When we arrived in Wales, it was the middle of a school term and the school did not want to take a new foreign pupil so close to the end of their school year. It was a case of private tuition or miss more schooling, and as there was a girl of about my age a couple of houses up the road being privately tutored, it was arranged that I should join her for the rest of the term.
After the holidays, I went to the next town by double decker bus to the catholic school in Rhyll. The bus would drop us off and pick us up at the school gate so there was no chance to go exploring on my own. I used to like sitting on the top deck of the bus because it was scary. When we went round sharp corners it felt as if we would tip over but we never did.
The school was a large concrete building one street back from the beach, but the only sight I got of it was from the top of the bus. You could see lots more from up there and it seemed so high to a little girl who had always been at ground level. School was a strange place for me as it was so big, and we had to have our lunch there, all together in a big dining room. We were not allowed to speak or ask for something to be passed to us unless we spoke in French. We quickly learnt the essential words for bread sugar salt etc. I was teased horribly for my accent and one nasty little brat pulled my chair away just as I was sitting down. Of course I landed hard on the floor and got told off for causing a disturbance in class.
When I left home, Mum gave me a half crown [worth two shillings and sixpence or twenty five cents in todays currency], and I had to put it away in a drawer in my bedroom for safe keeping. I had never had my own money before and was not supposed to spend it, but I could not see the point of having it just to sit in the drawer. So one day I put it in my coat pocket when I was going to school and there was a small sweet shop where we caught the bus. I went in and bought sixpence worth of sweets and when I got home that afternoon I put the two shilling piece back in the drawer and hoped it would not be noticed.
No such luck, it was noticed at once and was taken off me, and the next time we went shopping I was sent into Woolworths to see what I could buy for two shillings. I was not given the money but had to go back out and say what I wanted. It was a little black wooden baby doll with moveable arms, legs and head, and it was only one shilling and eleven pence. So they gave me back my two shillings and I got my very first doll. I had to give them back the penny change which I was made to buy a stamp with to put on a letter back home to Mum, telling her what I had spent her half crown on. By the way, the aunts would not go into Woolworths with me as it was beneath their dignity to be seen in such a cheap shop.
We arrived safely at Southampton after five and a half weeks at sea. Then we went by train to Euston station in London, and from there caught a train to Prestatyn in North Wales where I was to live for the next twelve months.
The first thing that happened was the news that the house had been burgled while the aunts were away. The police had caught the burglar and we all had to go down to the police station where the aunts had to make a statement as to what was missing or damaged. We were then taken to the cell where the man was held and the aunts looked through the peephole to see him. They lifted me up to see too, but I could not see anything except part of the cell. All I wanted was to get out of there, I had never had anything to do with police before and was scared stiff of them.
The house where we lived was called Birch Holmb and was in Abernathy Road, Prestatyn. It was a nice compact two storied home with an attic that ran the length of the house. One half of it was lined and furnished as a cute little bedroom for me. It was reached by a steep stairway inside a cupboard and I loved it at first. It seemed so high and was like a secret hideaway until one night there was a fierce thunderstorm and a chimney pot was struck by lightning and knocked down in the next street. Even the aunts were scared and came up and took me down to their own bed. After that I had a room next to theirs and did not go up to the attic much. It always felt stuffy and full of thunder even in bright sunlight.
On board, ship life very quickly settled down to a regular routine, with set times for meals, games and other entertainment. There were a fair number of children on board, but I was only allowed to play with them on the open decks because of my cough. They were a toffee nosed lot anyway except one young French boy who could not speak English. We had a lot of fun trying to teach each other our own languages. We would draw pictures and write the name under them and say what it was or try to mime it. I dont think either of us learnt much but it was fun and filled in a lot of time.
There were plenty of games and organised sports for us and when we were out in the warmer weather the crew set up a canvas swimming pool on the main deck. They set times when we could use it so that everyone had a fair chance to use it.
