Handyman and scaffolder Laurie Phillips may be a familiar face around Raglan but has a background few locals know about these days. Not that it’s anything sinister; his ancestry’s more something to be proud of.
(Please see bottom of page for a note from the Editor)
“Only the old families in the district know our history here now,” Laurie observes matter of factly as he and his Hamilton-based sister Lorraine pore over old photos and memorabilia spread across the dining table of his Wainui Road home.
The 61 year old’s the last Phillips living here permanently who can trace his lineage back to Thomas Phillips, one of the first European purchasers of land in the district back in the 1850s.
Englishman Thomas and his wife Mary, who travelled on to New Zealand after trying their luck during the Australian goldrush, were his great great grandparents and one of the first Pakeha families to settle and farm at Aotea.
Laurie, who’s been back in Raglan about 15 years now after spending much of his working life as a rigger and scaffolder in the South Waikato, has a five-acre lifestyle block on the hill opposite Whaingaroa Harbour Care’s nursery.
It’s here that his partner Lindsey joins him at weekends from Whakamaru, where she works for one of their daughters who owns an early childhood centre. Their other daughter lives in Auckland.
But talk long enough to Laurie and it becomes clear he identifies as much with Aotea as Raglan. “I wish we still had a bit of the land,” he says of the huge Aotea property that belonged to his forebears.
While he and his siblings grew up at their home in John Street and went to school locally, Laurie – like his father – was a lad into hunting, shooting and fishing and “more or less lived every weekend” at Te Reti on that family property. The original homestead however was Waitomotomo, which burnt down and was later rebuilt on a different part of the farm.
Laurie, whose dad was part Maori, talks wistfully of the beautiful views out to the likes of Gannet Island from their marae out Motakotako way, before Te Reti. There’s also a graveyard nearby, called Makaka, where their grandparents and dad are buried, and Laurie wants to be interred there too.
The Maori connection goes back generations, to when one of Thomas and Mary’s sons, James – Laurie and Lorraine’s great grandfather – married Moeroa Hopa, who Laurie believes came up from Taranaki as a slave of a Waikato tribe which had been in battle down there. “Maori parents liked their daughters to marry Pakeha men to integrate the two races and stop the fighting,” he adds.
Lorraine, who’s Laurie’s senior by 10 years, recalls that great Uncle Willie was a horseman of no mean feat and they used to have polo meetings “right on the coast there” at Te Reti.
Laurie chips in with a story, which he believes to be true, of Prince Philip “sneaking away” to look at the polo horses there during the then young Queen Elizabeth’s 1953-54 visit to New Zealand. “Heaps used to go out there, including the Home Guard who trained all their horses at Te Reti,” he adds.
Laurie also recalls “we all played rugby” and that his Uncle Bill, a brother of their father’s, became both an All Black and Maori All Black. “He was a winger, a good runner.”
Laurie shows the Chronicle some of the memorabilia – including ancient stone axes, clubs and early types of fishing sinkers – they found as youngsters in the sandhills at Aotea, as well as across Whaingaroa Harbour at Te Akau “when it was all sandhills too”.
“It (Te Akau) used to be our playground when we were growing up in John Street,” he explains. The siblings all had nicknames too, like ‘Brusa’ for Laurie and ‘Snowy’ for Lorraine because she had fair hair – “a real throwback”.
Laurie and Lorraine were just two of seven children brought up at their John Street home which was in the family for something like 85 years, says Lorraine. It was sold only a few months ago when their sister Wendy and her husband David Cordiner – well known in Raglan for having owned the local butchery for years and then both working here as real estate agents – left it to go and live in Hamilton, from where David commutes back to work in Raglan.
The family also used to own the land next door, where Celia and Ken Risbridger now have a home, and a section opposite that was used in the late 1950s/early 1960s as a temporary carpark for new VW Beetles shipped in from Australia. Lorraine believes they were then driven through to Hamilton to be sold.
While Laurie’s the only Phillips living here permanently, Lorraine’s owned a bach in Long Street for 15-odd years – about the same length of time Laurie’s been back from Mangakino, his base during his years of working as a rigger and scaffolder at the Kinleith pulp and paper mill site.
Historically Lorraine worked in various places about town including a grocery shop called Nicholsons, the telephone exchange and the fish shop on Sundays. As a 13 or 14 year old she also worked at the cabaret (now Orca) soon after it opened, and says that with its jukebox, dancehall and skating rink it was “just the neatest place”. Her husband Mike Jonson drove buses for Robertsons then Pavlovich, and the couple had their first child here before building in Hamilton.
And Laurie met his partner Lindsey locally, in the 1970s when she worked as a teacher here.
The family did have a big reunion 25-30 years ago, but in Frankton School hall rather than Raglan. Lorraine and Laurie recall “a few hundred” were there, including quite a few Pakehas “who didn’t know they had any Maori in them”.
Lorraine, who helped organise the reunion, says she loves belonging to a family with so much local history. Laurie’s the less effusive of the pair, brushing off what he can contribute to a Chronicle article on him as “short and sweet”. But it’s clear that “learning our whakapapa” – as he puts it – rates highly in his life.
Editor’s note: This story was printed with an error in the hard-copy version of the Chronicle – issue #440. We have removed the word ‘late’ in this electronic version to reflect the fact that Lorraine’s husband is not deceased as our article indicated. We would like to offer our sincere apologies to the Phillips family for any stress and inconvenience caused.