Brian Masters Townsend Interview
Today is the 20th of November 2017. I’m going to interview Brian Townsend on the life and times of his family in Hawke’s Bay. Brian is a retired upholsterer. Thank you, Brian.
Thank you, Frank. My grandfather was Thomas Masters and born on 31st of August 1861 at Great Rissington in Gloucestershire in England. He left London on the 25th of July 1878 on the ship called the ‘City of Auckland’, which actually foundered … coming down the coast of New Zealand … on the way, foundered off Otaki on its way round to Napier, because it was also carrying cargo to go to the existing people in Hawke’s Bay, such as the Chambers and the Tanners – the old family named people – yes, and the Nelsons – there was a lot of cargo on board for those early families.
He married Minnie Catherall on June the 8th 1887 in Hastings. Minnie was from … originally her parents were from Bendigo in Victoria. They were Irish. The father, Catherall, was from Yorkshire; the mother was Irish. They married in Bendigo, had a couple of children there then came out to New Zealand and started their family again here.
There was a family of Catheralls in Hastings, they weren’t relations?
Yes, they were … they were, yes. None here now, I can’t see them … no. I didn’t realise at the time I went through high school, there were two Catherall boys there and I realised then they actually were some relatives of mine. And then there was another family, the Bells, on the corner of Hastings Street and Southampton Street. Mrs Bell, Betty Bell, was actually a Catherall and she had sort of cousins – she was a cousin of my father’s. Yeah.
So Minnie Catherall, they had – my grandfather and grandmother had ten children, [music playing in background] only [of] which six survived. Four of the children died of the usual childhood ailments in those days, measles or mumps when they were under a year old, but the older of the four children actually had a very nasty accident in a fire – her nightdress caught fire and she was scorched and she died in hospital when she was about eleven years old. So sad.
Yes. Back to the Catherall family. The husband there was James, and the wife was a Mary-Anne McGraw, and they got married in 1854. When they shifted out to New Zealand from Bendigo they settled in various places in this country, even down in Wellington and way up to Hamilton. My grandmother, Minnie Catherall, was born in Hamilton in 1869. As I say, they were married 1887 – my grandfather Thomas Masters and Minnie Catherall married 1887, and they both died within three weeks of each other in 1941. Yeah.
Now you mentioned the name Masters, were you any relation to the Masters ..?
No, not at all. It’s an interesting fact – my grandfather came out as Thomas Masters – when he was buried, he was Thomas Masters Townsend. He’d had a bitter falling out with his family. He came out when he was about seventeen to a sister who was already here, and he took his mother’s maiden name, which was Townsend. And so that’s why many of the boys in our family are something Masters Townsend. They’ve taken it as a family name.
It’s happened in so many families.
I know – it’s amazing, isn’t it? Yeah.
My father Joe was born in 1905. He had, as I say, ten family members, four of which [whom] died in infancy with various problems.
He was born in Hawke’s Bay?
He was born in Hawke’s Bay. They were all born in Hastings … the whole family [was] born in Hastings. My father had three sisters and three brothers. I’ll give them in order of name, not in birth date or anything: there was Millie who ended up as a Mrs Dewson; there was my Aunt Doris, who didn’t marry for some time but she was then a Mrs Keneally in Hastings … from Wellington up to Hastings; and then the eldest of the family was my Aunt Alice Ellis, and she spent most of her time out of Hastings. But she came back here in the early sixties but then moved back to Hamilton where her two daughters were, and died in Hamilton. Auntie Doris died in Hastings and so did Auntie Millie who was a Mrs Dewson. My father then had another brother, Robert – he was in Auckland … he was always in Auckland. He moved up there, married up there to an English girl, had two sons, Robert and Lewis – Lewis died quite young; I’m not sure what Robert’s family is at the moment. Then the other one in Hastings who my father was very close to was Uncle Tom – he had four children, John, Kay, Cheryl and Linda, who was basically the family historian – she’s got everything together. And then my father had three children – my older sister Marion, who married in ‘53 and went back overseas and never came back to Hastings again except as a visit; my sister Shirley, and then myself and I was born in 1939.
Well your father, Brian, having been born in 1905, would’ve gone to school in Hastings?
Yes, he went to the Hastings Central School – the only school that was there.
So he grew up as a small boy before the war?
Yes, he did, yes.
And they would’ve been fairly hard times …
They were. I’ve got you know, old family photos and as usual with pioneering families all the women seem very grim. They [were] very stern people, yes. To survive in … yes. And when you think, you know, she’d gone through ten children and losing four of them in infancy – hard.
