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My First Eighty Years

Chapter 10 — Further Afield

page 167

Chapter 10
Further Afield

After we had had seven happy, prosperous years at The Lake the firm of Abraham and Williams, for whom my husband was working at the time, wanted him to go to Palmerston North. Nothing loath, we sold out and went, but in less than a year the firm wanted him back in Levin, so we returned and bought a new home there; this time an ordinary house to which we made additions. Our lives at Closeacre were smooth and pleasant and carefree, much like the lives of other people. The two elder children were away at school and we looked forward to the holidays as the highlights of life. These were given over to tennis, picnics, parties and other amusements.

My husband took many jaunts to the King Country buying store cattle for fattening on the rich Manawatu flats and one day returned to say he had bought a place there. It was a Maori lease of some four thousand acres which had once been broken-in and grassed and even yet was in good order compared with the rest of the King Country.

He did not propose that we should live there, at least until he had acquired the freehold and had built a house. An old house was there and he would put a manager on or perhaps a married couple. I was all agog to see the new venture and was planning to go north as soon as possible when my man of surprises came home again with some much more exciting news — he had been asked to stand for Parliament, representing the electorate of which Te Kuiti was the chief town. What his answer was to be he left entirely to me, with the proviso that, if I decided on the venture, I must manage somehow to come and stay in the electorate. I did not hesitate ten minutes. Of course he must page 168 take the chance and I would contrive to join him early in November. This was 1910.

I was lucky in finding an English family who wanted a three-months holiday in the country and I let Closeacre to them while my mother, then living in Wellington, took my younger daughter. So I packed at the end of October and took train for Te Kuiti.

Te Kuiti in 1910 resembled a gold-rush town. Its population had outstripped its conveniences and strained the accommodation it could offer; and still men came pouring in. The boarding-houses were feverishly adding bedrooms and annexes in the roughest style — bare iron roofs, walls and floors of unplaned boards. The place was a hive of activity. The sound of hammering and sawing was everywhere. Everyone, unless he happened to be a Maori, seemed in a violent hurry.

The soil was pumice so the roads were fairly dry except when it was actually raining but full of deep holes — almost ponds. A short time before, these holes had been filled with Maori pigs, wallowing, squealing and cumbering up the roads. These had now been banished and some of the holes filled in, but no one dared walk at night without a lantern, for there were no street lights. Nor was there any water supply except for a few tanks. I have seen river water carried in kerosene tins by enterprising boys, who would sell it to the dwellers in half-built houses — for cash was the only amenity not in short supply.

The Auckland-Wellington expresses crossed at Te Kuiti at two a.m. It was then that the town sprang into its full life. If you stood on one of the hills overlooking the township, at that hour you would see tiny specks of light, like moving glow-worms, slowly and jerkily converging on the railway station where one large lamp showed up the gloom. The trains that crossed at that weird hour were almost the King Country's sole connection with the outside world, for neither the road to Auckland nor that to Wellington was fit for page 169 wheeled traffic. Mails, papers, parcels, families and friends, if they were to come at all, came by one of these expresses. And, above all, came the buyers or would-be buyers of land. These were the goldminers, on the over-spill of whose wealth this young land-rush town existed.

It was said that every second man in the place was a land agent. It would never do for one of these to miss the two o'clock trains. Some other fellow might annex a precious client who should have been yours. Every man who looked as if he might be a buyer stepping from the carriage was pounced upon by a pack of land agents. The agent who secured the prize found him lodgings or offered him hospitality and, if possible, kept him closely in sight till he had sold him ‘the only absolute bargain in the King Country’, probably an undrainable swamp or an unscaleable precipice. Sometimes a wag, with his tongue in his cheek, turned the tables on the wolves and enjoyed a good time, being driven round and entertained and shouted for, without any more intention of buying land than I had.

Later, when we had for a time a furnished house in Te Kuiti, I learned that if you asked a man to dinner, hospitality demanded that you entertained him till ‘train time’. You must assure him that you never dreamed of going to bed before two o'clock and if you had lived long in Te Kuiti it would be only too true. Yes, two o'clock was the supreme hour. All the world and his wife were to be found on the station at two a.m.

