Address at Eskdale Church 1980 – Ray Haycock

This is an address given by Mr Ray Haycock on the occasion of the unveiling of the memorial plaque to France House in memory of Mr & Mrs Shaw, at the Eskdale Memorial Church on 1st June 1980.

Reverend [?], Distinguished Guests –

I’d like to take a few moments to address the boys as I want to be sure I get my message across, and that is this: None of us should ever feel inferior, or that the world owes us something. Because you were brought up a ‘Home kid’ doesn’t make you inferior to any man; you are as good as the best and can aspire to the highest stations in life. It’s all over to you.

My humble thanks for having asked me to make this address on your behalf. I started off with several rough drafts, and finally some typewritten sheets. They now look like rough drafts again; however, I’ll do my best to convey the message I know is in your hearts. But before this I must thank those responsible for the organisation of this weekend – it means so much to so many of us. A big special thanks to Miss Dorothy Kirkham for honouring us by officiating at the unveiling ceremony.

The records show that France House was opened in 1924 with an intake of nineteen boys from Gordon House in Napier. One of these boys was a young nine year old, Bill [?]. I understand Bill is present here today, a great day for him. For the first eleven years the Phillips family were in charge, and what stalwarts they must have been, coping with a flood in their first year, and then the earthquake, in 1931. I understand Mrs Phillips’ daughter, Mrs Eve Kirkham, is with us. Our thanks, for we are indebted to her for much of the history of those early years. The original two-storey structure was destroyed in the earthquake and replaced by a one-storey building which opened in January 1933.

From 1924 until its close in 1973, France House came under the care of six different families, the longest serving of these being Mr & Mrs Shaw from 1937 to 1956. Others who served there were Mr & Mrs Morgan, ‘56 to ‘67; Mr & Mrs Baxter, ‘67 to ‘71; Mr & Mrs Megan, ‘71 to ‘73; and Mr & Mrs Rhodes until the closing that same year. Each of these families played their important part in the moulding of the boys’ lives and in creating the history of France House.

Their work at France House could never have been accomplished without the selfless devotion of the other staff members, four of whom are present today. They are Miss Dorothy Kirkham, Miss Barbara Tyers, Miss Gladys Major (now Mrs Ironside), and Mrs Dorothy Goldsack.

No mention of France House can be made without associating with it the name of Skip Absolom, our Scoutmaster. What a man … a devoted Scouter, resilient, patient, a special breed of man;  he who could cope with so many for so long, and still survive to be with us today. Remember those camps? Rissington, Tutira – and if anyone reckons their patrol was better than the Tuis then I’ll see them outside.

Of the staff I would like to mention one special name, Miss Anderson, the cook. She used to make us whistle when we entered her pantry. Ha! This didn’t stop us from pinching the dates, though; we rolled them in our sleeves. Useful things to a boy are sleeves – you can wipe your nose on them or spit that horrible cod liver oil into it once the Matron’s back was turned. A few turnip tops went into mine as well. Remember those? And Mrs Shaw’s black eye? She slipped on some, and we never had to eat them again after that.

No history of France House can be complete without mention of members of the Board of Trustees, particularly those resident in the valley, and particularly those at Hedgeley. Every boy should be grateful to them, and I trust is showing it by his demeanour as he travels through life.

These notes will have provided some of the statistical history of France House, but the real living memory of France House is contained in the hearts and memories of hundreds of boys, now men, who passed through its doors. Many of these boys are here today to bear witness to this important event, and I have been asked to speak on their behalf. What I must make perfectly clear is that the personal stories I have to tell are similar to hundreds of stories that could be told by other boys, each tale revealing the real heartbeat of France House, the adolescent lives of the boys themselves, and what France House and the staff meant to them through the decades.

When I drive through this valley it brings back a kaleidoscope of memories; my childhood memories of this valley, its people, their work. I can recall the smell of lucerne hay, the swish of the scythe, the noise of sheep being mustered, the biting flies at milking. I think of Algie, the drake; Archie and Gilbert, our bulls; Lofty and Jean, our horses, and the salty taste from sweating while straining to keep the plough upright behind a heaving horse. I hear the laughter, the cries, and all the myriad noises of boys at play. I think of the people who lived here – names which come easily to mind are names like Beattie, Clark, Blair, Smith, Kirkham, Goldsack, Yule, Ellis, and old Waikato. There were many more, each contributing their important part to the life of the community.

Visitors to the valley would’ve noticed two prominent features – this church, and the water tower at France House. That tower was once a symbol of fear in the heart of many a boy, later to become a monument to his courage as he conquered its height. I remember my own desperate attempts as a ten year old boy to conceal my paralysing fear as I made my way to the top. This church featured prominently in the lives of the community; it is a memorial church dedicated to the memory of the Beattie family of Hedgeley. Here, every Sunday, the families of the community met to worship; Anglicans one Sunday, Presbyterians the next. A large proportion of this congregation was made up of boys from France House. They were easily recognised by their short haircuts and the distinctive ties they wore. In an endeavour to present a short history of France House as I knew it, and of the two people in whose memory this commemorative plaque will be unveiled, I will relate to you some personal memories of these two people and my fourteen years in the care of the Hawke’s Bay Children’s Homes.

