Dr (Bruce) Thomas John Bruce Ritchie Interview
Good afternoon. I’m interviewing Dr Bruce Ritchie, long-time family of Hastings and he will have a very interesting story to tell I’m sure. It’s the 18 May , and okay Bruce, it’s all over to you.
Okay, thank you, Jim. Well I was born in Hastings at Sister Cooper’s, who was on the corner of St Aubyn Street and Market Street. I went to school … first of all, we used to live in a number of houses which were owned by my grandfather, and we’d shift around in Hastings. I first went to school at Parkvale, and my best friend was Gordon Black. And I can recall each day going back to the Black house in Avenue Road opposite Vidal’s, and we would have a glass of milk and a homemade biscuit, and we sat on the steps by the back door. The back doorstep was scrubbed every day – it was totally white – but we were not allowed to go inside because we might bring in some dirt. So we did this every day for two years, and then we shifted house down to Eastbourne Street. And this was a house behind my grandfather’s business, Thomas Ritchie Limited. And so I changed schools and went to Central School. Those days were fun days.
At about that time there was the polio epidemic, and so school was stopped and we used to get our lessons for school in the newspaper. But we used to play tennis on the Eastbourne Street road – things were very basic. I had two sisters, Jean and Betty. Going back a year or two, when I was just … about two years old, because we had lived in this house before, my mother put me outside in the pram, and because it was sunny she put the hood up. And then the earthquake struck and the chimney came down, hit the cover of the pram and I was protected from any major injury.
So I went to school at Central until I left in Form 2. During this time I used to work in my grandfather’s shop, I was the gofer boy – I’d go for the mail, I’d go for the – whatever. Then I used to do work in the holidays, and I assumed that this would be my career. My Father was in the business and so was my uncle. But in those days the head person, in this case my grandfather, they were in total charge. So I did think that I would one day become the owner of the business. But then one day my father said to me “I want you to become a doctor”. And so I said “okay”. And so that was good, although I still think I could have done very well in the business.
So I went to the Boys’ High for five years, and then I went to Victoria University. In those days medical intermediate was very hard, and I was not able to do well during the terms, but with a bit of cunning I suppose, I thought ‘I can’t ever do all the work’. So I looked at last year’s exam paper and I saw some questions. I went back for about seven or eight years, and I found that each year there were a lot of questions which were of the same sort. And so I thought, ‘well if I learn all those questions I should be okay’, because you had a choice of five out of seven questions. So I did very well, got second in the University and went down to Dunedin. And I had a very enjoyable time, but it was hard work – hard work in the physical sense – we used to go out to Port Chalmers and work on the wharves, and we also had to work very hard with study.
So I eventually qualified in 1953 and my first job was at the Hastings Hospital. In those days Liam Broughton was the Superintendent. So I worked there for three years, and I said to Doctor Ballantyne, “shall I start practice in Hastings?” He said “no, go away for a year or two”. So I went up north to Kaikohe in the Bay of Islands to do a locum for Doctor Paewai, who was a Maori All Black, but I stayed for nine years because I was so busy I didn’t have time to shift. But I’d travel down sometimes to Hawke’s Bay … to Hastings … which was about a twelve-hour trip – come down for Easter weekend to see my parents.
So we were in Kaikohe, we built a house, but people were very poor. They could not pay me in money so I got toheroas, crayfish, whitebait, fish, meat – whatever. But because our fridge was not very big I had to give most of it away.
So we had four children and I suddenly realised that I was actually starting to spend more than I could make. So I thought ‘this cannot go on for too long’, so I decided to come back to Hastings where the chance of making a reasonable living was far greater.
But the people up in Kaikohe were mainly Maoris – they were loving people, and a clean Maori person was a very, very clean person. Their houses were immaculate. But however a lot of Maori houses were not very clean. I used to get calls from four in the morning ‘til about midnight. The early morning calls were the people in the country. The late calls were from people in the town. I can recall one morning the phone going about five o’clock, and a voice said to me, “is that you Doc?” And I said “yes”. He said “you come and see the old man, eh?” I said “well what’s wrong with him?” And he said in a very serious voice “he just woke up dead”. And that’s really what happened – he woke up every morning alive, but this morning he woke up dead.
