I was born in Waimate, South Canterbury, in the late 1920s and brought up on my father’s farm in a rural community of about thirty farms in the district of Waihaorunga, which is twenty-five kilometres west of Waimate.
This area is very close to the geographical centre of the South Island, a fact I was unaware of for many years, but it was the centre of my world and it was a long time before I was more than a hundred kilometres from it. I had a sister who was two years younger than I and we often played with the children next door, which was a kilometre away.
I can remember my fifth birthday to which my mother had invited half a dozen boys and girls of about my age who I would be going to school with. (What a wise woman she was!) We had a big birthday cake and lots of other goodies after the games, such as hide and seek, follow the string, and a treasure hunt.
We were put into pairs, a boy and a girl, and we were looking in the plantation for one of the treasures. The girl I was with decided that it was a good place to give me a kiss for my birthday, needless to say we did not find all the treasures.
Shortly afterwards, my father took me to the Waihaorunga school for my first day, the teacher growled at me for talking and put me beside one of the bigger boys, presumably to keep me quiet. The next day I rode my pony named ‘Tommy’, along with two of our neighbour’s children, a boy my age and his older sister.
We would unsaddle our ponies on arrival and turn them loose in the pony paddock along with six or seven others. What a job it was to catch them at the end of the school day to ride the four miles (seven kilometres) home again. A couple of years later, my sister and another girl from next door started school so there were five of us all riding ponies.
My sister was a nervous rider; she had a little black Shetland pony which she fell off at least once a week. She must have learned something though, because in later life she became a riding instructor at the Waimate Pony Club, and ran a riding school of her own.
Most of the time, there were fifteen to eighteen children attending the Waihaorunga School, ranging from primmer one to standard six, and for most of it the same teacher, Mr Paddy Crowe. He arrived with his bride during my second year and lived in the house that was attached to the school.
As well as the three Rs, we learned another one: responsibility! At 9:30 we would put ourselves into school and when he opened the door from his sitting room and came into the school, we were all hard at work. It was the older pupil’s job to help the younger ones get started and to observe and record the weather on a big chart, the temperature, the barometric pressure, the wind direction and strength, the types of clouds and how much cover, and to record and empty the rain gauge.
Also, at twelve o’clock, to measure the shadow from the shadow-stick. Because he had all the classes to teach, we became responsible to learn. I can’t remember not being able to read the School Journals that arrived every month and had read all the books in the school library by the time I was in standard five.
I had trouble with arithmetic for some time but one day it all became clear. I won a prize for bookkeeping in my first year at high school. I enjoyed comprehension and writing stories, and neatness was on a par with being correct.
During the summer, we swam in the river every hot day and in the winter we had hot cocoa at lunch time made by Mrs Crowe. In the summer, we played tennis and in the winter, we played rounders (similar to baseball) and a game called ‘kick the tin’ which was a lot of fun. We had morning talks which were a forerunner to public speaking; we had singing and practiced plays and recitations.
At the end of the year, after exams were over, we put on a school concert. The school committee, of which my father was chairman for many years, built a small stage and we used the teacher’s living room as a changing room. We did recitations, songs, plays, and some of the children who learned to play the piano, gave recitals. The bigger boys and girls announced the items.
Looking back on my school days there, I realize how wise and what a good teacher Paddy Crowe was and how lucky I was to attend a small country school in the district of 30 families who all knew each other and looked after one another for the benefit of all. In standard six, I sat beside the girl who gave me my first kiss when I was five. So, off to high school.
Because we lived in the country, it was necessary for me to go to a boarding school and as the Timaru Boy’s High School had a very good reputation and was also the nearest, my parents made the arrangements. In February 1940 I started there as a third former. This was a huge change for me, living away from home for the first time, in a very different environment not knowing anyone.
Being a new boy, I was treated as the lowest of the low, however, I soon made friends and got to know the running of the place, to keep out of trouble and go with the flow. Because of the small primary school I had attended, I had never played football or cricket or other team games so I found it very difficult to compete for places in these activities.
I took an agriculture course which was taught by a very good teacher. This included management and breeding of livestock, maintenance of farm machinery, cropping and harvesting, and establishment and management of pastures. One afternoon each week we went down to Dalgety’s wool store and were taught wool classing by the manager of the wool department.
Of course, we had to take other core subjects as well, which in the third form I found easy because of the very good grounding I received at primary school. I won the first prize for bookkeeping, which was marked on accuracy and neatness, and that all the red lines were ruled straight.
Because war had been declared against Hitler’s Germany and many New Zealanders were of British decent and still called Britain ‘home’, our decision to stand beside the ‘old country’ was made immediately. Many of the young men volunteered for active service, leaving gaps in the work force. The two that affected me the most being on farms and in the teaching profession…
The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbour and the war in the Pacific was not going well, we spent one period a day digging air-raid shelters in the playground. Rationing was introduced for clothing and some food items as well as petrol and tires. No new cars were available and many farmer’s trucks were commandeered for defence purposes.
