Topic: Ellen May Eva McCormack (nee Macmillan) (1935-2017)

Topic type:

Much respected Katikati historian, Ellen McCormack (nee Macmillan), spent almost half a century gathering the history of Katikati and it's pioneers. She received the Queen's Service Medal (QSM) for her work in 2002. Story by Debbie McCauley.

Early Years: Farming, School and World War II

Ellen May Eva Macmillan was born in Tauranga on 25 July 1935. Her family lived in Katikati, but with no hospital facilities available there, her birth took place at the Miss Turner’s Nursing Home in Edgecumbe Road, Tauranga. Her parents were Alice Maryann (nee Theobald) and John Donald Macmillan (known as Don) who developed the largest free-range poultry farm in New Zealand at Katikati, with over 10,000 laying birds. There were six houses on the Macmillan property; five for staff and ‘Ferndale’ the family’s residence. In conjunction with the poultry farm, Ellen’s parents also ran a dairy herd on the 150 acre property at the end of Beach Road, Katikati.

McCormack Poultry Farm, Beach Road, Katikati

The Poultry Farm at Katikati (1954). Photo courtesy of Ellen McCormack.

Ellen's siblings were Jean (born 1923), Rob (born 1926), George (born 1929) and Nancy (born 1947). Growing up on a farm in the war years was an experience never to be forgotten. There was a huge labour shortage and so the family worked from dawn to dusk to keep the farm operating. Ellen was four years old when the war started in 1939. One of her first memories of the signs of war is the black blinds that were put up in every household so as no light could be seen by enemy planes flying overhead. Rationing was introduced with restrictions on things like tea, sugar, butter, meat and clothing. Everyone received a ration book which meant families could only buy to the value of how many coupons they had. Each week Ellen’s mother separated each family member’s ration of sugar and butter into separate dishes in the cupboard. When your share was eaten, that was it until the next lot of rations.

The Macmillan's swapped their excess coupons (if any) with their neighbours, also swapping fruit and vegetables etc. Ellen would walk almost a mile to the neighbours across the paddocks; climbing fences whilst laden with two huge baskets of excess produce to exchange for coupons etc. The neighbours would refill the baskets with their excess produce which she walked home with. This was Ellen’s job most weekends.

Ellen recalls her mother spending every evening knitting socks, scarves and other garments for the soldiers overseas. She also baked for food parcels which were constantly being sent to the soldiers. She milked cows, worked on the farm, sewed the family clothes, baked, held card evenings to raise funds for the Red Cross, Plunket and other worthy causes and still had time to smile and laugh. The washing was done every Monday, come rain, hail, or shine. The copper was boiled first, and then the washing went then into the tub and through the wringer in preparation for the final ‘blue’ rinse. On Saturday’s all the beds were changed; just the bottom sheet with the top sheet then going to the bottom.

Baths occurred twice a week on Wednesday’s and Saturday’s. There was an inside bathroom that was mainly used by female’s and visitors and where Ellen’s father shaved every morning. The males used the bath in the laundry and as Ellen was the youngest of the family and first to bed, her mother bathed her in the laundry in order to save running hot water. This was usually while she was preparing dinner and everyone else was at the cowshed. There was a cold tap over the bath and water had to be boiled in a copper then transferred by kerosene tin to the bath. Each person refilled the kerosene tin so that the next person could add more hot water as required using the dipper. When Ellen looks back to those years she remembers life as very regimental - it had to be to get everything achieved.

In July of 1940, at age five, Ellen started school at Katikati District High School in Beach Road, Katikati. Those were the days before the present Katikati College. School life during the war years was also very severe. The school field was dug up for the trenches and regular emergency evacuations of the school were held. The school was very overcrowded due to the promised new classrooms not being built, meaning that several classes were held over in the Katikati Parish Hall. Heating of the school rooms was via a little pot belly stove in the corner of the room to which each child was monitored for duties. These included fetching wood for the fire, dusting, sweeping and emptying the rubbish bins etc. The Parish Hall had no heating so the children were allowed to wear mittens. There were only high windows which meant no sunlight reached the room making it really cold.