So we came back to Hastings and I worked at the hospital for a year and then went into private practice in Raureka, and started off with no clients. I can recall the first day a woman came in who was not sick, but she said “I’ve come to have a look at you”. I said “why?” “Well”, she said “I want to see how young you are and how fit you look”. I said “why?” “Well”, she said “Norm Wimsett just died”, she said “that Doctor Wimsett – he’s the second doctor that’s gone and died on me”. So we became friends.
Hospital work was … I got involved in anaesthetics at the public hospital, because there was no one to do them so seven general practitioners decided to form a team and supply all the anaesthetics, day and night. And I also worked at Royston which paid a bit better than public. But they were good days, we worked as a team and we did not do it for money – it was done as a vocational position. And I can recall the last day I did duty in the hospital I worked for eight hours on Sunday in the theatre for acute cases, and my reward for that eight hours on a Sunday was $50. We were paid according to … we did so many sessions – a session for your cold cases and a session for the acute cases. So it was not done for money.
So the reason I left was because Stuart Drysdale and myself had decided to buy a bit of land out at Mangatahi which became a deer farm, but we had no time to spare doing anaesthetics. So the deer farm was there, but the farm itself – the first we had it was a drought and there was not one blade of grass on the farm. And I said to Stuart, “we haven’t chosen well”, although first of all we thought we might have grapes on the land – it had a river going through it – but we were told by the Agriculture Department that grapes would be pulled out soon, and that would be a waste of time. So after ten years I decided to … we had an offer for the farm, and we had a plan that after ten years if one person wanted money out for any reason the other person had the right to purchase. So Stuart wanted some money for his family to go to University, so I bought the farm and I changed over to cattle breeding which was much easier, because there was a lot of work involved for our wives in the feeding out every day.
Can we just go back a little bit – Thomas Ritchie, what sort of business?
I’ll go onto that now. Thomas Ritchie Limited – he was my grandfather. In fact I thought he was a king, because one of the photographs I had was him dressed up as the Grand Master in the Masonic Lodge and I said to my friends at school, “well my grandfather’s a king”. So there was my grandfather who had the business, which first of all was down the other end of town next to FL Bone, and then for some reason they shifted up to West Heretaunga Street, next to Roach’s. And we had land going from Heretaunga Street right through to Eastbourne Street – a big area of land. So there was a plumbing part to it and an electrical part. My father ran the plumbing department and my uncle ran the electrical part. In those days, this is during the War and just after, my grandfather employed about forty men, and we had seven light vehicles which was a major thing for a business. I can recall Jimmy O’Connor, the ex-Mayor of Hastings, used to work as a plumber for my grandfather, and I can recall seeing him on his bicycle riding along with a toilet pan through his arm. That’s how things were transported.
So I worked in the school holidays. I used to work in the shop. I used to do the banking, get the mail, go for the morning tea. We had a couple of characters there – one was Jack Keong who worked there all his life, and the other was Hilda Pope. Hilda Pope had red hair – she had it from the time I knew her – I don’t know whether she’s still alive.
I used to look for opportunities, and I can recall – this is at the end of the War – you could not buy a torch anywhere, and I happened to be in McKenzie’s store and I saw some torches there, picked them up and saw ‘Made in Japan’ – I think it was Japan. And they were about 2/6d each – two shillings and sixpence, so I went back to the shop and I said to my father, “can I have £2 to buy some torches?” He said “oh sure, take it”. So I went and bought the torches for £2, so I would have got eight … no sorry, sixteen, yeah. So I brought them back and put them under the counter and I put one on the counter. I can recall the first chap coming in, a farmer, saying “is that torch is that for sale?” I said “yes”. “Ooh”, he said “can I buy it?” I said “yes, they’re 12/6d” – twelve shillings and sixpence, which I thought was pretty good profit, five hundred per cent. So he took it, away he went and I put another one out. So I sold the whole sixteen or whatever it was in a very short time at a great profit for Thomas Ritchie Limited.
