in some ways, adapted to life on our small farm so well. He milked the cows, cleaned out the piggery and did all those jobs as if he’d been doing them all his life. But one thing he could never quite reconcile himself to was the way New Zealanders treated their rivers. Instead of cherishing them, we treated them like dumps.
What prompted you and your husband to gift the land?
We saw a notice in the local paper advertising the annual meeting of the Warkworth Beautifying Society and decided it was the sort of group we would like to join. They took up the cause of trying to clean up the river and it was probably our work with the society that was the genesis for our decision to gift the land. Anyway, I ended up being the society’s secretary for 17 years.
What did the Beautifying Society do?
The society started in 1921 and was still active until about 15 years ago. Two of Warkworth’s most respected residents, Lucy Moore and Max Hamilton, were both active members during their retirements. As the name suggests, we were interested in improving the town’s appearance. In the 1970s, we had more than 200 members and our activities included planting days and occasional trips to view gardens out of the district. Max Hamilton, with his knowledge of botany, was tremendously useful. Our projects included plantings around the Water Treatment Station when it opened, on the approaches to the town bridge and behind the shops that run from the National Bank to Stubbs Butchery. Lucy Moore Park, in Warkworth, was one of our success stories. The society folded mainly because its members were getting too old to carry on.
Did the group have an activist role?
Quite definitely. When people had a grievance about trees being cut down or the impact of new developments, they had somewhere to go. Now there are just concerned individuals and people who mutter about things at home. Warkworth needs something like the society again, a group who can give a voice to people who care about what’s happening in the town but who may not necessarily be aligned to business or commercial interests. I think the Winslow proposal demonstrated this.
Have you always been interested in trees?
I grew up in Auckland wanting to be a forester. However, in the 1930s, an Arts degree was about all a girl could hope for. I was told quite emphatically that there was no place in the field for a woman. So I did an Arts degree at Auckland University and later did a postgraduate diploma to become a librarian. During the war I served as deputy director of the Women’s Royal NZ Naval Service (WRNS), in Wellington, under Ruth Herrick, an indominable woman who was coopted from the Girl Guides Association. After the war, I went to China with the United Nations, as part of its relief and rehabilitation efforts. We were sent to central-north China and I was there for about a year doing mostly secretarial work. There were no tourists, just missionaries. After China, I went to England and then worked for the United Nations Children’s Fund, in France.
You also seem very fond of animals?
My real passion is animal welfare. I’m a life member of Forest and Bird, and still help the SPCA out by selling raffles outside the local supermarket. When Henry and I first came to Warkworth, he would do sea duty for a couple of months every year. During this time, I would be left to run the farm and I think this is when I developed such a feeling for animals. They are so much more than adjuncts – they have affection for each other and you (sometimes), and like us they experience anxiety and distress. In fact, they share many of the emotions we like to call “human”.
They also seem to be good company?
My three cats came to me after being abandoned and I’ve also had old dogs who’ve come to me via the Animal Shelter Charitable Trust or Keira Shelter, run by Julie Harbin-McKay, in the Brynderwyns. Julie does a marvellous job, specialising in caring for older animals and matching them with senior citizens. It’s a wonderful idea which I would thoroughly recommend to any older person. Old dogs aren’t demanding but you do need to be able to bend over because they can’t always get outside as fast as they need.