George Christensen Kelsen Interview
I’m interviewing George Christensen Kelsen, whose wife Sylvia and he have been married sixty years this November. He lives at Parkvale, Hastings, and the date today is 10th October 2018. So George can you tell us a bit about yourself? Where were you born?
I was born in Hawera – little town on the west coast of the North Island.
What number of fourteen were you?
I was number six.
And how many boys or how many girls?
There was six boys and the rest were girls, so that was eight girls.
And where did you go to school?
I went to school in Hawera … primary school there at Hawera, Turuturu.
No, I didn’t go to college. I left school at fifteen because I was mad on stock.
Sheep and cattle, or just sheep?
Cattle – cattle and horses. I used to go to the Hawera sale every Thursday. That was my day off of school and I used to help take cattle to Patea Freezing Works once a week and we used to drive them all the way down.
How many miles would it be?
Oh, probably about fifty, sixty ks [kilometres]. But we used to do it in two trips … well, in two days … we didn’t go down in a full day. We used to stop at Kakaramea Hotel and stayed there the night and then get up early in the morning and carry on because we had to go right through the middle of another little town over there and that’s where the freezing works were – Patea. And so you couldn’t take the cattle through there when everybody was running around, otherwise you’d have a lot of fun. We had a lot of fun with them anyway. We were going there one day – ‘cause we used to take ‘bout fifty bulls – and those things used to be fightin’ all the way and that. And I remember one time we were just going past the store in Patea, just coming into the town, and this little store outside there – it was my aunty’s store – and this big bull went up to the door and he saw his image in the glass and he thought we would go in and have a look, but we had to change his mind. And we did that, and away we went. So that’s what that was down there – very good, I enjoyed that very much.
And then what happened that you decided to come over to Hawke’s Bay?
Oh well, I decided to come over to Hawke’s Bay because I’d been on a dairy farm and we were milking four hundred cows and the chap and his sisters that [who] owned the place, he wanted me to take over as sharemilker. And I wanted to take that over very much, but when he went to his sisters and they said “well, if he can do it and bring the herd up to what it is today, we want to do it ourself”, [ourselves] so they wouldn’t let me take on the …
Oh, that was a shame.
Yeah, it was. And so I started lookin’ for a job, and I didn’t want to go onto another farm. And Wattie’s actually had a job, so I went to Wattie’s out on Lawn Road for two years.
And what were you doing there?
Well, just general pickin’ fruit when it was fruit time, and pruning, driving tractors, mowing all the orchard and that sort of thing. That was all right but it wasn’t the job that I really wanted because I didn’t seem to be going anywhere. And then my brother-in-law – he worked on the Power Board, he was one of the line foreman and that on the Power Board – and he said “do you think you’d like to go on the Power Board?” And I said “yeah, I would if I could get a job there.” He said “well, you’d better come in and see [a] chap by the name of Clyde Nissen.” Well Clyde Nissen was the big chief overseer.
And this is for the Hawke’s Bay Power Board?
Yes, for the Hawke’s Bay Power Board. And I went in to see Clyde, and he said “when can you start?” And I said “when do you want me to start?” And he said “Monday, if you can start”, and I said “that’ll do me fine.” So I went there and I was there for ‘bout thirty years, and I quite enjoyed the job.
This is 1972, so you’d already married Sylvia?
Yeah. Yes, well Sylvia and I got married in Hawera. That was in 1958 we got married. Yeah, when I was on the farm well Sylvia didn’t come to the shed to milk cows and that, she didn’t want to do that. She stayed home and looked after the family ‘cause at that time we had … well we had three. We had one boy and two girls, but then our youngest one come [came] along and that’s one of the reasons why I came to Hawke’s Bay, because I thought that our children would get a better education over here. And it proved a fact because they’ve all gone on and done pretty well. Unfortunately, two of ours are over in Australia, but our youngest one – she used to work for a firm here in New Zealand – Schwarzkopf I think it is – but she was the sales person – she travelled for them. And when she put in her form to leave they said “oh, don’t do that – we’ll see if you can get a job in Australia seeing you’re going over there.” And they have a company over there as well so they made a position for her.
Oh, how marvellous.
Yeah, so she’s over there, so she’s travelling around over there and that, and she really enjoys it.
And you’re looking forward to going [on] a visit there for your sixtieth wedding anniversary?
Definitely, yeah. We’ve got two girls there and they don’t live very far from one another … about five minutes away, so that’ll be good.
