Janet Shaw Totty Interview
Today is the 18th November 2015. I’m interviewing Janet Shaw Totty about the life and times of growing up in the village of Havelock North and Hastings and also her long years in the music industry in Hawke’s Bay. Janet would you like to tell me something about your family and where they came from and so forth.
Yes, I would like to do that. My Mum and Dad were – my father came from Scotland, and he went to Te Kuiti to help on the farm there, milking cows and doing what you do on a farm, and that’s where he met my Mum. She was a Keighley – a big family, I think there were seven altogether, and from a very musical family. Aunty Grace was one of the daughters and she came down to Havelock and she was working as a nurse. She was very qualified in the nursing field and so she helped run the Home up Duart Road.
Right, was that Duart?
Yes, Duart Hospital. Well when she started there she obviously said to Mum “come on down here, it’s great”. So that’s what happened. Mum and Dad both came down here, and Nigel was born.
And so what did your father do when he came to Havelock, then?
We’re not quite sure, but I think he was just a handyman. He was a builder, but he just managed to get odd jobs and that sort of thing.
The village then was only a little wee village with not many people, and you had to take on whatever work you could.
That’s right – well they first went to Jolls’ – Stan Joll – and they were in a play room beside their house. And we lived in … well I mean it wasn’t me, but definitely Nigel would have been born, and he might have been raised those first couple of years …
Was that in Joll Road?
No, that was in Middle Road.
Along from where you eventually had your home, yes.
Yes. I don’t know how long they were there but then they bought the old Post Office – the original Post Office in Middle Road.
And was that the house that you lived in?
Right up against … butted on to the footpath, that house. Mum was always frightened of a fire being lit by some yahoo going past, so she took down a lovely looking veranda thing that was there much to my brother’s dismay. But yeah, and then of course next door we had a lovely garden, and then we had Mr Given with the blacksmith, right next door to us.
So there was only Jolls. What was beyond Jolls? There was a paddock there wasn’t ..?
No, no the paddock was earlier before the actual Borough Council. There was a big paddock in there. But after Jolls there was [were] lots of houses.
Until you got down to the old Nimon homestead.
Yes, well the bridge was before that.
And so you were born in the village, and you went to school no doubt ..?
Te Mata Road.
Havelock North Primary School. What was that like those days?
Oh, it was pretty tough in a way – well I thought it was. Miss Crombie was … she was the iron lady but she probably did us a lot of good in those beginnings.
I remember Eileen Crombie. She certainly had the iron hand, but of all the teachers that I remember and respect it was Eileen Crombie for her discipline and support. We used to think she was old and grumpy, but she would have only been in probably early forties.
I know, yes – that’s quite right. And then there was Mr Black. He was a wonderful teacher.
[Speaking together] Yes, well he was our third form teacher.
Yeah, and then there was Mr White. He was the headmaster. They used to help me even in those days – Mr Black did. He’d ask me to write things down in music for the class, so he probably could see a little potential coming along there.
He was a good man. Mr White was too.
Oh, he was great.
We were really lucky. So you went to school, and you obviously played basketball those days?
And when did you start your music lessons, then?
Well, about that time I went to a Miss Fox, up Duart Road and got my Grade 1 with her. I don’t remember a thing about it except the piano – where it was and what she gave me to eat. But I’ve got the Certificate to prove that I actually …
[Speaking together] Good one.
… did do Grade 1 – it was only a Pass, but it was a start. And then I think she must have passed away, and Mum said “you’re going now to the Convent in Hastings”. “Oh, please, no!” Anyway that’s where I went, and I had this wonderful music teacher, Sister Gonzaga, who I totally loved – she was absolutely gorgeous to me. And so I got through from Grade 1 – started with her 2 and went up to Grade 8. Tried for my letters twice and missed by three marks – ‘well, that’s it.’ You know, I’d done enough of that one.
And obviously you went to High School.
So what did you ..?
Oh, just a General course because I had in my mind that we had to have an apprenticeship, and so both Elaine and I – my sister and I – went to a dressmaker. I went to Mademoiselle Bignon in Hastings.
That sounds pretty posh.
[Chuckle] It wasn’t really. It’s where actual the Police Station is now. They took down her house. But she was a lovely old lady. We had about six or eight people in that huge room. We were allowed music there which was certainly fine to do our sewing with. And then she retired and then I went to Miss Grant who lived down King Street. It was a tiny wee room, no music, and that didn’t suit me too well.
So music at that stage was obviously very much a part of your life. Were you always classical?
No, because my brother Nigel – he liked the modern music. My Dad did not like it and would say “turn off that rubbish – I don’t want to be listening to that rubbish”. Bing Crosby. But I was asked to play for the extras at the Premier Hall and I’d get in for free and I got … I think paid 10/- for playing the extras. And I was so frightened that Sister would find out what I was doing. She did, and I thought ‘this’ll be the curtains for me’. But no, she didn’t seem to mind. So that was one of my real luxury things that happened to me.
