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           Home >  History  > Growing Up In NZ  :

Growing Up in New Zealand 1925-1950 Part 27

Greymouth - My Home Town
Joyce Beumelburg - 05/07/02

The one and only time I saw the Aurora Australis was on a sharply clear Saturday night in the mid thirties in Greymouth - my home town on the so-called wild West Coast of the South Island.

With two teenage girlfriends, I was ambling home after a vigorous night of fox trotting, maxina-ing and destiny waltzing at Guido Schaef's downtown dance hall. There we were, munching on the usual pea, pie and pud from the local pie cart, discussing our success, or lack of with various boys, when this heavenly kaleidoscope spread across the southern sky.

It was literally out of this world. Suddenly a brilliant glow filled the night, illuminating the snow-capped alps in the distance. The colours were glorious - soft warm golds tinged with delicate pinks and greenish blues - and we watched in wonder as they arched rainbow-like from west to east. I can't recall how long this experience lasted, but I can still feel the silence, the utter peace as the sky pulsated with radiance.

We forgot to munch, held motionless with awe, ignoring the beetroot juice and tomato sauce which dripped from our chins and over our dance frocks.

Just as well this phenomenon didn't decide to appear after the Wednesday night dance. It would certainly have been incongruous to say the least, because Wednesday was the night-soil cart's turn to do the rounds of our area. We had formed the habit of following this fragrant container at a suitable distance, giggling and ostentatiously pinching our nostrils as silly girls do, and in a manner of speaking, getting up the beleaguered contractor's nose. Despite his lowly occupation however, the 'night cart man' owned one of the best houses in Greymouth, poised on a hill behind St. Mary's Secondary School, overlooking us all.

Our family, five children and parents, lived two miles south of town at Karoro (meaning Seabird) next to the brick works and three houses down from the 'Aussie' (Australasian Hotel) on the eastern side of the railway line connecting the Coast to Christchurch. On the other side of the railway stood the cemetery on a gradual rise looking out to the boisterous Tasman Sea. On Armistice and Anzac Days, or on the death of an old soldier, the townspeople would walk the two miles behind the hearse to the tune of the Dead March, and we children would watch from our front porch as the procession wound its way up the flax bordered drive. The sound of the Last Post always made us weep.

Afterwards, almost every adult would repair to the Aussie where sorrows were slowly drowned and reminiscences shared at great length. On other sad occasions when mourners came from beyond Greymouth, hired buses would wait outside the pub indefinitely. Those were the days of six o'clock closing when the screech of the huge iron cemetery gates could be heard regularly at 6.15 p.m. as they were slammed shut by the sexton on his way home from the pub. Of course, after a sustaining meal he returned with the majority of locals to play poker into the wee small hours, or perhaps forty-fives, a card game peculiar to the Coast and at which my father was an expert.

We children watched daily for a certain really rotund gentleman who lived at South Beach, a mile or so past Karoro, to come weaving along about 6.30 p.m. on his ancient bike. It was necessary for him to cross the railway line to reach his side of the road which sloped slightly. He rarely let us down. He would negotiate carefully till he reached the tracks, then gently subside until both he and his bike were entangled across the rails. He never hurt himself as he was so chubby, and he never lost his cool. At no time was he in danger from on-coming trains as we all knew the daily schedule. Which brings to mind the fact that because there was a family called Bellis not far from us, for years I thought the ballast train belonged to Mr. Bellis.

The cemetery taught me a lot. It was there that I learned how to spell and pronounce foreign names. I used to ride my bike through all sections of the graves and inspect the dates of birth and death, and if over the age of thirty, the deceased had had in my opinion a good innings.

Among Greymouth's approximately 9000 residents were many inhabitants of foreign extraction - German, Dutch, Jugoslav, Italian, Jew and of course the Chinese who were greatly respected. No-one to my knowledge thought of them as foreigners - they were Coasters. To us, foreigners were those who came from 'over the hill' in Christchurch.

Chinese funerals were of tremendous interest to us children. In those days some of the older Chinese men wore pigtails, and we were always intrigued to see them file the two miles from town to the cemetery. We would follow up the long drive and wait for the crackers to be lit, lurking a short distance from the graveside. The crackers were to scare away any evil spirits. Then boiled lollies would be tossed about in order to placate any such wicked spirits. Of course, we'd be in like vultures, but the Chinese just smiled and nodded. They were so gentle.

The lady who did our weekly wash while my mother was temporarily ill was married to a Chinese, a tiny wrinkled smiling man with whom I became quite friendly. He insisted that the quickest way to cure a cold or fever was to climb into bed fully clothed, smother the aching frame with every covering available, eat nothing and sweat. He would bury himself deep under the blankets when stricken and not emerge for days - cured.