My husband being away ‘out back’, I spent the first ten days at the boarding-house. (We called it the hotel because there were no licensed houses.) There were eight or nine women doing the same — playing ladies while their husbands toiled long hours. These introduced me to Te Kuiti Society, with a very big S. And what a frilly, dressy, fashionable, refined society it was! So far from waving any of the conventions because of its transient character, these they doubly riveted.

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On the first Sunday evening I went to church with the gay ladies of the hotel. Near us sat a plainly — even shabbily — dressed man and woman. They were quietly absorbed in the service, having no eyes for the finely-attired congregation. I recognised them at once as kindred spirits, people I understood and could like. After we came out I enquired about them and was told: ‘Oh! Those are Mr and Mrs Spencer. He's putting in the new waterworks. They are toffs. They're real toffs, but they won't be here long.’

Another added encouragingly, ‘If your husband gets into Parliament you might get to know them.’

Of course this pretentious little coterie was not the whole, or even representative, of Te Kuiti society. After the first few days, and particularly when my husband joined me, I made some delightful friends, as well as many with whom I had nothing in common. Still I noticed something of the same spirit which I had found in my hotel acquaintances. I noticed that the men were greatly concerned to be put on trifling committees and jostled each other to take part in public affairs. Anything rather than be overlooked. At first I was highly amused, but I learned much from my sojourn in that boarding-house. I learned how deeply-rooted in human nature is the desire to shine among one's fellow-creatures and how intolerable is the stigma of social inferiority. It was customary for superior folk to declare that the failures of the Dominion were congregated in Te Kuiti. This was, of course, absurd, but men and women who had not found for themselves a satisfying nook came there determined, in this new environment, to find, not an obscure corner, but a place in the sun. It was not poverty against which they rebelled. What hurt was obscurity, inferiority.

As always, it was the country people who nourished and gave life to the town. About once a month, at week-ends, they left their lonely out-back sections to draw a breath among their fellows. As their mud-covered vehicles drew up page 171 before the livery stables it was impossible to distinguish between men and women. Both were in oilskins and sou'-westers and both alike stiff with mire. Some of them had engaged permanent rooms. They bathed, changed, dined with friends or asked friends to hotel dinners, and often managed an impromptu dance. The young bachelors, towards the small hours, often grew very merry. One could hear them marauding round the town in rowdy groups. Their pranks were no doubt more amusing in the doing than in the telling. There seemed to some people little enough merriment in pulling the battens off the church fence, or parading round in masks with unmentionable articles of women's attire draped round their heads; but they had earned a bit of fun and certainly seemed to enjoy it. These country men and women were my husband's enthusiastic political supporters.

And what a task C. K. Wilson, this husband of mine, had taken upon himself. The electorate was at that time a huge triangle with its base extending from below Taumarunui to above Otorohanga and its apex at Waitara on the West Coast. This vast area had recently been opened up for settlement, that is surveyed and cut up into more or less small farms. Except on paper there were no roads to these new farms; the season had proved an exceptionally wet one and the tracks had turned into quagmires. Metalled roads existed only round the town of Waitara and perhaps for half a mile in the street of Taumarunui. I had heard interminable talk of mud, of waggons and horses stuck, of stock drowned in mud. I had seen every morning passing the hotel a string of pack-horses, each with a milk-can hung on either side of its pack-saddle. They were urged to a trot as they went through the town; the cream spurted through the lids and mixed with mud resembled a frothy, brown ice-cream covering horse and saddle. Yet, though partly prepared, I did not realise what my husband was going through until page 172 he was due to arrive and a friend brought round a horse for me and proposed that we two should ride out to meet him.

We rode, I think, some seven miles until he met us — a mud man riding a mud horse. The road was from one foot to three feet deep in slush. Sometimes the horse stepped into a hole and I wondered if it would really be able, this time, to pull itself out.

It was quite impossible for a horse to travel faster than a walk. Then I pictured the hundreds of such miles my husband had struggled and flopped through, for he had ridden into every small settlement, crossing and recrossing his tracks. I doubt if there are many men with enough physical endurance to have canvassed that electorate. My husband had a special ability to get the best out of a horse. Though a heavy man, he ‘rode light’, and he did the whole campaign with two horses.

