Drone photo of Ruatuna from a distance showing surrounding farm land.
An introduction to Ruatuna
Photo Credit: Joseph Gordon Coates. S P Andrew Ltd :Portrait negatives. Ref: 1/1-018780-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23194194
Gordon Coates was once labelled the ‘Jazz Premier’ in reference to his genial progressivism and breezy manner. But Aotearoa New Zealand’s prime minister of the mid 1920s, was also a man of real substance, born to a pioneering Northland farming family and raised on an isolated rural property to be industrious, practical and self-reliant. The moustache he maintained throughout his adult life was not just for appearances: it disguised an upper lip disfigured by a horse’s kick. Coates could ride a horse and shoot a rifle and was managing the family farm alongside his brother Rodney at a relatively young age after their father became incapacitated. ‘Jazz Premier’ he may have been, but Joseph Gordon Coates was a leader with notably few airs and graces.
Ruatuna, the Coates family home at the northern end of the Kaipara Habour, is a lasting tribute to the man. Turn off State Highway 12 down Tinopai Road and you’ll arrive at a gravel driveway leading to a charming but decidedly down-to-earth kauri homestead. Built for Coates’ parents Edward and Eleanor in 1877, the birthplace of the future prime minister is a humble single-storey affair, with a long veranda at the front and lean-to rooms either side, roofed in sheets of red corrugated iron.
Step inside and you’ll find a mix of homely everyday items and those that pay lasting tribute to Coates, with framed photos of Gordon in almost every room. There’s a pair of boots that may or may not have belonged to him, and a small bedroom that most likely did – it was reportedly added in the early 1890s when he reached adolescence. There’s a tangible link to the former prime minister, too, in the farm’s other historic buildings, from the so-called ‘Rattery’ where the saddles were kept, to a unique double-barrelled outhouse nicknamed ‘The Prudential’, to the old woolshed.
While it’s Gordon’s story that looms largest, his is not the only story at Ruatuna, and a visit is not just for political history buffs. The place also tells an important story about Aotearoa New Zealand’s early farming history. Prior to 1900, Gordon’s father Edward ran the country’s biggest flock of pedigree Shropshire sheep – 3000-odd – and he also imported Hereford cattle, no doubt helped by his connections as the fifth son of a large Herefordshire gentry family.
After Edward’s death in 1905, Gordon was increasingly drawn away by his political career while brother Rodney married and moved out, leaving Ruatuna as an all-female household. And so, it remained until 2000, with Gordon’s sisters Dolly and Ada in residence, followed by Ada’s niece Joy Aickin. Walking through Ruatuna, you get a strong sense of a family’s journey through time, including the continuities between generations. In the parlour, for example, you’ll find evidence of the Coates clan’s enduring love of music (Edward was a fine singer), from early gramophone records to latter generations’ sound systems.
Ruatuna is open by appointment only for small groups and needs to be booked in advance. When you’ve explored inside, check out the surrounding buildings and grounds. Please note, however, that Ruatuna is still a working farm so don’t wander far.
Later, drive on to Tinopai at the end of the peninsula, an old-school coastal holiday spot known to locals as a good place to cast a line. Also nearby, the popular Kauri Museum is billed as “the Remarkable Story of the Greatest Tree in New Zealand”. Grab a coffee at museum café, then check out other local treasures, including the 1909 Matakohe Post Office and the Pioneer Church, a beautifully preserved little kauri gem from the 1860s. If your interest in Gordon Coates remains undimmed, take a look at the handsome brick Coates Memorial Church, erected in the 1960s and dedicated to the late Prime Minister, who is buried in the church cemetery.