Recollections of Gorge End

David Looks Back

Gorge End in the 1930s was still in the early industrial age. Horses provided the only transport around the farm — draught horses drew a heavy old two-wheeled dray, hauled fallen logs down from the back of the farm and pulled the plough, the hay-mower, the hay-rake and the flat sledge that was used to carry the hay to the hay-stack. Riding horses carried my grandfather and my Uncle Eric along the tracks and sheep-trails over the hilly part of the farm and pack-horses carried loads of posts, battens and wire to make or repair fences.

A great Lister "hit-and-miss" petrol engine, mounted on its own chassis and wheels, sat in a lean-to shed attached to the woolshed. It had a Bosch magneto with a governor — two brass balls whizzing around at great speed — which controlled the engine by cutting off the ignition whenever it went too fast. It had the effect of making the engine go "Bang-bang-chuff-chuff-chuff-bang-bang-bang-chuff…" — hence its nick-name.

At shearing time the engine was used to drive the overhead pulley wheels that powered the hand-pieces for three shearing stands and an emery wheel used for sharpening the blades. I found this fascinating as a small boy —  the tearing sound as the grinder ripped into the steel and the showers of sparks were as good as Guy Fawkes’ Day.

I loved watching the two or three shearers in action, grabbing a sheep from one of the catching pens, flipping it neatly onto its back and dragging it to the shearing stand. He would give a sharp tug to the greasy rope that tipped the belt onto the pulley driving the hand-piece. Then the quick short strokes across the head and the long blows down the back and sides, some fiddly work around the legs and belly and the sheep was flipped up onto its legs and sent scurrying down a chute to a pen outside.

The fleece-ohs would gather the wool from the floor, toss it expertly onto the grading table where they would pull off dirty pieces and then bundle the fleece into the press. A hand operated wool-press consists of two matching wooden boxes, each about the size of a wool bale, standing side by side with their tops hinged together. One box had a topless wool bale already installed inside. The other had a movable lid with the top of the wool sack attached to it. When both boxes had been filled with wool, and bars fitted across the second box to stop the wool falling out, it would be swung up on top of the first one. Then the contents of the top box was pressed down into the bale, using a complex system of racks and levers, and the top of the wool bale sewn into place. It was mighty hard work.

The woolshed was also used for dagging and crutching. The long wool around a sheep’s bottom collected some of its wet droppings over the months and when they dried hard you could hear them rattling and clacking as the sheep ran along. An old Kiwi expression "rattle your dags" means "Hurry up! Get a move on!" It’s not used in polite company though! Dagging means cutting the dags off with a pair of shears so they don’t bother the sheep any more. Crutching means shearing a neat upside down U-shape around the sheep’s bottom to stop dags forming in the first place.

Once a year the sheep had to be dipped into a long bath of insecticide which killed the ticks and lice hiding in their wool. The poor sheep would be lined up in a race leading to the dip and then forced to jump into the yellow mixture. The men would stand alongside with long T-shaped poles which they used to force the sheep under water. The other end of the dip had a sloping floor so that the sheep could walk out and stand dripping and grumbling in the yard before they went back out into the pasture.

I thought hay making was great fun — but then I didn’t have to work in the heat and the dust. I loved to watch the two draught horses, Duke and Bloss (short for Blossom), pull the McCormick-Deering hay-mower. Bloss could be a little stubborn and her jaw would drop as she struggled against the bit when Uncle Eric insisted that he was the boss.

Gran always said I must "keep out of the way or the mower will take your feet off!"

Then there was the horse-drawn hay-rake — the rusty semi-circular tines would collect more and more hay together until the driver hauled forward on a lever, tipping the tines upward so that the rake disgorged a long sausage of hay. These rolls of hay were loaded on the sledge and hauled to the stack — two men on the ground tossed the hay up onto the stack and one man on top distributed it expertly. I was allowed to carry the basket of scones down from the house at smoko time, when the men drank gallons of tea to replace their lost perspiration.

Once a year, one of the draught horses would haul the Lister engine up from the woolshed to the woodshed behind the house. I loved to watch that too. Uncle Eric, stripped to the waist, would wind the old engine up, turning the fly-wheels faster and faster until the engine started.

