Brian McGregor McGurk Interview

Today is the 29th July [20]19. I’m interviewing Brian McGurk, Hastings, on the life and times of his family.

My father’s early days – as a young guy he worked for Matt Johnson in Hastings who was the original owner of Bon Marche; he was there as an eighteen year old. And then later on he went working at Westermans and worked there for a few years until the outbreak of the war. He’d been in the Territorials for a number of years and done a first-aid course there, and when war broke out he reckoned he was the very first bloke to enlist as a volunteer in Hastings, but I think he might have been the fourth because his medal number was 4/74, so he would’ve been one of the first anyway. And so he gave his notice in and went into camp, into Wellington. I’m not sure how long they were in camp for, but then they sailed from Wellington to Egypt. They were six weeks on the boat, roughly, going over to Egypt. Because of his first-aid training he was in the Medical Corps and was in a group headed by a Dr Boxer; and on his way over to Egypt they had a fair bit of spare time, and one of the things he did on the way was he got a tattoo on his arm. [Chuckle] He used to smoke a pipe, and there was a Maori guy …

Is that his pipe?

This is the pipe that he had; still smell the tobacco in it. And there was a Maori guy said to him – it must have resembled the prow of a canoe – so he said, “I’ll carve that for you.” So he did that, inside the six weeks that they were on the boat. So that’d be over a hundred years old. I don’t ever remember him smoking it but he used to smoke cigarettes.

They spent a bit of time in Cairo; they were in a big camp there outside of Cairo at Alexandria, and there was [were] you know, British Forces there, Canadian, Australian, and he didn’t know until after the war … he caught up with his brother, he had a brother, Owen, who was two years older than him … and he didn’t know that his brother was in this camp at the same time, otherwise they could’ve had a bit of a natter. He hadn’t seen his brother for … his brother left to go over to Hawaii in 1910 or ’11, and he spent three years in Hawaii and then he went to Canada, and he was in Canada for a couple of years or more when war broke out, so Owen joined the Canadian Forces; that’s how he came to be in Alexandria.

There was another brother, Jim, who was two years younger than my father and he finished up on [in] Gallipoli as well. When they went to Gallipoli – he was there at the beginning, right from the beginning to the end; he was, you know, the full time on [in] Gallipoli there. And his brother Jim was pretty badly shot up in the legs, and he came back. Jim died in 1942. He was only in his early fifties when he died. I can remember him – he used to go up to the farm and cut scrub, and he used to hobble along; he was probably in pain a lot, and he drank a fair bit – probably was an alcoholic; never married, and he was a bit of a drifter; he went from town to town, and never settled very well. Gallipoli was pretty …

My father being in the Medical Corps, or Field Ambulance, saw quite a bit of carnage, and there was [were] you know, guys – he said one guy he remembered in particular who was an Australian guy, and you know, half his stomach was shot away, and … But he was still able to crack a joke. And there was [were] guys that had been on leave in Cairo and picked up syphilis, and of course those were in the days before penicillin; they didn’t have any. And some of them were married men; he said he remembers one guy coming in there and the doctor saw him and said, you know, “There’s nothing I can do for you.” He was a married man with a family at home, and he said, “Well, what’s going to happen when you go home? What’re you going to say to your wife?” And he said, “The only thing you can do is, one night go out for a walk between the trenches.” He said that’s what he did. So you know … he wouldn’t have been the only one either, that was … was tragic.

But anyway, he had a bivvy [bivouac] in the side of a bank with another guy, a chap called Cecil Herdson. I actually met Cecil … Cecil Herdson … he was blind, and he was living in Auckland and he used to come down for these … my father went … they used to follow these main body reunions; I can’t recall him ever missing one, and he used to just look forward to meeting up with his old mates again. There was one in Hastings one year, and he stayed with us; and Cecil Herdson was there and he brought him down. This was the tragedy of it all; Cecil Herdson didn’t … his wife was a bit intolerant of him and she’d shift furniture around a bit and … just to sort of annoy him. Of all the returned farmers up at Ohuka, I don’t recall any of them that didn’t have white hair or were bald; and at that time they would have only been, you know, in their forties, I suppose.

He came back from the war and he worked on farms, the various farms around Hawke’s Bay. He was down at Porangahau, and he put in for a ballot for a farm and he was in a couple of draws. One was in Wairoa and one was in Dannevirke. Anyway, he drew this farm in Wairoa at Ohuka … Ohuka Station … it was a pretty big station; it must’ve been many thousands of acres – twelve, fourteen thousand – maybe more, and it was divided up into about fifteen or sixteen farms, varying from – the smallest one was about less than seven hundred acres to about eighteen hundred acres, roughly, I think was the biggest. Each paddock became one farm; that’s how it worked out, and there was one homestead. The guy that drew that was the lucky one who … because the house was on it. And that house is now run by George Little’s grandson. George Little drew a smaller farm on the main road, and then he bought that.

Is that Craig’s ..?

Craigs were there, yeah. George Little was his grandfather.

One or two of the farms had little huts on them, you know, they would’ve been for the musterers mustering, so they were a bit lucky – at least they had a roof over their head.

But my father arrived up there with a couple of horses, a pack horse and a hack, and a tent, couple of dogs, and everything else he owned was in his pack – everything else – everything. And he set up tent, and he had a few provisions. And he never had any chains for his dogs, and he just tied them up with a bit of string or twine. And the horses – he must’ve let them roam loose, thinking that they wouldn’t stray far from the tent. So anyway, the next morning he got up and he found that one of the dogs had broken the string, or chewed through it, and found his sausages and bacon. [Chuckle] So that was a good start.

