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My First Eighty Years

Chapter 8 — Marriage at Ohau

page 131

Chapter 8
Marriage at Ohau

In 1893 I married and went to live on a small farm at Ohau. We were still in the pioneering stage. The house consisted of four rough rooms, or more correctly two, for the lean-to that made the kitchen and annexe was so primitive a structure as not to be properly called anything but a shelter. There were three wooden chimneys; the two in the front rooms had fireplaces built of large stones — very artistic, I thought. We scrimmed and papered the rooms, washing them with a whitewash made smooth with dissolved glue and tinted a delicate pink with a touch of ruddle. My husband had put a verandah in the front, the posts of which were tree-trunks still in the bark, and the floor was of unplaned boards. At the end of this he built a bathroom with the same old trough bath as at Cashmere. The water we carried from a creek and thought ourselves lucky that we had a permanent supply so handy. All the furniture, except about four pieces, was home-made. There was no wash-house: I boiled clothes in kerosene-tins on the wood-pile.

Nevertheless, the first effort we made, after we had settled ourselves, was to make a tennis court. Mad? Well, I suppose it was. But, you see, circumstances had robbed us both of the fun and frivolity of youth, so we were bent on snatching some of it at a time when we should have been addressing ourselves to serious things. I had played tennis on a few occasions in Dunedin, my husband not at all.

We laboured at the making of our new toy on moonlight nights and fondly called it a chip court. It was, in fact, nothing but smooth earth but we made it very smooth and very hard. We had managed to afford two racquets, a length of wire-netting served as a net, and every Sunday friends page 132 came from Levin to play and we forgot chill penury and gave ourselves up to pleasure.

My brother who, as I shall tell later, had returned from school in England, brought with him a ‘lawn tennis set’ donated by a maiden aunt in order that he might ‘introduce lawn tennis into New Zealand’. The racquets were museum pieces, with a queer twist in them and curiously soft strings, but the new net was useful for we were finding the wire-netting hard on balls. What endless fun that court was! My husband could create a hilarious atmosphere wherever he was and whatever he did.

The coming of this brother was a great joy to us. He was a lanky six-feet of boyhood whose wrists and ankles already stuck too far out of his skin-tight clothes; for he had grown on the voyage. He had a crop of long, curly, red hair, high spirits, a hearty laugh and insatiable curiosity. This was not to be wondered at, for he had come from a strange world indeed. Aware that his mother possessed fifteen hundred acres of freehold,* described as first-class land, he was, from his English stand-point, entitled to believe that his people enjoyed a certain degree of affluence, whereas, from that same standpoint, they seemed to lack the necessities of life.

To make matters worse, his home-coming had been a fiasco. For some reason, eternally discussed by the family but never solved, there was no one to meet him when his boat arrived in Wellington, no one to tell him of the kind of life he would find. The disillusionment was sudden, but worse was to follow. He found his own way to Levin and still there was no one to meet him at the station. Over the dark paddocks and muddy tracks he at last found the unlighted house, knocked, and my sister came to the door carrying a candle. He always said that that shock was so great that it rendered him shockproof to all else. He could understand that because of a misdirected wire my mother did not even know that his boat had arrived, but an entrance page 133 hall lighted with only a guttering candle was beyond him.

By the time he came to visit our queer little ménage he had seen tracks full of roots and puddles called streets (Levin always talked of Queen Street and Oxford Street). He had seen people living in shelters that, by his standards, were not fit for fowls, and was prepared to be delighted with everything we had. By that time we had effected some improvements, needful, for I had my first baby, and, I am ashamed to own, considering the state of our finances, a maid. She was a very small girl, hired to mind the baby; I paid her half-a-crown a week.

If the present day is horrified at such a wage, I will digress to tell a story relating to that girl's family, though it would have fitted many of the Ohau settlers equally well.

