Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 47, September 2003
A TRIBUTE TO MY MOTHER, MRS GERTY BENNETT WHO RESIDED IN PAEROA FROM 1926 UNTIL SHE DIED ON 28 OCTOBER 1958
By Nora Minus (nee Bennett)
My parents, Charles and Gerty Bennett moved to Paeroa in 1926 from Tauranga. There were seven children in the family, Cora, Gerald, Hui, Chum, the twins Nora and Eileen and Darcy.
The first house in Paeroa which Charles and Gerty rented was in Junction Street. It had no power, but candles, kerosene lamp and outside washhouse and toilet. The "night cart" man used to call once a week to empty the toilet can. There were wooden tubs in the washhouse which had to have some water left in them to stop them from leaking. The house did have the luxury of a "chip heater" to heat water for a bath. There was a bath in the inside bathroom, but no handbasin.
Ironing was done using "pots" irons. Gerty had three. You would put them on the coal range to heat them up, then take one off and iron the clothes and when this got cold, put it back to heat and take another iron. The irons had detachable handles, so the handle didn't heat up.
About seven months after the family moved to Paeroa, Hui became very ill with pneumonia and pleurisy. They could not put him in the Thames Hospital as there was a very bad influenza epidemic at that time and there were no available beds. Gerty had got the doctor to see Hui and asked him to look at Charles who was also ill and home from work. The doctor told Gerty that her husband had influenza and was a very sick man. Sadly, Charles died later that day on 20 August 1926. The twins were outside playing when the undertaker arrived with the coffin and Nora says they both wondered, "Why is that man taking that big box into the house?" Gerty kept Charles at home until his funeral on 22 August 1926. The twins went to see their father in the coffin and they just thought that he was asleep. As the twins were only 7, and Darcy not quite 3, Nora says that they did not understand what had happened to their dad.
When Charles died, the Anglican Vicar would not bury him on a Sunday - Nora cannot remember why it had to be a Sunday but maybe it was because the influenza epidemic was so bad, and any burials had to take place within two days. However, the Salvation Army came to the rescue. They called to see Gerty and asked what they could do to help. Not only did they arrange the burial, but a Mrs Martin took the twins and Darcy to her home whilst the funeral was on. Another Salvation Army lady stayed at the house to look after Hui, who at this stage was still very ill and not aware that his father had died. Hui later recovered but was never in really good health. He died at the early age of 48. At the time of their father's death, Hui was 16, Chum 12, the twins 7 and Darcy almost 3. As the Salvation Army had been so helpful over Charles' death, Gerty made sure that her children went to their church services. The twins were in great demand as vocalists for church functions. Some of the songs Nora can remember are, "Come to the Garden Alone" and "I Don't Want to Play in your Yard". If the Salvation Army were collecting money, Gerty always made sure you gave something to them. Gerty had a good singing voice and enjoyed the mass singing at church.
For years after Charles' death, Gerty and the children would walk out to the cemetery to visit his grave. This was a long walk and the roads were metal. On the way back, Gerty would buy the youngsters a 1d (one penny) ice cream from Parkinson's shop.
Nora can remember, whilst she and Eileen were going to Paeroa School, of hearing kids talk about their dads. The twins would then go home and ask Gerty, "Where is our Dad? Why haven't we got a Dad like the other kids?" and Gerty would explain that their Dad had gone to heaven.
Will Malcolm taught Nora and Eileen at Paeroa School and Nora can remember when Anzac Day drew near, Mr Malcolm would do amazing blackboard drawings depicting the landing at Gallipoli. Nora remembered him as an excellent teacher and had the utmost respect for him. When Mr Malcolm passed away last year, Nora was able to go to the Paeroa Service for him and felt that it was a privilege to be able to take part in the final celebration of his life.
Once Charles died, Gerty was forced to go to work to help put food on the table. She then started her many cleaning jobs. She cleaned the Ohinemuri Council office, the Borough Council office, a bank on the corner of Mackay Street and the Gentlemen's Club. Gerty also took in washing and ironing for a Mrs Thomas and went to the homes of three well-known Paeroa families and did their washing and ironing. As well as this she also did washing and ironing for any Travellers (Sales Reps) who were staying at the Father's Hotel. Nora can remember having to darn any holes in their socks.
From about the time the twins were 9 years old, Nora and Eileen were expected to help clean the offices. They started at 5 30am and had to do sweeping, polishing the floors and dusting - remember there were no vacuum cleaners then! And when they had finished they had to go to school and try to keep awake and learn! At lunch time they had to run home for lunch.
As the financial situation became better, Gerty stopped doing the Council Office. Hui's health had also improved and he got a job working for Joe Brennan which he enjoyed. As the twins got older, say 13, Eileen cleaned the Bank of New Zealand on her own and Nora, the Gentlemen's Club - OF COURSE GERTY ALWAYS INSPECTED THEIR WORK TO ENSURE IT WAS UP TO HER HIGH STANDARD.
