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.
As far as I can remember crops were grown mostly as extra cattle feed. There was a kind of leafy cabbage called chaumolia that would hold drops of dew on the leaves. This was good to drink. The paddock would be divided into sections by temporary fencing and the animals were allowed to clear one section at a time.
Another crop was swedes that had to be harvested by hand. They were easy enough to pull up as they just had roots in the ground, but on cold frosty mornings it was not much fun. There would be a sledge with boards fitted to the sides and we had to fill it to be fed to the sheep. One day John got fed up with having to take a load out to where the sheep were and instead he dumped the load in the cow paddock. The cows loved their change of diet and munched away happily. Unfortunately the swedes were strong flavoured and tainted their milk for several days, and it could not be sent to the dairy, but had to be fed to the pigs or thrown out. John was not very popular for a while and kept out of Dads reach, as he had a two inch wide strong belt and would use it without much provocation.
I can remember paddocks being ploughed and prepared for sowing. First it was ploughed, then discs were used to chop up the furrows. After that the harrows were used to break up the ground even smaller. When it was fine enough it was hand sown with seed and left to grow. There were no such things as tractors in those days.
There were different types of grass seeds sown; some were for grazing and others were for haymaking. When it was haymaking time every available person was called in to help. It had to be done in hot dry weather. First it was cut with scythes and left to dry, then a couple of days later it had to be turned over with long pronged pitch forks. And again left to dry. When that was done it was gathered up and built into haystacks. That was the part I liked best. There was a special way of building them so they would not fall over or let rain soak through them. The sides had to be made strong and straight first and the centre filled in as we went. We worked by standing in the middle of the stack packing it down as we went until it was high enough, then the top was firmly finished off like the sides .
Our farm was a mixture of animals and crops; we had horses and bullocks to do the heavy work like pulling a sledge or plough. There were also sheep, cows, pigs, goats and hens with their various offspring in season.
Chickens were not much trouble as long as they had food to scratch for. The mother hens took good care of them. Lambs were sometimes rejected by their mothers and had to be bottle fed. It was fun feeding them, they would suck furiously on the bottle with their tails wagging like flags in the wind. Every now and then if the milk was not coming quick enough they would bunt at the bottle to try and get it faster.
We had to be careful not to make pets of them as they had to go back to the flock when they could feed themselves. Sometimes a mother could be coaxed to adopt an abandoned lamb if the skin of her own dead lamb was put on the back of the orphan. The ewes recognise their lambs by their smell and will reject all others.
Calves also had to be taught to drink when they were separated from their mothers. We had to dip a hand into a bucket of milk and let the calf suck our fingers and slowly lead it to the bucket and into the milk. Sometimes the calf would stop sucking before we got its head down to the milk and we had to start over and hold its head down. They soon got the message and before long they would be lining up for their turn.
Pigs were not a problem as the mothers took care of their piglets. There was one young piglet who was not satisfied with his mothers supply of milk and would wander off to find an accommodating cow. He would sit under her udder and drink to his hearts content.
I do not remember if we had any baby goats but if we did they took care of themselves.
Most of these memories are from between the ages of 3 and 9 years.
At a very early age I learnt to ride a horse by being hoisted up on its back and told to hang on to its mane. The horse was given a smack on the rump to start it moving, and it would follow the other horses wherever they went. Simon was one such horse that none of the older boys liked riding, as he was a big old bag of bones. So when they were sent out to bring the horses in for work I was often taken along as spare jockey. Simon followed blindly wherever the others led, as long as someone was on his back. We took ditches and broken fences in our stride.
We also had a Shetland pony named Dandy, who had a will of his own. He would not be shod, or be saddled or bridled like other horses, but would allow a rope bridle to be looped round his head. He was very cunning and would allow any member of the family – adult or child, to ride him, but if a stranger sat on his back he would very quickly find himself sitting on the ground. The boys would tempt visitors to try riding him by putting me on him to show how quiet and gentle he was. But it always ended up the same way – with them sitting on the ground and Dandy standing placidly by seeming to enjoy the fun.
Dandy was a rogue in other ways too. He learned how to open gates, but not to shut them, and so mix cattle or sheep. One time when the family had moved from one farm to another Dandy took a dislike to the new place, and set about opening gates and leading all the horses back to the old farm.
The farm was located several miles beyond the caves toward the west coast of the central north island of New Zealand. It was a rambling neglected old place in a valley surrounded by hills, and had a river dividing us from our neighbours on one side and a track /cum road / on the other. The house was built on a hill about a mile or more from the shed by the road that marked the beginning of the property. It was a long trek down one hill across the flat where the cow sheds were and up another hill to the house.
The river that ran through the valley had a right angle bend in it where we learned to swim. The far side had a shallow sloping bank where it was safe for the non swimmers to play, while the older children dived and swam in the deeper part. They would piggyback us across and leave us to splash around on our own until it was time to go home.
One day when we were swimming, there was a beautiful rainbow trout basking in the shallow water not far from where we played. So Vincent dived in a little below it, crept up and put his two hands under it and flipped it up on to the bank. He was very proud of his catch.