Recalling life in the bridge 'camps'

Last updated 10:00 19/08/2008

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Wellingtonians Paul Haslett and Rosalind Moore look back on days when men who constructed the replacement of the 'Pipe Bridge' at the Hutt River mouth in the 1950s lived with their families in the nearby Wilkins & Davies camp. Some of their ‘houses' were constructed from car company packing cases.

The late Michael King in his Penguin History of New Zealand said that the immediate effect of World War Two and its aftermath in the late 1940s, was to turn New Zealanders in on themselves - as individuals and as families. By the 1950s the post war economic surge had resulted in major new industrial developments in Moera, Gracefield and Petone. The old Pipe Bridge over the Hutt River had not been able to meet the increased demands placed on it. Early in the 1950s it's replacement, the Hutt Estuary Bridge, was built by the Wilkins & Davies Construction Company.

A new more positive and forward looking attitude was encouraged by Jack Wilkins and Ray Davies. They provided their workers with on the job accommodation. There was one camp for single men, and another for married men and their families.

As a child I visited the married men's camp many times. I remember a particular winter Saturday in the early 1950s. Four of us small kids were wandering around the Wilkins and Davies married men's camp. From radios we could hear Winston McCarthy commentating on rugby at Athletic Park. Our fathers listened to all Winston's rugby commentaries. Our mothers called McCarthy "that screaming scull". We were not allowed to bother our fathers when Winston and the rugby were on the radio.

Weekday mornings, our mothers worshipped "Aunt Daisy". In the evenings both our mothers and our fathers listened to Selwyn "It's In The Bag" Toogood. Camp children listened to Selwyn in the dark through the thin packing case bedroom walls. And when sick kids were kept home from school, they prayed to be allowed to listen with their mothers to the original housewives' radio soaps, "Doctor Paul" and "Portia Faces Life". A kid's life at the Wilkins & Davies married men's camp was a good one.

But home and domestic life for the wives and mothers who lived at the camp was not easy. Washing and drying clothes was hard work. Keeping food fresh, especially in summer, was a challenge. On a visit to the camp , I witnessed the arrival of one of the first 'new fangled ' home refrigerators. My memory is that few kids at the camp really knew what it did. I certainly did not know. In 1953 the first washing machine in the camp was a similar novelty.

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In the post second world war years, motor vehicles were sent to New Zealand in boxes as kitset parts for local assembly. The Ford Motor Company was very close to the married mens camp. The Wilkins and Davies camp homes were built from the motor vehicle boxes. The married men's camp looked like a poorer part of Soweto, or the refugee camp shacks in Palestine. Local MP Walter Nash's objective for all, of "a home fit for a cabinet minister", was far from met here at the camp. Camp homes were not even "holiday cribs fit for a back bencher", my Dad would say.

Although camp life was spartan, there were real compensations for workers, wives and their families. The end was always in sight and certain. The men were well paid. Wilkins and Davies looked after their workers well. Many young families did go on to acquire substantial, healthy Hutt Valley homes of their own. Several families built modern homes in the new middle-class suburb of Stokes Valley.

Looking back now , I can see that camp life for the wives was difficult. But what we kids at the time could not appreciate, were the war time experiences of many of the adult males. The barbarity of Japanese prisoner of war camps and the battlefield horrors of the European, African and Asian theatres of war. The Pacific Island battles shook most, and left many men with life-long nightmares. But then, " Kiwi bridge-building jokers", were hard men. It is likely that almost all World War Two survivors were hardened by their experiences. A battle-hardened work force is what Wilkins and Davies both needed and got.

The married men's camp was on the eastern bank of the Hutt River, just south of the construction area where the new Hutt Estuary pipe bridge was being built. The single men's camp was also on the eastern bank, but north of the bridge construction yard.

The married men's camp was built hard up against the bridge construction area. The kids were not allowed onto the bridge construction site, so we knew little about the single men's camp.