The Manawatu Company, in rough imitation of the Government village settlement, had cut up its land near the railway in very small sections — five, seven, ten acres — intended to encourage the working-man to come to the country. The sections were eagerly taken up and the men of the settlement used to foregather in the evening in front of Batalani's store to hear the news (the extravagance of a daily paper was unthinkable) and to tell each other how to farm. My husband, coming out of the store, heard Bill W——, who was usually very pleased with himself, say lugubriously: ‘It's quite true what they all tell you when you go farming, that you didn't ought to spend too much on your house and so leave yourself short in buying stock. I've found it out for myself. Here I've gone and spent seven pounds on building my house and nothing left to buy a cow’. Nobody laughed. There were too many in a similar position. We might afford a smile, for our mansion must have cost quite forty pounds.

If you question my figures on the ground that a man could not house a wife and six children — which this man had — in a structure costing seven pounds, I hasten to explain that, though timber was not flung about so lavishly page 134 as it had been at Cashmere, the mills were still anxious to get rid of face-cuts. The walls and frame of a residence might be built of these, the floors might be earth. I remember the house in question, though I never saw inside it. It was quite sizeable, and the roof was of iron which, with the nails and, perhaps, one window in the kitchen and one door-lock, might well have been the whole cash outlay. Bill W— would borrow a horse and dray with which to cart the timber. This and any other help he may have received would be returned in labour. The daughter of that house did not think herself underpaid at half-a-crown a week. She was clean and tidy and comely. Do you wonder if our generation is somewhat contemptuous of all this fuss about the housing problem? Let people alone and they will house themselves according to their tastes and their fortunes. In 1941, at Russell, I was taken to see a woman who was building her own house of sun-dried bricks of her own making. It seems hardly necessary, in these times, to go as far as that, but building materials are extremely varied and, even having regard to the amenities of towns, decent dwellings can be erected if you cut the frills.

We saw quite a lot of my brother and enjoyed seeing our raw world through his English eyes. He appreciated the plenty of our land. Food seemed to him unlimited and wonderfully good. He declared that during his seven years in England he had never once had quite enough to eat. He remained true to this statement to the end of his days. It certainly had not hurt him, for he was a fine physical specimen, and had great endurance. One wonders if the young human animal really needs as much food as it can and does consume. One source of our amusement was that he could not walk on our rough fields. He thought we were performing an acrobatic feat when we crossed the creek on the trunk of a fallen tree. He would be walking in what appeared to us a clear paddock and would suddenly measure his length on the ground. It took him some time to acquire page 135 ‘backblock legs’. He was left-handed and left-footed, too. At school they had wisely encouraged him to develop the sinister propensity but it handicapped him in the matter of games.

One of the interests of Ohau was a curious religious fanaticism that swept through the district. We called its devotees ‘dippers’. (They are still extant, I believe.) They called themselves ‘Brethren’ or simply Christians, claiming that they alone held the true interpretation of Christianity, they alone were certain of salvation, they alone were the beloved of God. It seemed to give them exquisite pleasure to contemplate the vast number of those to be damned.

People as poor and unenlightened as most of those who took the small sections of Ohau are not to be found to-day, but the religion was started by farmers of more standing and swept through the district like an epidemic. The whole district would assemble in a shed every Sunday to enjoy a spiritual orgy, a feast of emotion. One Catholic family, one bachelor and ourselves were, I think, the sole unconverted recalcitrants. We must certainly be brought into the fold.

What a battery of argument and persuasion they brought against us! When local eloquence failed, they brought leaders of the movement from outside to convert us — one dear old man with the face of an angel and a cheeky young fanatic with an astonishing flow of words, from Wellington. Solemn warnings were given and prayers — we were told — were offered up for us at their meetings. I was genuinely interested; I wanted to probe into the cause — what we now should call the psychology — of the outbreak. I was fairly well versed in the Bible, and it astonished me to find how words and phrases could be twisted to mean something I thought quite foreign to their intention.

