Memoirs - Mary Wilson
John and I arrived in Mt.Maunganui in May 1960 from Southland - he worked for NZ Forest Service and had been sent up to the new Port developing log exports to Japan, checking that no insects were on the exported logs which at that stage had bark left on. A few days after arriving we went to the Presbyterian church in Prince Avenue where David Keall was the minister. He was Secretary to the newly created British & International Seafarers Centre.
This had been recently set up by local Rotary and several local business folk, plus Ministers of the Anglican, Presbyterian, Catholic and Methodist churches as an interdenominational centre catering to visiting seafarers. We were immediately asked to become involved as voluntary hosts, with John becoming quite heavily involved in helping with stocking the small shop.
At that stage it was in rented rooms in Totara St. handy to the rear of the new Harbour Board offices. After a visit from the London office promoting the world-wide service, the local Harbour Board decided to allow a centre to be built on the wharf if we could raise the funds.
Letters were duly sent to all users of the port and local businesses, with a Seamen’s Day collection held in the main street. An architect drew up plans for the centre with a flat upstairs for a couple who would help voluntary workers in return for free accommodation to enable the centre to extend the hours we could open. For several years this worked quite well but the port was expanding quickly and the Port wanted to build the No.1 Coolstore where our building was situated. After much discussion where we looked at various sites nearby to the Port, it was suggested that for a pepper-corn rental we should rebuild a new centre in Hull Road. The Port gave us an agreed value for the original building and we fund-raised to do bigger and better. By this time we had an excellent couple, Margaret and Jim McCulloch running the expanded shop in return for a 50% share of any profits. They did not need the accommodation in the centre as they had purchased their own home so in the new building it became an office to be rented out, initially by the Wharf Employers and later by the Seamens Union. This rental helped our funds in a major way.
In those days the Port was very different with ships staying 2-3 weeks and often with European crews - they had time to become our friends, often visiting local farms and being taken on visits around the Bay of Plenty. The Dowman & Caldwell families often hosted them on their Te Puke farm. We also arranged golfing, local football and basketball games, and sometimes arranging Tauranga hospital nurses to attend evening dances. Karaoke was very popular with the growing number of Asian crews.
All this changed in the late 80's after the re-organisation of the ports by the Govt. The canteens for port workers closed so our centre started doing far more to provide food and drink for both local workers and for visiting seafarers, whilst the McCullochs took over running the shop/canteen as a small business in their own name paying us a rental, but with some of our volunteers still helping out to help entertain the visiting seafarers. They also did most of the ship visiting as sadly the local churches were not so interested in doing this with regular changes of ministers. They were always on call if we asked but did not want to be involved on a regular basis. Here I would make the exception of Ray Coster of the Presbyterian church who saw the need, ultimately helping to set up the Korean centre in the old Flour mill.
There were many problems in those days before the port was fenced off - many ship girls were on and off the ships, also the seafarers would get into fights with locals after drinking in the local hotels. Eventually to try and solve the problems, it was decided to follow some of the overseas clubs and obtain a licence to supply alcohol in a sensible way to try and stop the seafarers visiting the local pubs - the licence was not held by the Board of Directors of our Centre but by the couple running the shop/canteen. Also the time the ships were in port was
getting much shorter as ship loading became more efficient. This arrangement worked very well for probably about 15 years, but then there was a run of changing couples running the canteen/shop - to meet demand they tried to be open from about 7 am to late night, with help from some extra staff. Inevitably health suffered from these long hours and the Directors had trouble approving suitable couples to run the centre, and there became a problem with drug traffickers trying to use the centre.
It was known as the best Centre in NZ but it became too popular for its own good, and growing pains became obvious. About this time the crisis in New York with the planes flying into the World Trade Centre caused a huge change and NZ Ports had to fence off all loading areas for strict security otherwise they could not export safely to meet US demands. Of course the ports had become public companies in the late 1980's which changed the way they dealt with their land and buildings.
Ken and Joy Camp had taken over as voluntary managers of the newly created United Seafarers Mission in the rented port buildings inside the new security fence but we knew they were really struggling with the rent and expenses of the Mission. The funds of our Sailors Society Centre had increased substantially due to the rent from the upstairs offices and our board decided to try and help with some funds, donating a cheque for 2 or 3 years. Being outside the security fence made it difficult for keeping out undesirable visitors, and also the Harbour Board were re-organising their building plans.
About 2008 my husband and Athole Herbert (who was on our Board of Directors) had discussions with the port about buying back our Seafarers Centre with the idea we would create a Seafarers Welfare Trust with the funds and assist the United Seafarers Mission with rental etc. of their rooms, so combining the two centres into one to ensure the port had a successful Mission. This came about in the last 2 weeks of John’s life although he was too ill to attend the final meeting with the port, and I subsequently became the other ‘advisor’ to the Guardian Trust over use of the Trust funds.
Over the time from 1960 to the present John and I had many enjoyable times meeting and greeting visiting seafarers with the ever changing needs of their lives, in conjunction with many other helpers who gave their time in varying ways. The huge changes in the local port brought with it many problems as well as pleasures but the over-riding importance was to preserve the funds built up over all those years in the Seafarers Welfare trust which is now helping to enable the Mission to carry on with the work of caring for seafarers and their needs.