Monday, 24 February 2014

Colin Ormsby McGruther: Part One, 1918 ~ 1939.

                             Colin McGruther
                                            Written by David Bell

Lieutenant Colin Ormsby McGruther (1918 ~ 1996) 
Colin Ormsby McGruther was born on Friday, 22nd of March 1918 at Waerengahika, Gisborne, New Zealand, to John Honi Ruki McGruther and Daisy Mary Te Kurawhakairi (nee Ormsby) McGruther. At the time of his birth, his parents were working at the Waerengahika Native School for boys operated jointly by the Church of England and the government. His father was the schoolmaster while his mother, a qualified nurse, was in charge of the school's medical needs

                               Below: The Waerengahika Native School. 

When he was six his parents were hired by the government Ministry of Island Affairs to work on the Island of Mangaia, the most southerly of the Cook Islands group; his father as the head teacher over the three island schools and his mother as the island nurse. The family arrived at Rarotonga in April 1924. It must have been an exciting adventure for Colin and his siblings, not to mention a fabulous opportunity to travel overseas and experience another land and culture, something not generally   
available to children of that era. 

Above: Mangaia, a slab of rock in the middle of the vast Pacific.
Below: The rocky nature of the coastline, unlike the sweeping white beaches of Rarotonga.
They left Waerengahika and spent some time at Puketotara with Arthur and Matire Ormsby, Colin's grandparents; no doubt enjoying the time with them and all their other relations and friends after four years at Waerengahika. Their departure from the Te Awamutu train station would have been a great occasion with friends and family to see them off. One can only imagine the farewell; the heartfelt goodbyes, the embraces, the tears - Jock and Colin were dear to the hearts of Matire and Arthur.

They travelled by steam locomotive to Wellington which, in itself, must have been thrilling to a six year old boy where they stayed for about a week while John attended meetings with the Ministry, presumably for orientation and training. Then, before they knew it they were aboard a passenger liner and on their way to the tropics. The passenger liner must have been a thing of wonder and excitement to the six year old Colin, his older brother Jock, and his four year old sister Jean; especially as there were many great entertainments for kids. It took one week to reach Rarotonga.

In Rarotonga Colin's father spent his days with the Cooks Resident Agent, one Judge Ayson, who schooled him on his responsibilities on Mangaia. Then, a few days later they boarded a schooner (a small, sturdy, two-masted craft that plied the seas between the many islands in Cooks group), and set off on the ten hour overnight sailing to Mangaia. Of course Colin was too young to have a dairy or journal to write his feelings and impressions of that journey, so we can only imagine what it would have been like for a six year old boy to be ploughing through the ocean on a small schooner with the wind in his face and the rushing water a few feet beneath him.

The arrival at Mangaia would also have been a marvelous adventure for him because there were no jetties or wharves on Mangaia; the reefs and rocks encircling the island making it too difficult and dangerous to sail a schooner into shore. Instead, the schooner would drop anchor beyond the reef and the locals would paddle out on outrigger canoes to offload passengers and goods. The offloading had to be done at high tide when the reef was safely submerged. This entailed a tricky transfer from the schooner to the canoe, especially if the sea was a bit rough or rolling; one would have to carefully time his step over the side of the schooner into the canoe with the rise and fall of the waves. What the sea was like on this occasion is not known but the family transferred safely and were ferried to shore, and it was a great ride. Jean, Colin's sister remembered well the many times she and the boys went out with the canoes to meet the schooners. She said it was always a thrill as the Magaian boatmen manoeuvred the canoe to catch the wave as it rose over the submerged reef, then paddled like crazy and tobogganed down the watery slope at what seemed like breakneck speed. 

The welcome ashore was a big one; the people having been notified of their arrival. The arrival of guests and visitors was always an occasion for celebration; particularly important ones. Their new schoolmaster accompanied by his whole family and the Cook Islands Resident Agent and entourage, were important guests. They received the full treatment; the traditional welcome cries, songs, gifts, speeches and a feast. To Colin it must have felt as though every day to this point brought a new adventure; and it didn't stop there, Mangaia was a young boy's paradise.

                 Above: Colin (back), Jock, and Jean playing in a small canoe. 

