Warwick Martin knew of an empty house at Ngaere owned by Denis Walker. Ngaere is a small village on the main road about 3 miles (5km) south of the town of Stratford. It is not really a village in the normal sense, as there isn’t a built-up area of houses but there was in those days a small shop and a village hall. Over the fields about 300m to the west was the Ngaere cheese factory and about 500m to the south there was a small Primary School.
We all went to see the house, and for me and my sister Hilary, we found all this to be very exciting. Michael of course was still quite young at this time. The house itself was located on a quarter acre section, in the corner of the Walker’s farm and was bounded by the main road running north-south and by Sole Road running east-west. It also had a large garage that opened out onto the road. On the far side of the main road, running parallel to it, was the railway line but we could not actually see this, as the section of railway near the house was down in a slight cutting. Up above, to the west, we could see the massive peak of Mt Taranaki (Mt Egmont). Wherever you are in Taranaki, the mountain always dominates the view. If you looked in the opposite direction, out to the east, far in the distance you could see the three mountains over on the Volcanic Plateau: Mt Ruapehu, Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Tongariro.
I don’t think my mother considered any other houses. She had a strong preference to continue living in the countryside, rather than take a house in town, so I suppose the number of empty houses available would not have been very many. Also, her budget was very limited and the rent for this house was not expensive. She agreed to take it and we moved in just before Christmas, 1963.
Dora realised that there would not be much money coming from the Public Trust (from the rent of the farm) and at the same time she was not eligible to claim any benefits from the Government. James by now was living up in the Waikato, where he was in and out of the mental hospital. He did get a few jobs and so was able to send Dora some money but this was a bit sporadic and Dora could see that she could not rely on this source of income. It was also around this time that all contact with his parents ceased (Cuthbert and Violet) and we did not get any money from them either. In fact, for the rest of our childhood we were never to get so much as a birthday card from them and certainly nothing at Christmas. As I grew up, I thought this absence of contact was a bit odd, as I could see that other families, including the Walkers, had very regular contact with their doting grandparents.
Another problem that my mother had at this time, was that the old Ford Consul car was desperately in need of replacement. Dora received a rambling letter from James saying he was going to buy her a Morris Mini but she did not take this very seriously. Later that week she received a call from the garage in Stratford to say they had a brand new Mini for her. She immediately said that was all well and good but she could not afford it, at which point the man on the phone told her it was all paid for. We never found out where James got the money from but presumably it was cash that he had received from his parents. It was a lovely little car with a small 848cc engine, white paintwork and red interior, no headrests and no seat belts, so not at all safe by modern standards but lucky for us we never had any accidents and we got about 6 years use out of it.
I didn’t know it at the time but as part of his rehabilitation James worked as a labourer in one of the large pine forests. He then joined the army and elected to go into the Artillery. This was the more mischievous side of him at play. Because of his mental state, he was barred from holding a gun license but in the artillery they had some very large guns that he would be able to play with. Of course it did not take very long for the army to realise that he was mentally ill and so he was discharged quite quickly. He then got a job herd testing. He told me later that he kept getting all the test sample bottles mixed up, so that job did not last long either. After quite a few years he settled into working with a small metal working company that made air conditioning ducts and other things for various projects. He was not very good at it, but the owner liked him and so kept him on. This really was a life saver for him.
1964 started with us living by ourselves in our rented house at Ngaere. My mother realised that she would need a job but as a solo mother with three infants to look after this was going to be quite difficult. She came across a vacancy being advertised for a teaching assistant at St Mary’s Stratford which was a private boarding school for girls aged 13 to 16. St Mary’s had quite high academic standards but most of all they prided themselves on bringing up young girls to have good manners and I suppose the school helped them develop the necessary skills to find a good husband.
Except for her agriculture diploma, Dora had no qualifications but she discussed the situation with the vicar, who had some links with the school, and he encouraged her to apply for it. She had an interview with the head mistress, Miss Bruce, and she got the job. It might be that Miss Bruce liked her because she was English and she had a hyphenated surname but we will never know for sure. Miss Bruce was a spinster who was probably in her 50s. Looking back she was an incredibly sincere and genuine lady, who had a real presence about her and she was highly intelligent. She probably recognised my mother’s difficult situation and was no doubt very pleased to be able to offer some help by giving her the job and then hoping that things would turn out well for everyone. She would have also recognised that Dora really needed the job, so given the opportunity, she would be likely to work very hard to make a success of it (which she certainly did).
