John (Bruce) Downer and Rhoda (Jill) Downer Interview

Today is the 9th February 2017. I’m interviewing Bruce and Jill Downer of Havelock North about the life and times of the Downer and White family [families] through the ages. Bruce, would you like to tell us some of your history please?

My parents … my father … was born in Waipawa in 1902. His father worked in the local brewery. His name was Fitz and my grandmother’s name was Alice. My mother’s Dorothy Mary Downer. Dad was Everard Hayden Downer.

But my mother came from the Isle of Wight and she was brought out as a young child from England – from the Isle of Wight – to New Zealand via Cape Town. For some years I think they stayed there before they moved on to Wellington. But my mother was born in 1900. We’ve always known that she’s as old as the year – it’s a good way to remember it. She died at the age of seventy-two. Dad died at the age of seventy-four. From there on we get into their children.

How did they come to New Zealand?

By ship. I don’t know too many details of it.

So did they land in Wellington or Napier?

Well … yeah, I’m unsure. ‘Cause I know my Dad had time in Auckland and then to Wellington, but I’m not sure of those in-between details.

But my Dad as I knew him – he was in the Customs Department. They lived in Seatoun, and yeah, so he was a civil servant. And prior to that actually, I recall he worked in Napier in the Post Office – Postal Service or something like that – and then he changed to Customs.

And he and my mother were very keen home gardeners … very nice property that they had. And I don’t know quite exactly, because I was only seven when they shifted up to Hawke’s Bay. And my dad and my mum bought a nursery business in Omahu Road, and that was what we used to sort of call – he was a Walker – what we used to call or sort of think of him as Grandpa Walker. It was a pretty run-down sort of business at the time, and so that’s how he got into nursery work.

Also when he was doing that he … well, he was called up to go into the services and he was a conscientious objector. He was a very sort of strict Methodist. And he was allowed to stay in the nursery business on the condition that he grew crops – as well as doing the nursery work he had to crop as well in [on] leased land sort of in the area close to the nursery business. He went to court over it and he actually won that. It did cause a bit of unpleasantness with some of the people in the area. And one of the young girls that I used to sort of be friendly with in those days, her father had been involved – got injured or something – and he was very bad, and so Dad used to get white feathers in his letter box …

Did he really?

… and things like that. Anyway, that’s … you know, things I wasn’t … heard of sort of, since.

And so at that stage there were three children. Alan was the oldest and he was born in 1924 I think it was – something like that. And Maurice … Alan Hayden Downer, and Maurice Hughes Downer. Maurice was born in 1931 I think – these details might need checking. And then I was born in 1934. So there was the three of us – attended … I started off when I was young … I was seven when we came here, and I went to Central School because I wasn’t old enough to ride a bike at that stage. And so my brothers used to go in to the High School which was nearby. They used to dub [double] me there. And then I ended up going to Mahora – I didn’t find Central School very happy for some reason or other. When I was able to ride a bike I shifted to Mahora School for some years, and then ending up at the Hastings High School which was a co-ed in those days.

At some stage around Bible Class days at the Methodist Church in Hastings, there was a nice young lady there whose name was Jill, and we found we got on quite well together. And so that’s carried on eventually to marriage, and – which we’ve now had sixty-five years. In the days of course we biked a lot … didn’t have vehicles and things. But anyway, things blossomed and we eventually got married on the 1st December.

Okay, at this stage Jill can tell us where her folks came from. Jill?

Jill: My father was born at Pakowhai, and lived at Pakowhai all his life until he married my mother and even lived there then. He had six sisters who had to be kept on the farm, and Dad was the only son.

Where was the farm?

The farm was in …

Bruce: Links Road.

Jill: … and it was about … before Franklin Road, ‘cause one of the girls married a Franklin and I think still is there. It might be cut down – there was a great big tree at the gate, all knots and goodness knows what – and their house was nearly falling down with borer. And they were there. I think my grandfather was adopted coming over on the boat from England. His parents died or something, and so someone adopted him. I think his name was still … he [was] still named White. Well there’s a thing – I’ve got a great big spiel on it, but you know, nobody wants to look at that. And as far as I know that’s, you know, the history.

Dad had too many kids too quick, and there was no room for them on the farm any longer, but he still had to work on the farm ‘cause the girls didn’t work. Did all the housework and – you know. And so then they shifted down to rent a house opposite the Pakowhai store, right in the back – it belonged to Gilleans, or it belonged to Gilleans when I remember it.

