A Different Kind of Life The author L.P.Hartley begins the Prologue to his novel The Go Between, with the now widely quoted first line, ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ If the quotation is over-used to the point of being a cliché, it is because like all clichés it also very apt.
The line makes me think of life in the Lyttelton of the late 1800’s and succeeding decades.
In 1966 as young marrieds, we moved to Lyttelton, knowing little about the place, other than it was the port for Christchurch, and the terminal for the inter-island ferry. I knew also it was the point of entry to New Zealand for the settlers coming on the First Four Ships from England under the auspices of the Canterbury Association.
It was clear to me, that jammed in between high, towering hills and the waters of the harbour, Lyttelton could never have developed into a place of any size. It was always destined to be in thrall to the younger, but rapidly growing settlement of Christchurch that had the room to expand, and the productive flat land beyond. But otherwise, I knew nothing of the rich history of the town and the prominence it had once enjoyed in Canterbury, and indeed New Zealand.
The rail tunnel, hewn by Cornish miners brought over for the purpose, put an end to the difficulties of moving people and goods between the port and Christchurch. The steepness and precipitate nature of the tracks and roads limited their use, and the journey by sea around the coast and over the estuary bar was long and at times dangerous.
From 1867, residents had a quick rail journey to the centre of the city.
We, in turn, were benefiting from the opening of the road tunnel.
We bought a house part way up the Bridle Path, that same steep track taken by the first settlers with their children, carrying or dragging their chattels over the top of the Port Hills to their promised new settlement.
But for us, the Bridle Path now began above the road tunnel portal instead of down near the water, and it had become a sealed road in its lower, settled part but it was still challengingly steep.
Directly opposite us was number 10a with a sign ‘Devonia’ on the gate.
There was a tantalising glimpse, at the end of a long, narrow access, of an early house on a rise, almost a promontory, with a commanding view of the inner harbour and the settlement rising up the hill from it.
It was the first house we had owned and we were busy getting the house and garden the way we wanted them, and absorbed with the imminent arrival of our second child, so quite some time elapsed before we met the elderly owner of the house opposite, Miss Margery Kate Hatchwell.
Miss Hatchwell (we were never invited to call her anything more familiar even though we got to know her well through the 1960s and 1970s) had fine white hair pulled back in a bun, and red cheeks. Her voice was low-pitched and she spoke beautifully with the natural dignity that was very much part of her character. She carried herself very straight and dressed conservatively in subdued colours.
When we met her she had been living on her own for some time and apart from a few close friends of her own vintage, kept very much to herself. She was pleasant to us in early meetings but took her time before becoming more closely acquainted. If I am sketching a picture of the type of person who used to be called a ‘gentlewoman,’ that is intended.
It was on the Bridle Path itself that we first met her. We had noticed how accustomed the locals were to walking up the steep streets, and we were open-mouthed when we first saw how some varied their trip by walking up backwards to use other muscles and at the same time to look out to the view.
In those still-busy days the port always offered something to see.
On the Bridle Path, the only differentiation between the road and the footpath was a stout, galvanised pipe handrail carried between ancient totara posts, over which hikers would drape themselves to catch their breath, and locals would lean while chatting. We met her there, while resting our 3-year old.
Though in her eighties, she still walked everywhere, even carrying her groceries up the steep incline. The house had been her home all her life and as she said, she had always walked. A woman friend might drive her to Sunday church services, but otherwise she was wary of accepting a lift up the hill and she would bend down to check first who was in the car.
Initially, to us Miss Hatchwell was just an old, single lady and it was some time before we knew much about her. Gradually we learnt that she was the younger daughter of a deceased master mariner and well-known Lyttelton identity,
Captain Robert Hatchwell.
Like many of his calling, upon marriage and starting a family he ‘swallowed the anchor’ and found a position ashore.
More information emerged. ‘Captain Robert Hatchwell arrived in NZ on Ionic in 1883; he was the local manager of the NZ Shipping Company…The Hatchwells conducted a navigation school for officers and cadets in the Navy over almost 50 years at the family home ‘Devonia’; his daughters taught signalling here where they had panoramic views of Lyttelton’s harbour.’
Later, after we knew her better, Miss Hatchwell told us that she and her sister used semaphore to communicate with ships as they approached the inner harbour. We had a mental picture of young women outside their house in long drab dresses vigorously waving brightly-coloured flags about to attract the attention of men on sailing ships. It sounded daring for the times and it did not fit our image of Victorian propriety. There was obviously a lot we didn’t know.
