Chapter 16
The Sisters of Harry Hellyer

I know nothing of the childhood of the Hellyer sisters, except the remark by Mum that “the Hellyers were better off than the McNairs. The girls all went to a private finishing school”.

16.1 Berlinda Sophia Hellyer


Figure 16.1: Freda Hellyer’s autograph from Peggy (nee Metson) Dalmer’s autograph book

Of Grandpa Hellyer’s five sisters the eldest was Berlinda Sophia [H.2]. I never heard her called anything but “Lil”. Born in 1870, two years younger than Grandpa Hellyer, she married Fleming Laurenson in 1890. I believe I saw her only once. It was during the first of the two summer holidays we boys spent with Mum in Christchurch. On that first holiday Mum seemed to make a systematic round of visits to all the Christchurch relatives and old family friends, and one of these was to Lil Laurenson; though I have to confess that I may have her confused with Mrs Rallenshaw whom we also went to visit. My picture is of a white house set back from the corner of two intersecting streets, a warm sunny day as we walked up the path to the front door, and a greeting, as the door opened, from a large lady, bosomy and overflowing, who led us into a sitting room where drawn blinds closed off the brightest of the sun. She subsided into a chair covered in a florally chintz soft armchair, and almost flowed out of it, she and Mum engaging in reminiscent family talk, while we boys did what? I do not remember.

Lil and Fleming had three children, Harry, Carl, and Linda [H.2]. I never met any of them. Harry, Mum told me, died unmarried. Carl served in the army in the Great War. He married a French girl. They came out to New Zealand. They had one child. Carl died soon after, and the wife returned with the child to France. They were not heard from since. The third child of Lil and Fleming, Linda, married Duke Buchanan and they had seven children. All I know of them apart from their names is that Ashton, the eldest, joined the Navy in World War II and, while in it, either died or was killed; and that the eldest girl, Gloria, was killed in a motor car accident.

Lil died in 1929 at the comparatively early age of 59. Fleming survived her by five years.

16.2 Emma Alison Hellyer

Harry Hellyer’s second sister, Emma Alison, “Auntie Em” as we knew her, was the one we knew best [H.3]. She married Alfred George Kinvig, “Uncle Alf”, in 1900. At the time Gray and I first saw them they were living at 38 Haast Street, Linwood. It was there that we stayed for the whole of January in the first of those two memorable summer holidays in Christchurch. It would have been, I think, the January of 1927.

Haast Street seemed to be a house always full of people. Alf and Em had four children [H.3], Rita, Alix, Harry and Fleming. All of them, in that year we stayed there, were unmarried and lived at home. Great Grandma Hellyer was living there and also Aunt Adelaide [H.1], Em’s unmarried sister. Besides Mum and us boys as visitors there were also staying at one time or another that summer two of Mum’s Dunedin cousins, Dorothy Mitchell [M.1], daughter of Auntie Josie, and Mack Stewart [H.4], son of Auntie “Lal”.

It was a house not only full of people but full of chatter and laughter. I see women’s heads, mob-capped, standing talking, laughing in front of the coal range in the kitchen, forever preparing a meal. Visitors were frequent too, including occasionally Auntie May [H.5] and Uncle Harold Blake from what seemed a remote outpost - Belfast - which entailed not a tram but a train journey.

The summer is a memory of unending sunny days and of endless play outdoors. Mack, older than us, amused himself while there, and us, by dressing us, all three, in either Harry’s or Fleming’s territorial uniform, in which we conducted a mock war. An almost daily routine for Gray and me was to sail walnut-shell boats down the street gutter. The place next door to the Kinvigs’ stood hidden from the street by a high corrugated-iron fence. Just over the fence was a large walnut tree. From its heavy crop it would drop each day a scattering of nuts on to the pavement from overhanging branches. I don’t remember that the nuts amounted to much, but the shells, broken in half, made wonderful boats that Gray and I could sail down the gutter that was always flowing with cold clear water in its circular-shaped channel. Artesian water, we were told. Magic phrase. Gutters in Dunedin didn’t have water in them except when it rained, and in any case weren’t shaped to form a nice river-like channel. Always flowing? Not quite always. Now and then we would come out after breakfast to find no water. It seemed like a cheat, a failure of our own special playground right outside the Kinvig gate.