It would stand there, shuddering and coughing, while the long leather belt that drove the circular saw bounced and swung as it hurtled around the pulleys, always seeming to be on the verge of falling off but never doing so. As the engine heated up, the oily water in the cooling tank would bubble and blurp, the cooler water at the bottom feeding through to the engine casing and then returning, dangerously near boiling point, via a sort of roof-shaped hot-waterfall, to the top of the tank.

Meanwhile, Grandad and Uncle Eric would be feeding the saw with rimu and totara logs brought down from the back of the farm. The noise was excruciating!

There was no electricity in those days — cooking was by means of a great black Shacklock wood range with a wet-back which provided lashings of hot water for the bathroom and scullery. Lighting depended on kerosene lamps with incandescent mantles. These hung from the centre of the ceiling on long chains with a counterweight so that they could be pulled down to shoulder level to be lit or adjusted and then pushed back to a convenient height where they hung, hissing and fuming, and providing a moderate level of illumination.

We also used wall-mounted lamps that had a wick snaking upwards out of a jar of kerosene and a reflector of sorts behind the flame to direct the light outwards. These gave a yellowish oily light and a fair amount of smoke and they weren’t really much use for reading. Candles were deemed sufficient for lighting the way to the bedrooms — reading in bed was strictly forbidden.

The big table in the kitchen would seat eight at a pinch. Those were the days of massive cooked breakfasts — porridge (with cream and sugar), eggs or fried chops, and bread-and-butter — and the people who ate those breakfasts lived into their 80s and 90s. Smoko would consist of scones with butter and raspberry-, strawberry- or plum-jam, with black billy tea. Dinner at midday was usually boiled mutton with onions, boiled potatoes, carrots and silver-beet.

When a sheep was freshly killed, there would be a roast of mutton, with roast vegetables and lashings of gravy. Superb! And soup — Gran made pea soup, which I thought was much nicer than the barley soup my mother made. Gran used very big soup plates, about twice the size of present-day soup plates, and she had the curious custom of reusing our soup plates for our meat and vegetables — "to save washing up," she would say.

The usual pattern was for a hot-meat meal to be followed by one or two days of cold meat meals — and, believe me, cold boiled mutton is not a memory to treasure. No wonder people made pickles. Uncle Eric would usually kill once a fortnight, with a leg or a shoulder, or in winter, a hind-quarter or a fore-quarter going in to town for Mum and Dad, Ann and me.

There were no fridges in those days and keeping meat fresh enough to eat posed problems. It could be stored in a fly-proof meat safe, a cupboard made of perforated zinc hanging outside in a shady, breezy place, or it could be salted down like corned beef and subsequently boiled. Neither method of keeping meat was a hundred percent successful and I can remember many times when the meat was "off" or, occasionally, even fly-blown.

On the back wall of the kitchen was a coloured print of Venice, showing the Grand Canal, the Rialto Bridge and a gondola, all surrounded by an ornate gold-painted frame. I thought it very impressive. Next to this was a tall book-case with, among other books, a set of Encyclopaedia Britannica, an illustrated dictionary and an atlas, all dating from the 1890s and wonderfully out of date, and a first edition of Uncle Gilbert White’s "Natural History of Selborne".

Behind the kitchen was the scullery, with its kauri sink-bench and enamel sink, and the pantry. Great wide pans of milk stood there overnight so that the cream could be skimmed off in the morning. A wooden butter churn was used for making yellow unsalted butter which was shaped into one pound blocks with butter-pats, or rolled into neat little butter balls for when Gran was "playing ladies".

The "lavvy" was a long-drop outside the back garden gate, as far away from the house as was consistent with its convenient use.

The telephone was an Ericsson — an ornate Edwardian-looking device which hung on the wall between the front door and the door into the sitting room. The hand-piece had a curling vulcanite horn to speak into and there was an extra earphone hanging on the front of the telephone that one could clap onto the other ear if conditions were difficult or which could be used to allow two people to share a conversation. And, since it was a party-line, the other households who shared the line could join in as well.

The single line strung on manuka poles which followed the road into town was privately owned by the householders, who saw to its upkeep, mended it when it broke and, collectively, paid a fee to the Post and Telegraph Department to be connected to the national system.

