William (Bill) Athol Williams Interview
Good morning, Bill. I’m speaking this morning with William Athol Williams. It’s the 5 December 2016. Bill has had a great life and this will be a very interesting talk I feel. Bill I’ll leave it over to you, and if you’d like to give us your full history of what you have achieved during your years. I know I’ve read about your life and it will be very interesting.
Thank you. I’ve forgotten most of my early days as a child but I do remember going to Hereworth when I was seven – just before I turned eight … boarded there in the end of 1937 and I was there until 1941 as a boarder. It was not an illustrious school career at all. I left there and went to Wanganui Collegiate where I spent five years in Selwyn House, and became a house prefect and later a school prefect – was my greatest claim to fame.
I left there and went on to the farm – we have a family farm and I worked there for two years. And one of the shepherds came up to me one morning and said “this place is not big enough for both of us, so I’ll be leaving.” And I said to him “I’ve beaten you to the trot. I’ve volunteered to go and fight in Korea.” At the end of that farming year I left the farm and spent a few weeks at home before going into barracks and training for the service that I was to do in the army.
Where was the farm?
There were two family farms. I grew up at Te Aute Station which was about half a mile north of Te Aute College, and opposite at the same time. But the farm that I was on was out on the coast about three miles south of Kairakau Beach, and it was a three thousand acre coastal hill country property and I managed that for most of my life after I came back from Korea.
I was sent home from Korea after I had been there six weeks to do an OCTU, [Officer Cadet Training Unit] and in the process of doing the OCTU I got engaged. And when I went back to Korea I was waiting to be commissioned, realising that from the moment that I accepted a commission I would be bound to stay for a whole year before I would be likely to come home. So when a commission didn’t come up straight away because there weren’t sufficient commission vacancies, the time came when … an actually I was offered a commission and I said “no, I won’t accept that because it means I’ve got to stay a whole year”. And I’d been there long enough to know that I was going to be able to come home in nine months, and I wanted to get home to my sweetheart, which I duly did. And we got married in Hastings and we lived about twenty-five years out on the coastal farm, and we had two children … we adopted the first one, and then the other two were born with my wife.
And who was she?
She was Vivienne Bathgate, the daughter of a Hastings doctor, Dr Bathgate. We had a very happy life. We did unfortunately lose two children right at the very beginning when they were months old, but we eventually got started and we’ve got three children now, all grown up. One is in Australia and two are here, one in Wellington – they’re both in Wellington actually.
I farmed out on the coast for about twenty-five – twenty-six years, and came in and spent ten years working in town running the Farm Information Centre. It didn’t have a very princely salary but I had sufficient means to be able to manage, and the main exercise for me was to move into town and live a town life which I enjoyed after all my years in the country. We lived in Havelock and we’ve been here ever since. My wife died about three years ago, and we’d moved into this establishment about four years ago. I’m very happy here, and I’m here really eking out the remaining years of my life. And that’s me.
Bill, let’s go back to your father and when he first came to Hawke’s Bay.
Oh – my father was born in Hawke’s Bay. My grandfather came from Northland where my original family when they came out from England in 1824 – my great-great-grandfather. One great-great-grandfather came out in 1824, and the other came out in 1826 I think. The one who came out in 1826 became the first Bishop of Waiapu, William Williams. I believe I have been named after him. My grandfather moved down to Hawke’s Bay.
My great-grandfather came down from the north to Otaki, where he started a Mission school there, and he worked his way up to Hawke’s Bay and established a few schools and churches, and he was fairly strong on Christian life. And my family eventually … he settled at Te Aute, started Te Aute College, and also getting some land there too which he farmed. And this moved on to my grandfather and my father.
But also my family purchased land out on the coast. We had about three thousand acres of coastal hill country. And when I left school I went to Lincoln College for a couple of years – did a diploma course. Came back for a year and then volunteered for service in Korea. I was feeling footloose and free and it seemed an interesting thing to do, and it was an interesting time that I had there. Occasionally it was exciting, but I was glad of that experience in the Army. And when I was sent home to do an OCTU as I mentioned earlier, I got engaged, so then it became important for me to get home as quickly as possible to get married. So when I was invited to take up a position – it was a commission – I turned it down because I realised that I would have to serve a whole year from there from the time I took up the job, and I was already due to come home in nine months, so to get home three months earlier was important to me. Vivienne, my wife, Dr Bathgate’s daughter, we got married in Hastings in St Andrew’s Church, and it was interesting – my father and mother were married there too.
After we were married we settled down on the coast. I used my Army assistance to build a house there and we lived there for about twenty-five years. We reared our children there, and sent them to school. They had to go to boarding school for their secondary education because it was too far away for a secondary school then for them to go by the day.