But for the best bit of fun on earth, commend me to an election, especially if you win it. Every stage of it is stimulating and exciting, and the jokes seem so irresistibly funny.

For instance, when the candidate, through ignorance of local matters, has chosen as chairman a smart but shady character submerged in debt, and when carefully explaining a point of public finance, says, ‘You see, the thing is not sound. Now, Mr Chairman, if I lend you a thousand pounds….’

‘Don't you do it, C.K.,’ says someone in the audience and the room rocks with laughter — all the more so as the candidate is at a loss to know what it is all about.

When the opposition candidate says, ‘This Reform Party, it was once called the Conservative Party, then the Opposition, now the Reform Party. What will it be called next?’ A voice: ‘The Government, of course.’

The thrill of watching the numbers go up amid cheers and the exaltation of the following morning with friends' congratulations, when the comedian supporter drawls, ‘You page 173 don't want to clean your boots this morning, “Chorly” — plenty of people to lick them to-day.’

We took a furnished house in Te Kuiti for a few weeks and then returned to Levin and temporarily to the old life.

* * * *

It was after returning to Closeacre when the exciting flutter of the election in the King Country was over, that we knew the man who is now Governor-General of New Zealand. He was hardly more than a youth and full to the brim with boyish enthusiasms. His work, dentistry, did not provide him with the exercise he considered his constitution needed, so he made it up with perpetual motion all the remaining hours.

He beat up a group of young men to form a Cadet Corps. It must have been uphill work, for the long years of peace made us feel that war with a civilized nation belonged to the unthinkable past. Norman Angell had just published his Great Illusion which most people took to mean that war was henceforth impossible. But Freyberg's enthusiasm brought a small corps into being. To use his own quotation, ‘He hauled them all together by the horn and hide and leather’ and drilled them on Friday nights between seven and eight. It happened that we had a couple of bridge fours on Friday evening. That he might not keep us waiting, he used to sprint all the way, and however punctually we started he was always in time.

On fine Sundays Levin used to picnic at the seven-miles-distant beach. It was usual for the country people who had horses and traps to offer seats to the townspeople. One could lend a mount, one could offer a couple of seats. This young athlete would accept neither. He never had sufficient exercise, he said, so he would run both ways.

He left no doubt in the minds of his friends that he intended to do big things in life. To swim the Channel was the target of the moment. He had been champion swimmer of New Zealand at sixteen. We smiled, as one smiles at page 174 boyish enthusiasms, but we all knew he would fly high, and the more discerning knew that he had already accomplished a great feat: with his own earnings he had managed to take a course at Otago University, a short one, but it would enable him to earn a dignified living in any part of the world in which he found himself stranded.

‘Yes! I lived on ten shillings a week and I'll never look a rabbit in the face again.’ For a sports-lover with extremely sociable temperament to cut himself off from the life of the university and study in a lonely cabin on a diet of rabbit is not a feat to be overlooked.

He felt he had missed the opportunity of his life in not being included in the Scott expedition. He knew the name of every man on both ships, their life history and why they had secured a berth. When the news of the disaster came out he would talk and think of nothing else. It hurt him to know that a mere foreigner had succeeded where one fine Britisher had failed. To say that Amundsen ran a fair race and must therefore be the better polar explorer was, in his view, high treason.

The essence of a race, he would insist, is that both parties know that it is a race. No! It was a dirty trick to sneak off like that. It was that beastly Norwegian flag planted at the Pole that killed Captain Scott. It turned his success into blank failure.

I remember that he stirred up young Levin to enter for swimming sports, boys and girls together, dressed in bathing suits that to-day would appear ultra-modest. How these shocked the Levin matrons, and I will own that I had enough Victorian prudery to have wished that somebody else's daughters, rather than mine, had been the performers. The public, some of the public, were shocked on other lines. One old woman ran about in great excitement, crying, ‘They'll get the galloping consumption, every one of 'em. There won't none of 'em live to see next Christmas.’