So that was that, that was okay, but then of course they got … I was number five, and the Government turned National. My father and mother will never vote National – they would never vote National – because they put them on these farms and they hadn’t got a house, they had no money to do it with, so they had to live in a tent for a while and then gradually built. Then they had to pump all their own water all the time I know. Right on the creek we were, not quite at the end but just as it went round the bend. And the big ones biked to Parkvale School.

Parkvale – from Pakowhai?

No, no – we were then in Farmlet Road. We moved to Farmlet Road.

Is that where you had the tent?

That’s where we had the tent, and that’s where they had – oh, I don’t know, seven or eight acres or something, they had. And so Dad got a job at the Works – he used to bike every morning. He used to get up and milk the cows at four o’clock, and off he’d go to work.

Tomoana or Whakatu?

Whakatu.

Okay, so he’d have to go through Mangateretere, wouldn’t he?

Yes, he had to go through Mangateretere. And all the Maoris at the pas were his cobbers, and our cobbers. And so yeah, we had a very good life, I can say that much.

And my mother was a school teacher who came to Hawke’s Bay. She was born in Dunedin. She came to Hawke’s Bay ‘cause her sister had married and come up here with her husband. He was in the Electricity Department on the lines or something, so Mum came up here and followed her and she was a teacher at Pakowhai School. And of course Dad had all these numerous young sisters. He wasn’t the oldest, but … these young girls. And so the youngest one was still at school when Mum took over. So she got to know Dad. But the thing was, she [he] never could thank Mum enough because she got their youngest child … his youngest sister … into care in Wellington after the earthquake, because girls – teenage girls and things – were put in boarding schools and things. And Mum being the person she was, education was her thing – we all had a good education. And so she said “oh, we’ll apply for this”. So they applied for it and my aunty got it. And so that was her, and then she had a few more kids and she knitted and sewed – she got all the prizes at the Show for everything, knitting, sewing, cooking.

Yes, it was a great little community, Farmlet Road, wasn’t it? With the Kyles, O’Shaunessys. So which house was yours down there?

The second to last.

That’s the one the Nowell-Ustickes eventually bought?

No.

On the other side?

Yep – Ustickes bought the Rutherfords’ house.

Well the one opposite was bought by – was it the chap Burns?

Yeah, yeah. That’s right, yeah. We had a reunion, and one of our reunions they let us take a bus down … all our family, and it was a huge family by that time, to see what they had done to the house.

Okay, so that’s where you lived until you were betrothed?

We lived there until we went nursing, Pam and I. And they lived there, but when we left and I went down to Timaru to do my Maternity, they shifted out and built a house in town – my brother built them a house in Terrace Road.

So that’s where you lived, and you were married from Terrace Road?

That’s right.

Okay, well back to Bruce. Now Bruce, you’ve met the girl that you loved, but there’s a bit of space we’ve got to fill in between.

Yeah. In High School in the sixth form – at that stage that was 1950. In 1951 I had been in the Scouts for some years and ended up being a King Scout.

You did turn into a girl scout at high school, didn’t you?

[Chuckle] Oh, I scouted around a bit. Yeah, so … no, I was selected to go to the 7th World Scout Jamboree in Austria in 1951. And at that stage Jill and I – you know, we sort of had – well, a casual relationship.

Jill: As you did in those days.

Bruce: Mmm. But while I was away I got into the habit of writing to her every day and then when we got to a Port where we could post letters I’d send them on. And that situation continued, and then she mentioned she went down to Timaru. We were getting more interested in each other at that stage but when I came back – I was away nearly five months because we went by ship in those days, and in fact I ended up going right around the world. And then when we got back my dad said “well you’ve been off for quite a while – now you’d had better get to work”.

So in the meantime I’d actually managed to obtain a draughting cadetship with the Ministry of Works, so I started September-October of 1951 in the Napier office. I used to bike to Agnew’s Refrigeration place, ‘cause he was one of the Commissioners of Scouts, and I used to park my bike there by the bus station and hop on the bus and go to Napier and come back later in the day. And I’d been there a couple of years or so and I got shifted to Tauranga because I had had a saying there that “draughting cadets from time to time – outstanding draughting cadets – will be offered engineering cadetships”. I didn’t really think I was that much of a draughtsman but anyway, I did get a …

Jill: Scholarship.

