Tylee, Christabel Interview

Today is Thursday 12th October 2023. I’m Maxine Rose and I’m recording an interview with Christabel Tylee of Havelock North. Christabel is eighty-five and she’s lived in Hawke’s Bay all her life. She’s going to tell me first about her early life growing up in rural Hawke’s Bay. Christabel, what year were you born, and where was that?

I was born in 1938, at a little … annexe, I suppose … [traffic noise] run by a Sister Cooper, in St Aubyn Street in Hastings. It was when there was a flood, so my mother had to stay with her mother for about six weeks because we had rather a bad road and Dad couldn’t trust that he could get in with Mum and I. So we were there for about six weeks.

Who were you named after?

Well I was called Christabel just because my mother liked the name, but I was Christabel Jean after my godmother and aunt, Mummy’s sister, Jean Ballantyne. Later she married Cedric Wright, but she was still Jean Ballantyne because all her ballet pupils knew her as that.

So she was a ballet teacher?


So tell me first about your father.

My father, Royston Campbell; well he was a very, very kind man, and he loved having three daughters, he always said, but I rather wished he’d had a son. But he said all his daughters were very good. [Chuckle]

But he used to have interests as well as farming; he did a lot of deerstalking, and rifle shooting at the Craggy Range Rifle Club, and he got very interested in that. And it’s nice, ‘cause one of my grandsons is just as keen – very like him, and he’s a farmer too. But Dad planted lots of trees when they built the house, and …

Tell me where this house was?

It was at Kahuranaki, about two miles from the Kahuranaki hill. Originally it was all one farm, and my grandfather owned Kahuranaki Station too, but then it was divided for the three sons and we had the part down by the Tukituki River, and some of the farm bordered the Tukituki River. So you came down Rochfort Road – having come up the Kahuranaki Road you turned down a road called Rochfort Road, and it was just two miles in there.

So did your father farm this land on his own?

Well he tried to, yes, he mostly did. But as three brothers they pitched in and helped each other for certain jobs, but he did do most of it. He rode horses, you know, he didn’t have motorbikes, and he always had a good horse to ride.

What sort of farm was it?

Well it got really dry – it’s not really good land round there whatever you do. He did put super[phosphate] on. Some of it was flats … the flats were good; but there was a hilly range called the Silver Range that went through the end of it to the neighbour, and that was tough, high country. And then another part of it went out towards actually the hill, Kahuranaki. But it was a hard farm, you know, we all loved it. [There were] lots of beautiful parts on it.

Did your mother help at all?

She did help … yes, she did help. And she rode the horses some of the time, but she loved going for walks on the farm. Yes, she used to take us riding.

What sort of person was she?

She was wonderful. She did everything for us children and for Dad. She didn’t really have an interest of her own, but she did love music and gardening. I always felt she would like to be in town, a bit closer, but when she did retire she missed the farm so much. But she was always busy and helping us, looking after us. We didn’t have the electricity there until I was twelve, and so we had candles, and cooking on an old wood stove. And it was all so different, but she managed. And she sewed for us all, and she sewed [ironed] with the old Mrs Potts’ iron, and a benzine iron at one stage. And she made beautiful smocked dresses, but she still used these old irons.

When you say a Potts iron, I don’t know what that is …

It’s in the shape of an iron that we have now, but it was heavy … it was heavy cast iron I suppose, and you heated it on the stove … with a wooden handle. You see them in museums; they clip on and heat it on the oven [stove]. So she used those, it was amazing; and then she’d have to do all the sewing at night under the candles or the benzine lamp. But she sewed beautifully, and she loved smocking too, so that was a big interest. She loved playing cards with Dad, and listening to the radio. We all loved listening to the radio, especially the plays. There were some very good plays on the radio in those days, and we listened to the news, and music. But oh, there were so many.

So you had siblings?

Two sisters, yes. I was the youngest by ten years from my older sister, and six from my other sister. So when they went away to school and university I spent a lot of time at home with my mother and father, which was a very happy time. But they both went away to Iona [College] too.

What about grandparents?

I only had one grandmother that I knew, Aunt Jean’s and Mum’s mother. Her [Their] father died when she was twenty-one, just when she got engaged, so my grandmother coped all those years without him. But Dad’s parents lived at

[Breadalbane] in Havelock North, and they also had died before I knew them. So it was sad; when I think my children had four grandparents for a long time.

And aunts and uncles?

Yes – we didn’t have a lot of cousins, but we did have some. And we had some aunts who were very kind, and a few cousins.

I think there’s one particular aunt – Marion, is that right?

Oh yes.

Tell me about her.

That was my husband’s aunt, Marion Tylee. She went to [Samuel] Marsden College in Wellington, where she was very lucky and had Dorothy Kate Richmond, who’s a wonderful New Zealand artist and recognised overseas and here – she had her as an art teacher. And then she went and studied in Auckland, I think it was, and then in England at the Slade School of Art, then in France. And she just loved it, and she had exhibitions. But when the war started she came back home and looked after her mother and her other sister who had been married. But she was a mother too, and she did a lot to foster art in Palmerston North and she helped build a [an] art gallery there. And when she was eighty they had a retrospective exhibition at the art gallery for her. And she was getting old but we all went down, and she had so many paintings there. It was lovely. The whole family have a lot of her paintings.

Any favourites that you’ve got?

Oh, well that one behind you of Paris we think is very special, but we have a lot on our walls. It was interesting when she was at Marsden, because Dorothy Kate Richmond, as I said, taught her, and for an art prize she would give paintings of her own. Aunt Marion was given three during her career there, and so I’ve got three which our daughters will have – one each. And they’re really beautiful, the colours.

