Eleanor Kathleen Coates

From Florence Keene's
'Under Northland Skies'.
(with permission)
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Surely no bride ever received such a spectacular welcome as did Eleanor Coates when she arrived with her bridegroom at her new home, 'Ruatahuna' in Matakohe! From all the surrounding hilltops huge bonfires, lit by the settlers of the district, blazed forth a unique and sparkling welcome, while across the water in Pahi guns fired a salute to greetb the new bride from the city.

Eleanor Kathleen Aickin came to New Zealand from Dublin with her parents on the ship 'Mermaid' in 1859, when she was eight years old. Her father, Dr Thomas Aickin, had been appointed the first superintendent of the Asylum in Avondale in Auckland.

On arrival, the Doctor and his family had temporary accommodation in a two-roomed hut with a leanto, situated on Parnell Rise. It seems that Eleanor's mother, who had been used to a spacious home with servants to run it, had some spirit, as she remarked with a wry smile,
"At least we have a superb view!"

Although little Kathleen had had a governess in Dublin, her parents decided to send her to that elite boarding school, Ladies' College in Remuera, for her schooling.

Before long the Aickin family acquired a charming house which they called 'Riverdale', as it overlooked Whau Creek in Avondale [Avondale is some 20 km to the west of the centrally located Parnell, and on the upper reaches of Auckland's Waitemata Harbour]. This was where Eleanor grew up and later met Edward Coates from Matakohe. From Herefordshire in England where the Coates family had farmed for generations, Edward Coates and his brother Thomas came to New Zealand in 1866, and settled in Matakohe. They purchased the Uruwhao Block of 2252 acres and farmed it in partnership. Edward later bougth his brother out, and acquired another 246 acres on which he built 'Ruatuna' for his bride in 1877. Eleanor and Edward were married in St. Lukes Church in Auckland in may of that year, and the warmth of her welcome to Matakohe certainly compensated a great deal for the remoteness of the area. [Matakohe is on the Kaipara Harbour, north and west of Auckland, and at that time only accessible from th sea.] Although quite unused to the pioneering situation, Eleanor was not dismayed, but determined to make her new home attractive to herself and the friends she hoped to make. The design of her home was rather unusual - particularly that of the drawing room. Before their marriage her husband Edward had spent a holiday in a fishing lodge in Scotland, where he had discovered that the construction of the main room had exceptionally good acoustics. As he himself had a good voice he decided to have his drawing room built with the same style of roof. So this room has not the conventional flat ceiling, but follows the lines of its hip roof.

Many were the pleasant musical evenings spent in this room where the beautiful Chappell piano still has pride of place. This piano miraculously survived a rough journey over the hills in a horse-drawn sledge, and that journey included fording two creeks. The piano was put to good use, beginning with services on Sundays when Eleanor and Edward gathered their young family round it to sing hymns, accompanied by bible readings and prayers. All her family were musical - in fact her younger daughter Nina (always called Dolly) grew up to be a concert pianist.

When Eleanor arrived in Matakohe,eleven years after its first settlers, there were quite a number of people living in the district, but that could mean that a neighbour could live several miles away. This meant that as there were little more than bridle tracks linking some of the homes, 'the river was the road' for most of them.

It took Eleanor only a short time to realise that all visitors had to rely on the tide, which in the river below her house ran out rapidly, leaving a narrow ribbon of water in the centre and a wide expanse of glue-like mud on either side of it.

Early one morning, soon after she had settled into her new home, she heard voices down by the river. She looked out to see a group of people walking up the hill to the house. She made a quick calculation as to what she could give them for breakfast. Would they stay to lunch, too? Surely not to dinner as well! Whatever would she give them if they did? Before long she discovered that they had to stay until the next high tide - nearly twelve hours! With no quick electric oven or any other 'mod-cons', but only an open fireplace, this was certainly a test for the ingenuity of any new bride!

It was just as well that 'Ruatahuna' had eight bedrooms, as by 1890 she had seven children, four girls and three boys. In those days it was usual for babies to be born in the home, but the unusual thing about her family was that they were not delivered by a midwife or doctor, but by their own father.

In that remote area Edward was recognised as the district's unofficial doctor and vetinarian and was called upon to solve all manner of medical problems. One night he had to act as doctor to his eldest son, Gordon, who with his brother Rodney riding behind him, was returning home in pitch darkness. Suddenly his horse stumbled, and Gordon fell off and broke his leg. Leaving Gordon in intense pain, Rodney desperately plodded on through the darkness, fording two rivers before reaching 'Ruatahuna'.

As soon as Rodney told his father of the accident, Edward set to work to make some splints and a stretcher on which to carry Gordon home. As she listened to the hammering which seemed to her to go on for hours, Eleanor imagined the agony her young son must be enduring. Eventually Edward set the leg and they stumbled home through the darkness with Gordon on the stretcher - trying their utmost not to jolt him. It was a whole week before they could get Gordon to a doctor who reset the leg. Unfortunately he made a 'botch' of the job, and as a result when Gordon grew up he always sat with his toe turned in.