During this time, while my mother was frantically doing everything possible to look after her three children, she was pretty much unaware of what was happening with James’ parents, Cuthbert and Violet. All contact had pretty much stopped but in June 1964 she received, in the post, some letters from Violet but instead of being addressed to Mrs D Heath-Caldwell, they were addressed to Miss P Heath-Caldwell (James’ sister Pat) c/o Jack and Enid Cookson, Salisbury Road, Tuna. The postman had obviously seen the name Heath-Caldwell and had mistakenly redirected the letters to our new address.
Dora was not aware that Pat was visiting New Zealand, so she phoned Enid Cookson to enquire if Pat was in fact in the country, and if she was, was she staying with them, and if she was staying with them, could she possibly speak to her as she had some mail for her. Enid replied that yes she was staying with them but no she could not speak to her.
Dora found this to be quite upsetting, so in a fit of rage she wrote “return to sender” and posted the letters back to England. Looking back, she does now admit that this was the wrong thing to do but nevertheless, on the spur of the moment, that is what she did.
Aunt Pat had been sent out by her father Cuthbert to try and help James. By now Cuthbert had convinced himself that Dora was a thoroughly bad woman, in fact so bad that he was now referring to her as just “D”! I suppose he must have been pretty worn out about the whole situation and he had convinced himself that Dora had engineered everything and that she had a great scheme to sell the farm and take all James’ money. James was merely a pawn in her master plan. In addition, Cuthbert was convinced that she had a boyfriend and that once they had the money, big bad “D” and the said boyfriend, were going to abandon the grandchildren and disappear into the sunset.
As I write this, the phrase that comes to my mind is “you couldn’t think this stuff up, even if you were in Hollywood”!
Dora was not aware of any of this and was not to find out until more than 50 years later when all the diaries and letters came to light.
So Dora had phoned the Cookson’s to let Pat know that she had some mail for her. Pat refused to talk to her, as Pat was by then convinced that, in addition to all the other bad things that she thought Dora to be capable of, she now had first hand proof that big bad “D” was also stealing her mail!
Aunt Pat then spent the rest of this year in New Zealand (and also an interlude in Australia and New Guinea) and, together with her father, plotted to do everything they could to stop Dora getting any money. Even looking back, it is frightening to see that they did not seem to be able to comprehend that Dora was in desperate need of money, just to to put food on the table.
Pat met up with James on quite a few occasions and each time she told him that he must not send any money to Dora. In the end James became very angry and told her that she just did not know what she was talking about. Pat also reported back to her father, after she had visited a solicitor to see if there was any way they could stop my mother getting any money from anywhere. Pat and Cuthbert even went as far as investigating if it would be possible to get the family silver back, as they were convinced that big bad “D” would just sell off these precious family relics, as soon as she got the opportunity.
The solicitor must have realised that Pat and her father Cuthbert were possibly even more insane than James. Pat reported back to her father a few months later that she had been trying to arrange a second visit to the solicitor but that whenever she phoned she was told that he was “not available”.
Pat never did meet Dora. There was one brief contact (19 December 1964) when we were at the Klenners playing with their children. Two ladies walked up to the gate and spoke to us. We did not know who they were but looking back they were of course Pat and Enid Cookson. Pat said she was our auntie, our father’s sister. Then she and Enid turned away and walked back down the road. The conversation had probably lasted for no more than 60 seconds. I was only 4 years old but I thought it was all very strange. Had we done something wrong? Why didn’t we ever see our father and why was it that our aunt was happy to look at us over the gate but not come in and talk to us?
In among the pile of letters that have survived from this period in the 1960s were a number of letters from the neighbours. The content was unbelievably negative towards my mother and verging on being hysterical. They said that Dora was doing a very poor job of looking after us and they reported seeing us walking around town as filthy little urchins and they also reported seeing Dora in town “with a man”! From the letters I could see that they had all convinced themselves that there was nothing really wrong with James and that all the fault lay with his wife Dora.