Yeah. So I was sent to Tauranga where they were starting to build the port over Mt Maunganui. So yeah, they were driving piles and things and I was doing leveling and things like that. One of my main memories from the Ministry of Works Office back in Tauranga itself, was they had external toilets and they were this new stuff called plastic … made the seats, and of course you get quite a few frosts in Tauranga and [chuckle] I’ve never known anything sort of quite as bad in sheds that had the toilets in, ‘cause you certainly didn’t take your book out there for a read you know, when you should be working because it was just too cold.

So I had nine months or so there, and then I got shifted to Murupara when they were just in the process of finishing the railway line from Murupara to Kawerau. They had to bring the trees down to be treated at Kawerau … was what they did there. And I was involved with mainly going out into the forests and searching for suitable places to put roads in to get the trees out. So that was quite interesting. That was a live-in single mens’ camp there, and we had … ‘cause I was doing survey work and there were chain men employed, and mostly young Maori boys who really didn’t know much about cooking and things. So I was sort of put in charge of this camp and used to do the cooking and then when it grew a bit bigger a Dutchman was appointed to be the cook. So the first few things I had to do was teach him how to boil water for the tea and make custard and things like that, but anyway …

And then after that I was sent up to Auckland to do my studies. So I did first year at University. And I’d been working part time with the Ministry of Works as well as attending University but it didn’t really – it didn’t work out too well for me. I reached the stage where … I wasn’t going to be kicked out, but I obviously wasn’t very good at that sort of type, ‘cause I hadn’t had the second year of sixth at high school. So thankfully the Ministry of Works agreed for me to go to Seddon Memorial Tech up in Auckland, because they had a part-time course – it was a four-year part time course – which ended up sitting the Institution of Engineers UK, their exams. And because I had this cadetship I was able to study full time and do the four year part time course in two years full time. So that was good, and it was a different style – we were taught, whereas at University you get lectured. It was a totally different thing, and I …

Jill: He thrived on that.

Bruce: I did thrive on that. And at that stage I had one year up there on my own and I boarded in the Methodist Theological College as a boarder, and helped them sort of from a financial point of view. And my middle brother Maurice was actually studying for the Ministry at the same time. So I had a year there, and at the end of that year, December 1st 1956 we married, and Jill moved up to Auckland with me.

Well just move back to your father – Downer’s Nursery – and talk something about that, because historically it’s quite important.

Yep, well as I mentioned, in 1941, I think it was somewhere about May, we shifted up there. My birthday is the 17th July and I was the first one to have a birthday of our family in Hastings. And Dad had three acres on the corner of Omahu Road and … it’ll come back. Anyway, it was three acres there, and he grew plants for other people doing cropping and things, and also had a reasonably large marmalade orange orchard, which at a guess had something like fifty or sixty trees. And then a little bit more of the land had peaches and other things. He and my mother used to work diligently in the nursery. I mentioned he did do other cropping, but when the war situation was over he didn’t have to continue cropping. And I can recall hearing him say – or I’ve been told what he said was that he was growing the plants, and it was far more sense to let some other mug grow the fruit rather than him having to do it, ‘cause it was hard work and not very lucrative. So he did that for quite a number of years and then got sick and had to give up and my oldest brother, Alan and his wife Molly Downer, who had been Molly Parkinson – they had married just a bit before I came back from the Jamboree actually, so I visited them and they bought it. And Dad at one stage had wanted to be a Methodist Minister but in years gone by he hadn’t been able to get accepted by it, but he became a lay preacher. And then … so he and Mum I think they called it home missionary work and went down to Waikouai, [Waikouaiti] and he did another stint in Taupo.

Where is Waikouai?

Jill: Out of Dunedin between Dunedin and Oamaru.

It must be near Moeraki?

Yes, near the Moeraki boulders. My uncle was on the farm because he was an ex-soldier and that’s the land they gave him to farm.

Bruce: Well, when – my father doing the home missionary work in Taupo, and then I think it was from there that they retired to Hastings Street in Hastings.

So Alan carried on running what was the nursery for how long?

For several years they did it, then Alan at thirty-nine had a major stroke.

Jill: Excuse me dear, can I interrupt? It was a heart attack he had first. Very bad heart attack. For this day and age it wouldn’t be but it was a dire one then.

Bruce: He … I’m pretty sure he was thirty-nine years old, and he had to give it up, the business, and he actually subdivided the land in Nottingley Road which it’s on the corner of. He started the subdivision, and that was going west from Nottingley Road.