It does mean that they’re probably throughout New Zealand …

Yes. My son-in-law, Chris Morris, is very good at finding them on the internet sometimes, so we have found some that we didn’t know about. [Chuckle]

Has anybody inherited her talent?

Well they have, actually – a niece, Ann Tylee, paints very well. And my daughter, Alexandra, is actually very good, and she’s had exhibitions. She has a real talent for it, so it’s lovely really. Oh, and my husband’s brother, Charles Tylee, went to England when he left school and he studied art over there as well, and we’ve got some of his here. So yes, it’s come through the family. Richard loved it – he did art for UE. [University Entrance] When we were on the farm he was always too busy farming and gardening; he did a few, but he could’ve, I think – I think some of the others can paint too. But you know, Alex is [the] one that has taken it most seriously.

So going back to home life, tell me about life at home when you were a young child, you know, when you were very young.

Oh … I can always remember … I suppose I was about five … I can remember being outside the kitchen, and we had a lovely big weeping pepper tree. And I heard a noise, and I looked up and it was an aeroplane in the sky. [Chuckle] You know, you didn’t see them very often. I mean, later on when I was still on that farm the big jets would come over, make a roar and [a] huge noise. You could see the vapour. But we started off just by being excited about one little aeroplane. Extraordinary – so lucky in a way to be able to think about all those times now. Oh, it was fun; we used the Tukituki River so much because the old family woolshed was down there, only about half a mile away. And we used to shear there sometimes; the shearers would come out and live in the shearer’s quarters. And we swam there so much, and had picnics. And in the summer it was so hot – the summers were very hot – and we ran out of water quite often in the summer at home, so we’d go to the river and camp. [Chuckle] And it was great fun.

Tell me about camping.

Oh well, we slept in tents, but we also made hammocks out of wool packs. We didn’t buy them, we just made them ourselves, and we tied them between two trees, and it was great fun. I talk to my sister, Jenny, who’s in Duart [Care Centre] – she’s got a very good memory. She’s ninety-two, and we talk about those days; it’s good to talk to her about things like that; she remembers. And my other sister made a little boat … ‘Cockleshell’, we called it … canoe, and that was fun. It was such a lovely river then.

Was it safe?

Oh, absolutely. We didn’t think about it being polluted. I mean there were lots of lovely rapids, and the sun at the end of the day would catch those. I remember so well seeing the sun on the rapids at the end of the day. But when we camped down there you’d quite expect to see a water rat swim across and land, you know, in front of you. Or opossums, but it didn’t seem to matter. It was fun.

How did you cook?

Oh, I think we had a thermos – I mean a thermette – a little thing. And also we’d go down eeling with the family, other families too. And we’d light a fire on the stones and use driftwood and stuff … old bits of wood. I don’t think we had any other sort of fire, but it cooked potatoes in it.

Sounds like an idyllic life, actually …

It was, I feel very lucky. [Chuckle] I mean, except when the war came, it was very sad. Dad was in the Home Guard; he didn’t leave ‘cause he had the farm. And he supervised the neighbour’s farm as well. But the sad part was the day that peace was declared and we all sat round the radio … remember it so vividly. And they played ‘God Save the King’, and Dad stood to attention – we all did. The Governor-General spoke, and the King. And my mother was upset, and I said, “What’s the matter?” And she said, “Oh, I’m just thinking about Uncle Peter and Uncle Herbert”. ‘Cause she lost two brothers, and they were so young. And my father had two stepbrothers, and they died too. So it’s a very sad time for a lot of people.

Yes, we assume that everybody was relieved, but that brought back tremendous memories …

Oh, huge! Yes, thinking about them. You know, apart from those things my mother and father had the Depression to go through too, which I didn’t remember. I was educated at the time of the wool boom, so I was very lucky ‘cause expenses for school could be met quite easily. But when my older sisters were educated it was very hard because we’d had the Depression, and you know, it was much harder then. Well they married in 1928 [1926], my parents, and then there was the Depression and things were really tough. I don’t think my second sister … I don’t think either of them went to school until they were in the fourth form, so they only had three years, I think. But Elizabeth did very well, the older one, although she was Dux. But my mother was so surprised ‘cause she had governesses down the road, but you know, it was a surprise that she could do that. [Chuckle]

But yes, it was very tough. But then the wool boom came and wool was so in demand. It was wonderful.

Hard to believe now, isn’t it?

Oh, I wish it would come back. So hard for farmers now. But the wool … it’s so beautiful. It’s so beautiful to wear. I can’t believe it, you know, I wear it all the time, it’s so warm. And we’re short of people to shear, too; short of people to work on farms now, and yet there are a lot of people out there. We had shearers come in. Our father didn’t shear; he crutched but he didn’t shear, I don’t think. Not like my son, who shears so much. [Chuckle]

But anyway … yes, it was a special place.

What hobbies did you have as a child?

I read a lot, and I did ballet.

Tell me about the ballet …

Oh, I loved it. I think I started when I was about four because before that I would go and watch Aunt Jean teaching at her studio in St Aubyn Street, and see all the girls come in and out, and watch them, girls and boys. She had one very famous boy she taught, Basil Patterson; he went on to be a wonderful dancer overseas. And I just loved it, listening to the music. And so I went through the grades, but we weren’t allowed to have lessons at Iona so I had to stop. But she taught at Woodford [House], and she was asked in latter [later] life to examine for the Royal Academy all over the world, which she was so thrilled about, so she’s examined in Asia and in England … lots of countries, I can’t think. And that was so exciting for her to do that.

Do you have any photos of yourself dressed for your ballet?

