Out of the convent and into the fire….

When I returned home after a two day journey, I arrived in Auckland on a Friday morning to be met by Mum at the station. Her first comment was that I would have to do something about my haircut – it was a short ragmop style. It needed to be short all over because of the head dress I had been wearing. The next bit of unwelcome news was that she was not coming home with me as she was booked on a weekend bus trip and would not be home until Sunday afternoon. I had to go home and look after Dad until she came home on Sunday. The problem with that was he did not want me there and told me so in no uncertain terms. I made it clear to him that as soon as Mum got home I would go to stay with Mary. His reply was a sarcastic remark “That’s right go and sponge off your sister, you will get nothing here”. It was the type of welcome I expected and had already made plans to go to Mary but had hoped for a bit more time with Mum first. As things worked out I went on to Hastings a couple of days later, I stayed with Mary on and off for the next 7 years between jobs and my own flat.

I had a variety of jobs from seasonal work like fruit picking and working at Watties cannery, to making mattresses at Townsends. I also worked as a third cook at Woodford House Girls College, where one day I was the only cook there and had to manage the meals alone. Luckily I was well used to cooking for large numbers and all went well.

At one stage I was housekeeper to four young girls in Napier, whose parents ran a pub there and did not want the girls living in those environs, so rented a house nearby and I lived in as a Nanny/housekeeper.

As time went on I did quite a lot of orchard work as I loved the outdoor work. This work ended when I had an accident with a 12 foot ladder I was moving round a very tall pear tree laden with fruit. The ladder started to tip into the tree and in trying to save it from damaging the fruit I tore the muscles in my side and was off work for three weeks. I could not go back to orchard work so ended up as a shop assistant in Woolworths.

I stayed with them until I met Frank who at that time lived and worked in Palmerston North and would travel to Hastings at weekends to visit me. After some time I decided to transfer to Palmerston Woolworths. Eventually we were married and settled there for about five years before moving back to Hastings – where this story ends.

Living The life of a Novice nun….

While I was teaching I was also supposed to be studying for my teachers certificate in music and sewing, but I did not know this until shortly before the exams were announced. I was given a few old exam papers to look at to give me an idea of what to expect and was taught a couple of songs I would be asked to sing. Then one Saturday morning I was dressed back in my civvies and sent off down the road by myself to the Dunedin University to sit my first exam which was sewing. I should have passed easily but I was so keyed up and nervous I did not even finish the paper and of course failed. In the afternoon I had to go back for the music exam, which I had no hope of passing as I had to sing in front of the examiner as well as play scales etc. I think the poor guy could see how nervous I was and took pity on me because I passed and as it has never been revoked I am a qualified primary school music teacher. I never ever want to go through such an ordeal again.

Not long after that it was decided I was not well enough educated to be a teacher and was given the choice of going home or transferring to the lay sisters, which was the housekeeping part of the order. So rather than go home to that grotty old house in Birkenhead I switched to the lay sisters and learned to cook for small households as well as for large numbers -sometimes for more than a hundred. We cooked for the boarders as well as the nuns.

I was only just 19 by then and the following year I received the white habit and veil and was sent out to a small convent with three teachers as their housekeeper – first to Lawrence then to Cromwell in south Otago. Each term break we returned to the mother house in Dunedin and took up where we left off, just like one big family gathering.

After about two and a half years as a white novice it was time once again to decide my future. Either take vows for three years or go home. By now I was 21 and felt I could take on the world so opted to go home. It took a while to get things organised as I needed new clothes and travel had to be arranged. So it was about four and a half years I spent in the convent altogether.

Joining the Convent as a novice teacher…

When I was 17 I left the embroidery work shop, and went back to school as a boarder at a girls college outside Oamaru. It was run by the Dominican nuns and I went there to see if I could cope with life in the convent and teaching. I had charge of the little ones out of school hours and helped with some of their lessons and there were a few classes of my own to attend as well. I was there for two terms and it was decided I was a suitable applicant for the Religious life and I went home for the second term to get my required clothes together, then returned to Dunedin to enter the convent as a teacher.

The Dominican order was at that time a very strict order of enclosed contemplatives, which meant complete silence except during recreation hours twice a day or when we were teaching. The novices were not meant to speak to the professed sisters and silence was strictly kept in all buildings at all times. If it was necessary to ask a question or pass on a message it had to be written down and passed on.

