Davidson, Leon Vaughan Interview

2nd July [2021]. I’m interviewing this morning Leon Davidson, well known Hawke’s Bay man. Good morning, Leon, very good of you to give us a talk on your family history, and I’m waiting for a very interesting talk.

Yeah, my name is Leon Vaughan Davidson. [Microphone interference] I was born at Sister Cooper’s Nursing Home, which was 204W St Aubyn Street Hastings. That property now is a [an] undertakers or funeral directors, so the saying ‘You’re born to die’, is true.

I was born on 27th October 1944. My parents, *Claude and Joan Davidson, had three other children, all boys – Eric, Alvin and Nigel. I became number four. Because my mother suffered badly with her health, I was passed on to a very loving couple who had one only son, so I was an addition to their family. This couple was Mr & Mrs Kelly, who lived in Akina Street Hastings with their son, Peter. I can always remember cuddling into Mrs Kelly as she was such a beautiful person. Jack Kelly was the caretaker at the Hastings Central School.

When I reached the age of five I was taken to the Wellington Hospital, spending the next five months mainly, being blind. They discovered I had corneal ulcers, so I had to learn to deal with this problem. It was focusing the scars through the pupils, so seeing through the scars. During my time in hospital I listened to the radio – because TV [television] wasn’t invented in those days – and become [became] interested in horse racing.

My doctor in the Wellington Hospital was Dr Hope-Robertson, and I had a doctor specialist in Napier who was Dr Gray. As I spent many hours there, later on in my life my eye doctor was John Loughlin. My eyes seemed to give me trouble at funny times like long holidays, so I used to ring John directly at his home, and he would say, “Come down to my surgery”, and we’d have a look at it, and he knew my eyes better than I did. He’d put drops in and then I would recover.

Apart from my eye problem, I had a normal childhood. Around the age of ten or eleven I did a milk run around the area near us. I disliked winter, because the tokens froze to the bottom of the bottle. [Chuckle] After school I did a paper run for the Daily Telegraph – ‘cause there was [were] two papers, the Hawke’s Bay Herald Tribune and the Daily Telegraph. I remember I had to deliver one paper to the last house in Riverslea Road, owned by the Gordon family, which was a honey place.

When I got to high school I had a job after school at Foster Brooks, delivering different magazines around town, and I earned seventeen shillings and sixpence [17/6d, or £1/7/6] per week. With my savings I bought a brand new bike from the Onward Cycle Centre which was in King Street, next to the TAB. [Totalisator Agency Board]

Was that Andy Ross?

Andy Ross, yes, that was Andy Ross. And I think he might’ve been just the only bike shop at that stage. I certainly looked after that bike because it was my pride and joy.

My schooling started at Hastings Central School; I was aged six because of my eye problem. I don’t remember much about those first few years at primary school, but believe my brothers looked after me, and I remember playing rugby for the Junior B team at primary school.

Leaving primary school I was at the Hastings Intermediate in 1958, and that was only two years old at that stage, ‘cause my brother, Nigel, was a first day pupil. My first teacher at Hastings Intermediate was Eric Coomb. In 1959 I was playing First XV rugby, coached by Mr Maurie Taylor.

Then high school started; I was in the Commercial Practice class, because there was Professional; Trades – and I didn’t want to do a trade, I wanted to learn office work. In the second year at high school I got third in the senior cross-country run, but I think it must’ve taken it out of me, because I [be]came quite ill in November, and ended up in hospital in the Isolation ward. However, I recovered and spent Christmas holidays getting better.

Just after Christmas and early in the new year, I received a phone call from a very good friend whose mother worked at Foster Brooks; and he worked at Whakatu Freezing Works office and asked if I wanted a job as office junior. I didn’t really want to go back to school and I thought working was the best opportunity.

My friend showed me a little about what I had to do in the office, and the first lesson I learnt was to go to the top floor of the freezing works and ask Mr Robertson, the head supervisor, for a long weight. [Wait] Turned out everyone knew this trick, and a few days later I was taking some papers to Mr Robertson, and a worker along the killing chain … a chap pushed a carcass into my nice clean white shirt which covered me in blood. Gosh, I was angry, and just about cried. I went down to Mr Cyril Cushing’s office as he was the Works Manager. I showed him my blooded shirt and said he should sack that person. All he said to me – “Laddie, behind the door is a white coat, use that next time.”