We can look back to the rather turbulent events of 1963 and we can see that my father James was definitely mentally ill, even if the neighbours saw him as a lovely friendly young guy. He had suffered from chronic schizophrenia in the navy ten years previously; he was suffering in 1963 and he has suffered from it ever since. The other question is; what was my mother’s state of mental health and could she have done anything different? The neighbours certainly at the time felt it was all her fault and sadly, to her disadvantage, she probably did not come across as a warm friendly caring young wife and mother. If you consider the trauma of what she had by now gone through, it would be ridiculous to think that she could have done any better. It is amazing that she managed to keep sane and to keep going.
Most of the neighbours from Tuna did not keep in touch with us after we had moved to Ngaere. The ones that we did maintain contact with for many years were the Klenner family. Possibly my mother got on well with Ann and at the same time Hilary, Michael and I got on well with all her children. Most of all, the friendship was maintained by Ann, as I think she could see that Dora needed help. We also maintained contact with the Martin family and with Doris Rogers.
Mrs Rogers was a lovely old lady. She had experienced tragedy in her own family, having lost two sons, one was killed in World War II and the other had been killed in an accident up on Mt Taranaki (Mt Egmont). Her other son Nick had been living in England, where he had met Nana and Grandpop (Dora & Les Bailey) and that was where the connection had been made. She lived in a very old house in Stratford, surrounded by a garden that was quite overgrown. At the back was a small vegetable garden and I remember her growing small artichokes (they were rather delicious). Mrs Rogers knew that I had started collecting stamps and one day she gave me a very precious little gift. It was an old stamp album which had belonged to one of her late sons. I already had some stamps but in this album there were different pages for each country and more stamps than I had ever seen. Many of the countries were British Commonwealth and lots of these stamps featured a profile portrait of a British Monarch; King George VI, King George V, King Edward VII and the really old ones had Queen Victoria. Others had small pictures of places, people and events. I was fascinated, as each stamp was a miniature window, depicting a story of some sort. I did not know all the stories and I did not know all the countries, but I found it absolutely captivating. I think that is when I became a collector and I have been afflicted with collecting things ever since.
Mrs Rogers did not leave her house very much, as she was very elderly, but she did come and visit us at Ngaere one day for Sunday lunch and afterwards she wrote a letter to Cuthbert and Violet to let them know how we were getting on. The letter has survived, and I am printing it here in full as it is a lovely letter and I think it does give a good window on our lives at this time.
21st Dec 1969
From Doris Rogers, 48 Fenton St, Stratford, Taranaki, New Zealand.
To: Violet Heath-Caldwell, Pound House, Cattistock, Dorset, England.
Dear Mrs Heath-Caldwell,
This afternoon I had a very pleasant visit with Dora and the children. Dora came to me after church and took me home for lunch. Last Wednesday I gave Jeremy some stamps for his collection. I get some unusual ones from Papua New Guinea, so today I had to see his collection, which is quite large and very neatly kept in a special album. Then I saw Hilary's and then Michael's. Not nearly as many as Jeremy's but I gave him my son Geoff's collection. Geoff was killed on Mt. Egmont. I think stamp collecting is a great hobby for children, even if they do not keep it up. My son Nick also had a collection when he was young - very higgle-piggely, but last time he was home he found it still around here - so he took it back with him. He has a little son now, so he wants to get it all straightened up for little Nicholas Peter when he is old enough! That will not take long either, as they grow up all too quickly.
Hilary, Jeremy and Michael are all growing well and doing well. Hilary made me a very nice cup of tea. They are all very well occupied - a very good thing. Hilary showed me the Siamese kittens, new pets! They were all going for a swim when I came home - a very good thing too.
Dora is well thought of at St Mary's. The pupils there have done well in the exams. Nick and family are coming for Christmas, Lucy and I are well
Regards from Doris Rogers.
