Thomson, Gillian Interview

Today is the 1st June 2018. I’m interviewing Gillian Thomson on the life and times of her family. Gillian, would you like to tell us something about your family now?

I’d like to start with my father. He was the son of Nathaniel Kettle … the eldest son, who founded the firm Williams & Kettle in Napier which was a – what would be call it – a stock and station …

Wool, seed, everything to do with farming, wasn’t it?

Yes. Dad would have loved to have been a farmer but being the eldest son in the business his father wanted him. He did a cadetship at a high-country station in the South Island … unfortunately I don’t know … remember the name of that station … and then he came back to go into the business before he went away to the war in 1914.

Ewan McGregor, who’s doing the book on Williams & Kettle … that we have a direct descendant of the wool side of the business.

I only heard about that yesterday, about him doing a book.

So when the Kettles came to New Zealand did they come to Hawke’s Bay?

The story I have been told that as an eighteen-year-old – he was born and brought up in Sandwich, Kent – and he went down to the harbour one day and saw this ship that was leaving for New Zealand. And he went home and told his parents he was going to New Zealand and that’s how he came out. And he first went to Petone and he worked for a merchant there. And while he was working for the merchant, in his spare time he helped a surveyor, laying out the roads and everything down there. And then I think his mother was not well and he went back to England to see her, and he was very bored with life in England and he saw an ad in the newspaper wanting a surveyor to lay out the new Edinburgh of New Zealand, and he applied and got the job.

That was Dunedin, was it?

Yes, that was Dunedin. Somewhere in that time – I don’t know when or how – he got married, and he brought his bride out with him. And it must have been a fair shock to her. [Chuckle] And they were … the laying out of Dunedin.

Well, they had nine children. Now apart from grandfather Kettle who came to Napier, and one of his sisters went back to England … was married over there … I don’t know what happened to the rest of the family, and I would really like to know. Well, nine children – there must be somebody around that we …

So from Petone did he eventually graduate to Hawke’s Bay?

Well he must’ve, you know – I told you the story about going to a funeral and meeting somebody telling me that he’d been the first white man to come through the gorge, when they were laying out Palmerston North, so I was told. But that’s a blank as far as I’m concerned, I’d like to know about.

Yes. Eventually the family was in Hawke’s Bay?

He came to Hawke’s Bay but I don’t know how or why, but probably on the surveying side? I don’t know.

But then the family started Williams & Kettle, didn’t they?


So they obviously had this farming interest?

But it was his son that became the Kettle from Williams & Kettle, my grandfather.

Yes, that’s … Did they live in Hastings, Napier?

Napier – in Cobden Road up by the Bluff Hill … the water tower. And when my father got married he gave him his horse paddock, ’cause cars had come in then. Dad built there.

So you grew up on the hill?

Yes, in Cobden Road, by the water tower.

Now just before we get too far advanced you made mention that you had a very famous soldier relation – we’d better talk about him, von Tempsky …


… where he fitted into the family.

He was my Granny Kettle’s father. Yes.

So you’re a direct descendant of …


… ‘cause he’s quite famous, really.

Yes. My father is Ferdinand von Tempsky Kettle. My eldest brother was Randall von Tempsky Kettle … followed through.

So what was it like then as a young girl, growing up on the hill in Napier?

I think we had a wonderful time … was a great life.

At that stage your father was involved in the wool industry?

Yes. He managed the wool side of the business, and we used to have all the buyers from around the world visit us at wool sale time.

How many brothers and sisters did you have?

I had two brothers and one sister, and there’s just my sister and I left.

And so, your brothers’ names?

My eldest brother was Randall von Tempsky Kettle, and he went to Wanganui Collegiate and then he went overseas to the Royal Navy during the war. And then after the war he went into the Fleet Air Arm and he did extremely well. He was Air Commander on the aircraft carrier ‘Eagle’ and then he went to … gone out of my mind … the training place in Somerset for the Fleet Air Arm people – he was Air Commander there ‘til he retired.

Then your second brother?

Was David Kettle – he stayed in Napier and he was an accountant.

And you said you had ..?

One sister, Suzanne.

Did she marry locally?

No – he was I think originally from Masterton, and he was in the Air Force during the war. Sue was in the WRENS and he was in the Air Force. And they live in Auckland now.

Now just while we’re talking about the Kettles, I asked you earlier what relationship you were to the Kettles in Maraetotara?

Oh, that was Brian. Brian was my first cousin, my Uncle Dudley’s son.

So then as a girl you would have gone to school at Ahuriri, or?

No. There was a little private school up by the water tower in Napier in those days, the Bluff Hill School it was called, and it was owned and run by a Miss Beharrel, and she was there and had the school for many years and then she sold it to a Mrs Stainton. And the school was there for a very long time.

So you then went to secondary school?

Yes, I had a year at the high school, and then I went to Nga Tawa.

That’s over by Marton?


So did you follow any special sort-of education? Were you looking to do professional ..?

No, I wasn’t, I was so wrapped up – well what with Girl Guides, swimming … what else? Swimming was one of my ..?

