Topic: A Different Kind of Life by John Ewen

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A Different Kind of Life by John Ewen was an entry in the 2012 Memoir and Local History Competition.

Archived version here.

In 1966 as young marrieds, we moved to Lyttelton, buying a house part way up the Bridle Path, that same steep track taken by the firstChristchurchsettlers over the top of the Port Hills; on its lower, settled part but still challengingly steep. Directly opposite us was a gate with a sign, Devonia, and at the end of a long, narrow access was an early house on a rise with a commanding view of the inner harbour and the settlement rising up the hill from it.

Some time elapsed before we met the owner of the house, Miss Margery Kate Hatchwell, on the Bridle Path itself 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.

We were never invited to call her anything more familiar than Miss Hatchwell even though we got to know her well through the 1960-1970s. She 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 so much a 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 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.

Initially, she seemed just an old, single lady but gradually we learnt elsewhere that she was the younger daughter of a deceased master mariner and well-known Lyttelton identity, Captain Robert Hatchwell, who arrived in New Zealandon the Ionic in 1883. The Hatchwells conducted a navigation school for officers and naval cadets for almost fifty years at the family home, and his daughters taught signalling there.

Later, after we knew her better, Miss Hatchwell recounted how 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 to attract the attention of men on sailing ships. It sounded daring for the times. But being young people, we didn’t feel able to question an old lady for more information than she volunteered.

She came over to our house occasionally and delighted in our little domestic stories; such as our 3-year old inviting the two linesmen up the power pole outside to come in to watch the baby being breastfed. Thankfully they declined…

We had grown up with nation-wide radio; television had arrived inNew Zealanda few years before. How had the local people like her family entertained themselves in the 1800s and early 1900s?

From various accounts we learnt about the ‘visiting’ – calling on each other in their homes - and the parties and balls, right from the first months of the settlement. When the Colonists’ Hall opened, it provided a library and other rooms and a venue for concerts and touring entertainers.

Dance halls and billiard rooms were established. From the beginning, men were well-catered for with their clubs, lodges and friendly societies, but it was not so for the women. There were the churches and church-linked organisations, and charities to assist with; but few other organisations such as the Choral Society, with which women could be involved.

The harbour was a popular recreation area, she told us, attracting people from the whole province and providing numerous attractions. There were many steamers and other excursion boats and launches providing trips to the bays.  Early photographs showed watersiders about to set off on their picnic on a small steam boat crammed mostly with men, everyone wearing a hat and a tie. Miss Hatchwell remembered Sunday School picnics and similar events being organised as trips on the water around the harbour and bays.

She spoke several times of the annual Regatta Day which, held on New Year’s Day, attracted immense crowds from beyond Lyttelton. I read that 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 Streeton Regatta Day 1911 shows the street crammed with people, the women in their long dresses and huge hats. In fact, everyone is wearing a hat, even the children.

She mentioned how visits by important vessels drew crowds as did the succession of royal visitors, and the departure of troops to the Boer and 1914-18 wars. QueenVictoria’s Jubilee celebrations were on a huge scale. Like the rest ofNew Zealandthen,Canterburyfelt British and intensely patriotic. 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.

We realised that in those days, perhaps because of a lack of other diversions in their lives, people took any opportunity to come together as a community to celebrate or mark every occasion they could.

I learnt elsewhere that Devonia, named after the family’s home county in England, attracted many young men; some as students, and some 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. The social mores of the day were strict, and this persisted up to the 1914-18 war and beyond.

Our neighbour told us a little about the family entertaining the visiting officers, 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 her family home opposite us. It was only through my later reading that I discovered this.

Captain Hatchwell taught his daughters to sail, she told us, and again we wondered whether that was a somewhat daring thing for young women of the day to do. We heard of the times they sailed toQuailIsland, then used to isolate leprosy sufferers. They would take food treats, new reading material and other ‘comforts.’ They stayed, talking, for the lepers received few visitors and their days were long and monotonous. There was a fence beyond which visitors did not go, but given the then universal fear of this disfiguring disease, one can only admire the moral courage of the family who, with a few others like them, visited the lepers regularly.

The Hatchwells, like most people of the time, were committed churchgoers, and their practical Christianity showed through. 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.

Miss Margery Kate Hatchwell lived through eventful times from the heroic polar exploits of Scott and Shackleton to year-round life at Antarctica; from the invention of the motor-car to nuclear power and the computer; from the Wright brothers and early aeroplanes to round the world jet travel and men walking on the moon.

Perhaps 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’ on just 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 plate as 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 recall, too, ‘Cocky,’ a cockatoo in its large cage, that had been left with Captain Hatchwell by a seaman who went off to sign up for service in the 1914-18 war.  He never came back, and over sixty years on, Cocky was still there, imitating everything and everyone.

By the time I became really interested in the world Miss Hatchwell grew up in, we had moved away; then she died, so my many questions could not be answered. But I can’t escape the memory of ancient cockatoo and solitary gentlewoman declining together in a large, mouldering house; deathly quiet but full of the memories of laughter and music, of deep conversations and bright repartee.


This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016:

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