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My First Eighty Years

Chapter 11 — The King Country

page 184

Chapter 11
The King Country

The session over, my husband hurried north. There was no doubt now that things were going very badly and that the manager must go. The trouble was that a badly-worded agreement allowed him to claim the privileges of a partner, and partnerships are difficult to dissolve. After much worry and harassing negotiations it cost over £1,000 to get rid of him. The estate had to be sold and my husband had to buy in what he wanted of it. This was a very bad set-back, but prices were rising and my husband was always buoyant. He lost the second election. He was not able to put his heart into it as he had into the first.

During these vexatious delays I took a furnished house, first in Te Kuiti and then, with all the children, in Wellington, but when the younger daughter had been placed at boarding-school, the two eldest had struck out for themselves and — most important — when the married couple had vacated the house, I went north. I left most of my belongings at a seaside cottage because my husband, who was hoping to engage a new married couple immediately, had decided against making the farm our home.

The journey, in 1916, from Te Kuiti to Pio Pio in the vehicle they called a coach was an endurance test. We swayed and bumped and almost stuck, while the mud splashed in our faces. The worst holes had been filled with fascines of which nothing now was left but thick manuka sticks poking at various angles out of deep slush. The country on both sides, covered with low, lean fern and scrub, was most unpromising. It was a relief to find horses waiting at Pio Pio and to ride the last five miles; and a greater relief to find that our own farm was green and fertile-looking page 185 — almost the only green spot we had seen since we left Te Kuiti. A more picturesque ranch, with its outcrops of limestone rock looking like old ruins of castles, could not have been seen, but the house, as I had been warned, was not inviting. It was surrounded by what seemed a village of rough outhouses, sheds and whares and, though sizeable enough, was ill-built and ill-planned, or rather was not planned at all. It looked as if someone had stuck a room on to the structure whenever he thought fit without ever consulting convenience or the result to other rooms. The windows were the smallest possible and sunlight was as carefully excluded from the whole house as if it had been poison gas.

The dwelling was unattractive enough but its precincts were infinitely worse. They were unspeakable. The house stood in a sea of mud. Every animal seemed to have to walk past the back door several times a day. The horses were — or had been — fed to the right but paddocked to the left; the cows paddocked on the left were milked on the right. The mud was often knee-deep. Stepping-stones alone made it possible for me to step outside. My husband had just built a woolshed, but previously the woolshed had been less than a chain from the back door. At shearing time the sheep had actually been penned against the house, baaing all night and raising a dust that one could feel between the teeth.

But there were compensations. Mrs Hunt, who had lived there before our disastrous married couple, had been a real gardener and had planted in quantity everything that could live in the climate. The Garden of Eden could hardly have held more of the kindly fruits of the earth — grapes, peaches, plums, quinces, pears, walnuts and the small fruits, including large patches of the dear old gooseberry that is never sick and never sorry.

The grapes and one kind of plum were said to have been brought there by Bishop Selwyn. A hill with a rocky outcrop just behind the house was entirely covered with grapevines. page 186 Buckets, tins, sheets, clothes baskets had to be requisitioned to gather them. One year I made a ten-gallon keg of wine from crushed grape juice alone, eked out by neither sugar nor water. Another rocky hill was planted thick with walnuts. These grew more productive yearly.

What has happened to New Zealand that no such patches of plenty can be found to-day? Blights! and the birds brought to prevent the blights. It seems to me that they both came simultaneously and one is as bad as the other.

The fruits that grew in the greatest profusion seemed to blight first, quinces, peaches and one variety of grape, but gradually almost everything was infected except the small fruits, and the birds attended to them. There, as well as everywhere else, a gardener must now live with a spraypump in his hands if he is to grow fruit.

All this plenty delighted me, especially as it was the only homestead within miles that had been long enough established to have grown as much as a gooseberry. Neighbours used to come for fruit with sledges and packhorses. Even now the grapes can be wonderful. An occasional season comes when neither bird nor man can cope with the crop.