Rita and Alix were working girls, Rita at Armstrong’s Department Store on the corner of Armagh and Colombo Streets, Alix at Ballantyne’s on the corner of Cashel and Colombo Streets on the other side of “The Square”. Harry worked too, though I don’t recall where. Perhaps he was already with the PWD as it was then called, and in which he subsequently became chief draughtsman in the head office in Wellington. Even Fleming, the youngest of the Kinvigs, was, I think, working by this time. I have the feeling that he had left school at the end of the previous year, and had started with, was it the Christchurch MED or was it the City Council? So we didn’t see any of them during the day, or Uncle Alf. Alf was employed in the office of the Canterbury Frozen Meat Company.

Alf’s abiding enthusiasm was bowls. He was a prominent member of the Linwood Bowling Club, and a redoubtable player in the “fours”. Either in that summer, or in the summer when we next came to stay in Christchurch two years later, the Linwood four, of which I think he was “skip”, won the New Zealand championships, held in Christchurch that year. I remember the excited talk in the kitchen after a match - the final? - in which Uncle Alf had successfully “burned the head” at some desperate point in a game.

Alf was a quiet person, in the house at any rate, neat, smallish, with a frequent quizzical smile. Well, he had to be quiet with all those chattering Hellyer women dominating conversation. Yet with all the banter and laughter there was also gossip, and they were forever falling out, pipped, forming into camps, not speaking to each other for days, weeks, sometimes even months because of some real or imagined slight. Mum was habitually on her guard, and I recall her saying that it never did to get into the bickerings of the Christchurch relations.

Rita and Alix came down to Dunedin and stayed with us at Calder Street during the time of the Dunedin and South Seas Exhibition. Aunt Adelaide must have been down at the same time. There is a photograph of Dad, Alix, Adelaide and Mum in a “flying machine” - fake of course - in the Amusement Park. The cousins were obviously great fun. I recall Rita coming into the sitting room one day and announcing that she had just mastered “the Charleston”, and giving a lively demonstration on Mum’s prized Axminster carpet. Perhaps that helps to explain why the Wilton, in the master bedroom, outlived it.

Alix, though the younger of the two daughters, married first - to Bernard Rennell [H.3]. Among the Christchurch Hellyers it was an outrage. Bernard was a “Roman”. The Kinvigs were strong Church of England. The family did not speak to Alix, or to Bernard, for months, more especially as Alix “converted” to the Roman Catholic church.

Alix and Bernard were perfectly matched. Both were cheerful, unworrying, even happy-go-lucky, with a joke never far off. I always thought theirs a perfect marriage. Yet when the Great Depression came they were not without their troubles. Bernard’s father ran a contracting and construction business, and Bernard and his brother took over its management as the father grew older. By the Depression days it had fallen on hard times, building contracts being hard to come by.

Alix and Bernard began their married life in Disraeli Street, Sydenham, alongside the family contracting yard. Down at the back, along with the usual untidy jumble of contractors’ gear, was a row of cages in which were housed a colourful-looking collection of bantams and cocks. I didn’t realise it then but later came to understand that these were fighting birds, and Bernard presumably spent some of his leisure time matching them against rival birds raised by other addicts.

The next time we came to Christchurch the Rennells had moved to a pleasant and more presentable house in St Albans. So had the bantams. We spent the first part of the holiday at the Kinvigs. Sailing walnut cockle-shells does not figure in my memory. Then we moved to the Rennells’, before finally going to Akaroa to stay with Mum’s Aunt Lissa and her husband, Bill Buddle.

