In New Zealand, back in the 1960s, you started attending school on your 5th birthday. I became 5 years old on the 8th of March 1964 and I think this must have been very close to the changeover date. I was not the youngest in my class, that was Elizabeth Capper, but I don’t think there was anyone else between us. Leith Martin was born only two days after me and I remember that he started in the next class down, although I didn’t see him at our school as he went to Stratford Primary School or as we used to call it ‘Stratford Main’.
You could think of Stratford as a divided town. The Patea River brought its clear water off the slopes of the mountain and it flowed right through the middle of the town running from west to east. On the north side of the river, pretty much all the children attended Stratford Primary School and everyone to the south attended Avon Primary School (founded in 1959). The main exception was the Catholic families who had their own school which was run by some nuns. The Catholic pupils all wore dark navy-blue uniforms and the nuns had grey gowns with a grey and white headdress. They all looked a bit sinister to us. At Avon we did not have a uniform. We all believed that the Catholics were somehow bad people but of course, as we got older, we realised they were fairly normal, just like us. After all, the Klenners were Catholic and they seemed fine.
My first class was Primer 1 (1964) and the teacher was Mrs Therkleson (Connie Therkleson). She was a really lovely lady and was probably in her late 40s at that time. In my first year I certainly remember feeling welcome and feeling safe. It was also in Primer 1 that I first remember Rebecca Western. She was a lovely girl with blonde hair, smartly done in two beautiful plaits, each running down to a neat little coloured ribbon.
Primer 2 was a staging year for some of the older pupils but I spent 10 months in Primer 1 and then went straight to Primer 3 (1965). Our teacher here was Mrs Bulmer (Josie Bulmer) who I remember always looking very severe. It was only in the previous year she had experienced the worst kind of tragedy that could ever happen to anyone, the death of her only child. Her daughter Dallas had been kicked in the head by her pony and she died of her injury shortly afterwards. Mr and Mrs Bulmer must have been absolutely devastated.
Pam Murphy, Graham Payton, Lauren Coombe, Barry Jordan, Pauline Staveley, Gayll Buckthought, Christopher Connell, Murray Reed, Helen Clayton, Nigel Cadman, Murray Wharton, ????.
Dianne Rogers, Karina Thayer, Adrienne Sweeney, Gerald Landreth, Dennis Wheeler, David Rogers, ????, Barry Jordan?, Heidi Drescher, Raewyn Bates, Maurice Johnson.
Karen Andrew, Nigel Dey, Eric Hayward, Rebecca Western, Elizbeth Capper, Donna Read, Terril Benton?, Jeremy Heath-Caldwell, Tony Bradley, Warren Hayden.
1965 was the year that Winston Churchill died and I do vaguely remember this, partly because the New Zealand Post Office actually printed a special 7d stamp to mark the event. However, a much stronger memory in the same year was one day sitting next to Nigel Dey and writing our respective names into our new books. Nigel quickly wrote ‘N F Dey’ while I had to spend a lot more time struggling to write out in my best handwriting ‘JJ Heath-Caldwell’. At the time I thought how lucky Nigel was to have such a short name but much later on, I came to realise that very few people had a hyphenated surname and so I felt quite proud of my rather long and distinctive family name.
This was also the first time that I remember playing with electricity. In the class we had some large telephone batteries and some light bulbs. When you connected the light bulb to a battery with a length of copper wire, the light bulb glowed. This was great. If you then put two batteries in series and connected the bulb, then it glowed even brighter. This was brilliant. If you connected three batteries to the bulb you saw a brief flash from the bulb and then it stopped working. Soon we didn’t have any bulbs that worked. They were all blown.
It was then that Murray Wharton brought in an amazing experiment that he had built with his father. It consisted of a number of 4 inch nails with lots of copper wires wrapped around them. He told us that this was called an armature. This was suspended under a very large magnet and it was made so it could rotate. He then connected a battery and another light bulb and the armature whirred into action, spinning round and round. This was an electric motor and it was incredible. I was very impressed with Murray Wharton and his father. They were obviously amazing people to have thought this up.
