Memoirs of Annabella Mary Geddes, nee Webster  

This is an account from Annabella Mary Geddes-Webster,  the youngest daughter of William and Hanapara about the early settler life of the Webster Family in the Wairere Boulder valley.


As I grow older,  my mind turns more than ever to my happy childhood.  I can see very clearly my father’s timber mill on the banks of the Wairere where it comes through the hills and joins Hokianga’s main waters.


 I used to watch the great Kauri logs being hauled out of the water up a ramp,  onto a cradle that fed the saw.  Round about there were several pits where some of these settlers cut their logs by hand,  but this was the first power mill.


In those days,  circular saws could not slit a Kauri log into flitches.  For one thing,  the diameters were not big enough,  and there was no power strong enough to drive them.  The first cut was made by a vertical blade that gave the same action as two men in the pits.


My father built the first waterwheel or turbine.  It was not very big in diameter,  but every spoke had a cup on its end, and the water was dropped over a cliff,  down a pipe,  and fell some 25’.  Iron pulleys or anything of iron was very valuable, and had to be obtained from Town,  as we called Auckland.  The next thing was to obtain belting to drive the wheels which acted on the saw.  Belting was unprocurable in those days,  and I can still remember my father skinning oxen and putting there pelts onto an old Kauri punt that was close to the mill under the trees.  Some days later the skins where taken out of the pickle,  and the hair removed.  At the same time my brothers would be sent into the bush with adzes to peel off the Tanekaha bark.  Then,  my father would sit down on a box alongside a dead log and hit this bark into tanning chips using a stump as an anvil.  The skins where then returned to the punt,  the water inside having been brewed with this tanning material.  After some days they were stretched on a table and cut into different widths to suit different pulleys.  There were no belt clips in those days and thongs and lacings were cut  from other parts of the skins, which joint the belts.


Up country,  my brother John used to take his five-pair team of oxen ,  and how he loved those beasts,  and they him.  Some ox drovers were terribly cruel,  and many a time I have witnessed bad tempered drovers twist tails until they have broken,  and bring down the tremendous whips, giving the animal so much pain. 

When John drove his beasts he would talk to them  and encourage them.  He used his two-handed whip continuously,  and could make it crack over the leader’s ears without touching him.  I can remember old Cherry knowing what was expected of him,  just by the sound of the whip.

Oxen in those days were about £10 each,  and they cost nothing to keep,  for at night times they were unyoked and allowed to forage for themselves in the bush, eating ferns and whatever they could reach.  Strangers found it difficult to sleep in their neighbourhood because of the all night jangling of ox bells.  Not every beast had a bell because it was not possible to get so many in those early days.  They were attached only to those beasts that wandered farthest into the bush. 

John was the first to rise in the morning,  and he used to go out with a lantern  and a piece of bread and butter and would marshal the beasts at the camp.  Then we would all sit down to breakfast before the day’s work began.  An ox team running loose took about an hour to retrieve,  not because they tried to escape – on the contrary – they always moved together as a herd,  never far apart,  but they moved so slowly.


On off-days my father and brothers would sit down and make yokes.  They were always made from some hardwood like puriri,  and shaped to the oxen’s shoulders.  A big iron bar connected the oxen in pairs,  like two huge horse-shoes.  The hole in the yoke was always made to the size, so that an ox could not pull his head out of it. 


When the powerful Maoris had dropped a Kauri,  The butt was adzed so that it could slide past obstructions.  If the log was to be drawn a long way,  the butt was lifted some inches of the ground,  and the front and two skids were affixed and chained to it to act as a sledge.  I can remember walking quite fearlessly amongst these great oxen while they walked,  or in the field,  for so tame were they.

One of my lasting recollections which I took for granted at the time,  was how my father alone moved and strained up these great logs on the cradle and affixed them there without movement,  so that they would pass through the saw without jamming.  After the log had been cut one way,  it was turned and the same saw repeated its

performance until the desired plank,  no matter how small,  was delivered.


The name of the stream,  Wairere means “ trickling water” but so many people mispronounce it Wairiri,  which means “angry water” – a big difference.  The water for the turbine came from the top of a beautiful little fall or creek about 300 yards up in the valley.  It was caught before it tumbled over the fall in a sluice made of  kauri planks,  about  2 ` wide at its base,  with two walls and no roof.  It was held up on tall manuka piles and as they got to the mill,  they seemed to me as a child,  to be enormously high;  but in thinking back I would say,  they were about 25`.  The water was caught again in a square wooden trunk,  a little bit smaller than the sluice proper,  so that it was full to the top, and exerting what is called a head pressure onto the turbine 25` below.  When it was time to stop the mill,  I used to walk up the side of the bank 100 yards away and push in one of the sluice sides which became a gate, and the water run down a second little creek to the sea and the mill stopped.


The mill itself was covered from the weather with a roof made of shingles.  These were slabs of kauri which my father slit at odd times as if the wood was valueless.  It was quite an art making shingles,  and we had no corrugated iron in those days for our roofs.  Every house was protected from the weather with these old- fashioned wooden tiles. 


We had no wire in those days for fencing, and once more kauri was used for splitting into paling fences,  and it was interesting to see the countryside with stock boundaried for miles around even to the tops of the hills,  made of palings or post and rail.  I think they looked prettier than the modern barbed wire fences of today. 


Compared with my father’s little mill,  it was a great day when we went to the mill town of Kohukohu.  There,  the machinery was run by steam, and what an impressive noise they made with clouds of steam rising into the sky,  with rowdy puffs. 

Here I saw circular saws for the first time.  The two sides of the log that fell away from the gang slitter,  moved off into the circular saws because they were now thinner and could be dealt with by them.  This mill had its own wharf and it was wonderful to see the ocean-going sailing ships being loaded there.  I used to sit and marvel at the square logs which were thrown into the sea ahead of the sailer which opened its bows under the anchor hawser holes,  and with many Maoris straining the log forward, the captain on the sailing ship would haul them into the hull.  It seemed to me that the ships were swallowing them whole.  When the last log was put into place,  the great doors in the bow were closed and battened down.  It seems to me that a boat with opening bows is claimed as modern invention.


Then,  smaller logs and timber were chained to the deck,  and the ship put to sea.  It always occurred to me what a waste of timber in squaring the logs thus with adzes;  but I suppose the reason was to get more logs into the ship and to stow them so that they would not roll in heavy sea.