Jill: Wasn’t it Nottingley Place or something?

No, well you had Ballantyne Place.

Bruce: Ballantyne … Ballantyne Place. And he and Molly actually bought a property in … well it’d be Ballantyne Street.

There was a Ballantyne Place off Ballantyne Street.

They bought a house in that cul de sac. The house actually sort of opened out on to Omahu Road with the driveway into where the house was. The house still exists, it’s a story and a half house. The entrance is now off Nottingley Road – I mean, of course the road got lengthened with other neighbouring properties as they became subdivided. So that all opened up, and so that was a three-acre block initially, and a very, very big fancy tree whose name escapes me now. As part of the subdivision of course it had to be cut down. It was a big land mark in that locality.

There were Downer plant boxes around for years afterwards, because you know, it didn’t matter who you went to the boxes all had Downer on them.

Jill: And of course he still had a few too – didn’t get rid of those, did he?

Bruce: But when he sort of recovered from his heart attack he actually got a job with Hawke’s Bay Asphalt, and he was the Office Manager. And he you know, used to do a good job at it but he sort of had the attitude that the office only had one person in charge and that was him. Probably a typical Downer trait I suppose. But he was in that job for … well, many years, but he died at the age of seventy-four having had – I might have the figures slightly wrong but I was going to say five heart attacks and three strokes, and it was amazing that he lived that long.

So okay, well we’ll move back to the newlyweds that are in Auckland.

Jill: Hated it, too. [Chuckle]

Whereabouts in Auckland did you live?

[Chuckle] We lived right bang slap in the middle. In fact right by the hospital, because I was working at the hospital.

And so you worked there until Bruce finished his University?

‘Til I got pregnant. [Chuckle]

And so what happened after that?

Bruce: Well we shifted to Wellington after I had finished my studies. And – that’s right, I went down into the Ministry of Works – the big wooden building … office … Rivers Control Council, had a slightly different name than that.

Jill: Conservation and Rivers Control.

Bruce: Noel Sutherland of Havelock North – he was working in the Soil Conservation side of it and I was in the Hydraulics side of it, but we used to share the same cup of tea … I suppose it was called a smoko room in those days. That was not a lavishly productive year, because that other chap that I’d actually been studying with in Auckland, he’d also been posted down and we were in the same office sort of doing the work of what one person used to do. But after that year I was shifted – still in the big wooden building, but to the design side of the Ministry of Works head office to do my training and get experience designing things to finish off my situation that I needed to become a registered engineer.

So that happened, and after I’d had that year in the design office I was sent out to Porirua office in the residency office out there and was working there at the time when the sewer tunnel was being built at Titahi Bay. I did a little bit of work – it involved a little bit with that. And then they had a vacancy in the Ministry of Works office in Upper Hutt, where an engineering assistant was involved in looking after that sub-office at Porirua, and he had a break down … nervous breakdown … and was off for three months, so I was sent over to the Trentham office to look after it while Murray White had his breakdown. That three months ended up being three or four years I think, actually. He unfortunately didn’t cope. He was sent into the Ministry of Works laboratory in Wellington where he had a job there creating concrete blocks … poured them in They take samples of them and then crunch them in a machine. So … unfortunately, eventually he went over to Mangaroa Valley and shot himself, so my temporary job turned into a permanent one.

Jill: And he was only … what were you, twenty-something? Twenty-four?

Bruce: Well it was 1960 when I was there and that’s when I actually became a registered engineer.

Jill: Very, very young.

Bruce: Yeah. And that sub-office at Porirua had a change in that it became a full residency, ‘cause that office in the early years was the office that actually built the Rimutaka tunnel and the Wellington airport. Their sort of office was in Trentham, so they decided, ‘cause they were having a lot more work done in the Wairarapa and schools and things like that, they decided to turn it back into a residency. But instead of having a resident engineer they decided to have a resident architect, which was a new sort of thing. But I was the engineer sort of under the resident architect, but I didn’t have any activities over in the Wairarapa with … E F Thornton I think, was it? He ended up being the Government architect some years later, but it was an interesting situation and a good experience and obviously helped to develop my career.