Sometimes when we spoke, she would give us other little snippets from the past. But being a young person, I didn’t feel able to question an old lady for more information than she gave me. I became interested in the world she grew up in, but not sufficiently so to pursue it very far.
Later, we moved away and later still she died.
It seemed clear from my subsequent reading that Captain Hatchwell’s position would have been a demanding one. Lyttelton was a busy, bustling port. Photographs taken in the 1870s and 1880s show a forest of masts and rigging in the harbour such that it is not easy to distinguish one ship from another; it was the time of the graceful clipper ships taking our wool and wheat to Britain. They were fast but the voyage could still take up to 100 days.
In time that forest would gradually yield to the stout, no-nonsense metal funnels of steamships. The opening of the graving (dry) dock in 1883 provided the opportunity for more maritime industries and the reclamation area created with the spoil from excavation provided more urgently needed flat land and more jobs.
But the rail tunnel, as well as making the port more accessible, also made the town more of a place to pass through. However, it was still prosperous, it had a good number of shops, supplemented by ships’ chandlers, giving a better selection of goods and services than was available in a non-port town of similar size and almost all the needs of the residents could be met locally.
Always self-contained, the community of those who stayed became ever more tightly knit. But John Johnson, in his The Story of Lyttelton quotes Millicent Kennedy:
‘In her interesting account of early Lyttelton, Miss Kennedy makes the point of showing how all the early colonists had to rough it at the beginning; but before long, differentiation in the work of the several ‘grades of society,’ as they imagined themselves, had begun to make its appearance. “But,” she says, “in Lyttelton there has never been any wide separation between the different classes.” ’
Johnson goes on to say, ‘The population of the Port has been, and still was when she wrote, drawn chiefly from the lower and upper middle classes, as so known in England. In 1876, there were neither any slums, nor any distinguished aristocracy.’
Nevertheless, humans are programmed to form groups within the whole, and even in Lyttelton, a community of under 4000 people, social groupings established themselves. While those people with aspirations to gentility and higher places socially moved onto Christchurch, Lyttelton had its own social order.
The Mayor and his Councillors, local Members of the Harbour Board and the Harbourmaster, the Bank Managers and Postmaster, the Shipping Company Managers, all were written prefaced in capital letters, and regarded in a similar fashion socially; they with the local lawyers, doctors and more prominent merchants were the leaders of the local society.
Captain Hatchwell was a member of this group. He was a man of standing in Lyttelton; as well as his position with the NZ Shipping Company, and his navigation and signalling schools, he was also a Justice of the Peace, and newspaper reports of the day report his work on the Bench dealing with various miscreants.
He was appointed in 1904 as one of the Trustees of the Lyttelton Public Cemetery where all deceased, other than Anglicans, were buried. He and his schools were certainly well-regarded in the community.
The Press in 1912, mentions his writing a ‘small volume…that explains in simple form the stereographical projection of the sphere …a most useful nautical projection…by the well-known principal of Devonia Navigation School, Lyttelton.’
We had grown up with nation-wide radio, and television had arrived in New Zealand a few years before and was quickly becoming part of our universe.
After listening to her occasional remarks, we wondered how the local people like her family entertained themselves, what recreation and social life they had in the 1800s and early 1900s.
Various accounts refer to the ‘visiting’ – calling on each other in their homes - and the parties and balls, right from the first months of the settlement. For others, it may have been as Geoffrey Rice notes that, ‘The hotels provided not only refreshment but also what little recreation was available in early Lyttelton: the Robin Hood advertised “a Good Dry Skittle-Ground”.’
Things were better in 1865, when the Colonists’ Hall opened. Rice records that it had ‘committee rooms, library and reading rooms, and a grand concert hall on the top floor.
This became Lyttelton’s venue for amateur theatricals, concerts and visiting entertainers…’ Dance halls and billiard rooms were established.
By the turn of the century, or shortly after, a band rotunda was constructed, and there were three cricket clubs.
From the beginning, men associated in their various groupings. There were several Freemasons Lodges, as well as Oddfellows, Foresters, Druids, temperance lodges and friendly societies.
For its size, Lyttelton seemed almost oversupplied with such bodies. But if the men were well catered for, it was not so for the women.