So whose band was playing at the Premier those days?
It would be Les Culver. He was wonderful to me. He needn’t have, but he got me up every time there was the extras coming on, he’d always call me up to the piano. And my girlfriend said “you played that too fast.” I thought ‘oh well, they could have just danced …
A bit quicker. [Chuckle]
… or slowed down their steps to get in with me. But no, it was a good learning curve for me. Even the people in the band now all say “I remember when you used to play at the Premier.” Nice memories.
And so you carried on dressmaking and playing the piano. Were you still playing basketball at that stage?
No, we went on to indoor basketball. And so we had a team out in Havelock …
So where did you play basketball in Havelock? Not in the old St Lukes’ Hall?
No, but it was … the baths were there. There was a little room at the back there – we met there, that’s right. No I think it was down in the village there somewhere.
Well St Lukes’ was the only hall big enough to play indoor basketball in.
Wasn’t St Lukes’ … oh, I think we came into Hastings – don’t know where.
‘Cause the Drill Hall was in Hastings.
But it was definitely out in Havelock that I met Lee. He came in and I thought ‘oh, he’s a nice looking chappie. Haven’t seen him before’, and that’s how I got to know Lee. So we had this nice combination of the men and the women sort of facing their first romance.
So Lee is coming into your life. Where did Lee come from – was he born in Hastings?
Hastings, yeah, I think he was. They came from Wanganui, his Mum and Dad, and they had a florist, right in Heretaunga Street. They were sort of the poorer people whereas the other were just a little bit upmarket, so they were the old fashioned sort of style of bouquets and wreaths.
Yes, sure, but you know, they were probably on the cusp of the change and there were probably still lots of people who liked the old styles still.
Oh yeah, definitely it suited a certain type of person.
And so Lee at that stage – what was he doing?
He was at Smith & Smiths, and he learnt his trade of cutting glass.
So he was a glazier by trade?
Yes, yes he was. And he met … someone he was doing gardening with … he was a cricketer – because Lee was a good cricketer – can’t think of his name, but he went out gardening with him. So there was that sort of familiar …
He enjoyed the soil.
Yes, yeah. So when we got together it was pretty good. [Chuckle]
And so did he carry on playing cricket after you were married?
Oh yes definitely, couldn’t give that up, no – it was just in his blood – he had to keep on going with that, which was fine.
It was interesting that he had green fingers, because eventually – where did you live when you were first married?
Actually, here. We looked for a section, and then Lee I think, had ideas of building glass houses. And we did have a half-acre section here so I think he had plans, and then our next door neighbour said “do you want to buy our back section?” Which we did, and then another one from Odlin’s, and we bought that as well.
So hence your little paddock at the back? So you’ve been here for all those years?
Yes … yes. I know – time flies.
So then you had some children … how many children did you and Lee have?
We had four girls – all girls. We tried. [Chuckle]
And are they all in New Zealand?
Oh, yes. Two are still in Hastings, which is amazing because they’ve been all over the world in different ways. Julia went to London and she married Tony there, and she went to Tauranga when they came back to New Zealand, then went to Auckland. And I thought ‘oh, that’s the end of them’, but next thing they came back here, which is wonderful. Catherine – she had had enough of Hastings so she went to Wellington, but every time she came back here she said “I don’t want to go back there”. So in the end she actually got a house over Wanganui way and she’s bought that – she’s still got it. Angela went to Auckland … still there. And Cheryl was dying to get to Australia, and she went there and she’s still there. They’ve each got two children except Catherine – boy and girl – clever weren’t they?
Is that right? During this period of time you did a lot of piano playing, but you did play with some quite big bands. Would you like to tell me who you have played with?
Well I joined Neil Totty, that’s Lee’s brother – he was a musician. He got me into the Big Band to begin with, and so I did a lot of playing with them. Owen Knight and Johnny Hale and another young guitarist – once we got going into a certain couple of dates we just continued. We had a following of where to go, and it was just nice light dancing music that people really loved. That was wonderful as far as I was concerned.
Jazz – did you ever play ..?
Not really high class jazz, not like Neil. Neil’s sort of more a jazzy type. I was just dance music really.
Did you ever play for Ernie Rouse’s band at all?
Well that was the Big Band.
‘Cause originally when we first saw Ernie he used to play at the Premier and places like that, and of course there wasn’t a big band, those days.
No, no – it was just a little band. ‘Bout that time I think I started teaching here – I had actually started when I was in Havelock just with the odd couple of pupils, and then I got a few more in Hastings. I used to bike round to their … people’s homes. Yeah, it just seemed to be easier then.
So you started teaching before you were twenty-one, obviously?
