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Smart kids and simpler times

An aerial of Greytown (date unknown) showing the Murphy’s site off Reading St to the bottom left. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

With the sale of Murphy’s Orchard in Greytown, the once thriving spot for summer workers is set to become a rest home. This feature, written by DON FARMER, recalls how  money was made growing up in Greytown in the 1950s, including for Gordon Murphy on the orchard site. It first appeared in 1991.

Jack Davenport was a car buff and a pretty handy chap all round.

He was generous spirited too, and a trifle shy with kids.

Never did talk much to us youngsters but one year he did a great favour, he made his son Steve and my brother Evan a cart each.

Dammed good carts they were, painted yellow with names stencilled in red on the sides.

Steve’s was Daredevil, and Evan’s was Spitfire.

Kids from all over the neighbourhood had fun pushing each other round the lawn or up and down Jellicoe St but it was later, when the novelty had worn off a bit, that Spitfire started to really pay its way.

There were two belts of pine trees at the bottom of the street on the way to Brian Skeet’s farm, and Spitfire could hold six bags of cones stacked upright.

At one shilling and sixpence a bag [with the bags returned] that meant nine shillings a load, or two trips to the pictures for the two of us with a dollop to spend at half time.

Gordon Murphy weighing raspberries. He had an insatiable appetite for pranks. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

Pine coning was a cheap business to get into.

The only gear needed was a hefty club hammer called “floppy” as the head moved about on the handle, and the sacks which were borrowed from Dad.

The product was technically owned by the farmers on whose land the trees stood, but they were used to us scaling trees and eeling their creeks so we never paid a cracker for the cones.

We didn’t pay tax either.

Being the oldest, I had the pick of the jobs and invariably chose to climb the trees and knock down the cones.

Evan’s job was to secure the sugar sacks to the barbed wire fence for easy filling, and to retrieve the missiles as they tumbled from the branches.

It was a skilled business and being in the wrong place at the wrong time meant getting an unsympathetic clobbering.

We perfected a pretty good sales pitch and rarely had to venture too far before selling out.

On our most successful day, we sold a complete cartload to Miss Stanaway, who lived only a few houses from where the cones were collected.

We got back smartly and managed to knock down and hock off another load before dark.

Earned almost ten bob each that day.

Pine coning was best in the autumn when the cool weather was just beginning to bite.

In winter, when the cones were often too wet or the days too cold to spend up trees, we became collectors of another commodity – beer bottles.

The success of this business venture depended to a large extent on the drinking habits of those youths old enough to believe themselves to be men, but too young to be legally in pubs.

The stock route now sealed and called Reading St was a favourite night-time drinking spot for them, with the bottles and sometimes glass flagons emptied and rolled into the grass.

On Saturday and Sunday mornings we did the rounds, gathering up the empties in muslin flour bags.

They were crated up and sold.

For the bottles, we got a penny each.

Flagons were very lucrative at two shillings.

On one occasion after we had scoured the grass verges along the stock route and hunted through the pine plantation which then stood on land between the stock route and East St, we came across a cache of bottles.

Clinging bidi-bidi weed had grown right over 42 neatly stacked beer bottles situated right outside Peter Yee Ham’s gate.

Peter was a market gardener who, for some reason or other, put the fear of God up us.

Not that he ever did anything to warrant the fear.

I think it was simply because he was an elderly Chinese with a few wispy whiskers who cut lettuces with a huge machete.

Having discovered the long-neglected stash of bottles the problem then arose as to whether we were game enough to make off with them.

We actually left them there, checking on them for several weeks, until one day temptation overcame fear and, having come armed with plenty of flour bags, we pocketed the lot!

The joys of picking season

When frosts were past and the days began to lengthen an eager sense of anticipation took hold.

The picking season was about to start.

It was in Gordon Murphy’s picking plots that the real money was earned for the year.

Beginning with the gooseberries which were ready about mid-November, the picking season took in most of the school summer holidays petering out in late January when the last of the raspberries and the blackcurrant crops were spent.

