“Mercury” and The Observers’ other observers

11 Jan 2022

“Mercury” and The Observers’ other observers


Mercury Bay mischief did not go unnoticed in 1900 when the area first attracted the curious gaze of a correspondent for The New Zealand Observer, an illustrated weekly newspaper. 

“Will ‘Mercury’ try and send me a few paragraphs every week? His articles regarding the Fancy Balls were capital, only they came to hand a little late,” said the editor. Mercury, the correspondent, was most obliging, sending dozens of delicious dispatches over the years.

“An aesthetic lady here recently kept her children away from school because the teacher had told them they were animals. Fact,” he reported in one indignant missive. Pride poured from his pen, though, when he noted, “We may only be a little tin pot village, [but] still we managed to subscribe 26 pounds odd in aid of the children’s sports for the celebration of Jubilee Day.”

These rather sensible early communications soon gave way to local fascinations such as the allure of the attire of a medical man. “Doctor Black leaves in the Clansman for Sydney. There is weeping and wailing - his fair friends at Mercury Bay are in despair. Never more shall we behold those graceful knickerbockers. Alas, alas!”

Life’s great questions were also pondered in Mercury’s column. “Who was the young lady that took the cigarette out of the young man's mouth at the skating rink on Saturday night?” And, “Who is the young man that sits under the verandah singing ‘Will you be mine pretty bird…’” Even more perplexing was, “Who are the two white-haired boys that get milk in their tea at the kitchen?”

More seriously, Mercury wanted to know, “Who is that lady that goes to the post office and receives letters belonging to other people on the pretence of being a friend and opens them?”

In between these intrepid investigations, Mercury donned his health and safety hat. “What did Walter do with the charge of dynamite he had under his arm on the Buffalo (Buffalo Beach) last Saturday night? Look out, Rosie!”

But it was affairs of the heart that really set the fans fluttering around Mercury Bay every Saturday when The Observer hit the newsstands. “AP and EK look very loving going down the wharf arm-in-arm. EW says BA is the only man she ever loved and if he does not come back or write, she will die an old maid.”

Advice to the lovelorn was also part of Mercury’s repertoire. “Young men about to marry, take warning of the sad experience of poor Tom Q and when ordering the wedding cake, don’t be bashful but give your full name and address to the consignee, for remember your bride cannot have the cake when another bride has eaten it.”

Mercury had some pointers too for unattached maidens wondering what to do in the afternoon. “I notice the Buffalo is a great place on a Sunday afternoon for a lot of young fellows, good looking ones too.”

It was the “mashers”, though, that really set the ink flowing. “RI was doing a big mash with the cook at the lower pub at the dance.” A mashing visitor from Auckland fell foul of Mercury’s pen. “The Newmarket masher let out some of his billingsgate (coarse language) at the races. A few lessons on self-respect would not be lost on him.” There was a stark warning for “Miss P” to “beware of mashers. “Mephistopheles (a demon) has returned from town.”

Although the mysterious mashing sounds hazardous - “When NB goes mashing, he should never take the girl through the barb wire fence while there is a gate handy” - it was something you could do on your own. “Nellie sat down and watched three dances. Nobody had the common sense to take her arm, so she went on the Buffalo and did a quiet mash.” PH, though, was “doing a nice quiet nyumnyum up Bottle Beer Alley”.

The hi-jinks of the “jam tarts of Mercury Bay” did not escape Mercury’s attention either. “They had a surprise party on Saturday night. It is a wonder the three Fs were not invited this time.” Jam strangely also featured at a local ball. “Providing everyone at the masquerade used as much jam as the Whenuakite gent did, there would be a rise in the market.”

Dances were the regular entertainment of the day and standards were set, even by the lowliest lumberjack. “The bushmen are going to give a ball shortly. They say they are not going to dance with toffs, because they would not dance with the bushmen.”

Slivers of scandal enlivened Mercury’s captivating communiqués. “Arthur is in great trouble. Phoebe jilted him and the would-be mother-in-law drove him out of the kitchen with the broom, by Jove!”

Mercury was also a bit of a snitch. “Isn’t it rather cool of a certain publican to refuse to admit thirsty souls when the clock has just struck 10, while he has a roomful of jovial customers upstairs?”