The Rennells’ St Albans house stood back a little from the street, had a large bow window in the front, and the “front door” on the left side of the house. A drive went down to the front door and then continued past it to the bantams’ quarters at the back. I see in my mind a large dining room, opening to the left off the front hall, and well shaded from the hot Christchurch sun by drawn blinds. Alix is at the dining-room table, with their first and quite new baby in her arms. I see too, late in the afternoon, Bernard dressed in dinner jacket and bow tie, looking very distinguished. He is about to go out, presumably to some male function, a “smoke concert” possibly, for he had a fine baritone voice. He is bidding Alix goodbye - he always pronounced her name with a long “a” as in “day”, the only person I ever heard do so - with the kind of playful affection I never saw between my parents.

Sometime, probably several years, later, the Rennells went to Little River, which is a small settlement on the road to Akaroa. There the Rennells had won a contract to build a new bridge, a contract that evidently relieved the family finances, if it did not improve their living quarters. Later still they returned to Christchurch, buying what they were cheerful to call a “farm”, in Mays Road, Papanui. It lay on what was then the outskirts of Christchurch. It was no more than a few acres, but there was at least a horse. Whether there were still bantams I no longer remember. What I do remember is an old house, distinctly shabby, even tumbledown, and an untidy agglomeration of farmyard and contractors’ gear scattered around the paddock behind. But the atmosphere was still one of unworried happiness, if now pervaded by farmyard smells and farmyard flies. By that time there were more children, and there always seemed to be a baby, either in arms or toddling. The final total was seven.

When Bernard died Alix went back to work at Ballantynes. The children one by one grew up, and married, and became independent. When Margaret and I visited them in 1960 Alix had moved into a brick bungalow, still on the Mays Road property, having managed this, as I suppose, by selling spare land for subdivision in what had become by that time truly suburban Christchurch. Peter, Alix’s eldest son, helped in this change and, I think, lived in the house and perhaps inherited it when Alix died. This produced a rift in the family, and resort to the familiar gambit of not talking to each other. Whatever died with the earlier generation of Hellyer women, the right to a self-righteous, self-imposed silence did not.

When we holidayed in Christchurch for the second time, Rita was being courted by Edgar Chivers. The other members of 38 Haast Street were a- twitter, though expectations seemed to be mixed. I don’t think they quite knew what to make of Edgar. He was not of clay they were familiar with. He had gone through that elite institution, Christs College. He was the son of the owner of a well-known Christchurch confectionery firm. On the other hand he was balding and rather stout. He looked older than a young lady’s fond mother or aunts might hope, even if he wasn’t. To add to the doubts the Chivers confectionery business had just collapsed in the Depression, and Edgar was out of work. I recall that he would come round of an evening to see Rita, and that they would disappear down the back garden in among the raspberry canes, presumably the nearest approach to privacy in that chattering household where practically everything was public.

Edgar, well presented and with an educated and clear speaking voice, soon got a job announcing on 3ZB, which a little later boomed when the Labour government reorganised the ZB stations as a national commercial network. Edgar and Rita duly married [H.3]. They set up house in Bletsoe Avenue, Spreydon, where they lived their whole married life. They had two children, Roy and Barrie [H.3]. Roy as a young man became a tut-tutting point for the Christchurch relatives, for he drifted from job to job unable, it seemed, to “settle down”. He finally “settled down” in “The Railways”, from which he by now must have retired. Barrie, on leaving high school, joined the Navy, and, since World War II was by this time over, the relatives could feel settled about his “settling down”. He recently retired and lives in the Auckland area. Both boys married and have children.

While I was at the School of Engineering at Canterbury College just after the war I used to visit the Chivers from time to time. It was a convenient cycling distance from my one-room flat near the Avon, and a release from its cramping quarters. More, I used to enjoy a chat with Edgar, who always had interesting things to say about the world he knew and I didn’t, and the people in it. Roy and Barrie were still living at home, though often out when I called round, which would usually be on a Saturday or a Sunday. Barrie was still at school, Roy also perhaps, or perhaps had just started work. There was a park nearby, and Roy and Barrie, with other neighbourhood boys, would often play informal games of football or cricket there. Edgar was keen on cricket and would often go over and join them. He was inclined to bossiness and liked to instruct, and I used to wonder whether, in going there, he was being wise.

