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           Home >  History  > Growing Up In NZ  :

Growing up in New Zealand 1950-75

20 College Hill - Memoirs of an I.G.A. Store

Jacqueline Crompton Ottaway - 11/10/02

When I was eight my favourite Friday night entertainment was to travel across the newly-opened harbour bridge with Mum and my grandfather to my father's IGA shop at 20 College Hill, Ponsonby. As soon as the blue Ford Prefect had pulled up outside the shop I would rush out to see if the display in the window had changed since the week before.

Sometimes there would be a large pyramid of tins of spaghetti, baked beans or Palm corned beef and I would marvel at the symmetry and apparent stability of these tin edifices. At other times there might be a tea chest with loose tea cascading over the sides and onto the floor below. Those tea chests suggested hot, exotic countries many miles away and gave me my first intimation of the lure of foreign travel.

The interior of the shop was as cluttered and congested as the window. Open cases of fruit and vegetables were crammed together inside the front door, and densely-packed wooden shelves ran along both walls. The solid kauri counter, twenty feet in length, was piled with goods on both sides of the cash register and around the scales. At the far end of the counter was a tiered wooden biscuit stand and, behind that, an alleyway with a large five-door Kelvinator refrigerator on one side and a Berkel bacon slicer on the other.

On arrival at the shop we would settle into our roles. Mum would don a clean apron and place a ballpoint behind her ear, ready to add up long lists of groceries and to write most of them down in the books of accounts belonging to regular customers.

There were very few pre-packaged items in those days and so Pop would usually head out the back of the building where he was kept busy weighing potatoes, sugar, tea, rice, tapioca, barley, split peas, salt, washing soda, flour, sultanas, currants, raisins and dates into one-pound, three pound and six-pound bags. He was an integral part of 20 College Hill and when he had finished weighing a weekly supply of the bulk items, he would scrub out the back room before moving into the shop itself after the doors had closed at nine on the Friday evening.

As soon as I entered the shop I would edge my way behind the counter until I reached my special seat near the shop window - an empty wooden apple case. There I would sit, white sandals dangling above the wooden floor while I studied the customers.

One of the first to come in on a Friday night was usually Mrs Goodwin, a vivacious redhead. She would sweep through the shop, stopping to fill her basket with tins of fruit and packets of biscuits. "Merci, monsieur, merci!" she would call to dad as she went out. Her schoolgirl French sounded very glamorous to me.

The next customers were likely to be Suzi and Ivan, fresh from the six oíclock swill at the Rob Roy, and both in very high spirits. More often than not, Suzi would clasp her eyes on Pop's wiry figure as he emerged from the back room. In no time at all, she would have him bailed up in the corner and would be kissing him effusively while Ivan cheered her on. Pop, who was ticklish, would collapse in a screaming heap.

While Pop was still doubled up with laughter, Harry, the debonair Canadian who lived further up the street, would saunter in full of good cheer, another regular, also straight from the pub. "Hello, my dar-r-ling," he would say to Mum in his soft North American accent.

By this time, Pop would have managed to escape, and Suzi and Ivan, having bought their groceries, would be standing on the footpath clutching at each other and staggering on to the kerb as the 6.30 p.m. traffic roared by. When dad saw them he would leave a queue of customers and rush outside, to escort them across College Hill.

He would barely be back again when Mrs Norris from the dairy next door would rush in, panicking because she'd run out of change. While Mum helped her out, old Mrs Pudney would wander in and settle herself down on the chair in front of the counter for a short chat. She was a lovely, motherly old lady with a mane of white hair wound into a compact bun. Always full of homilies and home-made remedies, she attributed her thick hair to the constant use of Sunlight soap. She scorned shampoos and other such new-fangled concoctions.

But there would only be time for a brief conversation before the shop was crowded with people who had finished their evening meal and had come to stock up on groceries and supplies for the weekend.

In the course of an evening, the place would be crammed with Pakeha, Maori, Cook islanders, Tongans, Niue Islanders, Fijians, Samoans, Canadians, newly-arrived Scottish and English immigrants and the occasional Greek and Yugoslav.

Most of all I liked to watch the Island women in their bright western clothes, often with a fading hibiscus behind one ear, as they carefully selected coconuts, taro and potatoes.

The Indian women who came to buy rice, curry powder and spices were reserved and shy and almost always traditionally dressed in pink, purple or saffron saris. They didn't linger to laugh and joke with us.