Was there a high school then?
There was, yes, but Dad didn’t go to the high – he went to the Napier Tech. He bussed over every day; so did my Uncle Tom.
So did he do a trade?
Yes, he became an upholsterer. He worked to start with for a firm in Hastings, Scoulars – quite an old firm. Yes, he worked there. And the – he was there when the earthquake struck, and then he went out on his own.
Just where was Scoulars originally?
It was down towards … you know the old building on the right hand side, Villa d’Este, and I think Redgraves was beside that … just a wee bit this side. Scoulars had a big shop in there. It was a wonderful firm.
So he then went out on his own?
Yes, in about 1935. He married in ‘29.
And who did he marry?
He married Dora Petty. And she came out with her family from Yorkshire in 1922. Her mother had died prior to that, and she was twelve. She came out with her brother who was ten, and an uncle and two aunts on the Myers side, ‘cause her mother was a Myers. But her father stayed back in Yorkshire and went to live with his older sister who was unmarried. She was a headmistress, at [?West Eaton?] in Yorkshire. And I saw his grave when I was over there about four years ago.
Now your mother, she finished her growing up in Hastings?
In Hastings, yes.
Until she eventually married your father?
Did she do anything as a young woman?
Well, as most young women did in those days, they went into service. She worked … both she and her aunts did service in families like the Beamishes from Whanawhana, and the Kellys in Hastings. It was the opportunity for young women in those days.
Where did you father, Joe, then start his business?
He started working from home. By that time he had built his home with help from my mother’s aunt – got a loan of £60, I think.
Where was that house?
That house was in Lyall Street, 816. And the garage is still there with his name above it, in the concrete. And he worked from home there … started off there. And then he ended up going into town and working at a business in … where Bones … the back of where Bones are now. He worked in there for many years. And then in the early forties he bought a big old building in Avenue Road in Hastings which was Odlins, the timber yard people. It was a two storey building, and that’s where he started expanding. But it was a big tall building to take the length of timber, but he put a mezzanine floor right through the building and yeah, he built up a very big business there.
And that was known as ..?
J A Townsend. Joseph Arthur.
How many years would he have been in business as an upholsterer in Hastings?
He’d’ve been in business well over sixty years.
And he didn’t only do upholstery – he sold furniture ..?
He did go into the manufacturing side of it. I served my apprenticeship with him – I started in 1957, and I served an apprenticeship which was five years in those days. And then I sort of grew up in the bus… we had about ten staff. And we kept the upholstery going, and then I expanded, just going into soft furnishing, curtaining and all that type of thing. Like, your wife worked for me at one stage.
There wasn’t that many upholsterers … Hutchinson’s didn’t start ‘til after the war …
That’s right, yes.
… and Kershaws probably.
They pre-dated my father by quite a bit, ‘cause they were …
That was an old company …
A very old company.
They were funeral directors; they did the whole job.
They did the whole job … yeah, they did.
Well over the period of time from doing your apprenticeship, you would’ve noticed a lot of changes within upholstery – the modern way of making frames, and the modern way of the shortcut with staple guns …
Which I don’t agree with. [Chuckle] Modern furniture’s made to be thrown away.
Well it has a use-by date, doesn’t it?
It does indeed, and it’s a very short use-by date, it really is. But as I say, my father retired when he was about sixty. He had a sort of a slight heart attack and he decided he would give up, and I really fully took over the business then and expanded it considerably. And then we had a major fire in 1980 – the original old building just go totally burnt down. And then I reduced the size of the business.
Yes, it was really just the big showroom then, wasn’t it? And the workshop?
And you know, some of the people that you trained and worked with – I remember Tup Epplett …
Oh yes. He was always my foreman.
And a master craftsman?
He was indeed.
And then you passed on what you’d learnt to the young chap Brittain?
No, it was Gary Miller. And he’s still in business in Hastings today.
And you know, once again I hear so many people saying what a wonderful craftsman he is.
Taught the old way but he probably uses a lot of new systems today.
Oh, he does – he has to, ‘cause it’s what they have to use these days. I mean at one stage – to start with we were the only upholsterers in Hastings – my father was. Because of health he never went away to the war, but after the war other people came in. He employed people who’d come back from the war, and one by one they went out on their own. There was Les Kennedy …
Yes, I remember he used to work from home, didn’t he?
That’s right. Davy Weeks. They all did their work … did their apprenticeships with my father. And so at one stage every other upholsterer in Hastings had been trained by my father’s firm.
