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  • Keith Newman

Derek van Asch Innovator and Benefactor

Derek van Asch was a local legend; a do it yourself, number 8 wire inventor, founding member of the Haumoana fire brigade, pioneering pea cropper for Jim Wattie, keen photographer and film maker.

Derek once owned 100 acres of land from the massive old gum tree at the entrance to Haumoana across to East Rd and in 1947 donated a section for Memorial Park. Van Asch street commemorates the family’s generosity.

Derek van Asch photograph

The van Asch family have a long pioneering history from creating new methods of teaching the deaf to breaking in rugged land in the remote Whanganui region and establishing the prestigious Craggy Range property under the shadow of Te Mata Peak.

Derek’s grandfather Gerrit van Asch, born in Holland in 1836, was a pioneer of lip reading for the deaf. He learned ‘the German system of articulate sounds’ and was asked to move to London, where sign or finger language was banned in favour of the spoken language and lip reading.

To succeed in London, he had to learn English and adapt the first purely oral deaf school in an English-speaking country.

Gerrit van Asch teaching children in the classroom

Gerrit married Emmerline Drury of Sunderland Wales in 1866 and after establishing his own teaching programmes, was asked by a Christchurch committee to become director of the government-supported school for the deaf in New Zealand.

He, Emmerline and their six children arrived in Christchurch aboard the Scottish Prince in 1879 and settled at Sumner. Their oldest child William van Asch, born in Manchester, England in 1867, attended Christchurch Boys High School and Lincoln College.

William married Mattie Jamieson of Christchurch and they had five sons and a daughter; Ralph, Derek, Piet, Ivan, Mary and Gerrit who were raised along the upper Waitotara River, north of Wanganui, where he was sent to open up dense bush country.

A rugged upbringing

Access to the Waitotara land called Kapara (a hard resinous wood), where William build a whare (house) of timber and sacking, was only possible by horseback. “Every six months they’d come into town and stock up,” says Derek’s daughter, Sophie Henderson.

William built his own power station and the first mill from which he supplied timber for the Ngamatapuri Church. They also had a house on the main road at Waitotara which they occupied during the winter months. His four brothers Arnold, Harry, Gerrit and Arthur all joined him when they left school. A Maori man Tom, from the Sumner deaf institution, remained with them for the duration of his life.

At one point, William nearly gave up farming the steep, gorge country where he often lost cattle. On exploring the possibility of land in Queensland, Australia and learning how tough the life was for women, he returned to New Zealand.

Sophie’s paternal grandmother Mattie had been a tennis doubles champion in Christchurch before she married. When they settled at Kapara, one of the first things the couple did was build a tennis court.

Around 2003 family members went back to see the old place, taking a jetboat up the Waitotara River. “There were no pathways so we had to make our way through the dense bush but the old whare was still there along with the water system and mill he established and the remains of the tennis court. It was overgrown by the hydrangeas and trees they had planted,” said Sophie.

The family moved to Hawke’s Bay, acquiring a large sheep farm beside the Tukituki river at the back of Havelock North which they named Craggy Range Station. “It would take a couple of days to go around it on horseback,” says Sophie.

The architect William Henry Gummer designed a big house for them in 1918 but they struggled to make ends meet after WW2 war broke out. William van Asch fell into a deep depression. He died in 1930. The children were raised by mother Mattie who was eventually forced to sell Craggy Range.

In 1935, Derek married Sophie Elizabeth Davidson at her family home Woodcroft, a Chapman-Taylor built home in Simla Avenue, Havelock North. The couple moved into a cottage near the Red Bridge on the road to Waimarama, raising two girls Margie and Sophie.

Investing in Haumoana

In 1942, after the sale of the remaining Craggy Range property, Derek purchased 100 acres (40 ha) of land from the entrance to Haumoana south to Keighleys poultry farm in East Rd.

Derek’s wife, Sophie, died in 1944 aged 32-years. He later married Marion Miller and the family moved to Te Awanga, investing in a further 25 acres (10ha) off Clifton Rd which they named Gelderland or ‘golden land’ a term that reminded the family of Holland.

Derek grew grapes on the new property and tried his hand with a range of cash crops at Haumoana including Cape gooseberries, poppies and potatoes but was most successful with grass seed, potatoes and peas grown for Jim Wattie.