The school was part boarders and part day school and was for secondary students only. In those days it was classed as a private school, but back to back with it was a smaller public day school for primary girls and boys. That was where I taught standard one and two. They were a tough little mob and very hard to control.

I also had to take my turn on playground duty. One day a girl of about 11 was showing off by climbing up a basketball goalpost, and when told to get down let go and slid down catching her leg on a piece of metal jutting out from the side of the pole. It cut a small gash in the soft part of her upper leg. I took her in and cleaned and disinfected her cut and put a bandaid on it, then sent her back out to play. I did not think to report it because it was only minor, but next morning her mother came to school and demanded to know why the child had not been taken to hospital to have it stitched, and complaining the child would be scarred for life. The cut was only about one inch long (2.5cm) and probably would not leave a mark at all.

Of course I was hauled over the coals for not reporting it, but was quietly praised for dressing it so well.

One day the teacher of the infants was transferred to another school and I had to take over her classroom of 5 to 7 year olds without warning or preparation. To make matters worse our novice mistress sat in the back of the classroom all day not saying a word, but watching to see how I got on. I did not know any of the kids by name or what class they were in but somehow I managed to keep each group busy all day without a rumpus and when it was over was told I had kept the children occupied all day but had not taught them anything new.

First jobs

I stayed packing socks for about two weeks. Then, one day, a girl at a nearby work table had an epileptic fit. She had to be held down until she relaxed and was carried out to the sick bay. I worked until the end of the week and, again left.

My next job was at a small leather goods factory, where we made leather belts and handbags and other small leather goods. One day, I was sitting beside the girl sewing on buckles, when she gave a small yelp and stopped. She had run the needle right through her finger and couldn’t get free. She fainted and had to be held in place while the front of the machine was dismantled.

I stayed on at this factory for about six months, then again left and went to work in an embroidery workroom belonging to a large drapery and clothing shop. They had a special department where customers could leave materials to be made into covered buttons or embroidered to a pattern of their choice. These orders would be sent from the shop to the workroom where we filled them. There were several machines for embroidery such as satin stitching, chain stitching and badge making. We also made covered buttons of all sizes. The badge making machine made twenty to thirty badges at a time and had double-ended needles, each threaded with its own cottons. The machine was guided by a lever at one end following the pattern of the badge. The hardest part was making sure all needles were threaded the whole time because one broken thread ruined the pattern on that particular badge and had to be mended by hand.

We also made permanently pleated skirts in various styles. I tried to watch the embroidery machinists as much as possible as I was longing to work them but didn’t have any opportunities as I was kept busy making buttons. I stayed at this factory for two-and-a-half years.

Leaving school…. at 14!

By now I am 13 years old and go to the convent primary school at Northcote. As I had missed so much schooling over the years, I was kept back for a second year in standard 5. I hated it so much that as soon as I turned 14 I left school and got my first real job. I had had a few casual jobs, like lawn mowing or baby sitting, but was lucky if I ever got paid for it. If I did it was no more than one shilling.

One day I was asked to mind a young baby about six months old and her brother, who was not quite two, while their parents had a day at the races. So I arrived at the house at nine o clock and found myself with not two, but four babies to care for all day. The woman had invited a friend to leave her two kids with me as well and join her for a day out. The other two kids were 1 and 3 years old, and I spent the day trying to feed them, change nappies and pacify howling little strangers. It was about 6 30 before the two women came home and claimed their offspring, and gave me 2 shillings for my day’s efforts. When I got home Mum was furious with the women for leaving me with such a responsibility.

My first real job was at a stocking factory, where I spent all day at a little table with my back to the rest of the room, examining stockings for faults and marking them with coloured wax crayon. During my first week the police were called to catch a thief. Someone had been stealing money from the cloakroom, and the police had planted a marked note. It had been stolen and they were checking everyone’s hands for tell tale marks, and I had to explain the red crayon marks on my fingers. I had only been there a few days and felt like a criminal, so worked to the end of the week and refused to go back. I did not want to go back for my pay so on the Monday mum took me in and explained what had happened. They offered me a job in the packing room and I was packing six pairs of little white ankle socks in to cardboard boxes.