My older brother Gary and my sisters Pam and Elaine were Murphy workers, as was I.

Evan spent a couple of years there but then went to work for John Veeneman on his small fruit farm.

Gordon Murphy was a wonderful boss who paid well and had the happy knack of being able to get staff to want to work hard for him.

He managed a large property for Market Gardeners Limited, Wellington, growing small fruits and a few plums and assorted stone fruit.

His right-hand man for many years was, in fact, a woman.

Aggie Parker driving the tractor – not her usual role. She was a feisty old soul with a heart of gold. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

Agnes [always known as Aggie] Parker was a feisty old soul who could work like a Trojan and whose bark was definitely worse than her bite.

Underneath her gruff demanding exterior Aggie had a heart of gold.

She was widowed and childless and took in primary school teachers as boarders, whom she kept on the straight and narrow, but fussed over like children, as she did her cat.

It was not uncommon when picking two-to-a-bush with Aggie to look down to your tin to see a handful of sweets [usually fruit bon-bons] on top of the fruit.

She drove an old blue Vauxhall, a 1936 vintage with wire spoke wheels, which although more than 20 years old had hardly been run-in.

There was a bit of a story behind the car.

Aggie’s husband Jack had bought it and driving to the Workingmen’s Club had espoused its virtues to all and sundry.

While he was doing so several drinkers slipped quietly out and raised the back wheel slightly off the ground with chocks.

After a time, Jack left the bar and, unknowingly watched by the entire patronage, was mystified as to the car’s refusal to move despite considerable revving.

As he returned to the club, supposedly to summon a mechanic, the culprits returned to the car and removed the chocks.

Jack was convinced to give the car one last shot and with plenty of accelerator almost succeeded in writing off half of Main St with his power take-off.

Aggie, by comparison, was a sedate and careful driver.

She was also a dashed good euchre player.

Among the loyal brigade of pickers at Murphy’s were Dot McCarty [who put in long hours and could run up unbelievable daily tallies], Audrey Murray, Min and Harry McKenna, Pat Davies and Gwen Hayes, and the tractor driver and shed worker Malcolm Lynch.

There was Mrs Bright and her family, from Featherston, Mrs Campbell and her kids, Mrs Strawbridge, Mrs Matthews brought her twin sons Kemp and Bill along and sometimes her daughter, Margaret.

Kemp was a “gun” on blackcurrants having an unusual technique which involved putting the branch between his knees and going like hell with both hands.

At times, the plot resembled the cotton fields of the American south, with hordes of workers bedecked in old clothes and large hats to ward off the sun, singing and telling yarns to gales of laughter.

Lyn and Derrin Roberts, and I, did what I then thought was a pretty good rendition of Elvis Presley’s early songs ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ and ‘Blue Suede Shoes’.

Another way of passing time, while the hands were at work, was to tell progressive stories.

This was mainly a venture of the younger workers and involved one person beginning a story and stopping at a certain point for another picker to carry on.

There were some weird and wonderful twists.

Smoko, and lunchtime, was heralded by the arrival in the plot of Gordon and Malcolm with the trusty old Massey-Ferguson and two huge teapots.

Everybody’s fruit would be weighed and their tallies put in the book.

Most seasons, we received fivepence or sixpence a pound for raspberries, fourpence for currants, and two-and-a-half pence for gooseberries.

At a time when a working man’s wage was £15 or £16 a week, the best kids on the plot were making at least that.

In all the seasons I worked for Gordon Murphy, I never once received less than I thought I had earned, and very often got more than I thought I was due for.

Gordon had an insatiable appetite for pranks.

It was not uncommon to get paid in ten-bob notes all stapled together to form a long chain.

At Christmastime, pickers were given some punnets of raspberries to take home and others went to Greytown hospital to help with Christmas cheer.

When picking was done for the year, it was time to look again at other pocket money alternatives.

Needless to say, for many weeks after the season’s end the milk bars did fairly well from the proceeds of Murphy’s picking plot.


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