Can you tell us how you met Sylvia?
Well, I used to go to the skating rink in Hawera, and I used to like roller skating and I played hockey and that sort of thing. And I used to be one of those jokers who always skated backwards.
And Sylvia said to her girlfriend – she said, “oh, I’d like to meet that joker over there, but he doesn’t seem to know how to go forward because he’s always skating backwards”. But anyway, we did – we got to talking and that, and … oh well, many’s the time I used to take her home on the pushbike because she lived over one side of the town and I lived over the other. So it was quite a hike, but that didn’t matter – we were only young and we could do that sort of thing then.
Be fun …
Yeah, it was.
And then when you came to Hawke’s Bay, she had lots of family here?
Well she had four sisters I think it was, here, and they’d been here for a while. But funny [funnily] enough one of her sisters – she came over from Hawera, from where we lived. She came over here, her and her husband, and he was the one that was on the Power Board that asked me if I wanted a job. And so that was quite good because I didn’t have to go around chasing after everybody, and the chap that I saw there, well he was the one that made the decision whether he hired me or not.
And what did you actually do for the Power Board first off?
First off I was … well I wasn’t doing anything major, I was just going where I was put. I was doing a bit of this and a bit of that and I said to the boss one day, I said “oh, I … this is no good to me, I want to do something properly, not just ordinary dogsbody.” And he said “well, you’ve got to go through …” well at that time he said “you have to go where we put you”. And I said “well fair enough, you’re the bosses.” And so they did – I went on tree cutting and I went on the street lights, and I did all them [those] things, and they were very good. And oh, ‘bout five or six years I was there and the boss of the underground – chap called Bernie Umbridge – he said “we’re going to put you on one of the gangs here”. And I said “yeah?” And he said “yes”, he said, “we like to have all you men do all of the work”. And I said “well fair enough”, I said, “I don’t mind what work I do.” And so I went on there and it was diggin’ trenches and putting cable in, because at that particular time Hawke’s Bay Electric Power Board was doing a lot of underground.
Where would you be based mainly? Were you Napier or Hastings or Havelock?
No, we were based in Howard Street. We were there, and Napier … at that particular time Napier had their own sort of Power Board within the city and that, but they were called the MED, [Municipal Electricity Department] and it wasn’t very long after I went there that the Hawke’s Bay Power Board took over the MED so we had both areas … we had Hastings and Napier. As I say I did underground and that, and the big chief come out one day – it was … oh, I forget what his name was now but he was the CEO for the Power Board. And he said to me “how do you like your job?” I said “oh well, it’s all right, but” I said “if I’d’ve wanted to dig trenches” I said, “I’d have gone on the Council and dug trenches”. And he said “oh well, we can do something about that”. So it wasn’t that long where he put me on the line staff. Yeah.
So would one of them be that supervisor, DK Philpott?
Oh yeah, yeah.
And did you have to do exams for it, for safety and things?
Well we had to do safety courses … well first of all, I had to go to Wellington because … I had to go down there, you have to go to Wellington and that to get your ticket to be a linesman. So I went to Wellington and I spent three weeks down there. It was quite good – I learnt quite a bit down there and came back and I was a linesman – a ticketed linesmen from down there.
And this excellence … Customer Service Expedition to Excellence … awarded to George Kelsen recognising your attendance on the Customer Service Expedition to Excellence.
Yeah … yeah. Well, I … we worked on the Power Board on the underground. I used to get a few jobs I had to go to where the customer was a wee bit … oh, ticklish about the job, and I can always remember one out at Te Awanga – I went out there and I had to put a cable through this lady’s place. And I went in and she said “you get out of here, you’re not touching my place”. And I had to convince her that I could go through there and she wouldn’t know, and it took me a long time to convince that lady but in the finish she said “all right”, she said, “I’m going to town”. And I said “well that’s quite all right – I can have that job done probably in about four hours.” So we did the job, she came home and that’s when she got in touch with the Power Board because she couldn’t actually see where we’d been. And … yeah, and that’s when the big boss came down and he said to me “what a great job.”
Yeah well I was saying before that the longest time I went out was – I left Friday night. I come [came] in from our day’s work and that, the boss come [came] over and he said “oh, will you work?” And I said “yeah.” I said “how long for?” He said “I don’t know.” So away we went, we worked all that night and we worked all day Saturday and all day Sunday, and I never got back home ‘til ‘bout five o’clock Sunday night. But that was a big day because all the jobs we had to go to, or what [that] we wanted to look at, we had to walk. We couldn’t take a vehicle because it was all such rough country, and it was in a lot of trees and that, a lot of it, and we had to go and find the faults there. But that was the job that I’d taken on so I didn’t complain about the hours.
