Jack’s mother Winifred knew the Latin name for every plant in the garden but Bill Blain did most of the work. Bill came out to New Zealand from London in 1882 on the same ship as the English cricket team, who were heading to Australia for the first ever Ashes series.
He had been working in the tramway stables in London, where at one stage he had been in charge of feeding about 7000 horses, but came out because of his lungs were crook. Despite his apparent poor health, Bill’s first big job in New Zealand was draining the Coldstream swamp for John Macfarlane – and then working a paddock for him at Loburn. He also drove traction engines, and apparently went to the Boer War as a fully qualified steam engine driver – but he had a long, narrow trenching spade which he prized for the rest of his life.
He worked for both the Macfarlanes and Fultons from the moment he arrived in New Zealand. He was with us at Broomfield and then went into a boarding house in Rangiora. When his wife died in 1934, my father said, ‘Righto, come up to the Pass and we’ll look after you’. The old chap never stopped working, and it became more embarrassing as the years went on because our garden just kept getting bigger and bigger – it was about three acres in the finish. When our farmhand Jim Harris arrived in about 1939, old Bill worked him in the garden like a galley slave. Later on, when Norna and I had the place, I tried to get Bill to slow down but he would object strongly. If Norn was sick or pregnant, he would just take over the kitchen. Really, once Mary left home he ruled the kitchen with a rod of iron.
His last farm job was with us at the age of 89, living about 100 yards from where he’d worked that first paddock in Loburn. My son Gordon was the fifth generation of the family he’d seen, and the old chap had tears his eyes when Norna brought Gordon home from the hospital.
Bill lived for another five years or so after he left us, which wasn’t a bad effort considering he smoked black plug tobacco all his life.
One time Bill caught me round the corner of the house having my first cigarette. He said, ‘smoking these dirty paper pipes and doing the deadly drawback? It’ll be the death of ye!” When I tried his stuff one time nearly killed me just having half a smoke, but he never turned a hair. In the end he died of natural causes.
While the Fultons were at the Pass, the family’s main neighbours were George and Harry Gudex, who lived on Whiterock Station. In 1914 the Gudexs’ had bought land from Bert Ensor. Harry then bought a block of his own near Amberley, before going off to fight in the first world war.
For the rest of the war, George leased out the place to my cousin, Ewan Macfarlane. But things went wrong in 1918 and Ewan had had an awful time. There’d been a massive snowstorm and there was about six feet of snow over the whole of his farm. The problems went on for weeks, and he must have lost a lot of stock, because by the end of the year he couldn’t meet his commitments. George foreclosed on him and took the place back. Ewan, in a rage, lifted all the pipes and anything he could move off the place and sold it to try and get a few bob. In the finish, George took him to court and asked for damages and to have all the stuff replaced, so poor Ewan had to replace all these gates and pipes. But in quite a famous decision, the court awarded a ha’penny damages, which was tantamount to saying:‘ It’s a dreadful thing for you to have done, but legally you’re perfectly right.’
George was also the manager and secretary of the Whiterock Lime Company, and a mathematical genius who went home to work on the farm. He had a mind like a calculator.
He passed his national university scholarship at Timaru Boys’ High School with record marks. When they had their centennial, they still hadn’t been beaten. He was incredible. I remember him counting sheep and he’d open the 12-foot gate and just let the mob go, and he would be absolutely correct – counting in tens. We had a swim dip at Whiterock, which must have been 50 yards long and six or eight feet deep When it was nearly empty you were unable to dip sheep, even with 3000 gallons of water left in the bottom. But George would operate it on his own with the crutch, pushing the sheep’s heads underneath. There’d be four or five of us pushing the sheep up to the dip. George could keep crutching, or pushing them under, particularly with the young hoggets or lambs, …and every time he would shut the gate on the drafting pen at exactly 100 sheep. I tried it once or twice and it was just impossible to keep the tally, but he could have a conversation with you and count hundreds of sheep.
Jack’s concentration was not so sharp.
I’d just left school and I was sent out on a long musterers’ beat. I had to wait for about four hours for the others to come round to down the Okuku River. My job was to catch the sheep and turn them back over the top of the hill, down towards the river from the other side of the ridge. It was a perfect November morning, absolutely gorgeous. It was hot and we’d had a week’s tailing so I was pretty dozy. We’d been up since 3am and I fell stone cold asleep waiting for the sheep to appear. Next thing Harry came up on his horse, flat out, at full gallop. He was in a helluva state when he came up – probably thought I was dead. When I came to, I looked up and the horse was asleep, the dogs were asleep – and there were 800 ewes and lambs milling around in every direction, bleating and baa-ing. The others had been waiting for an hour over the other side for me. I was not very popular. Jimmy Rossiter always used to say the worst thing you could do was fall asleep on the beat.
