Working Lives

A New Zealand Adventure (1949-2004)

Location: Slough, New Zealand, Thetford

Elizabeth wanted to see the world and emigrated to New Zealand in 1952. She had a happy life there working in offices and running a shop with her husband and looking after children in a children’s home. Homesick for the snow, she returned to England in 2004 and settled in Thetford.

Starting out

I started my first job in 1949 in Slough, just outside of London, and I was an office junior. I did all the running about, first, and then I went to night school and learnt typing and shorthand. A friend of the family was the secretary of the firm and  that’s how I got the first job, straight from school. I worked  nine ‘til five. Had a good time playing tennis after work. I went home for lunch.

I used to cycle to the office, in those days, which was a heating firm in a little place just north of Slough. Farnham Royal. And it was in a private house, but then it moved, to the Slough trading estate. That building is no longer there, now.

I was at night school during those three years, and I left that job after three years.

Adventure awaits

Then I went to New Zealand – it was exciting. I wanted to see the world. We only had to have £10 to arrive there, so it was very good. I had an uncle and an aunt who were living in New Zealand and they nominated me, but it was under the immigration scheme. So if you didn’t have anybody to nominate you, the government in New Zealand found you a job. But if you had somebody to nominate you, they could find you a job, so my uncle found me a job in a law office. My uncle was from the Orkney Islands.

The journey took six weeks, on the Captain Cook. It was the third sailing of the Captain Cook and the captain on the ship was Captain Cook. But it was very good, we had a very good time. About 900 people were going to be in the Services in New Zealand, and the rest were women and children and couples, so there were about 400 other people, I think, if I’ve got the numbers right. We went through the Panama Canal, because the Suez Canal was closed by that time.

We had dances. We had pictures on board, on the deck. We had Scottish dancing. We had all sorts of competitions. We had deck quoits. You made your own fun. The food was alright. I never had powdered potatoes before, but I had them then. We were relieved to arrive in Wellington.

I don’t remember feeling any kind of fear or anything. I was just looking forward to the excitement. And we left from Glasgow, so we had to go up by train to Glasgow to get the boat from there. So that was quite a trip. But, no, it was a very good trip, I thought. Some of the later ones were not quite so good. But the boat was in good condition at that stage as well.

I felt as if I was on a long holiday. I felt like that all the time I was there. Very green. Very nice, very easy. Not a big country, not a lot of people in 1952. I think the population of New Zealand then was the same as the population of London. They were very laid back, as they say.

I was thoroughly enjoying myself. And going to a family was very nice, a family that although I didn’t know them, they were my family and I could, you know, feel that they were family, but I had never met them before. I think it was easier for me than for a lot of the immigrants who just had to find digs and board wherever they could get it, you know, and start up on their own. I was lucky in that respect. I probably wouldn’t, I possibly wouldn’t have come if that family hadn’t have been there.

There were some differences from the UK – I noticed a lot of rugby, and I used to love listening to Winston McCarthy doing all the rugby broadcasts. But no, there were differences but I was young, and it didn’t matter, you know. I got a job in an office, but unfortunately it turned out to be an accountants’ office and all I was doing all day was typing figures. I didn’t want to do that, so I managed to get another job.

Office work

It was in a lawyer’s office the next time. I was in Invercargill which is one of the southern most parts of New Zealand. So they weren’t as…oh what can I say … they were slower than through the north of New Zealand and everybody seemed to know everybody else. It was a very nice city. I just took letters and typed. I met a friend there, in the lawyer’s office, who’s still my friend now.

I cycled to work. I wished I had taken my bike with me to New Zealand, but I thought it would cost too much to transport. But when I got to New Zealand I found the cost of bikes was exorbitant. So I had to buy another one anyway. I bought a new bike and went everywhere on it. And Invercargill is very very flat, with very wide streets, so it’s a good place to cycle.

We worked 9 to 5 with a lunch break.  In those days, tomato soup and toast was our favourite in the winter. Or we took our own sandwiches, and went to the park and ate them. They were only small places. There were only the three, four of us in the office. It was a nice little place to work.

