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A life well lived - 104 and a half

A tribute to Gwen Hamilton by her daughter, Linley Wason.


On Thursday, 24 March, Annie Gwenifer Hamilton (née Bruce) passed away peacefully at Tairua Residential Care. She died of old age at 104 and a half. For most of her life, she lived in Mercury Bay.


Gwen was born in Tapanui, Southland on 8 August 1917. She was the third of a family of nine children. Her father was a farm worker. After the birth of her parents’ fourth child, the family moved to the Kakahu in the Geraldine area, where Gwen’s parents purchased a farm not far from her grandfather’s farm. Gwen spent many happy hours in her grandmother’s homestead kitchen.

When five, Gwen walked to school at Upper Waitohi, about 4km away. The aviator, Richard Pearse’s memorial is not far from the school. About this time, her brother, aged 7, died of mastoiditis, an infection which would easily be treated with antibiotics now.


Gwen did her writing and sums on a slate using a slate pencil. The slate was cleaned with water and a rag. Her older sister got appendicitis which developed into peritonitis. The surgeon thought she would die, but those Bruce girls were tough. The medical bills and falling prices of the 1920s forced the sale of the family’s farm, luckily before the Great Depression set in.


The family moved to what was then a subsistence block and Gwen’s father took whatever work he could find. The sisters had to work on the property. There was a stable, cowshed and gardens that all needing tended. And there were more babies. Gwen’s mother was tough. She kept the family fed and clothed using every resource available.


The depression eased in 1935. Gwen went to high school in Geraldine, making the 12km daily trip with pony and cart. She struggled at school because of the work at home but eventually passed her final year. She also learned to drive her father’s car, a Vauxhall, and gained her licence.

Following school, Gwen attended Teacher’s Training College in Christchurch. The family were doing quite well by now and could afford a piano for Gwen to play on. She took lessons in Christchurch from a relative and from other teachers.


Having lived almost all her days in the country, city life was new. No farm work and a world to explore. Once homesickness eased and friends were made, life was interesting. The training college paid a yearly amount and with help from home, Gwen managed to buy a bicycle to get around.


In her second year, Gwen attended art school at night but instead of painting, she took up embroidery, which she excelled at.


It was 1939. World War II broke out, which altered the course of Gwen’s career. She was first appointed to Winchester School which had three teachers until the principal went off to war. Many male teachers left sole teaching positions to take up arms. Up until then, women could not hold these posts, but Gwen’s first sole appointment was at Hook only two years into her career.

Gwen boarded with people close to the schools she worked at. Life was much less private in those days, one washed in the bedroom with a large jug of water and a bowl, and the “dunny” was in the yard with squares of newspaper as toilet paper.


Then the telegram came - attend Whenuakite sole charge school for a relief position. Gwen had never been further than the Christchurch/Timaru area. It took three days to reach Whenuakite from Orari Station. The ferry left Lyttelton to arrive in Wellington. Then the overnight train to Frankton and the train to Thames, stopping at every hole in the hedge. Ali White’s bus service took care of the Tapu Hill.


At Coroglen, Gwen was met by James Hamilton and his wife, Mamie. They crossed a concrete ford over the Waiwawa River (no bridge then) and continued on to “Bush Park” on Boat Harbour Road.


Gwen was enveloped in the Hamilton family. The Hamilton house was comfortable. Open fires and an Aga stove was kept going 24 hours. A small booster heated water and there was a billiard table for entertainment.


There was a telephone exchange - seven rings and everyone came on the line to hear the news. No power - candles, kerosene and Tilley lamps.


Gwen walked to school. She took her lunch with her. She enjoyed her seven weeks at Whenuakite very much, but the Education Board had more jobs lined up - Ngaruawahia School and Hopu Hopu Army Camp where she joined the Women’s War Service Auxiliary for a weekend activity and passed her first aid course with honours.


Gwen’s next appointment, again relieving, was at Temuka, then it was Eiffelton and Bell Hill. Bell Hill was at the back of beyond near Moana on Lake Brunner. A tough place. No phone, no power, no daily mail or papers. Gwen wondered if she was in Bell Hell.


Then the rescue came. The Whenuakite School Committee wrote to ask if Gwen would consider a wartime position that would last until the war was over. It was 1943 and she accepted. This time she had a horse called “Twilight”, 12 students at the school, a nice home to share living in and there were plenty of activities, including dances at the Tairua Hall.


Things were looking up even more for Gwen’s parents too. They had purchased a good sheep farm at Mt Walker, near Geraldine. With a beautiful two-storey house, a proper bathroom, running water, a huge kitchen and pantry, and farm buildings, her father’s dreams were finally met.

Jack Hamilton and many other soldiers were sent home from the war after the Battle for Crete. He was on leave at his parents’ home in Whenuakite. He met the local school teacher, Miss Bruce, and was smitten. She taught him to read music and he played the saxophone. She did play along with him, but her ability did not match his talent.


Jack’s war effort was not finished and off he went to the Solomon Islands. He was back home in August 1944 in time for the opening of the Whenuakite Hall.


In the May holidays of 1945, Gwen and Jack toured the South Island on the free first-class rail tickets issued by the Armed Forces for returned soldiers. They had a great time and while at Mt Walker, the news came through - the war in Europe was over. And before leaving Mt Walker, Jack had his answer from Gwen - they had become engaged. They bought a ring in Thames on their way back to Whenuakite.


Summer of 1945 saw Gwen back at Mt Walker. Her next job was a relieving position at Geraldine. She resigned from teaching to begin organising her wedding at St Thomas’ Church, Woodbury.

