Topic: Sawyer’s Bay by Graeme Pratley

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Memories of Sawyer's Bay inspired Graeme Pratley's entry in the 2012 Memoir and Local History Competition.

Archived version here.

I looked down from the Summit Road, which traversed the circle of mountains that ran down to the harbour and sea. The white iron of the wool sheds at the foot of the Bay reflected in the sunshine like shining birds’ eggs in a nest.

Sawyer’s Bay taken from the Port Hill showing school,  Laing’s Bush and market gardens above. (Circa 1917)


In the early days, the higher slopes had provided timber for ships and for house building. The sawyers who milled the timber had given its name to the little bay on the Otago harbour some ten kilometres from Dunedin.

At first glance, on returning after some years, little had visibly changed.  The surrounding mountains to the west were still the sentinels they had been since the beginning of time: Mount Cargill, Mount Zion, Mount Charles, and Mount Cutten, with Mount Mihiwaka flanked by Brick Hill and Roseneath to the south and The Port Hill and quarry to the north. 

The only defining difference was that what had been to my eye as a child the enormity of the area was to the adult smaller and more compact.

In today’s world, local industry and the contribution of small communities to our economy and to our natural heritage can be overlooked and therefore undervalued. The all-consuming present fails to take cognisance of that past heritage and has no truck with the complexity of the fabric of our historic past, and the contribution it made to our country and our present community.

Un-reclaimed inlet and Glendermid tannery in the  background. (Circa 1917)

The wool sheds were a legacy of the 1960s when, because of falling prices, the Wool Board chose to stockpile wool rather than sell it overseas for low returns.  The choice of Sawyer’s Bay to locate the sheds obviously had little to do with the environmental impact; it was probably more to do with location and shipping access for the wool, being only two kilometres from Port Chalmers.

Like all communities, however, employment opportunities endure. While the rabbit tinning factories have long gone, the Glendermid Tannery, built in 1881, has only recently stopped its operation.  The clear, crisp steam whistle blown at eight and five to signal the commencement and finish of work is a lasting and somewhat comforting memory from childhood.

Another is the somewhat pungent smells of the tannins, which permeated the clothes and skins of the many to whom the tannery provided employment.

The Sawyer’s Bay quarry where stone was used for railway.

The most enduring source of income in rural areas, however, is the land.  The market gardens of Sawyer’s Bay, located on the sunny slopes of the foothills and on the flats, are perhaps its best known legacy, particularly to consumers in the Dunedin City area.  Its micro climate makes the area one of the best in New Zealand, well-suited to growing flavoursome early potatoes.  It holds a record for the market price of over $60/kg paid by a Dunedin restaurant early in the season for its Jersey Bennes.

Very early Sawyer’s Bay showing the Pratley and Kaan market gardens on the flat.

The pleasure of my school holiday work for market gardener Peter van Zyl is an enduring memory - the wonderful yields of huge Red King potatoes from freshly dug rows, and packing them for the local market.

One visible change was the absence of the old wooden school, burnt down during a fire drill by the local fire brigade. I remember my schooling in that old building.

Sawyer’s Bay School Stds. 4,5 & 6, 1954 with headmaster Mr Jim Leckie

“We will begin the afternoon with folk singing,” said our teacher. He sat down and produced his violin from its case. Turning his head to the left, he tucked the violin under his large protruding chin and carefully balanced it there as he tensioned his bow.   Out rang the song:


    ‘Speed bonnie boat like a bird on the wing

     Onward the sailors cry

     Carry the lad that’s born to be king

     Over the sea to Skye’... 

Our headmaster, Jim Leckie, a giant of a man, was Scottish to the core. Complete with tweed jacket and tartan tie, he delighted in instilling Scottish folk history into decades of the Standard 4, 5 and 6 children of the Bay’s Scottish pioneers.  The tunes tapped into our Gaelic and Celtic roots that we so heartily sang obviously brought us much pleasure and him great joy.