Girl Guides has almost gone now.

And my mother at the time was the Commissioner for Girl Guides for Hawke’s Bay, in between all the other things she did. She had been theatre sister at the hospital for years, and when she had a family I think she nursed everybody on the Bluff Hill who was ill or dying. And then during the war she was the Matron of an emergency hospital.

So what was her name?

Gladys Bernau.

That’s the name you brought up early on. So did you play sport?

No, I swam.

Well that’s a sport, isn’t it? And you were a good swimmer?

Not fast but I could do long distance, very long distance. And I did lifesaving training and all that sort of thing.

And as a young woman you met Colin Thomson?

The day he came back from the war.

Had you known him before?

No, I was working for his sister at that time who had bought this little private school on Bluff Hill, and I was teaching there, and I met him the day he came home from the war.

So are you a teacher?

I wasn’t a trained one, I was just teaching the kindy stage.

No, but you … you met him on the day he came home?

And we were married eighteen months later.

So what was Colin’s background? Was he a Napier person?

Oh yes. J P Thomson – he was a draper. He had been in partnership with his brother in Timaru. He came out from Scotland.

What date would that be? Because I’ve got a plate engraved ‘Thomson, Draper, Napier’, and there’s a picture of the shop engraved on this plate 1890-something. I found this plate one day, just by accident.

Long as it’s a Thomson without a ‘p’?

Yes. And it’s dated, and I’m pretty sure it’s to do with the haberdashery trade.

So Colin came back from the war, and had he had a trade before he went away?

He worked for A B Davis’s, which was a building firm in Napier in those days, in the office. He wanted to be an architect, but his father – I don’t know – I think money in those days probably, and didn’t get there. Then he was in the office and ran the office for them, and then he went off to the war – it was a long bite out of their lives. And … sort of, when he came back he wasn’t sort of quite sure what – however he went into the building line … started his own business.

And he carried on doing that for most of his life?


So you were married … eighteen months after he got back?

We were married in 1948.

And so were you doing anything while he was working?

No. I wasn’t. No.


Five boys.

Five boys! You were outnumbered totally, weren’t you? You quite often find five girls, but never five boys. [Chuckle]

Alice’s father is my eldest son.

So these boys … their names and when they were born?

Well Alice’s father is Andrew John, then the next one’s David, and then there was Michael, and then Richard, and then William.

And are they all still here in Hawke’s Bay?

No, no. David’s in Brisbane.

What does David do?

He’s just retired. [Chuckle] Alice’s father’s retired now. Michael – well he’s virtually retired now. He’s in Tauranga. He was in the Army and then when he came out of the Army he was working for Housing New Zealand – oh no, he was Private Secretary to the Minister of Housing for several years, and then …l well, he’s done lots of things, hasn’t he? Now he’s sort-of semi-retired but he seems to be involved with … he works at the hospital part time, and he gardens for five people, retired people.

So he enjoys the outdoor working?


So where did you live when you were married?

We were in Coleman Terrace in Napier.

Is that on the hill too?

Yes, it’s on the hill.

And so they all went to school from there?


So at what stage then did you dash out to Dartmoor Valley and buy Silverford?

Your father would have been eleven I think, at that stage. [Speaking to Alice, granddaughter]

So the boys spent some time then on the farm?

Oh yes. Yes. And then we bought another block up the Waihau Road … Pukenoa.

That would have been quite exciting because you had some pedigree Friesians, didn’t you?


And it’s interesting how our lives have been directed by farms.

Farms – well, I just loved the life. And lucky Colin was interested, but you know, he was building, but he was very helpful always. But the farming was my thing. And then we bought – what was it, four hundred and twenty acres, or four hundred and fifty acres, at the Rissington corner, and we – well, I did it for a while, but it was [chuckle] … God, we did work – when you’ve milked eighty to ninety cows in the morning, and then got up and walked round at lambing time.

So it was at Silverford that you had the confrontation with the bull?

Yes. [Chuckle]

And as a result of that confrontation you …

Well I just, you know – I had several months in hospital, and then a year of not being able to do anything. It was just difficult, and we decided that the best thing was …

Was that the end of your dairy farming?

Mmmm. We had … well, it went on for a little while but I had other people employed and things, and it just … it wasn’t big enough to support a married couple or anything, so it … just one of those things. How old were you when we left?

Alice: Not around.


But as a result of that you lost your lower leg?

Gillian: Well I had it for some years, and it was just difficult. And I went to see the specialist, Dennis Atkinson, and he’d used to come and play with my boys [chuckle] … the elder boys, and I said “well what’s the future?” And he said “not good.” So I said “well, I’ll see you on Thursday and you can take it off.” Well it was just so uncom… pain is just … [speaking together] drives you into the ground.

Well you know, you just happened to be dealing with a wonderful surgeon.

Mmm. He was fantastic.

So that meant the termination of the dairying …


… and getting rid of the cows. Did you keep the farm after that?

Not very long. Well, we kept the top farm, Pukenoa. Which boy was up there, Alice?

