Newspaper Article 2003 – Wairoa River Ruby’s first playground

Wairoa River Ruby’s first playground

Growing up in the Bay

Even though she lived in a very small house with no electricity or bathroom, her mother made her underwear our of flour-bags, and she had only one doll which had to last all her childhood, RUBY LANCASTER has fond memories of growing up in Wairoa.

Growing up in Wairoa, my earliest memory is being on my grandparent’s Waiatai Valley dairy farm five miles from Wairoa on the Gisborne Road during the late 1920s and early 30s.

We didn’t see much of our father (Walter Cooper) as he was away for months at a time contract fencing. Everyone knew dad as Dixie.

Mum’s (Sadie’s) father, Archie McCorkindale, had the cream truck which went to the Wairoa Dairy Factory and sometimes he would take us along for the ride.

I was about three years old when I first remember thinking how beautiful the Wairoa River was.

When my sister Dorothy (who now lives in Waipukurau) was born, dad leased a small dairy farm on the Napier Road about two miles from town. The house was on a small hill overlooking the Wairoa River, which became my playground.

During the 1930s swagmen used to call and mum would give them food. In return they helped milk the cows or chopped wood.

Dorothy and I had to put the hand separator together and if the discs were not put in the right place it wouldn’t separate the cream from the milk. Our arms used to get tired from turning the handle.

Drovers with their food on packhorses used to pass our gate on the long journey to Napier.

Our house was very small. There was no bathroom, so all the water had to be boiled on top of the wood-burning stove, except on bath night when the copper was used. We used tank water, but in the summer water was drawn from a well. Food was also put down the well to keep it fresh.

Sometimes the meat was cooked all at once. After having a roast, the leftover meat was eaten cold, then made into shepherd’s pie, then rissoles. It there was anything left after that, the dog ate it.

Everything was recycled. Mum was wonderful at sewing. Dorothy and I must have had the smartest underwear in Wairoa – made from flour bags on a hand sewing machine (which I still have).

Sugar bags were made into mats, oven cloths, shopping bags and some less well-off children had flour-bag skirts and trousers.

Our patchwork blankets were made from scraps of material, and sometimes we would put our coats on our beds to keep warm. As we had no electricity our lighting came from candles and kerosene lamps.

The outside toilet was papered with pictures from the Auckland Weekly News. I must have been a strange child, I loved that toilet, as my best mischief-making was thought of out there.

I had one doll that lasted all my childhood. We had to make our own fun; mine was chasing Dorothy around with spiders, frogs, lizards and baby mice. Needless to say she hated me for that.

I was born cross-eyed and as there was no eye specialist in Wairoa we had to make the journey to Napier for eye-tests and glasses. What a trip that was. We would catch the service car at our gate to face a long horrible journey to Napier. The road was shingle and corrugated. Dorothy and I were always carsick.

How I hated that yearly trip to Napier! My school years began while I was still living on the farm. It was a long way to walk to school, but one of the teachers took pity on me and on wet days would take me home in his small car. My school years are best forgotten as I was a slow learner, dreamed my way through lessons and failed twice. The only lessons I really enjoyed were nature study and history.

I remember one of my teachers saying he was going to give me one strap for every spelling mistake made. I received 21. My hand hurt – and I still can’t spell.

Any child caught using bad language had their mouth washed out with soap

As there were no swimming baths in Wairoa I learnt to swim in the Wairoa River. Swearing in the playground was forbidden and any child caught using bad language had their mouths washed out with soap. I loved dancing and painting flowers. My first paints were flowers. When rubbed on paper the flowers made a pale colour.

Sid Carroll would come to our school once a week to teach Maori culture. In the late 1930s Wairoa had a huge Maori population. We also had sex education. What an uproar! Sex was treated like cancer in those days, very hush hush.

Mum saved my life when the 1931 earthquake struck. I was in the playhouse under the tank stand, when mum yelled for me to come inside. Luckily I did as I was told, as the tank stand collapsed. After the earthquake I remember paying a penny to ride the punt, which carried cars and people across the Wairoa River while the replacement bridge was being built. We also had to use the public toilets.

I had a friend whose grandfather was Thomas Lambert, the man who wrote the book Old Wairoa.

With the little money I saved I would go to the movies to see my pin-ups, Bing Crosby, Gene Autry and George Formby. George’s song Auntie Maggie’s Remedy reminds me of castor oil, which was the cure for everything. The picture theatre used to hold Mickey Mouse parties where Mickey Mouse chocolate and a piece of birthday cake were handed out. Walking down Wairoa’s main street as a child I remember the butcher’s shop having sides of mutton and sausages hanging in the window; the fish shop selling skinned rabbits; Mrs Wong in the fruit and vegetable shop couldn’t speak English, so you had to point to what you wanted to buy; the grocer’s shop sold soap in bars, sliced bacon with a bacon slicer and cut the big round cheese with a long knife; and Osler’s Bakery had photographs of the earthquake on the inside of the door, and made pies and bread for Wairoa and the country shops.