It was in 1929 as a three year old boy that my six sisters and I were taken from Elsthorpe to Napier;  my sisters going to the girls’ Home, and I to the boys’ Home, Gordon House. Apart from the frightening experience of the earthquake and some happy memories of the year spent on Motihi Island in Auckland whilst the Home was being rebuilt, I cannot remember anything of any greater importance happening before that wonderful day in 1936 when I was transferred from Napier to France House at Eskdale. It is impossible for me to fully describe the importance of this occasion in the events of my life – certainly more important to me than my twenty-first birthday, which I celebrated whilst with the Army in Japan. I had at last attained the aspirations of every boy at Gordon House, to become a France House boy, a milestone that had taken eons to arrive.

The master and matron at this time were a Mr & Mrs Turner, a kindly enough couple, but who had unfortunately lost disciplinary control and with this, the respect of the farm boys. News soon spread that they were to leave and would be replaced by a Mr & Mrs Shaw. We were told Mrs Shaw had been a nursing Sister, and Mr Shaw, a tough ex-soldier. I remember the day of their arrival; it was in 1937 and every vantage point had been savagely fought for, each boy curious to catch a glimpse of them in their new Ford car, their Scots terrier, Toby, leaning out the window. “She doesn’t look too crabby”, someone said. “He’s big, all right”, and then raucous laughter as we spotted his bald head when he doffed his hat. From that day on he was affectionately referred to as ‘old Baldie’ – behind his back, of course.

It was soon evident there was to be showdown with the older farm boys. Mrs Shaw backed up her requests for obedience with a quince stick of which she seemed to have an unending supply, which she could wield very effectively. Mr Shaw administered his punishment with a two-inch strap whilst holding your head in a vice-like grip between his knees. This confrontation ended with some of the farm boys running away, inevitably to return and take their punishment. Under normal circumstances any healthy young boy can think up and perform enough mischief to try the patience of a saint, but turn your back on thirty angelic-faced boys for thirty seconds and see what happens. In no time a seething mass of bodies screaming, punching and kicking. It’s really hard to imagine, isn’t it?  That people actually enjoyed looking after that lot? Something of the character of these two people can be judged from the fact that they were successful in moulding the lives and characters of so many boys. As well, they managed the fifty-acre farm under trying circumstances;  yet we, the boys, respected them, and the discipline. I suppose this respect was helped along by their philosophy that a pat on the back builds character if delivered low enough and hard enough. I can remember a certain incident which helped in my own character building; I had been wrestling around with an older boy and was being held on the ground by him sitting on my stomach and pinning my hands above my head. I suppose I called him something nasty … I don’t remember, but I do remember his fist smashing down on my nose, bringing forth a gush of blood and a flood of tears. I will always remember that blow, not only for the pain it caused but for the indignity I suffered at being struck in the face whilst down. My loud yelp of pain sent my antagonist running and brought Mrs Shaw quickly to the scene. I poured out my tale of sorrow in the most hurt manner imaginable, telling her between woeful sobs of how I’d been hit in the face whilst down on the ground. Of course I fully expected her to produce a large quince stick, catch the culprit and thrash him to [within] an inch of his life. Alas, this wasn’t to be, and you may understand the hours of self-pity I later suffered when she bluntly told me, “You shouldn’t’ve let him get you down.”

I will always remember that day, and that same night I was lying awake, too hurt in body and mind to sleep. From across the river, echoing in the still air, came the inimitable calling of a steer to be answered by another, perhaps on the slopes of Magog. In the distance I could hear the challenging bark of a dog. I seemed to lay [lie] awake for hours … at last, a feeling of drowsiness. In the stillness I could hear the breathing of the other boys. Sleep finally came upon me with a dream – I dreamt I could clearly see Mrs Shaw flitting through the willows astride a large quince stick.

1938 came, and with it the second flood. I was in the hospital in Napier at the time having my tonsils removed. I’m not sure if there was much wrong with them; perhaps everyone was looking for relief from my wagging tongue. I’m afraid I let the side down a bit there. When the Sister brought me news of the flood my answer, which shocked her, was, “I hope the bloody quince tree went.”

The war came with the France House boys playing their part – knitting, digging trenches, winding bandages, picking ergot and briar hips; then the Home Guard, and how we enjoyed it. Mr Shaw was made a Captain, and involved us boys fully; we became skilled signallers and crack rifle shots. I once shot twenty-four out of twenty-five at five hundred yards’ range with a .303, top score against the whole Home Guard. Mr Shaw was really proud of this skinny fifteen year old. ‘Skinny’ – that was me. My mate was called ‘Foozle’; imagine his dear mother proudly baptising her boy with the aristocratic names Elwyn Fray, and us calling him Foozle.

