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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 6, Issue 5, 2002

Boyhood Memories of Nelson in the 1920s and Early '30s

Boyhood Memories of Nelson in the 1920s and Early '30s

page 51

The River

From 1924, when our family moved to Nelson, we lived in Grove Street near the Maitai River. Most of the neighbourhood children learned to swim in the river as the Municipal Baths had not yet been built. There were many swimming holes, the more popular ones being 'Collie', under the Collingwood Street Bridge, 'Loggie', near the Municipal Baths, The Girls' Swimming Hole', just upstream from the Nile Street Bridge and, further upstream, 'Black Hole' and 'Dennys Hole'. On summer week-ends and during school holidays it was quite usual for hundreds of people, young and old, to cool off and frolic in their favourite swimming holes. The Nelson Evening Mail at times reported crowds of 200 or more at Dennys Hole, where the City Council provided dressing sheds, but strangely no toilets.

The river was relatively unpolluted, without the amount of slime on stones so evident in parts today. The three main primary schools – Central, Auckland Point and Hampden Street – competed in annual inter-school swimming sports, held at the Girls' Swimming Hole. The pupils changed into swimming togs behind a handy tree or bush, girls on one side of the river, boys on the other, and I don't remember anyone ever losing clothes. Very few boys wore socks and shoes, or indeed any footwear in the summer, so there was little to look after.

All races were swum going down stream with the current. I swam my first race as a standard one pupil against the only other competitor, a boy from another school named David McKenzie.

When the Municipal Baths opened in 1926 the inter-school sports were transferred there. I attended the official opening ceremony, and all present were invited by the mayor to have a free swim. As I came out of the dressing shed, a young fellow ran past me and took a dive into the water. Unfortunately he dived into the paddling pool and had to receive first aid. He was lucky not to have been more seriously injured and a pipe safety railing was put up later.

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The river still continued to have a lot of appeal, and retained much of its former popularity. There were a number of punts along the river, some well built but others made of odds and ends. The latter often leaked badly, requiring frequent caulking. For this we used pitch that hung down like stalactites from the Collingwood Street Bridge. As we did the caulking we used to chew pieces of pitch, just like chewing gum, until our jaws ached. Although it lacked flavour, it made our teeth nice and white.

One year the Monopoli boys, who lived a few doors away from us, arrived at the river with a big punt that could hold four people. It was twice the size of other punts. After a successful launching and typical horse-play trying to splash and half drown each other, it was suggested we have a tomato war. The Monopoli family grew tomatoes and must have had a surplus that year, as we all trooped off to the tomato garden where, apparently with parental approval, we loaded up with soft ripe tomatoes. We took them back and put them in the punts to use as missiles. A long and hard fought battle followed and soon the river was red with blood ripe tomatoes. It was a day to remember.

Spud Monday

Spud Monday was observed each year as a special holiday on the first Monday of August. We understood that it was to commemorate the plight of the first settlers who became so near to starvation they dug up their seed potatoes, already planted, to use as food. The eyes of the potatoes were replanted to provide the next crop.

Spud Monday was a unique Nelson holiday which lasted until about World War 2. All shops, businesses and schools closed for the day. It became a tradition for hundreds of people to walk the Dun Mountain Track on Spud Monday, and while many only went as far as Third House, while the hardier ones trudged on to the top of the Dun. Parts of the old wooden railway track, held together with long, handmade nails, were still quite well preserved, as were the many beautifully made dry stone walls that lined the track in places. Nelsonians lost a distinctive part of their history with the passing of Spud Monday.

Anniversary Day

Nelson's Anniversary Day, 1st February, and now celebrated on the Monday closest to that date, has always been a public holiday for the Province. In the 1920s and early '30s, before there were many cars about, most people walked, cycled, went by horse or used the few buses if they needed to travel. There was a train which daily ran as far as Glenhope, but page 53few townspeople used the service except for excursions, particularly on Anniversary Day.

Hundreds of children and adults gathered at the Nelson Railway Station for their big outing in the country. It was Sunday School Picnic Day. In great excitement and anticipation children, and parents struggling with picnic hampers, boarded the special big train, with its two steam engines smoking and wheezing. These were the centre of interest for the boys in particular, although I presume they were as awesome to the girls as well.

All the passenger carriages available were pressed into service, as were a long string of raspberry trucks which had temporary seating placed in them – planks placed on wooden boxes. The trucks had wooden sides about a metre high, and an overall frame with a tarpaulin tied over the top. They normally used to carry the tons of raspberries and green peas grown in such places as Tadmor and Tapawera to Kirkpatrick's jam and canning factory in Nelson.

Most of the children, accompanied by a few supervising adults, preferred to travel in the trucks, as they provided an unimpeded view of the country side as the train travelled along at its mostly sedate pace. People lined St Vincent Street, many standing on their front verandahs, waving as the train moved slowly along towards Bishopdale Hill where the engines struggled really hard. We chanted "I think I can, I think I can", followed by "I thought I could, I thought I could" when the top was reached.

The various church denominations had their favourite picnic areas that they used each year. The Methodists went to Snowden's Bush at Brightwater, the Anglicans to Wakefield Domain or Baigent's Bush and the Presbyterians to the Wai-iti Domain. Other denominations may also have taken the train that day, but I'm hazy on that.

The train stopped for convenience right next to the Wai-iti Domain and not at the station. Everything was unloaded on to the ground and carried into the domain with all giving a helping hand. The first thing we boys did on reaching our picnic area was to run along the river bed looking for blackberries. The ripest ones were the lowest ones, near the warm stones.

Soon everyone gathered in one big group for the mid-day meal of the mountains of delicious sandwiches made fresh at the domain by the mothers. The meal always began with grace, sung rather solemnly by the older people: "Be present at our table Lord…" to the tune of Tallis's Canon.

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After a brief period of respite following lunch, the children's running races began. These included sack races, where children stood in large chaff sacks with toes wedged into the corners, heads sticking out over the top, as they tried to run or bounce along towards the tape. There were many falls and spills along the way, accompanied by much laughter. The three- legged and wheel-barrow races followed and then mothers and fathers had a run, much to the amusement of the children.

There was always a game of cricket for the men and boys and two or three games of rounders that anyone could join. Games like drop the handkerchief, oranges and lemons, and gathering nuts in May helped keep the younger ones amused.

It was always a wonderful day in the country for everyone. As cars became more common, a trip into the country became less of a big adventure. The train journey picnics became fewer and finally disappeared, but if that quaint old steam train still ran I feel sure it could be just as popular again.