The twins also cleaned Leigh's Pharmacy which was just up from the Picture Theatre. Even though there was a lot of hard work, Gerty always made sure her children enjoyed life with the few pleasures that were available to them. The twins and Darcy were allowed to go to the pictures once a week (afternoon matinee). It cost 6d to go in and they each got 3d to spend. That would have been 2/3d (two shillings and three pence) altogether. Quite a large amount then.
Biscuits came loose in big square tins in those days. Inevitably some of the biscuits broke and Wallace Supplies would sell a bag full of broken biscuits for 1d (one penny). Sometimes you were lucky and might get a chocolate biscuit. An apple also cost 1d and you could select your own. Nora says they always selected the biggest one they could find.
From Junction Street the family moved to Queen Street, Paeroa to a house which one of Charles' relations, Nessie Comer, was living in. She was moving up to Auckland and arranged for Gerty and family to move into it as this house had power and a flush toilet outside and an outside washhouse and bathroom. But you still had to boil water in a copper for baths.
There were several well know Paeroa families living in Queen Street at this time - the Medhursts (Mr Medhurst had a taxi), Mrs Pitcaithly lived opposite Gerty, the Nields lived next door and then there was the Paeroa Breweries and the stopbank. Around the corner, looking down onto the river, was the Miller's house. Ruth Miller married Norman Kirk who later became a Prime Minister for New Zealand.
The next move was to the corner of Princess Street and Queen Street and this house was bigger with three bedrooms, power, coal range, bathroom inside and outside flush toilet and washhouse. You had to light the coal range in order to get hot water. The rent for this house was £1 per week. There was a copper and a wringer over the concrete tubs and of course you had to use a scrubbing board to get the clothes clean. The wringer was in the middle of the tubs and you had to put the clothes through it to get surplus water out. Gerty prided herself on her white washing and used a "blue bag" to achieve this result. Gerty acquired a mangle - once the sheets, towels, etc. were dry, they were wound through the mangle and came out as though they had been ironed. Very upmarket for those days.
This house was just across the road from the Post Office and is still standing today although it is not used as a house rental. There used to be an old tree, probably a totara, which grew in the front corner by Queen Street and this always had a swing in it. A lot of friends would leave their bikes under the tree when they went to the evening pictures (movies). They were safe there!! The theatre was just across the main road, about 3 minutes from the house.
Gerty had a tortoiseshell cat called "Pussy". Pussy used to go around to the Borough Council with her and sit and wait at the front door for Gerty to finish her cleaning and then walk home with her.
As the kids grew up and left home, Gerty was in a much better financial situation and was able to stop her cleaning jobs and do more community work. The following is a copy of a letter from the Borough Council dated 26 November 1953, accepting Gerty's resignation. Gerty was 72. The presentation mentioned was an armchair, a sum of money and some flowers - a lapel spray:
"Dear Mrs Bennett, I have to acknowledge receipt of your letter dated 21st ultimo, tendering your resignation as Office Cleaner. This was placed before a meeting of the Council held recently when members expressed appreciation of the valuable services rendered by you during your very long period of 25 years with the Council. By unanimous resolution it was resolved that your resignation be received with deep regret and that a record of your loyal service be placed on minute to remain a permanent record of valuable and loyal service to the Borough. I am further instructed to advise that the Council intends to make a presentation to you on an afternoon yet to be chosen. I would like to take this opportunity of personally expressing my own appreciation and thanks to you for the most efficient manner in which you have carried out your duties at all times, for the most cooperative and friendly manner you have always adopted and above all for the extremely high sense of duty and personal friendship which you have shown to me during my term of office. Both Mrs Baker and I myself wish you Good Luck, Good Health and every happiness which is deservedly yours. Sincerely, (signed M C Baker, Town Clerk)"
Gerty never really stopped doing work as after the cleaning jobs she then helped the Henwood and Wheeler families who were caterers, at functions where she helped with food preparation and making tea, doing dishes, etc. She was also involved with helping at the Masonic Lodge social functions.
Gerty was also involved with community work such as the RSA. Chum had joined the Army during World War II and gone to Crete, where he was taken a Prisoner of War. He was missing for quite some time but eventually was located at Stalag 18A and returned to New Zealand after the war and married. This is why Gerty helped the RSA. She would "round up" people the day before poppy day to make sure they had money the next day to buy a poppy and NO-ONE WOULD DARE NOT BUY A POPPY FROM MRS BENNETT. Whilst Chum was overseas, Gerty had received word that he was missing. One Paeroa lad told her he had actually seen Chum being buried but Gerty refused to believe this as she had had a dream that she was down at the seashore with Chum who was a little boy and she was walking along the beach with him when Chum's father, Charles (deceased) had come out of the sea and stretched out his hand to take Chum with him but Gerty had yelled NO, NOT YET and pulled Chum away from his father. She then woke up and was emphatic that Chum would return. It was not long after this dream that Gerty received word from the War Office that Chum was a prisoner of war. Someone must have been looking down from up above.
