Robert (Bob) Hector Cowan Interview

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Interviewer:  Frank Cooper


Today is the 23rd of the 3rd 2016. I'm interviewing Bob Cowan. Bob is a retired public servant and he's going to tell us now about the life and times of the Cowan family. Bob would you like to start off?

Yes, thank you Frank. Yes, I've been living here for nearly thirteen years. We shifted over from Kingsgate across the road, my wife and I, and then she passed away about this time last year.

Well, what about us? Well Cowan is a Scottish name and the first Cowan of my lineage came out from Scotland in 1862. He settled in Dunedin for a short time, but by the time he arrived here and he had applied to come here, the town was full of gold diggers from the Australian gold field, because Gabriel's Gully had opened up and they were looking for gold. So he had a wife ... pregnant wife ... one daughter; he had all his gear, so they got on the coach and they headed out and stayed at Milton. And they were there for the rest of their days. Now, I've often said that they came to New Zealand with several one-off things - one pregnant wife, one daughter, one chest of tools - 'cause he was a bootmaker - and one whisky still, because Scotsmen in those days - that was their hobby, brewing whisky. He set up in business in Milton and they had two other kids, the older one was Agnes - my great-grandfather was William Cowan - and the youngest one was John Cowan - they used to refer to him as John Junior. He stayed there, and that was before - about ten years before - the rail went through.

Lorna and I were passing through Milton about seven or eight years ago and we went into the Historic Society and they had all the records that they could think of from the town, 'cause at one stage it was quite a big town. So we looked through everything like that and nowhere could I find my John Cowan listed. So obviously he wasn't very administrative-minded, but you've got to go back a little bit to find out why was he like that and the reason he was like that. He had already buried a wife and a daughter before they left Scotland, and he remarried again. The daughter was about eight or nine ... she was Isabella. And in those days most Scottish young women … she was called Margaret.

So they came out here and he just went into his shell. He was very honest; very good tradesman and in fact Robert Hannah from Hannah's & Sons wanted him to go in and be a partner in what he was starting - to make shoes in the quantity like we have them now. Well, any rate,

Just a moment Bob, where is Milton?

South of Dunedin.

North of Gore?

Yes, it's half way between Dunedin and Gore.

Well it's very close to Hokonui Hills isn't it?

You're right, extremely close.

So do you know if the still was ever put into action?

I don't know. [Chuckle]

Maybe that's why he was very quiet - he didn't want to advertise.

Well he used to have peppermints under the counter so that when the customers came in he'd pop a couple in their mouth, and that's all the smell they got, yeah. But I believe he was quite a reasonable man, but he'd been through the trauma of losing his family - wife and daughter - in one of the many typhoid epidemics which used to run rife through Scotland in those years.

Just whereabouts in Scotland did he come from?

Burnt Island.

Where is Burnt island?

Just out of Edinburgh.

OK, and is it an island?


Only the Scots could call a place that isn't an island an island.

Or the Irish. But no, he was a good law-abiding citizen, like we all are.

Well, William the son, which is my father's father, my grandfather, he took on an apprenticeship of – we call it today signwriting – but in those days they not only did the scroll-work, but they did the fancy work on the sides of coaches, and he used to do that. And he worked for – he served his apprenticeship with a crowd in Moray Place in Dunedin, and he was there all his life and he retired from there after … whatever he was, he died at about the age of seventy-eight. And the old boy that came out with his whisky still, he was eighty-two and a bit when he died, because my brother's greatest ambition - this is the brother that died in March - was to live older than … and this bloke was eighty-two and seventeen days. Well Bill did one that all right - he was eighty-six … eighty-six and a half.

Well Dad started work with a ships' provedore crowd, and then he joined the Railways as a sixteen year old … fifteen-sixteen year old … as a clerical cadet and he trained at the Dunedin Railway Station which is rather unique. And he did thirty-five years before we buried him after his last heart attack. So he was a railway man all his life.

Now in the early parts, and I've got the record here of what he did, he was – how the Railways train you for future management – they transfer you to a place like, well in Dad's case he went to Waikaia for about three months and then he went down somewhere else for another six months and so on, so they got all aspects of it. And they got to know when somebody brings a parcel in for such and such they know where to send it to without any problems.