And then he went out in the paddock and one of the horses had found a shrub that grows up there – it’s tutu, and it had eaten that, and so he lost a horse and all his sausages and bacon in one night, so that’s not a very good start. But he stuck it out. It amazes me – where would you start up there? See, he had to stock the place; fence it; make sure the fences were good; and there was always scrub to cut, and you know, it was all manuka and fern in those days. But you look at the manuka now – they’re making a fortune out of it. I can remember as kids we used to go and cut scrub; hand’d be blistered, and … yeah. Even if you were riding around and you saw a little manuka shrub and it was too big for you to pull out by hand, you’d cut it off with a knife … butcher’s knife. But now, they’re planting it.

I know. [Chuckle]

Yeah. So he eventually got a little one-room shack built by one of the local builders up there who also owned one of the back farms, or later on he had this farm – chap by the name of Bob Hunt … Bob was a builder. So he built this little two-room shack, just a lean-to; there’s all photos of it here. And he’d been on the farm for about … he went up there in 1920, and it must have been about 1924. There was [a] couple in … Ken, that he was friendly with, he knew. It was Pat O’Kane and his wife, Gen … her name was Genevieve, actually. And he was an MP; he was a Member of the Legislative Council – they had a Legislative Council in those days – and he had a farm at Ardkeen, and my father used to ride across and have Sunday dinner there now and again.

And anyway, it was about that time when there was a young school teacher who had transferred from a school at Pongaroa out of Dannevirke. And this school teacher turned out to be my mother. Gen O’Kane was a bit of a matchmaker; never had any children herself. She invited Dad over for Sunday dinner when my mother was boarding there. And she used to ride to school, to the Korakora School, which later became the Ardkeen school. That was how they first met, so she little knew what she was going up to at Ohuka, because it was right to the back of nowhere. The roads up there were shockers; yeah, just tracks. And he never had any transport. He went there in 1920; I remember his first car that he got in 1936. It was a long time to be without transport of any sort. ‘Course, no money, you see. And as far as I can remember there was [were] only two other farmers at the time who had no transport, and he wasn’t the last one to get a vehicle. The others all just all relied on the freight that used to go up there twice a week, or good neighbours going into town, and that just went on for [a] good number of years. And when he did get a car he went in to get a licence; but he drove it into town – thought he’d better get a licence – and the guy that was taking him for a test said, “Where have you driven from now?” He said, “Oh, I’ve just come in from Ohuka.” [Chuckle] He said, “You mean to tell me you’ve driven in from Ohuka?” He said, “Yeah.” He said, “Well, if you can drive over that road [chuckle] you don’t need to go for a test.” [Chuckles] So he just wrote him out a licence. [Chuckles] Yeah – that was how he always told his story, yeah.

It must have been hell!

Oh yes … yeah. In the early years, my mother was … she must have been on the verge of a nervous breakdown because you know, there was no communication with … there was miles to the nearest neighbour. And although they had a telephone, it was a party line – but it wasn’t until later on when most of them had vehicles that they’d … you know, they’d have these tennis parties and they’d visit one another and all that sort of thing was quite good, yeah.

So with the manuka on the farm, did your father cut that and burn it?

Cut it and burnt it, yeah.

Because tractors didn’t come along until later, did they?

Well, the country was so steep and rough you’d never get a tractor on it.

Oh, so it’s very steep country, was it?

Yeah. Although later on my brother, he did get a tractor. His very first tractor was a Kobotu, and he cut a few tracks round the farm. He was able to get round half of the farm on this side of the river, but there was very little of it that you could work with a tractor. And yeah, it wasn’t ‘til aerial top-dressing that sort of moved the place along a bit.

He used to get scrub-cutters in; he’d set up a tent out the back for them and I used to take a bit of stuff out to them now and again, you know … bit of meat, or provisions and stuff. But he’d had a horse that would drag a sledge, but there was always the river to cross; that was a nightmare of a river to get a horse across.

Which river?

It was just a stream that flowed through the back of the farm. I’m not even sure if it’s got a name.

It was in a gorge?

Yes. In places you could jump across it, but where that was you would never get stock across. There was only about two places where you could get stock across it, and it was always a nightmare mustering and trying to get stock across. You had to do a bit of boulder hopping, you know, and then your horse would always baulk at getting across. I remember we were trying to get across this gorge one time, and my father was trying to drag the horse down and he went to jump from one boulder to the next one, and one of his dogs beat him to it [chuckles] and tripped him up in the creek. [Chuckles] They both jumped at the same time.

Going back to Gallipoli – when he arrived home he brought home a lot of souvenirs with him, and he had them in a tin trunk out in the shed. And I remember as kids we used to go out there; and especially if there was a tennis party on we’d take all the other kids along and “Come and have a look at this; come and have a look at this.” So we’d go out and go through this tin trunk, and in it he had – I think he called it a mace – it was a funny-shaped piece of marble; it was like a paperweight. He called it a mace – I don’t know why. He had a snake-skin, and a revolver – a Smith and Wesson 6 that he had got off a German officer, and I always thought that strange because it was a revolver that was made in America; Smith and Wesson. And there was coins, and …

No grenades?