Apart from the churches and church-linked organisations, there were various charities to assist with, and a few other bodies such as the Choral Society (which was one of the earliest organisations.)
The Y.W.C.A. started in Lyttelton about 1917 and for thirty years provided its range of activities, but I did not know if the Misses Hatchwell ever took part. Those women who were married attended official functions with their husbands, and these functions were numerous and lavish.
But Scotter records that the opening of the dry dock was marked by a magnificent banquet for 700 gentlemen, thirty of whom made speeches. It cost £533, of which £240 alone was for assorted wines. By his mention of ‘gentlemen’ it seems women were not part of that assembly.
Always, however, the harbour was a popular recreation area for all, not just for the town but for Christchurch and beyond, providing interest and attractions.
Early on, the Lyttelton Borough Council provided bathing facilities (including a shark net!) at Sandy Bay which disappeared under the reclamation area near where the oil storage tanks now stand.
There were small steamers and other excursion boats and launches providing trips to Diamond Harbour, Purau and Corsair Bay for picnics and outings around the harbour.
Early photographs show, for example, watersiders about to set off on their picnic on a small steam boat crammed with mostly men, everyone of them wearing a hat and a tie.
Miss Hatchwell spoke several times of the annual Regatta Day.
Held on New Year’s Day, it attracted immense crowds from beyond Lyttelton.
For example in 1896, the Railways Department announced it had carried no fewer than 25,000 people to Lyttelton on that one day.
A photo of Oxford Street on Regatta day, 1911 shows the street crowded with people, the women in their long dresses and huge hats; everyone is wearing a hat, even the children. The Maori from the Rapaki pa, who didn’t appear much in Lyttelton in those earlier days, regularly did well in rowing events After many boat and yacht races, the day would finish with an underwater explosion – a strange event to people of our generation – and a fireworks display, both of which thrilled the children. Miss Hatchwell told us that her father had taught them to sail, and they had a launch, the Onawe, and they participated in Regatta events.
Visits by important vessels - particularly naval ships – drew huge crowds to Lyttelton as did a succession of Royal visitors who of course came by sea.
Like the rest of New Zealand then, Lyttelton felt British and was intensely patriotic.
Queen Victoria’s Jubilee brought crowds of people to Lyttelton and they watched both processions on land and events on the water. Departure of troops for the Boer and 1914-18 wars were witnessed by equally huge numbers on the wharves.
It became very apparent to us that in those days, perhaps because of a lack of other diversions in their lives, people took every opportunity to come together as a community to celebrate or mark every occasion they could.
Many people have an immediate image of a port as a rough place with seamen coming ashore after a spell at sea, and getting drunk and disorderly, with or without equally rough women.
One of the features of life in Lyttelton was the interaction between people in town and port.
On the one hand, residents told me that they, as their parents had done before them, kept their families, particularly the females, away from the wharves; ‘the only females down there are ship girls from Christchurch’ they said But on the other, particularly in the days when loading and unloading was more leisurely, ships could be in port for up to a month, and locals working on the wharf or for the harbour board, made friendships with seamen and took them home for meals and home comforts.
I learnt elsewhere that Devonia, known as such by all and sundry, attracted many young men both as students, and as visiting ships’ officers. Even so, two daughters, Winifred and Margery, died spinsters. That may have been in part because they were required to keep a formal distance from those they were tutoring, and it would not surprise me if their father had been a dominating, intimidating figure.
Victorian men ruled the family roost, and a ship’s captain would be even more autocratic. The social mores of the day were strict, and this persisted at least up to the 1914-18 war and beyond.
I was interested in the social life that someone like Miss Hatchwell experienced. She told us fascinating little anecdotes; more I found for myself.
Church attendance and official functions formed much of the social life of this group and they ‘called on’ each other, and families had recitals, singing and musical evenings. Visiting ships provided an opportunity to host the officers and quite formal dinners were held in homes. As the ships’ unloading sometimes took weeks, many deep friendships developed with local families.
Histories of Lyttelton recount stories of ships’ officers joining local families for a singsong around the piano.
Perhaps because there were limited opportunities, important arrivals and departures generated huge interest. People flocked to Lyttelton for Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s farewell, the crowd estimated at up to 50,000, of whom 6000 went as far as the Heads to see him off.
Visits by members of Royalty were very popular and various anniversaries were celebrated with gusto; Queen Victoria’s Jubilee celebrations being on a large scale.