Other observers popped up in other areas too. Gumtown (Coroglen) was a hotbed of intrigue. “Some of the young ladies look very lonely since the young men started out glue hunting (gum digging). Wanted, a tall, dark, good-looking young man - one used to the bush - to supply the ladies of Gumtown with ferns and walking-sticks. WV need not apply.” Walking sticks seemed to be a major issue and there was “great rejoicing in Gumtown with the ladies when the news went round that WT had arrived with his large supply of walking sticks.”

But WT and his walking sticks arrived too late for JG. “There was a good attendance at the dance on Thursday night, and dancing was kept up till the early hours. JG had very hard luck in falling in the creek on his way to the hall, in his patent leathers too.”

PJ of the Waiwawa Hotel had no need of pedestrian props. “He looked well in the new dray, the first wheeled vehicle to be driven in Gumtown. He failed to break the proverbial bottle on the wheel, however.”

The Coroglen correspondent was also occupied by Gumtown laundry. “WL looks rather uneasy with that stand-up collar. Too much starch.” And there were more pressing concerns. “Was it JG that was warbling under the willow?” 

According to another observer, Kuaotunu appeared to be going to the dogs. “The warden attracted attention when coming to Kuaotunu, accompanied by his white dog riding a pony. The Junction allotment case, settled on the ground by an outsider, was mistaken for a dog show. The defendant was supported on one side by his black retriever and on the other side by a white poodle. The plaintiff was accompanied by a mongrel, a greyhound and a Newfoundland dog.”

Manners were also slipping, according to the Kuaotunu correspondent. “It is time some of those persons who gather round the stores in the upper township went to school again to learn to speak decent language.” And as for who to mix with in society, one resident had this advice, “Mr D says the married ladies of Kuaotunu are not so stuck up as the young ones.” 

The mystifying mashing was also at large. “PM looks quite the masher when he puts on those riding pants. Do not lose the pattern.” Monday mornings, though, were where it was all happening at Kuaotunu, “when all the old Biddies are out washing clothes in the creek and the beer lady superintending the gossip”.

The Coromandel Town correspondent couldn’t make up his mind what it exactly was that he was reporting on. His columns were variously called Coromandel Croaks, Coromandel Chips, Coromandel Coruscations or Coromandel Bullets. He also sent incoherent dispatches. “Joe Barjent says if he catches Bob Campbell spooning about those gates at the rifle range, there will be crape in someone’s family.” As a keeper of moral standards, he warned “those jam tarts who don’t live many miles from the post office should bear in mind that Sunday is no day for washing and hanging out clothes to dry.” 

Another burning issue was discovering who “was the young man that was mistaken for a clothes dummy at the door of our principal draper’s establishment”.

Coromandel Town, though, had more serious problems in the form of a bread-wielding serial killer. “How dull Coromandel seems to be now that the lady-killing baker is away charming the hearts of the Melbourne young ladies. Never mind, girls, he will soon be back again...”

Tairua’s observer charmingly named his dispatches “Tairua Twinkles”. “Tairua is looking up since all the mashers came back. What brings the two young sawyers down every Saturday? Is it to see Tairua or the young ladies? What takes WA out in the boat so late at night? Is it the pleasure of pulling or is there some attraction up at the landing?” 

In his haste to scribble the scuttlebutt, The Tairua correspondent’s reports became quite baffling. “So old Jim has taken upon himself to mash a certain young lady... But, old son, you must remember that tassels on her window is quite a practiced hand at that sort of game and should Chewy come along at the entertaining moment, I’m inclined to think it would be a case of skin and hair flying.” Sometimes the Tairua observer saw a bit too much. “Those young ladies who went riding one wet day should get into a more secluded spot while changing their costumes.” And he advised Peter to “look out when getting over that fence at nighttime or he will be leaving his pants in Hanna's backyard”. 

Although entertaining and popular, Mercury and the other observers’ pointed paragraphs were not a hit with everyone. “The cry is now about the Bay, ‘Don’t put me in The Observer!’” But there was no guarantee as no-one knew who the correspondents were. The newspaper’s editor promised, “All correspondents who send me items of gossip or information may rest assured that their names will be kept strictly private. Not a single soul except the editor can by any possibility get to know them.”

The columns were sent from all over New Zealand where there appeared to be a watchful observer in every town.

There must have been dread in the heart of many when, after a short silence, Mercury, the Mercury Bay correspondent, announced that he had returned from his honeymoon and suggested, as a warning, that he still possessed a notebook and pencil.”


Pictured: Matrimonial - Gentleman, 26, of noble descent, wishes to marry a rich young lady. Write to “Englishman,” Opitonui, PO Near Coromandel.