Wilkins, Ronald (Ron) Interview

Good morning. Today is Wednesday 1st December 2021. I am Lyn Sturm and I have been given the privilege of interviewing Ron Wilkins of Havelock North. Over to you, Ron.

Thank you very much, Lyn, and nice meeting you. Yes, my full name is Ron Wilkins, date of birth 27th March 1942. I was born in Hastings Hospital and was brought up on Norton Road at the corner of Aligin [Algernon] Road, and when I turned five I then attended Parkvale School.

Back in 1947 the roads in Hastings were metal with big drains to drain the water away. During the winter months when we had frosts we were in bare feet unfortunately, and khaki shorts and khaki top with no underpants or singlet, because we come [came] from thirteen children. I’m number ten in the ranking order, and I have three siblings underneath me. So on cold days unfortunately, to ease our feet, where the cow had done it’s job I [we] then put our feet in that to warm our toes, and then carried on to school. In those days the school’s seating was girl/boy, and of course also I had very long hair because my parents couldn’t get us into town because of the long distance. So back in those days the health nurse would come around, and my [our] surname being Wilkins, we were always the last in the queue. They would give us the examination of our hair and they then discovered that we had those lice, so consequently we had to be treated for that. But that was because we had long hair. Unfortunately, with a big family we used to just go out to the well, throw our hand underneath the water and splash our face[s], and off to school we would go; so consequently, as one would imagine, you then had dirt and druff appear on your neck. We got a good scrubbing every year with a scrubbing brush to get the grime off. So they’re the days that one remembers very well.

We then moved into Hastings to Avenue Road, and consequently I had to change school; and we walked from Avenue Road, down Karamu Road to the Central School where I did Standard 4, and then I went to Intermediate School, [a] couple of hundred metres up the road, and did Standard 5 and Standard 6. I turned fifteen the following year, in ’57, [but] my parents couldn’t afford to pay [for] a high school uniform and so I left school at the age of fourteen years and nine months, and went and worked for Arthur Simmonds. Arthur Simmonds was a seed shop opposite Bon Marche on Heretaunga Street, where I started off as a storeman, and I then went into serving at the counter. I then found that the customer was always right and I was wrong, and I then believed that my lifestyle should change and I applied to join the Police Force. I was very lucky, because at the age of nineteen and [with] a lack of education, I had a terrific Senior Sergeant recruiting officer who knew my family, and he helped me get through the pre-test, and off I went to the Trentham camp of the Police Department to become a Police Constable.

I found it very hard, because as one would know you had to dot your i’s and cross your t’s. Every Saturday after our exams I was marched up before the Commandant – again, being W for Wilkins, I was last, and the As and the Bs and the Ds would come past, shake hands and say they’d been given their marching order[s] ‘cause they weren’t playing the game. I then got approached by the Commandant, and he then said that I was very inquisitive and he would give me another shot, but I couldn’t go out in the evenings; I had to stay back and swot. Consequently I managed to survive, and I graduated as a Police Constable and returned to Hastings as such.

I then met a lady through a brother, and we got married. But unfortunately, police was more dominant and my attitude was not as good as it should’ve been, and our marriage went on the rocks. As a result she left me; wouldn’t come back to me unless I left the Police Force. My colleagues didn’t want me to leave, but I did; and my wife came back and we then joined the Transport Department in Wanganui. Unfortunately my marriage was still in a turmoil; and I then moved from a motorcycle officer in Feilding … after twenty months on a motorcycle … to a car position in Feilding. My marriage went on the rocks there, and I was left with three girls.

I then got a transfer to Reefton in the South Island, a one-man station, with my three children, the youngest being four years of age. I was very lucky that the Inangahua County Council chairman offered me assistance, but I turned that down because I was on a good salary as a traffic officer. But they provided me people to look after my children when I got callouts.

I managed that for twenty months and then I became a Sergeant in South Auckland at Papatoe[toe]. My wife missed the children, and like a sucker I took her back. That again only lasted another eighteen months; she left me, and I filed for a divorce. That was the first saga.

I brought my children up for seven years and then I met another lady through the department, and her [she] and I have been married now for thirty-seven years, and we have one child who is at present school teaching in Poland. Her name is Fleur, and we Skype and talk with her, and of course we’ve been over there and spent last … the Christmas before with her. She has a Polish male friend and they are living together and are very happy.