When I came there was absolutely no road to the place and the irony of it was that once that homestead had been the centre of King Country civilisation. Such people as dwelt in those wilds before the railway had been mooted (and there were some even then) used to assemble there to hold backblock dances in the old woolshed. These were, I am told, real backblock hops. The men in muddy corduroys and hob-nail boots danced in turn with the few women who were the only available partners.

There had been a road then, or rather a wheel-track, that wound over hill and dale, and through possible and impossible fords, leading ultimately through Otorohanga to the Waikato. It is natural that when surveyors cut up the land for closer settlement they should take no notice of such a road.

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So the homestead that had been the centre to which all tracks led was now approached through a maze of paddocks with eight clumsy gates, each harder to open than the next. It has happened in other districts that new settlement has turned the old centres into isolated backblocks.

And here let me remark that I have discovered that nobody ever lives in the backblocks. It is always the other fellow whose lot it is to live there. The most isolated will tell you of someone further back who ‘really lives in the backblocks’, but when you arrive at this further outpost the dwellers will point to a road or a telegraph pole or mention a neighbour that renders the place ‘not really backblocks, you know’. It is true that a farmer may refer deprecatingly to his farm as in the backblocks — just as a woman may refer to herself as old — but tactful friends do not corroborate.

I was soon disabused of the flattering notion that we were pioneering again. Our neighbours in much more primitive conditions made no such claim. In fact, more than one of them told me that they had been living out back but had ‘come in’ in order to be near a school for the children. There certainly was a shed used as a school in Pio Pio, but it might be six or seven miles distant and the district they had ‘come in’ to was still roadless. Yes, we were nothing but Johnny-come-latelies, but I was never tired of hearing the stories of those who were breaking trail.

One neighbour left his wife and daughters in Hamilton while he and his sons felled the bush on their sections. He would sometimes spend the week-end with his wife, return on the only passenger train, that which arrived in Te Kuiti at two o'clock in the morning, step out of the train and proceed to walk to his farm — some seventeen miles. He would arrive in time for breakfast and go straight to work. Another neighbour cut his foot while bush-felling (a common accident). He walked fifteen miles on the bleeding foot to Te Kuiti where the doctor put in eight stitches. Another dear lady, born and brought up in ‘endless English page 188 comfort’, had never left their farm since the day she had been brought there ten years earlier. Not caring to learn the new method of riding astride, especially through deep mud and over strange obstacles, she stayed contentedly at home, a comparatively rough home, but made desirable by her gracious presence.

Roads! Roads! There was the great problem of King Country settlement. Sheep-farmers and graziers like ourselves might tolerate the conditions but the small holders, whose cream must be marketed and stores brought in at least bi-weekly, were in a sorry plight. My husband was obsessed with the problem, not ours, but theirs. He was full of tragic stories of the hardship and even danger they constantly faced. He spoke and wrote and worried about it continually. During his time in the House he had made up his mind that he would never speak on any subject whatever without, in some way, mentioning ‘roads for the back-blocks’. And, indeed, he had made the words something of a slogan, at least within the Reform Party. Yet, in our district, very little had been done. The difficulty was lack of suitable metal. Much money was wasted in forming roads, a method that had worked well enough in some districts, but here — in Taumarunui, as the electorate was then called — the exceptionally heavy rainfall made the roads as impassable as ever as soon as the summer was over. The County Council, with Government help, solved the problem at last by crushing the limestone rock for metal.

The reluctance of the Government to come to the rescue of the roadless settlers was understandable. Hitherto the roading system of New Zealand had been worked by each district rating itself. Those who required roads paid the rates. The Government hesitated to subsidize one district in case all the others put in claims. Even I remonstrated when my husband deplored the lack of help.

‘My parents,’ I reminded him, ‘had no road for nearly fifty miles of their journey to town.’