Was it reasonably well paid?
Oh, yeah it was, once you got up and you got your linesman ticket and that – you got a reasonable pay. But when I got on a bit further and became a foreman well then it jumped up quite a bit. But on today’s market your wages weren’t that high. You worked fairly hard for what you got, but I was quite happy to have a job there … didn’t worry me, because as I say, after coming off of a farm – well I used to work all hours on the farm so working in town or out in the country for the Power Board didn’t worry me. But the only thing that I was quite annoyed about was that the Power Board … yeah, well they weren’t that great but still, you had a job – that was the main thing. But I didn’t growl about it, but I used to work and that, and I got on pretty well with the bosses and that. And I’d go in and ask for time off and I could get time off reasonably well, which was quite good ‘cause we used to like to go away … travel.
Did they provide you with outdoor clothes as well and ordinary clothes too?
The clothes that we got – we got all wet weather gear … leggin’s, coats … but we got Swanndris and jerseys, and boots. You got a new pair of boots every year, if you needed them. Well I wasn’t that hard on my boots, I could wear a pair of boots for two years before I went … get another pair. But no, they were pretty good on giving you gear that you had to have if they wanted you to work out in the rain and that – you had to have the gear to go and do it. And no … they were …
Did you have two or three weeks’ leave a year? Or did it not work like that?
Yeah, you had two or three weeks. Well you actually had three weeks a year, but after you’d worked so many years you got four weeks. I think it was ten years and you got four weeks. Yeah, so I got four weeks and that, and that was good, that we could travel a bit.
And where did you live during this time in the Hawke’s Bay?
I lived in Havelock North. We went to Havelock North and we built a new house here in Havelock, and we lived in that house all our life until we came in here to Summerset. It was 35 Upham Street, Havelock North.
When you say that “we built the house”, did you help build it?
No I didn’t, we had a builder come in and do it and that, and that was quite funny because I went home from work … well I went round to the house to have a look at it and the builders were there. Well I had a look in the pantry, and they’d built the shelves and that but they hadn’t built them how I thought they should’ve. [Chuckle] And the builder was there and I said to him, I said “that won’t hold very much at all”. He said “it’d hold you”, he said, “if you’d like to get on it.” So I climbed on it and it broke.
So he had to turn around and build it how I suggested.
[Chuckle] That would give you a lot of satisfaction.
Yeah, it was … it was quite good. No – we did a lot of work round there, and I did a lot of work round there.
And gardening and everything too?
Gardening, and the front fence. I built the front fence, it was all built out of patterned Summit stone, and I built all that. And I was one of those people that liked to do anything. If I had a job there and I hadn’t done it before, I liked to try it before I got someone in to do it for me.
For recreation say, did you join any clubs or organisations? Or did you follow the children with sports?
Oh … children had sports and that, but I didn’t join any club and that because I used to play rugby before I came over to Hawke’s Bay, and I was quite good at it. I actually played a curtain raiser for the Springboks in 1956. And I came over here and when I went onto the Power Board, one of the chaps came up to me and said “I believe you play rugby and that?” And I said “yes”. He said “what about you playing for us?” He said “we’re playing the P&T”. That’s Post and Telegraph. And I said “oh, yeah?” He said “we’re going to smash ‘em”. And I said to him “if that’s the way you play,” I said “I don’t want anything to do with it”. And I never ever played again after that.
Because I don’t believe in goin’ out there to hurt somebody.
Yeah. If you go out there and you get hurt and it’s an accident – well, you’ve gotta take that. It’s like anything today – if you get hurt … accident … well you’ve just gotta take it as an accident.
So to conclude because I think we’ve covered most things, what would you advise people today to do if they were going in to being linesmen?
Well, I couldn’t really speak a lot about that because I don’t know – I haven’t seen much of it. But what I have heard, it’s changed a lot … a heck of a lot since I was there. Like Hawke’s Bay Power Board don’t exist any more; they’ve shifted from Howard Street – they’re out on Ormond Road, but I’ve hardly seen any of the guys since I’ve left.
No. So you finished in 1998?
Right. So we leave it there.
One last thing I was going to ask is if you think of anything more you’ll feel free to ring me up and we’ll add a bit more.
Original digital file
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Interviewer: Erica Tenquist