Now I thought because my grandfather had all the licences for the overseas equipment like irons and toasters and what-have-you, he was the master importer. So that was pretty profitable. So my grandfather – we had a house at Haumoana; he had a two-storeyed house there and we had a bach or a small house behind, and my uncle had one along the road. And my grandfather was the first person in Hawke’s Bay to have an upstairs toilet. It was never heard of before.
So coming back to Hastings, my father and my uncle worked as a team beneath the umbrella of my grandfather, and they were simple days. I can recall, I was a person that swept out the shop and washed the floors and did much of the work. I can recall they used to have boxes of fittings of any sort, plumbing fittings, or switches – whatever – and they had a system whereby we had a box – like a shelf – and on the front there was a card which said ’20’ and when you took out one thing from the box you crossed out the twenty and put ‘19’, and that’s how we did their stocktake. Quite simple.
While you’re thinking, I’ve got a question here. You had two sisters, what were their names?
Betty. Or Elizabeth really – Betty eventually went to Canada on her OE and she got married over there, so she lived in Vancouver for many years. She died suddenly at the age of sixty-one, which my parents found very hard to accept, having a sibling go before them. And my other sister, Jean – Jean Forde – she lives at Matapiro on a four-hundred-acre farm, and her husband was part of the Matapiro Estate.
And were they older than you, or younger?
Betty was a year and a half older and Jean was about two years younger.
When you were in Kaikohe and you used to drive down here, what sort of car did you have?
I had a Valiant Charger, two-door. I bought it from Thompson Motors in Karamu Road, and we packed the back seat with all our luggage and put a mattress on top of the luggage, and the four children slept on the mattress. When I was up there on the weekend on call, I’d do two hundred miles visiting people, ‘cause some people were thirty-five miles away, one way. Today no one visits anyone.
Actually when you said you called on them, thinking of that TV programme about the doctor who used to do his rounds – it was an English programme – he did all the calls out in the country.
Well, talking about that – I can recall my first day on duty in Kaikohe. We’d arrived with £80, that’s all I had, and we had a house lined up to rent and we’d bought a mattress to put on the floor – we couldn’t afford bed ends. And our table to eat off was a packing case. We had that for six months as a table. I can recall Cyril Whittaker used to fly up there for aerial mapping – they used to come and stay with us – Cyril Whittaker and Don Trask.
The only doctor at I can remember who used to do the calls … we had a Doctor Brown in Havelock … he was a fine Englishman, and he did the calls. And the only other one I remember is Doctor Cashmore. He used to do a call to my parents’ place, and often the call stayed pretty late.
I know, yeah – it was the same at my parents’ place.
My first call was out to the country, and I got to this house – they said “someone is dying” – got to this house and there were cars everywhere, and people everywhere. So I finally stepped over people and got to the room where this patient was. He was a pretty old I would say half-Maori, but he had pneumonia. So I gave him some penicillin which was the correct treatment, and then they said “well, come and have a cup of tea”, after I’d seen him. And I was told that you never refuse a cup of tea – that’s not respectful. So I go in there and there’s a big table in this area, and people having cups of tea. And no one had ever mentioned any payment, so I was aware of that. So – it was about ten miles out, at about midnight on a Sunday night – so I saw off the kitchen, a big pig hanging down. This is for the tangi. I said “oh, that’s a big pig – looks nice”, and they said “oh – would you like some?” I said “oh yes, thank you”. “How many children you got?” We only had one – I said “well two, one’s on the way so there’ll be four of us”. So I got some pork to take home. That was payment.
But you know people like Ro Cashmore for instance – when I was working with him, if you were in bed in a cold house with say pneumonia, or bronchitis – he would not send a bill, he’d probably deliver a bag of coal and a couple of blankets from home. No payment. And that’s how I grew up, and I found it very difficult to charge people even in Hastings sometimes. If they didn’t have much, I’d say to the girls, “well, she needs the money more than I do, so don’t charge her”. They said “you’re silly!” I said “oh …”. But that was just the way I was trained. I got my reward in the gratitude … in the thanks.
Yes, you’re probably a bit kind to some of them, but they never do you any harm.