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‘That was quite a different thing,’ he pointed out. ‘The stock from a station goes out on the hoof and the wool once a year. Your people had credit. These cockies live from hand to mouth. They were selected on account of their poverty.’

There was one settlement with which my husband, and others, were greatly concerned. Most of the settlers were civil servants, dismissed in the interests of economy in the short depression of 1908 and given grants of land as ample compensation. This was an example of the opinion then generally held that any man who was a trier could make a farmer without previous experience. The qualifications for being given a section in this block were that the applicant should own no land elsewhere, no capital (or almost none), and that he should have a family. To take up unimproved land to-day under such conditions would be considered stark lunacy. But these men were well satisfied and, except for the roading troubles, which no one had expected, might have met with a measure of success. It sounded well that a road to each section had been surveyed and that the making of these was to provide work whereby the farmers might earn cash until the farms became productive.

But the cost of roadmaking had been calculated on pre-war wages. During the war and after it, wages doubled. All farm costs had soared, so that by the time my husband was taking an interest in Tangitu the settlement was in a hopeless plight. Rates could no longer pay for roads.

‘In fact,’ he said, with graphic exaggeration, ‘if you sold the whole settlement, lock, stock and barrel, you couldn't pay for the roading.’

The plight was desperate. All food and farm requisites had to be packed in through a sea of mud and many a packhorse left its bones on the track, drowned in the mud. This transport added £5 a ton to every necessity of life and even at that price men were shy of taking the contract.

I heard of a woman who, shortly after her husband had taken up backblock land, was left a widow with four page 190 children. Determined, at all costs, to keep the land — then considered the sure road to prosperity — she cut down every possible expense, especially of food that was brought in by packhorses. Her grocery order was reduced to four items — flour, oatmeal, salt and caustic soda; and never once during the six years when packing was necessary did she weaken so much as to add a single item to the list. It was after the family had achieved some security and comfort that one of the younger sons — a fine specimen of manhood — told, with amusing detail, the story of their tough struggle. He, himself, he said, succumbing to the flesh-pots, was in the habit of accepting the invitation to stop on his way home at the house of a school-mate where he was feasted on buns and sweet tea. The thing became known and on his mother's order his elder brother was told to give him ‘the father of a hiding’ to teach him family pride. The story touched me ‘where I lived’. I was anxious to meet the Spartan mother and I remember prophesying a phenomenal success in life for all the sons. But the story had been told my husband on a railway journey from Wellington and, before he repeated it to me, he had forgotten the name of the widow — if he had ever been told it. So I was never able to meet her nor to test, in the light of future knowledge, my ability as a prophet.

The midwives of those rough times have never adequately been recognised. Those of the very early days of the Colony have been written up, but those of the second pioneering stage were, if anything, the braver women. When all the country is wild and civilised conditions twelve thousand miles away, it is a case of needs must but in our district a day's journey would have taken a woman into town where in comfort she could have earned a safer and easier living.

In 1947 I met in Hamilton Mrs Murray who, when I lived in the King Country, had acted as midwife to the whole district. She told of night rides in rain and storm, of page 191 flooded creeks which her pony had to swim, of attempting to lead the same pony over a swing footbridge when it was determined to jump into the swirling stream. When I first knew the district (1911) telephones were being strung to most homesteads. I suggested that these must have made her work easier. She said, ‘Before they had telephones the husband used to come for me. He would catch my horse while I got ready and made a cup of tea. But afterwards the wife would ask her husband to stay with her and just ring up and ask me to find my way alone. That made it much harder.’

Hats off to these women. I wonder if the conditions of to-day — crowded hospitals, overworked nurses, no privacy, no personal attention — make confinement happier or safer. Mrs Murray, in her eleven years, never lost a mother and, I think she said, only once the baby was born dead. The patient had the benefit of being the sole care of a capable woman. The modern mother may not even hold her baby in her arms as long as she wishes.

* * * *

The beauty of the rocky countryside and the fruitful abundance of the garden went far to reconcile me to the fact, which soon became evident, that we should have to make that undesirable house our home for some little while. Building was as impossible as it is to-day and I was tired of divided homes.