As soon as exams were over, I had to go home to help on the farm with mustering on the hill country and working in the shearing shed. I was used to working one of my father’s dogs so I was able to shift mobs of sheep in and out of the shed as well as work with the wool, both on the board and on the wool table. These tasks were learned as a boy growing up on a farm.
When the shearing was finished and the sheep returned to the hill country, the next job was to harness up the six-horse team into the blocks and chains and attach the discs and cultivator preparing the ground, ready for sowing the paddocks in winter as feed for the sheep.
I had watched the teamster doing these activities over the years and had driven one horse in a sledge many times before, shifting fencing material and other bits and pieces around the farm, but a six-horse team was daunting. However, practice makes perfect. It was hard work so I was pleased to go back to school for another year.
On returning to boarding school I found things very different, I was no longer a third former with all that implies, I was often first in from the run around the block first thing in the morning, was a fast swimmer, and was appointed a Corporal in the school cadets.
The air-raid shelters that we had dug had been timbered over, ready for us to put all the clay back on top and then the earth was later sown with grass seed and smoothed over. As well as the agricultural subjects which continued from the previous year, we had metal and woodworking classes. In the evenings, we had boxing classes which I was no good at (I had never had a fight in my life).
As there were five of us, the instructor decided to teach us self-defence instead which is one of the most useful things I learned at high school. It gave me great confidence at school and in later life when I worked in various countries around the world. I did well academically that year too and I think that is when my love of writing was born, conceived by an elderly retired English teacher who had returned to the work force, as had many other people, for the duration of the war.
Work on the Farm
I had to return back to the farm early again at the end of the year to help in the wool shed, also in the neighbours sheds as no other labour was available. This was to be the end of my school days because of the war.
The three farmers in the immediate vicinity who had sons about my age helped each other muster sheep on their hill-country blocks, tailing, shearing, harvesting, and other labour intensive jobs, as well as lending and borrowing farm machinery. We had all ‘helped’ with these jobs during primary school days and at weekends, so knew how to do them, but full time work, often on your own, was hard going.
The eight draught horses had to be fed twice after a day’s work and covered before letting them out into their paddock at nine o’clock. The only light available was two kerosene lanterns which hung from a number eight wire, stretched along the length of the stable, and could be carried through the mud to shut the gate behind the horses and find my way back to the house.
I would be up again at 5:30 next morning to put out their first feed of chaff, a five gallon tin full with a couple of handfuls of oats on top. They would be waiting at the gate and always went into their own stall to be tied up, groomed all over, collar and harness put on, a half feed given, and I would be in for my breakfast at seven.
“Tight chains at eight o’clock,’’ my father used to say, so it was out to the paddock, yoke up the six-horse team, three in front with the leader or furrow horse on the right hand side, and three behind with a young one in the middle being trained. The other two horses would be spelled for the day on a rotational basis, unless they were required for some other job, such as pulling a spring cart or a day in a line ahead yoke up, or two abreast in a hay-mower or a sledge for shifting light stuff around the farm.
The team that I drove as teamster would be ploughing in the winter with a two-furrow plough that I had to walk behind with long reins to the leaders. The plough had to be held up in the furrow on steep ground and lifted out at the corners while controlling the team, which would cut corners if I let them.
I would give them, and me, a spell every hour and I would roll a smoke. I would plough about one hundred acres each year, sixty for winter feed for the sheep and the rest for oats to feed the team. In early spring, the ploughed ground, which had been broken up by the frosts, had to be disked down, cultivated to control weeds, harrowed to make a fine seed bed, and drilled with appropriate seeds.
In late summer, the oats was cut with the binder, stooked to dry it out, carted in on drays and sledges, and stacked into five or six stacks to keep it dry till required. When the chaff shed, which was part of the stable, was empty, the chaff cutter would come and cut one stack into about four hundred bags which we would cart in on drays and fill the shed. Thank goodness for tractors. But that’s another story.
When I was about seventeen, I purchased my first motorbike, a ten year old BSA which allowed me to go to town on a Friday night and to the local dances and card evenings, which I enjoyed. I had to get an issue of petrol coupons that entitled me to two gallons per month.
Because my father had served at World War I, he was made a lieutenant in the home guard and I joined up when I left school. All the farmers in the district had joined and I found that my experience in school cadets was very useful. We met on a Saturday afternoon and after a while were issued with uniforms and much later some rifles to replace our own old twenty twos.
We did manoeuvres in various places, constructed road blocks that could be put in place quickly if needed, dug trenches in strategic positions, learned how to throw grenades safely, and how to shoot straight and maintain our rifles. We had certain areas that we were responsible for to defend and practiced getting into positions where we would be most effective.
It was all taken very seriously as was the threat of invasion by the Japanese. Great was the jubilation on VJ day with dancing in the streets, bands playing, six o’clock closing suspended, and huge sighs of relief by everyone. The war was over. Victory had been won.