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Fun learning experiences for school visits, classroom sessions, heritage walks and for families at home.

Cambridge in the 1940s

In February 1940 Cabinet approved the building of Karapiro Dam for a Hydro Power Station. Heavy machinery was introduced and by October foundation work had started. By November there were 230 men employed and living in a camp consisting of wooden huts – some still with canvas roofs. (When Arapuni dam was built men and families lived in a ‘tin town’ of corrugated iron huts.)

There was a YMCA with billiards, a canteen, table tennis and movies. There was also a Post Office, library, dances nearly every week and church services fortnightly.

With conscription for World War Two, labour shortages held up progress. The diversion tunnel took two years to complete and finally in 1942 work was suspended because labour and materials were in short supply. It was not until 12 September 1943 that the river was diverted.

When Police Constable Pearce was appointed to the Karapiro Hydro works in June 1944, there were approximately 700 workmen and the township had 1500 people – more than half of the borough of Cambridge. Constable Pearce’s first encounter was a stop-work meeting caused by a complaint about the quality of food in the cook-house. Over 500 men ate at the cook-house and the Works Department promised to take over and provide higher quality food.

The school (the second largest in the district) catered for 205 pupils.
Clubs for football and cricket were formed, there was a plunket group, caledonian dances and later a Returned Services Association branch (with about 500 members).

Nurse Walker was the district nurse. She was responsible for the health of the whole camp, including school and staff and was on call 24 hours a day.

A bus service from Cambridge was laid on which alleviated much of the boredom. Metal and sand was laid on the streets – which alleviated the mud situation.

By early 1945 the excavations were complete, the power-house was being built and the dam was going up. 1000 men were now working on the project.

An open day was held at the beginning of December 1945, to promote a better understanding and appreciation of the people, social life and human side of Karapiro Hydro Settlement.

Karapiro dam was finished in 1947. During April over 25,000 people came to watch the water rise, inundating Horahora power station, farmlands and part of the public works camp.

In May 1947 the administration staff moved from Karapiro to Mangakino as the Karapiro Hydro Village became settled with Electrical Department staff. Mangakino then became the headquarters for the construction of the Maraetai and Whakamaru dams.


Another World War

World War Two filled the years from 1939 to 1945. Men from all around the district enrolled and served overseas. 77 are listed as dead on our cenotaph.

In comparison to World War One, Cambridge had volunteers in all the services – Army, Airforce and Navy. More women joined the services and more Cambridge nurses served overseas. Many more of our men became prisoners of war. And as well as war in Britain, Europe and Egypt the prospect of conflict here in New Zealand became more pronounced with Japan entering the war and bombing Pearl Harbour at the end of 1941. The Home Guard was established and guards were stationed at the Hydro Electric Dams and Dairy Factories.

Among the Cambridge men who fought for the Pacific with the 3rd NZ Division under Major General Barrawclough were Les, Ken and Artie Nicholl of St Kilda Road. (Their sister Jane was serving as a Nursing Sister in Greece). Also Gib James, Dudley Hicks, Vic Lynds, Merv Cubis and Jimmy Jeans served in the Pacific.

In the Waikato Independent a letter from Gib James records, “On manoeuvres recently I caught sight of Mervyn Cubis on the roadside as our battalion marched forward. We exchanged a few words and there was no doubt he was fit and well. Some minutes later, he drove past in a heavy transport, and a few trucks behind him I saw Jimmy Jeans at the wheel of another vehicle. There was just time to wave to each other. On such occasions as that, when tramping for miles along the dusty roads, it makes one envious of the transport drivers. Still their’s is no easy task and they work long hours.”

Merv and Jimmy remember they sailed for Fiji in January 1942, a torpedo was fired at their fleet and they soon experienced their first air raid. They worked in shifts day and night making airports, digging trenches and holes for headquarters and hospitals. They made tank traps and laid barbwire on the beaches and trained for jungle warfare. The heat was unbearable and they had an hour off in the middle of the day.

The Pacific men did not have much opportunity for leave – there was nowhere to go and nothing to do.

Later in 1942 they returned home for six months and more training. There were memorable manoeuvers on the Kaimais when the range became ‘New Guinea’ with the ‘Kokoda Trail’ wending through the ‘jungle’. Tauranga became ‘Buna’ and Matamata ‘Port Moresby’.

100 men of the Cambridge Homeguard were involved and a poet ‘Inky Finger’ recorded The Kaimai Battle in the Waikato Independent:-

“At the finish of this war
There’ll be wonderous tales in store
For those who like the dinkum stuff
Of soldiers who are brave and tough.”

In short the poem says that they travelled miles up tracks with their heavy packs, the heavens parted, the mud became a bog and each step their boots would clog.

“For Sabbath, as a special treat,
We had dried fruit instead of meat.
They promised us a tot of rum,
But late at night it had not come.”

(Merv Cubis remembers driving the Rum Ration truck!)

