by Helen Martin
Isla Willis is well known in the district for her contribution to the community, including researching and preserving stories from our local history over many years.
Born in the Waikato, Isla moved to Waitoki aged 12 when her family bought a farm there. After studying for a BA at Auckland University and attending Auckland Teachers’ College, she became a primary school teacher and a teacher of the deaf in the local area before travelling overseas for three years. Always a keen church goer, on her return she met her future husband Keith, who had come with his family from England when he was 18, at the little Methodist church on the corner of Peak Rd. They married in 1960 and, after Keith completed his Ag Science degree at Massey University, took over the family farm on State Highway 16, naming it ‘Amenbury’ after Keith’s grandfather’s property in England. It was undeveloped, with an ancient walk-through cow shed and little else. Besides developing the dairy farm and milking there were 200 pigs to care for, a job taken on by Isla. Over the years they raised four children, bought more land and built a new house, cow shed and many kilometres of fencing. It was a full and busy life.
After her marriage, Isla became a member of St Andrews Church in Garfield Rd, where she taught Sunday School. Other community work saw her join the committee of Helensville’s first playcentre, started by Gay Hildreth in the community church in Commercial Road. As her children grew, Isla became a Girl Guide leader, eventually earning a Long Service medal for her contribution. In a more private capacity, despite the demands on her time made by her own family, she devoted herself to coaching a couple of children who had been taken in by relatives when their parents were unable to cope. Isla is very proud that she helped these girls learn to speak and read using books she compiled for the purpose.
Having whet her appetite studying history at university, Isla was drawn to the Helensville Historical Society, spending many years on the committee and taking part in its activities. She’s still in charge of Family History, leading a group who talk to local families, record their stories and collect their photos and other historic documents to be filed in record folders. Isla has learned a lot about the area over the years, and has loved dressing as early settler Janet McLeod in her maroon period dress and bonnet and telling our local stories at public events. One she likes to tell, for example, involves the Peak Road farm, now owned by her and Keith, where in 1863 young Mâori chief Ruarangi, incited by what was happening to his people in the Land Wars, murdered Mrs Matilda Thompson and her 14-year-old daughter Olivia while her husband John was away in Riverhead collecting the Kaukapakapa mail. With the event and subsequent trial receiving a lot of media coverage, Isla and Keith are still at times asked to show visitors the spot where it happened and to tell the story.
In 1993, the centenary of Women’s Suffrage in Aotearoa New Zealand inspired Isla and others to hold a church service in the Helensville Hall to celebrate the lives of the district’s women settlers. The centenary event inspired a book, with Isla as one of six contributing writers, in what became ‘Pioneering Women of South Kaipara’, published in 2000. Fittingly, in 2009 Isla was the proud recipient of the Kaukapakapa Community Award. “I was so excited with the news I started cooking the fish for the evening meal in detergent instead of cooking oil,” she remembers. In 2010,Isla was one of a group that organised a celebration of 150 years of European settlement in Kaukapakapa, for which she wrote a pageant featuring original families, and surplus funds were used to establish the Pioneer Reserve opposite Henley House. When the Anzac Memorial was built she initiated the collection of photos of local men who fought in WW2 that is now being carried on by Megan Patterson.
Another key contribution began when Isla was asked to become involved in the Kaukapakapa Methodist Church. “A friend who had been in charge was moving away and he arrived here one night and thrust all the stuff at me,” she says. “I didn’t know anything about cemeteries but away I went. At first, I was a committee member, then I became the Sexton. I was full of enthusiasm for it because a lot of our early settlers are buried in that cemetery and many graves were unmarked. I finally identified 19 of them and had headstones made, including for Mrs Rix, the first person to be buried there.” Later, it was through her connection to the cemetery that Isla was asked to arrange a reunion for the Thompson family, who were keen to hear the story of their ancestors’ murders and to dedicate a headstone for them.
Isla’s current project is collecting portraits of the original pioneers for a display wall in the Helensville Museum.