The rich smell of freshly-cut bacon and ham, combined with the aroma of newly-ground coffee beans made me feel hungry and I was pleased when I heard the whistle from the Zip in the back room, a sound which signalled our evening tea-break. As a treat, I was allowed to choose a bottle of soft drink from the crates stored in the back room. My other treat was to choose a small bag of 'pick and mix' sweets. Dad sat by the open doorway so that he could jump up to serve anyone who came in. The rest of us sat on old wooden round-backed chairs around a battered table, eating broken biscuits Dad couldn't sell in the shop.

Behind the table (which Mum kept covered with a white plastic table cloth) was a cast-iron fireplace. The kauri wallboards were so hard it was virtually impossible to hammer nails into them, and so Dad and Pop gave up trying to erect conventional shelving and instead used empty packing cases stacked one on top of the other to store cans of spaghetti, baked beans and tinned fruit.

The original bathroom and laundry was situated in an annex at the rear of the kitchen. There Dad had both laundry tubs piled high with potatoes and onions ready for Pop or the grocery boys to weigh up. Coconuts filled the porcelain bath. I loved shaking them hard and listening to the milk sloshing inside them.

Whenever I wanted to use the toilet I had to push open the sagging back door and step out into the fresh night air. As I walked across the backyard towards the stables and the toilet, delicious smells of curried sausages, stew and boiled potatoes wafted across from next door where Brian Washer cooked the food for his pie-cart, the White Lady.

It was dark inside the toilet and I had to leave the door ajar. Shafts of light from the moon and the stars illuminated intricate patterns of borer and I could just make out the calendar on the wall, a bevy of voluptuous, half-naked women, all pouting in the Marilyn Munroe tradition.

I was fascinated by the old stables, although I didn't like to linger there at night. It was in the stables that Pop bottled kerosene, methylated spirits and turps. During the winter he would spend hours there weighing carbonettes into sacks, a once-white towel wrapped around his head for protection against the sooty dust.

When I grew tired of watching the passing parade through the shop I would wander up the kauri staircase to the rooms above. At the top of the staircase was a landing area with a small corridor (stacked with tins of biscuits) leading to three rooms that had originally been bedrooms. In these rooms floral wallpaper on a scrim backing waved gently in the wind and the frieze near the ceiling was stained with water marks where the roof had leaked before Dad and Pop had replaced it with sheets of iron.

Each room crammed full of stock was a gourmand's delight - an endless supply of canned peaches, pears, pineapple, guavas, strawberry, raspberry, blackberry and apricot jam. Dad instructed his grocery boys to stack the tins around the edge of each room in case they should prove too heavy for the sagging floorboards in the middle.

In the far room was a fully-rigged model of a sailing ship, handcrafted by my father's grandfather. It lay there for years waiting for Dad to have a son. I thought it the most beautiful and intricate piece of woodwork I'd seen and spent many hours admiring the shape of the hull, the symmetry of the sails and the delicate lattice of the rigging. True to the conditioning of the era, I never thought to ask to take it home so I could sail and play with it. When I was eleven, my mother had another daughter and the ship was given away.

Each Monday morning when my father turned the huge key in the lock on the front door, he could never predict what the week would hold. It could, and often did, involve anything from a drunken brawl outside the shop to an imminent birth inside. Almost every week at least one customer would come into the shop doubled up with labour pains, to wait in the back room for Dad or one of the grocery boys to ring for a taxi to deliver her to St Helen's. No baby was ever actually born in the back room, but there were many times when a birth was only narrowly avoided by the prompt arrival of a cab outside.

During the course of the week there would be many drunken arguments and effusive drunken greetings inside the shop. Dad usually managed to sort out any disagreements, but when Mary Benson pushed her way to the front of the queue, no one dared to dissent. She was the terror of the Rob Roy who could clean up any two men at once. Mary was always served first. "I know you, you bugger," she would growl at my father through clenched teeth. "You're scared of me, aren't you?"

"Yes, Mary, I am," he admitted.

Another who demanded to be served ahead of everyone else was Tracey Greenwood who lived with his father in Hargreaves Street and who was a well-known character around Freeman's Bay. He spent most of his time wandering the streets, playing an imaginary tenor horn. It always made Tracey's day when there was no one waiting to be served and he and Dad could have an impromptu concert in the back room, parading around in a circle playing their invisible instruments. Pop would stop weighing onions in the laundry and come through to grin and cheer them on.

No week was complete a range of samples of local home brew being brought in for Dad to taste. A small group of connoisseurs would gather out in the back room each holding their glass up to the watery sunlight filtering through the dirty sash window. The brews ranged in hue from pale lime to a thick black treacle. Many a glass sent a spine-wrenching shiver down dad's back, but he still managed to pronounce each a superb brew.

Many of the Polynesians, newly-arrived in New Zealand, experienced difficulty with the jargon and format of the social security forms and so, almost every week, there would be a new arrival seeking Dad's help with the paperwork.