Leisure time in another climate

Used to go out for cycle rides, used to go and see my friend from the office. And we did a lot of sewing in those days. I bought a sewing machine, and I wasn’t good at sewing but her mother was very good, so she taught me a lot. Because clothes were so expensive in New Zealand in those days. If you wanted anything, you made it; you didn’t go and buy it. So I learnt a lot of sewing. I used to make all my own things, then.

Fashion was was much the same as in the UK. In New Zealand in those days, the UK was much referred to as home, the old country, by the people who lived there. So it was quite common, most people made their own things. I used to go to a bible class and we used to go visiting, and we went to a dance once a week, which was very nice in those days. You don’t have dances like that these days. And if you went in the country, to a country hall dance, there would be this wonderful supper with loads of pavlova and all that sort of thing. And that is something you didn’t have in England in those days, at all, because of all the rationing so they were really beautiful suppers we used to have. Lovely cooks. It was all vegetables and butter in abundance. Well, from New Zealand during the war, they used to send food parcels over to England to help people. Some things were more expensive, but as the years went by New Zealand got more and more things. They never made cars, there was never a car factory. They had to import everything. They had to import so much. So things were quite expensive.

Their chocolate was a bit sweeter than the British chocolate. I don’t know if it was in those days but Cadbury’s had a factory in Australia and we used to get it from Australia. I think that was that far back, it might not have been.

After three years I went to Christchurch, which was further north, and where they’ve had that big earthquake now. I went into another office and I was there for a year, and then I moved up to Wellington and I was in Wellington for two or three years, and then I got married. My friend and I from Invercargill  had made up our minds… When you go on an immigration scheme, you had to stay there for two years to work off your passage and at the end of the two years, I put a deposit on a return trip to Britain, and my friend was coming with me as her overseas experience. Young New Zealanders nearly all do an overseas experience and we were both going together but then we both met our husbands. So we cancelled that and my husband-to-be had put a deposit on a trip back to Holland. He was a Dutch immigrant. There were many Dutch immigrants in New Zealand in those days, said he was looking for a Dutch wife. He didn’t get one! So we never did make that trip back.

A working marriage

I got married at the end of ‘55 and then for about two years, and then we moved. My husband was working up North in a place called Kawerau. It had a big paper mill, and it was being built. It was where all the work was. So he was working up there while I was still in Wellington. They had all the houses built and so all the workmen then moved into the houses and worked on them and lived in them until they were finished, and so I was able to go up and we had a house, up in Kawerau, which is in the middle of the North Island, and the papermill was opening. It was all coming from England, mainly. And so I went up there with him, and I worked in another office, a builder’s office this time, for a while. In 1956-57 we went to Auckland and bought a little grocery dairy, which we ran. And then we sold that because it wasn’t very lucrative because they were pulling down a lot of houses to make room for motorways and things, so we thought we’d get out quick. And we moved back down the island and also, it didn’t make enough money for the two of us so my husband was a painter and decorator, so he went out to work. And I ran the shop, yeah. So we sold, we got rid of that, and we went back down the island to a place called Masterton, which is just outside Wellington. And there our daughter was born, and that was 1958.

My husband was very keen on serving the public. He liked doing it. As a boy – and a young teenager, even – during the war, he was in Holland, and of course Holland was occupied by the Germans. His father had a vending cart – he used to sell cheeses and all sorts of things – and my husband used to go with him, so he enjoyed all that. It was just a pity that he had to go out to work and couldn’t work in the shop because it didn’t make enough money. But I didn’t mind working in the shop, I enjoyed it.

In 1958  we came down to Masterton, and our daughter was born in the June. We bought an old house and did it all up and then my husband had a heart attack, so he was off work quite a while. He went back to painting, and he had another heart attack, so that was the end of that work. So we decided to buy another shop, where he could work, just potter about, and I could work. By that time, the years had gone by, and we had three children. So we had another shop, for a while.

