In the wet summer of 1946-47, Jack had to combine forces with three of his neighbours to get shearing finished before the end of the season.
Once the four properties banded together, a rep from the shearers union came around to ensure the cluster of workers were members, or soon would be. After all, the farmers had about 20,000 sheep to shear, had started on Labour Weekend and didn’t eventually finish till the end of February.
The rep soon realised that only eight of the shearers on the 18 stands were trained. The rest were musterers and farm hands. “Every Tom, Dick or Harry shore or worked in the sheds. The union fellow was very rapidly disillusioned. Very few of us were proper shearers, so he could only book up one shearer- none of the rest of us could even pretend to be union members.
A more typical summer soon followed. One day at about lunchtime while a hot nor’wester was blowing, the fire alarm sounded on the party line. It was 10 or 12 rings, and there was a fire in Bailey’s swamp.
The Bailey brothers lived near the Okuku River on the main road to Oxford and the fire was about two miles long – in the flax and peat in the swampy creek that went through their property. A big group of us tried to get it out, but really there was nothing much we could do except sit and watch. It was hopeless – you couldn’t get into the swamp to stop it. It went on all afternoon, but finally about 6 or 7 o’clock we decided it was all out and the Bailey brothers shouted a few drinks.
Norna and I came home but at about 11 o’clock the fire alarm went again. It was the Webb’s place, Mr and Mrs George Webb, who lived just up the road from us at Midlothian. Their house was on fire – so I charged over there with the axe, got inside and start pulling some of the things out.
Soon, Jack Findlay from the council arrived. He’d stayed too long at the Baileys and had had a few drinks too many – he really didn’t know what he was doing but started giving orders all round about this, that and the other – long after everybody had started working on the fire. He abused me for going in and trying to get things out of the house so I told him what he could do with it. So, poor old Jack Findlay as the chief fire officer in the district didn’t really go down too well that night.
Eventually the old wooden house was completely burnt out. It was a pretty long day. It would have been about 2 o’clock by the time we got to bed. But two fires in the district in the one day was quite something. I think those were the only two fires on the party line during all my days on it. The lines at Whiterock and Okuku Pass had about 13 different homes at one stage, so my knowledge of Morse code was pretty good by the time we’d finished.
Each ring was a corresponding letter in the code, but it was dreadful to deal with. I think there was more bad language and more frustration on the party telephone line than any other thing I can remember in farm life. Our line, the 219 line from Rangiora, had four orchardists, the chairman of the county council, the Whiterock Lime Company and father who was fairly busy in the business world. And that also included my mother, who used to chatter on the phone at various hours of the day to other women as long as their husbands weren’t about.
So, altogether, particularly at night, it was almost impossible to get on until about 10 o’clock. One of the worst couples we had on the party line lived close by each other, but on different lines, in Loburn. They used to infuriate my father because they’d ring at 10 or 11 o’clock and would continue to talk until about midnight. My father used to lie awake and get absolutely frustrated waiting for the ring off – you had to give a little tinkle to say you’d finished with your call. But you had great opportunities for listening in on conversations. When my sister Mary got married in Australia we made a phone call on the day of the wedding, after the ceremony. We had to ring everybody on the exchange to tell them, saying please don’t get on the line at 5.30pm in case you break the connection.
The system broke down occasionally, but pinning the blame wasn’t easy.
Jimmy Rossiter and I were practicing firing with a new rifle into the limestone cliffs across from the woolshed and the house. I fired and ‘wham’, it completely cut the telephone line. So we hurriedly got the truck and the ladder and a bit of No 8 wire and had the wires repaired in no time. Poor Mrs McKergow up the road was in the middle of a conversation and couldn’t work out why all of a sudden the line had gone silent. But, oh, the fuss that went on with those lines.It was harder to get a call overseas in those days than it is to get a message from the North or South Pole. We were lucky to have a telephone, but at the same time it was an awful annoyance.
But the farm’s most serious problem was undoubtedly its finances. When Jack and Norna took over, the property was heaving under wartime debt.
I got left Okuku Pass with a huge mortgage on it, and pretty well no cash at all. After the mortgage we had to raise and the death duties after father died. It was just an awful millstone around our necks. I had a little block of land, ”Midlothian”, that father had bought for me in my name in 1938. It was only 190 acres down at Loburn which he paid 1600 pounds for, but it wasn’t a very great investment. It was a drag, because you simply couldn’t make money out of it.
By 1950, the trustees advised Jack and Norna to put the farm up for sale. They did that reluctantly– unfortunately just weeks before the Korean War wool boom.
We signed a deal in December of 1950, and when the new owner took over he sold all the wool off the station and by the end of the year made enough to just about pay off the debt. So he was very, very lucky.I was disgusted, it was dreadful – a terrible bloody moment when we realised just how radical the February sale was, and how badly we had missed out. We sold Okuku Pass and I bought some more land in Loburn. Later, I bought another 130 acres from old Tommy Dawson, and for about six months in 1951 we stayed in Rangiora in a house just up from the Plough Hotel in High Street. Then I bought an 180 acre block in Loburn from George Gudex on the Whiterock Rd.
Throughout these years, Jack had been completing an eventful spell as a volunteer for the Canterbury A&P Association.
I was in the committee stand at Addington one afternoon in 1951 when a fire erupted in the trotting club stand at the northern end of the show grounds. I remember holding a fire hose down, trying to protect our stables and the grandstand, but in two minutes I’d only filled a two-gallon bucket. We thought we couldn’t fight it, but we were extremely lucky that it was blowing a strong north-westerly and the fire went straight into the big old wooden trotting club grandstand instead. ,Two years later, I went across to the club to have a bet at the main tote on Show Friday. As I turned out from having a bet I looked up and saw a puff of smoke come out of the back of the main stand of the trotting ground… and blow me down, it was on fire as well. I raced across to grab a policeman under the stewards’ stand and told him the place was on fire. He said, ‘oh, absolute rubbish’.
After I’d convinced him to come out and have a look, the last I saw of him he was doing about a hundred yards in about six seconds, running off to evacuate the stand. All of it burnt down, but they went to all sorts of risks to try and save it. I watched the firefighters from the outside rail of the track, and it seemed to us at the front that trying to save the stand was a waste of time, as it got in under the floorboards beneath the seating, up to a tower, then into the roof and ceiling. The firefighters were trying to put it out under the floor while another fire was raging through the roof above them, then suddenly they saw that the whole thing was going to collapse, and ran. I thought six or seven of them were about to be engulfed in the flames, but apparently they got out the front just before the roof fell. But the Metropolitan Club was very lucky in some ways because they got two brand new stands out of the fires at a time when racing was starting to take off. They really made huge strides from then on.
Jack was also a member of the North Canterbury A&P Association. After committee meetings in Rangiora every fourth Friday of the month, there was only one place to meet – the Red Lion Hotel.
The Northern A&P in Rangiora was just finding its feet after World War Two, with not very much money and small crowds, and the facilities were pretty ordinary. We built new stables, dairy stalls, pig pens and sheep pens – and we put in all the concrete posts around the show ring. It was a big job, but once a month at about four or five o’clock, we ‘d finish our meeting and head to Noel Carmand’s fish shop just up the street. Then it was off to the hotel. We had some terrible, terrible, afternoons at the Red Lion; every one of those Fridays was a write-off, but we all made a lot of good friends.