On Saturday I had the honour of declaring open the new Treasury archive building put up in Thames by the Coromandel Heritage Trust. When I accepted the invitation some six months ago, I anticipated a weekend of glorious Coromandel sun and an obligation on my part to inspire a present-minded community with the importance of its fascinating history.
I could not have been more wrong on both counts. Tropical cyclone Lusi put paid to the sun (although I did manage a swim in the sea!); and I quickly sensed that I had misjudged the Thames community the moment we drove in. The welcome slogan at the town entrance read, ‘Thames – our heritage is gold!’. I parked the car and we wandered up the main street. First I noticed posters everywhere advertising the Thames Heritage Festival, and then I was drawn to the shop windows by the displays of old bottles, historical advertisements and pieces of lace. There was a heritage window display competition in progress, apparently an annual event, and the shopkeepers of the town had really done it with style.
Next it was on to take a look at the new building. The first thing I discovered was that the home of the Coromandel Heritage Trust did not consist of one building, but two! Eleven years ago the newly formed trust took over the old Carnegie library, a truly beautiful Edwardian building, as a centre to preserve the history and stories of Thames and the whole Coromandel region. They gave it the name, ‘The Treasury’. Then this visionary group of 70 volunteers realised that if they were really going to care properly for the old newspapers, letters, photographs and records of the area, then they needed a new atmospherically controlled building. So they set about to raise the over $1 million needed to provide for the new facility.
The new building is a magnificent achievement. With a striking ‘cookie-cutter’ appearance, which both echoes the old building while not competing with it, the new centre is flood-proof, fully insulated, temperature- and humidity-controlled and earthquake resistant. It has state-of-the-art storage, which I noticed already contained some of the invaluable records of the great Thames engineering firm A & G Price.
In the reading room of The Treasury I noted a wonderful collection of family histories and information about localities, all beautifully protected in ring binders, and another set of folders about every soldier who enlisted from the Coromandel district in the South African War and the First World War. This material will be invaluable for family historians and for people interested in their local history; but it will also become an essential stopping place for anyone interested in the wider history of New Zealand.
Nor did my growing wonder at this heritage-conscious community stop there. That evening we dined at the Thames Club, once the vicarage of Vicesimus Lush, and ‘Mrs Lush’, dressed in period costume, told us about the history of the house. The next morning we headed up to the Kauaeranga valley, where David Wilton, a committee member for the trust, walked and talked us from one fascinating archaeological remnant of the Kauri-felling days to another. We saw the route of the famous Billy Goat Incline, and the remains of bush dams, booms that collected the logs, and the bush tramway.
If we had time we might have visited the Thames School of Mines and Mineralogical Museum, and the Historical Museum; and if we had stayed the week we could have enjoyed a Heritage Film Festival and ‘The way we were’, a series of lunchtime lectures on local history.
How does one explain the remarkable interest in history shown by the citizens of Thames? It is partly, of course, that the local history is genuinely fascinating:
- It has a rich Māori history since the peninsula is one side of the whole Hauraki Gulf, which was such an important centre of Māori commerce.
- It was visited by James Cook, who gave it the name Thames because he considered it the most promising place in New Zealand for settlement.
- It was the site in 1867 of a major gold rush, which meant that by 1868 the population mushroomed to over 15,000 at a time when Auckland’s was only 12,000.
- Gold gave birth to one of the country’s first stock-market booms at Scrip Corner, and then to the exploitation of the nearby kauri forest, with dramatic and hair-raising stories of the bush trams and enormous trees that were felled.
- In the 20th century the area was important as one of a birthplaces of the ‘green‘ movement.
So there are engrossing stories to be told; and many people have long roots in the area – some going back up to five generations. There are also some wonderful old buildings which help engender a sense of the past.
But even with all these advantages, concern for history still requires the vision and the energy of local people. The Thames community appears to have such far-sighted volunteers in abundance. They can see that keeping heritage alive enriches people’s sense of identity. They also know that preserving heritage makes powerful stories accessible, which may bear fruit in novels or films, or the work of serious historians. In the end, protecting the past will attract others to Thames. It is good for the whole community. For the people of Thames and the whole Coromandel, heritage really is gold.