A grocer

It was a dairy, milk-bar. Not a milk-bar exactly, just a grocery dairy. Milk-bars were very popular in those days, they were everywhere. And little grocery shops were all over the place, there were no supermarkets. The corner shop was the place. We had our regular customers. Oh yes, they were pretty good. But if they could go to a bigger shop and get specials – they still had reduced prices on things in various places – if they could do that, then that was fine. But they used to come to us and buy certain things. I mean milk was one thing, bread was another thing – cigarettes; they were all what we called convenience lines in those days. And if they bought those things, they sometimes bought something else.

The hours were seven o’clock in the morning to sometimes seven at night. Yes, it was quite hard work but we lived in flats over the top of the place or at the back of the places so that was alright, we didn’t have far to travel. Well, you know, we just did it! I used to do a lot of knitting, I was always knitting. And we used to watch television. Not in the shop… We didn’t get television ‘til we left the shop, that’s right. Because I think our television came a bit later, although I did see the first episode of Coronation Street so we must’ve got it quite early!

Both shops were shut on Sundays. We went into the second shop in 1967. I remember it well because New Zealand changed to decimal currency. So we had a lot of people having trouble with their change and their money for a while. Fortunately my husband had grown up with decimal currency so it was not too difficult. But that same year, or very soon after we went into the shop, the inter-island ferry between the north and south island, went down off the coast of Wellington. It was called the Wahine – it’s a Maori name for girl, I think – and people were standing on the shore and they could see the boat going down but they couldn’t get out to it because the seas were so bad. And there were quite a few lives lost then. I think that must have been in 1968. Masterton is 64 miles north of Wellington, but the storm was so bad it ripped out the trees in our park and it took all the power lines down all around the shop. We were the only people with gas so we were filling people’s kettles all day long, with hot water. It was quite, quite traumatic. Especially with the lives being lost.

My husband died in 1969 and I ran the shop for a little while but it wasn’t a shop that paid… it was just a family business. If you had to pay wages, it didn’t pay its way very well. So I sold the shop and bought a house and took a trip to England. 1969, 1970.

Selling the business, moving on

The children thought it was lovely. We had a lovely trip back. It took six months. Including the trips, because it took six weeks there and back, because there was no flying in those days, unless you were a millionaire! It was all boats. We went back on the Greek ship the Ellinis and came back on the Italian ship the Achille Lauro.

It was different because that was just an immigrant ship. People had paid for this. But when we came back, on the Achille Lauro, it was a terrible ship. The crew was always going on strike and not doing things that they should. And every time we came into port, they would come in late at night so that they didn’t have to pay water rates, and then go out early in the morning. We stopped at Johannesburg, and we could only see Table Mountain from far off. We just were able to go around the shops very briefly, back on board and off we went. There was an elderly lady on the ship who had saved all her money to travel around the world on these ships and she wasn’t seeing a thing on this one. Anyway, we came into New Zealand and they said that they weren’t stopping, they were just landing us, and they took all our luggage off and just dumped it. I think we got headlines in the paper. Anyway, a little delegation of paid passengers – because some of them were immigrants who were on the ship – went down to the purser’s office and complained and said that we had to stay over night because so many people were travelling to other parts of New Zealand but that when we arrived so late, there was no transport for them. Some of them were going to the South Island. So we got our way. In the morning, I had friends in Wellington and they’d come to meet me, so I was alright. I went and stayed with them and came back in the morning and met up with some of the people from the boat. One of the chaps got so angry with a waiter that he hit him on the head with a tray! Because he wouldn’t serve him breakfast. Anyway, I think they all got to their destinations in the end, but, you know, we had to find our luggage, it was really a disgraceful outfit. That was my last experience with a boat that I wanted for some time.

After that, I bought a house in Timaru in the South Island, and that’s where I worked in a children’s home for two or three years.

Working in social care

Oh, they were good. There were some sad cases. There were quite a few Maori children in there, who unfortunately didn’t have much of a life, really, of any good, you know.  Social work, and that was all very interesting. And then, gradually, the children left home. Janette went to university in Dunedin, which is further south from Timaru. Kaysha went to nursing in Christchurch. And then Paul, eventually, went to Christchurch as well with a job. So I stayed in Timaru until… This home was run by the Presbyterian social services and they sold it and they moved to other premises, so I felt it was time for me to sell up as well. A friend of mine had just lost her son by drowning, and she asked me to go back to Masterton, so I decided to move back up there and bought a house.

