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Dilapidated homestead on lake road

For the first instalment of our new Midweek feature, Out of the Past, Marlene Ditchfield delves into the story of “Bockett’s Bush” on Western Lake Rd – a tumble-down old farm house, with a rich pioneering history.

Francis Vernon Bockett came to the shores of Lake Wairarapa in 1868.

When his first house burned down, he built another in 1878 – which exists today in its dilapidated form, quietly composting into the earth. Its sheer presence captures the romantic imaginations of those travelling Western Lake Rd.

Francis married Eliza Jane Rexworthy in the same year he built the house. Known as “Ohui,” “Okuri” or “Bockett’s Bush,” the building housed Francis, Eliza and their three sons Francis Edward Bradney [born in 1879], Harold Arthur [1880] and Benjamin Bradney [1882] and later the Goodings, descending from Benjamin.

Francis was born in Surrey, England in 1851 and came to New Zealand to farm in his own right.

He became a fervent landowner and was one of a group of farmers who met in 1875 to discuss their right to open the mouth of Lake Wairarapa to reduce flooding. The settler farmers resented their newly acquired pastureland being flooded – and urged the government to provide a permanent outlet so the floodwaters could discharge to the sea.

The lake and surrounding moana [ocean] was a traditional food source of immense importance to Māori – rich in whitebait, flounder, kōkopu, waterfowl and, most significantly, tuna [eels]. However, while the land surrounding the lakes was bought by the Crown for sale to Pakeha settlers, Māori still had the right of use over Lake Wairarapa, Lake Onoke and Onoke Spit. As farming became more intensive and land more valuable, farmers lobbied elected leaders and threatened to open the lake mouth themselves.

A River Board was established, and Francis was a member well into the 1920s.

The ongoing battle covers decades and is another fascinating story. Ironically, it’s understood the Bockett house was eventually vacated in the 1950s after many floods brought the lake water uncomfortably close.

In its time, the Bockett homestead was the centre of meetings and gatherings. In 1881, it was the election base for the appointment of wardens to the fledgling Featherston Highway Board. It was also the base for some search and rescue operations on Lake Wairarapa.

In 1885, Francis came across the pole for a punt, along with dead ducks and pigeons, at a lakeside camp. Frederick Liardet’s body was found in the lake with his shooting punt floating upside down nearby. Francis declared that Lake Wairarapa was an “unpredictable and sometimes treacherous piece of water” which need to be treated with great respect. He provided his horse and cart to carry Frederick’s body home to his Featherston family.

Francis travelled to England in 1899 for a visit and was described in newspaper reports as “very ill” upon his return to Wairarapa. He lived on, however, until 1933 when he died, aged 83, in Greytown at his Jellicoe St property, leaving a healthy estate to his sons and grandchildren. His wife Eliza died in 1922, aged 72.

The youngest son, Benjamin, married Emily Nina Marriott in Featherston on April 15, 1914. Sadly, Emily died when their daughter, Benham [Ben] Nina Bockett, was just one week old. Benjamin gave his baby daughter to his older brother Francis Jnr, also known as Edward, and his wife Ethel to raise on the Western Lake Rd property. Edward and Ethel Bagge had married in Wellington in 1912. Benjamin visited his daughter often and went on to remarry Eileen Bowler in 1920. The couple lived in Ashhurst, and Ben remained at the farm with her aunt and uncle.

Ben Bockett married Valentine Gooding on September 6, 1940, at St John’s Church in Featherston. They had three children: William [born in 1941], Beth [1944] and Ted [1948], all raised at the Lake Wairarapa property. William, the eldest, went on to work at Prairie Holm Farm on Western Lake Rd – going strong today – and still lives in the area.

Valentine Gooding died in 1972, at age 70. Ben died, aged 92, in 2011. The couple, like much of the family, are buried in the Featherston Cemetery.

Back in 1934, Francis Edward Bockett was a member of a board established to manage a scenic reserve on Western Lake Rd – taking in beech forest covering 63 acres. Today, this is a much-admired part of the scenic road trip along the western side of Lake Wairarapa.

The Bocketts certainly have left their mark. There’s a stream named after the family in the area as well. Give the house a nod next time you pass.

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall is the editor of the Wairarapa Midweek. She has been a journalist for the past 10 years, and has a keen interest in arts, culture, social issues, and community justice.

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