By John O'Hare
A distinctly first-world problem appears to have been one of the driving forces behind the establishment of Kerikeri’s basic electricity network in the early 1930s.
According to observers from the time, a lack of servants in Kerikeri was identified by one China-based would-be immigrant as a potential deal-breaker – making electricity more than just a ‘nice to have’.
“The town of Kerikeri that we know of today evolved in the early 1930s as part of the Alderton Group Settlement Scheme,” says Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Northland Manager Bill Edwards.
“Northern Advocate founder turned real estate magnate, George Alderton, had started the scheme in 1925 promoting citrus orchard ‘home and income’ packages like those he had seen in the United States.”
An emerging market for Alderton’s land packages included British civil servants and other expats in China, India and wider Asia looking to settle and retire somewhere in response to increasing political instability at ‘home’. Edward Selby Little, Alderton’s agent in China, role was to interest people in making the move to Kerikeri. Prospects were offered the dream of a peaceful, subtropical retirement where they could enjoy a bit of income off their land.
Richard Benner – a schoolboy at the time – remembers his mother’s response to Little’s sales pitch in a personal account, most likely written in the 1970s:
“As was normal in the far east in those days, all households had at least three servants, sometimes five or six, and ours was no exception, and my mother, on hearing that servants were virtually unprocurable in New Zealand said quite emphatically that without servants electricity was essential and she would not consider coming unless she was promised electricity,” he wrote.
Little asked what they would do to help form a power company – to which the Benners responded that they would be prepared to put some money into it. The Alderton Utility Co. was born.
“The company contracted Lloyd Mandeno – New Zealand’s ‘Mr Hydro-electric’ – to power up the fledgling subdivision. Mandeno was an electrical and civil engineer who was also passionate about hydroelectricity, and who had worked for the Tauranga Borough Council to promote the use of electricity generated from the Omanawa Falls power station in the Bay of Plenty,” says Bill.
“Under Mandeno’s direction, a rudimentary electricity grid was developed in Kerikeri providing sufficient power to settle the nerves of potential immigrants disturbed by the prospect of having to chop wood, cook, and fetch water without the back-up of a team of domestics.”
Mandeno’s plan was to harness the power of Kerikeri’s Rainbow Falls, and in 1929 the Alderton Utility Company constructed a dam and diversion weir. Water flowed via the weir into a water race that turned the turbine in the powerhouse located 1.3km upstream from the famous Stone Store.
On 11 June 1930, the power was officially turned on in Kerikeri, servicing the needs of 17 consumers with a reticulated network that covered about eight kilometres. The network grew as Kerikeri grew and remained in service until 1966, when it was deemed no longer viable, and decommissioned by the Bay of Islands Electric Power Board.
The early years of Kerikeri’s electrical service were as colourful as the immigrants who had newly arrived from foreign parts, and who appear to have been a source of constant intrigue to some of the established farming families who had lived there for years.
“When we arrived here to live in 1931 .... to my father’s astonishment lights were left on in the Homestead Hotel all night,” recalled Richard Benner.
“When he asked why the waste, they replied ‘that there was no waste as the electricity was being made all the time with the generator on non-stop in its action and it really didn’t matter whether you wasted the electricity or not’. This went against his normal Scottish frugal outlook.”
Benner had a ringside seat to the earliest years of the town’s experiment with raw power. In later years he remembered the experience of turning the kettle on only to see the house lights fade.
“Sometimes on wet winter nights the power would get very weak, and the lights would dim and perhaps go right out, but this was the signal [for] our maintenance man, Perrin Williams, to go and find out why,” he remembered.
“He would have to go along the water race until eventually he found the culprit – a dead, or nearly dead, cow or sheep that had fallen in and blocked the flow. At the far end by the waterfall there was a metal gate with bars on it to let the water through and strain out the unnecessary cows and sheep.”
Perrin Williams was something of a dynamo. He needed to be. As the Alderton Utility Company’s sole employee – and one of the only electricians living locally – he did virtually all the wiring in the homes, supervised the erection of all the lines and was also responsible for maintaining the generator down at the power station.
Perrin’s job description, which was as expansive as the landscape he was servicing, was not helped by the way the Alderton Utility Company – sometimes referred to as the Alderton Futility Company by unhappy subscribers – had set things up.
Rather than run power lines along the roadside, in order to save money, the company ran the lines across country which meant that powerlines ran across shelter belts – which meant that the trees had to be regularly trimmed; a full-time job in itself.
But if the infrastructure was problematic, the pricing structure devised by the company was probably unique in the world, as Richard Benner recalled.
“In order to save the expense of installing meters and having to pay meter readers, they decided to merely charge so much per unit of electricity by saying, if you have one radiator that would cost you so much, if you have one stove, that will cost you another figure, if you have five lights or so many rooms in your house that will be so much per room.”
That was fine initially, but as Kerikeri grew, electricity became ever in short supply. The habits of some electricity consumers also made things worse.
“Wily settlers would buy a radiator, sit it on its back all night with a billy or large container of water on it thereby not needing internal electrical heating in the house as it was nice and cosy, the hot water was already heated for the morning, and it saved a great deal of work chopping wood for the copper.” All for the low flat rate of running a radiator.
Others were even more ingenious.
“[They] didn’t bother with a radiator, [they] would open the door of the oven and leave [it] on and this would act as a radiator and warm up the house. These bright ideas were within their financial grasp because they were only paying for the actual electrical equipment they owned.”
Perhaps the canniest customer was Daniel Ferguson, owner and builder of Kerikeri’s famed Chinese-inspired Pagoda House. According to local historian Nancy Pickmere, Ferguson lit up his entire garden with coloured lights – including the mouths of his stone ‘dogs of fo’ guardians he had set up at his entrance gate. Ferguson was determined to get full value for money from his electricity connection, paying by appliance like many subscribers, rather than by actual power used.
It was Edward Little himself who finally bit the bullet on behalf of the debt-ridden company and installed electricity meters in every house.
To ensure a soft landing for all his customers who were used to power at crazy ridiculous prices, however, he gave them one month of power use under the usual arrangement – then presented them with a virtual ‘bill’ for what they would have had to pay if they continued to use power at that rate. People were shocked – and electricity usage plummeted as they faced the grim reality of the new ‘user pays’ regime.
The party was over – and the non-essential lights went out all over Kerikeri.
In 1938-39 the Bay of Islands Electrical Power Board (BOIEPB) began supplying reticulated power to Kerikeri. The Alderton Utility Company was taken over and all the power it produced was fed into the grid system. The Power Board also took the opportunity to move all the power lines onto the roadsides for ease of maintenance.
“Infrastructure associated with Kerikeri’s earliest attempt as electrification can still be seen today as part of the track that runs from the historic Kerikeri Basin through to the stunning Rainbow Falls,” says Bill.
“It’s the perfect shady walk for a hot day – and a reminder that bringing power to the people isn’t always simple.”
Find out more information on the track here.