You needed a rough knowledge of the Morse code to master the call signs for each settler’s phone. Gorge End was on the 158 line, which we shared with the Heklers, the Berrys, the Tylees, the Morrisons and the Amundsens. Our number was 158W, the W (- — —) distinguishing us from 158S (- - -), 158R (- — -) or 158K (— - —), and others which I don’t remember.

To call one of the families who shared your line, you made one vigorous turn of the handle for a short (-) and two vigorous turns for a long (—), for whatever the code was. This, in turn, caused the bells on all the other telephones on the line to ring in the same pattern of shorts and longs and, you hoped, the person you were after would hear their ring and answer the phone.

If you wanted to call someone on another line, or in town, you gave at least three vigorous turns to the handle and a cheery voice from the exchange in Pahiatua would say, "Number please!"

Grandad never got used to the phone. He always shouted and he stammered badly, much worse than he did in ordinary conversation, and could be very hard to follow.

Despite this, being one of the more literate settlers, he was elected secretary-treasurer for the line-owners. My father remembers him shouting into the mouthpiece, "Er, um, er, um, bit along…", meaning that it was time for the other members to pay their subscriptions. I once heard him asking someone at the Pahiatua Railway Station if my Aunt Mary’s luggage had arrived from Wellington. "A portmanteau labelled Kinnell," he shouted. "Portmanteau…port-man-teau…good God, woman," he roared. "Don’t you know what a portmanteau is?"

The family car was fine 1928 Austin 12-4, fawn and dark brown in colour. It had hand-crafted aluminium coachwork on an ash frame, beautiful leather upholstery, blinds on all the passenger windows for privacy and was very comfortable. It could, under favourable conditions, reach 45 miles an hour (72km/h). It cost £400 which, compared with a Model T Ford at £120, made it a very expensive machine — something like a BMW 3 series, in present day terms. Grandad’s previous cars had been Model Ts, which had only two forward speeds controlled by a single pedal (in for 1st, out for 2nd), and he never really mastered the Austin’s four-speed crash gearbox. Nevertheless he was intensely proud of it. It was British.

Once when we were trundling grandly along the road into town, Gran turned to me and said in an awed voice, "We’re going forty miles an hour!" Grandad said, "Be quiet Ede, you’ll frighten the boy; we’re only doing thirty." The boy was secretly hoping we might do fifty.

Uncle Eric had an Austin 7 Open Tourer of about the same vintage. It was very small, seating perhaps two slim adults and two small children, and had a black canvas fold-down hood with celluloid side curtains which, according to the brochure, would "keep out the most inclement weather". In other words, they leaked furiously. The windscreen would fold down flat onto the bonnet, though why anyone would want to do that is beyond me.

Uncle Eric said it could do 50 miles an hour (80km/h) and 50 miles to the gallon. Perhaps so, but it would take terrific concentration to drive the skittish little vehicle at anything like that speed on the rough metal roads of the time.

I spent a lot of time at Gorge End in the years before World War 2 — usually the greater part of my school holidays. In 1933, when my mother lost a baby, I lived out at the farm for several months while she recovered. I have a few memories going back that far.

Gran and Grandad were very excited when it was announced that the Duke of Gloucester — the King’s brother, no less — was about to visit New Zealand. They told me we would be going in to Woodville to see the duke. This puzzled me greatly because I knew that Duke was grazing peacefully outside the dining room window. Why did we have to go in to Woodville to see him?

No doubt it was carefully explained to me — I don’t remember. What I can remember is being held in my grandmother’s arms on the platform at Woodville Railway Station and watching three perfectly ordinary-looking men in bowler hats getting out of a carriage.

I was dreadfully disappointed. I’d expected a royal duke to be wearing full dress uniform with a red coat and medals and a sword and feathers on his hat, as he was in the coloured pictures of Royalty popular at that time.

It wasn’t until I came to Wellington to work at the Tourist Department in 1979 and discovered that the foundation stone for the Wellington Railway Station had been laid by HRH the Duke of Gloucester in December,1934, that I realised how long ago this royal visit had taken place.