The children were were problems to themselves, they didn’t get into trouble, as such. But their families didn’t look after them very well. They had nothing in the homes which would help with their education, and they started a breakfast club, on one of their estates, actually. Not an estate like the English estates. They called it the Cameron block. And mostly they were rented houses, estate houses, and people who lived there… Sometimes the children left home without any breakfast, so they started a big breakfast club down there and fed the children on their way to school. It was quite… It wasn’t good living, down there. I suppose you could call it the slums of Masterton, but I think it’s improved since those days.

Children stayed until things were right back at the house. The idea of the social worker was that the sooner they could get back with the families, the better. But unfortunately, the families were not reliable, so the staff would work very hard at getting the children stable, and having a stable life, and then the social worker would come along and they’d say ‘oh, I think they’re alright to go back to the family’, but we knew they’d be back, because it was the family who was at fault, not the children.

At Christmas and for their birthdays, we used to have all the children in one big group and then various staff looking after them. I used to look after the daycare children when the others went to school. But then they changed that, and they made it families. So each staff member had about nine children, and they were in charge of them, and that was their family and they lived like a family. And it worked, it worked very well really. They went to the local school nearby. Yes, it worked very well. And so they did make a fuss about birthdays then. But we had so many – because we were a social welfare home – we had so many clothes given in for the children and if ever there was a show on or anything, the children always got tickets. They did everything. They did good things. All they were missing was their family’s love, I suppose.

You’d get one or two that weren’t very good at school, or didn’t fit in. I don’t remember a great deal of trouble with the school, but some of them weren’t very bright at school, but then they hadn’t had the grounding either.

The hours were nine o’clock until about three, if I remember rightly. But it depended, really – they were flexible. If I… if they were busy or anything. But usually, when they divided them into families, there was no need for me, because the other staff came back on. Occasionally I’d work later, if a mother was working later and her child was in my care, then I’d work later until she came in to pick them up. Because they, the day care, were children who lived at home as well, mainly. That was an extra, that was an extra. We just showed them how to play and that sort of thing. In those days, you didn’t need all those qualifications to work in a children’s home. When they sold, when the Presbyterian services sold this building, and they moved somewhere else with just the day-care, then the day-care people had to go through exams. But in those days, it was not so necessary – well, they didn’t make it necessary.

If there was a do on anywhere, you know, with a lot of food, the hotels would bring – if it was good food – they’d bring it round as well. We often used to have it for lunch, because we had two cooks, one in the morning and one in the afternoon and we had a really big kitchen, but we also had a very big dining room as well.

There were at least forty boarders, boys and girls. They were school-children. Day-care came later, really. That home had been going for many, many years. One lady called one day and asked to see one of the men who’d really supportive this home – he was a lovely man – and wanted his address. Well, I was in my thirties, I suppose, thirties or forties, and this lady looked about the same age as me and she had lived in this home, herself, as a child. She was now in England and she went back on a trip and she thought she’d go and look this man up, because he was so good to her. So it was a home that had been going for a long time, and it was run, originally, by one lady, whose name slips my memory. And she used to take in babies, as well. Later on they stopped doing that. While I was there it was run by a matron and her husband, who lived in a little house on the property. 1983, I retired.

I came back to the UK to live in 2004. Because I wanted to come home, that was all. We had snow… we had all the seasons alright, the only difference was, the trees… the native bush doesn’t lose its leaves, so most of the greenery stayed green all year round. It’s only the imported trees, I suppose, that lose their leaves. So nothing, nothing looked like in England in the winter…in Britain, it’s bare, but you don’t get that in New Zealand. Everything’s always green. And the lawn always grows. And the weeds always grow.

Thetford was the first place we found near to London, which is what I wanted, with the cheaper houses… It was the cost that got us here, and I had friends here, so that’s why we landed up in Thetford.

Elizabeth (b. 1933) talking to WISEArchive on 17th April 2013 in Thetford

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