Oh, that’s fascinating.
As we were saying earlier Brian – the change in furniture, the way it was made. We were introduced to the Chinese furniture. It must’ve horrified you when you were asked [chuckle] to do something to it?
It cost more to repair it than it did to make I think, in the end. It’s just not worth doing. So when I see, you know – suites being sold for $1,500 to $2,000, I just do weep at what’s inside them. So to get anything decent these days, you’d have to have something worth $10,000.
Yes, I never realised the difference. Do you remember Jack Bache?
No, I don’t.
Jack was a real craftsman … just loved working with mahogany and all the top timbers. I had a couple of chairs made and those chairs were so firm and so good to sit in – they had proper springs.
It’s all done with elastic webbing. Yeah.
And so you actually retired?
Yes. Yes, I retired from the business – I sold the business on to Gary Miller who was my final apprentice, and who was very good. I then went home to work from home myself for a few years. Then I basically retired when I was … from actual work … when I was about seventy-three, seventy-four. And I’ve just turned seventy-eight and a half.
So now you’re in the holding paddock?
I’m in the holding paddock, yes – staring down the end of the rifle. [Chuckles]
How quickly life rolls along, though …
It does roll along.
Now your children … what are they up to?
I’ve two children – I’ve got a son, David, who’s over in London, he’s working for a big decorating firm over there and has a partner. A very interesting firm, the firm deals with people such as David Beckham. Apparently when you go into their homes your cellphones and everything are left out – total security. You know, you’re checked in and you’re checked out.
Wouldn’t it be terrible to live like that?
Wouldn’t it be terrible? And pretentious – it is pretentious, it really is. And my daughter, Sarah, who was born in ‘72, she is now a vet … or she trained to be a vet … and now she’s working with MPI and has charge of one of the works in Wanganui. She’s married with two children.
Ministry of Primary Industries – ‘til they change its name again. It was the Department of Ag, [Agriculture] wasn’t it? Yes.
And what are her children’s names?
The eldest boy, Alexander – he’s coming eleven, and Isobelle, the daughter, she’s nine.
Then of course you lost your wife?
Alison died eleven years ago, 1966.  It’s a shame … it’s a dread… cancer. She was a severe asthmatic for many years, and was on a high dose prednisone. And then in mid to late 2005 she started getting broken bones and they diagnosed it just as high-use prednisone, which does weaken the bones. And then it got worse and worse, and it wasn’t ‘til January 2005, it just got so severe they thought there must be something else, and it turned out to be multiple myeloma, which is a cancer of the bone. Yeah. And that was diagnosed in … basically I think in April that year – no, it was diagnosed in February – and they gave us five years and she was dead in April of that year. So … got no more than three months.
During the period of time when you were doing your upholstery, what was your greatest challenge?
I can’t remember actually any – well one job anyway, just a very small sort of job was when I was in the end working from home, a chair was brought into me to be recovered – I can’t quite remember the customer’s name now, but it was an old Hastings family. And when I stripped the chair down – I had to take it down further than normally I would’ve done – my father’s name, he’d written his name on one of the side rails. He’d done something to it when he was working at Scoulars I think, in about … it would have been about in the mid-thirties. And there was also another name on it, John Harrison, who was working for me. And so it was brought back to us at that time, possibly in the sixties, and John covered it. Then I got it then – it would have been in the mid-seventies, so I put my name on it as well.
Now you remember the chap who used to restore old furniture?
Reuben Wright, yes. He worked from my factory at one stage, at the back.
It was amazing what they could do with chisels …
I know. It really was amazing. But we did a tremendous amount of work over the years for [??] called the old Hastings families. I can remember once going out to Greenhill Station – it would’ve been in the seventies – to do a job for Mrs Hudson. And she showed me – they had a huge curtain going across a door – it hung onto the ground by about a metre, in the old homestead. In fact my father put that up when he was working for Scoulars. So I often caught up with my family going around some of these homes. It was wonderful, and they were such nice people, those big old families. She called my father Joe. Yes, they weren’t snobs, those people … those old families. And they remembered my father. And the Chambers … we did a lot of work for the Chambers over the years … all those families.
And of course some of the furniture and stuff that you had to work on, you had to know what you were doing …
Oh, they were still strong, it was amazing. All those skills have gone … all those skills have gone. You talk about Reuben Wright – I mean, his tools – they’d cost a fortune to buy these days. All different chisels and everything that he had.
You mentioned the Symons family. My family goes back to that as well. Yeah, there’s Symons in my family. I think through the Catheralls so we might be connected somewhere.