When Mum and Dad married he had exchanged his job with a job in the Railway Publicity and Advertising Branch and but he had to pay his own transfer. Well he was a single man, he didn't have much. Well any rate they went down to Wellington … he had to go to Wellington ... and the other bloke. At that stage Dad was at Waiuku up near Auckland, and so Dad shifted to Wellington - he got married, Mum and Dad got married - and then they raised a mortgage and bought a house in Johnsonville. Well like a lot of people when the Depression hit, he was ... all public servants got a five percent reduction, then a fifteen percent reduction ... and he couldn't keep up the payments. Now - go on about another eighty years, and Mum was in a retirement home, a Brethren one, right opposite the house that they'd built. That's just how the cookie crumbles. Well, any rate, Dad was very successful. When he went back onto what they call Traffic Branch he was transferred as Chief Clerk Wellsford, fifty miles north of Auckland, half way to Whangarei. We were there two years and then Dad was transferred to Mataroa which is just south of Ngarukahu, just north of Taihape. And he was the Stationmaster there but he was also the Postmaster. We were there for three years and nine months. And people say your school days are the best days of your life - well I couldn't get away from it quick enough. But I look back on Mataroa … and Mataroa was ideal for my wandering nature. There was a whole group of us nine and ten year olds there, and we used to get round – they were all farmers' kids, and we used to get all around the area to get ...

I was over in Taihape and Mangaweka three weeks ago; now when you turn right to go towards Waiouru, is that where ..?

You turn into Mataroa Road it's called, and that used to be wandering all over the place till you got to Mataroa. And the State Highway used to turn – you joined it at Springs Bluff which is a cow of a place. Well they overcome it by putting a main road through that way, and it takes about six minutes from the main highway to Mataroa township.

I know exactly where it is.

The other place I mentioned, Ngarakahu - that was the next railway station up the line. All it was was a crossing point; there was a signal box, two houses that side, one house that side and two back shunts. No power, no road, no telephone. So the train would come in from Taihape going north, they'd put it into one back shunt and then they'd back right back, so that when he started he gets a bit of a run on before climbing up the hill. Yeah.

I was reading a book last night by W W Stuart on New Zealand trains, and it was talking about Taihape and those little lines and everything.

It's quite a unique area. Between us and Taihape was Bennett's Siding. But Bennett's was the sawmill owners and they closed the sawmill before the Second World War. When the crowd that had the rail before they sold it back to the Government said they were going to close the Auckland/Wellington expresses, I went over to Mataroa and I photographed the northbound one going through. It just – no stopping it, because it was a locomotive and about five carriages and a guards van. And that's where Dad would have to change the ... and pull the signals down and all that sort of stuff.

Was it electric then or was it ..?

No, no.

No - it was steamer?

Steam, KR used. Well any rate when we were there my brother Bill went for a ... Wellesley [Wesley] College, Paerata, just south of Auckland where Jonah Lomu went to - different time obviously - and he won a scholarship. So he did ... the second year - half-way through the second year, the Yanks took it over as an R&R place so Bill came back and he went to Taihape Secondary School. And then Dad got a shift, on promotion as Senior Shift Clerk Eltham. What a dump that is! [Chuckle] Any rate, we were there for two years and that's where Dad had his big heart attack, and he was off for weeks and weeks and weeks. That's how they did it in those days. There was one cardiologist and if you drew a line from New Plymouth through to Napier, down to Wellington, he did all that area. One man. No wonder they didn't get too much in the way of success.

Well I suppose that's why they only had one, because the rest had died before they could do anything about it.

Well that would be right. [Chuckle] An element of truth - more than an element of truth in it.

Well any rate, the only one of the family that was at school was me. Janice was too young, she was seven years younger, so Bill went up – he would have gone up in 1940. I was ten that year; Janice was three. But Janice actually started school before she was five, because the school teacher that was there, Ron Marks, had a child about six months older and he was starting school. And he was a very good solo teacher school worker, because he paired the classes – like Primer 1 & 2 worked together; Primer 3 & 4, so Janice although she couldn't be officially recognised she went every day you see. And she did quite well academically, but doesn't do much with it now.

Bill finished up as a senior partner with Arthur Young & Company, the Public Accountants and his specialty was liquidation and receiverships. And I often, when I was in the training field, used to say “well you're jolly lucky you got caught up with me, not with my brother.” “Why?”

He'd liquidate you.