It would be fair to say that his years on Mangaia at that early age must have had a profound effect on him. He, Jock and Jean thoroughly immersed themselves in the local life, adapting and making friends with the native children and their new environment so swiftly and effectively that it wasn't long before they were speaking the language (which was virtually the same as Maori) and living like a local. 

Colin, by nature, was an adventurous boy, so life on a beautiful Pacific island suited him to the core. It was a place of endless summers and barefoot freedom. He and Jock took to the tropical water like ducks and loved paddling around the rocks and lagoons in the small dugout canoes that lay about on the white beaches. Fishing and swimming were major pass times, but hunting coconut crabs in the forest was probably the most exciting. Coconut crabs were crabs that had come out of the ocean and adapted to live their lives on land - although they still went back to the water to lay their eggs. They were ugly creatures that could weigh several pounds. They had a tough exoskeleton and looked like a combination of crab, lobster and spider. Their sole diet was coconut meat so they had evolved the ability to climb coconut trees to get at the fresh coconuts hanging there. You had to be careful not to meet one if you were up a coconut tree because they possessed two powerful claws to tear the husk from the nut then crack it open to get at the white flesh inside. If you got your finger caught in one of those massive pincers you would lose it. The locals taught Colin how to hunt and catch them and safely secure their dangerous pincers with a string. Coconut crab were delicious baked, tasting like crab seasoned with coconut.
                                        Coconut crabs showing their colossal pincers

 Colin's parent's were contracted for three years, after which they could either terminate their employment on Mangaia or sign up for another three years. They chose to continue. When the first three years were up they were entitled to a three month furlough back to New Zealand. They took it in 1927 and during that time it was decided that Colin and Jock attend the prestigious Kings College as full-time boarders. Their parents had decided that it was necessary they receive a good education. The boys life in a tropical paradise was over. Only little Jean got to go back with her parents for another three years.

When parting time finally came it must have been a hard thing for the two boys to watch their parents and little sister leave, but they stoically accepted their lot and immersed themselves in their new lives. 
                                         Below: Outside the Puketotara homestead in their 
                                         Kings College uniforms.                                        

The boys enjoyed Kings College and acquitted themselves well. Of the two Jock was more studious and serious in nature while Colin was more the 'swashbuckling' type, ever up for a challenge and much more impetuous than his older brother. As a result he excelled in sports and physical activities but languished somewhat in the more cerebral aspects of school life. This was not to say he lacked intelligence; he was as sharp as a tack. It simply means his nature was more attuned to the more exciting things in life.

 Above: His Interim School Report, May 1934. Some of the handwriting is unclear so the comments have been copied below for reader convenience.  

The teacher comments on his term one interim school report for 1934 give some good insights into his academic efforts. For his Divinity (religion) class it simply states, very fair. In English he was inclined to be careless. He was a little uneven in his efforts in history but improved steadily in Latin. He must have liked French because his teacher said, good work done. Mathematics was a problem with class work good but exams ruined by careless errors. Chemistry fared better with the comment, working well. The Form Master's Report states: He has done some good work but might concentrate more earnestly. The Headmaster advises: It's steady work that counts and keeping his head in exams. Colin would have been seventeen at the time and a senior student. His brother Jock was in his final year at Kings; he left to study at Auckland University in 1935. Colin still saw him frequently because he came back as a part-time instructor while he was studying.

1934 was a big year in which he was required to sit the all-important Matriculation exams in October-November. Would he do as well as Jock? Could he somehow pull it off? Time flew by all too quickly and with the Matriculation exams looming he received some kindly advice from his concerned father at Mangaia. Following are excerpts from the letter. 

My Dear Colin,
The Taporo is due tomorrow with another mail for which we are very thankful. There is a crowd of visitors about too - Mr Ayson among them. we shall probably have two more mails before we are cut off for the hurricane season. 

Your exam is drawing very near and we are thinking of you and hoping the very best for you. You are quite a veteran at exams by now. They will have lost their terror for you. The very best of luck that follows faithful preparation. Poor old Jock will soon be saying goodbye to his home of many years. He will feel it very much, I'm sure. With regard to yourself, we would like you to have another year just as Jock had. By the end of that time you should have a fairly good idea as to what you would like to do...The whole island is playing tennis now - men and women, young and old. We have made a very fine court at the school...we shall have another opportunity of writing to you before you break up and fixing you up for your holiday money. We were wondering where you will be going this Christmas. All our love and best wishes go with this.