Oh yes definitely – I was probably teaching … I started when I was twelve actually – I had my first pupil when I was twelve. I knew more than the pupil did, so that was a good start. But I wasn’t doing anything serious.
That’s sixty-eight years ago.
Yeah, could be. No, it just developed, and I probably started in serious when I got married. Just as an extra hobby.
So you must have taught a lot of people over that time?
I’ve got people that say to me “oh, you taught my daughter” or “you played it for my daughter’s wedding.” And I think ‘oh, did I?’ Because you don’t really remember when they are all in their finery, and then you see them afterwards and you don’t even recognise them. But no, I did – I played for lots of weddings. That was wonderful.
So you must have had some memorable things you played at … concerts?
No, I didn’t really like playing concerts. I didn’t like getting up on the stage. I like to be on the floor and if I was up on the stage I felt … oh, I don’t know, there’s just something about being on a stage that is so different from being amongst all the people.
Right – you’re saying that you knew your place.
Oh, could be.
You had a comfort zone, and you didn’t like being out of it.
Yes, I liked … I could talk to the people right next to me if they were dancing – you could wave to them, say Hi and the rest of it – I wasn’t a grumpy person. [Chuckle]
So that must have been very rewarding I guess with four girls. What time span were they … all under ten?
There were two years between Angela and Cheryl, and four years between … the next one was Catherine … and then two years between …
So you had a house full of young …
Yes, girls, yes.
Plus all these people coming to learn the piano. But it must have been quite fulfilling doing something you enjoyed.
Oh yes, it was.
And how did you keep your children quiet when you were teaching the piano, though? Were they very well behaved children?
Well, we did … oh no, I wouldn’t say that … but I do think they played a lot down on a tree down there. We had all sorts of stories back once we bought that next section over. They used to get down there and play and do all sorts of things. But we had the glass houses of course.
So when did Lee … did he build the glasshouses himself?
Yes. Nigel, my brother, helped. Actually Nigel helped build this house. He was absolutely a fantastic brother. He and some other chappie built the first glass house.
‘Cause Lee would have been able to glaze it wouldn’t he? Because he was a glazier.
Yes. He was a glazier. All helped.
It’s interesting isn’t it, how life unfolds? And he became a tomato grower and other things.
His father wanted him to grow flowers, but that was not in Lee’s … you can’t eat flowers, so … you’ve got to have something you can eat.
Of course, that’s right, of course – no, you’re right. [Speaking together]
So we had cucumbers, beans … we did a great lot of bean growing here. We started the bean crops going round here and they were very lucrative. And then we’d grow potatoes and we’d just sell at the gate – put the sign out there and …
Is the sign frame still up there, or has it come down after all those years?
No … no, we put – yes, well the sign’s in the shed. [Chuckle] I’d like to put it up somewhere, but I haven’t …
It always showed us where your house was, ‘cause the sign was there even if it didn’t have tomatoes on it.
That’s right. Oh, the people that I met in town saying “oh, we used to buy tomatoes off you – they were the best tomatoes in Hastings.” [Chuckle]
I know. I know. So then – Lee was still playing cricket while he was …
… growing tomatoes?
And he umpired – hockey. He was a good hockey player.
Oh was he? Okay.
And then he went on to umpiring games. He was a good fair type of referee, so they tell me.
Yes, yes. Well he had the experience of playing the game as well didn’t he?
But he found later on that the girls were getting as violent, or a bit naughty, and so he gave it up. He said “Ooh, they’re getting too tough for me”.
So, then I guess your children were growing up … becoming teenagers, and you’re still playing the piano, and Lee was still at sport. But then he had a heart attack was it?
Yes. He had leukaemia – he had real trouble with his blood. He had to be having that constantly checked, and put into hospital for various reasons. Yeah, that was the start of things not going well for him.
And of course he was such a fit man with his sports, and you think ‘how could this happen?’
Yes. I know – unbelievable. Even now you think ‘why?’
Even although he may not have felt well, he never looked unwell. He had a good front always.
And he had a wonderful sense of humour. He had this memory of jokes that … used to just spin them off like this. I could tell you a few but I won’t, because they were always on the naughty side, but … great story teller. And yet he was the quietest person really – that was his nature. But he could reel them out.
Did you two do any travelling at all?
No, Lee didn’t like travelling. Our longest journey used to be going down to Wellington to see my cousin. He might go to Auckland but nothing more than that. I went to England when Julia was over in England, and then we went to France of all places, and then to Barbados. Well that was when they got married – they decided, Julia and Tony, that they’d get married in Barbados, so I had to be the one to give her away because Lee didn’t want to go. He wasn’t well, so he didn’t want to go. So that all happened at that time.
So then your children have got married and flown the coop; Lee wasn’t well, and you sold off the glasshouse block and …
… it wasn’t long after that that Lee passed away, was it?
