Dorothy Torkington

Interview with Dorothy Torkington by Trudy Astwood, transcribed by Nathan Torkington. Interview conducted August 28, 1998.

DorothyWell, remembering back to my childhood, when I was perhaps three and four, we lived in a house (I'm not sure if we owned it or it was rented), a big old house in Raetihi, and my father was doing a turn as a land agent, having moved off a farm down the Pipiriki Road. I'm not sure of all the circumstances of that, but I remember living in this house.

I had an older brother, Lionel, three years older, who was inclined to play pretty nasty tricks on me, just do things that would frighten me, of not be very good.

I can remember the patch of raspberries growing pretty wild in the yard and how I liked to go eat some of those.

TrudyLionel was jealous?

DorothyI suppose so. He'd been the baby, the only one for three years. There'd been a miscarriage between, and then a baby coming about eighteen months after me. David, who I was a very close playmate with later on, but I suppose at the toddler stage was a rival for affection.

I don't remember very nice things about it. Mum had a pony at that stage, called Bounce. A very quiet pony. She used to ride out on the farm. I can remember being lead around on Bounce, that was quite nice. I become very fond of horses later.

TrudyHow old were you?

DorothyI suppose I was four or five. We moved out onto the middle road, managing a farm, Carters, and lived out on a cottage on the farm.

I didn't start school until I was 7. I was chesty, and a weed--a weedy little kid, and very chesty. It was a very harsh climate. The school was at Horowhito, four and half miles away, and the transport was on horses. So I was kept at home until I was 7.

But during that time, I seemed to have a rapport with animals. I liked animals, and the horses. I could catch and ride ponies well before I went to school on the horse. And we rode to school with neighbours, who had a big family, neighbours across the road.

TrudyFour and a half miles ...

DorothyIt was quite a long ride for children. I can remember icicles hanging down the banks. It was very cold. Stopping to catch frogs in a pond, or in the summer pick blackberries and eat them.

TrudyHow big was the school.

DorothyIt seemed huge at the time, but I think it was about three teachers. I started with a very good infant teacher who got me through the infant program in one year and put me on to Standard One. A very good teacher.

TrudySo you went through all the Primers in one year?

DorothyYes, but I did wonder why I was so big and the other children so small. Nobody explained it to me.

TrudyWhat was the house like?

DorothyThere was a kind of a sleepout or something at the back. Lionel, and David too I think, slept out there. I had a young sister by that time, Grace, and we had a small bedroom at the back of the cottage. Mum and Dad had the other bedroom, and there was a lounge and a kitchen. I think the outside washhouse was part of this building where the boys slept. So it wasn't very big, that house.

TrudyHow much land?

DorothyIt was a farm of about, I'm not sure, a hundred or two hundred acres, a medium-sized farm. Very rough. There was a nice river ran through it. Mum used to take us for picnics to the river, and Dad taught us to swim in the pool. There was a very pretty patch of bush where we picnicked--I can remember a lot of that.

And then riding about the farm with Dad around to neighbours' places. I had a little pony, a pretty thing.

TrudyWhat did your Dad do?

DorothyWell, he farmed. He farmed this for Carters. But I realize, looking back, that he wasn't a farmer. He was very impatient. He was good with people, could talk with anybody. I don't know what his education had been. He was a bit like Barry, in being able to talk well with people. Not naturally a farmer--too impatient and hard on the animals, and uncaring of their sufferings, which used to upset me.

The dogs were chained to kennels that were just a section of hollow log. It was very cold, and if they howled, he'd go out and beat them for howling. Looking back, I feel so sorry for them.

No, he shouldn't have been a farmer. And, of course, financial worries all the time.

TrudySo was this the early, mid- to late- 20s?

DorothyYes, and getting towards '30.

Well, Dad lost that job and we moved to Rangitawa, just past Ohakune. You've been there, Beth used to live there. Rangitawa.

TrudyWhen you say lost the job ...

DorothyI think he was probably sacked. I don't know. I didn't know at the time, but we were to move, you see.

TrudyLost the farm?

DorothyNo, he was managing it for Carters, who were big people in the district. They had mills, and other interests.

So we moved to friends and stayed for a few months with friends at Rangitawa, and went to school there. I was perhaps 8 or 9 at the time. It was very somewhat humiliating, crowding in with this other family, and we were very short of money.

But some land came up for ballot, between Ohakune and Raetehi. And with the help of Dad's brother-in-law, he won the ballot, and was able to, with the help of his brother-in-law, to put down the 200 pounds deposit, and there was a small yearly rental. We moved out onto that land in 1929, so I was ten, and lived in tents.