Another thing I had to do as office junior was to get my car licence, as every day we had to come into Hastings for various jobs. Back then in 1964 the firm had two cars – one was a Ford Angular [Anglia] and the other was a [an] FJ Holden. My friend would drive the Holden and myself the Ford, and we’d race into Hastings to see who was first, one taking the Pakowhai Road and myself taking the Karamu Road, to meet at the bank in Hastings.

I was only an office junior for about three weeks before moving into the Stock department. Mr Reg State was the livestock manager at the freezing works at that time, but my actual boss was Bob Wilding. It was a great place to learn about office work because in the off-season when the works closed from July to September, there was no killing to be done ‘cause there’s maintenance work to be done at the works. I transferred to many departments, one being the Pay department and also ended up being a Cashier. Other departments I worked in was [were] Accounts, Shipping and Produce department. I think why I was put into the departments so early after being office junior, is I put the company car as I was backing it into Hart Print in Hastings – I could’ve driven a truck down the driver’s side – but I pushed the side of the Ford into a fence in town. Thinking I was getting sacked when I returned to Whakatu to face Mr Horace North, the office manager – he had already been rung by the owners in Hastings – when I explained to him what happened he just said, “Take it into Hastings Ford Motors to get fixed.” In my four years I learnt so much, and got to drive many of the Hawke’s Bay farmers’ cars as they would ask me to go and pick up their reject lambs from over the works side. Some farmers had very powerful cars.

One thing I wanted to do was to be a stock buyer but needed some farming experience. I saw a job advertised as a farm shepherd on Pukekura Station situated on Middle Road, which was Māori lease and part of the Te Aute Station. It was about sixteen hundred acres. Norman Avery [who] was a pioneer in the early days did most of the breaking in of the farm; but this owner, Mr Frank Maxwell, purchased Pukekura hill country in 1965 and sold it to John Field in 1993. Why I worked as a shepherd doing a lambing beat for Mr Maxwell, is he didn’t like riding horses, so I had the horses to ride over the ranges and the hills. You could see the main Hastings-Wellington highway from the ridge, and I think it was the coldest winter Hawke’s Bay had ever experienced.

One funny story about the lambing beat was removing dead lambs from the ewes. Frank Maxwell had two daughters who attended Woodford House, and in the holidays they came out to the farm with me to show me the best way to remove the dead lambs from the ewes. They said, “Never wash your hands after removing the dead lambs because the smell will never go away.”

In August 1966 I was twenty-two year[s] old. A cousin of my wife’s came to see us on the farm. I tell you it’s a good idea to visit the Patangata pub, which wasn’t far from the farm. Unfortunately, coming home he forgot to take a bend, as he’d just bought a new small car after having a big Studebaker. But he rolled this car on the Pukekura farm. I received head injuries and was taken to hospital. On the Monday I returned to the farm, and Mr Maxwell said, “The first job that you’ve got to do is fix the fence that you’ve wrecked.” I wasn’t happy with this lie, so I handed in my notice.

Leaving the farm that September, I needed to find work as my wife was expecting our first child in October. I rang my very best friend Syd Taylor who’d worked at the Tomoana Freezing Works in the office since 1955; he’d been there eleven years. I asked him if there was any work; he told me to come in and meet Mr Colin Bartle who was the office manager. He told me to start the next week which was a Monday, 3rd October 1966. Three days later my wife at the time had a baby girl in Bethany Maternity Salvation Army ward over in Napier; my boss at the time wasn’t very impressed me taking time off work as I had just started. We named her Kerry Marie, but we had a boy’s name picked out and it was supposed to be Kelvin Mark, so she got the name Kerry Marie.

Those days computers weren’t in use, and everything was done longhand and in handwriting. I really enjoyed this work and ended up in the position of booking clerk, which involved enough stock for the next day’s kill. All this may sound easy, but the freezing industry had a strong union and would strike at any given moment – walk off the job without any reason. I would have to have a full [?day’s?] kill coming in for [the] next day, plus what was already in the stockyards. Stock had to be stocked, otherwise we’d get overflowing in the yards. You may think this was easy; we had two-way radios to each of the stock buyers in their cars. That night when I spoke to them there was [were] many excuses that they couldn’t get the range of the two-way radios; and that evening I would ring roughly twenty people every night. Toll calls in those days – I used to ring one toll operator and she’d take all my calls, and after each call finished she’d put me onto the next one.