Every Sunday morning at 9am everyone gathered around their radio’s as the lists of the wounded and dead were read out over the radio. Ellen remembers it as a pretty awful time as this was often the first notification that loved ones had been killed or injured. Ellen's memories of that time are recorded here: Ellen McCormack: A World War II Childhood

After completing school in 1950 Ellen worked at home on the farm. In August of that year an accident was to have a profound effect on the family. While Ellen's brother was unloading sacks of wheat from a truck, her younger sister Nancy fell an estimated ten to twelve feet through an uncovered hole in the two storied poultry feed shed and on to the concrete floor below. It is thought that she survived the fall because she hit a horse collar that was hanging on the wall on her way down. Nancy was just three and a half. She had fractured her skull and was lying seriously ill in a coma. Nancy was transferred to Tauranga Hospital by car and her distraught parents were sent home. A few days later, her parents were phoned and told that they should come as Nancy wouldn't survive her injuries. Her mother slept in a chair next to Nancy's bed for several days and kept trying to reach her daughter by talking to her as much as possible. Later, doctor's told Ellen's mother that they believed it was her dedication and communication with Nancy that may have brought her out of the coma. Once Nancy was conscious, the family created a 24 hour roster of helpers as Nancy had to remain perfectly still. The family, neighbours and children helped to entertain Nancy for the many months of her recovery. 


First Job: The Katikati Telephone Exchange

Once things on the farm returned to normal Ellen applied for a position at the Katikati Telephone Exchange. Two references were required and Ellen spent much time debating as to who she should approach. She decided to ask three people, just in case one wasn't a glowing account. She asked her high school teacher, Heather Bruce, headmaster Owen Williams and, at her mother's suggestion, chemist Edgar Warn who had known Ellen since the day she was born. The kind words of these three people were to give Ellen the confidence to submit her application. Postmaster Gus Sherson accepted Ellen's application and she started work in October of 1950 as a telephone operator and postal clerk. This job also involved being Doctor Joe Burstein’s port of call when he was out visiting patients.

Don Cameron, who worked at the Katikati Telephone Exchange, was Ellen's tutor for her first week. This was in the days of morse code being the form of communication per the telephone lines and Don commenced tutoring Ellen in it's complexities. She worked from 9am to 5pm and learnt the Post Office conduct, rules, codes etc. In those days all the rings were rung manually. For example 40M or 14S. M was two longs and S was three shorts with J being a short and three longs.

Ellen found Don to be a great tutor and they got on well together. At that time the toll accounts were written up manually. All toll cards were priced after the phone call then checked by another person that night. Staff then recorded them on the toll accounts which were later checked by day staff. All of this was  carried out without mechanical aids and so arithmetic was of great importance. Fortunately that was one of Ellen's best subjects.

During the second week Ellen started on shifts. There were four females and two males employed on the Katikati exchange. The males did the night shift and the females did the day shift with parts of each shift overlapping. The day shifts were:

  • 8am to 2pm
  • 7:30am to 1:30pm then 3:30 to 5pm
  • 2pm to 8pm
  • 1:30pm to 3:30pm then 5pm to 9pm

These shifts were worked seven days per week. The only exception was when you finished the 8am to 2pm shift on a Friday. Then you were off until 1:30pm the following Monday. This gave the workers a long weekend once a month which hours of planning went into months ahead for a weekend away. The men worked the following shifts:

  • 7pm to 1am
  • 1am to 7:30am

For Ellen shift work was enjoyable as it meant she had many of the sunshine hours out of doors. Ellen's father was unimpressed with her job at the Post Office, especially the hours. When she told him of her successful application, she can remember his words; "You got the job so just make sure you get yourself to and from work on time."

Ellen and her family lived two miles from the Post Office. As she had spent the previous ten years cycling to school she was not bothered at all by going to work by bike, except at night. There were only two street lights in Katikati at that time, and very few houses with lots of trees lining boundaries next to the road. On wet and windy nights when she finished at 9pm, Ellen often achieved that two mile bike ride in record time.

The son of the local publican lived in a farm house on Ellen's road. He also rode a bike, usually in an inebriated state. If he happened to be cycling home at the same time as Ellen she would never attempt to pass him as he slowly swayed all over the road. Ellen would rest on the grass at the side of the road until he was around a quarter of a mile in front of her, then catch him up and take another break on the nearest grassy area. It never occurred to Ellen until many years later that she would have been quite safe to pass him as he was so drunk he wouldn't have been able to catch up with her anyway.

The other workers on the exchange at that time were Floss Sherson who was the daughter-in-law of the postmaster, Gladys Mulholland and Mary Wilkins. Gladys was usually on morning and afternoon shifts with Ellen and they worked together well as a team.

In those days Katikati was a very small town with limited employment opportunities for school leavers. A job was of great importance. Days off were unheard of, people just worked straight through to get the job done.

Ellen remembers being called into the postmaster's office after working on the exchange for several months. It was a most serious request, and Ellen's knee's were like jelly as she knocked on his door. He said "come in" with a smile which allievated some of her anxiety. He told her that the holidays were due for several of the men working in the Post Office. Having noticed that Ellen's arithmetic was excellent he wanted to know if she would be prepared to work on the Post Office counter and do other jobs that were required.  Ellen was speechless at this request; never had a female worked anywhere in the Post Office except for the exchange! It was like being asked to take over as Prime Minister! Ellen ended up relieving at many jobs within the Post Office and then every so often returned to the exchange so her job was both varied and interesting. In those days the Post Office handled stamps; telegrams; money orders; postal notes; car registration; dog registration; family benefit; old age pensions; applications to marry and both birth and death registrations. People were even able to marry at the Post Office where almost everything could be done.