Memories of Mr Flint, the one-legged men’s hairdresser, and Maori women sitting on the steps of the bank smoking their clay pipes are still clear in my mind. Garages sold Big Three petrol. Where else in New Zealand could you enjoy the locally made Coker’s Cordials, eat fish and chips sitting on the riverbank just across the road from the shops?

When World War 2 broke out we drew swastikas on our desks and ran around giving that famous Churchill two-fingered victory sign. We would feel sad when some of our teachers were killed in action and had the same feelings for the American soldiers we got to know who did their training at Mahia and who also died.

When two Salvation Army sisters were murdered in the early 1940s everybody in Wairoa capable of wielding an axe had their fingerprints recorded. I remember the younger sister riding her bicycle. She had worked in Japan for many years and we school children thought she was a Japanese spy.

In 1938 dad got a job on Springhill Station, Mohaka, and mum was taken on as housekeeper. We attended Mohaka School, which was classed as a native school, which meant all our school stationery was free.

When the Wairoa-Napier railway opened Mohaka School went on a trip by steam train to Napier. Unfortunately it was the day the 1938 flood started. Mum went into a panic, as we didn’t return until 3am the next day. The Mohaka Bridge had been washed away.

Returning to a rented house in the Waiata Valley not long after the flood, I could I was overjoyed to be near my beloved grandmother, Minnie McCorkindale.

This was the first time we had electricity and at the age of 13 we had our first radio.

We travelled to the Wairoa District High School by bus. Each pupil was graded A, B or C. Being graded B, I was taught shorthand and typing, which I never used in later life.

My grandmother Minnie was a big part of my life. She looked after us as mum always seemed to be ill. She taught us the niceties of life. My grandmother was the only stable person in my young life.

I remember Grandfather playing Tip Toe Through The Tulips on his tin whistle to an overweight land girl; the excitement when my aunty became Wairoa’s first herd-tester; and the tears when my uncle died of tuberculosis.

Growing up in the 30s and 40s our heroes and heroines were Jean Batten, Jack Lovelock, the Brownlie brothers, Sir Charles Kingsford Smith, not forgetting our war heroes Upham, Ngarimu, Ward, Hinton, and Elliot – all winners of the Victoria Cross. Wairoa always brings happy memories of my childhood. Two of my sons, Graeme and Ian How, still live there, and their children tell me Wairoa is still a wonderful place to grow up in.

My childhood memories would not be complete if I did not mention the stories my father told about Rua Kenana the Maori prophet at Maungapohatu in the Urewera.

My grandfather owned the Waerenga-Kuri Hotel just out of Gisborne. He must have had a good eye for business as he sold whisky to Rua, which in those days was punishable with a prison sentence. When dad was a teenager he was sent to Maungapatu with his brother to deliver the whisky. Dad remembered Rua sitting in the yard with his eight wives (each with a land-holding in the Urewera). Rua’s pa was known as “Rua’s Stronghold.”

When dad first took over the whisky run Rua would not let him enter so all the whisky was unloaded at the gate, but after three or four runs he was allowed in.

Dad became fascinated by some of Rua’s claims such as that he could walk on water, and his prophecies, one of which said that one day the English would return all the land to Maori.

The whisky run lasted until Rua was arrested and sent to prison. After serving his sentence Rua lived in Whakatane. I remember dad being very upset when Rua died in 1937.

Photo captions –

TWO VIEWS of the 1938 Wairoa flood – the Wairoa bridge, left, and the Mohaka bridge. The day the flood started I was on a school train excursion to Napier and didn’t get back until 3am.

THAT’S ME: Ruby Cooper as I was then, with my one and only doll, Bridget.

SCHOOL DAYS: Wairoa District High School in the 1940s.

Original digital file


Non-commercial use

Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 New Zealand (CC BY-NC 3.0 NZ)

This work is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 New Zealand (CC BY-NC 3.0 NZ).


Commercial Use

Copyright on this material is owned by Hawke's Bay Today and is not available for commercial use without their consent.

Can you help?

The Hawke's Bay Knowledge Bank relies on donations to make this material available. Please consider making a donation towards preserving our local history.

Visit our donations page for more information.


Format of the original

Newspaper article

Date published

18 January 2003

Creator / Author

  • Ruby Lancaster, nee Cooper


Hawke's Bay Today


Published with permission of Hawke's Bay Today


  • Sid Carroll
  • Dorothy Cooper
  • Mrs Sadie Cooper, nee McCorkindale
  • Walter (Dixie) Cooper
  • Graeme How
  • Ian How
  • Rua Kenana
  • Thomas Lambert
  • Archie McCorkindale
  • Minnie McCorkindale
  • Mrs Wong

Accession number


Do you know something about this record?

Please note we cannot verify the accuracy of any information posted by the community.

Supporters and sponsors

We sincerely thank the following businesses and organisations for their support.