A Drive through Patea (2/2)

“A man is there all day punching skins and comes home and has no time for his wife and family. He goes off to the pub with his mates. We never saw our father until the weekend and that was the case for most people here.”

Dalvanius in the Taranaki Daily News, 18 August 2001

When I drove through Patea a few years ago I was sort of surprised by the fact that it actually existed.  The Patea Maori Club just seemed like a name for a pop group when I was 11, like Culture Club or Berlin, and I didn’t give the Club much thought in the many years between Poi E reaching number one in March 1984 and driving through Patea in the 00’s of this century.

Then, in a mostly boarded up, mostly empty one horse town, about halfway down Egmont Street, there were the unmistakable concrete arches of Turi’s canoe which feature so prominently in the Poi E video.  The rest of the town seemed unremarkable: the sight of the huge falling down freezing works as you crossed the bridge, and then Turi’s canoe.


If you go to the Wellington Central Library you can find a couple of short books released to coincide with Patea’s 75th and 100th anniversaries (1956 and 1981).  Both anniversaries are before the defining moment in modern Patea’s history: the 1982 closure of the Patea Freezing Works.  There is no book on Patea’s 125th anniversary.

Patea in 1956 was a different place.  The cover of the anniversary history shows a photo down the main drag towards what was, in 1956, called Mount Egmont.


When you flick through either of these books you realise how much there was to Patea in the past.  The 75th Jubilee book is crammed full of advertisements from local businesses, and throughout the whole book there is a real sense of industry, small business and civic pride.  The sober suits and cheap haircuts of the white men in the photo below can’t hide the satisfaction of these men in their thriving community.


All the big banks were in town, with ads congratulating the town for having stood up for 75 years, and – in a land then without wine – even a big brewer got in on the act, trying to raise the tone a touch to match the occasion.


Thrice.  Not a word you hear in many beer ads nowadays.  Perhaps after getting tipsy on some lovely glasses of D.B. the ladies could head down to Patea’s life line to Paris, Rome and London.


In fact the ads in general put a heavy emphasis on the tone of the town:


Universal Motors – The complete up-to-date service… with civility

Ray’s Milk Bar – Call at Patea’s Leading Milk Bar for Service, Cleanliness and Civility

So much civility, but perhaps a lack of warmth?  Or perhaps that word has shifted its meaning in the last 50 years and sounds cold and formal in 2012 rather than correct and reassuring as it might have in 1956.

Small town histories like to soporifically record the details of their institutions: enumerating the number of bricks it took to construct their hospital, or the number of sandwiches buttered at the last Scout jamboree.  Looking back now it is remarkable to think that Patea had a hospital, but it did.  Four wards with beds for 56, and a house for the Hospital Board’s Secretary and another for the engineer.  It still sits there, on Dorset Street, slowly falling apart.  It closed in 1990.


Patea was a town that almost entirely rested on its freezing works, in a country that rested on Britain’s open door to anything we could slaughter, freeze and ship.  Patea’s works started life in 1888 as a packing and canning plant.  By 1933 the works had been taken over by a British company run by Lord Vestey who probably saved it from closing.  In 1982 it was still a part of the massive Vestey food empire, and was closed (too expensive to upgrade to meet new EEC hygiene standards, apparently).  In a town of around 2,000, the works employed – in the peak of the season – 850 people.  You can imagine the effect this closure had, and it explains everything about the deserted town you drive through now as opposed to the thriving community you can see in the pages of the 1956 anniversary souvenir which put on a week-long party for its 75th birthday.



What a line up!  The Saturday must have been marvelous.  Floats! Maoris! Marching! Football! Fire hoses! Food!

But there is a curious line in the 100 year anniversary history of Patea that gave me pause:

During the Depression an ill-advised strike had led to the introduction of the chain system and an increasing number of Maoris sought employment at the works.

Perhaps it is just poorly worded, but this sentence seems to suggest that an ill-advised strike led to two other negatives: a chain system, and Maori coming to town.

And they did.  From the 1930s and increasingly after WWII.  In 2002, 20 years after the works closed, the town was 52% Pakeha and 43% Maori.  The man behind Poi E, Dalvanius Prime, was from Patea and Dalvanius’ family were at the works.  He was born in 1948 which means the Prime family were in Patea or nearby Hawera for the 1956 anniversary celebrations and Dalvanius would have been 8 years old.