When Chum and the local boys returned from the War there was a marvellous celebration. Gerty had everyone up about 3 00am so that they could go to the Criterion Hotel corner, where the bus was due to arrive at about 8 00am! Gerty was always early. Chum's nephew, Jim Judd, had done a big sign with "Welcome Home Chum: on it and this was put up on the front of the house. The hotels put on "free" beer for the soldiers. Win Edwards, the Mayor of Paeroa at the time was in with the boys singing his heart out, "Win's friends are our friends and our friends are Win's friends" to the tune of "The More We Are Together". It certainly was a joyous happy day.
During the War Gerty would often sit with a sick friend - a Mrs Dent - at night and then would have to walk down the main street of Paeroa about midnight in the pitch dark because of the blackout.
The house in Princess Street had a front veranda and it was the custom to sit in the sun and wave to all the people who walked down the main street. Everyone knew Gerty Bennett.
The Princess Street home was always a happy home, full of music and lots of singing and laughter. When the twins were young, they loved to decorate the kitchen at Christmas. Gerty would buy crepe paper and the twins would make plaited streamers. The main stores used to give a free balloon away for Christmas and the twins would get as many as they could, blow them up and hang them from the ceiling. Once the children grew up, Gerty always liked her family to come home for Christmas dinner and even though she only had the coal range, she would cook a huge meal. Nora can remember the yummy Christmas puddings with lots of threepences in them. Nana Bennett used to cheat and put extra threepences into all the grandchildren's helpings.
Hui had a dance band called the "Aloha Stars" and the band played a lot of the time at the Karangahake "old" hall which was close to where the new parking area is today. Hui played the steel guitar, Eileen the guitar and Chum the ukelele/guitar/banjo and sometimes a friend, Bill Craig, would also play a steel guitar. Nora and Eileen also did vocals and Nora did lots of dancing. These were in the days when Phil Campbell and the Vercoes also had bands. Some of the dances were Three Step Polonaise, Maxina, waltzes and barn dances. "Going to the Barn Dance Tonight" was a favourite song. Nora can remember the MC, a Mr Clarkin, calling out "STOP, STOP THE MUSIC - EVERYONE ON THE FLOOR - he wanted to make sure everyone learned to dance and enjoy it.
The biggest thrill of going to the dances at Karangahake was the getting there. Hui had a Model T. There would be about six people in the car, plus musical instruments, plus Hui's dog, Nigger, and at least two people outside, standing on the running board and hanging on for their life. At Turner's Hill, Hui would call out, "Everyone out and push", no tar sealed roads in those days - only metal. In Nora's words these were really happy, happy times.
Gerty had beautiful handwriting and was an excellent letter writer. Nora takes after her, always keeping in touch with family. Sunday was usually the day she wrote her letters and she posted them on her way to church on Sunday evening. Nora says when she moved to Auckland she had to write to Gerty once a week and if she missed, Gerty would send her a telegram asking, "No letter received - are you OK?" Telephones were not so common then!
Gerty always looked smart when she went out. She had several "best" dresses which she kept for special occasions, and a fur cape. Most times she would wear a hat.
She liked to have a small flutter on the horses and enjoyed going to the Paeroa races.
It must have been lonely for her when all her children had left home and yet she never complained of being lonely. She just enjoyed going to the many social occasions she was invited to.
Some of Charles' relations continued to visit her after his death - Maud Pratt and Emily and Smiler Wells from Waihi used to call in quite regularly.
Of course in the school holidays she usually had grandchildren to stay. No matter how many people wanted to stay overnight. Gerty always found room in a bed for them. She was a great one for "topping and tailing". Sometimes there would be five in Gerty's double bed - three up and two down! It was okay, so long as no one had smelly feet.
Gerty never really drank alcohol - a small sherry very rarely. She was a "good" living and honest, hard-working woman who gave "lots of love" to her children and taught them to love and respect others. She was always there to give a helping hand to anyone in distress.
She went into the Thames Hospital just before Labour Weekend 1958 for a minor operation which she survived but on the following Tuesday, whilst walking around the ward, she collapsed and died from a blood clot. Gerty was in her 78th year. At the same time, Chum and his son, Stephen, were also in the Thames Hospital.At the time of her death, Gerty was still living in the Princess Street house. The only modern convenience she had was an electric rangette which Cora and Bern had given her.
Gerty's wish was that when she passed on, the family would always keep together and this the family did, regularly visiting one another and continuing with the music and singing which they all enjoyed so much.
NOTE: The above was written as told by Nora Minus in February 2003, to her daughter, Mrs Noeleen Guillard. Nora turned 84 on 13 February 2003 and now lives with her daughter, Noeleen and son-in-law, Cyril Guillard at Bowentown.