Gilbert Melrose, a photographer with a shop in Matamata, was in business for a period spanning some 46 years from 1957 to 2003. He lived most of his life on the family farm at Walton, 15 kilometres from Matamata, with his father Alan, mother Ada (who was my father’s sister which explains my and Yvonne’s connection with Gilbert) and his younger sister Joan. Both Gilbert and Joan remained single all their lives. The farm was a mixed dairy and sheep farm of 42 hectares which is small by today’s standards and would now not be economic. The farm was sold to a neighbour in 2000 shortly after Alan passed on and Gilbert and Joan moved to Tauranga. During the early 1950s both Alan and Gilbert became interested in photography. They were both early members of the Matamata Camera Club, and Gilbert subsequently became a life member. Alan was interested in movies and set himself up with an 8mm Bell and Howell movie camera, projector, screen, and related equipment. He was soon followed by Gilbert who got established with a 35mm still camera and slide projector. Photography on this scale was a relatively expensive hobby in those days. The Melroses were regarded as well off in the district. Sheep farmers at the time received high prices for wool following the Korean War and the Melrose farm was probably debt free which enabled both Alan and Gilbert to develop their interest without undue financial constraints. In 1956 Alan and Gilbert erected a two room building at the back of the farm house that served both as a dark room and photographic workshop.
In the 1950s the Walton district was well served by a thriving village centre comprising a general store, post office, railway station, service station and garage, saddler, two churches, the hall, and school. The railway station was a flag station which meant that goods trains stopped by prior arrangement while Matamata was the nearest stop for the passenger train known as the Rotorua Express. The school had a roll of around 140 with four teachers including the headmaster with the highest class being Standard 6 (Year 8 in today’s terminology). Secondary school students, including Gilbert, travelled to Matamata College. Gilbert left college after two years secondary education which was quite common in those days as this was the minimum requirement for most apprenticeships.
Following the completion of the dark room and workshop Gilbert, who by this time was age 20, started to photograph events at the local Walton hall. This was before the days of television and the hall was a centre of social activity for the district. The events there were wide ranging and included dances, flower shows, various clubs, scouts and guides parent evenings, and the annual children’s fancy dress ball. Gilbert started doing wedding photographs and other family occasions including 21st birthdays, as well as Walton School events such as the calf club, and annual picnic and sports days held at one of the Okauia springs. Gilbert’s business steadily grew over the following years and by the late1960’s he set up shop in Arawa Street, Matamata and became the Kodak dealer for the area. He later moved the shop to Broadway in Matamata. Many of Gilbert’s photographs were destroyed in a shop fire in 1988, and the business was sold in 2003 when he retired from shop life. However his love of photography did not diminish and he continued to make good use of cameras for his personal fulfilment.