There was shrapnel, shells – old parts … big lump of an old part of a shell. There was one piece here that he actually got in England; he was in England, in London, when there was a German airship shot down and he was right there on the spot; and people got in and started tearing little bits of brass off, and this is one of them. And I remember we went to another place where they had a tennis party and this chap had brought home a German sword, like an officer’s sword; and it was a beautiful object. He must have hidden it for safe-keeping, and he hid it in the back seat of his car – behind the back seat – and he must have forgotten about it. And that car finished up in his yard by the woolshed, just derelict. Anyway, years later one of my nephews was at this place and they were playing in this car, and they found this sword so they went and did a bit of bush-whacking with it. So they left it; anyway, [it] somehow got left in the bush and they went back to look for it and could never ever find it. So it must be still there somewhere.

Another place we went to, we were going through all these souvenirs and this guy had brought home a mummified hand. There were a few fingers missing, but it was black; I don’t know where he got it from – in Egypt probably – I don’t know whether they plundered the tombs … but you could imagine trying to get something like that back into the country today.

But in those days the times were so tough. And I was reading through one of his diaries there – or it was more or less a copy of his letters – and he was writing to this Commissioner of Crown Lands saying he couldn’t pay the rates; this was just after the earthquake, and there was a fire in the woolstore in Napier, and there was a fire in the Wairoa Freezing Works. And he lost sixty lambs in the freezing works fire, and he lost two-thirds of his wool clip in the Napier fire. That was just after the earthquake, and that would‘ve been a big part of his income and he was pleading: “Please don’t penalise me for not paying the rates; this has happened, and we’ve got a new baby to feed, and we’ve got this and that”; and all these letters were pleading for more time and saying, “I’ve sent the wool to England. There should be a cheque coming back in a few months time. I’ll be able to pay so much …” It must have been a miserable existence. Yeah, we’ve got no idea of how bad the times were. They had to stock the farms, and most of them were in debt for the bulk of their working lives to the stock firms – you know, Williams and Kettle, Dalgetys, the Loan and Merc. [Loan & Mercantile Company] And no wonder that a lot of them walked off, because their debts were far greater than their assets. Yeah, they just abandoned them. A couple of the farmers were able to lease the abandoned farms, the neighbouring farm, until such time as they could get a little bit of a return off it. There was a few of them did that, and they eventually bought those farms and increased their acreage.

Your father would’ve had to build a home, and woolshed and …

Yes. He built the woolshed; it was only a very tiny, basic one. I went back there and almost double the size of it with you know, extra night pens and a wool floor and all that; and shearers’ quarters. And he got one of the neighbours to build a car shed for him, but there was a pine tree got blown over one gale up there with a westerly blowing straight in from Waikaremoana, and this pine tree which was part of a shelter belt just landed right across the middle of the car shed – it must have broken his heart.

Was the car in it?

No – luckily he left … oh, no, no – they arrived home from town one night and he left the car out. [Chuckles] They certainly had a lot of setbacks; there was a lot of them were in debt to the County Council for rates and that. The roads were in very bad shape; a lot of them hadn’t even been formed, so they came to an agreement with the County that they’d go and work on the roads to help to pay for their rates. Quite a few of them did that. And while they were working on the roads a lot of them found Maori artefacts, you know, adzes, and different shaped pieces of wood that you could see they’d been used for tools. The road man up there had a great collection of little stone axes and adzes, and even a beautiful little greenstone one. I’m not sure whether they should have handed them in at that time to the authorities, but probably not.

This neighbouring farm over the back which was owned by Bob Hunt eventually went on the market, and it was on the market after the Second World War. And they went up to look at it for [the] purpose of turning it into rehab farm[s] for returned men from the Second World War. And they had a look at it and they said, “It’s too rough, too steep; too rough, no. Not good enough.” And the house on it needed repairs. And we went out there pig-hunting one time and we spent a night or two in this house, and there was a beehive and you could hear the bees humming all night. [Chuckle] But it was too rough; it would’ve been all right after the First World War, but … The roads up there – yes, they were a mess, and I’m not sure how long he worked on the roads for, but I suppose it helped him with the rates. Every car you had to have chains for places where the road wasn’t metalled; if you were coming home from town and it’d been raining, you had to stop at the bottom of the road and put chains on. Punctures were … all the time. If you were going anywhere you had to allow an extra half an hour in case you got a puncture. But I can remember old Thorneycroft’s trucks going up there, ones with big, solid wheels, spreading shingle up there.

So how many brothers and sisters did you ..? Were they all born on the farm?

No, no. The two eldest were born in Gisborne because the facilities in Wairoa and the state of the roads were such that – my mother had a cousin in Gisborne and she used to go through to Gisborne [a] few weeks before. But I was born in Wairoa; I was the only one until then, and I had a brother and a sister older and a brother and a sister younger.

What were their names?

Joan was the first; Joan was the eldest – she’s still living. Rod died about five or six years ago; and then my next sister, she’s living in Christchurch.

And that’s the one you go down to visit? Is Peter her son?

No, no – Peter is my son. Cath – she married later in life; she never had a family. And Kevin was managing a couple of places here and he was on Tahaenui [Station] when Sam Cooper was there.

Sam was my half-brother.

And Kevin died in Australia a week before his seventieth birthday – had cancer.

So then, you all went to school ..?

At Mangaaruhe. Well they later changed the name of the school to Ohuka. When I was there they talking about closing it down because there was only five of us going to school.

And you turn off the Waikaremoana Road on to the Ohuka Road?

Yeah. And the school is about nine and a half miles in – it used to be; probably shorter now because they’ve …

Changed the road, yes.

When we were going into town it used to be one hour’s trip into town to cover thirty miles. But now it’s been shortened and it’s all tarsealed; and John (my nephew) has done it in half of that time.

So there are still McGurks on ..?

