Mrs HE Crosse Biography

Mrs. H.E. Crosse.

Mrs Crosse was born Delmira Bokenham in 1889 in London, and educated there and in Switzerland. She became an actress, and in 1921 travelled to Australia under contract to J.C. Williamson, who engaged her as Angela in “The Maid of the Mountains” which starred Gladys Moncrieff, and ran for years in Sydney. On the voyage to Australia she met Hugh Crosse, returning from a visit to his brother in India, and when her contract expired in 1922, she married him. At first they farmed near Bay View. In 1923 Hugh took over the management of his father’s property, at Patoka Station, which was his and Mira’s home for the rest of their lives. It must have been a rude shock after her comfortable home in a London suburb, and the serviced theatrical lodgings of her working life. A hungry wood stove, dirty and labour-intensive wood fires, kerosene heaters and lamps and bedroom candles replaced electricity and gas, groceries were ordered by the truckload twice a year, over a very inefficient earth-return telephone system, at first operated by wet batteries, which were later replaced by less dangerous dry cells. The small Post Office at the corner of the Puketitiri and Hendley Roads housed a primitive telephone exchange, but no general store. It was run by the blacksmith’s wife; his forge stood across the road. There was, however, a mail service from Monday to Friday, carried by a freight and passenger service car that ran daily from Puketitiri to Napier and back, a lifeline for farming and mill people in those days when cars were scarce and few women could drive. Every week day Mrs Crosse and her children walked up to the Post Office to collect the mail, which probably made a welcome break from the domestic round.

Although times were hard Patoka Station usually employed about three men who were housed in a cottage and cookhouse on the property, and fed at the homestead. There was usually a girl to help with the vast amount of work entailed. At first the unfortunate bride had an experienced housekeeper to show her the ropes, but later staff varied from competent cook-generals to willing but inexpert daughters of friends. Bread and butter, jams and preserves, cakes and puddings and regular meals were made in enormous quantities, great heaps of household linen were boiled in a big copper, other clothing was scrubbed in a large wooden tub, all in a washhouse open to the morning sun – when it shone – and hung on long lines in a drying green surrounded by fruit trees. It also housed a beehive or two, and from time to time the bees on their cleansing flights would soil the washing so severely that it would have to be done again. Taking the honey was another big job, though more often performed by the men than the women, and for weeks great muslin bags of honeycomb hung dripping in a corner of the dairy, beside the barrel of corned beef growing steadily more salt and less edible as the year went on. The preparation of beef was man’s work, but Mrs Crosse attended to the bacon, turning the heavy flitches daily and rubbing them with salt and brown sugar. She also brewed an excellent light ale.

When the older children reached school age there was no suitable school in the area, so a governess was engaged for the two girls. She and her two successors were not a great success with such timid children as these, and Mrs Crosse, encouraged by a friend’s success with a correspondence course,

decided to turn teacher, leaving the housework to the cook-general and giving as much help as she could. The correspondence system that she chose came from England, run by the Parents’ National Educational Union in the Lake District, and based on the methods of Rudolf Steiner Montessori. It placed a lot of emphasis on history and literature, languages and citizenship, art, music and nature study, and supplied first class teaching material on all these topics. To be sure, there was no New Zealand content in the botany, and music wasn’t developed in a house without a piano or access to much recorded music, while maths were a struggle for teacher and pupils alike in spite of the best teaching aids, but the splendid range of English literature was enhanced by the skill of both parents at reading aloud, and their willingness to do so by the fire in the evenings. The children became familiar with the works of  Shakespeare, Scott, Dickens and many others at an early age, and learnt to read from charming collections of European folk tales before embarking on the history and religious beliefs of many parts of the world. The year at finishing school in Switzerland must have stood Mrs Crosse in good stead when it came to teaching her children French, and they had gone to boarding school before the Parents National Education Union curriculum actually insisted on Italian and German, though they were forced to master the rudiments of Latin before they went, which got them off to a flying start, in compensation for their ignorance of chemistry.

Not content with all that physical and mental activity at home, Mr and Mrs Crosse took a great interest in world affairs, and read widely on such matters. They owned a wireless set, and were able to hear the news and a few other programmes, but the short life of wireless batteries must have limited their listening severely, and magazines and book clubs supplied most of their information. Mrs Crosse remained interested in the theatre, of course, though seldom able to attend a performance, and as the children grew able to study independently, and the road and the family car improved she was able to go into town to shop and see a film quite often, and visit friends in Napier whom earlier she had very seldom been able to see. It was a great joy to her after those early days when a trip to town was a major exercise, undertaken only two or three times a year, and squeezing in as much shopping as possible with a dentist’s appointment and a visit to the in-laws – though  during the Depression very little shopping was in fact possible for any hill country farmer.

