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The town that nearly died: A brief history of Kawerau

A personal essay by author Helen McNeil about one of New Zealand’s most put-down towns – Kawerau. 

Kawerau is my hometown. My family arrived there as “ten pound Poms” in 1956 when I was four years old. My dad worked shift at the Mill and kept saying how lucky we were to be living in our own house and earning enough money to eat meat every night. On one side of us we had Finnish neighbours. Dad learned to drink vodka and us kids learned how to tell their mono-lingual alsation to sit (istua) and to come (tulla). On the other side of us our Tūhoe neighbours turned their back yard into a kumara patch and fed us kids rewena with golden syrup on. The street belonged to us; a great crowd of kids out playing complicated games. Someone’s mum always fed us.

It’s not an easy town to get to. There’s an elbow of road off the main Rotorua-Whakatane highway that takes you just to Kawerau. New Zealand’s youngest town, it dates from 1953. It only exists because of the paper mill.

“Uncle Tasman” was its name. My family bought our home from Tasman. Tasman put on a Christmas party every year and every kid got a present. The books I won as dux of Kawerau College were donated by Tasman. I got holiday work there delivering mail, because my dad worked there. It looked after its 2000-odd workers, their families and their town.

In 1986 the mill almost closed and the town almost died. It was close, very close.

My dad was a proud union member. I still have his membership ticket to the carpenter’s union in Dundee. He carried it all the way to New Zealand. Up until the early 1990’s union membership in NZ was compulsory. He grumbled about the strikes, for all his working man’s sensibilities, and in the 1970s there were a lot, short ones and long ones. In 1978 the mill closed for 35 days, in 1983 for 50 days. Outsiders started calling Kawerau “strike town”.

In 1986 a 42-day strike almost killed it. My dad had retired the year before but he’d have been locked out like the rest of the workers. He was careful to say he wouldn’t be on strike, he would be locked out and it was all the fault of “Murphy’s Mob”. This was the executive of the Pulp and Paper Workers’ Union, called as such because John Murphy was its “militant” secretary.

“Uncle Tasman” had changed. It had become Fletcher-Challenge, New Zealand’s first multinational. It had a much bigger capital base and members of the Business Roundtable on its board of directors. It stood up to the unions.

On the 44th day of the strike, 80 women walked to the gates of the mill and offered to take over “manning” the paper machines. My mum wasn’t there. She was nursing my dad who was home after an operation for cancer. I watched it from my home in Auckland, on Close Up on TV One. At the gates of the mill, the head of operations announced that closing the mill was a serious option. There was a woman in the crowd with a slogan on her back KEEP KAWERAU ALIVE.

It was difficult. Mum and Dad’s neighbours gave up and left for Australia. Mum went to church and prayed for an end to the strike. Her best friend stood outside the Town Hall when the Federation of Labour came down to meet with the warring parties and sang “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “How Great Thou Art”.

Kawerau Intermediate was closed in December, 2012.

Kawerau Intermediate was closed in December, 2012.

In our house, discussion about the strike was hard because John Murphy’s daughter was my sister-in-law and helped with the birth of our son. That made our kids cousins. There are ties and loyalties beyond work in small towns.

In 2011 I went on a tour of the mill (now called Norske Skog Tasman) and was taken into the building that used to house the Number One paper machine. There was nothing there. The machine had been dismantled and sold to China. It was now just a big corrugated iron shed, dripping water into a puddle in the middle of the floor. A pair of sparrows squabbled in the corner. I could see the ghost of my dad in his working greens and heavy boots down there checking something on the working machine. He’d always refused to wear ear-muffs and the high pitched singing of the stretched paper made him deaf. He used to carry home the stench of pulp, a mixture of rotten socks and dead rats. The smell that permeated the town. There’s only one working paper machine now. It’s mostly automated and the pulp and paper workers read computer screens.

It was ironic that during that tour, one of them was reading his Herald online.

When I last lived in Kawerau, in 1980, the town had roughly 8000 people. It was projected to grow to 10,000 because a fourth paper machine was to be built. That was before the strike. That fourth paper machine was shelved. Now the town is a shadow of its former self.

For many years the only news was bad news and I didn’t like letting on that I came from there. The unemployment rate was one of the highest in New Zealand, truancy from the high school I’d attended was around 60%. When Danielle Hayes won New Zealand’s top model in 2010, she said on TV that if she’d stayed in Kawerau she’d be pregnant or dead. In 2010/2011 there were five teen suicides. I’d been working as a psychologist in suicide prevention until 2008. I found the news of the town’s pain very difficult. My friends who still lived there hated the negative media attention.

When my dad died, the church was full of men in green work-clothes and steel-capped boots. They took time off to come to the funeral of a mate. He died just at a time when things were in a time of change for New Zealand and for the industrial town of Kawerau. Like industrial towns the world over, when globalisation hit, they had to rethink their very existence.

Of late I’ve been getting different news from my hometown. There’s the new college that’s turned around the truancy problem, there’s flourishing youth programmes. Since their settlement in 2005, Tuwharetoa ki Kawerau have grown the geothermal business and a new extension will soon mean more jobs. The local paper reports the town population is rising.


Helen McNeil’s novel A Striking Truth (Cloud Ink Press, $28) is set during the paper mill strikes in Kawerau in the 1980s, and is available in late November. Order now.


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