“Mr Wattie asked my father whether he would like to try growing peas as a trial crop for his cannery. It worked so well we always had the best and biggest crop. At the end of every season he would bring us a big box of tinned peas,” says Sophie.

During the war, Derek was in the home guard or as Sophie puts it ‘Dad’s Army’. There were concrete lookouts all along the Napier waterfront including local gun emplacements on the shingle bank in front of the van Asch property.

“People had to place brown paper in their windows after someone claimed to have spotted a Japanese submarine out in the bay.”.

Sophie says her father should have been an engineer as he was always making things. Those skills were most likely passed down the family line as his father William insisted they learn from their mistakes.

Driving lessons for example meant rotating from behind the wheel to the backseat if an error was made and letting the next person have a go. “He would let the boys build things and only when it didn’t work would he tell them why…I think it was like that for Dad as well. We always had to fix our own punctures and do electrical repairs.”

Engineering innovation

Sophie recalls her father looking for the smartest ways to crop and harvest and one day returned from a visit to a mercantile company in Hastings with a large harvester on appro.

The harvester was meant to be towed around by a tractor but he wasn’t happy with that and made modifications by adding an engine, much to the concern of the company representative who turned up unexpectedly to see him driving it around the paddock.

That harvester became something of a legend in Te Awanga working the van Asch property and that of Bill Shaw. Bill’s father had lost his life in the war and Derek and others “in the close and happy community” helped him run the farm.

There were many old tractors and engine parts on the property which Derek adapted to meet his farming needs and locals often approached him to adjust or modify their machinery.

Among his own adaptation was a modified hands-free ‘quad bike’ operated by foot pedals so he could spray between the rows of grapes on his property.

As a founding member of the local fire brigade, he helped convert an old truck into a temporary fire engine. “It was his passion, he really loved making old things into new things,” says Sophie.

Derek transformed an old garage door into a trailer that he towed behind a tractor to take people around Cape Kidnappers. He was also a keen photographer, taking many photos and slides around the region and making amateur movies.

One year his interest in nature and photography saw him accompanied to the gannets by famous broadcaster and naturalist David Attenborough.

Land for a memorial

Derek eventually sub-divided the Haumoana land into smaller farms, orchards and residential sections. In 1947 he gifted a portion to the Hawkes Bay County Council to establish a park as a permanent memorial to those who lost their lives in WW2.

After negotiations with the council, the plans of the Haumoana Beach Improvement Society (HBIS) and the Internal Affairs Department for Haumoana Memorial Park went ahead.

HBIS requested in 1951 that the road leading to the gated entrance of the park, unofficially known as Richardson’s Rd, be named Park Avenue. While council minutes show this decision was approved in November no effort was made to create a sign.

In 1954 a further request was made, this time to name it Memorial Park Avenue, with a sign finally put in place. A Memorial Arch was erected at the entrance to the park and the Haumoana Memorial Pavilion was built between 1955-56 coordinated between the county council and community with a subsidy from Internal Affairs. Local architect John Scott contributed the design at a nominal cost.

A memorial plaque on the entrance archway includes the names of soldiers from the area who lost their lives in both wars. In the Haumoana Memorial Hall there’s a record of 90 men from the area who saw active service including 15 who lost their lives.

From around 2012 the Hastings District Council with support of the Scott family and the local community undertook work to restore the hall which had fallen into a state of disrepair. This included advice from John Scott’s eldest son Jacob, a renowned artist and architectural designer.

Derek van Ashe eventually divided the front of his Te Awanga property, known as the shingle bank, into two sections for his girls; the oldest daughter Margie who married Dr Jim Perry and Sophie who married Collier Henderson in 1959.

Sophie & Collier photographed togther

Collier was teaching in Gisborne where the couple remained for four years, before moving to Auckland. When their children grew up they returned to Te Awanga around 1990. Later, “when the council allowed it”, Collier and Sophie built adjoining accommodation for their son Mark and his wife Suzy who created Golly Gosh art and photography studio.

Sophie and collier moved away in 2018 when the property was sold to John and Sue Nation.

Sources: Interviews with Sophie Henderson (nee van Asch) in 2017-18 Gerrit van Asch, Pioneer of Oral Education of the Deaf, Cynthia van Ash, Christchurch, 1989, pp 5-6; 20-21 Haumoana Memorials.

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