It was just a piece of land that was 200 acres. It was covered in milled and burnt over stumps and logs and standing dead trees. It had a fence on two sides, well three virtually, but a long boundary that had to be fenced, the timber had to be split and cut by hand, and fencing wire required somehow. Dad and Lionel worked on this fence, the first job.

And we were living in three tents, which was a horrible climate to be in tents in. We built a cook house that had an open side that let the wind blow through. It was very uncomfortable. Put an old wood stove at the end of it with some clay around it.

Well, he split up some timber and built this three-sided thing. A bench and table made that we used to sit at to eat our meals. You had to wrap up and then you were cold. Mum had to cook on this thing with a makeshift setup.

So it was very hard. It must have been very hard for Mum. And being 1929, it was the crash of the finance world. And New Zealand. Stocks and shares went down. People lost jobs, and couldn't borrow money, and it was the start of the Depression which was very terrible.

So here they were, and Dad couldn't get money for fencing or stock or a house or whatever. The stock and station firms pretty well stopped lending. However, he managed to buy an old mill house that was taken into sections and somehow it was moved onto our land and put together again into a house of sorts, with the help of a neighbour.

And we lived there in poor circumstances.

TrudyWe'd got up to circumstances and you'd got a house and moved.

DorothyYes, another brother, Russell, had been born while we were still in Raetihi. He'd been born prematurely and thrived. He was about five, six, .... I suppose he was about six when we were out on this land that Dad had acquired.

We were living in tents when the next baby was coming, so Mum had by then five children and Evan was on the way. And, as with a lot of families, it was very very hard because there was so little money and people were out of their jobs and everything. To have another baby coming ... there were a lot of abortions and tragedies.

But Evan was born. He was about five years younger than Russell. And I remember his bed was the bottom drawer of Mum and Dad's dressing table. And Mum sewing and sewing from other garments, making little things for the baby.

So that wasn't very easy, all these children. Yes, I think we were in the house by the time the baby was born, so there were six of us to feed and look after.

TrudyDid she have any other help or was there just her?

DorothyShe had no help, so she worked very very hard. She did things outside, to help Dad as well as washing outside by hand and carrying water from the well in summer. And generally a pretty hard life.

We gradually acquired a few animals, built up some cows to milk, a few sheep. They managed to clear the heavy timber from two or three paddocks with a great deal of work.

At least we were all sent through school and secondary school. We had our education. It must have been very hard for Mum and Dad.

TrudyDid you pay for it?

DorothyNo, school was free, but there were books, and food--get something to give us for our lunches, and porridge for breakfast.

There'd be sheep that could be killed, and we'd have a sheep killed every little while. And what couldn't be used while it was fresh was salted, salt mutton.

TrudySo what sorts of things did you eat?

DorothyFor a while, it was hard to get enough to eat, even. I remember a neighbour leaving a parcel of groceries, of food, on the fencepost at the gate. Mum and Dad, Dad insisted it go back. You couldn't take charity. It would have been so nice. And the neighbours would have been dying to help. There were other, more established farmers, who weren't having such a hard time.

So they were poverty-stricken, yes. I remember Lionel going to secondary, to high school. The uniform was navy shorts and shorts. They had navy socks, just woolen socks so they used to wear into holes. They were black, and mum had no black wool to darn them with, and couldn't buy any, so she darned them with blue. How awful it looked, and that he was teased for it--I think by a teacher. It was very hard. They were bitterly hard times.

We had things like sores that wouldn't heal, and heavy colds from not having fruit because very little fruit would grow there and we couldn't afford to buy it. And fresh vegetables, I suppose. Dad was a gardener, and after a while he got a good garden. But no, at first it was very difficult.

Cows were milked by hand, and the cream sent away. That paid for just a basic living. We seemed to always be in debt to the store. It was very very hard.

TrudyWhere was the store?

DorothyIn Raetihi. They had little dairy companies everywhere in those days. The Raetihi one had the store. So you bought all your groceries at the store and the cream was supposed to pay the bill.

To get to Raetihi we walked or rode a horse. Or if there was a gig, you could go in the gig.

TrudyWhat was the gig?

DorothyWell, everyone had a gig in those days. Pulled by one horse, and harnessed into the shafts. Yes, little buggy. Seat across and room to put some groceries in the back. Mum was good at driving the gig.

We had some social life, we had some friends down what we called down the valley. I remember Mum---. We had ponies after a while, we older children. We used to ride, have a great big picnic together with some friends by the river. Or go and visit Auntie Dot and Uncle Able, who were our close friends. We still, even today, keep touch with that family.

TrudyThey were related?

DorothyNo, they weren't related. We called them Auntie and Uncle but they weren't, just good friends of Mum and Dad's. Dad loved playing chess, and used to play with anyone he could find. Uncle Able was one of Dad's chess partners.

