Topic: Our Sir Stephen Allen Years by Jackie Fraser

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Jackie Fraser's entry in the 2012 Memoir and Local History Competition.

Archived version here.

A short biography of Sir Stephen Allen on the Internet, and mentions of him in reviews of his grandson Peter Macky’s book, Wartime Correspondence, brought back powerful memories of this distinguished man, whom my husband and I knew on a daily basis in Morrinsville for the last six years of his life.   

We had emigrated from England in 1958 so Conon could work for him as a part-time gardener in exchange for wages and a low-rental cottage for our two - later four - small sons.   This was to help supplement the meagre returns from writing boys’ adventure books and occasional journalism.

Our first impression of Sir Stephen, then 76, was of a benign-looking man with a wry smile.  As we got out of the taxi, he shook hands with us.

“Ah, Fwaser,” he said in a very English voice, “I twust you had a pleasant twip?”

We realised he could not pronounce the letter R.

He immediately led us to the back door, where perhaps he thought his gardener more properly belonged, and introduced us to his elderly, apron-wearing housekeeper, ‘Mrs Bwunton.”

In the homely kitchen, breakfast smells of bacon, eggs and toast nearly over-whelmed us as we were all so hungry.   She served Conon a generous plateful of bacon, two fried eggs and fried potatoes. After a while, she took from the wetback stove a plate of the crispy bacon rinds removed from Conon’s bacon.  No fried eggs or potatoes for us, but she did add a slice of toast and glasses of milk for the boys, and Conon and I were given a cup of tea.   

We had been toldNew Zealandwas an egalitarian society, but in her eyes male and female appetites were clearly not of equal importance!   She then told us how much trouble Sir Stephen had gone to, to make us feel welcome in the cottage.

“So clean - you’d be able to eat your meals off the floor,” she assured us!

Mrs Brunton was a staunch admirer of Sir Stephen, and was often his only companion.   He always addressed her politely as ‘Mrs Bwunton’ as they briefly discussed the running of the house.   She would accompany him on shopping trips to Morrinsville, or to his Lake Rotoiti cottage for several days.  

Their positions in life were so different, for Sir Stephen, a lawyer, had also had a distinguished military career, finishing with a D.S.O. and bar and the rank of colonel.  He had been knighted for his services as administrator inWestern Samoa. 

  But they were both no-nonsense people. 

However, he took her faithful servant role for granted, and when she had wanted to get married again, he would not hear of it.

The floors of the cottage were indeed clean, but the walls badly needed painting and patching up.   The kitchen had a wetback coal-burning stove for which he had ordered in coal, and the cupboards were stacked with the groceries we had asked him to get in for us.   He wouldn’t let us pay for these or for the long taxi drive, explaining that it was a welcome present for our family.  

Sir Stephen told Conon that he could decorate the cottage in his own time if he wished, and he would pay for the materials.     Conon made an excellent job of the redecoration, but it took up most of his writing time for many weeks.  I was relieved when Sir Stephen let him paint the outside of the cottage as part of the gardening jobs for which he was paid, as I had been struggling to make ends meet on half a gardener’s wage!  

Sir Stephen made a ritual of paying Conon:  there were always six new one pound notes, spread out in a fan, for he had already taken off 10/- for rent.   It was three and a half years before he gave Conon a pay rise to seven pounds, but he’d give him ten pounds each year for Christmas.   When our family grew to four, he kindly built on an extra bedroom for us.

Conon, who was by nature a hard worker, enjoyed getting to know Sir Stephen through his four hours of daily gardening.   He offered us as much ripe fruit as we wanted for bottling, for our family.   When one of his tenant’s children picked all his lemons and threw them into the ha-ha for the cows he quietly reassured Conon:  “Fwaser, they will gwow again next year.”   He was always restrained.

As new immigrants, I expect our wonder and naivety amused Sir Stephen.  When the air was suddenly filled with the sounds of bullets travelling through the gum trees, it was merely the calls of the shining cuckoos newly-arrived from theIslands.   The abrupt sound of escaping steam was only the roar of cicadas as the day warmed up.   The buzz of mason bees building their mud compartments in the spines of our books and in the curtains I had newly made, went on all day.   At night, the sound of clambering on the roof and unearthly cackling and wheezing was only the bushy-tailed possum!  