Oh, yes, I’ve got one before an exam, in the usual white … well it was a sort of – I think it was white – it was a tunic and ballet shoes. I have got a little one. But we didn’t have many photo[s], not like we do today. [Chuckle] But it was a tremendous interest, and I still have such appreciation of it. We saw the Ukraine Ballet recently and I took one of my granddaughters who is very good at it and very interested in ballet, and two friends, and we loved it so much.

Lovely to maintain that interest, isn’t it?

It’s wonderful. She always will. She’s going on to boarding school in Wanganui next year, and she’s done her Grade 5 exam and done very well. She can learn over there but I’m not sure whether she will. You can’t really make a career very well but she’ll always appreciate it.

Can I go back to your younger life … can you remember celebrating your birthday, or Christmas …


What about birthdays?

Oh, birthdays were always fun; mostly I’d have friends come out to home, and we’d play the usual games and have a cake. Mum would have beautiful cakes for us. And it’s funny, things have changed so much, but one of the nicest presents I received was a tin case, Windsor & Newton paints. And they were just in little things, and then a few other paints in tubes. I think I was at St Luke’s then and we did a lot of painting. But I remember being so thrilled; and now I’ve got this box still but the paints are not really very good. But you know, I can’t throw it away. [Chuckles] I asked [??] if they have still got the paints I could put new ones in, but they said they don’t. I’ve still got the case, and the paints are worn out, but I’m awful [indecipherable].

And what about Christmas?

Oh yes, Christmas was very exciting – we had a pillowcase at the end of our beds. And I couldn’t sleep very much at night, and then I’d wake up and see things sticking out of the bed [chuckles] … it was very exciting. But mostly we went away for the day to Puketapu, because that’s where my mother grew up. And she had a stepsister there, and she made a wonderful Christmas – big long table, and she wrote a poem about everybody, which we read.

Your mother did?

No, my Aunt Madge [?Orr?]. I think I’ve still got mine tucked away somewhere. We didn’t have a meal ‘til about three in the afternoon. But she was such a vivacious person.

So was this the full, you know, turkey and things like that?

Yes, it was, and puddings galore! [Chuckle] I don’t think they did have electricity because she had the bath absolutely full of puddings to keep them cool. [Chuckle] Maybe she just had too many. But … oh, the last Christmas I went to there, I came up from Christchurch in 1959 when I was doing my training and I was having a weekend off after night duty, so I flew to Palmerston North and my parents collected me there and we went to Rosemount – it was called Rosemount – and we went there for the rest of the day, and I think that was our last one. She died; she got very ill and she died just not long after that.

Did anyone in your family talk about the Napier earthquake … memories of that?

Oh yes, they did. Both my parents were in Havelock North, the village, when it happened. My father was having a haircut in the barber’s shop, and the barber got such a fright he tore off down the street out of the shop, and said to my father, “You mind my shop – I’ve got to go home!” [Chuckle] And Dad was left in the shop. And my mother was across where the old Post Office was, and she looked up and she saw … where the BNZ is there was a two-storey building … and it just crumbled; just crumbled. And Elizabeth was about three, and she said to her, “Look, darling, it just looks like a pack of cards”. But they were very lucky because they were going to go to [?] where the grandparents were, Dad’s parents, and take them to Napier for the day. Well they didn’t get there; I mean they didn’t start because with the earthquake the bridges were probably not there. And so they came back, and all the family at [?] camped out for three weeks ‘cause there were tremors all the time. And [?] was safe, but it was a big wooden single storey house, and the chimneys all fell down, you see. People were terrified – they didn’t know what was going to happen next., so they camped outside. I don’t know what they would’ve cooked on, but they knew what to do. It was very, very frightening.

I think we take for granted that people will know what an earthquake’s all about, but you forget that they had no experience of that.

No. No. Well, things that Dad did after that quake … whenever we stayed in a hotel or anywhere else, he would go around the room and see if there was anything that could fall on our bed. And I’m just the same; I stayed out with my daughter at Greenhill the other day, and she had a big trunk, just sort of quite near the bed, up on top of a big wardrobe. And I just didn’t make a feature of it, but I just said to her, “You know, if Grandfather was here he would’ve told you to move that.” [Chuckle] She thinks they’ve anchored it there. You know, it was something he always did; he was always careful to make sure nothing could fall on us, because so many people were injured.

So you started Correspondence School, I gather – is that right?


Why was that?

Oh, well there was no school near except Havelock North. My older sisters rode to a neighbour at Morea, just about two miles away. They rode down and had a governess there with Alison and Shirley Chambers. But that was before my time. There was a little school about a mile from us – a sweet little old-fashioned school – and they had a teacher there for a while when Elizabeth and Jenny were there. I think they had about nine pupils, but it wasn’t there when I was ready for school so my mother just gave me Correspondence, and I loved it.

So how did that work?

I think it worked really well. We had wonderful green canvas envelopes, and all the work would come, and a letter from my teacher; same teacher, she always wrote, every time. We had all sorts of subjects, and we had extra things like [a] bit of sewing and painting and artwork. But we had maths and reading, and I remember my mother helping me learn to spell. And in those days you had a square bit of cardboard with a word on – if it was ‘table’ you’d put it on the table. That’s how we learnt. [Chuckle]

And was this the ‘Janet and John’ era?

No. No, I don’t remember what the books were, but I think it was a good training, I wasn’t behind when I went to St Luke’s.

How old were you when you went to St Luke’s?

I think I was ten. I went in the second term of that year; yes, that was what it was, I was ten. And that was the year the bridge crossing the river at Tukituki was built, I think.

And you boarded, did you?

