At just 19 years of age Waaka Vercoe left his home in Te Teko, a small inland Māori township in the Bay of Plenty, population 1,500, for a work opportunity with the Ministry of Works in Wellington.
Antrim House was in government ownership by then. Waaka would share a large room on the ground floor, formerly the Hannah family sitting room with four others. He recalls the moment he stepped inside, seeing five single beds in that room, “They were people you had never met in your life, complete strangers.” There were more rooms upstairs. “It was good accommodation, and it was reasonably priced, cheap really, full board including three meals a day for about £8 per fortnight.” About a quarter of Waaka’s fortnightly salary of around £32.
Except for Waaka and Albert (Albie) Hiini who was from Te Puke and had a role at Inland Revenue, all the young men there during the time of Waaka’s six-month stay were Pākehā New Zealanders, mostly from Auckland. According to Waaka, “in those days government roles were not a popular choice for Māori workers, their purview was ‘kāore he take (that it was pointless) to work for government.”
The boarding house was run by a matron, who he remembers as a big Australian woman with a fondness for a tipple, and another elderly lady whose name was Iris, and he remembers that she did most of the work.
Waaka has many stories about his time at Antrim House but suggested that “some were not for publication.”
There was a pub nearby, Barretts Hotel, at the bottom of Plimmer Steps, an easy walk for fit young men. The hostel residents “tried to look 21 but probably didn’t but we were served anyway” said Waaka. The fire escapes were very busy at night with numerous afterhours comings and goings.
Te reo Māori was very rarely heard spoken in Wellington at that time, but Albie and Waaka would sit and speak Māori during mealtimes, something which he referenced as being unusual for the time. The other boys would complain that Waaka and Albie were talking about them, which sometimes “of course we were” he said.
The highlight of mealtimes wasn’t the food “although, the meals were good, but very ordinary, standard fare, mashed potatoes, a bit of meat and vegetables.” The real highlight of mealtimes was the servers, young Pākehā women who bought the meals to them at the table. These girls all stayed at a hostel nearby. Waaka enjoyed their friendly conversations, but the experience was somewhat soured by the disapproval of the other young men at the hostel, some of whom told the girls not to talk to Waaka and Albie. The conversations continued though, regardless.
“In those days you went home to eat at lunchtime – I was working in a little building behind parliament at the district office of the Ministry of Works. It was about 15 mins walk each way, everyone walked everywhere, no one had bikes, no one had a car then.”
Asked whether he enjoyed his time staying at Antrim House, Waaka replied “Oh yes, very much, we all became quite friendly, chatted, that sort of thing”.
Waaka could not stay on at Antrim after beginning study at Victoria University. He later graduated with a degree in Commerce (BCA). He worked in various roles, including The Reserve Bank of New Zealand prior to moving back to Rotorua, and served on the Māori Heritage Council as the government nominee for a decade, from 1999 until 2009 when he again spent time at Antrim House, by then the home of Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga, as Māori Heritage Council meetings were held there.
Some years ago, Waaka returned with his wife Rosalind to take a guided tour of Antrim, the visit sparked memories for them both. Waaka recalls how he travelled to Wellington in 1961, “I took a Road Service Bus from Te Teko to Hamilton and then the overnight steam train to Paekākāriki. We then transferred to a diesel train for the trip into Wellington. I carried my suitcase from the railway station to Antrim House. I still have that suitcase; things were built to last then.”
Rosalind recalled that Waaka’s time on the council had included travel to sites of significance, “I enjoyed some lovely trips during that time, to Invercargill, Ōamaru, The Bay of Islands, and Napier. I paid my own way of course, but I got to see things that an ordinary tourist would not.”
Perhaps it was something in the Antrim water or more likely it was down to lives well lived, but Waaka is in his eightieth year now, and Albie Hiini passed away in August, 2022.