The younger daughter came home from her last year at school delighted with the prospect of living on the farm; the elder daughter came home broken in health as a result of the influenza epidemic, and the son, a pilot in the Air Force, had been demobilised in England where he had to be supported till a passage home was available. He wrote that he would prefer to farm rather than to go on with law, in which he had taken part of his course. As it seemed we should all be together again temporary improvements were necessary. We managed to get some timber (by no means page 192 all we needed), built on a sunporch, papered two rooms, and reorganised the dining-room fireplace. So far we had gone when the old house burnt down.

The fire was caused by the reorganised fireplace.

A few weeks earlier my husband had met with a nasty accident — a pair of shears with which he had been working had been placed open in his saddle-bag so that when he got off his horse they made a great gash up his shin. The local doctor put in nine stitches and assured us that it would be well in no time. But the doctor had not taken dirty shears into account and the wound suppurated badly. He had gone to Te Kuiti for further advice when the fire occurred. We — the daughters and I — put a fire for the first time in the new fireplace and were delighted that it drew so well. We invited the two farmhands in to have a game of cards. They had gone and we stood talking round the fire, the younger daughter throwing together the scraps of charred wood that they might be safely burnt before we went to bed. As it blazed up there was a great roar.

‘The chimney's on fire,’ cried the daughter and then, seeing smoke issuing near the ceiling, we both exclaimed, ‘My God! It's the house!’

We shouted for the men; we threw water and did all the usual things but could not get at the fire till the men took an axe and chopped away the mantelpiece and the wall above. Then we succeeded in reducing it and finally putting it out.

But there was a great hole showing the stars where roof and ceiling had been torn away. It freezes hard in the King Country, so when the men had been given a drink and thanked, we must needs go to bed to keep warm. I got up about one o'clock and climbed on the roof. A thaw had set in and a cold mist had come up; I shouted that all was safe, and no spark remained, so we all fell asleep. About three o'clock the elder daughter came into my room, saying, ‘The fire has broken out again in the roof over my room. There's page 193 no putting it out up there. We'll just have to save what we can.’ And it was so.

I had a help, who was also a friend. She behaved like a hero. She forgot her own things, but remembered and saved much of mine and my husband's. Like most people in a fire we didn't save wisely. I imagined that one had to carry the rescued booty at least a chain away, whereas, there being no wind, a few yards would have done. There was not much to save in the way of furniture; but tennis racquets and golf clubs and clothes were a worse loss.

I always remember my poor dear husband when he rode home next morning to face the disaster. We were beginning to realise the extent of the losses.

‘Oh, my watch. If I could have saved that,’ I moaned.

‘Never mind, dear, we'll get you a better one.’

‘My new brushes and….’

‘Don't worry, dear. Be thankful that no one is hurt.’

He insisted that nothing we had lost was irreplaceable, especially as his desk with his books and accounts was saved. But when he found that his old working-clothes had gone up in flames — and no one would have given half-a-crown for the whole outfit — such a wail went up to the heavens. We laughed then and thought his concern a great joke. Later I knew better. A farmer's riding and wet-weather outfit is not only very expensive but very difficult to replace. Also, a man grows attached to the garments he has tested and found adequate.

But the worst of all was that the doctor's report had been bad. Sepsis had infected the whole body and if he did not lie up and seriously rest, his leg would have to come off.

Then we touched bottom. Nothing in life has equalled the following weeks for abject misery, anxiety, discomfort and squalor. The rain that had held off all the winter came down in torrents. We all huddled into the old shed that, by a miracle, had escaped being burnt with the house. The men brought in the goods we had salvaged, every load wetter page 194 than the last, the drips from their oilskins and teeming hats spoiling the few things we had succeeded in getting under cover before the rain. Everything was thrown in dripping piles among harness, sacks of chaff, skins, sheep-dip, fowl-food and rats. The rats swarmed everywhere. There were seven of us — two daughters (one an invalid), the heroic lady help, two men, my sick husband and myself — and only a primus on which to cook or to boil water. As the telephone had been burnt the younger daughter rode off at once to arrange with a carrier to come and take away the men and the help. She returned with the answer that the carrier could not possibly attempt the trip till the weather cleared.