Another thing about George; he was as miserable as sin with money. We were mustering for him out the back one time when Jimmy had to go down to Rangiora to get some supplies. At this stage we were paying each other for the work done. Anyway, Jim’s cheque arrived and on it was deducted a gallon of petrol at one and 11 pence ha’penny and half a sack of potatoes which he’d bought to tide him over for a few days. After working for him flat out for a week and busting our guts, Jimmy bowled up and asked what the deduction was all about. George said; ‘That’s what Harry told me you’d done, so I just deducted it.” Jim was absolutely livid.
Another time we were in there for lunch, and at this stage he had a housekeeper, Betty Burrows, who was a very good cook. She looked after us like fighting cocks in the kitchen. But this particular day- Bill Davis was mustering with us. Bill said it was his birthday so George produced a bottle of beer and very carefully went round the glasses with three parts full, and there was about two inches left in the bottom of the bottle. He then corked it up and put the bottle away in the cupboard. George, to our knowledge, had one party in all those years since 1914. It was his 60th birthday, and allegedly he’d come into a huge amount of money as a life insurance policy had fallen due. Some suggested it was about £50,000 or more. He asked all the locals to come, about 15 of us. The homestead had a lovely billiard room with a raised fireplace. Jimmy must have found a bottle of brandy so he picked it up and took it in and presented it to George, who laughed and put it on the mantelpiece. Later on we got two beers and the women got a very weak shandy each, more lemonade than beer.
While George ran the lime company, his staff were unaware they were helping make his fortune.
Apart from having us help him out on the farm, he was also putting all the time he’d spent in the lime works, his wages, the hours spent, and converting them as a debt to the company. When, during the 1940s, the company issued a whole lot of shares, George converted all this money owed to him into stock. I think he finished up with 7000 or 10,000 shares, and these, of course, were for quite a number of years – paying a 25% dividend. Obviously, he and his family came out of it pretty well at the finish. But there was no doubt he did a great job at the limeworks, keeping up the supply of lime up to the local cockies during the war. George kept all of this going – in conjunction with the Miller brothers from Loburn, despite all the loss of labour during the war.
His brother Harry was different altogether. He handled the sheep while George, when he wasn’t at the limeworks, did the tractor work.
They had lived together on the property about 100 yards apart since 1918 but hadn’t spoken to each other all these years. Their only communication was in the workshop, where they used to pin notices on the blacksmith’s wall if they wanted a paddock drilled or sown or whatever. Harry had been married briefly but it didn’t last long. Apparently Harry came in one day from mustering for lunch and his wife had done the table up beautifully with flowers and a tablecloth and everything. Harry just took one look and said ‘we don’t eat with dang flowers in this house’. He pulled the tablecloth and all the china and cutlery and flowers… put the lot on the floor. She left about a year later.
The local weather could be equally unpredictable. In March 1941, for instance, the Pass had one of its greatest floods.
About 16 inches of rain fell in four or five days, a lot of it overnight. One of our neighbours, the Hutchinsons, had a clearing sale in the pouring rain in the morning. Finally the word came that the rivers were rising pretty rapidly, so the sale was finished, but the stock were left there. They couldn’t get them out – the bridge over the Karatu Creek had collapsed. The centre stand had gone, and it was I think two years or longer before they got around to repairing it.
The sheep were there for another week or 10 days before they could finally ford the river and be trucked from the other side. The flood water went through one of the lime work pits, which must have been 12-14 feet above the normal level of the river. And it was such a short river too – only four miles, I suppose – the headwaters would hardly have been that. I can hear it yet – just a roar of water on the roof.
The same thing happened in the September holidays the same year – 14-16 inches again – and did a huge amount of damage, particularly up on Mt Thomas. It had a dramatic effect on the big slips that are forming there. There was one patch of bush which was about 100 feet deep but there was no sign of any trees. They were was absolutely covered with soil out of one of those big gullies on the mountain.
The fellow who owned Mount Thomas told me that on the Christmas Day earthquake in 1923, the mountain cracked across the central ridges. In the big 1936 flood and the 1941 floods, of course, water just poured down through these cracks and accentuated the slips.
By 1942, Jim had been called up for service, but he appealed as a conscientious objector. As a result he was forced to stay on at the station for the rest of the war; he wasn’t allowed leave without a High Court order.
While Jim was with us he married one of mother’s cooks. We had nowhere for him to live, so he rented a house way down in North Loburn and biked 8km to and from the Pass every day. After he came back from his honeymoon, she took off again, and a week later arrived back with two boys aged eight and 10. Jim was wild, because he knew nothing about these two boys. He was a Jehovahs Witness and knew great long extracts from the Bible, but this time his language was unbelievable.
