The first European women to live between the Wanganui Town and New Plymouth were the wives and families of the Wesleyan Methodist missionaries, who came to live at Heretoa (between Inaha and Rainie Roads) and Patea.
Mrs Skevington (even after extensive research, we do not know her first name) was the first of the missionary wives. She arrived in New Plymouth with her husband from Sherwood, Nottingham, England early in 1842. What she must have made of the tiny settlement at Ngamotu can only be guessed at. However she was made welcome, for a great number of the settlers were Wesleyan. Meanwhile her husband, John, was taken on a tour of the mission district south to Wanganui, visiting all the Maori villages and meeting their church leaders. On the eve of the Skevingtons departure for their new mission station at Heretoa, they were entertained to tea by the Flights. Mr Flight was the magistrate at New Plymouth. Mrs Flight "...made a caraway cake and for the convenience used the silver teapot ... Gave Mrs Skevington some flower and vegetable seeds."
Because the prospect of landing the Skevingtons and their baggage on to the beach at the mouth of the Inaha Stream was considered too dangerous by Captain Clayton of the missionary schooner Ariel, Mrs Skevington was carried in a litter around the boulder strewn coast by her new parishioners. On the 30 May 1842, she set up house in "a building of fern and raupo that measured fifteen feet by twenty feet, and without a window, a chimney or a partition inside."
For the first months at Heretoa near the mouth of the Inaha Stream she must have experienced the cold winds off the Tasman Sea and the absence of the new friends she had made in New Plymouth. John was away for many days at a time taking services throughout South Taranaki, coming home wet and cold but elated at the apparent success of his labours. In 1843, they were joined by 24 year old David Sole of New Plymouth who came to work the two bullocks and set up wheat farming at the mission station. Next year, in mid 1844, Mr and Mrs Arbut Brown (yet another woman we know little about) arrived to assist in the farm and home of the Skevingtons. Mrs Skevington's life was now more comfortable.
At this time the Wesleyan Church appointed a lay preacher to assist Skevington. William and Ann Hough, formerly of Yorkshire, and their three daughters Helen, Mary Ann and Sarah took up residence in a raupo house at Raumano under a cliff face at the southern entrance to the Patea River. At Christmas that year a fourth child was born and christened William Dawson Hough (the first white child born in Patea?). Ann Hough suffered times when there was no food and after the birth of William became continuously ill. Her husband too suffered from exhaustion and cold as he went about his tasks in the district.
In September 1845, Mrs Skevington was left at Heretoa with her first child (born about March 1844, the first white child born in South Taranaki?) while her husband made the twenty-day walk to Auckland to attend the Methodist District Synod. One Joseph Orton or Hohepa Otene, later famous as Titokowaru accompanied him. However on Sunday the 21st, while listening to a sermon he collapsed and died. He was 31 years old and devotion to his work in South Taranaki had killed him. Mrs Skevington, with her now eighteen month old daughter stayed on at Heretoa until after the birth of her second daughter in February 1846, and then with her two young daughters, she returned to England from Auckland in September 1846.
The Skevingtons were succeeded by William and Jane Woon nee Garland at Heretoa. They were an older couple, William was 42 years old and he and Jane had a young family. The eldest, a boy was apprenticed to a printer in Auckland, the same trade as his father. The Woons arrived at Heretoa, Jane and the children by litter, to find a mission house built of "rush and reed and fastened with native flax." One of the cob chimneys leaned "like the Tower of Pisa." Jane Woon had taken a course in midwifery before leaving England and would have practised at their previous appointments in Tonga and at Mangungu in North Auckland. Mrs Arbut Brown's health declined so the Browns moved to Patea to await a boat to Wellington and Jane came to assist Ann Hough with the birth of her next child, a son, Thomas Garland Hough.
Ann Hough's next child, another son, Joseph Benson, was born at Heretoa but died with his infant brother of whooping cough six weeks later. The Houghs, with their remaining four children, returned to Patea and then on to Nelson where William set up in business in Bridge Street. Mary Barker in her biography of William Hough observes, "It must have been with the greatest possible relief that Mrs Hough turned her back on Taranaki and returned to civilised Nelson with her husband and their four remaining children - even though, as a devoted wife and faithful Christian, she would surely have regretted the disappointing end to poor William's high endeavour."
At Heretoa Jane Woon and her daughters continued with the work of the mission and looking after travellers and visitors. When Jane fell and broke her leg it was five days before a doctor could come and set it. On another occasion a fire threatened to burn down the house. At one point she became so depressed over the work of the mission that she travelled to Auckland to stay for several months.
At the end of October 1849, just when the narcissi planted by Jane was flowering (these bulbs still bloom in 1993) the eldest daughter Catherine was married. She was not yet 16 and became the wife of a young German pastor with a mission at Warea, not many miles to the north. Johannes Riemenschneider's fiancee at home in Germany had told him she could not come to New Zealand. William and Jane were pleased with the match because the Taranaki Coast was not a good place for a young unmarried woman.
When the Riemenschneider's house was built at Warea, Catherine went there to live and in the course of time raised five of her eight children there. The family was forced to leave in 1861. At Warea she continued to give support to her mother and father for whom the once successful work at Heretoa had become thankless and unbearable. Jane became ill and in January 1853 left for New Plymouth and Auckland, never to return to Heretoa. Her husband, broken in health and morale abandoned the mission station in October that year, leaving all their possessions, documents and records to be destroyed in an accidental fire.
For the women who lived in South Taranaki at this time, life was spartan and their living conditions extremely trying. They lived lives of considerable insecurity because they would have regarded their Maori neighbours as having uncertain temperaments and loyalties. For all the days of ill weather and anxiety there must have been many happy and rewarding times. Many interesting people visited their homes bringing in the best of conversation and interesting experiences. Their children grew up in a stimulating and very practical environment.
By Arthur Fryer
Past-president Hawera Historical Society