I often used to go with Grandad and Uncle Eric when they went out to the back of the farm to repair a fence or mend a gate, usually riding in front of Uncle Eric on his horse. I liked to "help" them with their work, handing them nails, or tools as required. They were both very good at talking to me, telling me the names of the tools they were using and explaining their use.

We would have lunch and smoko out on the hills, building a little fire from scraps of wood from the stumps and fallen logs which still littered the landscape.

Grandad would boil the billy, drop in the tea leaves, tap the side of the billy so that the tea leaves would settle and then pour the scalding hot tea into our enamel mugs. I had to put cold water into mine so that I could drink it. We usually had mutton sandwiches, or cheese, and scones with raspberry jam.

The dogs would lie around panting and scratching. One day Grandad’s dog was scratching the itchy biddybiddy off his coat when a piece flew off his paw and landed on Grandad’s trouser leg. Grandad made a growly noise and looked at the dog hard. The dog stood up, came over to Grandad and picked the biddybid off with his teeth.

I suppose I was 8 or 9 before I saw a lamb being born. It was fascinating to watch the little lamb squirming, half in half out, of its mother’s body while the ewe groaned and pushed. There would be a sudden final rush as the lamb dropped out onto the grass, while the ewe struggled to her feet and whipped around to nuzzle her new-born, making little welcoming noises and licking it clean. Then it was the lamb’s turn to struggle to its feet and seek its mother’s teat and the lovely warm milk. It still amazes me that they know the way.

The big event of the farm day was the arrival of the service car bringing the mail, groceries and some farm supplies from Pahiatua. The service car was, as far as I know, a vehicle unique to New Zealand. It was rather like a big-cab ute only very much larger. Built on a 3-tonne bus chassis, it had three rows of seats in the cab, seating six passengers, and a tray on the back that would take around 500kg of freight.

It would stop at the farm gate about mid-morning and the driver would drop off the mail, newspapers, a grocery order and, perhaps, a roll of wire netting or a drum of sheep dip. Then he would pick up the letters we had left in the mail box for posting and be off to Pongaroa, returning late afternoon.

There were no sheep trucks in country areas before World War 2 — sheep went everywhere on foot. Huge mobs of sheep, tended by a drover in his horse-drawn gig, wended their slow way into town for the sale day every Tuesday.

Meeting a mob of sheep head-on was not so bad, you could just wait until they had gone past, but coming up with one from behind was very frustrating. A favourite ploy was to lean out of the window and shout, "Ho-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho…", in a deep voice, hoping you sounded like a dog. Sometimes this would move the sheep to the side of the road so that you could get past; sometimes it wouldn’t.

The drover’s gig was an antique even then — a little two-wheeled vehicle dating from the 1890s, with rubber-tyred car wheels replacing the old high thin-spoked wooden wheels of the original. There was usually a hammock made of sacking underneath for the dogs to rest in. The gig was hung about with billies and other bits and pieces and the drover carried his bedroll with him — he slept out under the stars on longer journeys, which might take a week or more.

While I was staying at Gorge End I had the use of a bay pony called Bob — a rolly-polly little animal, fat from lack of exercise and close to twenty years old. He knew the trick that many old horses know — how to puff out his belly when he was being saddled up. I could never get the girth really tight enough. I liked Bob but he didn’t like me very much — or anyone else for that matter.

We used to go swimming in the Makuri River, between our flat pasture land and the Murphy’s scrub-covered hills on the other side. Gran and my mother and any female visitors would go down the river a little way while the men bathed in the deep pool below Hekler’s farm. No one had swimming costumes.

Sometimes Grandad would take me on his back and swim across the pool doing breast stroke. I was awed and a little frightened by the knowledge that the water was immensely deep — over Grandad’s head!

A major earthquake and a series of smaller ones hit the district around 1935. I was in town when the big one struck, but I can remember the damage at Gorge End. The kitchen chimney collapsed internally, covering the range with bricks and spreading soot and rubble in the sitting room..

A smaller earthquake struck a year or so later while I was out at Gorge End. I was standing on the lawn by the tennis court when I heard the roar of the approaching ’quake and felt the ground heave and shudder. The county grader was rumbling up the road at the time, spreading the metal evenly over the wheel ruts, and Grandad sent me racing down the drive to stop the driver and ask him up for a cup of tea.