The job that Dora took working part time at St Mary’s School worked out incredibly well. Hilary was attending Avon Primary School and on my 5th birthday, 8th March 1964, I was also allowed to go to Avon, which meant that we were off our mother’s hands from 9.00am to 3.00pm every day. Michael was still at kindergarten, mornings only, after which he was picked up by Elva Thomas who also had a son at the same kindergarten. Mum would then pick Michael up from Elva’s house after she had finished at school. Eventually he also turned 5 and so was then able to join us at Avon Primary School. Family life, with us at our school and our mother at her school, worked quite well.
At this stage in my story I am not sure about whether to refer to my mother as Dora or as Mum. We of course called her Mum so from here on in my story I will probably sometimes refer to her as Mum and sometimes as Dora. I hope this is not too confusing.
Mum told a very good story about the early days when Michael was attending kindergarten and she was teaching part time at St Mary’s. Elva Thomas had gone to pick Michael up from the kindergarten as usual, but he was not there. Apparently, he had confidently told the kindergarten teacher that he was walking home today. Elva phoned St Mary’s School and got a message through to the head mistress Miss Bruce who then told Dora. Miss Bruce took over the class and Dora set off to find Michael. She frantically searched everywhere for an hour and must have been at her wits end. She eventually found him wondering along the main road close to home. He was only 4 years old but he had walked about 3 miles (5km). She always remembers the sense of relief but also his reaction when he just smiled at her and said “I thought you were losted”.
Mum started off as a teaching assistant at St Mary’s, just working part time. She made the effort to read lots of the textbooks concentrating on science, in particular biology, and after a while she was allowed to teach her own class. I remember going once and sitting in her biology class. I think I might have been recovering from an illness or something like that. The lesson was fascinating as she dissected a dead possum. Its guts went everywhere, especially the long intestine which she pulled out and the girls measured the full length of it. I don’t remember how long this intestine was but it was very long. It was really fascinating to see how much stuff was inside that dead possum.
Mum’s salary was not high, but it was enough to live on, so that was great. Possibly the best thing about St Mary’s was that it gave her a new social life and one that was very different to what she had experienced previously. Almost all the teachers were women and they had all been through university. They were bright and generally very friendly and very sociable. She had a lot of respect for them and over time they developed a lot of respect for her.
There was the music teacher Miss (Susan) Hutton, a very lively lady and she taught Dora how to play the guitar. St Mary’s had a very high standard for music and they even produced their own record (St Mary’s Sings). There was the glamorous Mrs (Valerie) Chruchley who taught Russian. She had beautiful long dark hair and she struck me as being a very mysterious lady. I wondered whether she was actually a Russian spy. She was also a single mother but she and her son Matthew lived with her father and so did not have any financial worries. There was Mrs (Julia) Wintle who taught English but she left after a few years and went back to England. I remember Mrs (Frances) Gray was always called Fanny by my mother and the other teachers but of course we were always told to address her as Mrs Gray. She taught English and was quite reserved. Her husband was the deputy headmaster of Stratford Primary School and they had a very beautiful daughter called Andrea with long fair hair but I never really got to know her.
The Chemistry teacher, Mrs (Jan) Busch, was an Oxford graduate and my mother always said she was a real brainy box. One of her daughters, Suzzie, was also a real beauty. Mrs (Margaret) Habershon taught English and her husband Dick Habershon was the deputy principal at Stratford High School. A few years later the staff were joined by Mrs (Margaret) Van Gend, another English teacher, who had recently moved to New Zealand from Malawi. Her husband was another doctor and they were all a very bright family.
The teacher that we got to know the best was Pat Steven. She was a graduate of Otago University where she had met her husband Upham who was a doctor. Mum already had a slight connection here as Upham had been in the archery club and it was he who was the second doctor who had certified James a few years earlier.
During all the problems with James in 1963, Mum had ceased being an active member of the archery club but after being encouraged by Warwick and Shirley Martin, she had joined the St John’s Ambulance. This she quite enjoyed and I remember her putting on her smart uniform and we would go to the stock cars which were held at the local agricultural show grounds. Just as we drove up to the gate, Mum would quickly place her very official looking St John’s hat onto her head and the ticket man would wave us through without us having to pay. This was great, as generally we had no money so anything free was much appreciated. We watched the stock cars drive round and round the track. There was lots of mud flying up in the air and the smell of petrol fumes made it all feel very exciting. Looking back it all seems a bit crazy but at the time we all loved it.