[Chuckle] He would liquidate you. Towards the end of his career with Arthur Young, all those that were above about fifty-eight got offered to be paid out as if they'd got to the retirement age. And he decided he'd had enough, so he then went to the Treasurer of Pub Charity, so we did quite well out of Pub Charity. He was allowed to spend how he liked the money that was in the Trust account - not the money but the interest. And in fact we're using one tomorrow morning … Pub Charity Hotel ... top quality.

That was '43 Dad has his attack; well early '44 we were transferred to Palmerston North. Now in those country schools like Stratford there were three streams; there was the academic, and they did all the academic things like Latin and French and so on; there was the middle one which was all dairy science, botany - all those sorts of … yeah, and the bottom one was for tradesmen, in other words - metalwork, woodwork and so on you see. Well, I was in the middle lot, but we transferred in May of '45 back down to Palmerston North. Well I had no school I could go to and I was plonked in a … well I had old Scoughlan who was the Minister of Education not long afterwards. And the only thing I can remember about his was he was very accurate with his little bit of chalk. [Chuckle] So on VJ Day which was the 17th of August I'd had enough, so I grabbed all my books, got on my bike and went home and Mum and Dad were having a cup of tea and I plonked them on the … “I've had it, I'm not going back, I can't cope. I'm going into town to see what's going on on VJ Day.” So I went into town and I came back ,and I thought 'oh well I'll get a rocket in the ear when I get back', but I didn't. They said “no, what we're going to do, we're going to see if we can go up to Wellsford to stay with some people that we knew up there”. He owned a carrying company, and I spent four or five weeks going out with the drivers, writing out the dockets for bobby calves. I didn't get any money - I didn't want any money. And then a note came back to say “well we think you should come home. We've booked you on 227 on such and such a date.” So I caught the Whangarei to Auckland express and then caught the overnight express to Wellington, and then came home. And when I got home they said “we've decided the best thing for you actually, is to join the Railways as a clerical cadet.” And that's how I started.

In that first year ... I started there in October '45, and then '46 was an election year. Well by that time I'd done three months in the Goods Office, then I'd asked to be transferred across to the other side. And Bill Code the Stationmaster's clerk said “well the only problem with that is you can't operate the telephone exchange there”. I said “yes, but I can come in after work every time - not book the time, but to learn how to use it”, which I did. And then one night … must have been the day before the 1946 election, I answered the telephone and it was the local area Returning Officer, and he said “we've got a problem.” I said “oh yes, can I help?” “Well that's what we're hoping you can do.” The problem was that the Deputy Returning Officers at Shannon were a bit light on voting papers. So I said to him “well look, give us your number and I'll ring you back and see what I can find.” So I went down, and I knew there was a train leaving about one in the morning or something, and so I went down and I found the guard. “Oh yes, that's no problem.” So I rang back. I also told them the number to ring in Wellington, and what time the train should be there. And I got a lovely little letter which is of no value now - it's only archived - to say that I 'd gone … I just thought I was doing the job.

So how long were you with the Railways then? Your father died didn't he?

No, not until '53. I was only there about eighteen months, but you see the reason I could fit in so easily, I'd been brought up as a Railway kid, and I knew all about it. [Speaking together]

Yes, that's right.

Then in 1947 National Airways was expanding, so what they did - they were calling for clerical staff. There was about eight of us going from the Railways, so I thought 'I'll see what happens.' So I went, and I got a job in the Chief Inspector's office. I did all the aircraft logbooks for every aircraft in those days. There was five logbooks. One for the air [?], one for each engine, one for each prop. It was my job to keep all that, and also I used to do the hourly overhaul records. And I had to ensure that in every aircraft there was a Certificate of Airworthiness for that aircraft. I thought 'well that's a bit silly – if the aircraft prangs, who's going to look?' [Chuckle]

Well those were the days - they would be DC3's and Electra's and ...

Yes, the little Electras – 10A.

And the Airspeed Oxford - there was a few of those floating around too.

Oh they were RNZAF ones. And the Ansons. On the last day of November in '46 it must have been, a [an] Oxford came up from Ohakea, did a photographic job in Napier and was in a direct line from Napier back to Ohakea, and over the southern end of the Ruahines it struck terrific turbulence and it just disappeared - just disintegrated.

Was that the one that hit Armstrong Saddle?