Our first stop on our journey was at Pitcairn Island but we could not go ashore as the water was not deep enough for the big ships to berth. We anchored off shore and the Islanders came out to us in canoes with all their goods to sell. They were not allowed on board so they came as close as possible and held up their goods or displayed them in their canoes, and if you wanted to look closer or buy something a sailor would let down a basket on a rope for the item. If it was kept, the money was sent back down in the basket. We were only there for a short while before sailing on towards the Panama Canal. We did make a couple of other port stops but I don’t remember where they were.
I can also remember going through a severe storm that lasted a couple of days and we were all shut indoors so as not to be washed overboard. It was so rough that anything not fastened down would end up on the deck.
The journey to Southampton took us five and a half weeks via Panama. The locks were amazing. We were towed into them by funny little motors like tractors that ran along the bank on each side. When we were safely in the first lock, huge metal doors closed behind us and water was pumped into the lock until it was filled level with the one in front of us. Then another set of doors would open and we were towed through to the next lock to do it all again, it was a slow process and took most of the day.
When I was nine years old, two of Dads unmarried sisters came out from Wales in England to visit us on the farm. Aunt Angie was John’s Godmother and Aunt Emily was mine.
After seeing the kind of life we had, they wanted to take us back with them but could not take us both. One wanted me, and the other wanted John, and as they lived together there were a few heated arguments as to who got their way. In the end John settled it by, in their eyes, making a very unmanly remark. Angie said to him “Remember young man you have Blue Blood in your veins”. John’s reply made things worse by saying “I scratched my arm yesterday and it looked red to me”. That decided it – he was too ill-mannered for them to cope with, so I was chosen to go with them and be brought up as a well bred young lady.
The two aunts were very snooty upper class and felt that Dad had disgraced the family name by being a common farmer. They thought he had reared us as pigs. So by taking one of us and bringing us up in first class society it would redeem their good name.
I was taken first to Auckland for a short holiday to buy some new clothes, and to see whether they would be able to cope with me. Neither of them had ever had anything to do with children before. Then we went back to the farm to make final arrangements and I was whisked away never to return.
While we were in Auckland we stayed at a hotel in Devonport and I made friends with a girl staying there. She was about my age and we were allowed to go to the pictures one afternoon by ourselves. The theatre was just up the road from the hotel so we would not get lost coming back. I had never been to the pictures before so it was a great thrill for me. We went and watched through the first half and as everyone else seemed to be going out we thought it must be finished so we went out as well and ran back to the hotel only to be told it was only half time. By then it was too late to go back in.
After a short stay in Auckland we boarded the good ship Akaroa and set sail for England. I had a severe dose of whooping cough and every time I went below decks to the children’s dining room I was sick. Some of the other kids’ parents complained and for the rest of the trip I had my meals in our cabin.
I was six years old before I started school. We could only go three days a week, as there was no bus to take us on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Sometimes when the weather was good we would ride the horses. John and Vincent would double on one horse and I would ride Dandy. We would take a back road that led from our neighbour’s farm, so permission had to be granted to cross their paddocks to get to it. At school there was a spare paddock where we turned the horses loose for the day until time to go home. A few other kids rode to school, but Dandy was the favourite as he was the only Shetland pony there.
It was on my first day at school that I got my hated nickname that Vincent used until I was over sixty years old. It seems I was a skinny kid with long arms and legs. The postmistress had been asked to see me safely onto the bus for home, and as she pushed me up the steps she called out after me “Mind you don’t fall out SPIDER!” Of course the boys were on the bus and heard her, and never let me forget it.
I cannot remember much about school except that we used slates to write on with special slate pencils that made an awful scratchy sound that set your teeth on edge. Also in the playground some of the older boys tried a few bullyboy tricks on the new girls by herding us into the playshed to do whatever they wanted. It did not work with me, they forgot I was brought up with six brothers and could stand up for myself. It was not a big school, there were only two classrooms.
