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Growing up in New Zealand 1925-50

Part 15 - At Home In New Zealand During World War 2
Dorothy - 16/03/01

Restrictions on travel, rationing, different roles for women.

Day to day activities for those in New Zealand were affected by all sorts of restrictions. Women who had stayed at home took jobs vacated by men serving in the armed forces, but also had to work hard at home on the economical routines of the Depression because goods of all kinds were so precious.

Women as land girls
Pat H has vivid memories of her years as a land girl. She was working in a lawyer's office in Christchurch when the war broke out. She offered to serve in the navy but they had too many women applying for service so she was manpowered to work as a landgirl. She feels that she had two fortunate postings for this work as she was not expected to do a man's work. She learnt to milk a cow and was expected to work in the cowshed night and morning, and work in the garden during the day. She found out that women on some other farms were given heavy work like building sheds and mustering sheep and were treated like men.

Landgirls were supposed to live with the family and eat meals with them. In one posting this was a novel experience for Pat as the family believed in keeping up tradition by dressing for dinner, even though the clothing shortages often led to the ladies of the house having safety pins at the waist of their long skirts. Pat and the other landgirl would wear street dresses - all they had at that time. One of the instructions from the lady of the house - that they should have a bath only twice a week - they had to disregard. Especially after they had been told to take a dray and crawl under the shearing shed and dig out the sheep droppings which had accumulated to a depth of three feet and were coming up through the floor boards, a bath was not a luxury but a necessity. As the landgirls were staying in a flat at one end of the house the frequency of their baths could not be checked on.

The girls were supposed to have time off once a month. Pat was working on farms in Marlborough, so leave was spent in Blenheim and there was no shortage of male escorts with men based at the Air Force base at Woodburn and an army camp close to Blenheim. The friendships the landgirls made with Air Force personnel meant that they buzzed the farms where the girls were working and indulged in some hedge-hopping. Pat was rather nervous on horseback, never having lived on a farm before, and one day the normally placid horse she was riding took fright at the low flying aircraft and Pat was lucky not to be seriously injured.

Petrol rationing
During the war petrol was strictly rationed - about two gallons a month, depending on the size of the car. Some cars were fitted with gas producers to provide an alternative type of power. Petrol rationing was introduced in 1940 and continued for ten years. Travel was by tram or bicycle except for special occasions.

Food and clothes rationing
From the commencement of the war in Europe a system of rationing regulated the consumption of food, clothing and other consumables, to ensure that the maximum amount possible was diverted to the war effort and exported to England.

For the food and clothes rationing everyone had a coupon book - 6 ounces of butter per person per week, 6 ounces of sugar, 2 ounces of tea and a limited ration of meat. Cream was unavailable, but a substitute could be made using top milk whisked with warmed unsalted butter. All available food was sent to Great Britain. Many New Zealanders gave up having sugar in their tea as a war effort.

Rationing tested the women's ingenuity in producing palatable meals. Some of our mothers used to bake with lard or render down cod fat (from cuts of beef) and beat it up with lemon juice to provide shortening for baking. Quality margarine was unobtainable in New Zealand at that time.

Vegetables were grown as a war effort. Many people dug up their lawns and grew potatoes where there had been a lawn and planted tomato plants among the plants in the flower garden.

Each person was allowed 26 coupons for clothing every six months, with set numbers of coupons for particular items of clothing. A full length coat, usually of wool gabardine or herringbone tweed, took twelve coupons, a gym frock four, a blouse four. The coupons also had to be used for household linen.

Women were issued a special page of coupons for one pair of fully fashioned silk stockings every six months. Runs in these were common and regarded as a disaster. They had to be mended by hand or taken to one of shops in the city where a young woman repaired ladder in silk stockings using a special stand and hook.

Anne remembers that some women painted their bare legs the colour of stockings and even included a seam line to look well hosed. (Stockings at that time had a seam up the back and keeping the seam straight was necessary for the well-groomed woman.) Lisle or rayon stockings took two standard coupons. Nylon stockings did not arrive in New Zealand until after the war, unless they were brought by the American servicemen who were stationed in New Zealand.

Nina remembers that war brides often wore dresses handed down from their mothers. There were only eight types of fabric for wedding dresses available in the whole of Dunedin when she was married.