One story I still remember is that along the Hutt Road around where there was a quarry between the road and the river, there was an area of gorse. And it was land that the Roads Boards were sort of involved with and it was being looked after by the Ministry of Works, and he asked me if I’d arrange to get equipment to actually clear this … make it sort of … ‘cause it was looking pretty ugly, so I did – I arranged that and got the staff to do that. And then he said to me, when was I going to do that job? And I said “well, I’ve done it … well, I’ve had it done”. And he said “oh, it looks terrible”. ‘Cause actually I was an engineer and I wasn’t driving it, but it was done by a bulldozer and so it was all crushed down and made … you know, it certainly hadn’t been planted in lawn or anything else, and for an architect that wasn’t a clearance job. [Chuckle] So it was just one of the different attitudes between professions.

There were schools being built in Upper Hutt at that stage, and I was involved in doing the ground work and things, and organising the building of it and designing and sorting those things out. And then in 1964 I was involved with the roading and everything like that from the top of the Rimutakas down to Petone – the State Highway things I was involved with, and had staff overseas and things that you know, looked after it in the storms.

And then a job came up … the engineer at Petone Borough Council. It was a Greek, Nick [??] Guinness, who was a lovely chap. He had emigrated out of Poland or something – he studied in Poland. And when he came to New Zealand he wanted to … you know, become a registered engineer in New Zealand but he was unable to prove he had done the studies. Various bodies contacted the University where he’d studied and all that, and no, he’d never been there, so he wasn’t able to sort of become qualified – well they … you know, couldn’t prove the standard of his training. And the Borough Council had been getting more involved in water works and things, and quite a few things that a consulting engineer was working on, but relating to some of the rules of the Council borrowing money. They really needed to have a registered engineer. So I saw the advertisement – in fact Nick, who I’d become quite friendly with, he mentioned it to me that they were looking for somebody. So I actually applied for it because it seemed to me it was doing you know, a very similar job to what I’d been doing, and the money was better. So I actually got the job as Borough Engineer at the age of thirty. I believe I was the youngest one in New Zealand at that stage.

So I was there for several years, and then I’d been looking around at jobs ‘cause I knew that it was likely that Petone would very soon sort of be amalgamated with Lower Hutt. And then I saw an ad for a job of Deputy City Engineer in Palmerston North. As I’d been a Borough Engineer for several years I thought I might have a good chance. As it happened I was beaten to the job by the Borough Engineer of Blenheim I think it was, but they offered me a position as a senior engineer. And so I took that, so we shifted to Palmerston North, and I had a number of years there, but during that period the City Engineer, George Hogg, had decided to retire so his replacement was being sought. He and the Chairman of the Works Committee were very keen for me to get the job. But there were actually two, because the elderly deputy City Engineer was not liked very much by the City Engineer – that’s why they had this other deputy. They had two deputies in other words. But both he and the Chairman of the Works Committee were very keen for me to get the job which would have been quite interesting, and if I was to overtake the two others it have had some challenges. But I ran second for that job – there’s no prize for that. But the City Engineer of Upper Hutt actually got the job and then after that his job was on the market, so I applied for that and I got that. I think I was thirty-five at that stage, and I was the youngest City Engineer in New Zealand. I sometimes wonder quite how these things happen – it’s certainly been an interesting life.

It was in the stage then where City Managers were becoming a popular American thing that was being brought into New Zealand, and it turned out actually after sort of a year or two that quite a few of the City Managers’ jobs were being won by engineers rather than Town Clerks. I did apply for a couple or so of those and sort of ran second again.

And at that stage we had to come back to Hastings reasonably frequently for family situations and weddings. We used to sort of joke about things a bit, and a sister of Jill’s – next above her – was a nurse also, and she was in a children’s ward, and Jill had been in Silverstream Hospital in the geriatric hospital. And we used to talk and things, and they’d say “oh yeah – we should do this, and we should do that”. And we came up to Jill’s mother’s eightieth birthday just before Christmas, and one of our nephews said to us “oh, Uncle Bruce, I understand you to be interested in buying a Rest Home”. And I said “oh, am I?” [Chuckle] And so we said “oh well, we’re coming back again in about a week’s time for Christmas – yeah, find out what you can”, you know, not thinking much about it. So when we came back – we hadn’t been back long and he said “I’ve got this information” [chuckle] “about this Rest Home”, which was Braemore Rest Home in Middle Road, Havelock North. And so we looked, and – blow me down, six months later we’d actually bought it with Jill’s older sister Pam, and her husband Ron.

