Magazine Article 2003 – Britannia Rules the Waves

Britannia Rules the Waves

Former hairdresser Jean Brown of Wairoa describes her wartime apprenticeship and the advent of the cold wave. She recalls the salon’s motto, ‘Britannia rules the waves…but Potter rules your curls.’

In 1943 my mother sold our home in Gisborne to shift to Hastings. Unfortunately it was near the end of the war and houses were hard to buy. I was an apprentice ladies’ hairdresser. In those days you served a five-year apprenticeship. As my apprenticeship in Gisborne had to be broken, my new employer in Hastings would only employ me if I served 19 months more. It was all arranged in a lawyer’s office. At that time if you changed jobs the ‘manpower’ labour office had to be notified and you could be placed in what was termed essential services’.

Luckily for me, hairdressing was classed as semi-essential. I remember a sister of mine was manpowered to Wattie’s Canneries and eventually received a gold watch for long service.

My boss was the late Grace Potter, a hard taskmaster, but a wonderful teacher. Wages were low so when some of us heard that Wattie’s were employing casual workers from 6pm to 9pm we were quick to apply. Our salon hours were 8.30am to 5.45pm and it was always a scurry to get to the canneries on time. When Grace found out about our moonlighting, it was the end of our jobs at Watties but I did enjoy doing something different and the pay was more for those few hours than a full day’s work at our hairdressing jobs.

We were taught all facets of hairdressing – cutting, perming and hair tinting (dyeing), which was done behind closed curtains in those days. During the war years, fully electric machines (like milking machines) were used for perms. These took hours of very special winding. Then non-electric machines were introduced where hot clips were attached to wound sections. In 1946 there was a steam sachet invention and finally in 1947 the cold wave, which was much simpler and is still used today. My wages were 16 shillings and 10d per week.

During this time Grace Potter always advertised ‘Britannia Rules the Waves, but Potter Rules Your Curls’. There was large staff and the salon had 20 chairs that were always busy. In 1944 Grace sold out and I left to manage a salon in Napier.

I was lucky enough to do the hair of well-known personalities for the Napier shows. When the popular Kiwi Concert Party was in Hastings, we often had their wigs to style. I have fond memories of Hastings and Napier. They were my learning years. Working for five years at one place, your clients became your friends.

Later I worked in Wanganui and had the privilege of styling some Miss New Zealand entrants. I was Mrs Eleanor Sievright’s hairdresser and she organised a Miss New Zealand show in benefit of ‘Food for Britain’.

In 1949 I shifted to Wairoa and soon began hairdressing in private homes, hospitals and rest homes. Caring for a young family, the hours suited me fine. I didn’t charge salon prices, just enough to pay my running costs and pay the tax department. I did this for 40 years. I can remember running messages, making diabetic jam, shortbread and doing numerous other ‘extras’ for these people. To me it was a way of life. I often miss the people contact but warmly remember the happy times.

Photo captions –

ABOVE – Miss New Zealand Title 1948

1st Mary Wooten  Crowned Miss New Zealand (Jean styled her hair)
2nd Miss Stewart (Miss Wellington)
3rd Miss Melville (Miss Wanganui)

Left   Staff at Grace Potters, Hastings 1945

Back: Doreen Smith, Jean Ansell (white earrings)
Centre: Lorna Clews, Ngaire Comon, husband of Grace Potter, Grace Potter
Seated: Margaret Fenn, Beatrice Messery, Colleen Helm (Pat Watson-absent)

Original digital file


Date published


Format of the original

Magazine article


New Zealand Memories, Issue 45


  • Jean Brown
  • Ngaire Comon
  • Margaret Fenn
  • Colleen Helm
  • Beatrice Messery
  • Grace Potter
  • Miss Eleanor Sievright
  • Doreen Smith
  • Pat Watson
  • Miss Mary Wooten

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