In the middle of those difficult early years the earthquake of 1931 brought further problems. The house came through it well, being a sturdy wooden structure, but lost all its chimneys and the rainwater tanks that supplied the washhouse. Presumably the system that brought water from the nearby creek was also disrupted, and the contents of the walk-in pantry were a horrible mess in the middle of the floor, which had to be cleared with shovel and borrow and simply dumped. That morning Mr Crosse was miles away on the farm, and his wife and her niece had to cope with the children and their own terrors and anxiety for some hours before he could make his way home over the distorted land. It seems that the epicentre of the ‘quake may well have been very close to the area he was mustering when it struck. When he reached home to find his family safe and sound he was able to provide for the

immediate needs of catering and accommodation by producing a camp oven and a tent and the next day the family drove in to Hastings, via the appalling ruins of Napier, to make sure that Mr and Mrs T.E. Crosse had come safely through the disaster. They had, and were spending the day visiting Patoka! Restoring order to the homestead took many months. The chimneys at each end of the house were large limestone structures lined with brick, which had collapsed into huge heaps of boulders that had to be removed before the kitchen stove could be replaced and the rooms made weather proof. The internal chimney that served the sitting room and nursery, though a smaller brick structure, was probably just as hard to clear up, and no sooner were the chimneys rebuilt, in April, than a brisk tremor brought them down again. By then the camp oven had been replaced with a colonial oven, a more conventional stove that stood in the drying green near the back door and kept the wolf from it for the family and the succession of tradesmen who helped to bring order out of chaos, and even added a small bedroom to the end of the house where one of the huge stone chimneys had stood. Some of the big flat stones went to pave a section of the drive in front of the house.

By 1939 the children were all at boarding school, times weren’t quite so hard, and Mrs Crosse was able to pay what she expected to be a short visit to her family in England. She spent a few wonderful months with them and the many friends whom she had left behind in 1921, but as she was ready to come home the war broke out and she was not immediately able to get a passage. Her friends were reluctant to see her run the gauntlet of the submarine war, and her husband wouldn’t have her exposed to the bombing of London any longer than could be avoided. He won that argument, and she reached New Zealand in March 1940, to everyone’s relief. Once she was safe Mr Crosse joined the Army, and a few months later was posted to Egypt, via England. While he was away, with Patoka Station in the hands of a manager, his wife looked for a job, and from 1941 to 1944 she applied her mothering skills to work as a housematron at Wanganui [Whanganui] Collegiate School, which left her free to spend the school and University holidays with her growing children.

At the end of 1944 the family was back at Patoka, and when the holidays ended a different pattern of life developed for Mrs Crosse. With only her husband to look after she had time to indulge her passion for gardening as well as for reading, and to visit her friends and the cinema in Napier as often as she wished. The comparative prosperity that followed the end of the war allowed the Crosses to enlarge their kitchen and living room, and instal a small petrol generator to light the house, which made life more comfortable and less laborious. They replaced some of the battered furniture with handsome antiques and enjoyed choosing new curtains and covers for the expanded living space. In 1947 their younger daughter Susan married Max McGlashan, of Canterbury University College, and in 1948 Catherine, the elder daughter married Harry Downes, an army officer. In 1949 both daughters went to England for a couple of years, and in 1952 Catherine and Harry returned to take up 500 acres of Patoka Station, part of which was at that time being subdivided for settlement by returned servicemen.  In 1953 the first grandchild, Peter Downes was born, and in 1954 Thomas Crosse married Jane Wood and Alan

Downes was born. In due course Sarah, William, Benjamin and Christopher Crosse and Celia Downes were born to add to their grandparents’ interests and pleasures.

Susan and Max McGlashan had settled in England, where he pursued a distinguished career in Science, and in 1956 her parents spent several months with them, and with Mrs Crosse’s two sisters and other friends. In 1962 Mr Crosse died. Mrs Crosse remained at Patoka, enjoying her grandchildren and her garden, travelling to Napier and further afield to visit friends, and making several trips to England.  For many years she had been troubled with arthritis, and this became increasingly severe, but she never allowed it to impede the active life she chose to lead. She retained her keen interest in world affairs, and her library was much reinforced by radio and television as they became available. She died at Patoka in November 1971.

[handwritten] – From Podocarp to Pasture

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