Through the late 1800s and early 1900s the harbour was a hugely popular recreation area drawing great numbers of people. The largest regular event was Regatta day with thousands coming by train from Christchurch. Hundreds of people were on the water in launches and small steamers which also took people on other occasions to Purau and Corsair Bay where a jetty and bathing sheds had been built.
Miss Hatchwell spoke of Sunday school picnics and other organised trips on the water to the above places and Diamond Harbour.
Miss Hatchwell’s father taught his daughters to sail she told me, and I have wondered since, now that I know more about the times and their conventions, whether that was a somewhat daring thing for young women of the day to do.
One of the sights at that time was a school of seven whales which regularly came up as far as Quail Island, though by 1930, only three remained.
The family’s launch, the ‘Onawe’ well known in the port, and later became one of the Diamond Harbour ferry service vessels.
She told me of the times they sailed to Quail Island to visit the lepers, taking food treats, new reading material and other ‘comforts’ as she called them. They stayed for some time talking, for the lepers received few visitors and their days were long and monotonous, but the Hatchwells were always careful to keep a safe distance; there was a fence beyond which visitors did not go. Quail Island, after previously being a human quarantine station and a convalescent station, was used to isolate and treat people with leprosy. The numbers of afflicted people on the island began with an unfortunate solitary individual and grew during the 19 years until 1925 ‘when the eight remaining lepers were transferred to Makogai Island, Fiji’.
Given the universal fear that existed at that time of this disfiguring, disabling disease, one can only admire the moral courage of the family who, with a few others like them visited the lepers regularly.
The Hatchwells, as most people of the time, were very committed church goers, and their practical Christianity showed through in this and other activities. The mother, Mrs Ellen Louisa Hatchwell, was a volunteer nurse during the disastrous 1918 flu’ epidemic, believed to have been brought home by returning servicemen.
The family were prominent in St John’s Presbyterian Church, and mentioned in its centenary history 1864-1964. Margery’s name appears in the Lyttelton Times as a prizewinner in the Sunday School awards.
She had told us a little about the family entertaining officers from visiting ships, the talk and the singsongs around the piano, but perhaps because of her natural modesty, did not reveal that Captain Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton had been regularly entertained at their house. It was only through my later reading that I discovered this. A paper by Jane Ellis, University of Canterbury records that (Ernest) ‘Shackleton spent about a month at Lyttelton overseeing the restowing of the Discovery, and became known in the community. Hospitality was provided by local citizens such as the daughters of Captain Hatchwell who ran a navigation school with their father, and entertained Shackleton at their home in Lyttelton, Devonia Cottage 10a Bridle Path.’
Miss Margery Kate Hatchwell had lived through times from the heroic polar exploits of Scott and Shackleton to year-round life at bases on Antarctica; from the invention of the motor-car and the aeroplane to nuclear power and the computer; yes, from the Wright brothers to round the world jet travel and men walking on the moon.
It is inevitable that we look back on the simple, unsophisticated pastimes of her youth with condescension and superiority. But if she had been still alive today in the 21st century, what would she have thought of our equivalent of her time’s entertainment and recreation, our almost desperate need for distraction and diversion, our requirement to have amusement provided for us rather than doing it for ourselves?
We were invited into Devonia (named after the family’s home county of Devon in England) on a few occasions and I have the recollection of a flagstone entranceway, of dark timbered walls, of furniture and furnishings probably unchanged from the time when all the family was alive. I can recall on the wall a large framed photograph full of incredible detail; the picture clearly taken on a large glass negative.
It showed the huge crowds on the wharf for the departure of one of the Polar Exhibitions.
There is a young woman in a long dress standing on her own in the foreground: it is Margery Kate Hatchwell herself.
I remember ‘Cocky,’ a cockatoo in its large cage. It had been left with Captain Hatchwell by a seaman who was off to sign up for service in the 1914-18 war, the ‘Great War’ as it was called.
He never came back, and no-one knew how old the cockatoo was at the time, but over sixty years on, Cocky was still there, imitating everything and everyone. He was an embarrassment at times to Miss Hatchwell; she couldn’t stop him copying exactly the hacking cough of one of her friends, or taking the end off any finger foolishly poked into his cage, his territory.
And I can’t escape the memory of ancient cockatoo and solitary gentlewoman declining together in a large, mouldering house; deathly quiet but of the memories of laughter and music and deep conversations and bright repartee.