I can remember a school picnic held in the paddock across the road from the school. It must have been some special celebration as everyone was dressed up in their best clothes. I had a lovely shiny new pair of patent leather shoes that hurt my feet if I wore them too long at a time, so I had to take them off to run in the races. There were the usual mixture of these, including egg and spoon, sack race and three legged race. I don’t remember winning any, but I do remember racing and having a lot of fun. Also it was the first time I tasted watermelon, and was so disappointed because it looked so nice and pink and juicy but when I bit into it just tasted watery. I have never had a liking for it since. There was a river running past the paddock and some kids were swimming and I realised it was the same river that passed our farm.
The only other thing I can remember about going to school at Waitomo was that after the first term, we got a daily bus service so there was no more riding horses or days off because of no transport, and the teacher was called Miss Kenyon.
There are many small incidents such as crossing the river on a loose wire fence, or paddling in the muddy flood waters on the flat when we could not see where the current was, but there is really no story to them so will leave them for now.
One day when the boys and Dad were up at the shed, they wanted a battery from the house. As Mum and I were the only ones there, it was decided that I should take it up on the sledge by myself, even though I had never driven it alone before. So Mum and I had to harness the horse and hook him up to the sledge, and then get the battery on board. I set off down the hill. Half way down, the battery started to slide and before I could stop it was over the side. It was very heavy and I had a struggle to get it back on board. It kept slipping and I could not hold on to it and drive at the same time. So I had to drive for a bit, then stop and push the battery back to safety. It was not quite as bad going up the other side, but it was a lot further as we had to go the long way round. The horse and sledge could not go by the short cut we walked, as it was too rough and steep. It took me ages but I got there in the end with the battery intact.
Another time when we were all up at the shed, Vincent had a very skittish white young horse he was trying to get used to the road and the noise of traffic. While the others were fixing a new shaft to a cart, he gave me the reins and told me to hold them tight. So I held them against the cart wheel. There was not usually much traffic on the road but suddenly a car came rattling round the bend and scared the wits out of the horse. She jerked her head back so hard she tore the reins out of my hand and almost ripped my thumb off. It was torn right down to the knuckle but did not break the bone. I was sent off home for Mum to deal with. She wanted to take me in to town to see a doctor for a tetanus shot, but it was too far and Dad said it was not worth it. So Mum had to clean and bandage as best she could, she was afraid of lockjaw.
I survived without a problem and still have the scar to prove it.
One day, Vincent showed me a cave on the farm where the little stream came from. He warned me not to go into it on my own. He said I would not be able to get out by myself, and showed me a heap of bleached white animal bones at the bottom of the entrance where they had died because they could not climb out.
The entrance was a steep sandy slope and looked easy enough. So one day when I was on my own I went to investigate. Going down was easy, and at the bottom of the slope there was an opening leading further in. So I went through and found the little stream that fed the spring on the hillside. I wanted to go further but it was too dark and I had no light, so decided to go back and come another day with a lamp.
I easily made it back to the bottom of the slope and started to scramble up, but found the slope was loose sand and I could not get a firm foothold. In the end I used the wall of the cave for support for my feet, and pushed my way up on hands and knees.
When I got out safely I decided I never wanted to go back in again and never told anyone what I had done .
Sometimes on a hot summer day, Mum would decide on a sort of working picnic and would make sandwiches for herself, Peter and I. We would gather a load of laundry and head off down the hill to the little creek that came from a cave on the next hillside. It was very shallow – only about a foot deep but was crystal clear and icy cold. There was an old copper there and while Mum cleaned it out and filled it with water from the creek, Peter and I would hunt the flat area for wood to light it to boil the clothes. When they were done, they had to be fished out with a big stick and rinsed in the creek, squeezed out by hand and spread out on the grass or along a fence to dry. We would paddle in the creek and catch little brown crayfish then let them go again [I think they are called yabbies in Australia]. We would hang around until the washing was dry, then gather it all up and head for home. It seemed like a lot of hard work but I think it was Mums way of getting away from the house for a while and still doing the washing.
