Remembering times past

Last updated 11:55 29/08/2012
THE BROTHERS: Earle (called Bill) Williams, 80, Alex Williams, almost 70, and Basil Williams, 60, celebrate their July and August birthdays at the family’s reunion in Palmerston North.

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Birthdays for three brothers will make them 60, 70 and 80 - an occasion fit for a family celebration in Palmerston North and a trip down memory lane.

The Depression was keenly felt, but the 30s and 40s still provided some great times for children growing up, writes Lee Matthews .

Manson St was a gravel road on the edge of town and farmland swept down to the river when the Williams brothers were growing up in Palmerston North.

It was Depression days, when families lucky enough to have a piece of land survived courtesy of huge vegetable gardens and the eggs produced by the chooks out the back. It was a time when seeing a car was an event to be excitedly reported at the dinner table, and the Manawatu River bank would be scoured for driftwood to help the family's fuel bills.

More than 70 descendants of Thomas Leonard Williams' family gathered in Palmerston North at the weekend; a reunion to celebrate the big-decade birthdays of 60, 70 and 80 for three of the Williams brothers - Basil, born July 29, 1952; Alex, born August 31, 1942 and Earle, called Bill, born August 1, 1932.

The Manawatu Standard caught up with Alex and Bill, chatting around Alex's kitchen table in Feilding a couple of days before the reunion.

Alumni of Hokowhitu School, their memories of early Palmerston North would fill books, and the reunion jogged a lot of family stories to the fore.

There were six children in their branch of the Williams family. Their dad, Thomas Leonard, called Leonard, had two children to an earlier marriage, but married their mum, Glasgow-born Annie Elizabeth Higgitt after they met in a teashop in Whanganui in the early 1930s. Leonard was 27 years older than Annie; not unusual for a generation of women for whom there were so few young men. World War I wiped out many marriage hopes.

Bill remembers the family moving to their house at 23 Manson St about 1936.

They'd had a hard Depression; Leonard was not terribly well, and they'd lived here, there and everywhere following work. He was a practical man who did everything from car sales to forestry work, from school caretaking to building, and he handed the tool skills on to his sons.

"The house was right on the edge of town, Palmerston North stopped at Manson St in those days, and the house was a drover's bach," says Bill.

"I was just big enough to peep in through the sash window at the back . . . the floor was filthy with dust and heaving with fleas and I remember our mum saying it was a place that would be our own."

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The big attraction of No 23 was what every family craved in those hungry times - the quarter-acre of ground at the back, enough to become self-sufficient. Forget today's trendy green movement of growing food for fun; New Zealand back gardens in the 30s and 40s were vege-packed from grim necessity. Thousands of families had no work, but the garden meant if dad lost his job, there'd still be spuds and cabbage to the family.

Their back garden spread. Next door was a bachelor, more than happy to have his quarter-acre produce vegetables for both him and the Williamses.

"My job was chooks. We had between 200 and 300, in pens, we'd move the pens around to clean up the vege beds. Mum sold the eggs and we ate the cockerels and hens too old to lay," Bill says.

He was the eldest. Brother Bruce was born in 1934, sister Jean in 37, Alex in 42, Anne in 47 and baby Basil in 52. Still alive is their eldest step-sister, Joan, 102, and living in Auckland, but too frail to attend the reunion.

Nobody had any money, but the 30s and 40s offered great times for kids.

Bill and Bruce built a little dray-like cart which they'd tow to the river, through farmland owned by Alan Farland. There they'd collect driftwood for their mum's woodburning cook stove, which also kept the family warm in winter.

"Good wood, too, none of this rubbish willow and pine you get today. Dad had been a forester up Kaikohe way in the 20s, and he taught us how to recognise the native timber that washed down . . . Alex was our mascot, we'd take him with us when he was little and perch him on the load."

The river was a place to be respected. Frequent freshets, strong currents and lots of timber snags meant it wasn't really a place to mess about in boats or fish.

Bill remembers vividly the flood of 1941, which swept through Hokowhitu. Kids couldn't go to school until the water went down, and, horribly, the council's draught and Clydesdale horses drowned penned up in their stables. Nobody could get through the floodwaters to let them out to swim to safety.

Alex had a slightly more prosperous childhood - he had a bike, for a start. One of his earliest school memories is of being herded outside to watch one of the last Sunderland flying boats pass over the city. He's not sure why it was important; the flying boats were still landing at Wellington.

What mattered was the thrill of leaving class during class time.

The Williamses moved to Marton in 1949, a hugely prosperous town booming on the back of war-time wool and meat supply cheques.

Alex and Basil were both apprenticed as engineers. Alex worked 20 years at the Feilding freezing works, which was such an enormous concern it was like a small, self-contained town, supplying the plant with its own water, steam and fabrication units - fascinating and varied work for an engineer. He later changed career to teaching apprentices at the old Manawatu Polytechnic, which became UCOL.

Basil worked for the railways, for breweries in Hawke's Bay and is now self-employed.

Bill started with the ambition to farm, wanting to be financially independent and his own boss, but the bells ringing at All Saints Church in Palmerston North one night called him to service.

It surprised him. His upbringing wasn't especially religious, but answering the bells' call led to him becoming ordained as an Anglican priest. With wife Elspeth, he was a minister in Palmerston North, Titahi Bay, Twizel and Christchurch, and went to Oxford to study for his MA and to San Francisco for his Doctorate. "Not bad for a boy who left school without School Certificate," Elspeth says quietly.

The family is keenly interested in its history, with members writing stories of what happened in the past. Alex says he has only one regret: That he didn't listen harder to his parents and grandparents, his aunts and uncles, when the family stories were told.

"Listen and write them down, save them for the children," is his advice.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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