No, the original farm was sold about ten years ago, or eight or nine years ago – hard to say, I can’t remember. And John bought a farm at Ruakituri. It was the farm that he first worked on when he got married. He bought that farm off Ron Hayden, who retired at Havelock North – he’s living out there now. But John still keeps in touch with the people on the old farm.

So he moved to some easier country?

Yes, but it’s a bigger farm and much better land. So no, John’s doing well now; yeah, it is a much better farm.

So all your primary schooling …

Yeah, well as I say, there was five of us; we used to ride horses of course. And then they got a new roadman and he had four boys, so that boosted the number to nine, so they kept the school going. But the teacher unfortunately was … we had many teachers, which were usually mostly pretty good. But there was one teacher there that – the kids just overran her. But she loved the place; she stayed there for longer than most of them, but [chuckle] she didn’t get the results, so as a result of that there was a few of them, and I was one of them who was taken away from the school to go to school in town in Wairoa. And my brother went to school in Gisborne, and another one was sent up to a boarding school in Auckland; you know, just to get a better education. And the first thing they did with me when I went to this new school was, “Oh, you shouldn’t be in this class – you’re not good enough. We’ll put you back a bit to Standard Five.” [Chuckle] So I had to do …

Another year!


So did you go to high school?

Yes. Yeah, I did a couple of years at high school, yeah.

And when did you decide to be a builder?

Well, actually when I left school I worked on Okare Station for a little while.

Who owned Okare?

Okare Station was owned by Humphrey Bailey, and there was a manager on there – Ted Bray, Major Bray; everybody referred to him as Major … the Major … he’d been in the Army. And then – I enjoyed when I was going to woodwork classes at school – I enjoyed it so much I just knew that I wanted to work with wood. And at the time there was [were] only two builders in Wairoa, and [in] those days you had to have so many tradesmen before you could have an apprentice, and I couldn’t get a job in Wairoa as an apprentice. So my father hunted around, and there was a builder from Hastings that built a bedroom on up there and altered the house a bit. And my father spoke to him about it, and he in turn spoke to Peter Bridgeman about it, so Peter took me on. And my father came down here and found me a place to board and he bought me a pair of boots and a pair of trousers, and paid my first week’s board, and said “There you go.”

Did you ever know Ted Flanders?

Yes, not at Bridgeman’s though … would’ve been after me. I served my time there and I finished my apprenticeship in 1951. And I stayed on for a week to see how much my wages were, which was, from memory I think it was £8/9/4d or something, and I thought, “Oh, I think can earn a bit more than that”. So I gave a week’s notice then; stayed for another week and that was it – I went out and I got a job in a gang; we went out doing country work, and working long hours. And my first cheque was for three weeks’ work – you know, you just work until you say to the farmer, “Here’s my hours.” We were just working for labour, or an hourly rate on the farms, you see, and my first three weeks’ work was £74. [Chuckle] So that was quite a jump.

You would have been absolutely like a dog with two tails!

[Chuckle] Yes, it was a big increase. And we did a lot of country work, and of course you know, we were camped in shearers’ quarters. But by that time I had a little Austin 7, that’s right – I had a car – but, you know, rough living; and it was working long hours, and not eating properly …

Did you have a head builder that was the man who organised the work?

Well, yes. Well my first, one of my first jobs was … we were doing shearing quarters just out of Waipawa, and … oh, these shearers’ quarters was built; we were doing the wool shed. No, the shearers’ quarters wasn’t finished. My job was to sort of just measure up and order the stuff, tell the farmer what; he’d go and buy it. But yeah there was a guy who sort of did a bit of organising, but we all sort of … as part of the gang. One guy was from Wellington, one from Napier, a couple from Hastings, one of the other guys was an old school mate of mine. Then I finished up with an ulcerated stomach, and that was a bit of a problem at the time, and it was while we were doing that sort of work that I went into camp, and I was in camp for three months, three and a half months I think it was. Yeah, they were good days.

But now, you know, looking back, when my father was the age I am now almost, he was living in Wairoa and working on the shed; You know, the shed was loose sheets of iron and he was trying to repair this roof, and he fell off the roof. My mother went crook at him. And then he was up a tree pruning the tree, and he fell out of that. She said, “Wouldn’t you think at that age you’d know better?”

So did you play sports at all?

I played rugby for a couple of years after I left school. I still never had much money; I managed to buy a section. But I played golf, but it was after I got married.

So when did you meet Averil Craig?

Well that was at the dances. We used to go to the Saturday night dances and I met her there.

In Hastings?

Hastings, yeah. It was [at] the Buffalo Hall. That was in Warren Street alongside the Drill Hall. I met her there and I took her home after the dance; then I never saw her for months, or maybe a year or two after that, and then somehow met her again and took her home, and started going steady and that was that. Yeah.

I had a little Austin 7 at that stage, a little canvas hood Austin 7. It was a good little car, that one. I used to take it up to Wairoa if we were going … you know, any holidays, long weekends, I’d go home. At this stage I was baching in town, or sharing a bach, and I’d set the alarm for midnight, have a bit of a sleep, get up at midnight and take off to Wairoa at shortly after midnight, and I’d get up to the farm in time for breakfast. It was about a six and a half hour trip …

I know!

… in an Austin 7; top speed of about twenty-five mile an hour, [chuckle] and all the shingle roads, and the corrugations. One of the worst parts of the road was around past the old Mohaka pub – round that – I used to hate that part of the road, it was a nightmare. The car’d be shuddering, and all the wire spokes’d be coming loose; you could hear them creaking … yeah.