Austerity measures
There were shortages of all sorts of imported goods, so shopping was limited and things which could not be replaced were carefully used and repaired whenever possible. Planned obsolescence was an unknown concept.

Fashions for women's dresses featured skirts just below the knee, usually with three gored pieces front and back, and used as little fabric as possible.

Men's suits lost the trouser cuffs, lapels were narrower, and the single breasted style was common to save material. The end of the war saw a joyous reaction from women when "the new look" introduced by Christian Dior featured long full skirts and extravagant use of fabric. Fashion conscious women wore these with platform-soled shoes.

Shortages of cigarettes and tobacco
Cigarettes and loose tobacco, used for pipes and for 'roll your own' cigarettes, were in short supply and greatly sought after. There was little knowledge of any health risks. Helen O remembers the doctor recommending that her mother start smoking to overcome depression after the family had to move to an area where her mother found it hard to make friends.

There were long queues when the word went around that a tobacconist had a fresh supply available. People also queued for chocolate and sweet biscuits.

Newspaper widely used
Toilet paper was uncommon and especially in non-flush toilets, newspaper was used instead. Newspaper was twisted into 'spills' and used to light pipes or cigarettes or to make fire starters. Wax matches were often used, but these were unsafe. Safety matches were hard to come by.

Cones for firewood
Children helped the war effort by collecting cones on the hills.

Linen flax
Farmers were urged to plant linen flax as a war effort. Because the plants were being grown for fibre they were pulled out roots and all, to take advantage of the full length of plant fibre extending into the roots.

Jessie was part of a Gore High School group who pulled linen flax as a war effort. The photograph below was taken in 1942.

Secondary school pupils from Gore in Southland in 1942 pulling flax
Secondary school pupils from Gore in Southland in 1942 pulling flax
Photo source Jessie Dodd

Tom on Home Service in the army at the beginning of 1944 went to Middlemarch where the soldiers helped with the harvest of linen flax by collecting the plants which had been pulled out by the flax pulling machine.

Cocksfoot growing by the roadside was collected by many people as a source of income. Jessie recalls spreading it on newspaper on the lawn to dry and then beating it to remove the seeds which were then sold, bringing welcome pocket money.

Rosehips and wild berries
Rosehips were gathered, especially in Central Otago, from the wild roses growing by the road and on the hillsides. These were sold to factories who were manufacturing rosehip syrup, a valuable source of vitamin C. Imported fruits like bananas and oranges were in short supply. Mothers of babies were given coupons for oranges, but they were not always available and rosehip syrup was fed to the babies as a substitute for orange juice.

Wild gooseberries and blackberries were also picked and enjoyed. There was no anxiety in those days about whether the area had been sprayed with weedkiller.

School apples
Apples were not exported in large quantities so at one stage they were supplied to schools and each child received an apple at playtime in the morning during the apple season.

Problems with overseas mail
Due to the lack of shipping space for mail, letters for overseas had to be written on standard forms which were photographically reduced, transported on cassettes of film and enlarged before delivery,

Before the war many University of New Zealand examination papers were set and marked in Great Britain. Early in the war a ship was sunk which carried examination papers to be marked in Britain. Those candidates were refused passes in these subjects and were made to sit again in the following year. In subsequent exams those candidates had to make carbon copies of the answers and the top copy only was sent overseas. (There was no photocopying at that time.) By the end of the war the system of overseas marking had been abandoned.

All around the towns, in the red phone boxes, on the trams, at the railway stations, posters reminded us that "Careless talk costs lives." At the railway stations posters asked, "Is your journey really necessary?"

The end of the war
Great rejoicing greeted the end of the war with parades and dancing in the streets on VE Day, Victory in Europe Day 6 June 1945, and on VJ Day, Victory in Japan Day, on 15 August 1945.

For women in the Forces the Wet Canteen was opened to them for the first, and ONLY time to celebrate the end of the war.

Difficulties lay ahead for many families where parents found that their relationship had been badly affected by the long separation and the children resented the father they scarcely remembered and regarded as an intruder. Returned servicemen didn't talk much about their war experiences and barriers sometimes grew up through lack of understanding.

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