My boss at that time got very sick, and I was made stock manager involving ten staff. The livestock supervisor’s name was Gordon Ansford. He was a mighty chap, and we had a very interested [interesting] working relationship. He took me over to Taupō to go through Lochinver Station, which was an interesting day’s outing; I didn’t realise how big it was. I probably got on with Gordon, who had a partnership with Bill Reeves, the transporter at the time, in a race horse called ‘Commanding’ which was a pretty good horse.

All right – the worst thing that happened in my job as a stock manager was the huge fire at Tomoana on 17th September 1979 which destroyed the killing floors, putting the company out of business. As I was a volunteer fireman for the Tomoana Freezing Works Fire Brigade as well as stock manager, my time was working eighteen hours a day. I shall come back later on my fire service, but moving stock to be killed was a major exercise on its own as we still had to look after our clientele. Lord Vestey owned two other freezing works in New Zealand; Patea in Taranaki and the Westfield Freezing Works in Mt Wellington in Auckland, plus having a share in the freezing works in Kaiti. [Gisborne]

What a nightmare on occasions – if stock was being moved to be killed at Patea they would go on strike. I told the trucking firm to continue on to Westfield. The poor truck drivers didn’t know where they were going and where they were going to end up. As one truck driver said, “[As] long as I’ve got my toothbrush I’m quite happy to take the stock anywhere.”

There would be many other events that happened but must get on with my story about Cyclone Bola which hit the East Coast late February 1988, taking out huge amounts of stock losses. Owing to this I was moved from the stock department because there wasn’t enough stock to do and they wanted to move me on to be a meat grader, and later on I would become quality control in the freezing industry. Unbeknownst to me I believe the management knew they were downsizing the staff, and I was made redundant in 1989 after twenty-three years’ service at the freezing works. That was in August 1989.

After a few weeks without any work, a friend said to me did I want a job in Havelock [North]? It was [with] Mr McDonald – he had a firm out [at] Havelock and he was making apple machinery so that they could be moved to Christchurch. I was there for the first week, and it was the first time in my life that I had walked out with the boss for morning tea [and] lunch – fifteen minutes exactly, and fifty-five minutes for lunch. I wasn’t used to this as we’d had any old times; never mattered how long we took.

An advert[isement] appeared in the Hawke’s Bay Herald Tribune for a sales person/cleaner at Bon Marche clothing store in Hastings. I started there on 28th November ‘89. I was lucky to get work which was an early start but finished around one o’clock. The Jones family had run the business for eighty-nine years, [and] the firm was run by Richard Jones, his brother[s] Bryce, Stuart and Ross. They treated the staff with respect – I would say to [that] Richard was one of the best bosses I have worked for in my working life. Unfortunately their business suffered with a drop in sales owing to The Warehouse coming in and other cheap clothing businesses. They couldn’t carry on, and Richard told me they were putting off staff. I said, “Well what will I do?” He mentioned a supermarket down the road were looking for staff, so I took off and got an interview with the manager/owner of the Hastings New World supermarket.

The job I was given was on trial [without] any contracts, and I was working part time with a store person. Interesting work, with so much [many] goods coming into the storeroom every day … truckloads of it. Lots of young men and women passed through the place in that time. As I was there for the last working conditions, the owner/manager, who sometimes I never came across, sacked a very good worker who was in charge of the storeroom at the time. I really don’t know why I managed to hold onto this job but after three years in the storeroom, I was promoted to the front of the shop and made Lotto manager. This had many very interesting working parts, learning dealing with all sorts of people.

When I reached sixty-five I finally had enough of early starts; I was the keyholder for many years, and the hours suited me, starting at six in the morning – sometimes five – and finishing at one o’clock. This allowed me to pick up my grandchildren from school each day, particular[ly] my eldest granddaughter, Claudia, from Havelock Primary, plus Intermediate. She used to go to ballet at Jennifer Grant’s in Hastings. Once she started Napier Girls’ High School I’d pick her up every day, and she’d go to ballet once a week. In the first year at high school she was selected in the soccer team First XI, and she also made the Under 14s team, training twice a week; Wednesday, school matches. When she was thirteen, [she] played soccer on Sundays for the Marist Women’s [?Club?] team.

I also had two other grandchildren who attended Havelock Primary and Intermediate, Anton and Grant. I picked them up from time to time. All my New Zealand grandchildren played soccer during the winter. My daughter, Paula, did a lot of coaching so I used to go and watch a lot of soccer until recently. The grandchildren have grown up and gone to university or found work in specialist fields; Anton is an apprentice plumber.

