Bay of Plenty , 2021
This is a story about my mother. We have lived in different cities for close to three decades, keeping in regular contact including daily telephone calls. During the Covid-19 lock down it felt so hard being parted, knowing that we didn’t have the freedom and luxury to travel to see each other should we want to, or need to. As soon as I could, I flew to the South Island to see my parents. With so much of the city of Christchurch closed and the high risk of Covid-19 for my pensioner parents, there was much time spent sitting around home. I decided to use the time to quiz my mother about her early years. I knew some of her story but had never really bothered to gather the details, or dig further for more. This time in ‘isolation’ was perfect for such a project. I wrote up her story and all the while I kept asking, why has it taken a disaster to explore and write about two other disasters? One thing is for sure, the pandemic gifted us with time for reflection and to see who, and what, is important to us. Family.
On 22 February 2011 at 12.51 p.m. a 6.2 magnitude earthquake shook Christchurch to its very core. One-hundred-and-eighty-five people died in the quake and 164 others sustained serious injuries. There were also thousands of minor injuries, with more following as the city continued to crumble. The quake was the second major hit to the region; its prequel was on 4 September 2010 striking at 4.35 a.m. The timing of the earlier one made all the difference as most people were tucked up in their beds. However, they were soon un-tucked with unprecedented widespread damage hitting the largest city in the South Island. Aftershocks followed for years. The city continues to valiantly to rebuild itself. This has been a slow and expensive process. The words munted and resilient were used ad nauseam to describe the condition of property and people of Christchurch.
My pensioner parents made it through both earthquakes. They were nervous and fearful for the unknown as major aftershocks continued to rattle the ground. They lost precious objects that had sentimental value both at the time of the quakes, and later, when contractors came to their home to undertake repair work and helped themselves to items of jewellery. My mother injured herself hauling wheelbarrow loads of liquefaction out of her beloved garden. This resulted in major surgery later on in 2011. Essentially, despite the fallout from the earthquakes my parents consider themselves lucky compared to so many others. On reflection, I think growing up in Britain during World War II empowered them with reserves of courage and positivity. They just carried on.
Not long after the earthquakes, my mother told me that to experience the quakes was worse than living through the bombing of World War II. This was quite a revelation to me. Perhaps it was because of the impossibility to measure or even fully appreciate the quakes nor bombings if you had not personally experienced either. I tasked myself with researching the bombings of her girlhood to see how she arrived at this notion. The fact that she had made the analogy between the two in the first place made me realise that she still contemplates and remembers the bombings of seven decades earlier. It seems to be parked permanently in her mind, never too far away.
My mother, Dorothy, was born in 1932. She was one of eight children born over two decades. Dorothy’s parents, Annie and Tom married in 1928 in Hull, East Yorkshire. Tom, a river sailor was just 18 when they married and Annie, 19. Annie’s ‘Condition’ is listed as ‘spinster’ on their marriage certificate. A more accurate descriptor is ‘mother-to-be’, for a month later she delivered her first son, imaginatively and as was customary named Tom. Though she would go on to have a large family she was not overly maternal by all accounts and it would be up to teenage Dorothy, the eldest daughter, to assist in bringing up the younger brood post war. Although not common now, this was not unusual given the historical and social context of English life at the time.
When World War II turned everyone’s life upside down. Dorothy’s father signed up with the Royal Engineers. After initially being in Scotland, Tom travelled with his unit to Egypt, Benghazi, Syria, and lastly to Italy. Annie was left behind with a house full of children and not much else. They lived in suburban Hull in a rented brick terrace house. Annie’s days were filled with chores and standing in line at the shops clutching her ration books. She would have had the full range of ration books; buff for her, green for the under five year olds, and blue for the older children. Food was rationed until 1954. Dorothy and her older brothers attended the local school. All this changed significantly when the Luftwaffe began a long and intense campaign of bombing Hull, attacks that ultimately saw the city decimated.
Officially called Kingston upon Hull, a large proportion of this Yorkshire coastal city was built on reclaimed land. Much of Hull is below sea level. It gets bitingly cold in Hull as the weather whips in across the North Sea onto its coastal location. The River Humber is central to both the landscape and economy. It is the port city for East Yorkshire and the birthplace of slave abolitionist William Wilberforce, of whom locals are very proud. Generations of families have worked on the Humber. Dorothy’s father Tom worked on the River Humber and was followed by her brother Albert until he drowned falling off the barge boat he was working on in 1955. His body was never recovered.
Hull was well located for the Germans to bomb. The greatest concentration of bombing was during May 1941. Bombing continued for the duration of the war. Outside of London, Hull was the most bombed city in Britain. Not many people knew this at the time as, not wanting to let on to the Germans how well they had done, the officials held the statistics and enemy successes under wraps. The catalogue of bombings is referred to as the Hull Blitz. From June 1940 to 1945, residents of Hull over spent 1000 hours under alert. All up there were 815 alerts. That’s a lot of time spent in shelters. There were 86,715 houses destroyed, which equated to 95% of housing destroyed or damaged. There were 1,200 deaths and 3,000 people injured. Surprisingly, it wasn’t more. Shelters provided the necessary protection. Dorothy’s family frequented two shelters; one was in Holderness Road under a gospel hall. Perhaps someone was looking over them.