As kids we used to go out to Mahia most years, and my parents would rent a little shack out there that was on the same site as Harkers; Harkers had a house there. He was the mayor of Wairoa, and they had this little shack; it was weatherboards and there was no lining inside it, and there was one bedroom. The dining room just had a dirt floor and there was [were] seats around the inside. And I’m not sure where we slept – I can’t even remember. We probably slept on these seats; because it was a pretty small bach. And I remember my mother saying – she used to complain about having to pay thirty shillings a week for this shack, which would’ve been a lot of money those days.

It would’ve been.

This would’ve been around 1936 perhaps. No, ’35, because we never had a vehicle then. My mother would pack everything up into these old tea chests, and then they’d go down and then they’d get loaded onto Bluck’s Transport; their trucks with canvas sides, and we’d all scramble into the back of this, and onto the road and it’d be dusty … the dust coming through. Everybody’d be sitting around the back. [Chuckles] And I remember, one of the passengers was quite a big guy and he picked out this suitcase to sit on which was one that my mother had packed in, and when we got to Mahia this suitcase had a …


… big hollow in it. [Chuckle]

So at some stage or other you must have decided to stay in Hastings and build houses?

Yes. Water was quite a problem up on the farm during the summers ‘cause there was only two tanks; two six hundred gallon tanks. And we always used to have to share the bathwater in an old tin bath; and when the bathwater was finished with my mother used to ladle it out and chuck it on the garden. So there was nothing.

But my mother was the most clever, extraordinary woman. There wasn’t a thing … you could name anything you like and she would’ve had a go at making it, or made it. You know, she did knitting; she used to make these flax kits; she did paintings, sketches, drawings; she made jewellery; she made all our clothing. She made a beautiful [?tannerco?] woven belt for me, you know, with the red and black and white design in it; plus you know, all the cooking and baking and …

Did you get some of your talents from her? You’re an artist with wood.

Well, I enjoy woodwork.

But not just woodwork – you’ve specialised with the mixing of woods …

Oh, yes.

Don’t just write that off as being ordinary, ’cause it’s not.

You know, if she heard a cock pheasant up in the bush somewhere, she’d say to Dad, “Oh, there’s a pheasant up there, I just heard it.” So he’d get the rifle out and he’d go and hunt this pheasant down. You know, anything to do with food. And as kids we used to go eeling in the rivers down there, and any eels we caught we’d always bring them home and Mum’d cook them. I remember one time – not that there were many rabbits, but even hares – we’d always shoot a hare. And I remember one time when Dad must’ve been out at the back of the farm, and I’d come home from school there, and I was too young to handle a rifle; and I don’t think she’d ever fired a shot before, but she spotted this hare out the kitchen window. So she got the ammunition down from up on the top of the shelf above the coal range, got the rifle out and she must’ve known how to load it; it was only a single shot. So she went out the back and she leaned this rifle on the fence; and I’ll never forget – I don’t know how she did it, but she had her right arm along … she had the butt of the rifle into her left shoulder, and she had her right finger up there and she was looking along like this. And there was no telescopic sights on it or anything, but she pulled the trigger. But anyway, the hare dropped dead. [Chuckle] Must’ve been a real fluke.

And another time, before we had a car; we’d been into town … somehow we’d got in there, and we came back on the bus. And the bus dropped us off at the end of the turnoff and then it was seven miles up the hill to home. And there was just her and me, and we were walking on the road and she heard a car coming, so we ducked into a … she took me off the road into the bushes. I’m not sure why, but probably because … [there] must’ve been a bit of a stigma about not having a car; and the car would’ve stopped and given us a ride, but we walked the whole seven miles, anyway. [Chuckle]

We don’t know how hard it was. There was a big flood in 1938, and the Mohaka River was running high, and badly damaged the old bridge – the old rabbit bridge and were were unable to use it. That year we did a trip – father’d only had a car a couple of years then – and we were coming back from Wellington I think it was, and both bridges were down; there was another one. So what they did – just on that flat, Smythes used to have a farm on the right hand side just before you get to Mohaka Viaduct; and on the opposite side of the road they opened up the paddock, and you drove through the paddock; and then there was a little ramp, and you drove up onto the Mohaka Viaduct … the rail viaduct … and we drove across the Mohaka Viaduct.

You’re joking!

Yeah, no that was just while they … ‘til they repaired it. They raised the bridge five feet after that, and you can actually still see the concrete where they’ve extended it. We stopped there the other day on the way through, and I was telling Tony and Jen about it. There wouldn’t have been many people that have driven across it by car. I remember we stopped halfway across, leaned over and … spit in just to see how [chuckle] … see how far down the spit would go.

The road to Wairoa’s much better now, isn’t it?

Yeah. That was always a stumbling block, Matahoura Gorge. I remember one time when I was driving this Austin 7 up to Wairoa, and just before the gorge there this Jaguar went screaming past me and just overtook me. And I was coming around the bend and then I heard this bang; I didn’t see it, but I heard it. And I came around the corner and here’s a 1936 Chev [Chevrolet] Coupe hanging over the side of the gorge like that, and this Jaguar was about a hundred yards down the road. And this guy was walking back up the road; and he couldn’t get out the left door, he couldn’t open it. Luckily, his window was down. He climbed out the window and he’s standing there. And this guy’s walking up the road, and he said to him, “Good morning.” [Chuckle] The other guy said, “Not a very good morning, is it?” And it must’ve been a Saturday because this chap was coming down from Wairoa to go to the races in Hastings, and he got knocked over the side of the bank – or almost. One wheel was over. But he was so lucky!

Cause if you go over there, it’s a fair drop!

[Chuckle] Yeah. That was one of the things you saw on the road, yeah.

