When former Kourawhero farmer Les Hatfull thinks about the Warkworth of his youth, his memories are of blacksmiths and bootmakers in the main street, an ice cream shop that sold aniseed balls for a penny, and a busy dairy factory on the riverbank in Kapanui Street. Bicycles and horses were still common forms of transport, not for fitness or recreation, but out of necessity, as few families had cars. Les turns 95 in a few weeks and he sat down with Jannette Thompson to talk about his life so far …
What I remember most about those days was how communal life was. My world was quite small in many ways – I didn’t go to Auckland until I was about 12 and even Tomarata seemed like a long way away. Neighbours worked together and socialised together and helped one another through good times and bad. I think it is something that’s missing from today’s world. Some people live next door to each other for years and don’t even know one another’s names.
My sister Peggy, and brothers Gavan and Arthur, and I grew up on a 90-acre farm on Woodcocks Road, opposite the Kourawhero School. Kourawhero takes its name from the ‘red crayfish’ that were plentiful in the streams around there. As kids, we would often stop on the way home from school and catch them or eels on a string or straw. We didn’t eat them, but sometimes we would see where the Maori people had made a fire on the side of the road and cooked them. If people think the roads are bad now, they would have struggled with the roads we had to use then. They were mostly mud and it would take more than an hour to make the three-mile trip to Warkworth by horse and gig. Eventually, some farmers put in money together and metalled the worst sections. Our farm was part of a soldiers’ settlement scheme and many of the houses were formerly owned by Wilson Cement in Warkworth. They were dragged from Pulham Road to Kourawhero by bullocks.
Dad and Mum were English by birth and Dad was a carpenter by trade. He fought in both world wars and was one of several soldiers in the engineering corp who were awarded a military medal for ‘gallant conduct and coolness under heavy shellfire’ while extending and maintaining the duckboards and mule tracks during the Allied advance at Passchendaele. Not that he told us this, as he never talked about the war years, ever. Anzac Day was very important to him though, and he never missed a service.
Life was pretty hard during the Depression. Unemployed families lived in tents by the side of the road and men would knock on the door looking for work in return for a feed. There was a Public Works camp on our boundary and these men quarried stone using picks, shovels and wheelbarrows, and the metal was used to build the roads. People coped by eating from their orchards and gardens, hunting rabbits, gathering watercress and blackberries when in season and, of course, most families had hens. My mother used to pickle the eggs, but I wasn’t very fond of them. Mutton flaps were cheap, and farmers were able to butcher their own meat. Dad worked away a lot and sometimes when he came home, he’d bring a tin of Griffins biscuits. We considered it a real luxury.
House fires weren’t uncommon in those days when most kitchens included a wood range. One night I woke up to hear Dad telling me to get out of the house as fast as I could. I grabbed what I thought was my money box, but it turned out it wasn’t. We lost just about everything in that fire and had to live in the Kourawhero Hall for about seven months while Dad built us a new house. Mum was away at the time. It must have been hard for her to come back and find everything gone. But neighbours pitched in to help us get back on our feet and, lucky for me, the bank was very generous and gave me what I’d lost in my money box.
The day I turned 15, I told a classmate to tell the teacher that I wouldn’t be back. I just wasn’t interested in what you learned in a classroom. Dad got me a job at Rodney Motors, where Bayleys offices are now. During World War II, when American soldiers were camped at Wech’s farm, just south of Warkworth, I changed jobs and became the camp warden. It was a funny job because I didn’t do much except answer their questions and smoke their cigarettes. It is the only time in my life that I smoked. After that, I did a mechanic’s apprenticeship at Tom O’Rourke’s engineering business, which was situated about where Riverside Arcade is now. Petrol was still rationed with coupons and one of the Wech’s adapted his car to run on kerosene. The Bohemian families from Puhoi liked O’Rourke’s and most of them drove six-cylinder Dodges. Spare parts were almost non-existent, so we learned to adapt. We would repair tyres with patches called ‘boots’, which were glued on or fixed in place using gutter bolts. O’Rourke was a good boss and got me into the habit of saving. My first pay was 16 shillings a week and this went up to £2.7s.6d when I qualified five years later. It doesn’t sound like much, but when I married Pat Le Gallais, in 1948, I was able to buy all the materials we needed to build our house on the farm. Pat and I had three children – Gaylene, Janet and Neil. Sadly, we lost Pat to cancer in 1998.
I worked at O’Rouke’s for nearly 10 years, biking in each day from the farm, rain or shine. Winter was the worst, especially when there were frosts and you were biking home in the dark. I ended up getting chilblains, probably from working on a concrete floor all day with no heating. Eventually, my brother Arthur and I decided to go farming together. He had already bought the home farm off Dad, so I bought a half share. We started with 40 cows, took out a bank loan for $10,000 and set about making improvements. We worked from sun-up to sundown, often seven days a week, and did everything ourselves. Sometimes we took on other work like hay contracting to make ends meet and I did the bulk drops of Rodney Times to rural delivery distributors for 13 years.
We didn’t have a lot of land, so we cut our paddocks up small and started strip or rotational grazing. We were probably among the first in the district to do what has become a fairly standard practice now. At one stage, Arthur and I decided to build an engine to replace the horse and cart. We worked many hours on this project, which probably became the first tractor in the area. Sometimes she went and sometimes she didn’t! Fuel, which was like gold then, was poured in and clouds of black smoke poured out. We called her ‘Flirt’ and she was used as a sledge, mower and tractor for carting, as well as a traction engine. When it came time to sell up, we had reclaimed swamps, were milking 120 cows and ran a Jersey stud called Ravina. We had won medals at local A&P shows and added a run-off on Old Woodcocks Road. Arthur and I farmed together for close on 50 years and I think it worked because we had different skills – he was the ‘thinker’ and I was the ‘doer’.
Social life revolved around the hall where we had dances, the annual Harvest Festival, Sunday School, card nights and the much-anticipated Guy Fawkes Night. Sport was an important part of our lives, too. At home we played hockey using bent ti tree sticks and some farms had tennis courts. All the small farming communities like Kaipara Flats, Tomarata, Pakiri and Omaha, plus Warkworth had cricket, rugby and tennis teams. I still believe that children who play a team sport have a social advantage. It teaches you how to win and lose, and how to play for the team and not your own individual glory.
Pat and I moved from the farm to Clegg Street, Warkworth, where we’d bought a couple of sections – one for $8000 and the other for $13,000. Tony Ellis built the house I live in today with my partner Rose. I kept busy after retiring restoring furniture, and Warkworth Bowls has been a big part of my later life. For close on 25 years I’ve been looking after the grounds and the clubhouse but I’m just about to hand over to another retired farmer who is only in his eighties. I loved my farming life and would do it again if I had the chance. My only regret is that I didn’t keep up the piano accordion that I learned when I was young.