No, I went to St Luke’s, but I also boarded up Fitzroy Road as it was then – it’s now Busby Hill. There was a big villa there, and there was a person called Mrs Doyley, and she ran a school there during the war and she had quite a few children there. But when I arrived there it wasn’t a school but we could stay there. And we lived in dormitories – there must’ve been about twenty of us, I think – and she was very strict … very strict indeed, and I was quite nervous of her. The first day she said to me, “You haven’t got your beret.” So I started on a big sort of thing ‘bout how I must’ve forgotten, but I remember leaving it here [there], and she said, “Just come out with what you did.” [Chuckle] Taught me a lesson from then on to say what happened. [Chuckle] She was very good really. And we had bread and beef dripping instead of butter. she’d been through the war and she was just saving, but we had good meals.

It must’ve been difficult though, coming from home to that situation?

It was, but it was better than full boarding school, because Mum and Dad brought us in on Monday morning to school and then we had Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday night there, and then the weekend at home. So it was better than full boarding, and Caroline [Moorhead, née Williams], my friend, was there too. And I made another very good friend, Helen Foreman; she went to Nga Tawa [School], and became a doctor actually – she’s an anaesthetist. And I’ve seen her quite recently. But I got used to it, and I had my ballet still. Caroline and I had to work on a nature diary for St Luke’s too; we had to fill it in every day with something we’d seen as we were walking to school. And that was fun, so we’d sit down and do that.

But we used to help her a wee bit too, but she was very kind. But then she felt too old so she gave that up. So then my mother found a very nice person in [on the] corner of Campbell Street and Chambers Street, in a lovely little villa on top of a slight rise. And we boarded with her, Frances Bridge – she was so sweet to us. But you know, where that house was and the garden – it had a swing and a big tree and lovely bushes and there was always hedgehogs coming out – now there are four houses there. [Chuckle] And it’s all flattened. And for a treat we’d be allowed to sleep on the verandah at night. She was so lovely, and she played the piano to us, so I really enjoyed that. So the last two years of St Luke’s were wonderful.

And then it was Iona?

Yes. Oh well, I knew I was going there, and I loved it really; I did enjoy it, and I loved the Drama there – that was my best subject really. I loved being in the plays, and we had a lot of fun. We were always busy, not like today. The teachers came from England … from overseas … so when we went for our holidays they were at the school mostly, and every day after school. They wouldn’t go away, they were in the school, so they helped us with hobbies … tramping club or drama or music … and they just were part of school, so we were always supervised, you know. Nowadays it’s so different – the teachers have to go home to their families, and I think there’s a lot more time when they’re on their own today with nothing very much to do.

Can you remember any of the teachers specifically?

Oh, I can – there was Doreen Lenthal and Patricia Tucket; and one came from Bath and the other one … oh, where did she come from? She ended up marrying and going to Scotland, and I kept in touch for a while. Because my father was Chairman of the Board, he used to ask some of the teachers out to stay, you know, because it was nice for them to get out on a farm. They were very sweet, those two. They’d have a weekend out at our place, and we’d take them for rides and go to the river, and they loved it. They were awfully nice. Miss Tuckett … Pat Tucket … I said I’d like to be in the choir. Well [chuckle] she tried me out, but she got absolutely hysterical; she said, “I’m sorry, you can’t sing.” [Laughter] So … I knew I couldn’t sing, but I just wanted to try.

But you played the piano?

No, my mother did; but my children all have – I can’t play, I haven’t learnt. But I did love the Drama and the plays.

The teachers at the school taught you Speech and Drama, or did somebody come in from outside?

No, we had someone from outside, a woman who’s only just recently died. And I see she’s written a book, too. She lived in Napier – Helen McConnachie – she came. And when I left school I had another year at home to finish my Speech and Drama Diploma study. She used to come to my grandmother’s and teach me there, in Hastings.

But the Science teacher, who we also liked very much, she came out and coached me in the subjects I was weaker with. ‘Cause I wanted to sit the University Entrance again because that Sixth Form year I was too busy doing Drama and being a prefect and doing things, so I didn’t quite get my UE. I wanted to sit it again so I got Correspondence again, and it was wonderful. So I’d get up early and study for both those things, and then I was accredited. Mum had to sign a thing to say I hadn’t … you know … so I was terribly excited about that. But Miss Smith used to come out – we’d go and get her – and she’d teach me chemistry at home. It was really good. We kept in touch … no, they were super. And we had super Matrons.

That’s unusual, I expect people to say Matrons were very strict, but you didn’t?

Oh well, one of them could be very strict, but some days she was marvellous. And when I had English measles very badly in the Sixth Form she was so good, and so was the actual Matron … the real Matron. The first one worked in the kitchen as well, and arranged meals. But they were so good. It was horrible having English measles; I just do wish people all had vaccines; they’ve got really slack about it. It’s so serious; so important to have that good vaccine we’ve got now. Anyway, depressing; but we were really lucky. The staff were on the whole … the only one I had trouble, or had trouble with me I suppose, too … the Maths teacher. [Chuckle] I’m afraid I gave up Maths after the Fourth Form, which was awful! But I couldn’t do it, and the teacher found me difficult.

It’s very dependent on having good teachers, isn’t it?

It is, isn’t it?

What about sport?

I liked swimming, and I did all my life-saving. I’ve got a grandson now who’s just doing his because in the holidays he works at Splash Planet and he has to have his life-saving. So … it was fun; we used to get up early and practise lengths. And I liked basketball as it was called then; I didn’t like hockey. All my grandchildren play hockey. I wasn’t very good at school, but I was in the swimming team.

And I’m sure you’ve got memories of dances, and balls and things?

Oh yes, and the other night I took Harry, my grandson, to a party in Bridge Pa, and we went past the Bridge Pa hall … whatever it is, and we used to have school dances there, and they were such fun. And in the Oddfellows Hall. They were fun.

Did you go as a group? Or did somebody take you to the dance?