Up on the farm fire was always a big problem – you know, awareness of fires. Although the only fire extinguisher that I remember up there was in the schoolroom. The schoolroom was only just a … one room; it would’ve only been about fifteen feet by eighteen maybe, if that. But later on after the war when you know, work became plentiful up there, the roll jumped to forty-eight and they had to build another schoolroom on, separate, and then they had to get another teacher. Then they built a school house, and I think they tried to get teachers that were, you know, like a married couple – which they had most of the time but then it fell away again, and I think they’re back down to small numbers again now. And then the school house burnt down and they lost a lot of records.

I went to school there; I started school in 1936, before I’d actually turned five. And the school had been going for seven years then, and I was the thirty-first pupil to be enrolled, after seven years. So they didn’t have a big turnover of pupils. But all those records are gone now.

I remember at shearing time was always a highlight of our lives as kids; we used tolove being in the shearing shed. And I used to go up to Tuai with my father to collect the shearers; we’d go up and we’d bring back a couple of shearers and a rousie [rouseabout] or something like that, and all their gear. There was a little pa there just past Tarapatiki, and the only way you could get to it was by driving right up to Piripaua, to Tuai, and going the back road back to it. But if you were going up there – they’d come across the river, and they had a cable; couple of poles and a cable across this river. And off this cable was a pulley and a twitched No 8 wire attached to a stick; and they’d straddle this stick with all their stuff on their back and haul themselves across this cable. And then later on they put a little narrow swing bridge … foot bridge … across it. And I think even to this day that little footbridge is still there. There’s certainly no traffic bridge.

Coming back, once you married, where did you live when you were first?

I’d bought a section, and I applied to State Advances for a loan. I had to get a quote; even though I was building it myself I had to get another quote from a builder to give them an idea of what that house would cost. I applied for a £2,000 loan. I had the section and I built a shed on it; I was baching in the shed.

Is this in Lumsden Road?

By this time I’d been building … like, I’d been self-employed for a while. There was a couple of us. I had been working on my own, and then I went working with another guy … like, in a partnership; and we‘d built a few houses around town. And then he’d built his house, and then I wanted to build mine, and I applied for this loan; I think I applied for £2000, and they gave me £2,130 which was a little bit more than I asked for, which was ample to build the house in those days, you know, not counting my labour.

At that time I had an old Model A truck and that was quite a handy vehicle for work. Although it wasn’t very flash it did everything I asked of it.

The freight up on the farm used to go up there twice a week, and it was just on the back of a truck with a tarpaulin thrown across it. Although my mother used to make bread it never stayed fresh very long – maybe only a day you know, home-made bread – and the town bread always seemed to taste better and lasted much longer. But when we did get bread out from town we had to finish off the old bread. But now and again in the summer under those tarpaulins … there was everything you could think of on the back of those trucks, including petrol and kerosene; used to be taken up in boxes of two four-gallon tins. And I think in the heat the petrol cans must have expanded, and sometimes the lids would be very expanded, And even the fumes from the petrol would seep, and you could taste the petrol from the fumes in the bread. That was quite a common occurrence then.

And so then you had your own family?

We were married for five years or more before we had a family. We were looking into adoption before Peter came along. And then Peter arrived, and then there was another three years before Tony was born, and then it was another seven years after that that Susan was born. It was a spread-out family.

That school fire, the school house … the first fire that I remember up there was a wool shed down by the school … the farm by the school; the wool shed got burnt down. This guy Frank Buttrick – he used to smoke a pipe, and he’d been in the wool shed that morning. Whether it was an ember from – I think he had hay stacked in the wool shed as well – and something had ignited this fire, and of course there was no hope of saving it – he burnt it down. And then it was after that that the neighbour on the other side of us, they lost their house in a fire. So they built another house; they got a caravan while the new house was being built, and then when that house was built they shifted out of the caravan into this house. And they’d only been in it a short time when that caught fire, but they were lucky – they were able to extinguish it. It was in behind the switchboard somewhere – it was faulty wiring – and they were able to extinguish it. Then, they must have been out the back of the farm somewhere; they came home and the house had gone up again. It must have re-ignited; it was smouldering for about three days, re-ignited, and then that was lost. So you know, It was too far away for the fire brigade to do anything much about it. So those were the only fires that I can remember up there.

Was there any logging done off the farm, or had it been logged?

No. No, it was mainly fern and scrub; there was a few small patches of native bush; there was a small patch of native bush on Frank Buttrick’s place,. And I used to go across there – you know, as kids you’d go across there with a pocket full of stones and a shanghai, and see what you could get. And I was wandering through this bush and I saw this funny-looking chook. I would’ve only been about eight or nine at the time, and I remember going home, saying to my dad – I said, “There’s a funny-looking chook over there with a big long beak and brown and white stripes on it, and it was walking towards me.” And he said, “Oh, I don’t think so.” [Chuckle] And of course it was years later that I realised it was a weka. There was [were] wekas up there when he went up there first, but the dogs got all of them. But this was years later, in the mid thirties; probably … well, getting on to the late thirties. He just didn’t believe that there would be any wekas there still, but … and I’ve since seen them; I saw one at Mohaka early one morning, I was going through to Mahia. I’ve seen one out by the Maraetotara Falls there. That was in the mid sixties, and I saw another one not long afterwards up by the Mohaka Viaduct, over by that little overhead rail bridge.

And so all the children grew up from Lumsden Road; they would’ve gone to Parkvale School, would they?