Another interesting Chinese character travelled every Saturday morning by train from Rutherglen (now Shantytown) to Greymouth with his yoke balanced across his bent shoulders by two hanging baskets carrying his home-grown produce. He'd walk through town and out to Karoro, selling this produce with a view to saving sufficient money to get him back to China to die. Even though we had our own garden, my mother always bought from him, and as children we remembered to be on the front porch to wave to him on his return trip to Rutherglen. He never entered a carriage but stood on the outside platform, and though he wouldn't wave back, he always bowed in acknowledgement.

One of the delights of my childhood was gathering blackberries. Armed with old treacle or honey tins to which were tied string handles looped through holes bashed with a nail, we'd tramp for a couple of miles to a favourite spot out at South Beach. There we would each choose a patch and work away for what seemed hours, finally straggling home sunburnt, weary and with sinister purple mouths. In the blackberry season I'd race home from school, grab a cup and fill it with the luscious black fruit, sprinkle it liberally with sugar and mash the contents with a small fork. Delicious!

Of course in those days nothing was sprayed. Besides, on the Coast we had such sharp frosts during winter months that no bug could survive. We just ate our fruits straight from the tree.

Another joy was the brick kiln next door. My sister and I would go there regularly to watch the men make the bricks. They'd let us form our own sets of furniture from the wet clay and then bake them for us, meanwhile telling tall tales of World War I. We would carve our initials in hundreds of bricks before they received their final bake and I'll bet there's many a house in Greymouth that has either DMG or MJG embedded in the walls or chimneys.

Sometimes we'd stumble across a form lying prone before the blazing furnaces and wrapped in old coats. When asked, our kiln friends would whisper that it was an escaped prisoner hiding from the police. I believed this for years until I discovered that these escapees were jockeys trying to get their weight down for the racing season. I thanked heaven I hadn't told anyone else.

Sometimes, when my father was feeling benevolent, he would 'double' either my sister or me on his ancient Massey Harris bike down to the Aussie. There he'd deposit the favoured one on the verandah to await her glass of sarsaparilla to be savoured while he quaffed his 'ponies' with his mates. We never went inside of course, but it gave us a grown-up feeling of delicious wickedness. My mother would fume when she found out.

The annual Competitions Festival was an excuse for anyone with stars in the eyes to do their thing. The skipping rope dances were a source of amazement to me - such intricate twists and turns and such determined faces.

Then there was the yearly appearance of the young lady who, clad in riding outfit and cracking a mean whip, leapt on to the stage carolling The next horse I ride on I'm going to be tied on. My brother Bob as a youngster beat grown men in the sight-reading event, a record which was still unbroken many years later. On the last night there was generally a debate -- a joy to hear such clear, concise logic laced with humor projected through the packed Town Hall. No microphones and loud speakers necessary in those days.

The Karoro Sports Club, very much in evidence during my childhood, held its annual Saturday sports in a paddock down by the beach behind the abattoir, watched with mild interest by the poor beasts penned in the stock-yard awaiting slaughter. I always kept well away from their end of the paddock as I had a horror of a break-out.

The following day was the picnic. We children would race home from Sunday Mass to form an assembly line, cutting and buttering untold dozens of slices of bread while our mother slapped ham, savoury egg, cucumber or whatever between slices, cut them into large triangles and wrapped them in dampened serviettes. Everything packed, including beer for the men, we'd pile into several of Kennedy's buses and roar either south over the Taramakau bridge towards Lake Kaniere, or north to Porarari Beach near Punakaiki Blowholes. Here, races were won and lost, the odd bottle of whiskey raffled, and weary parents relaxed in the sun. I'll never forget the singing on the homeward journey - everyone happy, sunburnt, slightly tipsy and exhausted.

When St. Patrick's day was celebrated, the whole business area shut down while the procession of floats and colleens wended its way to Victoria Park where competitions were held for the best performance of the Irish Jig, Sword Dance and Highland Fling. That night was the concert where once I was bashed on the nose by the conductor's baton while singing with gusto Hail Glorious St. Patrick, and last of all The Ball for the grown-ups which doubtless ended with sore heads from one cause or another.

At Christmas, Midnight Mass with the grown-ups was a great privilege. In our beautiful St. Patrick's church, aptly situated in Chapel Street, we'd ecstatically breathe in the heady incense while the choir sang triumphantly the Hallelujah chorus. No matter that a good percentage of the congregation were strangers to any church or that the local drunks rolled in to help us celebrate. It was always a splendid occasion, rounded off at home with sandwiches of copper-cooked ham, Christmas cake and sherry for everyone.