When we later found one bloated and rotting in our water tank Sir Stephen asked us if any of us had suffered any ill effects from drinking this contaminated water.  We had not, so he simply asked Conon to fill in the hole it had got in by.   His unemotional attitude was quite justified and, on the flip side, we often appreciated his good, down-to-earth advice.

Sir Stephen drove himself to Hamilton’s grass airstrip, usually on his way to a Masonic meeting as he had been New Zealand’s Grand Master, or to an Anglican lay readers meeting, getting Conon to drive his Rover home.   As Sir Stephen reached a particular railway crossing, he would put his foot down on the accelerator, explaining:  “Not much twaffic on these bwanch wailway lines, Fwaser.”  

No wonder Mrs Brunton always called that pedal the ‘exhilarator!’

He let us use an old bicycle each, and also lent us his car for the odd emergency and, on several occasions, to get away for a few days.

There was, however, a ‘monster’ that Conon never got used to:  Sir Stephen’s ‘Allen Scythe.’    A cumbersome, quivering machine with two huge wheels, a clattering cutting bar, and handles that had to be squeezed and jerked sharply downwards to declutch it.  When Conon worked crouched beneath the branches of the closely packed orchard, trying to prevent the machine from chewing into trunks or breaking away out of control, he came back utterly exhausted, and often later threw up his evening meal.   We were told one of the reasons Sir Stephen’s last gardener had left was because of this inhumane piece of equipment.   Maybe Sir Stephen kept it because of his wry sense of humour, for it bore the same name as he did!

One day a gum tree branch broke, ending up draped across the power line to our home.   Sir Stephen wanted Conon to pull it off, but as the line was still live I protested strongly.   Sir Stephen explained that not much power would be coming through and told Conon to go ahead, which he did, standing on a wooden stool I had brought out.   There was a huge bang and flash, and Conon fell off the stool.   Sir Stephen saw he was unharmed, and just walked away without comment.   The lines people, in their turn, were not impressed!

He asked me to have tea with him a couple of times, and invited us all to go with him to his Lake Rotoiti holiday home for a few days.   He also invited Conon’s mother there when she came to visit us.   Apparently he did not once mention Conon’s good gardening work and we only heard he was pleased with it through a mutual friend in England!  

He was never expansive, but he was also accepting of any gardening mistakes that Conon inadvertently made.

Apparently Sir Stephen had thought during his time in Samoa that Samoans were rather simple and not very intelligent, easily led by the Mau nationalist movement.   Eventually, he put down a peaceful, unarmed Mau demonstration, during which eight Samoans were killed and some fifty wounded.   Years later Prime Minister Helen Clark apologised for this incident to the Samoan people.

Eventually Sir Stephen decided to sell the farm, because of Mrs Brunton’s and his own ill health, about which he was entirely stoical.   He gave Conon a week’s extra pay for each completed year of service, but as we were a few weeks short of six years, due to his attention to detail, we were paid for only five.

Some months later while he was driving Mrs Brunton, he had a heart attack, rolling the car.  They were both killed instantly.   We felt particularly sad, for it had been a privilege to have known such an outstanding, yet enigmatic member of the ‘old school’ from our unique perspective.  

Reference:  Ian McGibbon.   ‘Allen, Stephen Shepherd – Biography,’ from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography.   Te Ara – the Encyclopedia ofNew Zealand.

 About the contributor: Jackie Fraser was born and educated in England before spending three years studying in Paris.  She had a variety of jobs before emigrating to New Zealand in 1958 with her husband and children.   She gave talks on the radio, became a school teacher and has written for The School Journal and other magazines.  She is the author of The Sawdust Makers published in 2006, a historical novel with a sawmilling background set in the King Country in 1939.   She is at present working on another novel and her memoirs, from which this is an excerpt.

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This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016: https://perma.cc/3RQX-ELVN 

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