Catherine Caughey's remarkable life

IN MEMORY: Christine Caughey holds a framed photo of her late mother Catherine Caughey, taken at her engagement.
IN MEMORY: Christine Caughey holds a framed photo of her late mother Catherine Caughey, taken at her engagement.

As an infant Catherine Caughey was carted around not in a pushchair, but strapped to the side of a horse.

She had been only the second white baby to live at the Kenyan hospital where she was born in 1923.

Raised on her parents isolated farm, she experienced a "very Victorian upbringing" and developed a passion for animals and the outdoors which never faded.

IN HER ELEMENT: Catherine Caughey spent her last Easter with her family at Lake Okareka, Rotorua.
IN HER ELEMENT: Catherine Caughey spent her last Easter with her family at Lake Okareka, Rotorua.

The English family made several trips back home by ship and on one of these voyages, Catherine found herself playing with the Duke and Duchess of York, who would later become the King and Queen, the late Queen Mother.

Daughter Christine says her mum was "very much a country girl" who spent hours playing with animals and the native children. She was fluent in Swahili and remained so until her last days.

Catherine’s life turned upside down when her family walked off the farm before the war began and moved to England.

At 14 years old she went to school for the first time.

Catherine struggled with her new life and found the rigidity of boarding school very constraining.

"She didn’t get into the gossip about movie stars, she would have much preferred to talk about animals or the latest farming techniques."

After school she studied home science before being called up for war service in 1943. She was put through a rigorous interview and testing process before being assigned to work at Bletchley Park, where she used the first electronic computer, a room-sized machine called the Colossus.

There, she was part of the Wrens, who deciphered coded messages of the German high command and eventually cracked the Enigma code, helping to shorten the war by two years.

"She was working alongside some of the top brains in the war – Max Newman and Alan Turing," Christine says. "She knew she was doing absolutely top work and often wondered why she was selected. She came to the conclusion it was because she was good at maths and because she had no networks, no people to chat to."

While working at Bletchley Park she lived under an "absolute code of silence" her own mother was not allowed to know where she lived and she was forbidden from talking to her neighbours.

She was sworn to secrecy for 30 years after the end of World War Two, only able to tell her family when confidentiality was lifted in 1975.

Her husband Ron had died not long before.

"It was the greatest sadness for her that she never got to share that part of her life with dad," Christine says.

While Christine and brother Martin had never given much thought to why their mother taught them morse code and flag signals, it fell in to place when her past was revealed.

After the war Catherine attended Dorset House in Oxford where she trained as an occupational therapist. She worked in an Oxford psychiatric hospital after qualifying.

Christine says her mum’s time at Dorset House gave her the opportunity to develop her creativity.

"She became an accomplished sewer, watercolour artist, knitter, she did croquet, pottery, spinning and weaving," she says. "She was very economical in everything she did right to the time she died. She lived with a very simple footprint."

During a ski trip to Switzerland, Catherine was searching for her camera in the snow when a dark-haired gentlemen wearing galoshes approached her.

With the camera lost, Ron Caughey, a children’s specialist in London, took her address and promised to send her his own photos.

The pair discovered they had mutual friends, and before long a romance developed and they were married at Oxford.

Soon after the wedding Ron earned a fellowship to work at a children’s hospital in Philadelphia, where they stayed until moving to New Zealand in 1952.

After first living in Epsom, the couple moved to an extensive Remuera property, where both Christine and her brother Martin were raised.

Alongside motherhood, Catherine busied herself with involvement in the Girl Guides movement and was on the Auckland YWCA executive.

"She was a devoted wife to my father, who led an incredibly demanding life," Christine says. "They were very close friends. When he dropped dead in 1975 with a heart attack the bottom dropped out of her world. She was devastated.

"She had to rebuild her life, and not one that was sort of shadowed by her husband, and I think she did so with immense strength."

In honour of her husband, Catherine dedicated her life to child health and was invited to the board of the Child Health Foundation, which Ron had founded through the Auckland Rotary club.

1979 was declared the International Year of the Child and Catherine was nominated as spokeswoman for the "child in a multicultural society".

Catherine founded the Auckland Multicultural Society, which sought to build awareness of the increasing multicultural character of the city.

The group held exhibitions at the Auckland museum, food and dance festivals, and published educational books for schools on comparative cultural practices.

"She used to host Kiwi dinners here at home with the members and for some it was the first time they’d been in a Kiwi home," Christine says.

Catherine was a member of the Friends of Tibet Society, the U3A, and the Medical Historical Society. She visited patients at Starship, taught Bible studies at Newmarket Primary for 25 years, volunteered for Red Cross’ Meals on Wheels programme and was active in St Marks Church.

Her dedication to community service was acknowledged in 1994 when she was awarded a Member of the British Empire.

"She didn’t fit the Remuera mould. She was very different. She was very much a free spirit and not afraid to call a spade a spade. She had a strong character and was not into conformity," Christine says.

She and a close friend Nobuko Shimo travelled the world together, leaving few places unseen.

Catherine lived in her beloved Remuera home until her last nine days, when she was rushed to hospital after suffering a stroke.

She passed away peacefully in Auckland hospital on April 12 with her family at her side.

The woman who touched the lives of so many, lives on in the hearts and memories of those who loved her.

East And Bays Courier