Could have been. How they can tell that they never had a chance to pull the 'chutes through or anything like that. It was fairly close to the ground and the way the aircraft ... so all Oxfords were grounded at that point. And then they went and checked over them, and then they got rid of them eventually.

No I enjoyed my time at NAC. We used to get one return flight anywhere in New Zealand staff concession, free. Anywhere else you wanted to go, half fare.

Well, at NAC my office was off the hangar on Nelson Airfield and that used to be the repair depot for all NAC stuff. So any rate I got to know quite a few ex-RNZAF ones, and that's when I wanted to have a crack at the RNZAF. And that was quite interesting. As the photographer ... what are the some of the things I did? I did Tony Freyberg's farewell to Palmerston North, opening of Parliament a couple of times, called out …

I got back from lunch one day and there was a telephone message there – “we're picking you up in ten minutes.” So I got the equipment up to the motor mechanic – we're out to Rongotai. What had happened was, the RNZAF were taking to the blue with the little de Havilland Devon’s - beautiful little aircraft. Well the pilot picked this one up and went for a test flight and as he was coming back across the airfield at a fairly low height - probably about a hundred feet or something - he switched from one tank to another tank which showed it was full, and it was empty. So he was on the ground, and he slid right along and he bent the props back, bit of stress to the rest of the aircraft. But he said to me when I got there “look” he said “I want these two things photographed”. So that's why I'm down here. And so I photographed.

Another one, I was in the Fire Crew Hut at the end of the runway at Ohakea one night and the Straits' Air Freight express from Paraparaumu to …


... just notified them that they'd lost all their hydraulics. And so Ohakea was the longest runway in New Zealand at the time, so they diverted him to Ohakea and we sat in the crash tender just round out of sight so he wouldn't see us there waiting to pick him up. Anyway, he touched down and we followed him as quick as we could, and then he got nearly to the end and he still had a bit of way going, so he spun off and he did a couple of little circuits while he was slowing down. And of course being the Manawatu the ground was very soggy, and so what did the Air Crash Tender bloke do? Drove off the runway.

And stuck.

And stuck. [Chuckle]

Yes, they were a very smart little plane. They used to use them for ferrying VIPs didn't they?

Oh yes. I went on one from Whenuapai down to Ohakea and of course the blokes in the hangar … all looking – wonder who's going to get out? [Chuckle] And I hopped out and another photographer hopped out.

'Cause were you in uniform?

Oh yes. Yes.

Yes - 'course you'd have to be.

Easter time is when you go out of your khakis permanently, and into the Blues. The other one is you go in October … you change into uniform. I used to do a lot of the what they call the Army Co-op. We were given the co-ordinates where they were going to be all nicely camouflaged - we had to find them, photograph them and drop the prints back later. But what actually happens is the average soldier is told they're not to ever look at an aircraft, 'cause one block - he was a Maori bloke - pokes his head out and you can see him there. You can see the whole lot there.

It's just like putting a dot on the map isn't it?

Didn't do very much aerial mapping, it's sort of gone now. The camera coming we did a lot of because the Armed Services worked out years ago that if you give a bloke in a fighter aircraft and you put live ammunition in and tell him to go have a dog fight, you know - you lose a few aircraft. And we did a lot of that. And while I was there I was away on leave one day and they were looking to send several people to AWS - the Army Education Welfare - to get a protectionist ticket. So ... and I think they thought 'oh Cowan's away - we'll send him'. Well I was delighted, [chuckle] because I made a lot of money from that. What I did when I was latter years out there, I was on the committee organising committee of the NZIM, and I did a deal with them you do all the hard work and we'll split the profit, the net profit fifty/fifty. And that was where I was a whisker away from a military funeral.

For yourself or for someone else?

For me. Oh yes, that's the closest I've ever been. Well we had a group of new pilots come in and they were learning the skills of the job you see, and this bloke who I knew quite well, said “hey Bob - how about coming in the back seat of a Harvard to Waiouru with me? I'm on drove towing”. I said “well as much as I'd like to, I've got too much work stacked up.” So any rate off he went and he finished his drove towing - did a very good job. But one thing he didn't do very well - he decided to do a victory loop, and he dropped his wing down and cartwheeled into some macrocarpa – and I could have been on that aircraft.

So many times that's how it ended wasn't it?