It did not occur to me at the time but I have since page 175 recognised that with all his sociable habits, his exuberant energy, and restless activity Bernard Freyberg retained a surprising amount of personal aloofness and dignity. He told us that he was called ‘Tiny’ because he was the smallest of three brothers and we used the name quite often, but to the people at Levin he was Mr Freyberg, and remained so until he returned as General Sir Bernard Freyberg with half the letters of the alphabet added.

* * * *

Was ever a new member so full of zeal, so keen, so deadly in earnest about the work before him as this C. K. Wilson? He felt that now at last he would be able to remedy all the abuses of New Zealand if not of Christendom. ‘A candidate,’ said F. M. B. Fisher, the wit of the party, ‘promises reforms; a member reforms his promises.’

But C.K. refused to be amused. He would have no truck with cynicism. I had become almost as keen, so these parliamentary years should have been the climax of both our lives.

I had become entirely absorbed in politics and I felt I was able to help my husband substantially by reading up and making précis of such things as proportional representation which was one of the planks of Mr Massey's policy. But from the point of view of getting the most out of the game, I played my cards badly. One session was over before we sold Closeacre and while looking about for a roof in Wellington we took a seaside cottage at Plimmerton. There I grew so engrossed in books from the General Assembly Library, then the only good library in the North Island, that I lingered at Plimmerton instead of going to town, and so missed many of the festivities, functions and celebrations given for the new Reform Party which, though it had beaten the old Government, was not yet in power. I was the more willing to do this because a shadow had fallen over our material prosperity. The farm was doing badly. The manager (previously merely the married couple) had, in view of his page 176 increased responsibility, been given a sort of partnership, a proportion of the profits. He was proving anything but a success. My husband took every opportunity to rush up to the King Country. He was worried.

‘A hundred and forty head of cattle short in one year. Something wrong. Something very wrong.’

I was enjoying the Library because the librarians were particularly good to me, introducing me to books that I should not have known existed. There was, especially, a row of stodgy-looking tomes called Arber's Reprints. They were a collection of first-hand accounts of voyages and discoveries and other incidents that had survived since the days of Henry VIII. Some were absurd travellers' tales but the sheets were the precursors of our daily papers and the raw material of history, so hard to come by. I found that Kingsley had taken Salvation Yeo's story almost word for word from two of these reprints.

When our Party succeeded to the Treasury Benches I still delayed at Plimmerton until the end of May when we took rooms at Kenilworth. My younger daughter was with us and arrangements were made for the two elder children to come when the university and school holidays came round.

I'll hardly be believed when I tell you that this luxury cost us less than it would cost one person to live on the same scale to-day. Four pounds ten a week for the three permanents and thirty shillings for the holiday son and daughter.

It was perfect bliss. At functions one merely meets everyone but now I grew to know some of the interesting personalities. Tom (later Sir Thomas) Wilford was outstanding. He spoke splendidly in the House and often in private told good stories against himself, some more amusing than dignified.

F. M. B. Fisher, the youngest Member in the House, was the wittiest and most entertaining. He had a story against page 177 everyone. Of A ——, the member for B ——, who had contrived to get a much-needed bridge for his constituents who in gratitude sent him £100.

He was chronically hard-up but he wrote them a beautiful letter saying that he had only done his duty, that to be paid for that duty was a thing no self-respecting Member would dream of. He therefore with thanks returned the cheque. But he returned his own cheque which was worth exactly nothing and kept theirs.

I have held a theory that, left to free selection, men and women always (or nearly always) marry their equals, not in wealth, brains, social status or moral integrity, but in all qualities, if these could be weighed on divine scales. I tested it on the wives of the Members and found it sound. We would assemble in the Ladies' Gallery. I only discovered to whom I was speaking as we talked. I would say to my husband, ‘Mrs Lee seems to me a splendid woman. What is he like?’

‘Oh, he's one of the shining lights. He will be a Minister if he sticks to it.’

And vice versa. If I talked to a particularly futile ass I would surely find her husband of the same calibre. Of course my theory is not infallible but then we can't always gauge the qualities of our friends. We are on surer ground with our relations.

Though I had missed the first rejoicings there were still gaieties. Every day there were so many invitations that it was difficult to decide which to reject and which to accept.