Yes. Peter did a couple of years at Parkvale; Susan was … I’m a bit hazy on their school years. They were always dressed and very spic and span; they were clean and tidy off to school – it was a big thing. I remember Susan was going to kindergarten one time, and – they used to pin an envelope onto their back with money in it – and she was biking along to the kindergarten just around the corner, and some boy went biking past and grabbed the loot and took off. She was broken-hearted when she got to the kindy. I don’t think Peter and Tony ever had that trouble.

Now besides working all your life, you also had a love of fishing?

Yes, yes; when we were first married I built my first boat I think – well, we were married in ’55, and I built my first boat in 1956. It was only a little twelve foot ply boat, but it was enough up at Mahia to you know, go and set a couple of cray pots, and travel you know, a couple of miles offshore with a little Seagull; those days you didn’t have to go far. I remember one time going out there before breakfast, and just put the Seagull on the back and puttered out and I was out there for not much longer than a quarter of an hour; back home, fish for breakfast. It was quite good, yeah.

Kaye’s step-father – they retired to Wairoa, and he used to love going out fishing until a shark came alongside that was longer than the boat. He never went out again.

I had a fourteen foot boat; my second boat was like that. The same thing; I was setting cray pots, and I saw this fin coming and I estimated it to be longer than my boat. Mind you, under the water it might’ve looked probably a bit longer than it actually was, but it was huge!

And you didn’t only river fish; a lot of your fishing was Waikaremoana, wasn’t it?

Well, I you know, got a boat that you could sleep on, and that was sort of in the later years, when the kids sort of were scattered then, and Mahia became a burden. It was you know, mowing lawns, fixing things, there’s painting – all that sort of thing. The kids had gone, and one time Averil said, “Oh, I’m sick of coming up here all the time”, you know, “year after year.” I said, “Okay, we’ll get rid of it.” And that’s what happened. So … sold it.

The original bach up there – my father bought the section in 1932 I think it was – may even have been earlier. And he bought it for £5, and I don’t know where he got the money from but … and it sat vacant for many years. And then he bought three PWD huts … Public Works Department Huts … and he was going to use them as a basis of a bach. And then when the war broke out, the Army commandeered them and they wanted them for Camp, and so he lost those. And then after the war they gave him three huts back which were Army huts; they weren’t PWD huts. They were just slapped up – they were a load of rubbish. And I think they even had the borer in when he got them. But anyway, he put these three huts together, sort of two like that and one there, and then opened this out and then put a verandah on the front. And that was in the early stages of my apprenticeship, and I did a bit of work on those, although he got local labour to do the bulk of it. I think I was still going to school when that happened.

And then later on in about 1958 I suggested to him that you know, we build a decent bach, and he said, “Yeah, all right.” So by doing that I was able to … you know, I made all the window frames, kitchen joinery; and I got a lot of interior doors, and got a lot of stuff and accumulated it and went up there one weekend and boxed it and poured the ring foundation; and then went up there the following weekend and boxed and poured the front porch and two steps. Then it stood like that for about twelve months, until my brother and my father, they filled the inside of the ring foundation with boulders and blocks and stuff. The old bach was still standing then; and then one Christmas holidays we poured the floor so it was ready for framing. Then they cut down a couple of trees up on the farm … couple of pine trees … took that up to Tuai and had it milled … took those logs up. This was before the days of the portable mills. Those logs were milled at Tuai, and then transported out to Mahia, and then one winter Averil and I and my father went up there and we framed it up, got the roof on, and got all the fibrolite on the outside and all the windows in; closed it in. Did that in a fortnight, just my father and I, and then it stood like that ‘til the following Christmas I think it was; and then I lined it out and finished it off over the Christmas and the following Easter. And then my mother and father painted it completely inside, you know, going backwards and forwards from Wairoa. So by doing it like that … And then I eventually took the rest of the bach over, and it became mine then, so … We had a lot of fun in it; the kids, you know, the fishing and the skiing and the … kids enjoyed it. The kids loved it.

And so then the family got tired of Mahia; that’s when you got the …

The big boat. [Chuckle] Yes, the big boat; went “gentleman fishing” … did some gentlemanly stuff. Didn’t have to get your feet wet then. That was good. We went up there just a few times, and then the launching, my brother and his wife went up and my sister and her husband came up from Christchurch and they had caravans, Averil and I had the boat to live on, and over Christmas and New Year we had ten days without a day’s rain. I think there might have been one day when it did rain, and we went down to Tuai for the day. But we had a wonderful spell of weather that year. It wasn’t the best looking of boats but ….

But it was practical.

Yes it was, it was; it was very comfortable. And of course the scenery up there is just second to none – beautiful. I’ve got a write-up about Waikaremoana there of the first release of trout they did in 1886, and you’d find it very interesting. They had a nursery in Palmerston North in Manawatu there, and they had half a dozen of these wooden barrels – hogsheads they would be, fifty-four gallons – and they railed them up from Palmerston to Napier, then they took them by the old’ Tangaroa’ boat … the boat that used to run between Napier and Wairoa … loaded them on to that, took them over to Wairoa, across the bar, up the river. They unloaded them at the Wairoa wharf on the riverbank, put them into horse and drays – couple of drays – and then they carted them up. All this took about a week to do. They were on the road for three days I think, between Wairoa and Waikaremoana. They’d have to stop every second night; they’d be changing the water all the way along. They lost a few fingerlings. And one of the places they spent the night at was that stream, the Mangapapa Stream, just around from the Ohuka turnoff. They put fresh water in it there. And then they eventually got to Waikaremoana and they put them into – I think they had three rowing boats – must’ve been two barrels in each boat. They would’ve been probably about sixteen foot rowing boats. No motors; they rowed these barrels down. They emptied the trout out in about three or four different spots – [it] was all the rainbow [trout] to start with. And this guy was describing the lake, and he said, “We rowed down this lake; the most beautiful lake I have seen in New Zealand.” It is – virtually untouched.

