Chapter 15
Henry William Simpson Hellyer

I am struck at this moment by how little one knows of the lives of one’s grandparents. Henry William Simpson Hellyer [H.1, T.7a, 7b, 7c], Grandpa Hellyer as I knew him, “Harry” to all his many friends, spent his whole working life in the employ of Sargood, Son and Ewen one of New Zealand’s larger importing and warehousing firms of the day. There is no record of his attending Otago Boys’ High School, and one must presume he joined the firm when he left primary school, “as a boy” as one of the tributes has it. This was the William Street Primary School, for a book that has come down to me shows him to have been awarded First Prize there in Standard Five in 1884. He was clearly very successful with Sargoods, rising by stages to become finally their warehouse manager in Dunedin, the head office of the company. He was in this position when he died at the early age of 58. Part of his career can be pieced together from a few newspaper clippings preserved by his wife and, later, his only child, my mother. Unfortunately they are undated, but, when read in conjunction with his marriage certificate and the birth certificate of his daughter, something can be reconstructed.

Some time before 1895, but not long before, he was promoted by Sargood, Son and Ewen and transferred to Christchurch, where he became warehouse manager of that branch. At the time of this transfer he must already have been courting his wife-to-be, Grace Wilkinson McNair [H.1, M.1]. The marriage took place at the home of Grace’s parents in Pine Hill on 17 April, 1895. He was 26, she 27. Harry had clearly come from Christchurch for the ceremony, for the marriage certificate gives his “present” residence as Kensingotn, Dunedin, and his “usual” residence as Christchurch.

Harry and Grace set up house in Barbadoes Street. It was there on 8 January, 1896, that my mother, Freda Muriel Hellyer, was born. She was to be their only child. The house was rented from a Mr Hunter, a builder, and Mum reported it still standing when she visited Christchurch in 1977.

Mr Hunter later bought land in Chester Street and built a number of houses there, one of which, at 45 Chester Street, he offered to Harry Hellyer, who bought it. It was next door to the Hunters, and the Hunters and Hellyers became good friends.

Mum recounts that the Hunters had two daughters, both older than she was, and that they used to take her, at age three, to their school, a small private school, St Johns, in the hall of St Johns Church, in Latimer Square. It was run by the two daughters of the vicar of St Johns. He was old, his wife died, and one of the daughters went to live with him and take care of him. The school proved too much for the other daughter and closed. Mum then went to East Christchurch School. Initially put into Standard One, she was moved, she recounted, to Standard Two within a few days. She must have been about seven or eight at this time.

Another story told by Mum of Christchurch days relates to the death of the Hellyer’s dog, Mash. The family had all gone to Dunedin for their holidays. Mum and her mother stayed on, first at the Hellyer grandparents’, then at the McNairs’, while Harry returned to Christchurch. On Sundays he used to take the dog down to the river for a swim, but on this occasion Mash would not eat his dinner on returning. Harry had a meal with the Hunters and remarked that he would “probably have to get a vet on Monday”. By the evening, however, Mash was dead, presumed poisoned. Harry then remarked to Mr Hunter that he would have to get up early on Monday to bury him before going to work. When he got up at 5.30 a.m. to do this the dog was not to be seen, but in the garden was a mound where he had been buried, even earlier, by Mr Hunter.


Figure 15.1: Harry Hellyer and family

Besides making a successful career as a “warehouseman” - that is how he is described in his marriage certificate and on Mum’s birth certificate - Harry Hellyer had many other interests. He was a keen sportsman, involved in cricket, football and, in later years, bowls. In all these sports he passed from being a player to an administrator, a recognition of his organising abilities. According to Mum he was the founder of women’s hockey in New Zealand. He was an active freemason and was a founder, in 1907, of the “Lodge Oceanic”, the St Kilda branch of the movement. He played a prominent part in the affairs of the Holy Cross Anglican Church in St Kilda, of which both he and his wife were staunch adherents. Among her contributions Grace, noted for her needlework, embroidered the church’s beautiful altar cloths. Harry was for some years a member of the St Kilda Borough Council and, on retiring from it, he was presented with an elaborate “illuminated address”, which has come down to me through Mum.