Stratford was a fairly self-contained town with a population of approx 5,000. It was very much a town that serviced the local farming community. When Stratford had been laid out by the early settlers (around 1879), someone with a sense of humour had decided to name a lot of the streets after characters from Shakespeare’s plays. There was Romeo St, Juliet St, Hamlet St, Portia St, Lear St, Ariel St, Falstaff St, Celia St, Cordelia St… etc and the main street, which was very wide, was called the Broadway.
Back in the 1960s, shops were closed on Saturday and Sunday but Friday night was party time for lots of the locals. On Friday, the shops stayed open until 8.30pm instead of closing at 5.00pm. Lots of people would come into town and walk up and down the street doing a bit of shopping or just socialising with their friends. We did not go into town much on a Friday night, as my mother never went to the pub and we did not have any money to spend in the shops. But we did go occasionally and the whole place had a lovely atmosphere.
I should also mention here, that in the 1960s, I don’t think there were any restaurants in Stratford except for two Fish & Chip takeaways and I think one café (The Hob Nob). There were certainly no Indian, Chinese or Italian eating establishments. Foreign cooking was almost unheard of. Meat with a selection of 3 vegetables was by far the norm. Sometimes if we went into Stratford we would be allowed to buy fish & Chips and for us this was a real treat. The serving was salted and then wrapped in a clean piece of white paper and this was then all wrapped in a few sheets of used newspaper to keep it warm. Years later they stopped using second-hand newspaper, as it was felt to be unhygienic, but I don’t think it ever did us any harm. Looking back, I suppose you could say that this was an early example of recycling.
Stratford also had a cinema and this was a very large auditorium with tiered seating and a big screen. The bottom half was designated as ‘downstairs’ and the upper half was designated as ‘upstairs’. Sitting upstairs was slightly more expensive and there were lots of people who did not want to be seen sitting in the cheap seats. Mum didn’t take us to the cinema very often as it was quite expensive, but if we did go, she always insisted that we sat ‘upstairs’. Before the film would start there was always a clip of a large brass band playing the national anthem ‘God Save the Queen’. We would all immediately jump to our feet and stand during the anthem to show our respect for the monarchy. I always used to watch that clip and think how funny the band members looked. They were all dressed in red uniforms with lots of gold braid but the really amazing thing was that they were all wearing horse helmets, but there was not a horse in sight.
Another place in Stratford where we went sometimes was the library, and this was in the Municipal Building in the centre of town. To get to the library you walked through a long corridor, which was the Stratford Hall of Remembrance, in honour of all the local men who had died in the war. High up on the wall were rows of individual photographs of 129 local men who had been killed in World War I (1914-1918) and a further 55 who had been killed during World War II (1939-1945).
The support provided from New Zealand to the Allies in WWI had been immense. Out of a population of about 1,000,000 there were approx 100,000 men who went off to war. This was about 60% of all the men in the country who at the time were between the ages of 19 and 45. Of these about 18,000 died and about 42,000 were wounded or fell ill. In other words, something like 60% of the eligible males in the country, went off to the war and approximately 1 out of 5 did not come back.
As a young boy I always remember looking up at those men and feeling a bit overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the whole thing.
The war was still regularly talked about, as in the local area lots of the men in their 50s had fought in WWII and many of the old men in their 70s had been in WWI. ANZAC day (25 April) was a big event and all the ex-soldiers would turn out on parade proudly wearing their medals and standing to attention to remember all their mates who had not come back.
Church back in those days was still a very significant part of life for lots of families. There were no shops open over the weekend. Lots of sport events took place on the Saturday but Sunday was very much off limits. The Church really did have a strong hold and they wanted everyone to go to Church service. Our family was of course Church of England and after moving to Ngaere my mother took us to the church in Eltham. In the early days we went to the morning service, which started with a gathering of everyone in the Church itself but then we would split, the adults would stay in the church for the rest of the service and we children would go into the hall next door to be given our Sunday School education. I don’t remember much about the religious education that we received but I do remember Susie Busch who always seemed to have lovely eyes and a beautiful suntan. I certainly didn’t learn that god was this great power up in the clouds looking over everyone. Instead the more I heard the less I believed any of it.