So we then came back to Hawke’s Bay area. But we’d always thought we’d probably retire here but didn’t realise that … so that was 1982 when that happened. There were fourteen residents in it when we bought it, and we ran that with the two couples. And Ron was involved with woolscours and things like that and he used to do that. And there were seven acres and we had a few sheep and a pig and chooks and things like that there, and a garden area which the residents sort of helped with if they wanted to. Ron used to look after the animals, and so that sort of worked out quite well.

Then after a few years it seemed better that we separate, so we actually bought the business ourselves and carried on for a few more years, and built it up to twenty-five residents. And that was just at the stage when auditing of Rest Homes started, and we all had to develop protocols and getting all the paper war in … and so with a nurse from another Rest Home in Napier – she and I got together and actually put in a tender to be one of the seven contractors of the Wellington … sort of lower North Island area. And so we set off in a training period to do the auditing. I think we did about thirty-five … thirty-six of them. Waipukurau I think was the closest one we did ‘cause we … for obvious reasons we weren’t able to do audits for people in our own area, but we did a lot in the Palmerston North area and then more in Lower Hutt, because some of the auditing teams had been consultants for some of those Rest Homes and they obviously couldn’t audit their own stuff. So that was quite an interesting experience. It was something new to all of us, and the results ended up sort of – you got so many numbers for things, and they added up the numbers and that influenced the amount of money that the Government would …

Oh, you’d be everyone’s friend then.

Yeah.

Jill: He wasn’t a friend of the places he went to, though. [Chuckle]

Bruce: I’ve never felt so hated in all my life actually. We didn’t renew the contract after the end of the first period, but it was certainly an experience.

Then we ended up with some financial problems because I’d got involved with our son, Geoff, in the nursery business with another couple of orchardists, a husband and wife. And that was – I think around one of the recessions and things caused a lot of problems with that, but we managed to get out of the problems with the Bank by selling a half share of the Rest Home to very good long time friends, who … in fact, Fred had been my building inspector in the Petone Borough Council, you know … we first went there and he’d moved off a year or two after I was there and went into National Bank building side of things. And he qualified as a Valuer and ended up becoming the New Zealand manager for bank buildings for National Bank. He’d retired and was looking to sort of sort out his portfolio of investments and did his due diligence and inspections in the place, and he’s even more pedantic than I am but he agreed to buy.

Jill, you continued on at the Rest Home, did you?

Jill: I continued, yes – I did, I had to …

Because they had to have a resident nurse.

We did employ them, though – we employed one.

Bruce: Yeah, but Braemore was in the partnership initially, but Jill and her sister Pam … it was the only Rest Home in Hawke’s Bay that was actually owned and operated by nurses, registered nurses.

We got back in business and then you – well you sort of get tired of these things, ‘cause you know, we lived on the property and that had good points and not so good points. And we didn’t have cell phones in those days so if we wanted to go off campus for a bit of relaxation or go for a meal, well we had to leave our phone number where we were going to with the staff.

Well, at that stage, did you have the house in Watson Road?

No, that was Geoff’s.

Did you ever live there?

No, we went to Busby Hill.

Jill: We had bought Busby Hill before, and we let it out. [Speaking together]

Bruce: That was let out to a land agent.

And so you carried on with Braemore until you retired?

Yeah. It was going quite well. Well we leased it out … after a few years, after we’d bought the Downers out, we leased it out. And it was at the stage when our other friends took on a half share with it and they ran … the couple that were leasing it … they ran into trouble for a variety of reasons, and they had trouble getting replacement residents. They sort of fell out with the hospital system, and you had to get your replacements through the hospital system because if anything happened financially with the resident you couldn’t be called upon to actually fund them their continuing stay. So that was pretty important. But things were going along quite well. They were having trouble, that’s right, and so … lessees.

And then an agent approached me one day and said “you own a Rest Home don’t you, Bruce?” And I said “oh, yes.” “I might have somebody who’s interested … you know, would you be interested?” So I casually sort of said “oh, I could be … yeah, we’ll think … we could think about it.” And as it happened the sale went through, so we retired then from doing that work.

Jill: You were still doing the books …

Bruce: Yeah, I was still doing the books for them – they were our lessees and things like that. ‘Cause one of the things that had attracted me to the Rest Home originally was it was an old farm homestead. And it’d been a Rest Home for fourteen years as I recall it, so there was a lot of maintenance jobs and I was always … my father was a good handyman, and so that side of it appealed to me. So you know, giving up a career as a City Engineer and going to be a Rest Home manager – of course I had to be the manager from an ego point of view.