If you can afford to do it … I can recall in Hastings, I used to go and see a patient and his wife most weeks. And she was my mother’s bridesmaid, so I could not charge her. But every time I went there she’d say “I’ve got something for you”. And I’d say “oh, what is it?” It was a cake, or some biscuits or something which she’d done herself, and it was a bit of a joke with us. I went there one day and she said “I’ve got something for you”. I said “well what is it?” She said “it’s money”. And I said “I don’t need your money”. But she was upset. She said “this is a gift of love”. And she’d been left some money from an aunt, and she was giving me a third … a third for her husband and a third for me. And so I bought a horse for the farm and named it after her – Rose. But you know those are the things you …
You remember, too.
Yeah. But I … you know, to me the money wasn’t … I didn’t want her to go without. But she said “this is a gift of love”. She was only a short person – she got quite angry, but it didn’t last long.
Now what about – when did your grandfather first come to Hawke’s Bay? Or your great-grandfather?
That I don’t quite know. Well, all I know is when my father was just a seven or eight-year-old, he used to take him down to the St Andrew’s Church, then back to the Pacific. In fact when they lived at Haumoana they used to have a horse and dray. This horse and dray would take my great-grandfather to the Clive pub and bring him home – no driver at all. [Chuckle]
Mr Starnes … it was the same at the Havelock Hotel. [Chuckle]
Yeah. But they’ve been good days. I’ve been lucky, much luckier than a lot of my contemporaries. I used to look after a lot of my ex-school mates. It’s very hard to be unemotional when you’re looking after somebody that’s dying you’ve known since you were at high school.
Tell me about the family life, you and your wife and kids, they were all in Hastings – what did they do while you were doctoring?
You mean my wife? Well Judy was just … she was the receptionist at home, she fielded all the phone calls. She was a nurse or had been a nurse, but no, she just raised the family as most people did in those days.
And you had four boys?
No, three boys and a girl. In fact my sisters had the same, three boys and a girl … interesting.
What about sport and other skills and talents? Were you a member of any clubs, or ..?
Rotary Club. Well I’m a charter member of Stortford Lodge Rotary Club. I was the rugby doctor, you know, for Hawke’s Bay and of course I play golf.
And a very good golfer I might add too.
[Chuckle] I remember Barry Lavery beating me for the BMA Cup, because Ted Shilton said to me – we were on the fourth tee – he said “don’t go out of bounds”. Oh, what do I do? Go out of bounds. [Chuckle] And that cost me – I lost the Cup by one stroke, but we used to have a lot of fun. We used to be … Peter Dennehy, myself, Trevor Wrightson, you know, twelve of us – Rex Bennett, Alec Speers – yeah. But gradually they just disappeared … they died.
You didn’t have any War service?
Yes, I did. if you count the Otago Medical Corps – we were at Medical School. If we joined the Territorials we got a full kit of clothing, boots and stuff, and greatcoats, and we got paid £1 a day to go out there on a day’s … we got fed, and we used to go to camps in Central Otago. I can recall going to a field day, and some of us were like doctors or first aiders, and some were patients. So the patients had a little label on them saying what was wrong, like ‘broken leg’ or ‘head injury’, and we had this field day and got back to Dunedin and we were one short when they did a head count. And the guy who had ‘concussion’, he thought he should not … most of the guys said “I’m over here”, so they made it easy. This guy with the ‘head injury’ thought … well he’s not … he can’t talk, he’s concussed, so he stayed there. And it got dark, and [chuckle] so – I was in the Territorials. And we used to have – at Boys’ High, we had cadets there. Do you recall people like Bruce Comrie? Well he and a couple of others, I don’t know who it was – they got suspended for firing a live Bren gun into the big gum tree which – they were well away from it. Where the bullets went to I don’t know.
[Chuckle] What are the notable things you did in Rotary?
I was the third President of the Club. I held every office but Secretary – that was Max Grainer’s job.
And are you a Paul Harris fellow after all that?
Yes, I’m … Paul Harris …
So you held that back from me?
Oh! Well Paul Harris … twice, I got a special – well there’s a sapphire – I’m a double Paul Harris, and the only charter member.
What about your travels that you’ve done now – overseas?