Always very pleasant to me, Edgar had, however, a sharp tongue, and there would be visits to Bletsoe Avenue when I would hear it used on the boys or on Rita, an uncomfortable moment for the visitor. On one occasion that has stuck in my mind he and Rita got into some minor tiff which he effectively closed off by saying that he supposed she would “now go to Mum, as usual”, meaning not that she would leave home, but that she would go to Mum as to a mother confessor. “You go over,” said Edgar, “at least once every week.” Rita, wisely, did not respond. Yet I am sure it was, at bottom, a happy marriage.

After the two summers we spent at Haast Street in the 1920s I seldom saw the Kinvig “boys”, Harry only once in Wellington, Fleming very occasionally in Christchurch when I was a student at the School of Engineering. This reflects Mum’s continuing contact with Rita and Alix through letters and exchanges of snapshots by which the women of families keep families in touch; something that men are not good at.

Harry married, and he and his wife, May, had two children, a son and a daughter. Like many a civil servant of that time, Harry was transferred to the head office of his Ministry in Wellington. He became, I believe, chief draughtsman of the Ministry of Works. The family lived on a hill above the eastern edge of the Hutt Valley in the suburb called, I think, Normandale. Gray, who was transferred from the Dunedin office of the Ministry of Works to their head office, knew Harry quite well, and he and his wife, Joan, visited the Kinvigs, taking Mum to see them on some occasion. Mum at some later date pointed out to me their house, which could be seen on the hill from down in the Hutt Valley. My only meeting with Harry could scarcely be called meeting. I was at a conference on technician training in Wellington in the 1960s or perhaps 1970s. In the discussion after presentation of one of the papers a speaker at the back of the audience made some comment I found myself in strong disagreement with and, given the ear of the chair, offered a contrary view. I was seated near the front of the hall. As we rose at the close of the session and turned to leave, someone pointed out the person I had differed from, mentioning that this was Harry Kinvig from the Ministry of Works. I don’t recall that we actually managed to meet.

Fleming continued to work in Christchurch. He and his wife, Win, have four daughters, all of whom are married and with families. During my two student years in Christchurch I would see Fleming occasionally at his parents’ when he and I would both happen to visit them at the same time. This would be at the house in Hills Road to which Auntie Em and Uncle Alf had moved when Alf retired. The last of these meetings was at the burial service of Auntie Em in the church just across the road from the house. That was probably in 1948. More than 40 years later, in 1990, we met again, this time at Yolande’s place in Burnside, a meeting prompted by Fleming having told Yolande that he “knew something about the death of Jim Hellyer” [H.1], adding darkly that “he died in gaol”. Fleming proved to know little more than these already revealed statements. However, this revelation led to my unravelling the tragic story of Jim Hellyer - of which more later.

At this meeting Fleming also spoke about L.O. (“Ossie”) Beal. Ossie Beal, well-known Dunedin consulting engineer, according to Mum was responsible for the “mole” built at the mouth of Otago Harbour to keep the harbour mouth from silting up. He was also heavily involved in dredging works on the Otago goldfields. He was married to Alf Kinvig’s sister, Jessie Dalrymple Kinvig. Fleming recalled a visit to his Aunt Jessie when he was a small boy. He described being seated in some kind of carriage belonging to Ossie Beal, wedged between his mother and his aunt (Aunt Adelaide?) and being driven to a remotely sited house. It stood on a hill slope (if I have understood Fleming’s account) on the near end of the Otago Peninsula - perhaps what is now called Waverley. He produced a photograph of this house. I am left with the impression of an unpretentious wooden building set in a sea of grass. Fleming mentioned that Ossie was accustomed to ride into work in the city on horseback.

