One of the outcomes of the First World War was the formation of the Royal New Zealand Returned Services Association.
On July 15, 1915, HMNZTS Willochra arrived in Wellington with casualties from the Gallipoli campaign. On board was Captain Donald Simson, who in discussions with his comrades felt that returning soldiers needed an organisation to provide support. As a result the Royal New Zealand Returned Servicemen’s Association, known as the RSA, was formed with Captain Simson as its first president.
Gradually the movement grew as branches were formed throughout the country to look after the needs of returned servicemen.
In 1919, as more servicemen returned home or decided to settle in Ōtaki, it was felt that a branch was needed to help comrades who were struggling to return to civilian life in difficult times. As a result the Ōtaki RSA was formed and a committee set up.
It consisted of chairman Captain Thomas Bax, a newly arrived businessman; vice chairman Alfred Rudkin, a teacher at Ōtaki Primary School; secretary-treasurer Harold Jones, a legal clerk; and a committee comprising teacher Captain Pirimi Tahiwi, lawyer Charles Atmore, saddler Benjamin Pepper, farmer Walter Taylor, farmer Ted Fogden and plumber Duncan Wilson.
One of the new committee’s first actions was to make Sisters Ethal Lewis and Mabel Pownall and nurse Nan Simcox honourary members. The new branch’s area stretched from the Waikawa River to the Waikanae River and included Manakau and Waikanae.
Assisted by the local Patriotic Society, the branch set about finding work for unemployed returned servicemen, and assistance for their families who were struggling to survive. Because of the depressed economic conditions at the time, the new branch could not maintain the required minimum membership and in 1923 went into recess. However, local members continued to provide help and support where they could.
By 1934 there was renewed interest in the RSA and on June 27 of that year a new branch was formed. In 1935 the AGM confirmed the committee as president Major General Robert Young; vice president Dr Donald Milne; secretary F W Southgate, Waikanae railway servant; treasurer Charles Atmore, and the committee members were Pirimi Tahiwi, Railway Hotel owner Archibald Ferguson, businessman Harry Edhouse, a Mr MacCalister, farmer N E Hannah, Ōtaki Primary School headmaster S S Bishop, and Duncan Wilson.
The new branch quickly became involved in looking after the social and health needs of its members. In 1958 Waikanae became a sub branch, with the first president being T Touhy.
An important annual event was Anzac Day, when the town remembered the sacrifices of service men and women. It was initially organised by local churches, then Ōtaki Borough Council and finally by the RSA. It continues to be a key RSA and community day of remembrance for New Zealand service people who have fought, died and served in conflicts around the world.
Closely associated with Anzac Day are the memorials found throughout the district enshrining the names of those from the Ōtaki district who have served and fallen in those conflicts.
The local RSA felt that there was a great need for a services cemetery to mark the last resting place of old comrades and so honour their memories. This took years to achieve and it was not until 1938 that the project came to fruition. Supported by the War Graves Commission, the Ōtaki Borough Council, Internal Affairs and more recently Kāpiti Coast District Council, the RSA section of the Ōtaki Cemetery developed.
Today more than 500 ex-service men and women representing all the armed forces, including those who served in the Allied forces, rest along with their partners. On Anzac Day the Retreat held as the sun goes down honours the memory of those laid to rest.
Another desire of the branch was to have a home of its own where members could meet and socialise. In the early years they met in various places, including members’ homes and places of business, the old Druids Hall, Te Horo Hall, Old Folks Hall, Pukekaraka and the Raukawa Whare Kai.
However, for members it never really felt at home anywhere.
After considerable fundraising, in 1964 with help from Harry Edhouse, the RSA bought the old Harper homestead, which Harry owned. Over the years as membership increased, the clubrooms were enlarged and altered to meet the social needs of a growing membership.
By 1988 the old building had been completely demolished and replaced by a totally refurbished clubroom.
Since then alterations and improvements have continued to be made and today the Ōtaki and District Memorial RSA possesses the best social amenity in the district for the benefit of the whole community.
One of the important objectives in setting up the RSA was looking after veterans, their families and widows, supported initially by the local Patriotic Society then by the sale of poppies. Over the years this was expanded from helping find work or somewhere to live and small grants, to supporting the Levin War Veterans’ Home, providing food parcels for the United Kingdom, comforts for soldiers serving overseas, funeral costs and by providing a courtesy van to take veterans to the doctor or hospital appointments.
As the need to provide for servicemen and women and their dependants lessened, the RSA focused on welfare for the wider community, particularly youth, supporting Ōtaki College, Birthright, the Ōtaki Surf Life Saving Club and contributions to national emergency appeals. A knitters and natters group provides twiddle muffs for dementia patients.
Today the welfare group makes monthly visits to those ex-servicemen and women and widows who are in rest homes or housebound, and arranges assistance for people living on their own with such domestic tasks as mowing lawns or cleaning windows.
The new club facilities have allowed the club to provide a wide range of recreational and social activities for members and the community in a safe, friendly environment. Recreational activities include the Diggers’ Bowls Tournament, annual golf tournament, billiards, snooker and pool, and darts. Regular social events include balls, cabarets, dances, dinners, luncheons, reunions, quiz nights, St Patrick’s Day celebrations, car rallies – the list is extensive.
The facilities are enhanced by the cosy dining room, now run by the local RiverStone Café, which is open to both members and the community, and for special functions.
As other RSAs about the country are closing their doors or amalgamating with other clubs, the Ōtaki and District Memorial RSA is bucking the trend. It continues to grow with a membership of more than 700 by becoming a community oriented organisation welcoming in and meeting the needs of the Ōtaki community in which it lives and serves.