In the New Year of 1943 they were back in the Islands and this time to Guadalcanal. They saw their first action in September as the 35th and 37th battalions moved around the island of Vella Lavella in a pincher movement. They landed on a barge, lived in damp clothes and were never sure whether the rustle in the undergrowth was an iguana or the Japanese. But they drove the Japanese through the jungle into the sea – where three American destroyers were waiting.

On 14 October 1943 Cambridge suffered its only Pacific Island army casualty when Private Gilbert James Borrell was killed in action at Vella Lavella.

When the island was cleared of Japanese the 3rd Division set to putting through a road. The Americans had a runway built in a week.

At the end of 1943 they were on Green Island. There was no fresh water and their bottle a day had to came from an American distiller. Again they were building a runway and again they were getting closer to Japan.

Merv Cubis was on guard duty on the beach when the battle of the Coral Sea broke out. The Japanese navy was bombed by the allied airforce and then the battle, which turned the war, was fought in the sky.

After the war the Nicholl brothers returned to farm at St Kilda Road, Jimmy Jeans worked at the Pukekura factory. Merv was man-powered to the Hautapu factory and he then built a block of shops in Leamington and ran a grocery store.

The Lyceum Club came to Cambridge in 1940 through the efforts of Mrs Evelyn Rishworth, Lilian Hanna, Rewa McEwen and Gladys Nickle. It was found that during the war, with petrol restrictions, the local and especially country women, would organise many appointments in town on the one day. A venue was needed between appointments and the Lyceum Club, above Collins Bakery, (Centreway) was ideal.

By 1953 the membership was 250 and a waiting list so the ladies bought their present premises in Dick Street for £5,500. Their intention was to pay back their debentures within ten years.

In 1941 the building firm of Speight Pearce Nicoll & Davys, generously donated the former Wells residence in Empire Street to the Returned Services’ Association.

The building was originally built for the Waikato Farmers Club for £1000 and opened on 20 October 1877. There had been rooms for a library, smoking, lectures and committee meetings. Monthly meetings were held with topics of wheat, drainage, trees etc, and the adjoining grounds were used for agricultural shows.
It was sold to Tom Wells as a private dwelling ‘Oakleigh’ in 1881 for £1355.

The Returned Servicemen of World War One converted the residence into clubrooms ready for the homecoming of the service people of World War Two.

In March 1947 James McPherson Stuart was the first returned soldier to be buried in the newly formed RSA section of the Cambridge Cemetery. In August of the same year, cyprus trees were made available at £1 each and planted on both sides and the back of the section. Red geraniums were planted in the gardens.

The Wall of Memories and a Roll of Honour, with 164 names inscribed on the archway, was erected as a memorial for those who had lost their lives overseas in both World Wars.

With the war over the men returned and with rehabilitation loans available, there was another influx of new residents to Cambridge. By August 1945 the government had loaned £700,000 to returned men to start new business and farming ventures.

At the time when Norm Todd and Jim Ross started their Motor Repairs in the old Leamington factory, C M Walsh took over John Ferguson’s garage in Lake Street. Lloyd Williams took over from J T Douce as Cambridge Funeral Director and cabinet maker and F P Williams started as a plumber. Ted Brown began a Welding Service in Empire Street, Vic Butler opened a photographic studio in Duke Street and John Rentoul opened a new radio service.

The Cambridge Library joined the Free Country Service of the NZ Library Association and Miss Joan Lang (Mrs Watt) joined the staff as a librarian.

Cambridge people continued their war effort even after the war had finished. Britian’s food rationing became stricter as now there was also Europe to feed. In a combined effort of local bodies and different groups, Cambridge sent 41 cases of clothes, raw wool and bedding to UNRRA for distribution in Europe.

The Red Cross also collected clothes and in October 1945 the Waikato Independent newspaper records that the Cambridge Society packed and consigned eight cases of clothing for Holland.

Mrs Enid Taylor (Cambridge’s first woman Borough Councillor in 1947 – 49) personally consigned a case of clothes to Harem in Holland where her son Flying Officer D G L Taylor was killed in action and buried.

The Maungakawa Farm Settlement for Ex Soldiers in 1947 began with the purchase of Harold Crowther’s 698 acre property for subdivision into five dairy units.

The first manager of the block was Don Mackie of Whitehall followed by Alec Oliver who also took up the first completed unit with approximately 55 heifers.

In the same period Roy Thompson moved onto his farm with buildings incomplete and no power. He and his wife were milking up to 20 heifers by hand.

1950 saw the third farm taken up by Ron Pemberton who because of the poor state of his property was placed on wages for the first year. 1951 completed the settlement with the arrival of Dave Howie and family, and Jack Mailman and his mother.

Towards the end of 1944 a faction of the bowling community wanted to play bowls on Sunday and, as the Waikato Independent reports, “do what they pleased”.

Some members broke away from the Leamington Club and founded, on private land, the Central Bowling Club. Two army huts made their clubhouse and the Waikato Licensed Victuallers’ Association sponsored their annual tournaments.

