Thursday, 16 July 2020


A jack of all trades

After 57 years of serving the Whitianga community in a host of different ways, 85-year-old Vernon John (Jack) Cooper closed the doors of the building at 2 Monk Street, Whitianga for the final time in December last year.

The building, better known as Arlingham House in recent years, will be well-remembered by locals and visitors as the place where Jack and his late wife, Bernice, operated their fine china, locksmith, security lock, alarm system, trophy and engraving businesses for many years.  

“Bernice and I both worked extremely hard with many long hours over the years, but sadly she passed away in 2015,” says Jack. “I still miss her terribly and when the opportunity came along to sell Arlingham House, I accepted the offer and decided to down tools for the last time.”  

In 1962, Jack decided to make Whitianga, population 600, home after completing his radio apprenticeship in Palmerston North. “The obvious place to commence business on my own was in my home town, but I was fed up with life in the city and my two uncles who already lived in Whitianga were quick to point out there were little to no services in my line of business being offered in the town at the time,” says Jack.

“In those days, a radio apprenticeship also covered electronics and appliance repairs, including refrigeration and laundry equipment, so there was an opportunity to fill what was a fairly large gap in the market.”

Jack took the plunge and relocated to Whitianga, where he set up and initially operated his radio and appliance service and repair business from a garage in Mill Road, before leasing premises next to the butcher shop in the centre of town, with the aim to also sell appliances. Both premises were owned by Rob Sewell, a well-known identity at the time.

In the premises Jack leased, there was already a barber on site who cut hair two nights a week and on Saturday mornings. The barber’s wife took over the shop during the week running a number of different business interests, including agencies for jewellery, dry cleaning, cigarettes, tobacco, Melbourne Cup tickets and Golden Kiwi (pre lotto) tickets. If that wasn’t enough, watch and shoe repairs were also undertaken.

Part of the agreement on taking on the lease involved Jack continuing with all the existing agencies. “My first task was to partition off a section of the premises, allowing the barber to continue his twice-weekly hair cutting routine,” says Jack. “When he decided to finish up, it left the town without a hairdresser, so once a fortnight I had the local commercial pilot fly over a hairdresser from Thames on a Saturday morning. The demand was such that I used to serve coffee to those waiting in the queue.” 

With a high demand for the range of all-new electrical goods and home appliances coming to the market, business was good. Television had not long commenced across New Zealand and as they were on a strict allocation basis, there was always a waiting list for Jack to try and satisfy. Included in the sale of each TV was a home aerial installation, involving travel around the wider Mercury Bay area. All the roads were metal at the time.

Due to the lack of repeater stations and reception being sourced direct from Auckland, some aerials reached around 50 feet in height, so at times it was no easy task. Dale Peachey, who at the time was working for the butcher and later took over the butchery business, was often called on to lend a hand after work hours and on weekends.

Over time the business expanded to include the sale of sporting equipment as well.

Another business opportunity soon followed in the form of selling and servicing marine radios and echo sounders. “The local marine radio base was operated out of Dundas Street by Florence Pascoe, who was related to Mitch Pascoe,” says Jack. “Mitch is well-known for his ability and talent in the marine industry. Most of the boats out fishing would call up the base to report on their catches, so I was kept busy converting radios for customers who wanted to listen on the marine band.”   

But it wasn’t all hard work and no play. When living in Palmerston North, Jack was a very active squash player who went on to play at representative level. It was a sport he missed, living in Whitianga where the game was foreign to most locals.  After much lobbying of the Coromandel County Council (the predecessor of Thames-Coromandel District Council), permission was finally granted in 1965 to build two squash courts at Lyon Park. This park had been gifted by TH Lyon to the community in 1940 and was to be used specifically for sporting purposes. 

Along with Geoff Norman, the local commercial pilot and postman, Jack formed a company called Mercury Bay Squash Centre to build and operate the two courts. Membership soon grew in excess of 70, with many successful open tournaments being hosted at the courts.

“Geoff’s 12-year-old son, Ross, spent much of his spare time at the squash courts, seeking every opportunity he could to play with anyone who turned up,” says Jack. “In 1986, he became the world squash champion and in 2009 was inducted into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame, a tremendous achievement for a player who began his squash career in Whitianga.”

The 1960s was a busy time for Jack, both in and outside of business. In 1964, he won the local junior golf championship, the same year he joined the club. Two years later, in 1966, he won the senior golf championship. Also in 1966, he landed a 539lb black marlin from a boat called Sarita. It was not only the first black marlin of the year, it was also the first game fish of the year and ended up being the heaviest marlin caught by a local angler that year.

It was also at that time when Jack, always on the lookout for his next business opportunity, developed a new interest in locksmithing and key cutting and associated himself with a large locksmithing business based in Auckland.

In the early 1970s, the squash courts were sold to the Mercury Bay Rugby Club and Jack later sold his stock of sporting equipment to Mick and Dulcie Elwood. What was their shop is still in business today, trading as Whitianga Sports in Albert Street.     

The appliance business was sold in 1974, but Jack continued with the sale and service of commercial refrigeration and laundry equipment. His work included maintaining refrigerated vats and ice banks on farms to keep the milk cold before collection, the manufacturing of refrigerated bottle cabinets and the installation of icemakers for the supply of bagged ice. “The business was later sold to Roy Herbert who went on to become the local Betta Electrical agent, while the refrigeration side of the business was eventually taken over by Ian Bernhard who until recently operated Coastal Refrigeration just off Campbell Street,” says Jack.

By that time, Jack had another new venture on the go also, an engraving business, while he continued to provide his locksmithing and key cutting services.

Opening Whitianga’s very first garden centre was a target on both Jack and Bernice’s radar. “We leased a property in Albert Street where Fagan’s Furniture is situated at the moment, in the early 1980s,” says Jack. “At the time, the property was owned by the Mercury Bay Dairy Company and consisted of a huge vacant section and an old house at the back of the property. Initially, the new business meant twice weekly travel to Auckland and further afield to collect plants, fertiliser, potting mix, bedding plants and all the associated requirements. We also had an agency for Interflora cut flowers for New Zealand wide delivery.

“We also leased another vacant piece of land in Albert Street, where we grew around 10,000 strawberry plants over a three-year period. The strawberries were sold at the garden centre and several other Whitianga shop outlets.”

Five years after the garden centre was established, it was sold to Bill and Jocelyn Brownell, while Jack and Bernice once again headed into unchartered waters with another new business venture.

“Bernice had always wanted to be involved with fine china and giftware, so we set up a retail shop at 2 Monk Street, which we already owned at the time. Bernice operated in one side of the building with fine china and I operated in the other with my locksmithing, security locks, alarms, engraving and trophies. After a couple of years, I set up my workshop next door to allow more room to display my stock and trophies.”   

Over the years, it seemed no job was ever too small or too difficult for Jack Cooper, a man who was never afraid to try something new and was always on the lookout for a new business opportunity.  Many, if not all of the businesses he, with Bernice by his side, created, contributed immensely to the early development, success and growth of the wider Whitianga community.

“We all had lots of good times and laughter in those early days when Whitianga was so small,” says Jack with a grin. “We made our own fun and rumour has it that among other things, I was somehow involved with the ghost train all those years ago. After all this time, I still cannot confirm or deny my involvement.” 

Jack Cooper - a man who was indeed a jack of all trades and by all accounts, a master of them all.

Pictured: Jack Cooper retired from the Whitianga business community after 57 years in December last year. This photo of him and his beloved wife, Bernice, was taken several decades ago.


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