TrudySo what did they do when they needed

DorothyDad had a big correspondence chess going for a while. You'd make your move on paper and send it to your opponent. He had several of those going at once. He was very keen on his chess. And he loved fishing--whenever he could, he would get into one of the rivers with his rod and fly, and fish.

One memorable holiday was spent camping up at Lake Taupo, by ... by the Tukano river, is that the name of it? A big fishing river. We camped on the riverbank with friends, and had a very lovely holiday.

TrudyHow old were you then?

DorothyI think I was about .... Where were we? Raetihi, I think? I was about five. Five or six. I can remember that quite well. There were a few photos taken.

TrudyWhat about your Mum? Did she have any other friends?

DorothyYes, she had friends who were neighbours, and we used to visit. Walk across the paddocks and visit friends. And then there was Aunty Dot was a very particular friend.

She joined the Women's Institute, no the Women's Division of Federated Farmers, which was a great outlet for country women. Once a month she would meet and have a bit of a social life there.

It was very hard for Mum to provide clothes for us through the depression. But we had an Auntie, her sister-in-law, living in Canterbury, who was better off and had six children too. We were steps and stairs together. Much of an age, at least one of this family. They were our cousins, and clothing parcels used to come from Auntie Mary, which really kept us going. They were school uniforms, which were the same at every school in those days. Gym tunic and white blouse.

TrudyWere they Woodfields?

DorothyNo, they were Hamiltons, descended from Woodfields.

So that really saved the day. And there'd be a suit or something that Mum could wear, sometimes shoes, or stockings. And she had her Singer treadle machine, and if garments didn't fit somebody they'd were made over into something, pants for the boys or something.

TrudyShe was quite a good sewer?

She was quite a good sewer. Had to be. You couldn't buy things.

And we went to school across a neighbouring farm to a little school on the valley road. When I started there, how old was I? I'd been to Horopito school for two or three years anyway, so I suppose I was 8 to 10 years. Going to that Makatuku school.

They had a really harsh young woman teacher, it was really horrible. One of the things we had to do was get up and sing a song to the class, and I couldn't sing. What a horrible thing to do to a new child in a class!

TrudyFirst day or something?

DorothyYes, to introduce you to the class or something, but it was horrible. I didn't enjoy that school one bit.

TrudyHow long were you there?

DorothyUntil I was in Standard Five, I think, so it must have been three or four years. I was so unhappy there, that I told Mum and Dad I didn't want to go back there, and they said well I could ride my horse into Ohakune, and I could go to school there. That was quite a lot better.

TrudyMuch bigger school?

DorothyYes, quite a lot bigger, and it had a district high school, so when I'd done two years I went onto the district high school. Kept riding the horse until a bus started. So this must have been the Labour Government came in--they put on busses. A lot of children couldn't attend any secondary school in the depression days unless their parents could afford to board them somewhere. We had Aunty Dot's children one by one so they could get some high school, because they couldn't have gone, they were twenty miles away. They would have missed secondary.

We went right through. I got matriculation there at Ohakune, after four years high school.

TrudyWhat did your parents vote?

DorothyOh, Conservative. Tories. "We've always been Tories", you know. Because their families had been something in the world. My dad's father was a member of parliament. Mum's father was headmaster of a Maori girl's school. Descended from people who were well off. They could never bring themselves to vote Labour.

And in 1935 when Labour won a sweeping victory, because things were so bad people just rebelled and voted in huge numbers for Labour. Oh, I remember the long faces when they came out in the morning. "Oh, we're ruined! They'll take all our land!"


DorothyYes, and that was the start of their better times because within a short time, the Labour Government brought in guaranteed prices for wool and dairy products--butter fat. They began to get some money for the first time.

And the Labour Government started providing houses for farm workers. And when the man came to see about it, to our place, Dad had said "oh, they won't give us one". And really they weren't entitled to one, it's just they were living in this terrible old makeshift house. The man came, and Mum gave him a cup of tea. And he looked around and he said, "well, it isn't quite in your category, but you need a house, Mrs Guthrie." And they had a house provided, I suppose on mortgage, I can't remember that part of it, but they lived on a nice new house on the farm until they retired off it.

TrudyWho built it?

DorothyWell, they had contractors. The Labour Government let the contracts to builders. They were very good houses. The early state houses were built at the start. Money was just provided from the Reserve Bank to get them up, get them built. They did a lot of very good things.

TrudyThis would be 1937 or something like that?

DorothyYes, 36 or 37. Yes, that's right, because I went away to training college in Wellington, I think, in 37, and I hadn't lived in that house. So it was about that time.

And they were made very comfortable by that first labour government, but they never acknowledged it. They never voted Labour. "Oh no, we're Tories." Rather bad when you look back on it.