Well I don’t think anyone took me except my parents dropped me there. It was right opposite my grandmothers. We all got dressed up in pretty dresses, and … oh, and then I went to one in Palmerston North and stayed with a friend. That was fun. But then I had a coming out party when I left school with some Iona girls, at the Assembly Hall.

So you weren’t a debutante?

Yes, I was.

Oh, you were … tell me about that?

Oh, that was exciting – we all did it. I’ve got a wonderful photo of dancing with my father. When you left school you didn’t go to any balls until you came out. And I can’t remember how many girls were with me when we came out. We just had a beautiful dress, and we curtsied to the people on the stage.

A lot of people listening won’t really understand about a debutante ball …


… what was the point?

Well the point was that we shouldn’t have gone to any balls until we’d had this ceremony. I mean, they still had it at Government House, and they still had it in England, very much; I think they still do in England, but it’s not like it was. But they have a whole week; it’s just so the young people can get to know more people and meet other people.

Who were you presented to?

Well I don’t remember it was anyone very special …

Might’ve been a mayor or something like that?

Yes, probably, but you know I can’t remember, I’ll have to look at the photo.

And do you remember your dress?

Yes, it was silk organza. It was really lovely, it was so simple and sweet, and it was silk organza. The other day I brought my wedding dress out, ‘cause I was looking for my iPad which has been lost. And Mary said, “Why didn’t any of us wear it?” Because it’s beautiful, so I’m hoping that one of the grandchildren might; just beautiful.

Would somebody local have made it? Or did you …

Shirley Ormerod made my wedding dress; she was a very good dressmaker in Hastings, and we bought the material in Christchurch because Caroline was a bridesmaid, and Pony who I’m going to Christchurch with … she came from there … and she was a bridesmaid, and a cousin, Kate Ballantyne … Kate Fannin.

Yes, coming out – it was quite special really.

What age were you?

I suppose I was eighteen, yes.

You’ve mentioned church, and I’m wondering whether church and religion was part of your life?

Well it just was part of our lives, ‘cause my mother was actually an Anglican. She was christened and confirmed and married in St Matthew’s Anglican Church, and it was just part of their lives. But they didn’t go every Sunday, but it was something they just did. And [the] same with my father; he was christened Presbyterian in Havelock and he went with his family. I think the Campbell side of our family was stricter – they weren’t allowed to do anything much on Sunday. Grandfather would read the bible to them at lunch. Mind you, [at] Iona we couldn’t do very much on Sunday either; we could swim, but we couldn’t play tennis or anything. [Chuckle] Oh, it’s so different! But we took it; we didn’t mind, it was what happened. And we walked down to church, sometimes twice a day. But yes, it was just part of our lives.

And you mentioned that your mother played in the church – what did she play?

Yes, the harmonium. She did play – it was lovely – in the shearers’ quarters.

So you had a harmonium at home?

No. No, she couldn’t practise except to go down there. We had a piano, I remember it quite well, but I don’t know what happened. That was the piano stool I’ve had made into a table, but I don’t really know … I think it was just when things were tough, we probably sold it, you know, during the Depression and things.

But you were married in the Iona Chapel?

Yes. The whole thing was there. We were very lucky ‘cause our road often let us down and we couldn’t get past the creek at the bottom, so they weren’t to risk having it at home. And they asked Miss McNeil, the headmistress, about having it at Iona, the whole thing, because of Dad’s association. And it was lovely; I was married there and then we walked up to the school and had it in the Assembly Hall, and it was [a] lovely hall. And the grounds … it had rained a lot, but it was sort of fine on the day.

We’ll come back to married life, and Richard, but let’s take you back to finishing school. How did you decide what you wanted to do with your life?

I didn’t really decide when I left school, except I did decide I would leave school. I thought about it a lot, but I was at the end of the Sixth Form, and I sort of felt it’d be better if I left, somehow. I mean … anyway, I did. And then I wanted to sit the University Entrance again when the results came out and [I] could do more study with the Drama, and complete that. So Mum and Dad said, “Oh, stay at home.” And they seemed to like me being at home, and I was thrilled, and so I stayed at home. And then I really thought I was going on to study Drama [a] bit more, but I didn’t; it was so difficult really. And I’d love to’ve gone overseas then and studied there but I didn’t have any family living there. And my mother said, “You really need family living there if you go at this age.” And I always did what I was told [chuckle] … well, not always, but you know, I just agreed with it. It was probably very wise.

And so then I taught Speech and Drama; I had qualifications to teach, so I had a little room in Hastings, and the church had a room in Havelock North, so I taught there for about two years.

And then I decided I’d sort of be a Karitane nurse, partly because my friend was going there, and I just thought, ‘That’d be a good training to have.’

And what did the training mean – moving away from Havelock North?

Yes, but I had to move to Christchurch – well, I chose Christchurch. And my sister was there, Elizabeth lived there. And so it was very different.

But that whole year at home was amazing – I had so much fun, as well. I was in a play that the Elsthorpe Players did, or two years … I must’ve been home two years, ‘cause we did two there, and we used to perform them in the British Drama League Festivals in the Institute. It really was a very happy time.

What was the British Drama League?

Oh that was an organisation that used to foster amateur people into plays, and I think it was throughout New Zealand. We did it in this group in Waipukurau, Napier and Hastings theatres, and it was just fun. Some of the people at Elsthorpe hadn’t acted at all, but some of us had, and Caroline’s mother, Betty Williams, produced them. She was so clever; she helped us.

Do you remember a play that you were in?

We did ‘The Setting Sun’ – that was about gypsies. That was fun; and then we did a French play. But I did a play after we were married; Richard was persuaded to be in it too, and it was the Waipukurau Drama Group, ‘Tony Draws a Horse’. That was so funny. He was good – he [Richard] was my father in the play. [Chuckle]

So after your Karitane training where did you go?