Figure 15.2: Grace Hellyer. Harry Hellyer

It was 1907 when the Hellyer family moved back to Dunedin. They first lived in Princes Street, Musselburgh, and Freda was enrolled at the Musselburgh Primary School. In 1909 she passed out of “Mussy” as dux of the school. In the same year she was awarded second prize of the Otago Branch of the Navy League in the “Naval History Examination”. The prize was a biography, “Dundonald”, the story of Thomas Cochrane and his brilliant but unconventional naval career. As a boy, instilled at school and to a lesser degree at home with conventional patriotism and pride in Empire - “the British Empire covers a fifth of the globe” - and worship of courage and gallantry in war - Sir Philip Sidney, Sir Richard Grenville and the like - I read it with a mixture of admiration and fascination that had me in thrall for a good many years.

Freda went on to King Edward Technical College, as it then was, completed a secretarial course there, and for a time worked in the college office. She then went to work for the New Zealand Express Company under the manager, Mr Ernest Trenwith. She was working there when she married.

I can recall visiting the Princes Street house as a very small boy. My vision is of a bay-windowed villa standing behind a post-and-rail fence and an olearia hedge, a side gate to the right of the house, a path leading from it round to the back door, and a heavy, rather scruffy white spaniel, slow with age, wagging a tail at us as we entered the gate. I seem to see too a baby - Gray - in a pram. I must have been hardly three. Later memories are of the Hellyer house on the corner of Ferguson Street (now Ravelston Street) and Quarry Street (now Rona Street). Harry and Grace Hellyer must have moved there about 1924.

I suppose it was partly because Grandpa Hellyer was always so busy, so much in demand, that I never got to know him. Mum used to say, not as a criticism but as a matter of pride, that he was never in of an evening. Partly also I never knew him because he died, of cancer, before I turned six.

I have really only two memories of him. In one, my brother Gray and I had been taken by Mum into Sargood’s warehouse in Lower Dowling Street to select Christmas presents. Well, I don’t suppose Gray “selected”, for he could have been no more than a toddler, perhaps even in a push- chair still. I am not even sure now that we knew why we were there. What I do recall is a bewildering array of toys. It must have been then that I picked out my “jigger”, a trolley that worked on the same principle as the hand-propelled jiggers used then and for many more years by gangers on the railway. It was a great joy to me for it could be propelled at speeds far in excess of a trike; and a bane to Mum for it was an apparently endless source of oil and grease that unfailingly got on to my clothes. When it finally broke down it was never fixed. I never found out whether this was a conspiracy between Mum and Dad as the best way of avoiding grease on the clothes, or was simply inertia on the part of Dad.

My second memory of Grandpa Hellyer is of being taken, along with Gray, into the bedroom where he lay dying. I would now assume it was for him to see us, though then thought it was for us to see him. My memory is of a silent, cold room, a thin white figure lying inert on the bed, only partly covered by the sheets, a bandage round his waist, and, as it seemed to me, a great dark red hole in his side. Can this be right? Was it a hole? The scene at any rate remains bitten into my memory. When he died there was a huge cortege of cars following the hearse on its way from Holy Cross Church to Andersons Bay Cemetery. It went along Victoria Road and we boys were taken to the end of Queens Drive by Grandpa Titchener to see it go by. I counted 54 cars; but presumably got it wrong for the memorial printed by the Oceanic Lodge says “some 45 motor cars each carrying a full quota of mourners”. It is hard to recapture, more than 60 years on, a feeling for the times. The memorial gives some idea as it continues:

“A touching tribute of respect to the memory of our late
Brother was paid by the pupils of the upper standards of
Musselburgh School, the deceased having been for a time a
member of its committee. The children, about 160 in all,
were assembled on the line of route at its intersection with
Victoria Street, and stood - the boys at the “salute”, the girls
with bowed heads - and, with their worthy head master,
silently watched the cortege as it wended its way to the last
resting-place of one who had given of his best towards the
advancement of their school.