The grader driver, shaken about by the rough road and near-deafened by his machinery, hadn’t noticed the earthquake at all. I felt he’d been cheated.

The front door opened off a wisteria-twined verandah onto a wide hallway. A door immediately to the right of the front door led into the sitting room and another door opposite led into Gran and Grandad’s bedroom.

On one wall hung Grandad’s war trophies — four swords, a revolver in a holster and a wahaika made for him by a Maori friend at Tongoio. One sword was a simple, flat-hilted cavalry sabre, reputedly used at Waterloo by my great-great-great uncle Capt. Charles Gregorie, 13th Light Dragoons. Another, with a polished brass scabbard and hilt, was part of my great grandfather’s dress uniform and another, a more ordinary weapon, was his "working sword", so to speak.

The fourth sword and the revolver, a nickel-plated Colt .45 made in Dublin, had belonged to my Great Uncle David, Grandad’s elder brother, who had been killed playing polo in Egypt while he was serving with the Egyptian Army.

Further down the hall a door to the right led to the kitchen and a door to the left led to the huge formal dining room with a very long dining table. Another door, between the dining room door and the bathroom, led to Uncle Eric’s bedroom.

The dining room was rarely used, all meals usually being taken in the kitchen. I can remember one formal dinner however, with everyone dressed up to the nines and the men wearing their medals, but I’ve no idea what the occasion was. I do remember my fifth birthday party with all the children from the neighbouring farms around the table — I cried because I didn’t want to blow the candles out.

A glass door, with wonderful multi-coloured panes, led from the dining room onto a second verandah which got all the morning sun and which was sheltered by a macrocarpa hedge

The sitting room had a double-hung window out onto the front verandah and another window in a little alcove looking out to the west. I used to like drawing the alcove curtains, curling up on the window seat and looking out towards the road, the flats and the river. The piano that Fred and Edith brought with them from Havelock North stood against the eastern wall and there was a fireplace with an ornate carved wooden mantelpiece, back to back with the kitchen stove.

The bathroom was at the end of the hallway, just past the door into the kitchen. There was a skylight in the roof and a door at each end so that you could walk through. The bath seemed to me to be immense, much bigger than the bath we had in our little house in Pahiatua.

Beyond the bathroom there were two smaller bedrooms opening to the left and a door into the scullery on the right. The back door opened directly onto the back verandah, with its rows of gumboots, a gumboot taker-offerer, oilskins hanging on nails on the wall and, beside them, two plaited leather stock whips, which impressed me immensely.

Opposite the back verandah, a separate wash-house held the traditional copper and tubs and all manner of other bits and pieces and somewhere nearby was an al fresco shower. This consisted of a 10 gallon (45 litre) copper cylinder with a sprinkler underneath and an on/off valve worked by two chains. You filled it with warm water from the copper, pulled it up into a nearby macrocarpa tree and gave yourself a meagre shower. Grandad and Uncle Eric were keen on cold showers, but I didn’t fancy them at all.

Outside the scullery window, between the back verandah and the wash-house, was a small back-yard, always mossy and damp. It was sheltered from the south by a dense macrocarpa hedge, with a tunnel through it and a little picket gate.

A short path led from the gate to the drive-way up from the road. On the other side of the drive was the wood shed and behind it the chicken run, populated by slim white leghorn hens and a few much stouter rhode island reds.

At the top of the drive there was a wide turning area in front of the stable. This consisted of a coach-house, where the car was kept, and two loose boxes, all opening onto the turning area. On the northern end there was a small tool-room and a pathway which led round to the back where a cow-bail, with its cobbled yard, opened onto the house paddock.

The tool-room was papered with glossy centre pages from old Auckland Weekly newspapers, with photographs covering such events as horse races, royal visits, the 1913 waterfront strike and the Napier earthquake. It was known as "The Criminal’s Room" because the notorious prison-escaper Joseph Pawelka had reputedly sheltered there while on the run in 1910-11. Whether there was any truth in this story, I don’t know. Pawelka was never recaptured and no one knows what became of him.