I enjoyed every minute of that month. The gaiety lasted just one month and then the war came and everything closed down with a bang. Wellington took the war very seriously at first. The women, we were told, must knit. Hardly anyone knitted at that time. Among the forty at Kenilworth there was but one Scotch ‘body’ who knew the art. All through the house you could hear her giving lessons. ‘Knit one, pearrrel one.’ I intended to learn too, but the War Department page 178 sent us some shirts to make up and I found I was better at that.

The Prohibitionists, who then formed the majority of the voters of the Dominion, were urging that a three-fifths majority was too high a target, and that the issue should be decided, if not by a bare majority, at least by a reduced one. Mr Massey had therefore promised that he would bring in what was called the ‘Forty-five fifty-five’ Bill. In June of the last session the Bill was to come down and it was understood that it was likely to be passed. This was serious. It exposed the liquor trade to possible extinction at the next ballot. My husband said, ‘The licensed victuallers are in a panic, their agents are swarming in the lobbies. Look, there's S—— buttonholing the Members as they come out.’

J. Wall, who had been C.K.'s most influential supporter at the election, had said, ‘Look, Charlie, you're a fool to vote for this Bill. I know you're not too keen yourself; why not drop it?’

‘I've promised,’ was the careless answer.

The next day the same emissary came to him with a definite proposal — the Trade would pay all his election expenses for the coming encounter. They would guarantee he would get in. They would spend money and do the job much better than he could do it.

That was only too true. Those voluntary committees are full of momentary zeal, but when the shouting and the tumult dies they fail to do much work. Many a time, though someone had promised to make all arrangements, the candidate, after plodding through thirty miles of mud, had arrived at a settlement to find a handful of men hanging about and asking him where the meeting was to be held. He must then go himself and borrow the school key and a lamp and often without a meal give the evening talk.

Also, the election over, bills came in to the Member for cases of whisky, smoke concerts and shakedowns which he had believed provided by his followers. He could do nothing but pay and be silent.

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However, my husband was incorruptible and never for a moment entertained the idea of selling his vote.

The next day the offer had risen — election expenses, plus two hundred pounds.

Nothing doing.

The eldest daughter was at Kenilworth then and each day as he came into lunch we asked him with our eyes what the latest offer amounted to. He would put up three fingers, then four, then five. In a few days it had risen to eight hundred pounds plus election expenses. The next day no fingers were shown. They had found cheaper support.

I don't think I was base enough to deliberately want my husband to yield, but the daughter and I often talked of what the bribe would do for us. We could even have taken a trip to England between sessions. Jim Wall had said, ‘You don't need to change your mind, Charlie. Just go to Te Kuiti and miss the train on Tuesday night so that you'll miss the division.’

Previously, votes in the House had been counted and it was known for certain that there was at least a majority of two in the entire House who had given election pledges to support the Bill. When the night came there was a majority of five against it. Three Members had surprisingly missed their trains. One particularly ardent Prohibitionist who, with his wife, had lived during the whole three sessions of that Parliament at an expensive hotel, had paid the proprietor never a penny. It was common knowledge that his creditors were anxiously awaiting the close of the House that they might take proceedings against him. He was not only able to pay his debts but to buy himself a flourishing bicycle business, thus ending a short but profitable political career. The smartest and shiftiest Member of the House simply voted against the Bill, explaining to his constituents that he was so sincerely devoted to the principle of a bare majority that he could not bring himself to vote for a compromise.

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I have no intention of conveying the impression that Members of Parliament were at that time constantly corrupt or even that they were often offered the opportunity for making illicit gains. This ‘Forty-five fifty-five’ Bill was, in fact, the only occasion on which I saw, or even heard about, corruption.

* * * *

Of all the changes that have taken place during my long life perhaps the most fundamental is the altered place in the world occupied by women. Before the Married Women's Property Act she was legally a chattel, herself, her property and even her children belonged to her husband; and the spirit engendered by the past status of the sexes was plainly to be seen in my young days. Yet, in spite of financial and other difficulties, most women managed to hold their own. A dominant spirit will always dominate. Duff Cooper considers that at the end of the eighteenth century women, especially in Paris, ‘were great ladies, the leaders of talk as well as of ethics, politics and of all the arts. No man could rise to prominence except against the background of a salon, and over every salon a woman ruled. The years that have since elapsed have witnessed what is called the “enfranchisement of woman”; but neither from the polling-booth nor from her seat in Parliament, has she so far succeeded in exercising the same control over the lives of men or the fate of nations as was hers when she remained the centre of a select circle in her own drawing-room.’ True! But he spoke of the beautiful, the charming, the privileged. Legal status is for every woman.

