Friday, 07 August 2020


Who was Joan Gaskell

The main road into Whitianga was named after her. Suzanne Hansen took a closer look at the life of Joan Gaskell and her role in shaping Mercury Bay into the community it is today.

Joan Gaskell came to Mercury Bay almost by default. She was born into a wealthy family in Auckland. The dux of Auckland Diocesan School for Girls, she was an articulate, cultured and well-educated woman.

Joan’s husband, Harold, grew up in the backstreets of Liverpool and was later shipped off to World War II for several years. On Harold’s return from the war and on the job hunt, he answered a newspaper advertisement placed by the Gordon family of Coroglen who needed farm workers.

After answering the ad, Harold was interviewed by the Gordons’ two boarding school-aged daughters and got the job. Harold and Joan then moved to Coroglen. It did not take the girls’ father, Joe Gordon, long to work out that he had hired someone with zero farm experience. When Joe confronted his daughters to ask why they chose Harold, they said that they had hired Harold because he was “nice.”

From his service in the war, Harold received some “rehab” funds and with this money Joan and Harold were able to buy a farm block on Kaimarama Road (just south of Whitianga) which, to this day, is the family farm. There the newly minted farmers embarked on farming dairy and started a piggery. 

Over the ensuing years, while vigorously toiling on the farm, Joan simultaneously held down a number key roles of community service. She worked tirelessly on various school committees and had leadership roles in Federated Farmers, the Peninsula Vet Club and the New Zealand Blood Service.

Joan has also played a significant role in the establishment of Mercury Bay Area School. She later chaired the Mercury Bay Community Board for several years where she drove game-changing projects, some of which included sorting out the Whitianga water supply, buying the land where the Lee Street car park is now, reticulating Cooks Beach, rebuilding the Whitianga Wharf and driving the Whitianga Waterways project to reality. 

“There weren’t many committees that Joan wasn’t on,” says former Thames-Coromandel District Council mayor, Glenn Leach. “She was a visionary, a focused lady and a real mover and shaker when it came to raising funds or getting money from Wellington.”

Glenn first met Joan at a Federated Farmers meeting soon after he arrived in Mercury Bay. He had gone along to the meeting to share some of his rather candid views as a newcomer on “buying local” and clearly impressed the equally forthright Joan. Joan rang Glenn a few days later and they started a long professional relationship.

Glenn, who officiated at Joan’s funeral, remembers her for being honest, as straight as a die and someone who did not suffer fools. He recalls a time where she gave the chairman of the South Auckland Education Board such a “bollicking” over a disagreement on the size of the new MBAS school gym, that he may have had to change his pants.

According to Glenn, Joan wasn’t a politician. She was too straightforward for that. But she understood people, saw the best in people and knew what strings to pull. She had differences with people and she spoke her mind, but she also had respect for others. Glenn remembers her photographic memory and her articulate, if sometimes colourful, way of communicating her will. Joan wrote everything down, but she also had total recall. If Glenn ever needed any historical data, he could always count on Joan to have the facts at hand. 

Joan was also a proponent for local as opposed to regional decision-making and empowerment, working hard to make this happen. She was always prioritizing needs and projects based on their potential for Mercury Bay to grow and prosper. She continually pushed for accountability and based her decision criteria on the betterment of the community. Sometimes this caused her to be disliked by some people, but Joan always stuck to her guns.

Well-known Whitianga local, Harold Abrahamson, became aware of Joan Gaskell in 1964 from a New Zealand Herald article which covered a field day that Joan had single handedly organised. She managed to bring together the Director-General of Agriculture, representatives from the forestry and kiwifruit industry bodies, the South Auckland Education Board, a senior roading engineer for roads from Transit New Zealand and local body officials. The Herald article pronouncing the Coromandel as ripe for growth influenced Harold and his family to move to and take up farming in Mercury Bay.

Harold finally met Joan in 1967. As Harold and his wife, Tertia, had three school-aged children, Joan sensed new blood and quickly invited Harold to attend the upcoming school committee meeting. It was at this first meeting that Harold was elected to the committee consisting of Ian Simpson, Dave Simpson, Joan Gaskell, Keith Morcom, Murray Speer and high school headmaster, John O’Sullivan.

At the time, both the primary school and the high school were under-enrolled, thus making resourcing very difficult. The committee was tasked with making recommendations to the South Auckland Education Board in Hamilton of various options for upgrading the school.

After much effort and numerous trips to Hamilton, the school committee’s innovative concept of an area school was agreed on. A much larger school with a much larger catchment would enable MBAS to attract a high caliber of lifestyle-focused teachers and allowed local children to return home from boarding schools, enabling a richer curriculum. As a result, the school roll grew so fast that it was difficult to get the classrooms built in time to accommodate the growing capacity. It didn’t help that they lost a whole classroom in transit over the Tairua Hill.

Joan always had a vision for a large school and predicted at the time, that the school role would top 1,000.  She fought tooth and nail to get a school hall sized appropriately for her vision for growth and when the South Auckland Education Board did not make the requisite funding available, Joan undertook to raise the funds in the community. Under Joan’s leadership the community raised the $400,000 needed to build the hall to the size Joan’s vision required. The MBAS role has topped 1,000 students a few weeks ago.

Much like Glenn Leach, Harold fondly remembers Joan as an incredibly industrious and capable woman with a slightly salty vocabulary and a photographic memory. On Harold and Joan’s frequent trip to the South Auckland Education Board in Hamilton to progress the establishment of MBAS, Harold would always pick Joan up at the crack of dawn and inevitably Joan had been loading pigs onto a truck or attended to some other heavy chore before getting herself presentable for the meetings ahead.

The one thing that Joan could not master was the art of driving. Although her youngest son, Eric, said that in the early days Joan tried to drive him and his siblings in a car a couple of times, she did so very badly. From then on, she never had a licence or drove a car again, relying on her husband to take her into town and wait outside during her numerous meetings or depending on the goodwill of others to get around.

Eric recalls an incident where his father once got the farm truck stuck in the mud and instructed the non-driving Joan to get the tractor to pull the truck out. With vigorous instructions from Harold, her husband, Joan put her tiny feet to the pedal, reversed the tractor with a mower on the back, at full tilt, destroying the front end of the truck.

Joan was a key protagonist for the Whitianga Waterways development, a project first envisioned in the early 1970s but not underway until 2001. The canal structure of the Waterways was seen as vitally important to the drainage and future development of virtually stagnated land in the Moewai Valley and to the development of the Whitianga area. 

Consent for the development was continuously delayed by then Conservation Minister, Sandra Lee, who dragged out her decision multiple times, only to finally decide that the project would need to be considered against the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park Act, which did not exist when the consent process began.

Tired of the delays, Joan organised a bus full of 30 or so locals and went down to Wellington to pay Sandra a personal visit. Harold Abrahamson thinks that it is entirely appropriate that the road that is now the main road into Whitianga, created by the Whitianga Waterways developers, is named after Joan.

A whirlwind of energy, Joan worked tirelessly towards her vision for a future of prosperity for the Mercury Bay community. Over many years, until her passing in May 2011, Joan laid down a rich tapestry of community advocacy and action with her incredible mental proficiency, her ability to think out of the box and her tenacity to reach solutions. Our community was blessed to have Joan Gaskell.

Joan’s family would very much like to have Joan’s ashes to be the first to be interred at the new Kaimarama Cemetery south of Whitianga. This would be entirely appropriate.


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The Mercury Bay Informer is a highly popular community newspaper, based in Whitianga. The paper is distributed throughout the Coromandel Peninsula, coast to coast from Thames to north of Colville.