At the bottom of the drive a wide white-painted gate opened onto the Pahiatua-Makuri Road and, over the road, another gate opened onto a rough driveway leading to a hay barn sheltered by a long laurel hedge. An old wooden dray with two huge wheels stood beside the barn.

The Makuri Golf Club had its club-rooms built into one side of the barn with windows overlooking the nine-hole links which extended over most of the Gorge End flats.

The ninth hole was wickedly difficult — it was a minute flat area at the bottom of a steep bank, backed by a creek and a patch of almost almost impenetrable scrub. Woe betide anyone who over-shot!

Early in 1938 Uncle Eric bought a new car, a 1937 Austin 10 de Lux. We were all very impressed with its state-of-the-art features — a sunshine roof, indicators, twin windscreen wipers, stop lights, back-lit instruments, syncromesh gears on second, third and top, headlights you could dip, and a boot.

Electricity came to Gorge End in 1938 — I can remember watching the power-poles being put in across the flats, getting slowly closer and closer to the house. The electric light seemed wonderfully convenient after the old kerosene lamps and no doubt the Moffat electric cooker in the scullery was a great help to Gran.

In the summer of 1938-39 my Aunt Mary, Dad’s twin sister, visited New Zealand, staying at Gorge End for some months. I thought she was an exciting sort of lady, a bit wicked, perhaps, but very nice. She was keen on "naturism" at the time and had photos of my Cousin Jean (Jenny) doing gymnastics while naked. I thought this was deliciously naughty, especially when she said I shouldn’t tell my parents!

In 1940 Uncle Eric volunteered for the army and put a manager on the farm for the duration of the war. Gran and Grandad retired to a comfortable 1920s-style house in Palmerston North.

Grandad was 80 years old but still healthy and vigorous, not the sort of person who could sit in idleness or play bowls. He was keen to play whatever part he could in the war effort.

His camouflage nets became famous. He would sit in the shelter of his garage weaving net after net out of heavy twine using a sort of hand shuttle with speed and dexterity. The nets were sent to the Middle East and used to disguise the outlines of parked tanks or artillery so that they would be less easily spotted from the air. He held the New Zealand record briefly for the number of nets made by a civilian volunteer — not bad for a man in his 80s — but his score was topped by a much younger man in Dunedin.

We didn’t visit Gorge End during the latter part of war — we went to Palmerston North to visit Gran and Grandad instead.

In 1941 Uncle Eric married Barbara Mary Martin French — Aunt Barbara to Ann and me.

Aunt Barbara used to give me fascinating books for Christmas and birthday presents — "Living Things for Lively Youngsters", a book on nature study topics with articles, line drawings and diagrams, and experiments similar to those we did with Mr Giddings in school. "Moving Things for Lively Youngsters" and "More Moving Things for Lively Youngsters" were books on mechanical and electrical topics — how things work — with lots of ideas for working models. I was still using those books thirty years later when I was a teacher.

After the war Uncle Eric and Aunt Barbara settled at Gorge End. Martin Charles Gregorie was born on February 5, 1946, and Elizabeth Jane (Jane) Gregorie on June 7, 1949.

I went to Wairarapa College as a boarder in 1946 and it was only in the school holidays that I could join Mum, Dad and Ann in their visits to Gorge End. We all enjoyed swimming in the pool that Uncle Eric had put in the lawn above the tennis court.

In 1955, while I was at Wellington Teachers’ College, Uncle Eric gave me a contract to paint his house as a holiday job.

I was painting round the sitting room windows when I noticed a pigeon sitting on a lower branch of an apple tree by the corner of the tennis court. I didn’t see the family cat sitting underneath licking its lips with anticipation. Until it jumped. I caught the movement out of the corner of my eye and turned round in time to see the cat grab the pigeon and drag it off the branch.

But the pigeon rallied. The cat’s claws were into its breast but its wings were free. The bird took off, with the cat still hanging on grimly, and cleared the 8ft (2.4m) fence around the tennis court before crashing to the ground again. At this point the cat gave up and let go. When I last saw the pigeon it was still flying strongly towards the river.

And I didn’t imagine it — Uncle Eric saw it too.