Learning & Research - Akoranga me Rangahau
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Ian Whittaker and a museum at Mokau

by Sorrel Hoskin  

Mrs Box's Tainui Boarding House in Mōkau taken during the 1920s. Image: Puke Ariki pictorial collection L.2a.18. Photographer T.D Charters.
Mrs Box's Tainui Boarding House in Mōkau taken during the 1920s. Image: Puke Ariki pictorial collection L.2a.18. Photographer T.D Charters.

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Ian Whittaker's mind soaks up history like a sponge absorbing water. The man is a walking encyclopaedia on North Taranaki history, and in particular, the little village nestled high on the banks of the mighty Mokau River.


A story behind everything

Walk into the Tainui Museum situated in the heart of Mokau and you're likely to catch Ian entertaining visitors with stories, or playing the Pianola to an awed bunch of school children. Ian thinks history is exciting and loves to pass his knowledge on to others, but be warned, he can talk for hours on his favourite subjects.  
It's the story behind an object that appeals to the museum man, and everything in this varied collection seems to have a tale to tell, from photos on the wall to a cast iron woodstove in a glass cabinet.
A photo of the Tainui Boarding House at Mokau reveals a tale about the owner who liked to flaunt the rules. "Mrs Box was a very strong character, not very particular with her housekeeping but particular in other areas."
From the late 19th century through to the middle of the 20th century Mokau was a dry area, part of the liquor ban placed on land from Urenui through to Kihikihi. Sneaking in liquor, or sly grogging as it was known, was big business.  Despite an outwards appearance of being an upstanding person in the community Mrs Box was into sly grogging.
One night a good haul of liquor arrived and she sold it on the spot. The police station was close to Mrs Box's house so everything had to be done in the dark, and silently, so as not to disturb him. "She had a good sale but next morning when she went to count all the money she found out that someone had got butter wrap, ironed it out and cut it the same shape as notes of money. She'd missed it in the dark," says Ian. "There was nothing she could do about it because she couldn't go to the police."
Another time Mrs Box had a fall out with her gardener who promptly reported her to the police, informing the local constable that his former employer kept surplus liquor in the roof of the long drop down the back of the garden. "So the policeman went down there and climbed up on the seat and bam! He went down the long drop. It turned out that Mrs Box wasn't that silly after all because she'd rigged a man trap!"
Notorious con-woman Amy Bock worked for Mrs Box in the boarding house. She became a well-known and much-loved identity in the town before she fleeced the tennis club of £20 and had to leave town.
The small Dover woodstove, not much bigger than a child's toy, was part of a marriage proposal. "This girl only agreed to marry this chap if he bought her a new stove, and that's the stove." Five generations later members of the family still come in to see the stove and hear the story behind it.
"You see something in a museum and think, ‘Well, that looks nice’, but you'll never know the story behind it," says Ian. "The stove is scrap-metal, probably worth $1, but it's the history behind it that makes it important."

Saving Mokau's past for the future

The Mokau Historical Society had the idea of putting together a community museum in the early 1990s. A donation of land from local councillor Jack Webber saw the society purpose build a home for what was a growing collection of local paraphernalia. The museum opened in 1995 and has been run by volunteers ever since.  Inside it's chock-a-block with local treasures.
Much of the collection has come from the local community, says Ian. "The whole district has just supported it. Both Maori and Pakeha bought in family heirlooms. We were quite fortunate that a local man, Mr Kendall, used to work as a New Plymouth council engineer in the early 1990s, and he hoarded stuff. His grandson gave it to us - 14 small truck loads of documents, photos and maps which got us off to a great start."
A good percentage of the museum's contents is from Ian's personal collection, part of a lifetime's fascination with history.


The cream of Okoki 

The Whittaker family, Edward (Ted), Mary and their three boys Lloyd, Ted and Ian initially lived in isolated Okoki, inland from Urenui, where Ted owned a cream run and transport business. During the milking season cream would be taken out to the Waitoitoi Co-operative, north of Urenui. On the return journey fresh bread, groceries and recharged batteries (for radio sets) would be picked up at Dunbars General Store and delivered to residents. When the Okoki Bridge was swept away in the great flood of 1940 Ted had to send the cream cans one-by-one across the river on a flying fox.
Okoki was a reasonable size community at that time. The area had a post office, and a small grocery store, a two-roomed school, tennis courts and a hall. "The talkies used to come out to the hall maybe once a month. It was a truck with a projector in the back that they'd back up to the hall, open a flap in the wall and the projector would poke through that. We'd sit on forms watching cowboy movies, I think cowboy movies was all they showed!"