After the wedding, Jack and Gwen returned to Whenuakite and lived in a little house next to the Whenuakite River. Since the river provided the means goods were transported to and from Whitianga, most houses were close to it. The school was moved from the riverside, with great difficulty and two bulldozers, to its present site next to State Highway 25.


It was touch and go, like many births of the day, but Gwen and Jack welcomed their firstborn daughter in the winter of 1948. After three months, the little family travelled south by air to visit the grandparents at Mt Walker. The baby was baptised Jacqueline at the same Woodbury church where Jack and Gwen’s wedding had taken place. Later in the year, there was no teacher at Whenuakite. Gwen returned to school and took Jacqueline with her.


Transport was changing and Jack decided he and Gwen’s cottage could be moved to the roadside. Two more rooms were added to make a sizeable and comfortable home. Gwen thought it had a lovely atmosphere, perhaps because the original planking was kauri from a church in Kuaotunu.

Gwen was a great gardener, she had “green fingers” as they say.


The Mercury Bay hospital was rumoured to close, so Linley, Jack and Gwen’s second daughter, was born in Thames Hospital.


Frequently, Jack and Gwen had people to stay. Mr McKenzie was the Federated Farmers insurance agent from Thames and he came to stay once a month doing his rounds. Mr Nobbs was a travelling salesman with a van full of goods that he touted door to door.

When Geoff Donovan was building a house on his farm, Gwen provided the evening meal for several weeks for the gang of builders. She had them playing cards after dinner. She liked to win at cards and wasn’t above “adjusting play” to suit herself. She would get most indignant should you query her play.


Jack built a bridge across the Whenuakite river in 1957 using tram rails. It was a very difficult task. Son John was born in the same year at the still open Whitianga Hospital.

Linley went to Whenuakite School in 1958, the same year a new two-room building was built.

The 1960s in New Zealand were years of expansion and Gwen was very busy. The family were involved in many school activities. Gwen was on the school committee for years. She was always in the tent at sports days taking results.


Jacqueline and Linley both took music lessons in Thames. One afternoon a week, Gwen drove over the Tapu Hill and along the Thames Coast to the lessons. She was also a delegate for the Women’s Division of Federated Farmers and went to the meetings while in Thames. She often took other people to appointments and for shopping. This continued for many years.


Fishing was always a favourite. The family often went with Gwen to Hot Water Beach, around the rocks. She caught big snapper casting from the rocks there. Flounder were caught in the Purangi estuary at night using lantern and spear. In her 90s, in Te Anau, she caught a trout and refused help to wind it in.


When Jacqueline and Linley were old enough, they started attending boarding school in Auckland. Gwen enjoyed the Auckland shopping, especially Palmer’s garden shop.

After John went to boarding school, Gwen began relieving again at Whenuakite School, becoming firm friends with the Sheriffs who were both teachers there from 1970 to 1983. They remained friends and visited Gwen just three weeks before she died.


Jack and Gwen built a new home not far from where they used to live in 1973 and in 2001, they moved to the Masonic retirement village in Whitianga. This was Jack’s home for four years. He died unexpectedly in Kew Hospital, Invercargill while on holiday in Te Anau with Linley. Gwen struggled with loneliness without him. They had had 58 years together with much happiness, adventure and companionship.


Over the years, Gwen used her energy in many ways, joining lots of clubs and committees. If she was not secretary of this, she was president of that. She wrote for local newspapers for many years, including the Thames Star, the Paeroa Gazette and even The Informer.


Throughout Gwen’s life, she was involved with some form of needle work. Sewing and knitting for the family and numerous other people. At first she used a treadle machine and then a Bernina. She made moccasin type slippers from sheepskin. Later, she knitted Aran patterns for a commercial firm. In her years without Jack, she made beautiful hush-a-bye dolls with an awake face and a sleeping face and little outfits to match each face.


Jack and Gwen were great friends with Bob and Eileen Scott. They all belonged to the Tairua Country Club and the Scott’s house was a stone’s throw from the club grounds. Many happy hours were spent on the bowling green, but they also enjoyed holidays together, venturing as far as Te Anau.


When Jack and Eileen were both gone, Bob and Gwen spent the last four years of Bob’s life enjoying outings and remembering their dear ones together.


It is hard to imagine the life Gwen came from with candle power, firewood-driven cooking and heating systems, water pumped up out of the ground and carried to where it was needed, a “copper” for boiling up clothes to clean them, a weekly bath, all chopping, kneading, stirring and beating done by manual effort in the kitchen, and long drop toilet in the garden with a chamber pot if needed at night. There was no plastic and now the oceans are full of it. No supermarket, no phones, no cars, no teabags. Flour came in 50-pound bags and sugar in 70-pound bags. Everything was weighed out at the grocers on a balance scale and carried in paper and bags people made. People back then had to make it, grow it or do without it. It raised a whole generation of Number 8 wire Kiwis.


Gwen saw the formation of the Labour Party in 1935 and the National Party in 1949. She had seen 34 governments. She stayed in the Masonic Village in Whitianga until she was 103 but had to admit defeat and the family moved her to Tairua Residential Care, which was where she wanted to go. She retained her amazing memory until the end.


Gwen enjoyed a life well lived. She was a dedicated teacher, wife and mother and is remembered fondly by her three children, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.


Pictured: Long-time Mercury Bay resident, Gwen Hamilton passed away on 24 March. She was 104 and a half years old.

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