The Aussie grandchildren are crazy rugby league fans. The oldest is a cabinet maker and the youngest is a plasterer. My only granddaughter in Australia is a mother of a gorgeous boy. Unfortunately I don’t see the Aussie grandchildren owing to Covid 19.

I told you briefly about my working life, but wish to tell you about my fire service. I worked at the Tomoana Freezing Works three years, and my boss, Rowan Hawkes, was Third Officer and asked if I’d like to become a volunteer fire fighter, so on 16th January 1969 I joined. When the fire alarm went off you dropped everything and put your brain into another gear ‘cause you didn’t know what you were attending. The fire station [was] close to the office so I always made the first appliance. In those early days we had a steam engine which used to go up and down the road with carriages with frozen lamb carcasses, but it blew out sparks along the railway lines and we got a few fire calls to put out the grass.

Ammonia leaks were a common event; on 5th July the biggest one [that] happened was caused by human error. A piece of pipe fell and damaged the valve allowing liquid ammonia to stream out of the valve. It vaporised and sent clouds of poisonous gasses billowing into the air. A red alert was declared in Hastings, and I [received] ammonia burns to the back of the neck and ended up in hospital with breathing difficulties. I was given oxygen and kept overnight. The works brigade had inter-work competition each year at different venues, going to Patea and Westfield.

In 1989 I was made redundant from the Tomoana Fire Brigade; it become [became] very bad for me as I was vice president on the committee of the Hawke’s Bay sub-Association, an organisation started by Len Harlen which helped fire brigades with their service. With the help of some wonderful people I got a position in the Hastings Volunteers which allowed me to become president of the Hawke’s Bay Fire Brigade Association, a very honour[ed] occasion in my fire service. On Saturday 10th 1984 I was awarded Good Conduct Medals, and 1st April 1995 I was awarded my Gold Star for twenty-five years’ service.

By joining the Hastings Fire Brigade, there were many incidents where volunteers were involved. The first one was in 1991; I’d just come back from Australia, Sydney, and they were having bush fires there and it was quite frightening. We got a call this particular night – a huge fire fuelled by gales at the farm of Warren Kent’s property in Tikokino. The wind was so bad that particular day – they were playing cricket in Wellington – the bails wouldn’t stay on the wicket. And this fire was fuelled by cow dung on fire blowing through the fields. Our Officer in Charge at that stage, said we’d fight this head on. I was frightened that I was going to get burnt to death.

In May 1993 the Mayfair [Hotel] fire was the biggest fire I had been to, even after my practising at brigade each Monday night. At this venue we believe the fire was deliberately lit, and it was going to burn down anyway. I was inside the Carousel Bar looking around and the flames were all around me, and I thought, ‘Well, I’d drunk in the hotel’, and I thought, ‘well I may as well die there.’ Fell through the floor. My friend who was on the branch with me said, “Let’s get out of here”, and [we] followed the hose out. I’d gone through three breathing apparatus[es] that particular night, so I must have been fairly fit.

I ran waterway competitions which were all round New Zealand, for eighteen years in UFBA [United Fire Brigades’ Association] competitions. I was a time keeper at Invercargill and Queenstown, and the Fire Service paid for all that.

Sporting interests: I played rugby at primary school, plus in 1959 I was in the First XV at Hastings Intermediate. In high school they had so many teams and I was lucky to get into a team; they only had two soccer teams but quite a few rugby teams.

In 1962 I played for the Hastings Rugby Club. I had a short stint being a referee for a couple of years. Last game of rugby I played was against Hastings High School Old Boy[s] in ’69. In 1971-74 I was a committee member of the Havelock North Rugby Club, and during that time the club produced a club magazine and I edited it with Terry Longley. 1975 I was the treasurer for the Hastings sub-union and Jimmy O’Connor was our chairman. In 1992 I coached a senior social team with a lot of the ex-prem [premiership] players, and they didn’t need a lot of training. But one particular player was in the police force, used to come out in his uniform, run out first five-eighth, hop back in the car and go off to work. In 2018 the Havelock North Rugby Club celebrated a hundred and twenty-five years; I [was] part of the committee to put out a souvenir booklet.