I came back home, because I was engaged. Richard came down to Christchurch, and we’d been writing letters so I didn’t really [?] very much at all.

So how did you meet Richard?

Oh, just through going to parties here, and balls … just like that, just meeting him. And then a cousin of his was marrying a friend I was at school with, and I saw him somewhere and I said I was going to this Tylee wedding. And he said, “Well I’m going with my parents – would you like to come with us?” That was so lovely, we had such fun, and that’s really when we first got most friendly. That was about April I think.

Do you remember your first date, or the first time he took you out?

Well that was very special, that time. I was still at home for a little while and then I went to Christchurch, and he wrote to me all the time. [Chuckle] But we hadn’t really known each other very well like they do today, often. But it was fine; we were married sixty-one years.

How long were you engaged?

Well really, it was from about April. April 1st I collected my ring from Stewart Dawson’s in Christchurch – they made it for us, and it was April Fool’s Day when I picked it up. So it was April, but Richard’s parents were in England. They were looking at Angus bull sales and things, and had a lovely holiday. But they didn’t get back ‘til November … or it might’ve been October … so we had to wait, so we were married on 10th December. A long engagement.

Tell me about your dress …

Oh, goodness. It was very beautiful; my mother found it in a shop in Hastings, and it was silk organza too, but it was a lovely shade of blue and had little tiny pleats all round it, and a shawl collar. And it was made in Melbourne; it was very beautiful. Oh no, that was my going away dress – you know how we had [a] going-away dress? It was so farcical, because I put it on when it was time to go away – wasn’t even late, seven o’clock, and the wedding started at two, I think. But we had to go early so that the aunts and the grandmothers could go home. That’s what it was like! And I was having such a lovely time with all these people here with us, but they said, “No, better go away.” I changed into this beautiful dress and we were sent off in a flurry. We drove to Hastings, to Aunt Jean’s, and changed out of these clothes and drove to Taupo [laugh] for our honeymoon to start. We only just got there ‘cause it was raining hard. But you know, wasn’t it a shame? But I did wear that dress a lot.

And all these people have come to see you …

Yes, I know.

… and you go away and leave them …

It was so extraordinary, wasn’t it? [Chuckles] Really was. But anyway, that’s what we had to do. I had three bridesmaids and Richard had one best man. Sadly he’s not here any more, but he was great, Peter Lyons.

Tell me about Richard …

Oh, well he had a varied life, but like my son he was always thinking of what had to be done. And he achieved a lot, really.

He was a farmer?

He was a farmer, but I think he could’ve done a lot of other things. He started learning flying when he was in the … they could go to this training …


Yes, the Service … oh, what’s it called? When every young man had to go into service. [Compulsory Military Training] He went into the Air Force ‘cause he wanted to learn to fly; he had learnt a bit at Bridge Pa. So he went in there, and he really loved it, and he could’ve made a career in that, but his father had bought more land and he wanted Richard home. But as well as that, Richard had worked on a high country station in the South Island before he came home again, and he really enjoyed that – he loved the high country … absolutely loved it in the South Island.

But he just had to come home ‘cause his father had bought this other place, and that was the place where we first lived, at Ruataniwha. His brother got married, so he and Jane lived at Elsthorpe in the house that his parents had built there until they had to move, so we all moved on to Ruataniwha. We only had just under two years there, because there really wasn’t enough work for Richard and his father, and so we found this farm at Flemington. But he loved the farm; he did, but he enjoyed the flying; and I think he could’ve been you know, [a] landscape gardener or something, ‘cause even when he was really tired at the end of the day he’d be out in the garden. He was always gardening, and he made a big garden each time we stopped. [Chuckle] And he read a lot.

He sounds a special man …

He was.

When did children arrive in your life?

Oh, well Charlotte was born after two years; I didn’t have any straight away. When we moved to Flemington she was about eighteen months, so she was actually born in the little cottage, first. And then Alexandra not quite two years after that.

And then I got really, really ill with pneumonia, and they couldn’t find anything to cure me. I was in the hospital for nearly a month in Waipukurau. I got an abscess in my lung and pleurisy. Anyway, they couldn’t find anything … they tried all the drugs, the doctors and nurses … and I had that pink stuff on my chest that you used to have, and every five hours they’d change it. They couldn’t bring my temperature down. And after three weeks, I think it was, the doctor came in about nine o’clock, and he said, “We’re going to get you better; we’re going to try another drug.” And they gave me penbritin, which was a sort of penicillin, and my temperature dropped straight away. [Chuckle] I’d lost a stone in weight, and I’d had a raw cough; anyway, it cured me and I came home shortly after that – just under a month. They didn’t know what caused it at all. I often wonder if it was a type of Covid, because I haven’t had it. I’ve had five vaccines now ‘cause I thought I’d better have one flying to Christchurch. But I don’t know; and they didn’t know what it was.

But anyway, so I couldn’t have children for another year. So then John came along, and he was about three years’ difference. And then we had Mary, and that was that.

Did you like being a mother?

Yes, I did. I loved it. But you know, it would’ve been so different if I hadn’t had a training, because I hadn’t even really had anything to do with babies. So in hindsight it was wonderful, that training, because it just helped me so much.

I was a bit lost when they became teenagers – I needed a training in that. [Chuckles] Oh dear, I could’ve done better in that, I think.

But anyway, being a Karitane was such a help, and I met so many super girls and mothers, and it was good. But I was thrilled, I’d fly home every … what was it? We had a leave of a weekend after our night duty, so it was about three times we had night duty. That was fun.

So this is when you were ..?

Christchurch. But I mean I missed home, but it was great being with all the girls and things.