Well, there’s two parts to that story. Judy and I … she had a sister over in Washington DC so we went across there. We went to see my sister in Vancouver. So we went that way mostly, and we went to Hong Kong and Singapore to meet some family coming home each time they were overseas. Been to Australia a few times, but basically we had the farm as recreation and that’s what we did. Now after Judy died …
And what year was that?
2007. Gordon and I were – we didn’t socialise all the time, but we just …
You were great friends, weren’t you?
Yeah. And strangely enough, after Judy died Gordon and I used to get together more often. And they were here one day at the table for lunch, and on the Monday Gordon rang me and he said … basically talked about Russell’s health, about whether he should have an operation. So we were discussing family because they were patients of mine, although Noelene wasn’t, but Gordon and the family were. So you know, the plan was that he’d ring me back on Thursday and we’d sort of finalise what we should do. And the phone went and a voice said “that you Bruce?” I said “yes”. It was Gordon’s voice but it was Russell speaking, to say that Gordon had dropped dead in the village. So then – I went to the funeral, I said my words at the funeral service. But we had a plan that this … he died on either the 5th or 7th of June a year later after Judy had died, and we were due to have a memorial service here for Judy’s first anniversary. And of course Noelene rang up and said “well, I really can’t come because of Gordon’s death”. So I said well, I understood that, and I said “well come and have a cup of coffee, sometime”. So rang up and arranged for Noelene to come and have a cup of coffee. And then she was going up to Auckland to see her daughter and family, and we arranged to go … I said “well when you get back give me a ring, and we’ll go out and have lunch somewhere” – just in a very supportive way. I was trying to support her at this stage, emotionally, and we just sort of gradually enjoyed each other’s company, and … and so Noelene and I have travelled the world. We’ve been everywhere. Well, first of all she said to me one night at a restaurant – Elephant Hill – “oh, I think I’d like to go to the Mediterranean ’cause I’ve never been there”. She said “I’ve booked my ticket”. She said “would you like to come?” I said “yes”. So that’s how we started off. Went to the East and West Mediterranean – in fact we were on the ‘Concordia’ just before it sank. Went to London, then to Europe and back to London. That was our first trip. Then we went from San Francisco to Miami through the Canal, then we flew to Bangkok, went from Bangkok to Dubai. Then we went from Peru to New York through the Canal again, and from Boston to Montreal. And the last big trip was going to Shanghai to Sydney … went to China … that was five weeks, a bit too long. Went to the Great Wall, so we’ve seen …done the Great Wall, the Pyramids, Niagara Falls – and that was three of the Great Wonders.
The Hanging Gardens … Egypt or somewhere?
Hanging Gardens in New York, where they used to have the old railway line. And we’ve been going to Hawaii every year. It’s a long way, and so we think we’ll just do a few short – we go to Australia every year. And we go to [?Lake Ends?] in Taupo every year, for about six weeks. But we’ll do Samoa in July and we’ll pick up Rarotonga next year. It’s just … we just enjoy it, but then the ship life is – five weeks seems a bit repetitive. But you know, we’ve enjoyed it.
Well, that’s a pretty interesting life. If you do happen to think of anything else at a later time just let me know, and we can come up and we can put it on a …
Well, all these photographs. One photograph I can recall was – they used to have a street parade – every firm put in a float. And we used to – because Thomas Ritchie used to make a lot of windmills – everything, metalwork – they used to make anything with copper or iron, and I can see this photograph with my Aunt Lena on the float with a windmill – not a full size, but half size or quarter size, and with a sign that says – “You Never Miss the Water until the Well Runs Dry”. Which is quite true. In those days every firm in town put a float on.
Coming back to the earthquake, a lot of people ran out of Roach’s and got killed, and a lot of people stayed inside and got killed. Others survived, but Roach’s lost a lot of customers and staff.
There the ones on the corner of …
Where the Farmer’s are.
And the area up the top? That round bit, is that still there?
What was in there?
Just a feature I think. Maybe a bit of an office.
Well, on behalf of the Hawke’s Bay Knowledge Bank, Bruce, thank you very much for that … the story of your life.
You’re most welcome.
Anyway, thank you very much.
Original digital file
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Interviewer: Jim Newbigin
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