We then realised that the light bulb was using up energy so we took that out of the circuit to make the motor go even faster. It did go a little faster but the battery started to get very hot and then the motor steadily slowed down and stopped. When we reconnected the light bulb, it no longer glowed. Eventually we realised that we had short circuited the battery and it was now dead but at least we still had one working light bulb, even if we no longer had a serviceable battery to power it. Murray and I learnt a lot from this experiment.
Another memory from back in 1965 was going to the Stratford Cinema (we sat upstairs) and seeing the musical ‘The Sound of Music’. A short while later we also saw ‘Mary Poppins’. These films both starred Julie Andrews and were very popular at the time, especially as they were in colour (rather than black and white). Mum bought the music sheets from Maunder’s (the music shop) and learnt how to play them on her guitar while we all sang along. We also sang these songs when we were going on a car journey somewhere. I recently (2019) watched ‘The Sound of Music’ on my TV and I still absolutely loved it.
I should note here that records had become very popular by the mid 1960s. The first ever recording and play back was achieved when the American Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877. This was followed by a wide variety of different methods for record and playback but by the mid 1920s, 78rpm records were being produced and these quickly gained popularity. They were played on a mechanical wind up gramophone with a steel stylus (no electricity). In the 1960s some of our friends still had these old wind up gramophones sitting in a corner gathering dust. In 1948 the Columbia Record Company, in America, introduced "Long Play” or “LP” records which played at 33rpm on an electric record player incorporating a ceramic stylus. These were initially in mono but in 1957 stereo was introduced and by the late 1960s most new records were being produced in stereo. Mono had one music channel but stereo had two independent channels.
Mum had a mono record player but around 1965, or possibly a bit later, she brought a more up to date stereo record player. This was a fascinating piece of equipment and was quite expensive so initially we were not allowed to even touch it. It had two speakers and if you played a stereo record you could hear that the music in each speaker was slightly different. This top quality sound became known as “high fidelity” or “hi-fi”.
In Stratford we had Maunder’s Music that sold music sheets, as mentioned above, and they also sold musical instruments and records. LPs were quite expensive but if you didn’t have enough money you could just buy a ‘45’ which was about half the size and cost less than half the money but for some reason rotated at 45rpm instead of 33rpm. Mum’s record player had a switch where you would select 33, 45 or 78rpm dependent on which record you were going to play. If you had the speed switch in the wrong position the record would sound really weird. Over time Mum built up a small collection of records and the Sound of Music was definitely one of them.
Back in those days, a special trip for us was driving up to New Plymouth and this would take about an hour (30 minutes today). Sometimes Mum would drive us, but we also used to go with Denis Walker, who often did the journey, if he was having his children for the weekend. He and his wife Marlene had separated a few years earlier and Denis had then moved back in with his parents. This was why we were now renting his house at Ngaere.
Cars did not go very fast in the 1960s and any journey was slow because of the windy roads. You could speed up on the straight sections, but the speed limit was 55mph (approx 90kph) and getting a speeding ticket was not uncommon. On a Friday evening there was usually a lot of cars on the road so sometimes you would be driving in a long queue. Just before you reached the southern outskirts of New Plymouth, there was a very slow and tortuous route taking you right down into a deep valley, across a single lane bridge, and then up the other side. I remember a very large road works project that went on here for about a year. Denis Walker explained to us that they were building a “flyover” and he told us how a new section of road was going to be built across the valley to make the road into a straight line. This was fantastic.
Each time we made that journey, we would see all the big road construction machines gradually moving more and more earth into the middle of the valley until they had nearly filled it up. It was amazing. They built a bridge over the old road (Junction Road) and eventually the “flyover” was finished. We really enjoyed it when we were able to drive in a straight line right across that valley and look down where the old road had been. All of sudden, it felt like we were flying over it in an aeroplane.
To us, New Plymouth was a huge place and we always referred to it as a “city”. Today it has a population of about 55,000 but back then its population was probably half that (but it was still about 5 times bigger than Stratford). Another thing we always enjoyed seeing were the traffic lights but on our early trips these were not there. During busy times, policemen would stand in the middle of some of the intersections on Devon Street. They would wear special white gloves and direct the traffic. I used to think that was a really dangerous job as we were always being told by Mum that you should never stand in the middle of the road.