“Arrived at the graveside, the last sad rites were
delivered by Bro. (Rev) A. Wingfield (Church of England),
and W. Bros H. F Harris (an associate for over 40 years) and
W. Jacobsen (Masonic), while the Commercial Travellers’ and
Warehousemen’s Club Choir sang ’The Long Day Closes’;
‘Thy book of toil is read
The long day closes.’ ”

These lines are the inscription on Harry Hellyer’s grave.

By the time Grandpa Hellyer had become ill, Grace’s sister, Auntie “Josie” Mitchell [M.1], and her husband George and daughter Dorothy had moved from Council Street, St Kilda, to Quarry Street. Each family could see the other’s house. When Grace needed help in managing her husband during her nursing of him, she would, Dorothy recounted many years later, hang a dish-towel in the window of her scullery. This was the signal for Auntie Josie to go over to help.

Mum would take us to visit the Titchener and Hellyer grandparents on alternate Sunday afternoons. We would walk over from our place on the corner of Calder and Moreau Streets; or rather Mum would walk - she was always a brisk walker - I would ride my trike or “jigger”, and Gray would be wheeled in his push-chair. Later, he too would ride a trike.

I have few memories of the Ferguson Street house. One is of a large mangle against one wall in the washhouse, in which we often played. Dire warning not to touch this dangerous machine left a deep impression. We must have been rather docile little boys. Another is of standing at my mother’s knee in the darkened sitting room, my mother in tears and Gray in her arms an episode I have already written about.

We boys always called Grandma Hellyer “Mama”, to distinguish her from Grandma Titchener, who was “Grandma”. Soon after her husband died, Mama sold the Ferguson Street house and moved to a smaller place on Royal Terrace (?), Musselburgh. It was, I think, new or almost so, because the one recollection I have of it is of a large back garden that Mama had just dug over - its first digging - to plant it in potatoes, the standard recipe in those days for breaking up virgin soil. I see a wire- netting fence topped by a wooden rail, Mum on one side, Mama in boots on the other, as they talked. Mama was vigorous then, but not for long. She died, also of cancer, just two years after her husband. She was buried with him in the Andersons Bay Cemetery.

15.1 Freda Muriel Hellyer

Freda [H.1, T.7a, 7b, 7c] Hellyer, our mother-to-be, was a bright only child, biddable one suspects, self-disciplined, conforming. She was born in Christchurch but finished her primary schooling at Musselburgh School when her father was transferred by Sargoods back to Dunedin. She was dux of the school and also won a prize for a Navy League essay.

As I’ve recounted she went on to King Edward Technical College to a secretarial course, and worked there and with the New Zealand Express Company, before marrying.

She greatly loved her parents, and often spoke admiringly of her father and his many abilities. She and her mother must have been good friends, and would often go out together to concerts, shows and the like. She used to tell of her mother once finding herself in the tram on the way to some such affair and discovering herself to be still wearing her apron. Mum had a collection of little anecdotes and family jokes of this kind which we tried to get her to write down, but with no success. She could always see the funny side of things, yet I never heard her make a joke of her own.

The marriage she embarked on with Dad must have turned out a great disappointment, with its many tribulations. She was, however, a stoic, and, with her self-discipline and determination, it was she who kept the home together. She devoted her life to doing that and to bringing up her children. She managed the housekeeping money - what there was of it - saw to it that Dad was got off to work on time, that we were got off to school, had our dinner on the table at midday, and so on. I do not know how we would have fared during the hard times of the 30s had it not been for the small income from her father’s estate. Dad was earning little or nothing at one time, there were mortgage payments to be kept up on the Beach Street house, and there were the usual household outgoings. I recall a clip of bills that for years hung on the wall by the kitchen safe. These were the bills from McCormick, the grocer, and Rennie, the butcher, whose forbearance was probably all that stood between us and penury. It was years before these were paid off, years more before the mortgage was finally discharged.