I don’t think we went to church every Sunday but later on we all joined the choir and we had an evening practice once a week and then turned up for the Sunday service. I didn’t really enjoy being in the choir but looking back I am sure it was of some benefit to me. Today it is great when I hear a familiar hymn and I find I can sing along, still remembering quite a few of the words. We did also get to meet the good Bishop Bains again when he graced our church with his holy presence to confirm us all. By then he was a bit vague and possibly suffering from dementia. Certainly nothing was said about me taking his false teeth out of the glass jar five years earlier.
Another memory that I have of living at Ngaere was the trains. We would hear them chugging up the line in the night and our whole house would shake. In the day we could look over the road and we would just see the very top of the train but nothing else which was a bit frustrating. In those days the big black steam trains were still running but they were being phased out. We liked the steam trains the best, as you could see the steam and smoke shooting up in the air. I remember that Denis Walker took us all into Stratford one day so we could witness the last steam train as it made its final journey through the railway yard. That was probably in about 1966. After that it was just the big red diesel trains and the occasional railcar.
With James out of the picture, life in our reduced family of 4 was now much more settled in our house at Ngaere but it was not easy, especially later on when I progressed through school. Our mother for many years yearned to go back to her home in England but this was not possible as we could not afford it. Living at Ngaere met her desire to live in the country instead of living in the town but for us children it was very lonely. Once we got back from school there were rarely any other children to play with, so we became quite insular. For Hilary it was not so bad as she had a horse and could get out and about going to pony club or meeting up with her friend Karen Buckthought. For me and Michael most of the time we had no option but to stay at home.
As I grew up, a question on my mind was; why did Hilary have a horse when we as a family had so little money? The answer was a simple one. Owning a horse, while costing money, was not prohibitive if you had free grazing. The other thing was that Mum had always wanted a horse but this had never been possible in her younger days when she had lived in England. With her limited financial situation and also limited time, my mother rarely went out and she certainly did not spend any significant amounts of money on herself. The horse was her one luxury and to Hilary, and to my mother, horses were their great passion.
We also had a lot of dogs. This had come about in our early days at Ngaere when one day Mum had been informed that James had escaped from the mental hospital and might be heading in our direction. We did at that stage have a very friendly collie called Heidi but the police advised Mum to get a guard dog as a precaution. They recommended a doberman and this was to become the first of many. We also had two dachshunds, mine was called Penny and Michael’s was called Fred.
One of the great things about having dogs was that my mother would often drive us off somewhere interesting to take the dogs for a walk, sometimes to the beach but often we went up into the native bush that surrounded the lower slopes of the mountain. On many of these occasions we were joined by Pat Steven, who also had dogs (Staffordshire bull terriers), and we would all look at the great variety of native trees. Pat and my mother would tell us what was special about the habitat and how the species had adapted to it. Later on we also got a large book (New Zealand Flowers and Plants in Colour by John Tension Salmon, 1970) full of pictures of the native plants. I used to collect samples of leaves and dry press them, putting them into a scrapbook and labelling each carefully with its name. One of my favourite plants was the mighty Totara tree, as this was one of the largest trees in the native forest. It was great walking in the bush and learning the names of all the plants. Every one of them was special.
Later on it was decided by the park authorities to ban dogs from the mountain as there was a concern about the kiwis. These days a bigger problem in the bush is the rats that eat the Kiwi’s eggs. It is a pity that we can’t get special dogs trained to catch the rats but leave the Kiwis.
I should note here that the word ‘bush’ is the New Zealand word for jungle but in the UK this would be called the ‘wood’ or ‘woods’. In the UK the word bush is only used to describe a small tree or shrub. In New Zealand the word ‘wood’ is only used to describe a material for building. This is all nuts but everyone has got used to it so that is the way it is!