I left Papatoe[toe] and went through to Invercargill in the South Island; my wife felt very safe there. When I was in South Auckland I still had my short Police baton and when I was night shift or dog shift – what we call eleven [o’clock] in the night ‘til seven in the morning – she would have the baton by her bed. Well, we went to Invercargill, and of course you could leave your house unlocked and get about, and she really enjoyed it. But I was promotional seeking, and I got promoted to Senior Sergeant and came back to South Auckland, where the pace of life is excellent … that’s how I work better, under pressure.

Unfortunately in ’92 John Banks, the Minister, merged the two departments, Transport Department and the Police, as one; consequently I went back to the Police College and did cross training. Came back, and they treated traffic officers as second-rate citizens and I had two nervous breakdowns as a result of their attitude towards traffic officers. Consequently I was advised to retire.

I retired from that, and we then purchased a country store in Kawhia. Oh, prior to that I fell off the roof washing the windows and I broke my back, L3 and L5, and I was convalescent for some time. But I am here now, and that’s what prompted us to buy a store of some sort where I could rest if my back started playing up on me. That went off okay because [of] the condition that I retired under and the length of my thirty-two years’ service; the Police gave me two years to get back on my feet by paying me eighty percent of my salary. The bank granted me the loan to get the shop on the condition that I sign that eighty percent to them to pay off the mortgage. However the Police, in their nastiness, obviously had people spying on me, because we used to drive in alternately – one week my wife would take the van into Gilmore’s in Hamilton and load it up with stores, and the following week I would do it. And next thing my payments were stopped, and the reason is that they felt that I was fit enough and didn’t need to have it; and that was a condition that they gave me this two-year warranty.

I took it to a lawyer in Te Awamutu, and he read the contract of my discharge and felt that we had a case against the Police Department and referred me to a Crown Solicitor in Hamilton. Unfortunately the Crown Solicitor in Hamilton wanted $7,000 upfront because we were fighting a Police Department lawsuit; that would have been refunded to me if I’d won. Well I never had $700 let alone $7,000, so we had to swallow our pride, and consequently the bank foreclosed on us and we were forced to get rid of our shop and come back to South Auckland … [where there was] the only person that [who] managed to do an exchange – his house for our shop in Kawhia. I then managed to get a job as a driver testing officer, which I did until I retired at the age of sixty-five.

When I retired I heard about Grey Power, and looked in the paper and saw that they met on a Tuesday, and I went along. There were seven people on the committee. I joined in April, and at the next meeting, their AGM, like all committees, [it was] very hard to find [committee members], and I ended up being the Vice President, the Secretary, Membership Secretary and the Discount Book co-ordinator. However, that was very good, I enjoyed that.

And then my wife and I, after the death of her mother and father, decided that we’d come back to Hastings where my roots were. My wife was born and bred on the North Shore, but she fell in love with Havelock North when we used to come through to birthdays etcetera, and funerals of my family, [so] we came here. We’re very pleased that we did; we’ve downsized from a three bedroom to a two bedroom, from a two bedroom now to a one bedroom that we’ve got here in Havelock North; and that is giving us a better life to live as a result of the rental for these Masonic Villages.

So I’m now the President of Hastings & District Grey Power, and have been so for the last four years, and again, finding it very difficult to keep a committee together. We’re now looking for a Treasurer and a Membership Secretary.

So that’s my life story up to this present time. I have two brothers in Waiapu House that have no immediate family here, and my wife and I are their caregivers … taking out for Sunday drives or Saturday drives. So between [as well as] my commitment in Grey Power we devote a lot of our time to our two older brothers, one ninety-three and one ninety-one at Waiapu House. So both of us live [our] retirement age working, [chuckle] … volunteering. So that’s it, love.

Thank you.

Going back to Norton Road at the age of five, we had no hot water in the house we lived in and we had no toilet as such. Dad had to dig a hole and erect a toilet where we used to go for sanitary reasons. And we would boil the copper and carry hot water in what we called the flour tin; in those days you bought twenty-five pound[s] of flour in a tin, and Dad cut the top out and made a No 8 wire handle on it, and we would then boil the copper and carry the water in to have a bath. When I say we had a bath, that was very infrequent, but fortunately we did have a bath occasionally; but that was the method that we had to do it.