Figure 15.3: Freda Hellyer aged 18

My going to high school was Mum’s doing, as indeed was Gray’s and Yolande’s. She it was who saw to our education beyond primary school. Dad never seemed to show the slightest interest. Mum was determined that I should not go into a blue-collar job. She was “sick of dirty overalls”, she said. I remember a long and serious talk in the sun on the washhouse steps about high school, prompted by my coming home with the Otago Boys’ High School prospectus. My love of Mecanno was taken to indicate an engineering bent. Mum’s great admiration of her Uncle Mont [M.1] led her to press me into considering civil engineering as a career - which was his field. I was also somewhat influenced by my friend Guy Kensington’s father, a tall inpressive-looking man, who was head of the Dunedin office of the Lands and Survey Department. In reality I knew nothing of either occupation. However, as both seemed to require some knowledge of drafting, it seemed clear that I should take the high school course that included classes in drawing. So it came about that I enrolled in the “modern” rather than the “Latin” course at OBHS. It was a wrong choice, corrected only a year and a term later when the new high school headmaster, H. P. Kidson, realised that I was loafing my way through Modern IVA. Five years later came another discussion. Civil Engineering was still the goal, but this, we found out, required going to Canterbury University College, financially out of the question it seemed. A short talk to the class from the Upper Sixth form master, Bammy Williams, whose son had made a very successful career as a mining geologist, made mining engineering sound atrtractive, and the Mining Faculty was local. So the choice was made. “You won’t like that. They’re a tough lot,” said Freddie Fastier, who had left school a year my senior, when I met him in the street one day. I didn’t, and it was another wrong choice, but not for the reason Freddie gave. It was no one’s fault; and Mum was the only person who saw to it that I went on to University.


Figure 15.4: Freda Hellyer aged ?

That was the great difference between Mum and Dad. She was supportive and positive; he unsupportive and often negative.

As children we had few holidays away from home. Those we did have were at Mum’s initiative. The two summers at Christchurch, a holiday at Johnson’s boarding house at Karitane in the year of the Napier earthquake, the holiday at George Densem’s crib at Warrington are all that I remember, and all were due to her. Dad could hardly be persuaded to come. I remember him coming for only a few days at Warrington - perhaps over a week-end.

Mum was physically energetic, enjoyed gardening and walking. She was a brisk walker and thought nothing of the 20 to 25 minute walk from Beach Street to the Musselburgh grandparents’. When Yolande was born she walked a lot with her in the pram. We boys often went with her and enjoyed, competed even, to help push the pram.

Mum rarely if ever revealed her deeper emotions, to the extent that sometimes one wondered if she had any. She had them but she hid them. As I was leading Yolande up the aisle at her marriage to Gerald - Dad was by this time dead and I was “giving her away” - Margaret, standing beside Mum in the church, asked if she was not upset to see this. “I just look at the ceiling and think of something else,” was Mum’s response. That is probably a fair summary of how she handled the many emotional crises she had to face in her marriage.

Late in life she realised she could no longer manage the Beach Street house on her own, and moved to a unit in Christchurch not far from Yolande and Gerald. She settled there very happily. Jeremy as well as Yolande was a great support to her and a frequent visitor. Mark too was in Christchurch at the time, and Mum enjoyed his company too. She died quite suddenly, during a short visit I was paying to Christchurch, of an aortic aneurism, brought on possibly by the excitement of this visit and the evening we had all spent together at Yolande’s

Min Titchener, in her letter to Madeline Cobb, gave a thumb-nail sketch of how she judged Mum, and perhaps this “outsider’s” view is a good way to end this note. “Freda,” she wrote, “is a most delightful person - so young and refreshing for her age.” Mum was 71 at the time.