His greatest effort was the morning of the 1945 snow, when he decided he had to get to the Pass to milk the cows.
On July 13–14 of that year, Canterbury was walloped by an exceptionally heavy mid-winter storm, accompanied by freezing, blizzard-like conditions. The snowfall in and around Christchurch, Ashburton, and Timaru was substantial, as much as 30–45 cm in many areas. Although the storm lasted only a day, snow lay on the ground for at least 5 days.
There was around a metre of soft snow on our place, but he set off before dawn and finally made it to the house at 10am. It was a tremendous effort, but we filled him up with whisky, gave him an almighty feed and told him to get the hell out of it and come back when the snow had cleared. We plucked up the courage to go out and milk the cows, but then Jim had to walk home because we didn’t have a place for him to stay, and we certainly couldn’t drive anywhere.
Besides men like Bill and Jim, the station had a good team of horses. In 1935 Gordon bought a mare, Blaze, at the clearing sale of the horse artillery at Burnham Military Camp, and she was still on the place when Jack and Norna left the Pass 16 years later.
She was wonderful, not once were we unable to ride her. If you dropped the reins, it didn’t matter where you were, she wouldn’t move. I think she would rather have starved than move.
Jack’s mustering mate, Jimmy Rossitter, soon learned that Blaze was a stickler for orders.
Jimmy and I were coming in from the back hut and it was snowing as we started the short-cut climb up to the top of the pass. As we got to the top gate, Jimmy looked round and there was no horse behind him. We looked down the hill and there was Blaze, standing way down at the bottom with the reins on the ground. She’d dropped the reins and Jimmy hadn’t noticed. I said Jimmy, ‘I’m not waiting for you, I’m off home, I’m going as fast as I can. Jimmy was not pleased, but you had to admit Blaze had wonderful training. Because of her time in the army you could shoot a rifle from anywhere, between her ears, under her belly, and she never took the slightest notice. Father once put her into a light cart, thinking she was used to a harness. There was a cutting at the back of the house behind the hill and my father was driving. She was behaving like a lamb…no problem until she got halfway up the hill and the cart started to put the weight back on to her. Suddenly she took off at a full gallop. With their army training they had to take off like this once the weight came on from the guns on the gun carriage – the limber. So from docilely walking along suddenly she was galloping, with my father at the back of the cart. But when she got to the top of the hill she just stopped, the way she was trained.
A policeman from Rangiora rang us one night in 1945 to ask whether I had seen two cars out on the pass. I said I hadn’t. The Ballantynes, from the department store, had gone out looking for ferns to decorate a hall for their big company dance – and hadn’t come back. It was 11pm and there was no sign of them. I said; `look I’ll go up the top of the pass and have a look, but it’s almost hopeless because if they’ve gone over the bank I won’t see where they’ve gone.’ I drove up to the top of the pass and came up about half an hour later. I said I couldn’t see any sign of them but at first light I’d take off out the back.
Next morning, Mary and I got to the top of the pass in the truck when suddenly we saw them winding their way to the top. They must have been a little upset or delirious or something, and my language wasn’t the best when I told them what I thought of them. The next thing, two or three cars came in behind us from over the top. Here was the rest of the family coming up with stretchers, ropes, brandies, blankets – you’ve never seen such a performance. They were also a bit terse with the rest of the family. It turned out they’d got a way up the Okuku River, got blocked, couldn’t get across it, so they decided to stop where they were and sleep rather than try coming back in the dark. It turned out the couple was Roger Ballantyne and his English wife. Weeks later, 500 cigarettes arrived for me and flowers for my sister, for this rescue attempt that wasn’t.
People used to go shooting out the back of the pass, but overall there were very few rescue calls in the pass to my knowledge. We did once have to warn off some people who tried to come sightseeing in a bus, though. I was leading my horse down the pass road, coming from out the back somewhere. I was just out of the bush when here was this bus full of passengers. It was snowing at the top – and it was starting to lie in every direction. I said to the driver,`where on earth do you think you’re going? Look, if you get up there and get snowed in we’ll have an awful job with a busload of people. For God’s sake, find the nearest spot where you can turn round. You get out of this as quick as you can, because I’m damn sure, having seen you … I’m not coming to help you out.’ I have no idea who they were but eventually they were able to turn around. I was delighted to see them go. The driver had no idea what he was getting into.
Later on when we farmed at Loburn we had this wild Dorset Horn ram that came out of the pen door one day and put Harold Snellex up into the rafters. He decided to shear from the rafters… he really was terrified. This ram really did have a wonderful set of horns. It was left to me to try and wrestle him out from underneath the wool table at the finish. We had a good laugh all round, then finally I got the ordinary handsaw and we decided to cut his horns off. We’d had enough of him, so we got him down and took great pleasure in sawing through and getting rid of his massive set of horns.