A civil servant in Wellington had, some months earlier, asked my husband if he could manage to take his son to work on the farm. He was already doing farm work but the father did not like the company he was in. My husband had consented. We liked the lad; he was strong and well built though, little more than a schoolboy, he was not much use. One day he came to me and with some hesitation and with some emotion told me that he was married and had not found himself able to tell his father. He was in a nasty fix. Finally he came to the point. There was among the many dilapidated buildings around the place an old four-roomed cottage about ten chains away from the house. He had been looking at it and was sure that she could make herself comfortable in the two front rooms, though the back rooms were rotting with dampness. Would I ask Mr Wilson if he could have her up, if only for a short time? She was capable, he assured me, and would be a help in gardening, sewing — anything.

My husband, after extracting a promise that his father should be told, reluctantly consented. A woman arrived who might have been the boy's mother, unattractive, pretentious, cantankerous — everything a woman should not be, and worse, she was obviously pregnant.

The arrangement that she should cook for him in their page 195 whare was disastrous. She required more cream and butter for two than the eight in the household consumed. The mutton was too fat, she fancied beef. She couldn't eat cabbage, parsnips or artichokes but must have carrots and cauliflower which were in short supply. She wouldn't carry the smallest thing up to her whare but kept her husband dancing attendance on her and, worst of all, we could see that neither of them had the least intention of making provision for her confinement.

So my husband, again reluctantly, had to tell the boy that this was no place to bring a woman in her condition and that he must at once take her out before it became too late for her to ride. They both sulked. It was the day before the fire and though they must have heard the tumult and seen the glow he did not come down to help. The following day he had the excuse of the weather for staying indoors. During a lull we sent for him and explained again that they could not possibly remain in the only whare where there were cooking facilities. We must have it. They dug their toes in and refused to move. At last the rain ceased and the flooded creek subsided, and my husband and I were left alone to breathe and restore our shattered nerves. I wish I could report that I behaved heroically and rose cheerfully to the ugly occasion. I did not even behave well. I kept going and fed them all on the primus, but was tense and ill-tempered. The physical storm I could have stood up to, but the mental stresses were too great.

I am not sure whether the doctors would have called what my husband was suffering from blood-poisoning, but it was a septic condition of his wound that infected the whole body and I do believe that his quick recovery was due to the fact that his working and wet-weather clothes had been burnt. Otherwise I could never have kept him in bed.

The worst stresses pass away in time, and however sordid they are there is some pleasure in looking at them in retrospect. Memory hallows all experience — except that of making a fool of oneself.

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Yet even now it was necessary to delay building for a short time. The negotiations for buying Maori land are always slow and tedious and (so the lawyers told us) must not be hurried. As they were alleged to be nearing conclusion we tried to make still another impossible shack temporarily habitable.

I think my long suit lies in making uninhabitable shacks into fairly attractive dwellings. We added a rough verandah and a bathroom. We cut away trees that were growing into the very windows of the back rooms and later built an annex of limestone which, though rough, was a success. From the Assets Board we bought a large Army tent, floored it, built up the sides and thought the invalid daughter should be very comfortable there. But when it rained the water went through the canvas as fast as it came out of the heavens. So we were obliged to buy iron to roof it, which spoiled the comfort by making it dark.

* * * *

There was soon the problem of getting out, for the district was growing quite social. My husband thought I should have an up-to-date riding outfit. The girls had just had habits made in Wellington and not only did I think that they were an outrageous price but they were breeches and leggings under a long coat which so scandalised the best people that I hesitated to give them the shock of seeing a matron in the same rig. Also cars had come to stay and though we had still no road there certainly would shortly be one. I calculated that with horse, saddle, bridle, habit and boots the outfit would cost half as much as a car and I had better wait for a car and a road.

