PATEA (kindly reproduced from POLICING IN THE MOUNTAIN SHADOW by Margaret Carr)

Patea was originally one of the most important settlements in Taranaki. It was described as thriving when one settler described Hawera as “just grass with one or two families settled.”

Patea’s policing history is almost as old as the settlement, which was once known as Carlyle.In 1872 the township had a Post Office, Courthouse, and other Government buildings, and Cobb and Co’s coach ran through twice weekly on its way between New Plymouth and Wellington. The 92 Armed Constabulary members were described as carrying out police duties as well as patrolling the district, and drilling volunteers and militia.But policing in the town came in for some criticism right from the start. In July 1880 the Patea County Mail reported that the new police station had been put up on three-quarters of an acre of land but the paper pointed out that there was not enough land for grazing a horse or for the constable to grow his own vegetables. In fact, there were two resident constables in Patea, but living accommodation was provided for only one. Sergeant McGrath was to reside in the cottage and take charge of the cells.

But, the paper said, only two cells had been provided for the busy district where prisoners were often brought from “Waverley and Waitotara and other remote places” for trial. And the cells were far too small.

“There ought to have been in each cell a fixed wooden form to serve as bench and bed. Our colonial Police system is so humane that a prisoner is to be treated like an animal, penned up to slaughter. He is presumed to be guilty until it pleases the powers to let him out of his box to demonstrate his innocence … who are the superior well paid servants which mismanage the colony’s business in this fashion? Can such civil servants be worth their salt?”When the military gave up police work the lock-up at Manutahi was moved to Patea.

The three earliest police at Patea after the formation of the New Zealand Police seem to have been Sergeant John Donovan, and Constables William Howell and Benjamin Gray. Sergeant Donovan was born in Ireland and served in the Royal Irish Constabulary and NZ Armed Constabulary before ending up as Sergeant at Patea in 1886. Once he left, the station seems to have reverted to a sole charge station, which it remained until 1939. Howell, an English shoemaker before joining the Armed Constabulary in New Zealand, had elected after 1877 to remain with the Field Force and eventually ended up as a member of the NZ Permanent Militia. He transferred to the police and went to Patea in early 1887. Gray, also a former Constabulary member, arrived at Patea in May 1888 and stayed until 1892.

In October 1892, Constable Henry Hyde Carr took over at Patea and was to keep charge until 1898. He had a good reputation as a Maori interpreter and had fought with the Armed Constabulary in the New Zealand wars. After the police inherited Carr in 1886 he served at Wellington, Maketu, Kawakawa, Dargaville, Herbertville and, after Patea, at Waipawa. He went to work for the Justice Department in 1900. His replacement from February 1896 at Patea was Gavin Wilson who moved to Waitotara in July 1898.

Wilson was followed by Constable Walter Williams in June 1898. Williams stayed not quite a year and was replaced by Constable Michael O’Brien, who stayed 10 years.The police seem to have given the town council a few problems. There was the fence between the Market Reserve and police paddock which was broken down in 1895. The town clerk wrote to Constable Carr demanding to know when the Police Department was going to put up new fences.

A new town clerk wrote to the inspector of police at Wanganui in August 1902 —about Constable O’Brien”I am directed to forward you a copy of the resolution passed at the last meeting of the Patea Borough Council bearing on the overcrowded state of the Police Constable’s residence in this town. It is the worst case in the town and my Council requires the nuisance abating within one month from this date; otherwise proceedings will have to be taken under the Municipal Corporations and Public Health Act. Asking yourimmediate attention to this matter.”