And by then, Betty Volkner, my girlfriend out of this family we were so friendly with, she was listening to, well, the ZB station, I suppose, where the Labour broadcasts were coming from. The clergyman called Scrim who was doing very stirring political broadcasts, she said "He's right! He's right!" But Uncle Able was a Tory too, he used to say, "The unemployed don't want to work. They're just lazy." But there were no jobs, you couldn't get a job.

TrudyThe parallels between here and ...

DorothyI know, and we very much need a government like that first Labour government. They did all the right things, an immense amount of good.

Yes, the Depression was a terrible time. There was very high unemployment, wages were lowered, and people were put out of work. All Government work was cut back or cut down. There was relief work, it was just for a pittance, and fairly useless a lot of it. Training colleges were shut, infant education was cut back, so there was actual hunger and cold and suffering amongst the people, large numbers of people, and you can see a parallel to the present time, the way things are going.

TrudyGetting back to something quite unrelated, how affected were you by the first World War.

DorothyWell, I was born in 1919. The stories about it were very terrible, from the men who came back.

TrudyYou saw people injured, or old soldiers?

DorothyYes, well I didn't see a lot of it because we lived out in the country, but I realized that it had been a very dreadful time. Such large numbers of people killed or wounded, and the suffering they went through.

My father's only sister, Aunty Grace, was a nurse, and she was a nurse in the war theatre during the war, in France where the fighting was. A front-line nurse, so she had gone through very terrible times seeing so many people die, blown up, hopelessly injured. So yes, it was bad, and I was pretty close to it, but yet for the first five years I don't suppose I was taking much notice. That would be 1924.

But my father had taken up land that was allocated for returned servicemen, although he was actually in the block before the men came back from the war. He wasn't able to go away for some medical reason. My parents were married in 1916 or 17, no about 1916, and lived really away in an inaccessible valley. It was all in bush and had to be felled and burned and grassed. They were living in tents when Mum married Dad. Her sister was living out there, as well, and she had gone to stay, met Dad, and they married. But when the first baby was coming, Dad moved out from there, and sold the block. He said it was too far out to be bringing children up.

TrudyWhereabouts was it?

DorothyIt was called the Mangaparua. It was quite a few miles from Raetehi and down the valley, not from the Wanganui river.

TrudyOh yeah.


DorothyYes, the Mangaparua. They were in the Mangatiti, a parallel valley, but it was very remote. Roads were very unreliable, the country used to slip once the bush was cut, and the people were all moved out from there afterwards. And they came to live in Raetihi, and Dad became a land agent for some firm. My memories go back to there, being in Raetihi.

TrudySo skipping forward again, to the late 1930s, 37, when you're going off to training college. The world political situation was hotting up again. Were you aware of it?

Dorothy1937? Yes, rather. I was very exultant when the first Labour government was voted in, in 1935. We'd been very involved in, not actual working, but hoping they would win. Because things were so bad, very bad.

TrudyAnd how old were you then?

DorothyIn my teens, I was I think 18 when I went away to training college. Yes, that'd be right, 17 or 18. Went straight from school, and was very inexperienced and shy, and moved to Wellington. But in those days, you didn't have to pay to get training, you were paid. We had an allowance, a small allowance, but we could just live on it. We were poor students, but we managed on the allowance.

TrudyWhere did you live in Wellington?

DorothyBoarding first with friends up in Brooklyn, people Mum knew. Then in the hostel later on, up on The Terrace. Walked up, or went on the cable car, up to training college.

TrudyWas that where the University is now?

DorothyNot far away, past the university. It was up in Kelburn. We got off the cable car and walked around the street.

TrudyTinakori Road?

DorothyYes, sort of around there. Used to come down through the gardens, the beautiful municipal gardens. It was nice. I enjoyed Wellington, living in Wellington.

TrudyHow long did it take you to get through training college?

DorothyIt was a two year course. It's now three, but it was a two year course. So we came out somewhat unprepared. We had been in schools on section, with a class, doing a little bit of solo teaching, but in front of the teacher.

No, I wasn't very suited to it. I was too shy, and didn't know enough about how to teach. I'd been taught of subject matter--English, geography, history, and all the rest of the subjects, and some physical education, music which I wasn't very good at anyway. So I came out as a not-very-good teacher.

TrudyDidn't like it?

DorothyI didn't like it because I wasn't good at it. Taught for two or three years, then gave it up.


DorothyI taught in Taihape first, that was not too far from Ohakune. And then Ohakune, and then up north when I moved up north of Auckland.

TrudyHow old were you then?

DorothyWell, into my twenties. Yes, early twenties.

TrudyLet's stop.