And I see the boat is still not far away, either. [Chuckles] You’ve got it in sight still.

Yeah – Graham’s old boat. Yes, Tony’s got the fishing and boating bug; hopefully he’ll get a bit of enjoyment out of that.

The McGurks have been in Australia, they’ve been in Christchurch, they’ve been in Wairoa …

Wanaka, and now back to Wairoa. So yes, done full circle.

Did you ever go duck-shooting?

Only once … only once. No, I was … the fishing and hunting at Waikaremoana was sort of my main …

Hunting … you’re a hunter?

Mainly fishing. I had a few rifles, but mainly fishing. It’s just the fishing side of it appealed to me.

Then of course you had your other sport that’s down the road from here at the Club …

Oh, the snooker. [Chuckle]

And that started you off on another whole new adventure of wood turning, didn’t it?

Yes, yes. Well yes, it did. Wood turning … there was a chap I knew, I used to bump into him every now and again. I’d go along to these demonstrations and exhibitions they’d have. And he used to say to me, “When are you going to join the club?” “Oh, one day, one day.” Anyway, one day came. I rang up the Secretary of the club who just lived around the corner from me and he picked me up and took me out to Pakowhai, and when I saw their stuff they had on the table for that night … they were just plain bowls, platters … and I looked at them and I thought, ‘Well, I wouldn’t know how to make any one of those – I couldn’t make any one of them, not one.’ But with the good demonstrators that they had there, when I saw how they did them I could see that I would have to get another lathe, a proper lathe with all the proper wood-turning … The lathe that I had for doing cues was just a home-made one which did the job – was ideal for cues but that’s about all. So once I watched these guys making these various things and then got a decent lathe, it just sort of took off from there, yeah – I loved it. It became a matter of dreaming up whatever the competition piece was; it was a matter of dreaming up how to make something that would catch the eye and be better than everybody else’s. [Chuckle]

It’s a real art form, isn’t it?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s right – just a block of wood.

So now Averil’s in care?

Yes, yes. I haven’t been ‘til I bumped into a guy the other day and he said he’d pick me up and take me along there one night if I ever wanted to. But I wouldn’t mind – at the moment I’m sort of setting up a workshop again; I’d like to get that set up because I quite often get the urge to go out there and do something. I would still love to be able to do something, but the enthusiasm is not as great as it was when I first joined.

You’ve filled in a lot of gaps I didn’t know, but is there anything you haven’t told me about?

I’ll probably think of something [chuckle] later on.

Oh, there is another thing that I didn’t mention. During that 1938 flood, on the banks of the Wairoa River there was an old Maori canoe and it would’ve been probably thirty foot long. It was quite a big canoe, and I remember it was totara. Why it was sitting on the banks of the river I don’t know, because that river used to come into flood quite a bit. Many times the river would be up over the banks and over the main street into the shops. This canoe, I remember up in the prow where it hadn’t been hollowed out there was a recess in the actual canoe where they used to carry their fire with them; they’d take embers with them. And totara never used to burn very well, it used to sort of just char; and in this recess where they carried their fire you could still see the charcoal in the timbers where it had been. You could still rub your hand in it and get black off it.

What happened to the old ..?

A flood came … the ‘38 flood came along and just … never saw it again. That would have been a piece of history lost.

Must be one of the old canoes?

Oh yes. But as kids we used to play in it, you know. It was there for many years, but why they put it on the riverbank I don’t know. It was down by the camping ground where a lot of people would’ve been able to see it and enjoy it, but it just went.

There is a camping ground in Wairoa, is there?

I think it’s still there. As you’re going into Wairoa from the Napier end, you turn left on the main street, and it’s almost at the end of the Marine Parade. Used to be low-lying. There was a building there and they had these electric hot-plates. You could go in there and it was just an open kitchen; there was no doors on it, and it faced to the nor-west which got the sun, and probably not a lot of rain. And the hot-plates were on benches around the inside of it … would’ve been probably about ten little hot-plates that you could go and use.

And when we went into town we’d take our lunches … cut lunch … and we’d go along to Oslers – get a loaf of fresh bread and a pound of factory butter. Mother would boil the … she had a little methylated spirits lamp … and boil the teapot on this lamp and have a cup of tea. But it‘d be all changed now. No, they’ve got cabins there now, or they did the last time I was there.

Well, I think we’ve probably got a pretty good cross-section of your family. Now how many grandchildren have you got?

Got eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. The eldest is Hannah – she is a doctor. The next one is Tim – he’s building. Then there’s Dominic – I think he’s driving a truck at the moment, I’m not sure; I think he started off as a reporter for some newspaper when he left school, but I think he’s driving a truck now. Then there’s Joseph – he’s in the Air Force; he’s a flight lieutenant. He’s in Melbourne. And then there’s Petra – I think she’s doing a course at EIT; pediatric course, I think. Oh, I’ve missed one out, Liam – he was twenty-four on Saturday. He had a birthday on Saturday. Then the other two are still going to school – the two youngest are Susan’s; Susan’s two are still going to school.

You’ve got a lovely mix – they do the whole spectrum. Okay, well I think probably we’ve covered just about everything, Brian. Yeah, that’s great – thank you.

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Interviewer:  Frank Cooper


  • Brian McGregor McGu

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