And now you have grandchildren?

Oh, I know, I’m so lucky … twelve grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. It’s very special. I try and see them as much as I can, and they still come here sometimes.

Any of them inherited your speech and drama talents, or your sewing ..?

Well they have, really, it’s interesting. Harry, who’s seventeen in November, he lives at Poukawa, and he often comes in here with his guitar or whatever he’s got. And he’s so keen about drama and singing – he’s lucky he can sing. He’s in the choir, and he just really loves it. He’s in plays all the time, and so he has inherited. Alex, his mother, was good too; I taught her right up the grades in speech and drama before she went to Woodford, and then she kept on with it so she loved it too.

And then Pipi, John’s youngest, who’s twelve – she’ll be thirteen at the end of December, she’s the one who absolutely loves ballet; gone right through the grades with great marks. Absolutely loves it, and she also loves smocking and sewing. Far better than I was at that age.

I mentioned your name to a friend, and she said, “Oh, that’s the Liberty lady”; so tell me about the Liberty fabrics …

Oh dear! Well it just happened really out of the blue in 1984, when all the farmers’ wives thought they should be going into town for work ‘cause there was such a depression. And I had Richard who had a very bad back and had surgery about four times; and he had other things wrong at that stage. So I didn’t really want to go into town and leave him, and it really wasn’t economical by the time you travel in and out. And jobs were quite hard to get anyway.

So I started making nighties; I don’t know why, but I’d learnt to sew a bit ‘cause with children … And I made nighties and smocked them, and … I don’t know, they were quite sweet really. And then I started making them out of Liberty [fabric] as well. I had to buy at retail price to start with, not wholesale. Anyway, then Richard had to go to Auckland to have a scan – you see, you couldn’t have one here in those days; twice had had to go to Auckland and Wellington to have scans. So I went up there, and I took three of my nightdresses that I’d just made with me, and rather cheekily I took them to a boutique in Newmarket. Anyway, they said they’d like to buy twenty, and [chuckle] I couldn’t believe it. And that’s when they said, “Well, we’ll have to have a label, so what’s your label?” I had no idea, so they said, “What’s your name?” And I said, “Christabel.” “That would be a good one.”

So that’s how it started, and I came home and I made them. I had to work out that I couldn’t be ill or anything, to have them done on time. And I used to get up early and listen to Wayne Mouat on a programme – he was so good to listen to on the radio – and just sit in my little cottage I had for sewing, and I got them done.

And then we had to go to Wellington because of the retailer who sold Liberty down there, in Waikanae I think it was … no, Raumati. So I bought it from her, and then she said, “We could share an order of Liberty”, which was great. She wanted to get more but didn’t want to buy the twenty-five rolls of twenty-five metres that we had to do. So we shared an order; that was brilliant, but then I really needed to get more, and I thought, ‘I can sell the fabric as well.’ And we were also making shirts, too – I was making shirts as well. So it grew, and then I needed another person to help me, and so Betty Mooney, who drove the school bus – and we were only a mile from school – used to come, and she’d sit down and sew with me in the cottage. She was so good at it.

And it just grew. And then we found a retired milliner in Otane who was wonderful. And we worked out a design for the hats. And we just made anything that could be made out of Liberty, and it was such fun. And we would go to Wellington twice a year, and we booked into a hotel and got a good-sized room; we had fifteen clients to start with, and we had three hundred and something at the end.

This is quite amazing, because I’m thinking you weren’t selling online, you were selling through retailers ..?

I had a little ad [advertisement] first – after a while – in ‘House & Garden’. The phone went after it came out [chuckle] and I dropped the phone; anyway, she rang back, and she turned out to be one of my best clients. And she worked from Wellington … oh, she bought so much! She was wonderful.

And it just grew and grew, word of mouth. I didn’t even have a fax to start with, I had nothing like that, but by the time we came to Havelock North in 2004, I’d got a website, and that even attracted overseas people. I even sold [a] big order to France, to someone who loved the ones I had. And … wwhhh, I was so excited. It was wonderful, I loved it. It was a really interesting business. But Richard did the books for me because as I said, I stopped maths in Fourth Form. [Laughter] I’m not even much better now.

Anyway, it was really lovely. I had so many cards I took down from the wall in the cottage when I left; I can’t keep them all. But people are so sweet; they love Liberty, you see.

Well thirty-one years is a long time …

Yes. And a lot of people, and my neighbours; and you know, I really learnt by looking at clothes that I’d had made by good dressmakers, and that’s where I learnt to sew. ‘Cause I did have good dressmakers; my mother always had a good dressmaker, and they just sew beautifully.

Where did you learn to smock?

Well my grandmother and my mother smocked, and I just taught myself from that. But she wrote a little book … that was a funny story. [Chuckle] When I came down here I needed someone to help me, and one of the people in the Quilting group at Keirunga [Creative Arts] told me about a woman, Rosemary Dixon, who she thought was keen to help me. So Rosemary came for an interview, and while we were looking at the fabric I said, “Can you smock?” And she said, “Yes, I can.” She said, “Actually, my grandmother wrote a book about it in the war.” I said, “That’s funny, that’s what I say.” [Chuckle] And then we realised her grandmother had written it with my grandmother. It’s just a little pamphlety book, but it tells you how to smock, and how to make certain articles. And her grandmother and mine used to do it together.

That’s quite remarkable …

It was really remarkable. So she was meant to come and sew for me. She’s still alive and she’s in Summerset, and she’s sewing a lot still.

Do you still have the little booklet?

Yes I have.

It’s a wonderful story …

Well it is a lovely story, isn’t it? She was with me for two or three years until I stopped. We chatted away.

You’ve mentioned many times, music; so you will remember some of the New Zealand groups that toured such as the New Zealand Ballet and the New Zealand Players?

