Keith John Paramore Interview
Today is the 17th of January 2015. I’m interviewing Keith Paramore about the life and times of the Paramore family of Hastings and Keith will now start off just giving us some background to his family.
My grandfather used to work at the Meat works here many years ago. My father used to work there. I had two uncles who worked there. I had 2 brothers. My father was a foreman in the cattle yards. My uncle worked in the cattle yards with my father. My brother David was in the stock receiving sheep yards and Kevin was down below in the pelts department later on. I started round about 1965. My father, grandfather and uncle were all jockeys and during the off season they used to come to the meat works and help to process the carcasses, the lambs.
When I left school I was a little grocery boy, stayed there for a couple of years with good old Self Help then I went to work for Midway dairies for about 6 to 8 months and then toured the South Island for a period of time, came back and started at the Works.
What was it like Keith when you started at the Works? It must have been quite an eye opener for a sixteen or seventeen year old to all of a sudden start there.
It certainly was. I had never handled a knife in my life and it was quite an experience. When I was in the Midway dairy right at the end of Tomoana Road this Maori chap used to come in by the name of Tori Reid. He always used to tell me to go and work at the Meat Works. I said no way. I’m not going to work in that horrible place. I wasn’t interested in that sort of thing. Too outgoing – I’d rather do other things. But to cut a long story short I ended up going there and Tori was an ex-All Black and boy was he a powerful man. My very first job when I started there I was putting the strings round the necks and the forelegs of the carcasses after they had been processed. I still remember that and then I was on the old floor. Typical labourer did everything. Nothing stood out, I just did everything.
How long did it take you to learn to sharpen a knife?
Yes I know they say it’s one of the things that you can’t work for very long even cutting strings or anything if you haven’t got a sharp knife.
Well, the butchers all used to tell me a sharp knife is half the job. I’ll give a little incident there. As I was working on the chain there and Tori Reid was pelting beside me and he is a great man for jokes and I was putting the knife into the hind quarters of the carcass and all of a sudden I hit something hard and he was standing back laughing his head off because he shoved a gambol down there. So I always had two knives. So that’s how I learnt.
So you progressed from a labourer at some stage.
Yes, I started right at the very bottom as most of the people did, then when the chains got laid off – in those days it was the last one on first one off sort of thing – so luckily I got left on and kept on and kept on and never got laid off the whole time I was there. I was very lucky. Because a lot of the guys used to go to a funeral, just disappear for three days, or go to a rugby match, I always made sure I never went to those. My foreman, Derek Rixon looked after me sort of thing.
And then during the off season I used to go down into the boning room or in the lamb cuts and help process on the line down there just packing meat and all that sort of thing and then when the chains got put back on again I’d come back up on to the offal floor. It’s all on the same floor but I came up from the bottom.
When I said to you earlier about us bringing stock in there on foot to be killed – there was a big lake at the bottom and we often wondered what that lake was for. Do you know what it was for?
No, but I know someone who didn’t know what it was for and that was feeding his trout. My father had trout in there and he was feeding it every day. Dad had about six of them he had in there. He’d go down with the old stick, go up to the top floor, get a piece of meat, come down and feed his trout. But I think that was for washing down the yards. But not 100% sure.
So when you talk about working on the top floor. All the stock went up and then it came down as it was killed.
No it was all processed on the top. It went right along the chain on to the cooling floor and then it would go into the chillers and then it would go down into the freezers. There was an old freezer there. It was 18 something. Still good. Wooden walls and filled up with sawdust.
Is that one of the ones that was burnt down?
No, I think it was one of the ones that survived. 1884 something like that.
So the work was always contract work. It was always piece work was it?
Always contract work yes. During the season we had six chains going. We started off at 26 men chain up to 28 men chain, 30 men chain and up to 32 and the peak of the season when we had six chains going we started at 7. Normally we started at 7.30 but this time we started at 7 and were processing up to 20,000 lambs a day and Whakatu were doing the same. That’s 40,000 lambs a day just at two plants. That was only for the peak of the season and we had to get boys in from Te Aute College to fill up the chain because we couldn’t get enough workers. And that’s a lot of carcasses to go.
That’s right. Was it hard work?
No, but it was very monotonous work. You’re just doing the same thing 6-8 hours a day. We didn’t process in different jobs at all. We didn’t change jobs. Most of the time four or five of us just changed around a certain area. Like I was working in the offal area. I was the ringer and opener upper and another guy was doing the gutting as we call it and the next guy did the plucking and the next guy … and then we had meat inspectors and all that sort of thing around beside us.
They didn’t like the change of technology. They liked things as it was – having control.