At the beginning of 1897 this fanatical faith reached a climax. It had been revealed to the Brethren that this was to be the year of the Second Coming, the Judgment Day, the end of the world. They could prove it without the shadow page 136 of a doubt. Didn't the Book of Daniel speak of ‘a time and a time and half a time’? Add that to the ram's horn which, having three twists, signifies three thousand years, and then turn to the Book of Revelations and read the description of the wickedness that would be rampant at the last day, and no one could doubt that it was the exact description of to-day. Now, surely, those misguided Wilsons would awaken to their danger — who could dare to doubt it? A rapturous light glowed in the eyes of the earnest couple who had come to convince my husband and myself. The Second Coming, it seemed, was not to take place on Easter Sunday, as so many mistaken prophets had led us to believe, but on Easter Monday, for Christ was to lie three days in the grave, and no one could stretch Friday to Sunday into three days.

‘But’, I objected, ‘we are expressly told of His coming, “the day nor the hour no man knoweth”.’

‘Ah! That's just the point. No man knoweth, but we, the Saints, know. It has been expressly revealed to the Children of Light. They are never to taste death, nor to abide the Judgment, but are to be told by the Holy Spirit of the day and the hour and are to be caught up to meet the Lord in the skies and shall sit on His right hand, to help to judge the quick and the dead.’

This was too much for me. Hitherto I had argued and listened quite amicably, but to be told that these ignoramuses of Ohau, drunkards, loafers, sneak thieves, the off-scourings of Wellington, were to sit in judgment on the great living and the greater dead, outraged my sense of decency. I was getting hot under the collar when my husband said, ‘Look here, X—. You have a good farm and I've got only a dirty little bit of leasehold, but I could raise some money —enough to build your tabernacle or to take a trip or to do what you like with. I'll raise it and pay it over to you at once in return for the equity of redemption of your farm on Easter Tuesday. What do you say?’

His exaltation faded. He said, ‘Flippancy is out of page 137 place in so solemn a theme,’ and his wife murmured, ‘Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God,’ which, allowing that she thought a great deal of her husband, struck me as blasphemous.

Mr X— was no longer in the heavens, no longer a fanatic. He had come down to earth, a practical farmer and, according to repute, a money-grubber. I declared that he was considering how he might get the cash offered and keep the farm too. But no doubt I did him an injustice.

* * * *

We imagined that during our first years of married life we were wonderfully hard-working folk, and indeed my husband was, but looking back I see little but the fun we used to have, inexpensive fun to be sure, but proving that we cannot claim to have worked to the point of exhaustion. Tennis and river-swimming were the summer joys and in winter there was excellent shooting. This last so pleased my young brother that it was hard to resist him when he came down to us with his English fowling-piece, asking my husband to go to the swamps to shoot some duck.

Sometimes I would go too, and on one occasion I remember taking the baby. My husband carried her and we arrived at the place about four or half past, hid her in a flax-bush, and walked along the creek to a place where the duck were likely to come in. The problem was to station ourselves near enough to hear the baby if she wakened and far enough not to disturb her with the gunshots. We hid ourselves and waited till the ducks came in; usually they came in pairs, one for each gun.

That night we had a good bag which, having no dog, the men had to strip and swim for.

Returning to the flax-bush and the long-suffering baby, we found her surrounded by about twelve great Hereford bullocks, cartwheeling excitedly round the spot where they evidently smelt something strange. I was terrified, but my page 138 husband laughed and, true enough, there she was, soundly asleep, nor did she awaken till we arrived home.

One incident of that time serves to explain why taking up land was one of the hopes of the working-man. He was driven to it. When we had sufficient cleared land we decided that a small herd of cows and a boy to milk them might bring in some desirable cash. After arranging for the cows, my husband went to Wellington for a boy. He wrote an advertisement in the office of the Evening Post, handing it to the clerk who said, ‘You have not named a place for meeting these boys.’

‘Well, here in this office,’ he suggested.

‘Not on your life,’ said the man. ‘We need breathing space.’

‘Well, outside the Evening Post at eleven to-morrow morning.’

His description of the interview was: ‘When I got there, bless me if the place, the whole street, wasn't alive with boys; boys of all shapes and sizes, coming from all directions like whitebait trickling into a net. When they saw me they began to push and shove, holding up hands and shouting, “Take me, sir, I'm strong”, “Take me, boss, I can milk”, or “I can work”, and one rather small one said, “Take me, I'll come for nothink.” I thought they'd eat me. I simply couldn't choose. I just asked the nearest biggish one if five bob a week would do him. He said, “You bet,” and I said, “Come with me”.’