Alice: David.

Gillian: David, the second eldest boy. He was there for a few years and he was going to buy the place from us but unfortunately his marriage broke up and that was sort of … yeah.

So you still owned it at that stage … I can’t remember because it’s you know, twenty-odd years ago now …

Yes. It’s more than that, isn’t it?

Well, yes it is. So what did you do after?

Well we came to Havelock North, and we went to Muritai Crescent and Colin was working. He had sold up his building business and he was working for Hawke’s Bay Farmers’ Transport Holdings, ’cause my brother … younger brother … was the Secretary of the firm at that stage, David Kettle. And Colin went there and he was there for – I don’t … look, it’s hard to remember how many years …

Hawke’s Bay Transport Holdings – that was the ex-Sherwood ..?

Yes. Yeah. So we were out here, and he retired from that. And he’d been a busy man and we didn’t know what to do, and then we heard about this bit of land and with a small nursery on it in Lane Road, and …

Yes, how far up Lane Road was it?

The very first driveway on the right. There’s a cottage on the corner and there’s a driveway just in behind. Now who was it ..? Somebody else up there … Goldstones.

Terry Goldstone.

Yes. We were both up that drive.

And so then you carried on there with the nursery. Were you the nursery person?

Yes. Colin was working for Hawke’s Bay Farmers Transport Holdings.

Yes, so this kept you out of mischief …


… growing these plants.


And did you grow them commercially to sell to nurseries or to…

I did sell to nurseries, then I started advertising, you know, to sell on the weekends, and I had such a good response that I just did it for that.

And so what were the plants you grew?

Fuchsias and perennials. I had two big shade houses and a glasshouse … two glasshouses, weren’t there?

And so obviously you did that until …

‘Til I fell over. You know, I had the bad leg, but I fell over and … just went crack, crack, crack in three places. The blood hadn’t been getting to the bone. So that was the finish of the leg. Well, they plated and screwed it again but it was so painful that it was just not worth keeping.

People don’t realise at times the risks some people farmers take with – a cow with a newborn calf …


… they were more dangerous than a bull …

They were.

… because the bull you knew to look out for, but the dear old cow …

So you retired then from Lane Road?


And where did you retire to?

Where did we retire to? Greenwood Road. It was up a steep drive …

Alice: 80A.

And then from there …

Yeah, well Colin – he had Alzheimer’s. He was in Mary Doyle for two and a half years before he died.

When I see a photo of him I’m sure I know him.

I think so too ‘cause … [shows photo]

Oh yes, I remember him. Was he ever in Lions or Rotary or any of those ..?

He was in something like that – I can’t remember.

Yes. Golf – did he play golf?


Did you ever play golf?

No. My father you know, was the Amateur Golf Champion of New Zealand in 1925.

You know there’s probably other notable things that have happened too. [Someone enters] Hello.

That’s Russell Jones, from Auckland.

Hello, Russell.

How old were you when you were married?

I was a month off my nineteenth birthday.

Well that’s not that young today, is it?


It was then.


And your children – you had those over …

Well Andrew’s now sixty-seven, and my youngest son who was a surprise packet is fifty-four. When I had the accident and I was in traction in hospital for several months, and then I came out and they decided I was five months pregnant. And I didn’t know [chuckle] … I always felt so well, anyway.

Well you’ve always obviously led quite an active life.

A physical, you know – yes.

And the last thing you think about if you’re fit and well …

[Chuckle] No …

… is being pregnant.

… it wasn’t intended. [Chuckle]

Oh, well that’s good that they’re all still fit and well and …

Yes. They’re needing new hips, a couple of them. [Chuckle] We’re very lucky in this country.

Oh, absolutely.

We’re so lucky, and when I hear people moan I think … it annoys me intensely.

Some of the detail will be in this book that …

Alice has been…

Yes, yes that’s got the detail.

She’s been delving through the boxes that I’ve got, of bits and pieces. I’ll tell you something – Russell’s grandparents were La Rouxs, and they were a well-known Napier family. And Russell’s grandfather, with my father, my Uncle Dudley Kettle, I think, were the first people to drive a car over the Taupo Road when they were very young. And Dad always said they had six spare tyres and a bottle of whisky, and he said the bottle of whisky was the most important thing.

So what other things that you have forgotten to tell me that you need to tell me?

Oh golly, it’s very hard without …

Funny things. Where did you go for your holidays?

We always went to Taupo. We had the most marvellous holidays, ‘cause my Uncle Dudley Kettle had a cottage right on the edge of the Lake, and we used to have all January there.

Did your father fish?

Dad fished, but – when he was fit enough in his younger days. But we were more swimming and having fun as teenagers.

Eighty-eight years … can do a lot, can’t you?

A lot’s happened in eighty-eight years. And Colin and I travelled quite a bit too. We had a couple of trips to England, and we did a big trip round the South Island at one stage. Well Alice’s father was a forestry man, and that’s how they got round the South Island.

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Interviewer:  Frank Cooper

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