Harsh times

We lived in Te Kuiti for a couple of years then, Mum decided it was time to move on. Peter was left with a school friend’s family for the rest of the year and I went to stay with a friend of Mums.

I think the main idea was that I would be able to help her take care of her five year old son, by taking him to school each day and sometimes picking him up afterwards. The only problem was that his school was at the opposite end of town to mine, which meant setting out at least half an hour earlier to get him there and me back to my school on time. The spoilt little brat was not used to having to get a move on, and his mother did not help matters by letting him take his time. So long as he got to his school on time she was not worried about me being late. She was a bit of a hypochondriac and often took to her bed and kept me home from school to look after her.

She would dose the poor kid up on all sorts of things whether he needed it or not. One day it was castor oil, and she made me take a big spoonful. As I was not used to taking anything like that, it had rather drastic effects on me – I was up to the loo most of the night. The problem with that was the loo was out down the end of the back yard. By morning, I was so exhausted I could not get up any more. The silly woman was so scared of what she had done she sent for the doctor who gave her the telling off of her life. Later when she got the doctors bill of ten shillings, she gave it to Dad to pay and got another bollocking, as Dad did not believe in doctors unless someone was at deaths door.

I missed quite a lot of school that term so Mum, who was living in a one bedroom flat in Parnell, took me to Auckland. For the next two terms I went to a girls’ boarding school at Grey Lynn. By the end of the year Mum had got a two bedroom flat above a block of shops at Highbury. This is where she and I lived over the Christmas holidays. Then we got an awful little concrete house just down the road from the shops. It was built on the side of a gully that was overgrown with bush and scrub, and drained all the gutters from higher up down to the sea between Birkenhead and Chelsea. The house had two bedrooms, a sitting room and a kitchen with stairs going down to the back door and a loo outside. There were a couple of wash tubs facing under the house, and a copper for boiling the water for washing or for a bath. The bath was partitioned off beside the copper. There was no hot water and if anyone wanted a bath, the copper had to be lit to heat the water. Then the hot water had to be ladled into the bath, and even then you ended up with only a couple of inches of water that went cold very quickly.

The kitchen had an old black wood range that we could not use. It was supposed to be for heating the water but the cistern had holes in it and would not hold water. Mum would not ask the landlord to fix anything because he would charge such a high rent that she could not afford it and we had nowhere else to go. She tried for years to get a state house, but because we had a roof over our head we were not eligible for one.

The sitting room was the best room in the house. It had an open fireplace but when any other members of the family came home it was turned into a bedroom as well. The second bedroom was shared by Peter and I and was divided down the middle by an old curtain. The house was unlined concrete walls and someone had tried to put wallpaper up, but because the concrete had not been sealed the wallpaper would not stick properly and kept peeling off in great strips leaving bare concrete.

A bit of history…

Kath did a bit of research on the family tree about 14 years ago to trace the emigration of the Spinettos from Italy to England. From what she could make out, there were four young Spinetto boys, either brothers or cousins. They left Italy and made their way to England in the 1830’s, settling in and around the Manchester area. One of them was Kath’s great grandfather whose name was Michael.

Michael’s son was Joseph (Kath’s grandfather), who had a jewellers shop in Yorkshire. He and his wife had 7 or 8 children. Kath’s father was Oliver, who was the seventh child. Oliver and Kath’s mum decided to emigrate to N Z in 1920, as there was very little prospect of good jobs for ex soldiers. The rumour was that Oliver’s father had offered to help him set up in the jewellery trade in Auckland, but on the way out, he got caught up by a couple of con men and was talked into farming instead.

What a very different set of tales we might have had if Oliver had kept to the jewellery plan!

Te Kuiti times….

After meeting me in Auckland, Mary saw me safely back to Te Kuiti where Mum had a shop. Here she did dressmaking, and she also had the agency for the sale of Singer sewing machines.

It seems that after I had gone to England, Mum decided to try and get Dad off the farm. To do this she took Peter, who was aged eight, and moved to Taumaranui and set up shop there. She went back to the farm at weekends to cook and clean etc.

When she knew I was coming home, she moved the shop back to Te Kuiti, as it was nearer to the farm. Now at weekends, she would take Peter and go back to the farm on Friday night returning on Sunday. I was left to fend for myself for the most part, and was allowed to go to a friends place for a short while in the afternoons, but was not to stay long.