In the early eighties I’d gained a fair bit of extra weight. As I was competing in fire brigade competition[s] I [it] was made harder, as I was unfit. I joined up with the Hawke’s Bay Marathon Clinic which catered for all types of runners. My first jog was approximately five km [kilometres] and over a period of time increased it up to twenty-two km by running the Tukituki Valley circuit. By the end of the year my training was made easier running with a person called Brian Steel, an ex-All Black who had been running for many years and helped me along the way. I’d certainly built up enough mileage to complete my first ever marathon, which was on 24th October 1982. It was the Labour Weekend. The weather conditions to start the run was [were] perfect – sunny conditions – but a few km into the run the weather changed very quickly, with a hail storm whipping into the bare skin from the Antarctic blast. I was happy to finish in a time of three hours twenty-six [minutes]. From that moment on I ran many other events each weekend.

My next full marathon was the Fletchers Challenge around Rotorua Lake, and on Saturday 30th August 1983, three thousand competitors started from the Government Gardens in town. Eight drink stations and seven sponge stations are located through the 42.195k course. I quite enjoyed this particular marathon as many of my friends were running it. The only disappointment was coming off the hills at the half-way mark; I went too fast and hit the wall around the 30k mark. However I ran and stopped for the next 12 km and finished in a time of three [hours] nineteen [minutes] which I was happy with.

Running had become interesting, with great mates … Ray Burney and Gary Minton … as Gary had finished the nineteenth annual Fletcher marathon at the time, of just over four hours.

We said we’d train to run our next marathon, which was the DB [Dominion Breweries] Wairarapa country one; [a] two-lap course starting and finishing at the War Memorial Stadium on Saturday 12th November 1983. We all completed that marathon under four hours … around three-forty … so it was a great achievement and Gary was stoked that he’d made it.

After this run Ray and I decided to tackle the City of Auckland International Marathon, held on 4th February ‘84. This course was round the bays, starting and finishing from the downtown wharf in Auckland. It went right out to St Heliers, which they still do as a fun run.

My friend Ray and I said, “We’re going to go to the 21st Fletcher Marathon at Rotorua – we should run it.” I took this run as a fun run and finished in three hours forty [minutes], but felt very good. When I wasn’t running marathons I was competing in fire brigade waterway competitions so every weekend was fully involved.

My hobbies … started as a schoolboy when I stayed with my grandparents who lived in the Devonport flats in New Plymouth. Taranaki had the Ranfurly Shield in 1959. My nana was a fanatic rugby fan, and we used to go to the games; and we went to Taranaki v Wellington, 22nd August, as I was staying in New Plymouth for the school holidays. Nana bought me a programme as I didn’t know any of the players. I showed my pop when I got home after the game, and he said I could have ones that my nana had gone to previous[ly] for Taranaki games. To keep track I had to catalogue them in an exercise book so I had an accurate record. I collected rugby programmes like stamp collectors. My collection grew over the years and I now have over three thousand programmes in my collection, the oldest being the 1924 Hawke’s Bay-Auckland match … price there was sixpence [6d]. I slowed down collecting rugby programmes, and concentrated on annual rugby almanacs. I enjoyed my collection of rugby Shield programmes because you can follow some of those outstanding players ‘til they [be]come All Blacks. Now I’m a sports junkie, watching rugby, netball, V8 super cars, golf, horse racing; so I never get bored.

In my retirement I enjoyed growing flowers and vegetable seeds. This is [an] interesting pastime as I’d never been a keen gardener, as [was] my mother who did my flower gardens when she was around eighty, on a walking stick.

Once a month I would chair a group called Rebus; their motto’s ‘Steering a Safe Course through our Retirement Years’. The position was only to be for two years, but I have been doing it much longer than that. I have many, many other interests, but now find relaxing is the best cure.

‘Bout my travel – in 1991 travelled to England for my then wife’s daughter’s wedding; we travelled all over Scotland from Sheffield in Yorkshire. My other travel is [was] to the Melbourne Cup in 1991 when I went to the toilet, and a guy said, “We won!” I said, “No, we didn’t win – Kingston Town won, it’s an Australian [horse].” He said, “No, we got second, third and fourth.”

I’ve had many other trips to Australia to visit the grandchildren. So that’s about the lot that I’ve got to tell you, and I think I’ve covered it all. Thank you very much.

Leon, very, very good talk indeed …

Bloody boring. [Chuckle]

… brought back some wonderful names from the old days. He’s had a wonderful time, and I think we’ll probably see him in another ten years and follow up with him; he’s a real go-ahead man. Okay, thank you.

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Interviewer:  Jim Newbigin

* Claude Davidson Interview

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