Economists place 1895 as the nadir of the depression of the 'eighties, as the year when bad times touched bottom. This may seem surprising when refrigeration had been proved a success ten years earlier. The explanation was that it took the British public all that time to overcome its prejudice against frozen mutton. Even. after that date New Zealand visitors in London would report having seen our mutton in the shops, labelled ‘Best Canterbury mutton’, which deluded customers bought thinking it came from page 139 Kent. It seemed that it was not so difficult to persuade the well-to-do that frozen meat was good eating, but servants simply would not stay in a family which ate food over six weeks old.

Christmas, 1896, was exciting. I had a school friend from Dunedin and my sister a friend from Melbourne coming to spend the holidays. Both were anxious to see something of cur pioneer existence and declared themselves ready for any discomforts and privations, in fact the more they had of these the better. So we organised a mountain climb. It was no great feat in the eyes of mountaineers. Waiopehu is about 3,500 feet. Surveyors had set a trig upon it years before, but the tracks were quite overgrown and though some men — my husband among them — had hunted cattle in the vicinity no one had climbed the peak.

The party consisted of my sister and friend, myself and friend, my brother and husband, and a small boy, aged twelve, whom we called ‘the gamin’. Alas, not one of the party survives to-day except the gamin, now a white-haired man, and myself. He was the comedian of the party. At heart a serious-minded youth, he saw things from an original angle and expressed them in modern slang. At the same time he was willing enough to repeat any stray story that had hit the mark and given us a laugh. There was one that seemed to us funnier each time it was repeated. If a pause occurred, someone would say, ‘Now, Gamin, tell us the story of old Porp's horse.’

Why he was a true comedian no one could tell, but his very expression and attitude of approach made us laugh.

‘I said, “Porp, where's your whip?” He said, “My 'orse is a good 'orse, 'e don't need no whip!”’ That was all there was to the story. We must have been very young and light-hearted to laugh at it.

The first three days of the journey were spent walking up the river-bed, crossing the stream from side to side to avoid rough going (bluffing, the mountaineers call it). We page 140 took it in leisurely fashion but it gave the visitors all they wanted of discomfort, for every time we sat down we were eaten alive by mosquitoes. It was even more than we who were inoculated had bargained for. We daubed the poor visitors with strong-smelling specifics and they stood up to the ordeal remarkably well. We slept with our seven heads under one mosquito-net and our fully-clothed bodies wrapped each in a blanket sticking out like spokes of a wheel. Miss Melbourne, my sister's friend, who was of more discreet years than the rest of the party, had not imagined that human flesh and blood could endure such things and live to tell the tale. ‘What! Sleep lying flat on the soil?’ She was full of pluck and said little at the time but she was picturing her friends ordering the wreaths. Pneumonia was the least of her expectations. Weeks later, with a bewildered head-shake, she would murmur, ‘Not even a cold or a twinge of rheumatism.’ She felt that it was against nature and that such things should not be.

Plenty of game fell to the guns as we plodded up the river — a paradise duck, several teal, as many pigeons as we wanted — and the gamin caught a big eel. (Trout had not then been liberated.) Then we started the climb. Sure of plenty of game we cached all tinned foods, carrying with us flour, sugar, tea, salt and rice. We climbed through virgin bush, using hands and knees and dragging ourselves up by the undergrowth. We pushed on valiantly, for not only did we see no camping ground, but my husband had assured us that above the bush (that is, the rain forest) we should also be above the mosquitoes.

It was true. We arrived at nightfall in black birch country, with no undergrowth but thick layers of soft, dry moss covering root and soil, and never an insect visible. We all decided to sleep the clock round.