Soon we began to emerge de profundis, built a house, and acquired a model T Ford, though for many years we were without a metalled road.

One day my daughter read out a queer advertisement: ‘Wanted, housework in an educated family where good page 197 English is spoken.’ I laughed. I had read of ‘refined persons wanting light duties’ but this seemed the reverse.

‘All the same,’ said the daughter, ‘I should answer it if I were you.’

I wanted help, so I did. In response an interesting foreigner who spoke good English came to see me. He said he had been in New Zealand a long time but his family had just arrived. He was anxious that they should not form a little cell speaking Latvian, but should become good British citizens, so one of his daughters who was a widow had consented to go out working and he wanted to be sure that she should learn correct English. There was further correspondence concerning her little boy of three whom she finally brought with her.

He proved the most entertaining little boy I have known. He spoke his own language very clearly and was interested in learning English. He would come to me with shining morning face, and eyes sparkling, and say, ‘Good morrning, darrling boy! Spik English! Grreen peas! Doan't touch! T'ankyou fery much.’

After a few weeks he began to realise that the words meant something and instead of firing off his whole repertoire of English would point out things and I would give them a name.

One morning I was lacing my riding boots and trying, I thought vainly, to explain to him that when he became a big boy he should ride with me. His eyes sparkled more than the out-worn prospect of being a big boy would seem to warrant. I had ridden as far as the gate when, stopping to open it, I heard a little voice: ‘Don't touch. Stop it’ (the only prohibitive words he knew). ‘Teddy are come.’

His knowledge of English grew apace and his remarks betrayed an interesting angle of thought. When the dogs played, making soft noises as they rolled each other over, Teddy would say, ‘Sago and Jippy spik English.’

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He had evidently been told that when it thundered God was angry so, during a thunderstorm, he asked, ‘On whom is the God angry when he make such noise?’

His mother said she did not know.

‘Is it big people or little people?’ he asked.

‘I think big people,’ said the mother, not wishing to frighten him.

‘Yes,’ said Teddy, ‘I think it is that Uncle’ (all the household are uncles and aunts to Latvians) ‘that Uncle what sayd, “Araugh! Jippy. Sit down you dirty swine.”’

As I stood on the verandah one spring morning, amid flowery scents and the tintinnabulation of birds, Teddy came to me saying, ‘Titcheroo. Titcheroo. What mean titcheroo?’

‘Nothing,’ I said, carelessly.

‘Yes,’ he insisted. ‘Language English, what mean titcheroo?’

More decidedly I answered, ‘It means nothing, Teddy. It is not a word.’

‘Then, why that bird say titcheroo and say and say and say?’

He was an excellent mimic, so good that it was easy to detect whether at the moment he was acting a horse, a dog, a cat. As he followed me into the garden, I said, ‘Don't chase pussy.’

‘She rests on your garden,’ he protested.

I explained at some length that cats did not understand that they should not lie on gardens. It was no use trying to teach them.

‘They understand not English?’

‘Yes. That's it.’

A few minutes later he was a rabbit and was loping about and nibbling grass. He loped into a clump of daffodils. I said, ‘Don't, Teddy! You spoil them.’

He cantered away, hiding in flax, but presently ran back into the daffodils. I said, ‘Why did you do that? Look how untidy it is.’

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Continuing his game, he said, ‘This rabbit understands not English. You must let he be.’

When my first grandson was born and was to be brought on a visit home, I was almost distressed about my affection for Teddy. What if I should prove an unnatural grandmother and should like the little foreigner better than my own? However, all was well. When I saw the grandson he seemed just the right size and Teddy seemed to have grown a little too big.

Teddy's mother was an educated woman, a teacher in her own country, so she and Teddy learnt English with celerity. Life was very pleasant while she was with me.