by Helen Martin
On May 5,Kaipara Cruising Club in Mill Rd was packed to the gunnels when family and friends from all around the country gathered to celebrate Flora Thirkettle’s 90th birthday. Flora, a local and national pioneering legend, well known as the country’s first female commercial fisher and hailed as the Queen of the Kaipara, was there in her signature blue tam o’ shanter and track pants and purple cardy, quietly taking it all in as her loved ones gathered around her to revive memories, pay her tribute and celebrate her inspirational survival story.
Born in Te Awamutu in 1928, Flora Smith was the eldest of nine children. When she was 12, her parents moved the family north to farm land at remote Whangaroa Harbour. The 430km trek, made on foot and accompanied by cattle and goats, took two months, with only the parents in shoes. When she was 19, Flora married 52-year-old shark fisher George Thirkettle, an English Gallipoli veteran, after his first wife Emma passed away. For a wedding present George gave Flora her first pair of shoes. George already had six children, three of whom had grown up and left home, and over the next few years George and Flora produced four sons and three daughters. Then, in 1957, because George was unwell, they packed up the family and their possessions, left their Rangiputa home and set off for Auckland on a tractor and trailer.
Planning to go to Australia, for a time they lived with Flora’s sister Evelyn in Don Buck Rd. Sadly, George passed away and 29-year-old Flora had to find a way to support her large family, ranging in age from nine months to ten years. Her solution was to buy a house which backed onto the Kaipara River in Helensville and to use the 26-foot kauri motor launch, Olive, that came with the house, to earn a living commercial fishing.
How did the family survive? While Flora paid off the mortgage in three years, life was always tough. At first, there were prevailing attitudes to combat. With the exception of a helpful neighbour, locals were reluctant to accept a woman on their patch, and the fishers’ wives instructed their husbands not to talk to her, as Flora noted in a NZ National Geographic interview “The men just sat on the side, to see whether you sank or swam”, but after some years eventually they came to respect her highly for her skill and work ethic and for her formidable knowledge of the Kaipara. Flora’s children were all included in her weekend and school holiday fishing expeditions, helping her catch flounder with the nets she made and maintained, the first made of nylon in Helensville. Famously, a local teacher once reported her to the police for taking her children fishing, but nothing came of the complaint. Flora spent many hours maintaining Olive. Shefished in the Kaipara Harbour ‘graveyard’, catching flounder, mullet, kahawai and shark, and became sought after for her shark liver oil, which she boiled down from school sharks using the method she had learned as a child, supplying her family and selling to locals for medicinal use.
Kauri gum, left over from Helensville’s milling days, was collected by Flora and the children to help pay the bills and she shot rabbits for the table. She smoked mullet in her smokehouse and was a chicken keeper and prolific jam maker. She created much of her productive garden from land she reclaimed from the river. Alongside bringing up her own seven children, she fostered other people’s children, also breedng Corgis then Jack Russell terriers, an interest she continues with today. She participated in Coast Guard work and acted as slip-master for Kaipara Cruising Club.
The local dump, situated where the museum is now, was a rich foraging ground for Flora and her family. In her speech, daughter Heather commented “The dump was our shop”, providing not only useful items for the family, like clothing and house maintenance materials, but also treasures Flora passed on to the museum in later years, including a boat and anchor. After she retired from fishing Flora continued to make nets (she has made thousands over the years), and Helensville Museum audiences were entertained by her talks about her fishing days and her demonstrations of net making.
Family has always been important to Flora and she now has many grandchildren and great-grandchildren, some of whom spoke at the birthday gathering, paying tribute to her as an inspirational role model who taught her family that nothing is impossible if you put your mind to it. Tough, strong, resourceful and frugal, she taught them to waste nothing, at the same time showing them the value of having fun as you work. Her granddaughter-in-law Monica summed her up as “the matriarch underpinning the family story - hard as nails and soft as silk.”
On the day of the party, on a table just inside the door, publications celebrating her pioneering spirit included “Old Man Kaipara” in New Zealand Geographic (1995), “On the Next Tide - portraits and anecdotes of NZ fishermen and women”, by Kirk Hargreaves (1998), “Salt Water in her Hair- stories of NZ women in the maritime industry”, by Dee Pignéguy (2000) and “Pioneering Women of South Kaipara”, by Helensville and District Historical Society (2000). Woven flax fish decorations and a feed that included crayfish, mussels and smoked fish attested to her lifetime connection to the sea.
You can hear an excellent RNZ interview with Flora at https://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/spectrum/20131006