A new police station was built in 1902 perhaps because of this. Constable O’Brien had seven children living (a daughter drowned as a toddler) when he was in Patea. Perhaps the police “cottage” so criticised by the local newspaper was too small for them all.Michael O’Brien died at Opunake in 1936 as one of the region’s best-known figures and as a staunch supporter of the New Zealand Catholic community.O’Brien was born in Ireland in 1859 and arrived in Auckland from Moynoe, Scariff, County Clare, on board the Waitara in 1876. He served in the New Zealand Constabulary Force under Inspector Newell at Parihaka. Michael O’Brien was sworn in as a constable in April 1879. After leaving the training depot he married Catherine Humphries, daughter of the pioneering North Taranaki family.O’Brien was posted to Dunedin in 1886, and then to Nenthorn, a new station established to police the gold fields. The station closed after two years and Constable O’Brien became the first police officer stationed at Middlemarch. At Middlemarch their home was known as the home of visiting priests and Mass was often celebrated there. Perhaps this, too, could have contributed to the overcrowding at Patea.Michael O’Brien had bought a large property near Patea, and Middlemarch was a bit too far from it, so he asked for the transfer to Patea. But by 1909 his farming respon sibilities and his health meant he had to give up police work. From then he devoted himself to Egmont County, becoming chairman of the Egmont County Council for one year. His property at Opunake was called “Moynoe” after his home in Ireland.For years O’Brien was a member of the Egmont and Opunake Electric Power Board, the Opunake Harbour Board, Egmont Licensing Committee and numerous smaller public bodies and organisations.During O’Brien’s time in charge at Patea, three Native Constables were appointed, although all were gone by March 1905. The first was Tume Epo, who was appointed in April 1902. He resigned in September 1904. Wiremu Niheta was appointed in March 1904, resigning in July that year. Aorere was appointed a fortnight after that and was dismissed eight months later. These men were paid £26 a year.Constable Hugh Douglas Armour arrived in 1909 to replace O’Brien and stayed until 1928.The Patea station and its area was re-designated in the Wanganui Police District in 1920 and did not return to Taranaki control until 1959.

Armour was replaced by Walter Kelly, who was at Patea when it was upgraded to a two-person station. He seems to have been fairly settled at Patea and retired there in 1944. Before arriving in Patea he had been a bit peripatetic, being stationed at Wellington, Wanganui, Fielding, Howick, Kawhia, Lower Hutt and Moturoa since joining the police in 1905.

Constable John Robert Claude Smith took over Patea in 1944. He was a former carpenter who had joined the police in 1924, being posted to Wanganui. Unlike Kelly, Smith went nowhere else before moving to Patea, and he stayed there until retiring to Taupo in 1969. At his retirement function members of the Law Society paid tribute to Smith’s “prodigious” work in helping to solve domestic disputes.The farewell gathering was told that there seemed to be only one other police officer who had served at only two stations. More than 300 freezing workers gave up their lunch break to farewell Constable Smith.

Francis Keith Harold Skerritt arrived from Newmarket, Te Kuiti and Raetihi in April 1959. Constable Skerritt had built up a good reputation as a Community Constable in his previous postings. He transferred to Houhora after four years at Patea. Patea had a new police station built during Skerritt’s time in the town.Patea seems to have had a good reputation for its staff passing exams and being promoted. For instance, Constable Rae Mitchell was promoted to sergeant at Wellington when at Patea, and was later in charge of Waitara; Constable Nigel Hitchcock was later a sergeant at Lower Hutt, and Constable Fred Jamieson passed his sergeant’s exams at Patea in 1973 and was later a senior sergeant at Rotorua.Patea’s future as a two-person station came into question in 1973 and as if to show what things could be like, the town had one of its busiest days on record. It began when the police were called to an accident involving two trucks. While they were at the scene, another accident was reported, this time involving a car and a school bus. Rain was falling heavily. An ambulance heading for the second accident hit the level crossing warning lights. These were operating at the time because the railcar was approaching! Everything was sorted out and Patea is still a two-person station.The closure of the Patea freezing works meant the role of the police changed. Instead of the town being a bustling industrial one where most people had a good income for at least part of the year, it became a town of empty houses and sections, high unemployment and families under stress. As the town adapts and recovers, it has fallen to the police, in the often unrecognised role of social workers, to help people deal with these problems.

Recommended reading:

“The History Of A Small Town Police Station”, Norrie Keenan

“Policing In The Mountain Shadow”, Margaret Carr