And after my twenty-five years there I moved into town and I was quite anxious to do that … to get a town job … and ran the Farm Information Centre as I mentioned earlier for about ten years. Retired and quietly eked out the rest of my life in Havelock.
Just going back into your family – your grandfather that came here as the Bishop … now there must be more in there that you know about.
My great-great-grandfather came out as I mentioned earlier in 1823 / ‘24 and my grandfather was his grandson, so yes the Bishop would have been a grandfather of mine. I didn’t see either of my grandfathers as they had died before I was born. But the Bishop spent a lot of his time starting churches and he had a very strong religious life. I never met them but they were good people and had plenty of children. In fact the family is very, very large because by the time each generation has about a dozen children they multiply very quickly so I’m part of a very large family.
The Williams are well known in the Gisborne – Tolaga Bay area, Ruatoria, through there. Have you got any relations up there now?
Oh, yes, yes – yes, they’re all relations.
So it’s all the big Williams clan.
Yes, it’s a big outfit. In fact we had a family reunion in – oh, when was it? ‘73 I think, and there were about twenty-four hundred there, and invitations had been sent out to several thousand. They‘re all over the place.
The Williams and the Ormonds.
They make a great team. [Chuckle] Bill when you said you had a farm at Te Aute, and when you said you went to the coast – what coast, where?
It was about three miles south of Kairakau. It was Mangakuri area, but we were just south of Mangakuri.
And with your upbringing that you’ve had, the Church side of things really stuck. It’s a bit like me at Christ‘s … that side of it where we had scripture lessons every day, it sort of stuck with you and you tend to keep to the Church bit.
Yes I did. I was a vestry man for a number of years, and I was on the Synod, and I was on Standing Committee for several years. I was on the Synod for about …
And that’s Waiapu?
Waiapu Synod, yes. I served for, I don’t know, two or three years or two or three terms or something like that.
So I think that education that we had from our school days keeps on going over the years.
Yes. Well they were Church schools of course, and it was part of the exercise.
Bill what about the sporting world – did you ever take part in that?
I did when I was at secondary school. I rowed. I was in my house crew and I was senior reserve for the school crew.
Right – for the Maadi Cup? Was the Maadi Cup run then?
No it wasn’t.
No, it was some other …
I got a trip down to Christchurch to row against Christ‘s College, which was great fun.
You rowed against a great school then didn’t you, in the rowing world? I have to say that. [Chuckle]
What about in the sporting world?
I didn’t play cricket. I was in my house rugby ream and I was a reserve for the Second XV, which got me a few trips without having to do much exercise.
That’s the way. In those days of course that was about all there was. These days you can play anything in the school, and different sports. Things have certainly changed.
What about changes in the World Bill, throughout your life time?
Yes, well, a world war – Second World War, and of course the Korean war which I went to. Political? Nothing much there that everybody else hasn’t experienced.
Who was your first Prime Minister, can you remember?
Oh, yes – Savage. Michael Joseph Savage. And for years Dick Harrison was the member for Hawke’s Bay. I remember one occasion when I was on the local School Committee – the Elsthorpe School Committee – we wanted to get a house for the school bus driver … we wanted to build a house, get a house built for the bus driver. About four of us went on a deputation down to Wellington. Dick Harrison took us to the Minister and we said our bit. I can’t remember whether we got an answer or not – I think we probably did actually, but it was quite an interesting experience. First time I’ve ever been in Parliament and eaten with the MPs. No, no – it was an interesting experience.
I can remember those sort of things happening when I was in Wellington. It all depends on who you knew, where you could get to. In your advisory capacity to farmers, what sort of …
Oh, Farm Information Centre.
Yes. What sort of information ..?
It was really an employment agency, and so I was an employment officer and I would advertise on behalf of the farming community for shepherds and fencers, and you name it, I did it. People would apply to me and I would interview them and recommend them to various different farmers to apply to for a position.
And did you get a lot of people in those days?
Oh, I got quite a few. I enjoyed that job actually. Yeah, it wasn’t too serious. It was five days a week but I often used to go in on Saturday mornings because some of the farming people couldn’t get to me during the week but they could get to me on Saturday mornings, so I was quite happy to put the extra time in to interviewing them and getting them on the way, and I enjoyed that.
I suppose some of the farmers had trouble getting in touch with you because they were all on party lines.
No that wasn’t a problem. I didn’t experience that much. I think they were able to get in touch with me pretty easily.
Bill, thank you very much for that talk you’ve given us this morning. The Knowledge Bank will be very happy with it, and thank you.
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Interviewer: Jim Newbigin
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