So does that Rest Home still operate?

Not as a rest home, no, but the couple we sold it to, some years later sold it to a couple – I’m not sure whether they were a couple or not …

Jill: Couple of Maori ladies.

Bruce: … and they ran it for a number of years, and then got sort of … things were changing and so they actually closed it down. And it was empty for quite a while and then it got purchased by a couple who are using it as a house. They had quite a few offers – who wants twenty-five bedrooms? We haven’t been back to see what they did but they did build … it had a lovely veranda on the sunny side looking out on to the lawn and the gardens, and …

Jill: Big lawn.

Bruce: … and they actually built another veranda on the west side of the building facing west to the road. Yeah, so yeah, it’s just a private house now.

I know you had an involvement with Rotary in the Hutt Valley before you came to Hawke’s Bay?

Yep. 1969 is when I became the City Engineer at Upper Hutt, and Gordon Crofts – was that the right name? He was the Town Clerk at the time and he spoke to me about joining Rotary, which I did and so that was … might have been 1970 or something like that when I joined Rotary. And so that …

Jill: He had a crab … orchard or something down Fernhill, right across going to Napier … back road, by the golf course. It’s a bit further on. He had a [an] orchard on that right-hand side. That’s what he did for a while. The road that goes around the bottom of the hill from Fernhill, and past the Pa, and then on past the golf courses and then it turns round and goes over the bridge I thing, doesn’t it?

Bruce: He was never an orchardist.

Jill: Excuse me, he was. [Chuckle]

Bruce: I think you’re thinking of somebody else. [Chuckles]

Jill: He had an orchard and his daughter took it over.

So what was the relevance of this man whose daughter took his orchard over?

Bruce: He was the chap that got me invited into Rotary.

Jill: And the other thing was he worked for the Hastings City Council too. You see your memory isn’t as good as me.

So you did your time in the Hutt Valley as a Rotarian, and you were President?

Bruce: No, I was never invited to be President. Well [chuckle]

Jill: In some ways you used to say no before they even asked you.

Bruce: Yeah. Well I was very … I was never a President, but I did most other jobs. I’d been Secretary … don’t know whether I was treasurer.

Jill: He was treasurer of the whole long time.

You retired in the early 2000s, wasn’t it?

Bruce: Yeah, well I am still, as you are, an honorary member. Yeah, we’re life members. And while I was fortunate I was granted a Paul Harris Fellow … gave me that … and there’s a lot of my good friends who are not too far away from me. I got quite involved in it but I was always a back room boy, I was never a President. And actually I was never asked to be one, but I would have turned it down anyway ‘cause I was far too busy.

You had a motor caravan too, that you used to jostle around the place in?

Yes, well we used to have a caravan towed by a car, and then some years after that we bought an old bus and converted that into a motorhome, and also joined the ICFR, the International Fellowship for Rotarians, and had many a good time with them.

And then nearly fourteen years ago I had a stroke and that sort of altered my life to some degree. And it was soon after that … we still used to drive the motorhome but it wasn’t all that long after that, that we sold it and gave up those type of things that we used to enjoy doing.

Coming back then, we’ve covered most things except the children. You have a son, you have …

Two daughters.

Your son’s local, and he’s had green fingers like your father. Your daughters – are they local?

Jill: Robyn is a nurse and she’s at Hastings Health … is a nurse for Alma … a Filipino doctor.

And your other daughter?

Joanne – she’s in [the] Gold Coast.

That’s the one you used to go and visit?

Yes – don’t go any more. No, she’s done very well. They’ve bought themselves the …

Bruce: Management rights to …

Jill: Of twenty-one …

And now you’re taking it easy …

[Chuckle] We thought we were. It’s harder work than anything.

I know, I know.

Every time I just come right I do something else, not because it’s my fault but it’s because what they’ve done up here.

Now is there anything else, Bruce and Jill, that you can think of that we haven’t covered? We’ve covered your move from Tomoana Road to this lovely retirement village of Mary Doyle.

The best in New Zealand.

Okay. Well with that I would just like to say thank you very much for the opportunity to interview you.

Well it’s nice – we love talking about it, the family.

Original digital file

DownerJB1607_Final_May18.ogg

Additional information

Interviewer:  Frank Cooper

Accession number

1607/45247

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