Our accustomed fare of grilled duck or stewed pigeon was missing. We had seen no game at all that day, though we did see a pair of huia, now said to be extinct. The rice, page break
The Bicycling Trip

The Bicycling Trip

At Levin (H. H. Ostler holds the pony with the author' three children

At Levin
(H. H. Ostler holds the pony with the author' three children

page break
The Family, Levin, 1905Back Row:The author, Mrs Ostler (senior), H. H. OstlerFront Row:C. K. Wilson, Phyllis Wilson, L. K. Wilson, Miss Ostler, Lesbia Wilson

The Family, Levin, 1905
Back Row:The author, Mrs Ostler (senior), H. H. Ostler
Front Row:C. K. Wilson, Phyllis Wilson, L. K. Wilson, Miss Ostler, Lesbia Wilson

page 141 intended to thicken stews, we boiled and ate with sugar, and my sister brought out some biscuits she had secreted. We were very near the summit and thought to spend a couple of days with this haven as headquarters.

The men reported having seen the tracks of cattle, so, as we climbed, we put the dogs out but just then an envious wind sprang up, rustling the tree-tops, so that, listen as we would, we could hear no barking to indicate that they had found a mob. After an hour or so the dogs returned exhausted and disgusted plainly saying, ‘Well! Why didn't you come? We did our part, but you let us down.’

My husband had begun to grow anxious about the weather and thought we must not linger. It was still fine but the wind was in the north-west and rain in the hills meant that the river would rise and prevent us from ‘bluffing’ on our way home.

There was easy going in the open country for the last mile or so but the summit was a disappointment. We had looked forward to seeing the west coast with the two long Taranaki bights divided by Egmont, and especially to getting a bird's-eye view of the country with which we were familiar, but clouds enveloped us and wiped out everything. That evening we baked bush scones on sticks to the delight of our town friends.

The slopes near the summit were covered with a tough scrub, so tough and matted so tightly, lying wind-flattened on the ground about three or four feet deep, that you could almost walk on the surface. If it had not been for a well-marked cattle track it would have been hard to hack a path. My brother was striding ahead and we were all in single file behind when a very large boar rushed into the track in his direction. We yelled, the dogs rushed out and he stepped aside just in time. The beast made a lunge at him and grazed his leather leggings. The men called to us to get up as high as possible and we climbed on the wind-blown scrub while they followed the sounds that told where the dogs had page 142 bailed up the boar. When we heard rifle shots we scrambled down and found the great beast dead.

‘It won't be fit to eat,’ said my husband, but we were hungry and insisted that the choicest bit should at least be tried.

We camped again in birch country and stewed pork in small bits for hours, somehow managing to enjoy it. Tastes seemed to have been reversed. My husband, who was not fastidious, couldn't touch it, while Miss Melbourne, who was the dainty one of the party, thought it as good a stew as she had ever eaten.

The men insisted on an early start, and we were halfway down the river when we halted for lunch. They did not stay to shoot game. Tinned food was quicker to prepare, and we were glad we had hidden it on the way up. The dogs were evidently skirmishing on their own for they told us very plainly that they had put up something interesting and, as the sun had come out again, the men felt they might spare ten minutes to see what it was.

‘Here,’ said my husband to the gamin, handing him the slasher he had been using to clear our path, ‘Hang on to this’, and guns in hand both men waded through the river hurriedly and disappeared into the bush opposite.

Mingled squealing and barking announced that pig was the game and there was much rustling and crashing through the bush. Suddenly a half-grown pig half fell and half jumped from the pursuing dogs into the river. In a split second the gamin was waist deep in the water, slashing, with the tool he was holding, like a maniac at the pig. It was swimming away but he followed it and had practically killed it when the guns came up and with laughter and cheers and congratulations rechristened him ‘the game 'un’. (He was an undersized child of twelve.) We carried home most of that pig. It was exactly the size that makes the best pork and wild pig is, of all meats, the most delectable eating.

page 143

Safe in bed that night we heard a tremendous thunderstorm rattling round the hills. The rain was torrential. We were home just in time. A night out in that storm would have been far from pleasant.

Note: My mother by this time had bought and sold many sections and so successful were her speculations that she eventually made a reasonable little fortune. She and my sister were able to live in town comfortably and to travel extensively.

* See note at end of chapter.