Night soil collector turns 105

WILD BOY: Norman Bennison says he's still half-wild.
WILD BOY: Norman Bennison says he's still half-wild.

Norman Bennison turned 105 with a joke and wink this week, and for those who know him, it's no surprise he has reached such a ripe old age.

The secret to long life, he insists, is "real hard work".

The Elmwood Retirement Village resident reflected on a life of toil on the wild West Coast and as a night soil collector in Christchurch.

He was born in Tinwald, Ashburton, in 1909, and went to Tinwald Primary School until being forced to leave at 12 to help support his family.

As a child driving farm tractors, he began what would be 61 years of labouring. During a stint at a West Coast saw mill in 1940, he met Kate, the postmistress of Rotomanu.

He was tasked with collecting mail each week, and colleagues began to suspect a romance as his collections gradually took longer and longer.

In 1948, the Bennisons moved to Christchurch to carve out a new life, starting with a dairy in Colombo St.

Despite settling into married life, Bennison was always one for drop of whiskey and a flutter on the horses.

"I was a wild boy then. I'm still half wild! I enjoy life."

Daughter Robyn Fairweather agrees, and says he was always keen on a bargain - or better yet, getting something for free.

"He was a great one for the races at Riccarton. He'd walk around the back and pick up some gear for the horses, and walk in like he was helping them out."

For years he hasn't been able to pull the gig off, so became a member - and at 100, he was made a raceway life member.

In the 1950s, the Bennisons bought a night soil collection business. Work flourished, as many households kept their out-houses, and he serviced areas across the whole city.

Fairweather recalls him buying a home in Wainoni Rd for 400 pounds cash soon after, and creating a large vege garden, used to keep neighbours fed.

Bennison retired late, at 73, from a lifetime of manual labour, after work dried up for night soil collectors with the complete conversion to modern sewerage systems.

He explains it was important he kept up with younger men, "because they'd respect you more then".

The Press