Dad also had several chooks and we had a cow; we all had turns at milking the cow. And Mum would then churn the cream to make butter. Bread – she would make our own bread, and we would go to school … we had the choice of jam or dripping on our sandwiches … and our sandwiches were doorstops; they weren’t thin cut bread as we have today, they were very thick.

I can remember on one occasion that it was so hot in Hawke’s Bay that I wanted to go swimming but we couldn’t afford togs, so my older sister lent me her black bloomers. And I have a photo of me going into the swimming pool in Parkvale wearing bloomers, and getting laughed at by the other children. Oh – if it rained we didn’t go to school because Mum and Dad said they’d only send you back ‘cause you’d be wet, ‘cause we didn’t have raincoats.

I also was a naughty boy because I didn’t like the dentist, so consequently it got to the stage that they would send two Standard 6 boys over and drag me to the dental clinic, sit me in the chair, and then the dental nurse would say, ‘Thank you boys’. And then she’d turn her back to look at my chart to see what she had to do; when she turned around again I was gone. And that is what I mentioned to you before, about the big drains, because I ran like anything and then hid because I heard a car coming, and I knew it was the headmaster looking for me and so I’d jump into this drain and I’d lie in there. And then I heard the car slowly go by, and I looked up if it had passed, and I saw that it was the headmaster ‘cause we all knew what sort of car he had. And he drove up and down Norton Road looking for me, but couldn’t find me.

However, when I got home the Education Department then sent a letter about my runaways because my parents didn’t know. We also had another family of Wilkins living on the corner of Tollemache Road with Norton Road, and consequently he saw us boys and girls coming home, and he came out and said, “Who’s Master Ronald?” And of course I said it was me. He said, “I’ve got a letter for you”, so of course me being Ron, I opened it, and it was about running away from school. So I then handed it to Mum, and of course when Dad came home I stayed outside ‘cause I knew I was going to get a hiding. In those days Dad used the double-sided razor thing that they used to sharpen the razors – razor strap – and when I came in he grabbed me by the scruff of my neck; and as I mentioned we didn’t have underpants, so I got a thrashing around my bottom with this double razor strap, and I could hardly [panting] … breathe. So I never ran away from the dentist again.

So when we moved into Hastings, of course we still didn’t have shoes or socks. And of course our parents didn’t believe in us playing sport because of the safety issue, so consequently we would sit on the sideline. So I didn’t become a sports person until I went to Arthur Simmonds, and there was a storeman that [who] was involved with Saints Softball Club, and he talked me into playing softball, so I was able then to afford the gear, and we won a champion prize against Palmerston North. And I played softball for three years until I joined the Police Force. I enjoyed the game very much.

When I left and went to Simmonds, the wage was £2.10.0 [shillings] a week, and Dad then demanded that I give Mum £2, and I had ten shillings to pay off clothing, shoes, socks, underpants, long pants to serve in the shop. And luckily my [now] ninety-three-year-old brother did have a haberdashery shop, and he got the shoes, socks and pants etcetera and I paid him 2/6d a week off of that, so that I had clothing to be able to go to work.

I used to go to McKenzie’s in Heretaunga Street and buy a box of Queen Anne chocolates which was [were] very cheap in those days, and eat them. And of course, consequently had acne. [Chuckle] Yes – so on joining the Police Force I was very pimple-face with acne at the age of nineteen. So yeah, it was an experience.

I’m going back to when I was down at the Trentham Police College. Because I never went to high school I didn’t have any military training, which was compulsory in high school for boys. And consequently, when it came to firearm training I was very scared because my parents didn’t believe in firearms. So of course we came up with the .303 rifle which we had to pull apart, oil, put it back again, and [the] same with the pistol – we had to pull it apart, and that sort of made me break out in a sweat, doing that. But going to the rifle range – through my ignorance I didn’t realise that you had a sight at one end and a sight up near where the trigger was. And of course I’m laying prone on the grass with the .303 rifle pointing down at the target, and of course you had a police officer down there that [who] would wave the flag if you didn’t hit anything. We were entitled to six shots with the .303 rifle, and of course every time I let fire with my rifle at the target the marksman just waved the flag. It wasn’t until going back into the classroom that I then was told, “Didn’t you look at the sight, Wilkins?” And I said, “I didn’t know there was a sight, Sergeant.” So that is why I wasn’t getting scored.

