Newspaper Article 1994 – Cheeky pupil to preach at Otane

Cheeky pupil to preach at Otane

By Hilary Pedersen
Staff reporter, Waipukurau

Mention Des Britten to any Otane old identity and they instantly chuckle.

They remember with affection a cheeky youngster who served as an altar boy at St James Anglican Church, and whose renditions of Yankee Doodle Dandy on the Waipawa stage, always brought the house down.

Tomorrow the public personality and Wellington City Missioner returns to his old district, to be guest preacher at the centennial service of his former church.

For Des – “Dessie” to the Otane elderly, and Father Des within the city mission – the wheel has come full circle.

“It will be very strange going back to stand there as a priest,” he says.

Des’s Central Hawke’s Bay connections may be little known to the outside world, but they run deep.

Born in Waipawa

He was born at Rathbone Maternity Home in Waipawa – “do you really want to say when?” – in 1937, the son of Roy and Nancy Britten.

Roy was also born in Waipawa and was a one-time post office worker before inheriting a family farm on the main road immediately north of the Otane turn-off.

Along with brother Eric, the pair, known locally as “the Britten brothers”, ran the Otane and later the Waipawa, butcheries.

The slaughterhouse still stands on the State Highway 2 farm which was Des’s home, and is visible from the road. The house there was built by the Brittens.

Quality breeders

They were proud of their stock, a fact also recalled by Otane identity and Hollycombe Romney stud breeder Maurice Tod, who used to be impressed by their fat lambs.

Des remembers his Otane childhood as “wonderful days”, where life was full and all his favourite spots were within biking distance.

He attended Otane Primary School, making many friends at St Hilda’s, a children’s home in the district.

In the early days the stage gave full reign to the love of performing and extrovert personality that are the Des Britten hallmarks.

Under the direction of music and drama identity “Queenie” Hamilton, Dessie delighted audiences with his “Yankee Doodle Dandee” and “Steamboat Bill”.

He admits to being “rather precocious” in those days.

Later, as a young man, he teamed up with the then Waipawa school teacher and now New Zealand sculptor Ken Kendall, to devastating effect.

Waipawa musician Barbara Towers, who still keeps in touch with Des, recalls them as a combination not to be missed.

In one review, “All Shook Up,” was a memorable item, closely followed by “Fairies.” Complete with costumes, the pair stood one each side of the proscenium arch doing “rather interesting things” with their wands.

The 1958 show Nylons and Nonsense was another star billing. In hindsight, Des believes he takes after his mother, who was also an outgoing personality.

‘Telephone’ the vicar

His road to the church may have been long, but the foundations were laid at an early age.

The altar boy with the cheeky grin remembers with affection the Rev. Rupert Hall, vicar of St James, known behind his back as “Telephone”, because he was deaf and carried his hearing aid in a box.

Rupert “Telephone” Hall was English. His descriptions of the large, ancient buildings, the church tradition with the ritual and pageantry, fascinated the young Des who confesses to an “attraction for symbols”

“He set me on a path,” Des says with gratitude more than 50 years later. It was the Rev. Hall who told Mr and Mrs Britten that “I can see a priest in that boy”.

Des recalls that his parents were rather taken aback. Those were the days when sons of farmers were expected to take over the family property. He went to Napier Boys’ High School, returned home and gave it his “best shot” for two years.

‘Farming not for me’

“But I knew farming wasn’t really for me, and my parents accepted that too.”

After a stint with the radio the rest of his career is well known and throughout his days as a chef, restaurateur and television personality, Des has continued his involvement with the church.

He was ordained 10 years ago and has been in a self-supporting ministry based at St. Barnabas Church, Roseneath, Wellington.

He has been out of the restaurant trade for three years.

Commissioned as Wellington City Missioner last month, Father Des says he “really enjoys” his position.

It brings to the fore all the qualities that have made him a success in other fields, he admits with some humility.

A ‘people person’

It draws on his ability as a people person, and even his catering contracts are not wasted.

The markets that were once visited in daily forages for fresh fruit and vegetables in the “Coachman” days, are now depositing quantities of their produce on the mission doorstep.

He receives the offerings – 266 pumpkins, 150 cabbages – with gratitude, using the skills that once enticed the upmarket Wellington “foodies” of the 1960s and 1970s, to bulk feed the needy. “And there are many,” he says.

Tomorrow’s church service at St James has the promise of a happy occasion.

For the parishioners it will be the pleasure of seeing and hearing an Otane son who has become a national identity.

And for the preacher a chance to relive the memories that “I know will come flooding back”.

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Format of the original

Newspaper article

Date published

19 February 1994

Creator / Author

  • Hillary Pedersen


Published with permission of Hawke's Bay Today


  • Des Britten
  • Eric Britten
  • Nancy Britten
  • Roy Britten
  • Reverend Rupert Hall
  • Ken Kendall
  • Barbara Towers
  • Maurice Tod

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