When we first started there most of the people on the chain, there were only about 26 men, what we call a 26 man chain, there were 26 butchers but we had quite a few labourers in between and most of the guys – I’ll give you an example – on the pelters, they just wore leggings and black singlets and the only thing that got washed in those things was the hands. Everything else went into the drying room, the leggings stood up and you put them back on the next day and the singlets, well I don’t think they ever got changed at all until the new regulations came in and we all had to get into whites, and hygiene and all that sort of thing and that caused a bit of … that’s the reason we got a lot more men on the chain because of the hygiene regulations. You had to sterilise your knife after every time you steeled it. You had to sterilise your knife first and had to do that and it just got too much for … so that’s why our jobs got smaller.
To any of us that haven’t been involved in the meat industry to process 20,000 head of lambs a day is a fairly big logistical movement because when you think of the trucks to bring them in, the stockmen to drive them up those steep ramps.
And had to pick sheep to take them up.
And then all those carcasses had to be put on rails to where they ended up.
On the cooling floor. It was full on.
And it’s just sheer numbers. How many a minute did you process?
It’s either 6 ½ or 7. I can’t remember exactly that number now. Seven carcasses a minute used to go past you or 6 1/2 .
Yes, and if you didn’t do your job …
The other man had to help you. But that’s the reason why you had to have a sharp knife. You didn’t have time. At lunch times there, we always had an hour for lunch and it was quite good to have a break so we used to go for a run or go and play volley ball or something like that.
You had a cafeteria there if you wanted to use it didn’t you.
Not in our department. We just had the smoko room and everybody just used to bring their own food.
There used to be the big butcher’s shop as well.
There used to be a good old butcher’s shop down the bottom that’s for sure. Used to go and ask for a pound of mince and you’d walk out with five.
We used to go and buy our meat there. You’d buy a three legged sheep or two legged sheep. The other leg had been cut off but we still had to pay the full price.
Oh, you got the rejects. They either had arthritis or something like that.
The rest of the sheep was perfectly good. It was quite funny taking home a three legged or two legged sheep.
Yes there were a lot of little stories I could tell you about the meat works there. We got one particular guy there, I won’t mention names, he was well known for borrowing meat. Not only meat, he would borrow anything. If it was lying around it seemed to disappear and the old bosses tried to catch him out but to this day, well he’s dead now, they never caught him. They went round to his house but he was that cunning he never took it home. He borrowed a bag of bobby calf testicles (balls) and he went to the hotel for a few drinks after work, put it down beside him and had a drink, couldn’t find his bag of testicles and he hunted high and low and he got the person who pinched his. He got him. He even borrowed quite a few livers and hearts. You name it, carcasses, pigs. He used to go there at half past two in the morning and borrow a few things. He was known for it but they just couldn’t catch him.
We were all guilty of it. Everybody somewhere along the line. I actually did it one day and I admit it now. We were in the boning room and two of us grabbed this fillet of meat, put it down between our pants and that sort of thing and here we were in the smoko room cutting it up, next moment there’s a tap on the shoulder and an Assistant Foreman says “just as well I’m not Derek Rixon.” To that day I never touched another thing – thought ‘how stupid’.
But at the time there’s a bit of bravado in taking something like that. But a lot of them took it as a right. Garth said it was every week.
Of course it was. You’d be surprised how much disappeared out of the freezers at half past two in the morning.
So as everything – the down turn in the meat industry came did you have any warnings that the works was under threat?
Well in the last five or six years we were always told that the works were closing down after Whakatu and we thought no it would never happen to us. We thought we were safe as. Since they had closed we would be as good as gold. Then one day we went to work and the gates were closed. It was on the news. And that was it. Not even the managers knew. They went to go into the works and they couldn’t get in past the gates because they were locked.
On the Friday night we were having dinner and it came on the news about the works closing and that was the first you’d ever heard of it. That was before the gates were closed. So you had all weekend to not know what was happening. Yes, so all of a sudden one day you had a job the next day …
I’d been there for 25 years and next day you had nothing.
While it was very monotonous work there was a reward because it was contract work.
It was very rewarding for me. Contract work. I was there all year round.
The better you worked the more you got paid. So it would have been quite a shock.
It was quite a shock. But we had some good times there, Frank, before that. I remember at Christmas time when six chains were going Henry Keefe used to bring up his guitar – Henare O’Keefe as they call him now – and he’d get the guitar going. All the people in the office used to come over and listen. They were good times.
While you were there, there was a big fire. Did that affect you guys at all?
No we were very lucky. It was in the off season and I was home at the time having lunch and I’m ready to go back to work and my neighbour across the road says “Why are you going back, the place is on fire”. I looked up and saw the smoke. I was lucky, when I say we were lucky, the guys on the chain, because the new building had just about been completed so we had our 4 weeks holiday and then came back to work.