So then we came to the pistol which was a Smith & Wesson revolver, and of course we had six shots with that at a human target on a hay bale. And when I was able to come up and hold the pistol in my hand I was able to hit the target, but coming from the hip up without holding it I never hit the target at all. So this was why when I graduated and came to Hastings as a Police Constable, the Sergeant came to pick me up off the street and said, “We’ve got a wild beast running amok at Stortford Lodge. The .303 rifle is in the boot, Constable; now our job is to go and shoot the beast.” And I said, “Sergeant, if you check my arm[s] report you would see there that I couldn’t even hit a target; I’ll end up shooting you, or doing some damage to the public.” So he said, “Constable, you do what I instruct you, you will shoot the beast.” So of course at the college we were taught that you had to kill a beast like a horse in the forehead so that it hit the brain straight away to kill them; otherwise, if you hit them in the body they would go even more berserk. So consequently – and the luck of God for me – when we got there there was a stockman that [who] happened to be riding past on his horse [and] saw the beast running around, and he herded it up and put it back in the corral. So I was very pleased that I didn’t have to do that.

So going back to 1961 of course, Hastings was in an old brick police station on the corner of Eastbourne [Street] and Railway Road. You had the wooden courthouse immediately on the corner and then an old police house in the front, and the station was at the back. We then had the Watchhouse keeper, the Sergeant, and me, the beat constable. So you’d start at five in the morning on a shift and be marched down to the clock tower on Railway Road and Heretaunga Street, and you’d do the west side of Heretaunga Street to Nelson Street, turn around and come back across the railway line and work your way down to Hastings Street and then come back. And that job was to check the doors to see if anyone had broken in during the night. If a job came up the Sergeant would come and pick us up in a 1952 Victor car, and you’d go out and deal with the job.

One experience that I had was very terrifying, and that was in the days of six o’clock closing, and late shopping night in Hastings was a Friday, and of course the hotels closed at 6 pm. Of course in the summer when the shearing gangs were out shearing, if it rained they were unable to shear, so they came in and they’d all hit the hotels. My job as a police officer was to make certain the footpath was clear for the late-night shoppers, so consequently, [the] six o’clock swill, they would come out with their crates of beer and put [them] on the footpath, waiting for a taxi or family to come and pick them up. I had to ask them to move to make way for families – mothers wheeling their prams and pushchairs were forced to go out on the road to go round these naughty drunken shearers. Because I was only nineteen, they then got all abusive and aggressive; and of course they taught me at the training college that you were not to draw your baton. If you got into a confrontation you put your back hard up against a wall, and you talked like hell to talk your way out of being assaulted. So that’s what I was doing, when all of a sudden the Sergeant came chug, chug, chug along in the ’52 Victor, and yelled out, “Constable Wilkins, we have a job to go [to] urgently.” So they cleared a path and I was able to get away, and at the end of the day there wasn’t a job; the publican rang up and said that your constable was going to be beaten if you didn’t come in and save him. So that was an experience that I had.

But other than that I found that the public in general called you ‘Sir’, and of course the reason was in those days everyone had compulsory military training at the age of eighteen and went into the army for three months. We had no gangs in those days, and consequently people respected the law. Back in South Auckland … yes, I would not bless to be a police officer or a traffic officer now with the way that the gangs and things are going. It is so sad that New Zealand society has changed so brutally, and the stress. And I, in my role as president of Grey Power, meet with the Police every three months, and they say there that they just can’t get the staff; staff do join, then they find that the job wasn’t what they thought it was; attending to suicides where someone is hanging from the neck in the wardrobe … they didn’t realise that they had to cut that person down. Drownings, murders, things like that, and the resignations are more [higher] than people joining. At the moment I believe in the eastern region we’re something like fourteen police officers down, because they’re just going every day through the stress. And the government at the moment have stopped the college employing police officers. We just had one class go through and Hastings got two out of that course of sixty-four that went through the college. So today’s society is so changed, and it’s blamed on drugs and alcohol. That’s it.

Well Ron, I appreciate you giving me your time this morning and giving us another insight into what life was like in New Zealand. I really appreciate you doing that for us and I wish you and your lady all the very best for the future.

Thank you very much, Lyn.

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Interviewer:  Lyn Sturm

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