16.3 Alexandra Louise Hellyer

The third of Harry Hellyer’s sisters was Alexandra Louise [H.1] - always known as “Lal” or “Lalla” from her own childhood attempts to say her name. Lal married Robert Pyott Stewart [H.1, H.4] - Pyott, Mum said, after some French relations in the Stewart background. Bob Stewart and his brother owned and operated two well-known fish shops in Dunedin. One, managed by the brother, was in Princes Street South. The other, which Uncle Bob managed, was to the north of the Exchange on the east side of Princes Street just above what was then the Union Bank of Australia. Mum rarely shopped there. She said it smelled; and so it did. She preferred to go to Mr Clarkson’s in King Edward Street, St Kilda. His shop stood next to “the Chinaman’s”, the “Chinese laundry”. I would be sometimes sent to Clarkson’s - it was about six or seven minutes’ walk from our place in Calder Street - to buy two rabbits, ninepence each I recall, for our dinner. I don’t believe there is anything more delicious than a nicely roasted, stuffed rabbit. Sometimes, too, Dad would send me there, in season, for a “pottle” of a dozen oysters, one of his favourite delicacies. He loved them raw, but Mum didn’t, preferring them fried. I never liked them in any form.

The Stewarts lived in Grove Street, Musselburgh, almost directly behind Grandpa and Grandma Titchener in Queens Drive. We would sometimes loop round via Grove Street on one of our Sunday visits to Grandpa and Grandma. I chiefly remember a rather large bungalow and a solid-looking Buick car, much newer and more impressive than ours, standing in the driveway.

Auntie Lal and Uncle Bob had four children [H.4]. Elsie, the eldest, was perhaps 10 years younger than Mum. She married Les Walker, and when we, Margaret and I, came to live at Ardmore they were living in Remuera. We visited them occasionally, the first time when Judith was a new baby. Elsie and Les had three children, all, I believe, married and with children.

Lal and Bob’s other children were all boys [H.4]. All married and all have children. The eldest boy, Bill, came out of school in the Depression. He got a job with the New Zealand Railways Road Services, eventually becoming manager of the Dunedin depot. He and his wife had two children, both of whom married and have children. The youngest son, France, also worked for the Railways Road Services, as a bus driver. He lived at Outram on the West Taieri. He and his wife, Nita, had a son and a daughter. The son, who was an electrical lineman, was electrocuted in an accident at his work. The middle son of Lal and Bob Stewart, Mack, became a cabinet-maker and French polisher. He, his wife Mattie, and family lived in St Kilda. Mack was handicapped by a club foot - I never knew the cause. Despite this handicap he was an unfailingly cheerful, happy person. He it was who made into a coffee table for Mum the piece of beautifully figured rimu that Grandpa Titchener hoarded lovingly for years behind his washhouse door. This was after Grandpa had died, 72 Queens Drive had been sold, and Grandpa’s various “treasures” had come to Beach Street when Grandma came to live there permanently. Mack and Mattie had three children, all of whom married and had children.

16.4 Margaret May Hellyer


Figure 16.2: Roger (“Mick”) Blake, killed in World War II

The fourth of the Hellyer sisters, Auntie May, was 33 when she married Harold Blake [H.1, H.5]. They had two boys, Walter and Roger. When I first knew them the family were living in Belfast, north of Christchurch, where Harold worked in the office of the Canterbury Frozen Meat Company. I met Walter only once. He, like Bill Stewart, came out of high school during the Depression. Unable to find work locally he went to Sydney, where he married and settled. He and his wife, Joy, had two children. I never saw him after he left New Zealand. The younger son, Roger, always known as Mick except by his mother and father, was the apple of Auntie May’s eye. I always thought that Walter suffered from this too obvious partiality, and that this may have contributed to Walter’s leaving home. Mick joined the Air Force. He evidently had some kind of cadetship that entitled him to attend university where he studied towards an engineering degree. The War interrupted that. He transferred to the Royal Air Force and enlisted in aircrew. This always astonished me, a hay-fever sufferer, who because of that complaint was turned down for aircrew service some years later. Annoyed then, I became grateful later. Hayfever probably saved my life. Mick got hayfever much worse than I did. During Christchurch’s dust- and pollen-laden nor’westers so common in summer he was almost completely incapacited, confined indoors and sometimes even to bed. Mick became a pilot in Bomber Command, based in Britain. He flew more than 50 sorties over Germany. He was decorated with a DFC after making a masterly flight back from one raid in which the ailerons of his “Liberator” bomber were almost completely shot away. His parents were very proud of him; but pride turned to desolation when, soon after completing his first “tour” of 50 sorties, Flying Officer H. R. Blake was posted missing from another raid over Germany. It was his last, and Auntie May never fully got over the loss of her beloved Roger.