Dad was also involved in budgeting problems. Most of the wage earners in the area were on low incomes and for more than a few a large portion of what they earned went on racing and beer, leaving insufficient for fuel and groceries. To help, Dad would hold people's child allowance books as security against the groceries booked up over the fortnight. When the fortnight was up, he cashed the child allowance books to balance his accounts, and the credit system would begin all over again. Although the system was deemed slightly illegal by the Social Welfare Department, it was the only way many families in the area managed to have enough to eat. As a compulsory budgeting measure it worked quite well.

However, as in every system of credit there were always bad debtors who either could not, or would not, pay and so every week dad was forced to go out on to the streets with the unpleasant task of collecting debt ahead of him. If he thought the job might get nasty, he took his friend Len Stott with him for protection.

It was unnerving to arrive at an old villa, knock on the front door and, as it was opened, see a line of heads peering from the doorways off the long central corridor. As soon as Dad was identified every doorway would slam shut. Dad and Len would then go knocking from doorway to doorway until they found the bad debtor and elicited promises of payment.

Somehow the emotional lives of the customers had a way of overflowing into the ebb and flow of the business in the shop and Dad would find himself involved in a domestic dispute. A wailing woman would seek protection from an irate, drunken partner, and there would be more than a few times when he and some other man had to wrestle a knife or an axe off a jealous husband or a demoniacal lover.

But there was one central tenet everyone held in common - a fierce loyalty to Freeman's Bay and those who lived there. A fundamental kindness and goodness lay beneath their behaviour. It was always a caring and sharing community. No child was ever abandoned. If a mother couldn't cope with her brood there was always an aunt, grandmother or cousin who would look after any number of children until the mother felt well enough to cope once more.

This code of loyalty was all-embracing and extended to the prostitutes who lived in a two-storied house in Hargreaves Street. Once, when detectives raided the house, nearby residents moved quickly to protect the girls. When the detectives emerged from the house they found that their car wheels had disappeared and the patrol car was sitting on four apple cases.

Over the years Dad had a range of grocery and messenger boys working for him. Wati Samuels, one of the first, only narrowly avoided getting a speeding ticket when a traffic officer clocked him speeding down College Hill at 45 m.p.h. on an overloaded delivery bike.

Dad and Wati would scrub the shop out on a Saturday morning and once Wati laid out a fire in the old fireplace in the back room and cooked a mutton bird for Dad to try.

Ron Hunt and Claude Bradfield were Freeman's Bay boys who worked at the shop until they were both in their early twenties. Morris Mutton from Northcote worked with Mum and Dad from 1956 to 1959. He soon discovered that although Northcote and Ponsonby were only physically separated by a few miles, the two were miles apart when as a blushing fifteen year old, he delivered groceries to the brothel in Hargreaves Street and to broken-down houses where he found women breast-feeding their babies with an abandon seldom seen in Northcote. He called taxis for women in advanced stages of labour and he served customers who were only partially dressed, shopping on their way home with an already ardent lover.

My favourite was Tilly Mathewson who worked part-time when I was sixteen or seventeen. Tilly was a delightful person, a husky blonde who loved classical music, endless discussions on philosophy and religion and who, because she refused to wear a watch, claimed to be timeless.

Each year the Health Department inspected the building at 20 College Hill and issued a new licence. Although the shop never could meet all the regulations, it seemed to be recognised by the authorities that the old place performed a much-needed service in the local community and Dad always got his new licence. But, by the late 1960s, the area was beginning to change. A supermarket up at Three Lamps on Ponsonby Road signified a new transition in the grocery trade.

On an overcast morning in 1969, dad received notification from the Health Department that the building no longer conformed to standards and that the shop must be closed down. This was followed by a demolition order on the building itself. There was no room for argument any longer.

Fortunately. dad found another shop to rent, just around the corner from College Hill in Ireland Street. We loaded the white Austin van and trailer with the remaining stock and moved around the corner to Ireland Street with Pop spread-eagled over the groceries to prevent anything falling on to the ground.

At the end of a busy day Dad locked the doors of the Ireland Street shop and drove down the street to 20 College Hill. As the sun sank, suffusing the rubble in a golden glow, he stopped the van and climbed out. Slowly, he clambered over the smashed wood, iron and fragments of broken glass, reflecting on the two and a half decades he had spent in the building, a solitary figure against the darkening skyline.

"The six o'clock swill" referred to the fast drinking of beer in the hotels between 5 o'clock when most men finished work until 6 o'clock when the bars were forced to close by law. Few women went into the bars of hotels at that time.

This story was first published in "Metro", September 1987 and has been republished twice in "New Zealand Memories" since then.

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