Popular as a headmaster, Jim Leckie’s national fame as a sportsman was well-known. As flag-bearer and a bronze medal winner in the hammer throw at the 1938 Empire Games he went on to captain the 1950 New Zealand Commonwealth Games team in Auckland.  Jim practised his hammer throwing in the school grounds after school hours, and I was one of the privileged few asked to retrieve the hammer, a spent 16 lb Korororeka cannon ball, after each throw.

His instructions were clear: it had to be carried back to him, not dragged, so as not to wear it out.

The surnames in our 1950s class did read as if from a Edinburgh phone book,  McGrouther and Mitchell, Lewis and Laing, Menzies and McKenzie, Ferguson and Forgie, Abernethy and Agnew, Creighton, Kilpatrick and Muir, to name but a few.  The children stemmed from hardy immigrant stock with the inherent Scottish gifts of creativity, of the craftsman’s skills, strains of intellectual ability and the art of farming in rugged terrain and harsh climates. 

The Kilpatricks and Muirs eked out a living off the land as did the Laings.  There was an engineering craftsman skill in the Mitchells with Tom held in high regard at the Union Steam Ship Company Port Chalmers as a machinist second to none.  His nephew Les engineered at the Railway Workshops, Dunedin and later as a marine engineer in the British Merchant Navy. 

Norman Mckenzie lectured in tertiary institutions, and built and flew one of the first microlight planes.  Les Abernethy was an accomplished artist while the Creightons and Agnews were respected secondary teachers, with Trevor Agnew a social commentator on the national stage.

Not all children in the bay were of Scottish immigrant stock. The Kans, Chinese market gardeners, were very much a pioneering family.  They took advantage of the local micro-climate to grow vegetable crops locally and do so today, marketing them through their Port Chalmers store. They did so when my great-grandfather was doing the same before the turn of the century. While the parents worked the land well in to their later lives, older daughters Lily and Violet served in the shop their entire lifetimes, and were well-known and popular in the district.

The youngest in the family, Peter, was a close school friend, extremely fast on the running track. Together we enjoyed competing in the annual local school sports events, very much fostered by our head master as an integral part of school life.  Our reward for being fastest in our age group was the prize of competing in the Primary School Sports at the University Oval, Dunedin, a highlight of the year for me.

As I stood in the middle of our little town, forty years on, looking outward toward the harbour, I could visualise the steam train of a past era hurrying around the quarry bend from Port Chalmers, smoke and steam billowing in the air.  I could see the long line of intending passengers scurrying toward the Bay station, the train’s next stop. Trains for workers, trains for school children, Freight trains with the refrigerated cargo and wool heading for the very busy port and world destinations, Express trains, sleek and fast, plying the main trunk line.  By trains we commuted, to work, to school and home again, by trains we lived.

Sawyers Bay has been a rich source of labour and of skills, from supplying the busy wharves of Port Chalmers to the industry, commerce and institutions of the city of Dunedin.  In our modern individualistic society wherever we live in our country we continue to commute. What is apparent, even in Sawyers Bay is that commuting has evolved.  The workers continue to commute but transport themselves in their own vehicles on a more direct route into the city in much less time and with more efficiently than the trains of old.

And the faces in the street have changed and are no longer instantly recognisable. New housing growth has obviously been slow and the ageing housing has attracted a different layer of settlers, with more diverse roots than the Bay’s Gaelic and Celtic forebears. 

What remains is the sense of a contributing community, and the sense that in the Bay there is refuge from the rigours and busyness of more urban areas. The Bay continues to be a place where, despite change, lifestyle and neighbourliness and community are still highly prized and cherished as they were in the beginning, when the sawyers and the Scots made Sawyer’s Bay their home.


Source Photographs 1,2,3,4 ‘Dusting Off...West Harbour The First 100 Years’ - Anne Squires Cotton and Val White



This page archived at Perma Cc in October of 2016:

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Sawyer’s Bay by Graeme Pratley

Note:Graeme M. Pratley was raised in Sawyer’s Bay where his forebears were among the first residents. He attended school there to Standard 4 and in Dunedin. He later attended Massey and Otago Universities and had a 25-year career as a mechanical engineer and also and 25 years as a Presbyterian Minister in Greymouth, Rangiora and the Christchurch workplace.