Women (the first in the Waikato) joined the Central Club in 1945.

Rotary, with its motto ‘Service Not Self’ was formed in Cambridge in 1946. W R Garrard was the first president and Carl Duignan secretary. Well known in the community now for student exchanges, youth leadership awards, the wishing well in Te Koutu Domain, community grants and Christmas trees, Cambridge Rotary also started Budget Advice and worked with Lions and Jaycees to raise money for Resthaven. They started the Students’ Transition to the Workplace and with their many good deeds in the community they have encouraged further membership and continued success.

The Cambridge Pony Club was one of the first to be formed in New Zealand in 1946 with Mr Phil Yearbury as Commissioner. The first show grounds were on the parking area at the Trotting Club. The next venue was Mrs H D MacDonald’s in Hamilton Road, then in 1958 the club leased 11 acres of domain land in Carlyle Street, Leamington.
Prominent horses of these times were Mrs MacDonald’s ‘Telebrae’. ‘Lady Marlene’ won grand champion of the Waikato Show, and ‘Lady Vanquish’ owned by Miss Penny Cooper was horse of the year in 1965.

Robert Scott represented the Cambridge Club for three years at the NZ Championships and Clive Barnes rode ‘Guardsman’ to victory in the Olympic jump at the Royal Show attended by the Queen in 1963. John and Jim Watson, who became top Cambridge polo players, started their riding with the club. And Mark Todd has kept Cambridge in the world spotlight with his record breaking rides for over twenty years.

An archery club was formed at Buckland Road and with new blood coming to the Cambridge district Junior Soccer commenced in 1948.

A soccer club was mooted in 1921 and the game was played at various venues. Senior soccer started in 1954 playing on the Leamington Domain. Then soccer finally got a home of their own in 1964 – ‘John Kerkhof Park’ in Vogel Street.

The sports and camping grounds were removed from Victoria Square. The fences came down, the cycle track was removed and it became an open park. It was Councillor Garrard’s idea to plant more suitable trees and to beautify the area to be used for cricket or picnicing. He believed the square, as an open park, would be more greatly appreciated by the people of the district and that it would encourage travellers to stop and spend an hour in Cambridge.

The Rugby Memorial Park was formed in Taylor Street. (The two plaques at the entrance to the grounds record the men who were involved with Cambridge rugby before the Second World War and were killed.)

The Leamington Town Board was developing a camp at the Leamington Domain, as the Cambridge Borough Council was removing their camp from Victoria Square, so together they made this the main camping ground.

On 9 September 1946 the Cambridge Railway, which was opened with a great fanfare on the 8th October 1884, saw its last official passenger train leave.

With the building of Karapiro Dam boaties looked forward to the coming of the lake. In 1945 they set up the Cambridge Boating Club – their first aim being the “Encouragement of aquatic pleasure”. Terry Collins and Eddie Webb were waiting as the water rose behind the dam and were the first to sail their yacht ‘Avalon’ on Lake Karapiro.
The first yacht race was in November 1947 with Eddie Webb’s ‘Omega’ coming in first. The fastest power boat on the water was B Smythe’s hydroplane ‘Dolphin’ and a display of aquaplaning was given by Ernie Gorringe.
The NZ Rowing Champs were held on Karapiro Lake in December 1948.

In 1950 the rowing and motorboat groups had to form their own clubs to affiliate with their respective national bodies so rowing went one way and the Cambridge Yacht and Powerboat Club the other way.

The Yacht and Powerboat clubhouse was opened in 1951 and at the 40th anniversary a special plaque was unveiled in memory of Reg Buckingham. Reg had been a founder member and with great enthusiasm not only helped build the clubhouse and his own yachts but kept a photographic record of the club’s progress. He had been president and was made a life member and Patron in 1960. From this time Reg also took photos for the Waikato/Cambridge Independent newspaper and has left a legacy of negatives now in the Cambridge Museum archives.

The Rowing Club held its inaugural meeting on 10 March 1949 – their clubrooms being the cookhouse-dining rooms left over from the dam construction.

Great jubilation came to the club in 1958 when Norm Suckling from Cambridge combined with Jim Hill in the double sculls and took the bronze medal at the Empire Games in Cardiff, Wales. Later in 1969 rowing enthusiasts formed the Norm Suckling Memorial Appeal Committee to raise funds of $1000 for a craft with a view of reforming the club.

Since then the Rowing Club has gone from strength to strength with new clubrooms in 1975 and World Rowing Champs in 1978. David Rodger, Phillipa Baker, Stephanie Foster, Robin Clarke, Michael Rodger, Greg Johnston – all keeping Karapiro Lake in the world spotlight.

While all due care has been taken to verify information contained on this site, the Cambridge Museum accepts no responsibility for any errors, omissions or misrepresentation.

Copyright © 2003 – Cambridge Museum – All Rights Reserved.