Kennedy Bros. ran the buses in those days, and they'd put on specials for Midnight Mass, going well out of their usual route to pick up church-going passengers. I remember one dear little old lady who lived on top of what we then considered a high hill in a two storeyed house dubbed 'the doll's house'. She lived on the top floor while all her hens and chickens clucked happily on the ground level. She was Irish to the bone, partially crippled, and the bus-drivers never failed to make a detour on Sundays and Christmas to pick her up.

Kennedy Bros. were very good to the school children on exceptionally wet days. Because so many extra would be using the buses in such weather, we would be escorted to school in several taxis, the drivers clipping our tickets (12 rides for 1/-) as per usual. We all loved that - it made us feel so important. No bus driver would accept hooliganism in the back seats of his bus, and many was the time I saw so-called macho boys ordered off to walk and to be banned for up to one month. Any child caught sitting while an adult was standing was told in no uncertain terms to 'get up or get off'. Those were the days.

The one and only picture theatre, grandly called the Opera House, was filled every Saturday afternoon by laughing, yelling youngsters urging Buck Jones, Tom Mix, or Tim McCoy to out-fox the baddies. The Opera House was situated a few hundred yards downhill from St. Patrick's, and as we grew older, on Sunday nights after Benediction we'd wend our way to worship other gods in the form of a 'silver coin donation' picture show. Years later, another theatre - the Regent - was built, and difficult decisions had to be made as to which show to see. In those days I was dotty on film-stars, wrote to all my favourites, and still have many autographed photos which I cherish. Each one cost me threepence postage.

I was educated at St. Patrick's Primary School, later elevated to St. Mary's Secondary. Elevated is the correct term as though both schools were in the same grounds, St. Mary's was built on a higher level. There we were taught by the dedicated nuns, not just the three Rs, but also manners, deportment and respect for ourselves and others. Discipline was firm but kind.

One nun who taught music and was such a quiet little person was the sister of the famous, or rather at that stage infamous, James Joyce. It was never mentioned of course, but having seen many photos of Joyce since, it was quite obvious. Another much beloved nun who had a fiery temper to match her red hair which she couldn't keep quite hidden, was the sister of our first Catholic Cardinal. In 1982 I attended the centennial celebrations of the arrival of the Sisters of Mercy in Greymouth. The day before the festivities commenced I rang the doorbell of the lovely old convent and was confronted by a fresh faced nun who looked long and hard at me. She beamed; My word, but you were an awful girl, and hugged me. After all those years. I was so relieved. They never forget their pupils.

Two horrific memories of my home town are etched in my mind to this day - the Murchison earthquake being one.

I was ill in bed with whooping cough, the others either at work or school. Suddenly there was this strange rumbling and my bed began to shake. The world turned upside down. All our chimneys collapsed, the bricks of one crashing through my bedroom ceiling on to the foot of my bed. Of course I screamed and started vomiting. My mother, who was out at the clothesline, raced in, wrapped me in a blanket and headed for the back door. We were hurled from one side of the hall to the other, seemingly blocked at all angles. How cool and practical my mother was! She stood there in the heaving hallway, smiled at me as if it were a game and said jauntily; 'Now, which way shall we go?'

It was terrifying, and for months afterwards I vomited at the slightest shake. But to me the most frightening aspect of the whole disaster was that the clamorous Tasman Sea went suddenly quiet - eerily so - and though I waited for its comforting roar to resume, I can't remember ever hearing it so noisy again. The waves had receded. My imagination, always vivid, ran riot. Night after night I prayed there would be no sudden tidal wave, that our hill wouldn't come down and bury us as had happened to a family in Murchison, and that the brick kiln chimney which now had a list towards our fowlhouse wouldn't collapse and kill the hens.

The other incident was equally frightening though different, and I still have nightmares about it.

As I have said, I was a frequent cemetery visitor as a child and adolescent. This particular day my bike took me towards the sexton who was preparing for a funeral. Usually, I watched as he dug a grave, but this day he had to open a family vault. When he asked me would I like to see inside I was thrilled - something to tell my schoolmates. So he pulled on this heavy iron door, opened it wide and ushered me inside. I had just enough time to see three coffins on slabs with a fourth slab empty when the door clanged shut. I was in complete blackness. Alone. Not a sound. The sexton opened the door almost immediately, but the damage was done. He was an old family friend, but my mother never fully forgave him, and withdrew from the barter arrangement they had operated over the years -- our fresh eggs for his graveside mushrooms.

On the whole though, my childhood and teenage years in Greymouth were happy. I duly left school and became a typist in the Mines Department where I met some interesting and colourful characters. Also romance came into my life. When I decided to change jobs and work in Hokitika, twenty four miles south of Greymouth, my beloved was stricken. We were riding our bikes the long way home after work at the time I told him of my plan. He went all Heathcliff-like and muttered darkly; 'It's the beginning of the end.' To which I replied in my usual perky manner; 'Maybe it's the beginning.'

And it was.

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