Yes obviously it was a pretty big fire.
Oh yes. It started down in the freezers, went up the chute there, what they call the chute where all the carcasses used to go down and with the air draught just went up to the top floor and just went along.
But we did have a lot of fun at the meat works. Like I said, at Christmas time there and lunch times when we did a lot of sporting activity. I remember one time there the beef house and the mutton chain just had an open wall between us, and sometimes when the beef get knocked out they shake their head and get up and run away. I remember one particular time there this guy, named Peter Wairama, was racing round because the beast got up and ran into them amongst all the chains, the mutton. You can imagine the scattering of jokers with knives and Peter chasing this beast with what they call a hammer gun. It was like a big hammer with the rod goes into the brain and here he was chasing round this beast.
Another incident there we used to process goats and did they stink. This billy goat after he was processed got up shook his head and took off down the chain and from one end of the building to the other he just ran right down past all the carcasses and all the workers and right down the end because we had down the very end we had open glass windows and what did he do? From the 4th floor up, jumped down, landed down the bottom and the last they saw of him was racing off into the showgrounds. They never saw him again.
There was another incident there I remember because I was situated on the very first chain right beside Laurie Clothier’s office which was the foreman, Derek Rixon, and everybody used to line up trying to get a job and the old gunner was Derek Rixon’s name because he used to gun everybody down the road, plus he was a gunner in the war. He went up to this Maori boy there and said “can you steal a knife?” and the Maori boy said “Yes, how many do you want?” so consequently he never got a job.
We used to do bobby calves, mutton and goats. At the peak of the cattle season they did 500 beef a day so that’s a big job on its own.
Did you all go back on the Monday to a meeting to find out?
Oh after the works closed down? Yes we had a big meeting outside the yards. They just tried to tell us, explained everything and of course you can imagine the feeling of some of the meat workers there. I’d been there 25 years and some of them had been there a lot longer than me – a lot longer – and of course it was very devastating. When we had to go and get our gear we were escorted in so nothing could get pilfered because at Whakatu apparently the gates were open and they just took whatever they could whenever they could, but we were escorted in and escorted out. That was the only time that I went back on to the floor after the place had closed down.
There were no other opportunities in the meat industry were there.
No. There was over at Pacific. But we were all too shell shocked to move. Some people did move pretty quick. The Langleys got in over there but a lot of us were really shell shocked and Carol was quite concerned about me because I was at home sitting there: ‘Why did it happen to us? Been there x amount of years, dedicated my life to the place.’ It certainly got me like that – Carol and I.
Well you know, that’s what I was saying about all those people I met at Flaxmere because there was men sitting on their own, wives were out picking tomatoes and doing other menial tasks to try and keep the place alive. And that happened to what – 2,300 workers?
Oh, over 2,500 at the peak of the season.
All of a sudden when you unload that amount of psychological pressure on the community – no wonder there’s a reaction – and a lot of them will react to the family. They can’t strike out anyone else.
It was certainly a shock to the system.
So after Tomoana what did you do then?
Well I was shell shocked; and then I went and worked in an orchard for $8 a hour I think it was after earning $25 an hour in the meat works and then down to $8 an hour. So I was just a fork lift driver in this orchard and then one of the ex-foremen told me he was going to start up a meat works over in Napier which is Hill Country Beef so I said to the guy, the foreman Ken Kirkpatrick was his name, he said ‘You can come in’ and I said ‘Well I’ve got to give up a full time job, is it a permanent job?’ He said yes. So I thought righto, so I gave up my orchard work, went out there, and the only reason I got in – unknown to me – was because they started a night shift and some of the boys went up into the night shift and I took his place. When they put the night shift off after three months he put me down the road, so I haven’t spoken to that particular foreman since and I don’t think I ever will. Because here I was unemployed again. I thought what the hang am I going to do now? Because I had family and a mortgage and everything else like all a lot of the others did then I went to work for Johnny Appleseed and worked there for 4 ½ years and then I had grandchildren coming into the world and I didn’t want to work 70 hours a week which is what I was doing there and went out to the vineyard. And after the vineyard about 10 or 11 years I retired.
So here we are today. So that’s rather fascinating to go back and look at the mosaic of a family – how it’s influenced by outside pressures. It doesn’t matter how well you do your job it doesn’t mean a thing in the end.
Doesn’t mean a thing, you’re just a number.
So thank you Keith. That’s really great.
Original digital file
Keith Paramore 17Jan2015 Edited.ogg
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Format of the originalAudio Recording
Interviewer: Frank Cooper