Well see the Catheralls were related to the McKeown family of Havelock North because Jack Catherall married a McKeown, and that could be another …
Well Jack was my father’s cousin. That’s scary, Frank.
Well, see there’s a pretty good chance you know, there wasn’t that many people in Hastings in the …
No, there weren’t.
… 1800s. But yeah, that was the Symons’, and they were the only coach builders in Hastings.
And they had the leather aprons. Yeah. That’s an interesting point, Frank.
Yes, well I’ve found about nine relatives that I didn’t know I had in talking to people … doing this interviewing. So can you think of anything else that we may not have covered?
Did we go over Alison’s … my wife’s family?
No, we didn’t.
Well, just briefly – they actually came from the South Island. They’re a very strong Presbyterian family, whereas my family were very strong on the Methodist side. But they were very strong Presbyterians. My mother-in-law – she was one of the first women through university in New Zealand. Yes – went through Otago, when women didn’t do that sort of thing.
Do you know what she trained as?
Well then she was a teacher – she did go teaching. I’m trying to think … she did go through university with a person who did become a Cabinet Minister in one of the National governments – I must get his name and give it to you. My sister-in-law would remember that, but yes. So my mother-in-law was from Dunedin and she was a Gladys Roy, and she married Oliver Elliot who was from a farming family in Otago. The Depression knocked him out of farming as it did many people in those days, but they got married in 1939 and he joined the Police Force, and then they moved up to Gisborne. And the Elliot family then stayed in Gisborne. He was a policeman.
Yes, he was. And he died in about ‘64. And then I met Alison up in Gisborne. I was right out of my patch – I knew her mother before I knew Alison. And you know, the usual thing – she’s quite nice. Yes, we struck up a … yes, so it was good. We got married in 1970.
It’s surprising – people still moved around.
They moved around – I’m amazed how they even moved around in the early 1900s.
‘Cause there was a degree of difficulty to do it.
Yes. But where the [there’s a] will there[’s] a way – they did move about.
‘Cause a lot of them, Brian, moved by the coastal ships.
Because the coastal ships actually were the roads before we had roads.
Actually I hadn’t thought of that – suppose [?] the way they did move. As I say, the ship my grandfather came out on, the Auckland, it was coming down the west coast of New Zealand, would’ve gone round Wellington. It was bound for Napier.
When you said it foundered, does that mean it tipped over?
It sank. It sank, yes.
With all the …
Everybody on board, yes.
No, they were all saved. I’ve got it in the article there. [Indicates newspaper article] Everybody was saved. It was off Foxton.
And all that lovely furniture for these wealthy families ..?
Well, I think it was … yes, I don’t know what happened to that – maybe they never got it. Or it might have been brought in and then taken further south. I wouldn’t know.
Some of our early families, they certainly did bring a lot of furniture …
Very good things. My family wouldn’t have been doing that at all. As I say my grandfather, who was only about seventeen on that ship – he left his family in the UK – coming out to his sister who was already here. There were two hundred [and] forty people … passengers, on that ship. When you see this ship you wonder how they survived the journey.
There was no option, there was no alternative.
No … no, no. No – and they were escaping what was thought a worse existence in UK, coming out to a better one here.
Well some of them must have been very surprised because it wasn’t easy.
It still wasn’t easy. I know my mother always recounted the time … I say she came out with the Myers family in 1922, but prior to that – prior to the First World War – the older brother, Ewart Myers, was here working for Holts in Napier. And when the First World War started up he went back and enlisted and he was killed in the First World War. They all came back, ‘cause on one of his trips back – everything was rationed in Yorkshire, even in late 1914, 1913, that time – when he got back they put what was a week’s supply of butter on the table because he was an honoured guest. He just took it all up and put it on his bread, and they were aghast at what they thought was a waste of butter that would have lasted them for a week. But he said everything was so good here, even in those days – everything was available. And this to them was a land of milk and honey. So although great uncle Ewart was killed in the First World War, his whole family moved out here because of what he thought of the country. They weren’t wrong. It took a while, but when you see it today it’s still a good country.
Well I don’t think there’s a great deal more we can prise out of you. We can always do an addendum – history’s never finished.
No, it’s not, is it? Still going on.
So thank you, Brian, for letting me interview … the life and times of your family.
Yeah – and they’ve been good times. They have been.
Original digital file
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
- Brian Masters Townsend
- Alison Garden Elliott Townsend
Interviewer: Frank Cooper
Supporters and sponsors
We sincerely thank the following businesses and organisations for their support.