No. It was about that time.
And that was a very sad day for you and the family.
Oh shocking. Just … you’re still really trying to come to terms with it in a way.
What year was that now? How many years do you think, approximately?
I should know it just like that shouldn’t I? But I’d have to think about that.
No. You’ve retired totally from music teaching?
Yes, I have, yes.
When did you retire?
Oh, possibly about eight years ago, about that time..
So that means you actually taught for about sixty years as a music teacher.
Good grief – oh, I can’t believe that.
But you just imagine how many people that you’ve brought sunshine in their lives.
I hope I’ve helped their musical talents – yes, definitely. My girls all learnt music but they haven’t got much to show for it. It’s just something that either sticks with you and you want to do something with it, or not. I used to take Julia, our youngest – I did, I took her on a couple of jobs and she didn’t take to it at all, and everyone loved her. She was playing guitar and I played piano – it was good … good little thing. But no, not for her. She wanted to get out with her friends.
There was pleasure in playing.
Oh yes – I used to love it. I used to bounce around and dance with my feet on the ground, and everyone used to say [chuckle] “look at Janet’s feet”. But you know, you can’t help it when you’ve got a good bit of rhythm going.
So since Lee has passed away, you’ve got your grandchildren – you said you’ve got … each of your girls and your new sons-in-law have got – one of each?
Yeah, yes – very clever weren’t they?
And here you are still in the house that you built?
We built on that room at the back there. That got built in later years and that’s been a real asset to the house.
And so anything else – you don’t play bowls ..?
I go to … play badminton. I play twice a week.
At the YM?
Yes. Absolutely wonderful.
Norm Speers used to play at the …
Yes, but he didn’t stay very long. He wasn’t a …
No, he didn’t stay long. That’s been wonderful for me. I do love it … there’s a lovely lot of people there that you get to know. I love that.
‘Cause I played there for a while – this is when Bill Cummins and …
Did you play badminton?
Yes. I used to play in Havelock at St Lukes’ originally, and then – I didn’t play long at the YM – I used to go along with Norman actually, and he was a friend of Bill Cummins.
The secret is to know how to serve, and I read it from a book because I wouldn’t have had a clue how to serve. And I can get a real good serve in there that people aren’t ready for. That’s the answer, [chuckle] and move your feet as much as you can.
So anything else … you’ve never written music?
No. In fact my Mum used to say to me “stop playing that inane music”. And that is what she meant, you know – it’s going nowhere. [Chuckle]
Do you go to movies – yes, you went to see ‘The Dressmaker’ didn’t you?
Very disappointed. Parts of the dressmaking – what they did with the outfits was very clever, but no, I didn’t enjoy it as a film.
Is there anything on that list of yours [chuckle] that we’ve forgotten?
Maybe something here … I did think when my bridesmaid came this morning … I was bridesmaid for seven people.
Before you were married?
Before I was married – one of those was a Matron of Honour. But I think it was because I could dress-make, I could sew – I think it had something to do with me being asked to do that, yes.
So as a dressmaker you did wedding gowns and everything?
Yes – no, I didn’t sew for other people. I did a lot of altering and that type of thing but I can still turn my hand to something. If something wants to be done I’ll do it. I like that side of things, being able to … oh, well now people just go and buy a dress, but in those days we just used to sew – sew for the Show. New dress for the Show every year.
All right, well I think that’s really given us a nice picture of what it was like growing up in the village, and the talents that some of our local people have. Thank you Janet, that was lovely.
Thank you … thank you very much.
This is an addendum to the previous interview we’ve just completed. Now Janet, one thing I’m not sure whether you said – when you were teaching music you actually got on your bike with your music and you went from house to house [chuckle] to your pupils.
Yes, I did.
Which I think was very admirable. [Chuckle] It used to be the other way round once. Now coming back to your eightieth birthday, and I think we should finish on a nice note. You said that you got this surprise visit from your family – the girls came in with ukuleles singing. Your eightieth birthday, it’s seven years since Lee passed away, the family gathering in the big room at the back with the piano and everything set up for dancing.
That must have been a really neat way to finish everything off.
It was fantastic, it really was. They came in playing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ and singing it as well. And one little grandchild – she was standing there playing it as well. I just couldn’t believe it, it was such a lovely surprise … lovely finish to the whole evening, it was just beautiful.
And so you are looking forward to the next twenty-five years?
No, I’m looking forward to the next five years. I’ll go that far ahead. [Chuckle] That’s about it. No, not much more than that – and then I’ll tell you more in five years’ time. How’s that?
Okay Janet, I’ll come back and get the rest of the story.
Good on you.
Original digital file
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Interviewer: Frank Cooper
- Janet Shaw Totty
- William Albert Lee Totty