Conversations at the letterboxes, talking about "every blooming thing" and being rostered to make the all-important puddings are all part of living at 76 Virginia Rd, Wanganui - the settlement commonly known as Quaker Acres.

Quakers are a Christian religious group dating back to 1600s England. They are pacifist and keen on equality and social justice.

In New Zealand, Quakers have meetings for worship that are mainly silent, and they number about 900. Not everyone at Quaker Acres is a Quaker, but all are like-minded.

There are 23 adults and four children living on the 8ha property. They vary in age from 6 to 88-year-old Nick Pyle, who still gets around on a bicycle. Some rent their houses, while others have a licence to occupy them long term. Most are part of pairs who take turns taking charge of a week's activities.


Residents have a busy social time. When the Chronicle called on Monday, those not at work had just finished a memorial meeting for a Quaker woman who had died. Ten were sitting in a semi-circle in the settlement's quiet room.

That night they had their weekly management meeting, which anyone serious about living there is expected to attend.

"It's the glue that has kept the community together for 40 years," Merilyn Payne said.

It starts with a silence, then everyone takes a moment to say how they are. What do they talk about after that? "Every blooming thing, from the nuts and bolts to philosophical stuff," Michael Payne said.

Those meetings can last until midnight but the aim is to finish at 9.30pm. There have been contentious decisions, like one on land sharing, that took several meetings to resolve. Decisions are not made by voting. Instead the residents are "looking for the best, giving up individual passions and surrendering to the feeling of the meeting. If there isn't agreement, then something doesn't happen."

On Tuesdays, there is a coffee morning, started by the late Angela Brusse to follow work in the shared vegetable garden.

Every morning begins with a silent meeting for worship, except Sunday when there is a Quaker meeting for worship downtown in Wicksteed St.

On Sunday night, there is a shared pot luck meal, with those rostered for the week providing the pudding. That was a custom that arose to prevent "the horror of having no pudding", Mandy Brooke said.

There are also working bees - almost weekly - in the shared vegetable gardens, orchards, forest and the harakeke (flax) collection.

At the letterboxes, there is a noticeboard, initiated by Peter Watson, with notices about movies, rides downtown, who is rostered that week and what tasks need to be done. There are combined containers for recycling, eggs for sale and books for swapping. Conversations begun at the letterbox can continue for hours - so different from what happens in most suburbs, where neighbours just "click their roller-door and disappear".

The community started in the early 1970s, a time when people were thinking about alternative lifestyles. It is in Virginia Rd because Quakers owned land there and ran a co-ed boarding school from 1920-70. When the land was sold, 8ha was kept for an educational community. The founders wanted to run seminars, bring like-minded people together and be an example of a different way of living.

"Four couples committed, without any guarantees, to uproot themselves from where they were and come and build on an empty field," Michael Payne said.

They travelled New Zealand talking about the idea and had it under way by 1975. One of those original people is still alive, aged 101.

The settlement is now run by the Whanganui Educational Settlement Trust (WEST), which has 12 members, most from outside. Residents go to their meetings and "we stick our oar in too", Heather Jan says.

Permaculture has been a major focus since the 1980s. Only a quarter of the site is taken up by buildings. The rest has trees for timber, regenerating bush, a food forest, gardens, orchards, sheep and chickens. The seminar centre has photovoltaic panels on its roof, supplying all the energy it needs from the sun. The settlement has also agreed to contribute to the surrounding area by storing stormwater from subdivisions upstream in a dam among the sand dunes.