A farm with a history of its own

In 1944 the family moved onto Rifle Range Farm in New Plymouth and began milking cows. The property boarded the Huatoki Stream and was flanked by Frankley Rd. At the back of the old homestead a large shed was the former Taranaki Herald building, the first newspaper in New Plymouth. "It was a huge old shed - we kept chooks at one end, the car and implements, upstairs we stored the hay. I don't think we realised the shed's importance."
The three Whittaker boys were expected to do their bit to help on the farm. "In the morning my brother had to harness the horse before he went to work, us other two had to help Dad clean out the shed and put away the cows before heading off to school." Ted and Mary thought sport was a waste of time - the boys could expend plenty of energy grubbing thistles, or helping with hay making on the farm. "We were expected to come straight home from school and help. Boy, were we in trouble if we didn't!"

Bringing history alive

Sometime in the mid 1940s an elderly man approached them, telling a story of an old rifle range on the farm, used by soldiers camped on Marsland Hill. "He took me around and showed me where it was, we scratched around and sure enough we found bullets, miles of them, all sorts and shapes, lead, brass, big ones, little ones," recalls Ian.
The teenager took a tin full of the bullets into his engineering tutor at New Plymouth Boys' High School. George Bertrand was a former soldier, and a ‘hard but fair man’.
"Everything stopped. He gave the class a lecture on bullets and what they were, how they were made, and that's how I first got interested in history. Everything I found I used to take to him and he would hold the whole class up while he explained. And he'd tell us a lot of Maori history of the New Plymouth area, where the pa and battles were."

Whittaker's Four Square

When Rifle Range Farm was taken over by the Public Works Act in the late 1940s for housing, the family bought a grocery store on the corner of Eliot and Lemon Streets in New Plymouth, and became Whittaker's Four Square. The store is still there - now the Kiwi Dairy. Back then products arrived at the store in bulk: 50/100lb (25-50kg) bags of flour, big blocks of dates, bacon on the bone, large tins of biscuits. “Coconut was compressed, it was just like concrete; cheese came in huge rounds. We had to weigh everything out by hand into paper bags."
A family story tells of Ted Whittaker packaging biscuits in cellophane wrapping, "A man from Griffin's biscuits was visiting the store and spotted the biscuits - not long after Griffin's began putting biscuits into packaging."
After finishing school Ian went to work as a mechanician at the telephone exchange.
The automatic Step by Step system the exchange used couldn't handle the burgeoning growth of New Plymouth and the Westown area was still on the old manual system using operators. "We used to say 'dial eight and wait' because that's what they had to do to get an operator to put their call through." 

Collecting history 

Ian and wife Margaret ran a farm for several years before shifting their young family to Mokau to run a general store in the 1970s. It was here that his collecting craze got serious. The store sold everything from dungarees through to ladies bloomers, bush singlets and boots. While having a clean up the family found piles of old photos that they pinned on the wall in the shop's changing room. As locals came in they would add their family photos to the montage.
"We had a whole wall of photos. That really was the foundation of the museum here at Mokau. It's got me into a bit of trouble though, because a lot of the photos we don't know where they come from, people simply stuck them on the wall."
The Whittaker family moved to Otorohanga where they ran a tearooms, before finally returning to the little village by the Mokau River in the mid 1990s.
Ian's collection spreads from the museum to his home where an eclectic mix of old maps, photographs, newspaper clippings, even an old ship's piano, make the house into a museum of its own.
These days Ian has incorporated his fascination with the past into his work. Ian, Margaret and daughter Belinda operate boat tours up the Mokau River on the MV Glen Royal. Along the journey he engages in his favourite pastime - telling stories of the

First published 26 May 2006




Transcript: History of the Mokau Log, a typewritten copy by Fred B. Butler, (1948) from a typed copy. ARC2001-341.
Manuscript of Beverly Jones' memories of Mokau and Waitara 1950.
Records from Mokau Co-op Dairy Company 1943-1955.
Records from Mokau Store 1940-1941 noting goods and services provided to individual people in the Mokau district.


Photographic print depicting the Mokau River, Taranaki - steamer on the river
Chromolithograph by George Duppa entitled, "Part of the New Plymouth Settlement in the district of Taranake, New Zealand - Mount Egmont 30 miles distant" (1841). Sketch of foreshore between Sugar Loaves and Mokau.


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NZ Farming - The home of farming in New Zealand.



Mokau Life Upstream Battle


Tainui Historical Society Museum, Main Road North, Mokau. Open 10am to 4pm seven days a week. Entry by donation. Ph (06) 752 9072.
Taranaki Outdoor Adventures
can arrange all sorts of activities from the adrenaline packed to the sedate - kayak dam dropping, surf kayaking and a trips down the historical
Mokau. For reservations and more information:
Phone 06 759 6866
Wet 'n' Wild rafting offers guided rafting on the Mokau River.  The river is grade 4 and provides 3 hours of challenging rafting through some of the most beautiful King Country farm land and native bush land.  The cost per person is $99, this includes all required rafting equipment and lunch.  Departs from Pio Pio.  For reservations and more information:
Phone 0800 462 7238

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