Eventually Dad moved from the old farm at Waitomo to a smaller farm about a mile from town, and we used to walk out to get fresh milk. We lived on at the shop, and after about a year Dad finally gave up on farming and came back to live with us at the shop. He got a job with the town council, and Peter and I went to the local Catholic school.

One Saturday afternoon when I was wandering round looking for someone to play with, I saw a group of boys throwing stones at something. I went to look and was horrified to see it was a box of a 100 live detonators. The kids had tipped them out and thrown water on them, then stood back and took turns at throwing stones to see if they could set them off. I was scared stiff myself, as I knew what detonators were used for, but hoped they were safe enough on their own. I told the kids off and scared them enough to chase them off, then very gingerly gathered the detonators back into their box and took them home. I asked Mum what to do with them, and she made Dad take them and me up to the police station to explain where they had come from. The police also wanted to know how I knew what they were. I had to make an official statement so a policeman could write it down, then I had to read it and sign it.

I was scared I was going to be locked up and was glad to get out of there. I know the police made a few enquiries about them, but they did not concern me any more.

The End of the Road

In our travels we went to visit Mums sister Kathleen and her two daughters, Marion and Kathleen, in Blackpool. The girls who were a couple of years older than me, were so excited, they took me by the hands and ran me up the road a short way to show me off to their friends who had never met a Kiwi kid before. It was in Blackpool that I spent my last penny to buy a stamp to go on a letter home. That was the only time I saw my aunt and cousins, as there was no love lost between the two sides of the family.

As the school term ended I was told I would not be going back to school. The aunts had decided to send me home because there was so much talk of war, and the thought of air raids and gas masks and bombs was too big a responsibility for someone else’s child. So passage was booked on the first available ship going back to N Z. Angie was to travel with me and Emily was to stay and look after the house in case of any more break-ins.

It was early 1937 and the ship we travelled on was the Mataroa – a sister ship to the one we had come over on. The trip was uneventful and there were only a couple of other kids on board. We retraced our route back through the Panama Canal and the Pacific Ocean making the same stops as on the way over. When we got to Pitcairn Island the canoes came out to meet us and I was given sixpence to buy a little straw hat for my doll. I had to put my sixpence in the basket and send it down to the canoe and the little hat was sent up to me.

When we arrived safely back in Auckland and I was handed over to my sister, Mary, while Angie returned home to Wales.

Music to my ears

It was decided that I should learn a musical instrument of some sort as both aunts were very proficient musicians – Angie with piano and organ, and Emily with violin and other stringed instruments. There was a mighty row over who should be my teacher. Eventually it was decided Angie would teach me the piano. So my lessons started with my learning the lines and spaces, E G B D F and F A C E for the treble cleff, and G B D F A and A C E G for the bass.

These were drummed into me at every lesson and I was getting along nicely, and was even playing simple tunes with both hands when trouble struck. At school we were learning the vowels and consonants, and they were also being drummed in to us. I started getting them mixed up with the music notes, so that when I sat down for a lesson and was told to recite the lines of the treble cleff, I smartly replied with A E I O U. I got a frosty look, but no comment and was asked for the other lines and spaces over and over several times. Then suddenly the piano lid was slammed down and I was forbidden to touch it again. I still did not know what I had done wrong until our next English lesson, when I realised I had quoted the vowels by mistake, and that Angie must have thought I was making fun of her. Oh well, it saved me from hours of practise and from singing lessons. They had already taken me to a singing teacher, but he said that when I could accompany myself on the piano he would consider me for a pupil.

Sometimes on a fine weekend we would go for a walk down to the beach where there were donkey rides on the sand. One day as a special treat I was given a ride but I was disgusted with it. The poor old donkey was led by its owner a few yards along the beach and back to where we started. It was pathetic after I had ridden all over the farm on horses three times as big as that poor donkey.

Other times we would go up through a little wooded area that was carpeted with bluebells and only a narrow path through them. They were so pretty I decided we should have some in our own garden and when no one was looking I pulled up a couple of bulbs. I sneaked them home and planted them in the garden near the gate where they could be seen and admired by everyone going past. I did not know they were regarded as a weed but was quickly informed and made to remove them.

During school holidays we would go on day trips to some historical site or an old castle in an attempt to further my education. I cannot remember anything about them except a heap of old stones.