The suffragettes excused their excesses on the ground that it was necessary to fight for all womankind. It is a mistake to believe that New Zealand women were given the vote before they even demanded it. There was a great deal of agitation and much fighting against opposition and ridicule before Sir John Hall rejoiced the hearts of the stalwarts by saying in the House, ‘I have heard a great page 181 many good jokes against women's franchise but never a good argument.’ My mother was a worker for ‘the cause’, but I was a shirker, willing to enjoy the vote and the new status but holding aloof from the fight, mainly because the fighters were uncongenial company. My husband was a better suffragette than I. His friend Jim Wall used to say, ‘You're sound in most ways, Chorlie, but you've got some damned silly ideas about women.’

I would shelter behind Tennyson's words:

‘The woman's cause is man's,
They rise or sink together.’

I had no excuse. I ought to have been in the fight. Yet I believe that the fight they put up had less to do with women's altered status than had ulterior circumstances over which they had no control — two wars where women's help was needed and also the discovery of birth control, especially this. When my husband told me of that discovery I felt it to be the death-knell of the British Empire. I argued that it had been the younger sons and those lacking opportunity at Home, and coming to the ends of the earth to ‘win to hearth and saddle of their own’ who had built the Empire.

My husband did not agree nor did Lady Stout. She contended that two or three well-brought-up and healthy children were worth more to the nation than ten or eleven sickly specimens. True, but I see no evidence of sickliness in large families. Contrariwise.

* * * *

It was during the first year of the war that Lady Stout met me on Lambton Quay and said, ‘You are the very woman I want. We are forming a National Council of Women. It is to be open to every woman of every calling, class, religion, political opinion and creed. We mean to make the voice of women heard, to be a power in the world as we have a right to be. We will discuss every question and make our decision felt. We can do it if we only unite and work page 182 together. You must come and represent the countrywomen. Come, I am on the way to the meeting now.’

I demurred, but I was clay in her hands. A deaf person in the street holds all the cards. One cannot argue so I soon found myself in a well-filled hall, sitting on Lady Stout's right hand. Miss Katy Isitt, who often acted as her secretary, sat on her left.

Voted to the chair, Lady Stout made a very good speech on the lines with which she had persuaded me — there was no limit, she said, to the power of united womanhood. The constitution used by the Council of Women in England was read and adopted with scarcely any alteration. Officers were elected on the voices and all was going well.

Then the meeting had to decide which reform should first engage its attention. Mrs Peter Fraser (a woman of great sincerity and ability) rose to suggest that the treatment of conscientious objectors could be a suitable subject for our earliest investigations. We had all heard rumours concerning the rough treatment these unfortunates were receiving in Wanganui gaol, but war-fever was raging and had made us callous. Mrs Fraser, it seemed, had some information to offer, but her voice was drowned by interjections, some hostile, some encouraging and some protesting against disorder. The chairman was at a loss to guess why the meeting that had been so orderly and harmonious had suddenly become a donnybrook. She put her trumpet to her ear and turned to me for information, but I, knowing what her reaction would be, had leaned over and was eagerly talking to the woman on my right. Katy Isitt was also busily engaged on her left, hoping that the tumult would die down before she had to give the information. But the tumult increased and at last the chairman had to be told. She sprang up like a rocket. ‘Conscientious objectors!’ she cried. ‘How can any woman who is a British subject dare to defend such traitors?’ They were not fit to live in human society. For her part she would like to hand them over to the tender mercies of the Kaiser. page 183 No treatment was too bad for them. She had no patience with any woman who would defend them.

The meeting was in an uproar. Except for those who had surreptitiously slipped out when the trouble began everyone was trying to be heard, either protesting or defending or pleading for decent behaviour. Finally, we all found ourselves gathered into kindred groups issuing into the street, laughing or raging according to our several natures.