Ellen's first day working at the Post Office was made easier by the many patient customers who all wished her well. A female behind the counter was certainly a novelty back then. "How things have changed now" said Ellen. She was still only 15 years old and felt very honoured with the job she had been entrusted with. Fortunately everything went well and everyone was happy. In those days, if you made a mistake with the till and were out 3d in your balance at the end of the day you were required to put in 3d from your own pocket. However, if you were 3d over it was a different story; that went into the postmaster's office in case someone returned to collect it. The learning curve was steep; 3d out of a pay of £2.50 added up to a lot of money out of your earnings.

The worst days on the exchange remembered by Ellen are the 'accident days'. There was the time that Jennifer Noeline Baker was accidentally run over by her father's truck and killed. It was 1951, and Jenny was aged only four (reg. 1951/31714). Ellen's younger sister Nancy and Jenny were great mates; both born to parents later in life. Floss Sherson and Ellen were on duty together that day and as the news spread throughout the town everyone was in tears - including the girls on the exchange. The phone lines became jammed as the exchange ran out of plugs to answer all the frantic calls and there was nothing that Floss and Ellen could do about it.

Ellen remembers Mount Manganui's worst sea disaster three days after Christmas, on Thursday 28 December 1950. She was working on the exchange on her own when she heard of the sinking of the Ranui which was overturned by a freak wave, killing 22 of the 23 people on board. Pounding surf hampered rescuers. The Kauri built pleasure craft was reasonably new, having been in service for just a few weeks. The lines became jammed as several Katikati families had relatives aboard the boat. Accident days on the exchange were unbelievable. The shutters fell down and staff ran out of plugs and just could not answer all the calls much to customers distress. Ellen believes that if people saw the old telephone exchanges they would understand how quickly they became overwhelmed during an emergency.

Although a serious job, staff on the exchange were able to make there own fun. This was especially true when new employees started as they were easy to fool. Ellen certainly enjoyed her years in the Post Office and found it a good grounding for the other jobs that were to follow.


Marriage and Family

Ellen met her future husband at a dance at the Katikati District High School. On 18 April 1953 Ellen married Clarence Wayne McCormack (1926-2008) in St Peter's Anglican Church, Katikati. He was known as Wayne and they were to have two children together:

  1. Robyn Maryann McCormack.
  2. Christopher Robert James McCormack.


QSM: Katikati Archives

In 2002 Ellen was awarded a Queen's Service Medal for Community Service which is listed in the the Queen's Birthday and Golden Jubilee Honours List.


The Pioneers, Settlers and Families of Katikati and District (2012) by Christine Clement and Ellen McCormack

In 2013 Ellen and co-author Christine Clement launched a book at Tauranga City Library on the families of the Katikati district. The book, The Pioneers, Settlers and Families of Katikati and District, covers the early years of the settlement from 1870 to 1910, containing the histories of over 125 pioneer families from Athenree to Apata. Many previously unpublished photographs, letters and testimonials’ are included within the book which had its impetus from Ellen's over forty years of research into Katikati's history.

Ellen McCormack and Christine Clement holding their book (2013)

 Ellen McCormack and Christine Clement at Tauranga City Library. Photo: Lee Switzer.

In 2015 Ellen celebrated her 80th birthday at the Tauranga Club:

Ellen McCormack's 80th Birthday (2015)

 Ellen McCormack at the Tauranga Club in 2015. Photo: Lee Switzer.

And in 2016 Ellen's 81st birthday was celebrated at Molly's in Te Puke:

Ellen McCormack (2016)

Ellen McCormack with Debbie McCauley, Dorothy Mutton, Christine Clement and Colin Adams. Photo: Lee Switzer.

Ellen passed away at Te Puke Country Lodge hospital on the morning of 19 December 2017, aged 82.