The little creek ran past the cowshed to join the river and the clear water was used for swilling out and cleaning up after milking. That was done twice a day by hand. The cows were eager for their turn at milking and would walk in to the bail and wait patiently. Mary did most of the milking and I helped by leg roping and washing the udder with a clean cloth. The milk was poured into large milk cans for delivery to the dairy factory or into the separator. This was a large vat with two spouts – one for cream and the other for the skim milk. There was a big handle on one side to spin the vat to separate the cream. It was fascinating to watch the cream trickle out and the skim pour off in to separate buckets. It would be fed to the pigs, while the cream was taken up to the house and made into butter. Some of the butter was for home use, the rest was sold along with the meat. To make butter, the cream was poured into a small churn which had paddles in it. A small amount of salt was added to the cream, then it was churned until it was solid. It is a wonder I don’t have arm muscles the size of an elephant after all the churning I did.
We had no electricity or running water on the farm except rain water that was collected in two large tanks that stood close to the back of the house to catch all the rain water from the roof. It was then piped into the house and a cistern that was heated by a wood stove. That was also the means of cooking and had to be kept going most of the time – it used an awful lot of wood.
To keep up the supply, old trees were chopped down, then sawn into small blocks. Then the blocks were split into smaller pieces to fit into the stove or for the open fire. Any big knotty blocks were used as a backlog in the open fireplace and would burn slowly for days with a small fire burning along side it. Sometimes if the wood was green or a bit damp it would not burn properly, so to help it draw we would hold a sheet of newspaper across the front of the fireplace to cause a draft. It usually worked, but sometimes the paper caught fire too. Then one had to be quick and try to crumple the paper into a ball before throwing it onto the fire. If it was not screwed up, it would fly up the chimney and easily set the house on fire. This happened a couple of times when the chimney was very sooty. Then a couple of the boys would go up on the roof with wet sacks to spread over the chimney to stop the airflow and suffocate the flames. They would have to get into the attic to check around the chimney where it went through the roof to make sure there were no sparks or smouldering wood from the heat. By the time all that was done, the hearth fire would be out and we would be sent to bed to warm up under the blankets.
For lights we had candles or kerosene lamps. There were no fixed lights in any of the bedrooms and a fixed light only in the sitting room. So candles had to be lit and stuck to a saucer or an old tobacco tin with a bit of melted wax, and carried from room to room very carefully or they would blow out and leave you stranded in the dark.
Before a field could be ploughed and planted it had to be cleared of old dead tree stumps. There were many of these and some could be dug round and loosened, then could be pulled out by harnessing a couple of horses or bullocks to a strong chain round it. If that did not work it had to be blasted out with dynamite. I was allowed to watch sometimes but from a safe distance. The dynamite and detonator would be set and a long fuse led from it. It was then lit, giving everyone time to take cover before a big bang blew the stump out of the ground. Then we would scramble out of our hiding places to see how big it was. One day the big bang took so long in coming that Dad decided it must have come apart or the fuse had gone out and went to see. While he was bending over to look, it blew up. He was very lucky not to have been seriously hurt or killed. It was a good lesson to us all to be extra careful with explosives.
Dad was not really a farmer by trade but was learning as he went along. He was a butcher by trade, so eventually he built a slaughter house to butcher animals and supply meat to surrounding farms and the public works camps that were building the road past the farm. Mary or one of the older boys would deliver the meat to the farms in an old model T Ford truck or a Harley Davidson motor bike that had a sidecar – guess who went along for the ride? One day Vincent was driving and had stopped on the road to deliver meat and left me in the truck to wait. He got talking and I was tired of waiting so started climbing across the seat to join him when the truck started rolling backward, as we were on a slope. Luckily Vincent saw what was happening and was able to jump aboard and stop us rolling over the bank.