Their tragedy was, for me, a small gain. When, after the War and my insignificant even laughable part in it, I enrolled at Canterbury to pursue a degree in Mechanical Engineering, Auntie May and Uncle Harold offered me Mick’s books and drawing instruments. They asked me to call and see them, and I could tell, without being told, that this was a major decision for them, especially for Auntie May. These things were almost the last physical connection they had with their dead son. Hard up, I was glad to accept them. Some years later they grew to feel the need for their return and asked for them back. What then happened to them I do not know; except for two of the books, which I was grateful to retain.

During those two Christchurch summer holidays of our early boyhood, Mum took us out to visit the Blakes. The particular visit I remember was another of those warm sunny days that seemed standard for Christchurch. It was a train ride to Belfast. I remember Mum pointing out “the works” as the train slid past them. We walked from the station to the Blakes’ house. We sat in their kitchen-cum-dining-room. It must have been in a week-end for Uncle Harold was at home. Walter and Mick were out somewhere. We boys, Gray and I, must have looked as if we had nothing with which to amuse ourselves, for Uncle Harold suddenly said: would we like to hear Mick’s wireless? We had never heard of “wireless”, let alone listened to such a device. “Ooh, yes,” we said. It was Mick’s home-made crystal set. This small board with its various attachments, loops of wire, and a set of headphones was produced and placed on the kitchen table. We all sat round it in pent-up expectation, while Uncle Harold, headphones over his balding pate, fiddled with the cat’s whisker trying to get a sound out of the ether. The headphones were passed from head to head, but never a voice did we get, only mysterious crackles that came from who knows where. Uncle Harold, if disappointed, remained his usual cheery self, his booming voice making compensation for the ethereal voice that never was. “Ah, we need Mick,” he boomed, as the unobliging device was returned to Mick’s bedroom.

Uncle Harold was indeed unfailingly cheerful, despite the steady advance of visible rheumatoid arthritis that pained and finally crippled him. Auntie May, on the other hand, was a complainer. Even when she was not complaining her voice had that plaintive note that, perhaps without her realising it, let you know that life as she saw it was not all roses, however rosy it was.

16.5 Adelaide Maud Hellyer

Adelaide, the youngest of the Hellyer sisters to live to adulthood [H.1], never married. She was usually called “Ade”, to rhyme with “add”. Over the many years I knew her she lived in the Kinvig household and was deeply part of it. What income she had I never knew. Perhaps Alfred left something to her when he died. That was in 1915, by which time Adelaide was 35 and probably already reckoned to be an “old maid”. Certainly she never looked like a dependent. After Auntie Em died she continued to live on at Hills Road with Uncle Alf. She survived him by four years dying at the great age of 89. I do not know where she lived for those last four years.

I have always thought of her as the Hellyer version of Auntie Lissa of the McNair sisters. She was always sweetly spoken, addressed everyone as “Dear”, and was distinctly “correct”. Her correctness was regarded with a touch of amusement by other more casual members of the close family. A small, neat person, she was quite clothes-conscious, dressed smartly if rather fussily. When she was going out she took great care over her appearance, which included a heavily powdered face, gloves and a hat, and in her younger days a fox fur and a veil. Everyone was very fond of her.