The numbers speak volumes and make for an interesting comparison with Christchurch. In 1941, Hull’s population was 310,349 (with half made homeless during World War 2). Christchurch’s population in 2011 was 367,700. The two cities were not vastly different in scale when they experienced these catastrophic events.
The house that Dorothy’s family rented was bombed sometime in 1941. Nothing was left of the family home. Absolutely nothing Dorothy tells me repeatedly. The earliest photograph we have of my mother was taken late in the war, when she’s aged 12 or 13 years a is testament to this reality. But human lives were salvaged, unlike the buildings of their city. With nowhere to live, Dorothy and her siblings were evacuated out of Hull. Baby Mavis stayed with Annie (who was pregnant again) but the other three children were split up and sent off out into country towns. None of them got to stay together.
Evacuees and their stories vary and fictional accounts have on occasion romanticized the reality of what it was really like. Dorothy has been highly critical of such fictional versions. As an evacuee, she missed her family terribly and on two occasions attempted (unsuccessfully) to run away. Dorothy and her siblings, like children all over Hull, were evacuated twice. The first time was during the Phoney War (September 1939 – April 1940). Travelling by train with nothing except their gas masks, children were deposited at various church and school halls in the countryside. There they were ‘picked’ by villagers. The second time she was evacuated, Dorothy was chosen to stay with an elderly couple, along with another girl named Rosie from Newcastle. Their new home was 3 Beck Row, Bugthorpe. Just 45 minutes by car from Hull nowadays, the small cottage still exists. We find it on Google maps and Dorothy notes, having spied additional pipes on the exterior of the cottage, that they now have an inside toilet. This is a luxury compared with when she lived there.
Like hundreds of other families, the elderly couple at Bugthorpe had no choice but to take children into their homes. And even though evacuees came with their ration books (and not much else apart from the clothes they wore and the government issued gas mask) having extra mouths to feed in a household was a real burden. In many instances caring for strangers led to contempt and cruelty. Dorothy missed her family and still remembers specific visits from her mother and the day her father arrived at her school in Bugthorpe in uniform during his embarkation leave to say he was going abroad with his unit. Unbeknownst to Dorothy at the time (who hung onto his legs in a bid to keep him there), she would not see her father again until after the end of the war some four years later.
When the war was finally over the family were reunited and re-housed into a pre-fabricated house back in Hull. It was too small for their large family; Tom and Albert had to spend their nights sleeping on lounge chairs for there wasn’t enough room for all the beds required. But it was a roof over their heads and they were together once again. Their father arrived home from the war and was demobilized. Life began to return to some kind of normalcy albeit, like the rest of the population, scarred by the war.
Can it be that the Christchurch earthquakes were more frightening and worse than the Hull Blitz experience? It was highly likely that Dorothy and her contemporaries had little knowledge of the full extent of the Blitz apart from what they saw before being evacuated. Dorothy said that from Bugthorpe you could see the glow in the sky from the burning caused by the bombing of Hull. Even though so many were evacuated they did not all fully escape the impacts of the bombing. Or is it that everyone had some kind of expectation that the bombings will occur? With so many alerts there must have been a sense of ‘when’ not ‘if’. For Christchurch, the earthquakes came out of the blue. With so many aftershocks following the first quake there was the ongoing fear of another major earthquake. And such a quake arrived with cruel vengeance. The way the media presented these two different kinds of disasters was galaxies apart. Every night for weeks the television relived the earthquakes. As a 9-year-old Dorothy’s world was literally blown apart. But she was not forced to re-live it through the news. Her daily reminder was living with strangers in a small country village. She did not see her father for years. People did not have platforms to bemoan their lot in life during the war. They just got on with life as best they could. Dorothy saw very little of her mother and other siblings until they were reunited at the cessation of war. It is hard to imagine that now but many children grew up thinking that was the norm.
I present the facts and information I have sourced to my now 88-year-old mother and ask her to reconsider, or ruminate at least, on her 2011 statement to me. She takes her time. I can see her thinking it all through, mulling over the Hull Blitz facts, weighing up which was worse of the two sets of disasters that bookend her long life. It is a tough call but in the end, Dorothy decides not to answer. She does not need to. How can you measure such traumatic happenings especially when they are bridged by seven decades? Some memories are lost. Others are diminished or romanticized. Others are as clear as if it was yesterday. Dorothy can still conjure up the smell and taste the rubber of her gas mask. She is envious at the time that her wee sister Mavis had a more up-market gas mask. The smell Dorothy describes so well was the same as from the mask used when she has her tonsils removed pre-war. And though reminiscing is sad, as it is a reminder of difficult times, new discoveries are made. Thanks to modern technology I discovered that Dorothy (whose middle name is May) had an Aunt May she never knew existed. And now we have a name for Annie’s twin brother, Alfred, who burnt to death as a toddler. Dorothy is both shaken and delighted by these new pieces of information. Her 2011 comment to me jolted me into exploring more about her past world and now I know why her stoicism is second to none.
Penelope Jackson is a Tauranga writer. She has published two non-fiction titles, Art Thieves, Fakers and Fraudsters: The New Zealand Story (Awa Press) and Females in the Frame: Women, Art, and Crime (Palgrave Macmillan). In 2020 she was awarded a University of Auckland Writer in Residence/Michael King Writers Centre Residency however NZ went into lock down one week into her residency.