Tuesday, 26 May 2020


Tairua's Ruth Tomlin turns 100

This Saturday, August 17, marks a momentous occasion for one of Tairua’s most senior residents.

Ruth Tomlin with be joined by family, friends and several local dignitaries to celebrate her 100th birthday.

Born in 1919 on a small farm in Norfolk, England, Ruth came to Tairua in 1955 with her late husband, Joe. Speaking ahead of her milestone birthday, Ruth’s memories are a colourful journey through some the world’s most defining events, from the great Depression, to World War II. She also recalls vividly her early days in New Zealand and the adjustment to life in a new country.

Growing up in a house with no bathroom or electricity, Ruth’s job was cleaning the candlesticks. The family’s piano was sold to buy their first radio. “Living in the shadow of World War one, I was aware that families who lost loved ones were not allowed to mourn in public as this was considered unpatriotic. How sad,” she reminisced.

She remembers rushing out of the house and spotting a plane, the first she’d ever see. The young Ruth would not have known then the travels that lay ahead.

The family farm was near the sea and Ruth caught shrimps at low tide, the start of a lifelong love of seafood. She recalls the arrival of baked beans, considered a treat at eight pence a tin. The farm activity centred on rotating crops and had three cows, five shire horses and about 20 pigs. Ruth developed a strong compassion for animals and hated some of the more grim necessities of farming.

Ruth and her sister had a governess who biked eight miles to the farm to teach them.

 “I’ve always been a reader and I remember my joy when the marks on the page suddenly made sense. At 12, I went to Norwich Boarding School, which was so cold that girls would get in bed together, trying to keep warm. I was no good at algebra or geometry, could never see the point of them, still can’t. But I knew “Macbeth” by heart and wanted to be an actress. However, I was too shy.”

Growing up in the Depression years, Ruth remembers seeing lots of unemployed men standing around street corners. She was “called up” in 1942 and joined the Royal Air Force.

“We did an awful lot of marching. Because of the war, there were no signposts anywhere and you never knew quite where you were. I volunteered to run a library for the troops, but they were not interested in books, so I gave it up. I remember feeling scared when walking home during the blackout.”

Ruth met her husband, Joe, at Samson and Hercules ballroom in Norwich. Their son, Tony, was born at Cromer, a small coastal town, around 20 kilometres from the city. In 1945 the couple sailed to New Zealand with their young son, a voyage that took Ruth to the country that would become her home for the rest of her life.

“The decks were crowded with New Zealanders and Australians who had come out of Prisoner of War camps. There were 4,000 troops and only 40 women plus children on board. We docked in Wellington on August 4, 1945. When I married a New Zealander, I did not realise the implications -  needing to leave my country and travel across the world,” Ruth recalls.

“In New Zealand all the women made their own clothes, so I bought a sewing machine, sewed a couple of tablecloths, then I gave up. My mother-in-law was not impressed. New Zealand women were very domesticated. At afternoon tea I counted 14 plates of cakes and scones. People had suppers at 9:30pm, with yet another round of scones and cakes to eat. Everyone listened to Aunt Daisy on the radio.

“I recall the so-called six o’clock swill.  New Zealand had a big drinking culture. We had our jewellery shop from 1945 to 1970 in Upper Hut near the Provincial Hotel and all the men came out of it at six. I also recall discovering frozen peas. They were never anything like the peas Joe grew. Unfortunately, I will never eat his peas again.”

Ruth’s husband, Joe Tomlin, was a diver and horologist and built a plane under his house on Main Road, Tairua. He died in 2015, aged 95. His work took Joe to some far flung destinations with Ruth accompanying him on occasions.

“Joe went to Fiji to repair the clocks there. Sometimes I went with him and I never met anyone there I did not like. We also visited Bangladesh to meet my World Vision child, a sweet girl. I recall men on bicycles clutching bunches of poor chickens that were upside down.” The couple also went to a small village in India with World Vision to see a child they supported.

 “I will always remember sitting on the chair where Gandhi used to meditate, and also the wandering cows that were just skin and bone even though they are supposed to be sacred. India is a curious country. I have also been to Paris, Holland and Norway where I saw an eclipse of the sun. We don’t look at the sky enough, it’s a free marvel.”

Ruth has seen great change since she and Joe arrived in Tairua more than 60 years ago.

“When we first came to Tairua in 1955 there were no houses on Paku. There used to be four grocery shops and a post office, plus a bank that rented a section of the grocery shop I worked in.  A butcher came once a week during the summer. The population was about 250 people the first time we were here. The first Tairua library was a shelf in a corner of a shop, with a shoebox for library cards. Joe was appointed Civil Defence controller and I was expected to be in charge of food supply should there be an emergency - I was not impressed.”

Still residing at the home she shared with Joe on Main Road, Ruth is a regular attendee at local events including Tairua Care & Friendship. She is philosophical about turning 100 and what lies ahead saying, “I look forward to the next life…I think it will be interesting.”

Pictured: Tairua’s Ruth Tomlin, who celebrates her 100th birthday this Saturday, with her cat, Delia.


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