Story: Retter, Hannah

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Retter, Hannah

1839–1940

Muaupoko; founding mother, midwife

This biography, written by Anthony Dreaver, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.

Hannah Retter was born two months before the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi and died as the treaty's centennial was being celebrated. Hers was one of a number of families created along Wellington's west coast by unions between Pakeha whalers and Maori women. Hannah's father, Thomas Stickle, traded between Sydney and the Cook Strait whaling settlements. His wife, Turikatuku, was from Ngati Pariri hapu of Muaupoko, which occupied land on the southern shore of Lake Horowhenua. She often took ship with her husband, and according to a later account, Hannah was born in Sydney on 12 December 1839. There were at least three other children; Turikatuku seems to have returned to Horowhenua with Hannah's brother Ben.

Hannah stayed with her father when he gave up the sea. In the late 1850s he was based at Taita, in the Hutt Valley, as overseer in the formation of the road from Wellington over the Remutaka Range to the new small farm settlements in Wairarapa. As he was often away from home, and objected to Hannah's running wild with local Maori children, he put her under the care of Mrs Buck, wife of the proprietor of the Traveller's Rest hotel, Taita. She was a stern trainer, imbuing Hannah with high standards of housekeeping.

On 9 October 1861 Hannah Stickle married Joseph Chapman Retter in the manse of the Presbyterian minister John Moir; they were to have five sons and three daughters. In 1871 Joseph Retter took up work on the large Rangitikei estate owned by William Waring Taylor, but in 1886 came a chance for independence. Through her mother, Hannah Retter had rights to Te Hou, a small block of Ngati Pariri land by Lake Horowhenua, and the family decided to settle there. It was a propitious moment, both because there were government moves to buy land in the area and also because the Wellington and Manawatu railway was on the brink of completion, bringing the prospect of economic growth to the district.

Hannah's eldest daughter, Martha, recorded their first year in her diary. They built a cottage of wooden slabs caulked with clay and with a toi thatched roof. They were largely self-sufficient, farming a few cows and about 60 sheep, tending poultry and a garden, and harvesting the fish and bird life of swamp, bush, lake, stream and shore. Their neighbours, many of them relations, were mostly Maori, both Muaupoko and Ngati Pareraukawa. Pakeha families were the Somervilles at the coaching stables on the beach (soon to be closed), the McDonalds, whose house was a postal depot, and the gang of railway navvies across the lake at the future site of Levin. The Wellington and Manawatu railway was opened only months after the Retters' arrival, and they were then able to attend the races at Foxton and events in Palmerston North.

In 1889 a village settlement was established at Levin and the Retters' eldest son, Fred, bought a town section, setting up as a butcher. He and his father exchanged land in 1896, and Joseph took work in town at Prouse Brothers' sawmill. The proprietor's wife, Christina, was active in healing and first aid, and had a regard for Hannah's character and nursing skills. When Henry MacKenzie became the first long-term doctor in Levin about 1900, Christina Prouse persuaded Hannah to become attached to his practice as maternity nurse for the township. Until 1926, when she was 86, Hannah, a devout Anglican, gave self-sacrificing service to the growing community, and entered fully into its life. Hers was an open home, in which she brought up several of her grandchildren with devotion and rigour. She now spoke no Maori.

After Joseph Retter died in 1926 Hannah lived with her daughters. She had never had a serious illness herself, and attended all dances and concerts until shortly before her death at Levin on 2 August 1940, at the age of 100. She was survived by three daughters and a son. To Levin, she was 'Granny Retter', who had cared for their first generation of mothers and babies, and who was a link with the past of both races.

How to cite this page:

Anthony Dreaver. 'Retter, Hannah', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3r12/retter-hannah (accessed 21 November 2019)