Topic: The Sounds of Yesteryear by Gaye Hemsley

Topic type:

A 2013 Memoir and Local History Competition entry.

Archived version here.

This story is about Gabriel, who was born in Auckland in 1937. Early one frosty morning in the middle of winter, she was curled up in bed under her cosy eiderdown when the morning peace was disturbed be Marty the milkman with his horse and car.

“Woo woo,” called Marty who was well wrapped up in woolen jumper with an oilskin coat over the top. Gabriel woke out of a deep sleep, rubbed her eyes and pulled back the faded brocade curtains. Peeping out the window she could see Marty pouring milk from a large can. She counted how many pints were going into the enamel billy.

One! Two! Three!

Oh, she thought, I do hope I’m allowed the creamy top milk.

Marty put the lid on the billy and placed it in the special box Gabriel’s Granddad had made that kept the sun off the milk. There was no need to worry today, though; it was a cold and frosty morning.

Gabriel crawled back under the eiderdown and half-dozed until her mother put her head around the door.

“Good morning, merry sunshine,” she said. “How did you wake so soon? You frightened all the little stars and scared away the moon.”

The little girl smiled and said to her mother (whose name was Winifred), “Mummy, where did you learn that rhyme?”

“Your Gran said it to me when I was a little girl and I guess one day you will say it to your children. Now come on! Upitty upitty! Off to the washhouse to wash your face and hands. Gran’s got hot porridge on the table for us.”

Gabriel didn't really want to get out of her warm bed. There was only one way to do it. She quickly jumped up, put on her dressing gown and slippers and made her way to the washhouse, which was a separate room at the back of the house.

As she walked along the wooden deck she noticed ice on little puddles and the grass was white.

Gabriel arrived in the kitchen wearing a navy blue gym dress and a white winter blouse.  Three bowls of piping hot porridge sat on a red and white checked tablecloth.

“Come here, Gabriel, and I will plait your hair while the porridge cools down.”

Gabriel's mother pulled the comb through the child's long brown hair. Gabriel made a few faces as the knots were combed out.

“There,” said the mother. “That wasn't to bad, was it? I've saved you the top milk.”


Gabriel immediately forgot the ordeal of having her hair done.

Gabriel’s Grand-dad Sigard would soon be home from work. He worked nightshift on the wharves at the Port of Auckland.

Gabriel knew that her family lived in the largest city in New Zealand. Her grandfather loved working anywhere near the sea and ships. He had often told Gabriel how as a young Norwegian boy, when he was only fourteen, he had ran away from home and joined up as a deck hand on a ship that was sailing to New Zealand. He had returned several times to his homeland, but eventually he met Gabriel’s grandmother Julia and they decided to live in New Zealand.

The family had a little dog named Honey because his coat was the same colour as the jars of honey that were in the cupboard next to home-made jams. There was strawberry, blackberry, marmalade and lemon cheese. Gabriel always wondered why it was called lemon cheese when it tasted nothing like cheese.

Suddenly Honey started to bark and Gabriel realised her Granddad had arrived home. Before her mother had a chance to put a coat on the child she had jumped up from the table and ran up the gravel path to greet her grand-dad.

The man who walked through the gate was about five foot seven, slim but not skinny. He had a cap on over his thinning fair hair, his face was wrinkled and his blue eyes twinkled when he saw his little grand-daughter. He put his carry bag over his shoulder and gathered the excited child up in his arms.

“That child will get her death of cold,” Julia complained. “After that awful bout of whooping cough she had, we have to be so careful.”

“I agree,” said Winifred, “but we mustn't mollycoddle her; she's perfectly well now.”

Gabriel and her grandfather arrived in the kitchen.

“Oh, it's nice and warm in here.”

He put his bag down by the open fire and gave his wife and daughter a kiss on the cheek.

“How are all my girls this fine morning?”

He turned to his daughter and said in a low voice, “Have you heard from Jim yet?”

“No, not yet, Dad, but any day now there should be news.”

Gabriel’s father Jim was in the Navy and he was away fighting for his country in the Second World War. Gabriel didn't understand much about wars, but she did know it meant she only got to see her Daddy every now and then.

Putting a strong weathered hand inside his bag the Grandfather pulled out a loaf of freshly baked bread. The smell was delicious.

“Oh, goody,” said the child, delighted. “Could I have the end with the hair on it?'”

The three adults looked at each other, a little puzzled at first and then burst out laughing.

“Oh, darling,” Gabriel's mother said, “You mean the end bit with the curl on it. Of course you can have it.”

While Gabriel was finishing her breakfast her Gran was busy making honey sandwiches for her grand-daughter’s lunch.

“I've put in a couple of my queen cakes. Don't eat them both at morning play time,” she instructed.

“And don't forget to drink your school milk,” added the mother.

“But, Mummy!” Gabriel pulled a face. “The milk is yuck, it sits in the sun and it’s warm. I like it when it's cold.”

“I am sure it will be all right this morning,” said Sigard. “It’s very cold today. Now, come on. You're running late for school. Here's a penny. Get your coat on and I'll take you across the road. You can catch a tram to school today.”

Gabriel, Granddad and the little dog Honey carefully crossed the road to wait for the next tram. After a few minutes Gabriel heard the sound of the tram, and saw its dark red carriages lumping along on its tram tracks. Honey tried to jump on.

“Dogs don't go to school!” Sigard grabbed the little dog.

Clang! Clang! Off went the tram with Gabriel waved through the window to her Grand-dad.

“Tickets, please,” called out the conductor.

Gabriel proudly produced her penny.

“One section, she said. She felt grown up and important; it was the first time she had travelled on a tram by herself.

She was fascinated because the tram didn’t seem to have a back or a front. A little bit like a worm, she thought.

That was to be the beginning of many times that Gabriel would travel around the city of Auckland in the 1940s and 50s.

Some years later when Gabriel started ballet lessons she would travel to the city in a tram.

When she commenced secondary school, Gabriel needed to catch two trams to get to her school, St Mary’s College in Ponsonby. By the time she started her first job in the city she was a seasoned tram traveler.

Many Aucklanders believe the city should never have done away with the trams. Auckland is now a Super City with well over a million people, so perhaps there just isn’t enough room for the humble tram. 

If you’d like to go for a ride in a tram, pay a visit to the Motat Transport Museum. Shut your eyes and enjoy the sound of yesteryear.


This page archived at Pema CC in October of 2016:

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