Curly Campbell was a worker on the Wilkins and Davies job at Wellington airport, and he stayed at the single men's camp. Curly told me that "the chaps were well behaved and he never saw police at the camp". Two-up was a popular evening's entertainment in those pre -television times. Also horse racing was popular and "the trots" were just around the corner at Hutt Park. Curly remembers that many of his fellow workers were Maori, most of whom had moved to the Hutt Valley at the end of the war. A number of his fellow workers were recent arrivals from war-torn Europe.

Rex Mitchell, like most others, remembers little of the single men's camp. But Rex does recall the Griffins biscuit factory girls at the railway workshop dances. He also recalls Walter Nash on his "Sunday morning walks". Walter Nash was a great battler for this part of the Hutt Valley.

Jack Sutherland worked for Wilkins and Davies on the Wellington airport job at Moa Point. He enjoyed staying at the single men's camp. Sutherland remembers the wonderful meals produced by the couple Mr. & Mrs. Cameron, who ran the kitchen, dining hall and ablution facilities. For Jack, the Hutt River area was cold, wet and windy. He appreciated the big indoor wood burner. He also remembers "pay night drinking" and fights that were broken up by the local policeman.

There is a tale told by some survivors, that sometimes on winter mornings early, a naked young woman joined the bridge builders in the showers. The times in the 1950s were, as Bob Dylan would soon assert, changing.

Today the New Zealand population is more than double what it was in 1950. Amongst the more important post-war Hutt Valley changes, was the beginning of that population growth. And whilst family car ownership figures at the time were modest, that would soon start changing. Change was driven by the increasing prosperity of the mid 1950s, and the availability of local assembly "kit- set" cars. The giant Ford motor company assembly plant could be seen from the married men's camp.

Michael King's assertion that the late 1940s was a period of introversion, was substantially true of the Hutt Valley. But the 1950s was a much more mixed decade. Many older and conservative residents did hang onto their pre-war ways and habits. However, as the war babies reached their mid -teens, they asserted themselves in ways that upset their elders. The Mazengarb Report brought a nation-wide focus to the changing attitudes, values and actions of some teenagers in the Hutt Valley.

The 1950s were years of changing social values, of strong industry building and economic growth for New Zealand. Bob Dylan was soon to sing "don't stand in the door way, don't block up the hall, the times they are a changing". Dylan's warning was very close to the message that had come out of the 1944 Bretton Woods Canadian Conference. Bretton Woods set out what would become the post-war economic objectives and growth projections. It was all about the imminent new trade and economic attitudes and ideas for the post-war years. Bretton Woods gave ' Kiwi' leaders guidance as to what New Zealand should do with its peace-time economic resources. It was suggested that our pre-war reliance on selling bulk, raw agrarian products to the UK, might not do in the 1950s and beyond. New Zealand was encouraged to increase the pace of industrialisation. Moera was one of the new industrial areas that was developed with the nation's future in mind. A new Hutt Estuary or pipe bridge was essential.

As a result of this 'Bretton Woods' influenced thinking', the Petone, Moera and Gracefield area became ever more industrial. The increased commercial and industrial activity, and the growing Hutt Valley population resulted in several of the older Hutt River bridges struggling to carry both increased numbers of vehicles and the heavier loads.

By the early 1950s, better bridges on the post-war transport arteries that led to and from the Port of Wellington had become essential. This led directly to the 'new technology' prestressed concrete Hutt Estuary bridge being built by the men who lived at the two Wilkins and Davies camps. Men who lived at the camps also worked on the Wellington airport contract. Wellington Airport, like the bridges, has had a major part to play in the growth of the Wellington region over the years, and still today.

When the bridge and the airport jobs were completed, the camps were burnt to the ground. They have been forgotten by many, but they were an important part of Lower Hutt history.

Paul Haslett & Rosalind Moore welcome feedback on their article.  You can email them at phaslett@paradise.net.nz

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