Born Maui Karawai Parima in Patea, a rural Maori community on the North Island’s west coast, he grew up with seven brothers and four sisters, in conditions he described as rough. His ex-serviceman father Ephraim played several instruments and his mother Josephine was a talented singer. Ephraim wanted to name his son after a fellow soldier, Dalvanius, who had died in wartime Rome. The name did not make the birth certificate, but it stuck.

 The Guardian

Like the difference between the name that didn’t make the birth certificate, and the one that did, it begins to feel to me that the 1956 Patea presented in the anniversary book is not quite Patea.  Official Patea in 1956 was a humming shopping centre brimming with civility and a whitebread council, but there was another Patea going on at the same time.

In a 1984 Listener article on Dalvanius his early life is lightly passed over:

He was born in Patea, one of 11 children.  His father was a freezing worker and a devout Mormon who, regardless of the cost, managed to keep four of his sons at the Mormon college in Hamilton at one time….  Eventually he ran away, convinced that the teachers had it in for him and that his parents didn’t understand.  “I took out the frustrations I had with my teachers on my father personally – in other words I was a… the word’s, deadshit.”

There is a different, fuller version of this story in an interview done in 2001,

Mr. Prime describes growing up in Patea with seven brothers (two now deceased) and four sisters (one now deceased) as rough.

“You can almost say it was a Once Were Warriors experience. But when my parents finally got their act together they were most loving.”

He says he was trouble as a kid, and once stole a school bus with his cousins and crashed it into a bridge.

He puts a lot of his own upbringing down to the low socio-economic level of Patea and the rawness of life revolving around the freezing works.

“A man is there all day punching skins and comes home and has no time for his wife and family. He goes off to the pub with his mates. We never saw our father until the weekend and that was the case for most people here.”

It was a foregone conclusion the young Dalvanius Prime would end up at the freezing works like his dad, in the days before the freezing works closed down — and the money was fantastic.

But Mr Prime says he always wanted to end up in the entertainment industry, spurred on by the large role music played in his family life, including singing in a church choir and playing the ukulele at family get-togethers.

In his teenage years his dad, “saw the light” and became a Mormon, while his mother turned to the Catholic faith. “It was a very spiritual household.”

Taranaki Daily News, 18 August 2001

Which all seems very different from the anniversary souvenir.  As does this:

“Every weekend we went to the Pa; but I wasn’t interested. I didn’t want to be in the haka; I was into doo-wop groups and Phil Spector. And at school we weren’t allowed to speak the Maori language. Patea was such a redneck town in the 50s .”


Dalvanius left the town more or less as soon as he could to follow his music dreams.  He came back in 1979 when he heard that his mother was dying of cancer.  It was the event that changed the direction of his life.

“Whenever there was a Maori funeral I couldn’t stand it, because I was so scared of dead people as a child, and we never went to the marae unless one of our relatives had died.  I couldn’t cope with knowing my mother was going, but when she did die it had a very strong effect on my system, because when we had the tangi with her I sat with her for three days and talked to as if she were alive… it brought a new awareness of myself.  Her dying words were all in Maori and I didn’t know what the hell she was saying, which was so sad.  She had always said that I would regret turning my back on my Maori heritage.”

Listener, 1984

I feel that there is something in all of this story that is about more than a man and the death of his mother.  Something about how New Zealand began to change a little bit in the 80s, from the satisfaction and homogeneity of the 1950s to the more diverse, more robust but certainly less (self) satisfied New Zealand we have now.  There is a great irony in the fact that Patea is now known for a Maori song, and its Maori monument on the main street.  A fact that no one could have foreseen in 1956.  But I suspect it brings only a little satisfaction. The wrenching of New Zealand into a new shape from the 80s created new and beautiful things, but also new places for desolation to take hold.

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I wrote a book: https://www.seraphpress.co.nz/kaitiaki.html

2 thoughts on “A Drive through Patea (2/2)”

  1. Brilliant observation and how you put this together, interesting how you put this together. You could have thought you were insulting them and complimenting them all at the sametime.

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