Well I can remember when we were at Iona we were very lucky, ‘cause the New Zealand Players were coming a lot then; it was in the beginning, I think. And we saw ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, and we saw ‘As You Like It’; and different ones came. I remember two Players that came … it may’ve been after I left school; but English productions came to Hastings too, to the Municipal Theatre. Now it’s mostly in Napier, but they’ll come back to Toi Toi, I hope. And so I did see a lot, and they were very good productions.

What are your memories of what’s now called Toi Toi?

Oh, backstage … just the backstage; and the whole back of the theatre behind the stage for recitals that Aunt Jean put together every year [in] December or November, used to have chalk showing where the different groups had to sit, ‘cause she had about five hundred pupils. She had so many, and the schools. And the Queenswood girls – ‘cause the mothers weren’t there – they were boarding. She had to give them parts where they could wear their party dress or whatever. But the mothers had to make costumes for their children, the local ones, and they were so beautiful. She loved colour, and the colours were beautiful. And then the dressings rooms were rather poky; they’ve changed them now, but I thought they were great. And I loved all the makeup, I’m afraid; my children don’t really wear makeup much, but I always have because it was just that stage … someone doing your makeup for you, it appealed to me; and then all the lights …

And Aunt Jean went on when she was forty to marry Cedric Wright, who was well known in Hastings. His parents had Wrights’ Tailors & Outfitters in Russell Street near Bon Marche. But he did far more than that – he went to England and studied Dentistry at Cambridge, and he got almost through and then the war came. He went into the Royal Navy, and he actually got a medal and he was presented with it at Buckingham Palace. He never told us – anyway it came out – he was so modest. He came back to Hawke’s Bay and he went back to his parents’ shop ‘cause his father was getting old. But he joined all the drama groups he could possibly join, and he helped at the Municipal Theatre. He did all the lights and he loved it, and of course he got to know Aunt Jean very well. When I was about twelve she married him, and he was always such a help to her. But she died first, and then he went on and he managed the Municipal Theatre in the end. And now there’s a beautiful room … now that they’ve done it up; you go down an alleyway. I went with my niece last time she was here; they’ve made a room just for Cedric Wright, and his photo’s there. I was just so thrilled to see it, ‘cause he absolutely loved it. Some people say Toi Toi’s haunted by him. [Chuckle] He smoked a cigar, and it was his downfall of course, but anyway, he lived ‘til he was about eighty. But he was a real character, and I think they were very happy.

Tell me about any memories of the Blossom Festival …

Yes, I remember that … in fact I’ve been thinking about it a lot. They had floats; Aunt Jean was the queen on the town one, and Gladys Hudson who at that stage lived at Greenhill at Raukawa, she had a float – there were four, but Gladys won, I think. And I remember all the other things that happened, the Highland dancing and the Pipes, and …

So did people vote for the floats?

I think they did, they must have. Yes. I remember it really well, I mean it was so exciting, the first one. But they had lots of floats.

Did you ever take part?

No. But we used to go. I think my father was very helpful with the City of Hastings Highland Pipe Band.

Was he a piper?

Yes. He learnt to pipe young, and he did quite a lot of piping for events that happened. He gave a Cup for [to] Lindisfarne which they still give out, which is lovely because they have great bands at Lindisfarne. So he was always there and helping with that. That was one of his interests; I used to love it when he walked up and down the lawn outside, playing the pipes. [Chuckle]

Nobody in the family took it up?


Sadly, Richard died three years ago, so life is very different for you now, obviously …


How much have you followed the political scene, for example?

Oh, I’ve always been interested in politics. As a child I used to want to be a politician, I remember. Extraordinary; but then we listened to that, you see. It was when Peter Fraser and [Arnold] Nordmeyer … he was the Labour person, and in the Budget he put up smoking, [cigarettes and tobacco] hugely, [chuckle] and my father, who smoked a bit then, stopped that very night. He said, I’m giving it up”, and he did, ‘cause of Nordmeyer’s budget. Anyway, yes, I was interested, and we had Sir Sidney Holland – he always spoke; we’d listen on the radio. And Sir Keith Holyoake when he was young, and then he came to our district when he was Prime Minister. And Richard was involved with the committee, and we’d give them dinner and things when they came. He was a statesman really, I think.

But I don’t know about politics today [sigh] … I don’t know, this is very tricky at the moment. Wouldn’t know what was going to happen, would you?

How has Hastings changed?

Oh, it’s got so much bigger. A friend of mine went to the opening of the new water system – it’s amazing! It’s wonderful … she said it’s absolutely state of the art. It’s really wonderful when you think there were about five people that [who] died in that awful water thing, [Havelock North water contamination 2016] and others got ill. So it is amazing; Sandra [Hazlehurst], our mayor, has done a huge lot of work, hasn’t she?

And there’s a new theatre when I went to Royston [Hospital] to have my shoulder replaced there was a new theatre, and it opened just while I was there. It’s amazing what she’s achieved.

Can you remember any of the original shops in Hastings?

Oh yes. Field & Rakes … Janice, who helps me in the house, that was her family business, and that’s where I think my parents bought me my tin of paints that I loved – I remember that well. Oh, Bon Marche; and the library was a big building, with [a] high ceiling, and the walls were all covered in books. I loved the Billabong books, and ‘Just William’ and all those, and the ballet books. We went once a week when we went to town for ballet, and the library, and an ice cream at Blue Moon. [Chuckle] Oh, dear …

It sounds like a very full and happy life, and I’m delighted to’ve shared some memories with you; it’s brought back lots of memories for me, so thank you very, very much, Christabel.

Thank you, very much indeed.

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Interviewer:  Maxine Rose

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