We boys reckoned that Mrs Shaw had the sharpest ears in the Valley, and that Mr Shaw had eyes in the back of his head. He always seemed to catch us when we were up to no good; often we were saved by the timely appearance of Toby, his dog, or by catching a whiff of smoke from the pipe he smoked incessantly. This church records an incident which illustrates the assurance I had that his all-seeing eyes were always watching me. It was a dark night during the war. The signal to start the blackout practise was to be the ringing of the church bell. Another boy and I were given this job and we duly rang the bell at the set time. I had always wondered what it would be like to stand in the pulpit, and whilst waiting I had half a mind to climb the stairs and see. I walked up the aisle, put one foot on the bottom step but could go no further; I was sure that even in the dark, Mr Shaw was watching. I’m up here now, though.

On another occasion soon after this, I was glad and comforted to imagine he had been watching. The Second-in-Command of the Home Guard was a Mr Bellamy. He farmed in the Pakuratahi Valley which had neither telephone nor electricity at the time. Many times we had been sent to deliver messages to Mr Bellamy, and thought nothing of this even though it was several miles over some fairly hilly country. One night just at dusk the phone rang; I was called into the office and asked if I’d deliver an important message to Mr Bellamy. I suppose the shortage of petrol prevented Mr Shaw from going by car; at any rate I assured him I could find my way, and with a “Take care, Ray”, from Mrs Shaw and that knowing, ‘I’ll be watching’ look from Mr Shaw, I took off. No messenger ever felt so important. Past the Scout den I sped and through the gate by the pump shed. I was past the well itself and heading for the river before I heard the gate slam shut behind me. I was really burning up the ground, sure in my young mind the Japs were about to land and that every second counted. I crossed the river below the swimming pool, my feet scarcely skimming the water. My direction was for a certain fence line which would guide me to the top of the ridge that rolled gently towards the sea at Tangoio.

I reached the top, and far to my left I could see the dark smudge of that was the [?O’Heche?] Bush. I had trouble spelling O’Heche, but what a haven that place was – native pigeons, tuis, wild peacocks and all. We used to bring the eggs home and hatch them under black Orpingtons.

I’d better get back and get this message delivered or we may find a more local [?] waiting to frighten us. Turning to my right I headed down the ridge in the direction of the sea, my bare feet dodging the thistles and the wild cape gooseberries which were barely visible in the night light. Cattle, spooked by my approach, scattered in every direction, to come racing back inquisitive, snorting. Strangely, I was unafraid. As the distance to the sea became less I kept a watchful eye on the ridge of hills to my left, looking for the bowl-shaped depression which would tell me it was time to descend, cross the pastures below, and climb the top of the next ridge. Far below me I could faintly discern the Bellamy homestead. Nestled at the extreme end of the valley was the house and farm buildings of Rimu Sutton, another farmer. The distant barking of a dog told me I may have been spotted on the skyline, or maybe smelt – I really didn’t smell that bad. I was feeling elated though a little heady, and breathed deeply of the night air. I could feel the breeze on my face; it was real all right, but that smell of smoke … was it pipe smoke? Was I imagining it? As I dropped to the valley below I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know how, but maybe he is watching.’ I never found out what that message contained, and because of this felt a little hurt. I thought, ‘How strange, the ways of grown-ups … will they never understand a boy? His feelings?’

Came April 25th 1943. I arose and turned my mattress; I took a cold shower for the last time in my life. This day was the day of my farewell to France House. I had a brand new suitcase, a new pair of longs and a sports coat, in my pocket my life’s earnings of £14. I also had this bible; it was presented to me in memory of the late Robert France. I also had this – two pennies hang from this momento, and the simple words on it say, ‘Remembrance’ ‘Peter – Ray’. Surely a true memorial to France House for two people, anyway. At the station I put on a brave face, swallowed deeply, and waved my farewells from the railcar which would take me to Napier, and then by train to Palmerston [North] and eventually, Auckland. I was to start work as an apprentice motor mechanic. I should’ve been happy, for after fourteen years I was leaving, but as the railcar pulled away from the station I felt it was tearing my very heart apart. My bravery lasted as far as Yule’s Crossing a mile down the line, then the tears started, and continued … to Napier, to Palmerston, to Auckland, and a very long time after. I had never known such quietness, never felt such loneliness; how I missed France House … the boys, Mr & Mrs Shaw, and all they meant to me.

This wall plaque will be a fitting memorial to France House, but we who lived and worked there are living memorials, and should be proud of Robert France and the chance in life he gave us. My training at France House enabled me to quickly attain commissioned rank in the army, equipped me well for my business life, and helped in the guidance of my three boys through the difficult years of adolescence and into manhood.

Hazel & Les Shaw were justly proud of their achievements and followed the careers of their boys with undying interest. France House provided the means by which they were able to devote themselves to their life’s work, the care of the boys; not to them ordinary underprivileged boys, but special boys, very privileged; France House boys. They have both passed on to that grand lodge above. May their memories be forever cherished by those who knew them, and by those who read this memorial plaque. Thank you.

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Recorded address by Ray Haycock 1 June 1980


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