NannyGranny’s Olden Days’ Beginnings 24


After both of ‘Fathers’ parents in England passed away, the brothers and sisters never handed on his share of the family inheritance, because his mother knowing his spendthrift ways, left it up to their discretion, and they thought it best to just keep drip feeding it to him in the remittance money. Years later, when the tea empire was struggling with harder times they finally cut him off.

By the time Nana’s parents had both passed away any family treasures she remembered in their house from her childhood days, like the Goldie paintings, were all well gone. Nana said it was sad, ‘Father’, had frittered everything away, because they should have been a rich family.

Whenever any males got up enough courage to come courting the girls, the minute they set foot on the farm they were immediately confronted by ‘Father’ with his gun running them off. However, Henry Mckegney, nick-named Harry, twenty years older than Nana, braved ‘Father’ and came asking to marry Nana.

He was working in the flaxmill at Foxton and had been a whaler at Campbell Island, down past the bottom of the South Island, on the way to the south pole. His name often appeared in the local rag of the time winning the rowing club races held on the river. Rowing the whaling boats in stormy seas had probably given him great training. He also owned some land in Coley street, Foxton, making him look like a good catch to Nana and they were married in 1919, just after she turned twenty-one.

Harry Mckegney’s parents, Henry Mckegney and Mary McCann were both Irish, from County Tyrone in Ireland. After they were married in 1876, at the Eskragh Catholic Chapel, in Clogher, they emigrated to New Zealand. Mary was a Catholic and Henry a Protestant which made her brothers mad at her for marrying someone from another religion. They chased after the newly married couple with their guns, all the way to their ship, the ‘Howrah’, wanting to get her back. By the time they caught up with the couple, they were too late, they had already boarded their boat.

Sadly, they were only in New Zealand for nine years when Harry’s father was killed.  A tree Henry had been felling toppled on top of him at work, leaving Mary, to bring up the four little children alone, by taking in washing. His accidental death, got written up in the ‘Marlborough Times’ newspaper of April 1885, as ‘The Fatal Accident’.

Nana and Harry were not married very long, when she was horrified to discover he had a temper as bad as ‘Fathers’. Harry had taken a job working on a farm milking cows, and when helping out at the cowbails, Nana saw Harry getting mad at, ‘the poor old girls’, as she called the cows, kicking them hard in their udders. Once she got so mad about his temper tantrums she picked up a bucketful of milk and tipped it all over his head, knowing he would be mad as it would cost him in his pocket.

This bit of her life gave Nana a big laugh, she sounded sort of pleased she had dared to be so bold, even though afterwards, scared out of her wits she had to take to her heels and scarper. When she found bullets in the wood stove, as she was getting it all fired up to cook up some scones, she wondered if Harry was trying to do them all in.

Harry also turned out to be ‘a mean old beggar’ with his money, giving Nana no housekeeping to look after their family. Each day, she had to make her own home-made butter out of the cream off the top of the milk to support them. Churning cream into butter was hard work, you had to stand turning a handle around and around until a lump formed that then was patted into shapes. Delivering the butter to her regular, neighbor customers was also a hard slog for Nana, with miles of dusty country roads to walk each day.

At the birth of her first baby, Edith Mary, the Doctor thought she was going to die from an infection, called septicemia. Lots of mothers had died from it, but she was extra lucky and survived. Her brother, Phil, with the cauliflower ears, who was still only a young lad, walked all the way from Bainesse to Bulls, to visit with Nana in the maternity home.

When he saw the new baby he told Nana he thought it looked very Bonny, so Bonnie, not Edith, became the name that everyone called her. Nana said in those days they were told to be very careful not to talk to the babies too much, in case their brains might get overstimulated.

The family left the farm and moved back to Foxton where Nana’s second baby, my mother, Mona, was born. Harry, working as a scutcher, joined his brother Arthur who was now also at the flax stripping mill. When Arthur came to visit his little nieces he brought each of them a doll. Arthur and his wife Myra, had recently lost two little boys to childhood diseases and they were buried in the Foxton Cemetery. When Harry got into one of his anger fits he snatched the kids dolls off them and threw them into the fire, right there and then in front of them.

Clothing her children would have been impossible for Nana without the help she got from a very kind, elderly, Jewish shop-keeper. Nana never wanted her children going to school bare-footed like she had to and when they needed shoes badly, the shopkeeper let her pay in installments. After school each day, the kids were forced to quickly take off their shoes and sneakily hide them under their beds, because if Harry had seen them, he would have burnt them.

Harry’s mother, Mary, arrived to live with them but created heaps more work for Nana because she was unable to do anything for herself. She spent her time sitting in a rocking chair all day, drinking gin from a bottle, while making rude and abusive comments to Nana.  She delighted in telling Nana she was going to burn in hell for not being a Catholic like her. When her gin ran out she would order Harry to go to the pub for fresh supplies.

Already fed up with the way Harry was treating her and the kids, the mother-in-law turned out to be was the final straw. Harry was no better than ‘Father’, a really bad-tempered man with a mean streak, who scared her and the kids and she decided to escape.

On a day Harry was away in town, Nana took her chance to get away. She packed a few belongings in a suitcase in a hurry and taking the children walked to the nearest train tracks to wait for a train to come by, headed back to the Bainesse farm. They were scared Harry would appear at any moment and go crazy with his gun. The train turned up and Nana was in luck, the driver was a local boy from her old school days. Spotting Nana and the kids standing at the side of the train tracks, he stopped the engine and they all climbed up and rode in his compartment for free.

According to Nana, leaving your husband in those days was a terrible scandal and it was virtually impossible for women to get a divorce as they had no rights. But she was glad she left, because in marrying Harry, she had actually ended up getting out of the frying pan and into the fire.