“She was a larger than life character and probably the most dedicated local historian I've ever met. Her passion for the history of Katikati and her dedication to its research were quite amazing. And it wasn't a dry, lifeless set of facts and figures - she really brought it to life with her sense of humour and enthusiasm. We really enjoyed the time we spent with her and greatly appreciated the assistance she gave us in putting together the radio documentary. It was obvious that she wasn't in good health and probably in considerable discomfort but her determination to share her knowledge with us at the various sites around Katikati was really impressive” – John Deering (Irish Researcher

“We first met Ellen about 10 years ago when we had a couple of days in the North Island when we were on our way to Sydney. Ellen went to great lengths to make us welcome and to show us around and even organised a little get together at the Homestead so I could meet my distant relatives. We corresponded sporadically by email over the years and I'm happy to say we saw her again around this time last year when we had a 2 week holiday in NZ. Julie took us to see her and it was wonderful to see her again. She has done so much over the years for the benefit of the Ulster settlers and their families (and many others I'm sure) but remained unmoved I believe as to the huge contribution she made overall. I hope she will get some recognition for her work. She probably wouldn’t want it but she really deserves it. She was passionate about it, driven and determined, but above all, a thoroughly lovely person. It was a privilege to have known her” - Nick & Anna Stewart.

“She will be remembered by us those who loved her for the person she was; a fighter a friend and many many more things” – Val Baker.

“Ellen touched so many lives and I'm sure there will be many people affected today by the news that she has died” - Julie Gray.

“She was a lady of strong opinions and a great sense of humour” – Shirley Arabin.

"I will miss a good friend with Ellen - we had lots of giggles together. She was a great help with my Te Puke books and hardly pressured me at all to write the Katikati book. She was so pleased to be able to see her Katikati research in a book for future generations" - Christine Clement.

"I will always be deeply grateful to Ellen for her campaign to save the Athenree historic homestead. If not for her steadfast determination against considerable local opposition [supported by Snow Brown and John Rapley], the Athenree homestead would long ago have been destroyed, and a key historical connection to this area's amazing past would have been lost. It is thanks to Ellen's passionate commitment that the Athenree homestead is now a vibrant historical treasure, and suitably, stands as a lasting legacy of her long association with its restoration. I was fortunate to work with Ellen for 11 years. During that time, she gave me a deep appreciation of the importance of accurate and well researched history. Ellen's knowledge and recall of historical facts was remarkable. She was our 'go to' person whenever detailed historical information was required. Her invaluable collection of homestead archives was very impressive, much of which is used regularly by visitors and volunteers" - Terelle Carroll.

"Ellen's Contribution to the Athenree Homestead was massive, not only in its initial instigation  as a founding member, and in her continued dedication over the next 20 years for the development and growth of the Homestead. We had a room at the homestead " the information room or Ellens room" specifically for Ellens information, where her files of local family history was stored and readily accessed. Ellen painstakenly documented many stories and could remember every detail verbally too. Her astuteness and memory was so sharp and so admirable. Her research was historically correct, taken from written formal documents coombed through over hours and days. Ellens passing is a  huge loss for our community knowledge. However she has recorded and passed numerous information on through the Katikati archives. I Salute you Ellen" - Debbie Stewart



Ellen McCormack (personal communication 2009-2012).

Katikati Advertiser (4 June 2002): Honour for our History Detective.

The Queen's Birthday and Golden Jubilee Honours List 2002. Retrieved December 24, 2012.

The War Years in Katikati from a child's perspective by Ellen McCormack. Retrieved December 24, 2012, from


This page was archived at perma cc may 2017

Discuss This Topic

There are 2 comments in this discussion.

Read and join this discussion

join this discussion

Ellen May Eva McCormack (nee Macmillan) (1935-2017)

First Names:Ellen May Eva
Last Name:Macmillan
Date of Birth:25 July 1935
Place of Birth:Tauranga
Country of birth:New Zealand
Date of death:19 December 2017
Place of death:Te Puke, New Zealand
Family Surname:McCormack
Place of settlement in Bay of Plenty:Katikati
Spouses name:Clarence Wayne McCormack
Spouses date of birth:17 April 1926
Spouses place of birth:Hamilton
Spouses date of death:11 January 2008
Spouses place of death:Tauranga
Spouses place of burial:cremated
Date of marriage:18 April 1953
Place of marriage:St Peter's Anglican Church, Katikati
Fathers name:John Donald Macmillan
Fathers date of birth:7 July 1897
Fathers place of birth:Thames
Fathers date of death:3 November 1977
Fathers place of death:Tauranga
Mothers name:Alice Maryann Theobald
Mothers date of birth:14 May 1904
Mothers place of birth:Pukeokahu, Taihape
Mothers date of death:5 March 1980
Mothers place of death:Norfolk Hospital, Tauranga
Name of sibilings:Jean Marie Macmillan, Robert John Cumming Macmillan, George Edward Macmillan, and Nancy Alice Macmillan
Name of the children:Robyn Maryann McCormack and Christopher Robert James McCormack
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License
Ellen May Eva McCormack (nee Macmillan) (1935-2017) by Debbie McCauley (Tauranga City Libraries) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License