Your loving Daddy.

Colin duly sat the exams and waited for the results which came out late January, 1935. In his letter to his parents on Mangaia he was able to announce:

Dear Mother and Daddy,
How are you getting on? The matric results are out and I failed. Instead of the results taking up the whole page they only took up half a page. Only seventeen of our chaps got through. I have not got my card yet but I think I must have failed in both languages. There is some talk that this will be the last year that matric will be held. They are going to replace it with some other exam.

His father replied:

My dear Colin,
So pleased to get another letter today...I was glad to get your matric card; you gave the exam a jolly good go, and I believe the exam was extra hard this year. Well, you should have no trouble next time. We are very pleased with your various reports. I am gratified to have the Head's good report of your all-round progress. It is very comforting to know that....Stick to it Colin and do your level best this year in every department....We are delighted too that you were considered good enough to be picked for the Secondary School Reps. I do hope Jock makes the 1st XIV before he leaves college...Well Colin ,I hope you have a good football season. All our love to you,

Your loving Daddy.

However, on the sports field it was an entirely different matter. Colin was a very good rugby player and an excellent cricketer. He was a dab hand at tennis and a fine boxer, wining many awards and competitions during his time at Kings.

Left: Colin's photo in the Auckland Star announcing his winning of the Junior cup at the Kings School annual sports day 1928, probably in his second year. The other boy won the senior cup.
He was also a an extremely kindhearted and thoughtful young boy who deeply loved his family. He wrote weekly to his family in Magaia and to his his little sister when she was at boarding school in Palmerston North. His letters were always positive and happy and he gave his best comfort and encouragement to his young sister who often found her situation both lonely and frightening. At least he and Jock were together at the same school and even played in the same sports teams. Little Jean on the other hand was on her own. He was obviously sensitive to that.

Above: Colin and Jock, Kings College rugby team. Colin seated second from right.         
Below: Jock (Head Boy) seated with Colin (Prefect) standing behind him.

                              Colin in a Kings College school photo: can you spot him?

Colin finished at Kings College in 1936 and went to work in the accounts department at Briscoes in Auckland. He was, by all accounts good at the job and in the weekends often came home to Puketotara. Sometime around 1937, Jock found it necessary to suspend his university studies and return to Puketotara;  the farm was becoming seriously run down and stock and equipment were disappearing from it at an alarming rate. The pastures were turning to weeds and the health of the cattle was suffering. Jean joined him in 1938. Colin remained at Briscoes and contributed in money and services to the task of getting the farm back into shape before the return of their parents. The problem arose because Grandfather Arthur passed away in 1926 leaving Granny Matire to run it until her own health gave out, compelling her to put a manager over it. It didn't work out over the long term and the farm deteriorated; especially after her death in 1935. In her will she bequeathed Puketotara to Daisy and John.

                         Grandfather Arthur (Waati) Sydney Ormsby, 1853 ~ 1926

                        Granny Matire (Matilda) Wright, 1855 ~ 1935.

John and Daisy finally left Mangaia for good in 1938. They initially signed on for a three year stint but ended up staying for over fourteen years. After his successful first three year contractual term John was offered the position of Resident Agent over Mangaia which he accepted. It was a great job and gave him and Daisy an eternity of precious memories and experiences. Daisy became renowned for her nursing skills and contributed tremendously to health and wellness on Mangaia. Together they could have gone on to other things and other places but instead they decided to retire to their beloved Puketotara. 

1938 was a golden year; the family was finally reunited after fourteen long years of separation. They were happy times with Jock and his father working the farm together, Jean running about like a spoiled teenager, Colin happily earning good money in Auckland and Daisy spending money as fast as she could. Their years on top salaries had provided them with a fat bank account.

Puketotara became a gathering place for everyone and anyone. John and Daisy were great hosts and the house and farm saw many a grand party, riverside picnics, sports days and other such entertainments. John was a superb organizer, a skill he honed to perfection as an administrator on Mangaia. 

But the happy days were not to last, the dark clouds of war had broken over Europe and the colonies were being dragged into it. In 1939 New Zealand was asked by the motherland to contribute to the war effort in supplies and soldiers. Being staunch British subjects at the time, the country eagerly answered the call to arms and Colin and Jock went to war. 


                                                                       End of Part One

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