Schooling in remote places was always a problem, and after some discussion Eleanor and Edward decided that their two eldest sons should go to the Matakohe school. So Gordon, with Rodney behind him, 'double-backed' on an old black mare that took them over the rough tracks to the Matakohe School. However, the girls, Evan, Ella, Ada and Nina were taught by a governess in the schoolroom at 'Ruatahuna'. In the early years Edward used to travel to Auckland to choose a governess when a new one was needed, but later, Eleanor, who noticed that all the girls he chose were particularly pretty, decided to select them herself - making sure it was their academic attainments rather than their beauty that was the criteria considered!

In those days there were no wall-to-wall carpets but only a few mats in the drawing room and bedrooms. Eleanor, who was very particular, made sure that all the wooden floors were regularly scrubbed with ashes to make them white, and this was a job done on the knees with a scrubbing brush.

As time went on she did more and more entertaining, which meant extra work and organisation on her part. Although she had help in the house, she still had a great many chores to do herself. She often rose at 4 AM to boil up the washing in kerosene tins on the open fireplace so that they could be replaced with the camp oven and pots in time to cook the breakfast and get the boys off to school.

Eleanor's husband and family all had leadership qualities which, as time went on, became apparent in the part they played in local politics and community affairs. These qualities were particularly evident in their most famous son, Gordon, at a very early age. From the time he could walk, she had a motherly Maori woman to keep watch over him as he was what she called a 'roamer'. One day, when he was only three, he slipped away down to the river, and after exploring the shore for a while, he saw a dinghy. Exerting a great deal of energy he managed to scramble into it. Before long he felt weary, so curled up in the bottom of the boat and went to sleep.

Meantime, Eleanor and his nurse discovered he was missing and rushed around the house calling his name. Soon the few available people around were running about looking behind bushes, in the hedge, in the sheds - everywhere. In desperation she sent across the farm for Edward who mounted his horse and joined in the search. After what seemed like years to Eleanor, Edward found his sone blissfully sleeping while the incoming tide was lapping around the dinghy as the water rose higher and higher.

Gordon also had the ability to persuade people to obey him - a gift which he pracxtised on the younger members of the family - for better or for worse, often for the worse! There was the time that Eleanor wanted her children for some duty, but the only one about was Gordon.

"Where are the others?" she asked him.
"In the shed. I told them not to come out until I said so - and they won't!" he replied loftily.

As the family was growing up Eleanor ran more and more functions at 'Ruatahuna', which with its tennis court, beautiful garden and trees, made an ideal setting. In the summer she often organised garden parties or tennis parties, and for these outdoor functions she set up tables under the trees in her garden. To save too much 'to-ing and fro-ing' she kept some crockery and cutlery in kerosene tins under the oak trees in readiness for setting out a delicious repast for her guests.

Before any party, inside or out, was held, Eleanor made careful preparations. She was meticulous in every detail, and one of the chores that the younger members of the family hated, but nevertheless had to do, was the raking up of the leaves, every one of which had to be cleared away out of sight. The boys would sometimes tease their younger sisters by saying, "Ada, you've missed a leaf!" or, "Dolly, you've left a twig behind!"

All chores done and everything in readiness, Eleanor was able to be a gracious hostess, unruffled and charming, and her guests could only guess how much work had gone into these enjoyable and smoothly run functions. The warm hospitality of Eleanor and her family attracted people not only from Matakohe district, but also from Auckland where she had many friends.

In 1905 Edward died and Gordon and Rodney took over the running of the farm, while Eleanor, who was then a young and vigourous 54, stayed on at 'Ruatahuna' and later, when Gordon married in 1914, shared it with him and his family. She continued to organise functions, both there and in the district. She was one who really understood how lonely and 'tied' a young wife could be in the country, and arranged many 'get-togethers' in the hall where there was room for their young children to amuse themselves.

Politics had always played an important part in her family, and she was proud of the fact that here sons were prominent in local affairs. She felt very proud too, when Gordon was elected Member of Parliament for the Kaipara Electorate in 1911.

Many were the garden parties held at 'Ruatahuna' for her sons' political friends. These were often followed in the evenings with dancing on the tennis court, lit up by the romantic glow of Chinese lanterns. Later, in 1925, when Gordon became Prime Minister of New Zealand, his duties took him to Wellington for most of the time and Eleanor saw little of him at 'Ruatahuna'.

It was indeed a pity that she did not live to see the picturesque Coates Memorial Church opened in 1950 to commemorate Gordon's contribution to New Zealand.

Although she died in 1935, she would be pleased to know that one of her grand-daughters, Joy Aickin, still lives in the Coates family home. In 1948 her daughter Ada, who used to keep the books for her brothers, purchased the 'Ruatahuna' home block, and with the assistance of Joy continued with the breeding of their purebred Hereford cattle and stud Southdown sheep. Today Joy carries on the farming operations, and has the same pride and love for 'Ruatahuna' as did Eleanor.