Yeah. I had actually been in ... when I do an Army Co-op job up on the peninsular from Helensville there – I was getting myself all straight again because when you're photographing out of a Harvard you loosen up your straps, you pump the seat up high and swing around, then you've got a sort of triangle you can photograph. Well I was getting back, I'd done my job and I was getting back, and all of a sudden the whole horizon goes around ... a voice says “oh, oops sorry, I forgot you were there”. I said “I'm still here”. And we did lots of that sort of stuff.

Well I took my discharge and I back to Wellington and I walked and knocked on doors for the next week to see if there was any good photographic jobs. 'Course naively, I thought 'well I've got good qualifications, I'm well experienced … should be no trouble in getting a job'. Well they didn't want me. So any rate I thought 'well I'd better go back onto administration', and that's when I went to the Office Manager, Fisheries Research Laboratory, Marine Department. I was there for a couple of years and then I moved on up to the War Commission in Wellington, which was much better. My philosophy was, if I don't like the job, move on. Then when you get to the next job you learn all you can about it, then you can ask your boss certain questions and if he doesn't know the answer, well you know you're OK.

Well it was when I was in the Fisheries Laboratory that I got married to Helen and then twelve months later … thirteen months later was when she died. Now I went up to the ... we had a daughter, and the daughter was nine days old ... I went up to see Helen and we were talking about the following week when I was going to call for her and the baby and leave her with her mother in Khandallah. Well, everything seemed above board and normal, then I went home and there was a telephone message for me to come back straight away - they wanted to talk to me. Well I went back and that's when they told me. She'd got out of bed, probably before I'd got off the site, and a blood clot shifted. When your heart stops, you do. So here I was a twenty-eight year old man, been in a very dominant male situation before, no experience with babies.

Well, she was adopted out. She actually came up to Hawke's Bay here, and she was adopted to a bloke King, who had an orchard down near the flash … the Napier Golf Course – just down the road from there. And then they sold that and he took over the licence for the Greenmeadows Hotel and she took over the licence for the Otane Hotel. And then I don't know what happened there. Oh, we managed to get a letter ... card in her box on her thirtieth birthday and got her to ring us and my sister went down and made contact because we were in Hastings. She was in Wellington. And she was quite a bit of the family for the next twenty years, then all of a sudden - don't want to know a bar of you. Well I've left a message on her answer phone, on her mobile phone, written her a letter – nothing.

Our daughter we adopted and Melissa found her birth mother, met her and she met all her uncles, cousins and so forth, but then all of a sudden that was it - she didn't go back to see her birth mother again.

Well, that would be right.

And it's hard to understand when it's not you it's happening to.

Yes, that's quite right. Well any rate, this is where the first digression ... Janice is coming over from Melbourne – my sister.

Yes, your youngest sister.

Yeah. 'Course - poor old girl, she's seventy-eight. [Chuckle] Any rate we're going to call in ... we're going to have a trip of nostalgia. Going to go and spend a couple of nights in each place where we lived. Well, we've got to go through Whanganui and that's where Lindy is, and we will knock on the door. [Speaking together]

Knock on the door.

She can't refuse us - anyway I've passed the age of worrying about her.

Well that's interesting isn't it?

Yeah. When I was at the Wool Commission we decided we'd like to come up to Hawke's Bay, so as Office Manager at Patangata County Council, Waipukurau Engineering Department, came up and I applied for the job and got it. When I was leaving there - Sam Cole was the County Engineer - he said “can you tell me one thing please?” “Oh, whatever you like”. He said “I was very impressed - you walked in the door with a nicely pressed suit, a collar and tie, clean shoes ... everything. What ,,, have you been working all day then travelling?” “Quite simple Mr Coles - I had it in the back seat. We came in and find out where you were, and we went back and changed - I come here.” [Chuckle]

When we were at the Patangata County Council I was envisaging ... I loved the county because it was dealing with country folk ... and I thought “I'll work up to become a County Clerk one day.” Well, Lorna's Dad died suddenly, so this Office Manager at Fropak, so I applied for it and got the job, and what an unusual bloke the Manager for Fropak's was. He had not a thing on the desk, and Bill Peters who was the Factory Manager, had a whole heap of stuff. I went into Bill one day - “have you got a receipt for such and ..?” “Oh here it is”, he said. He knew where everything was, yeah.

So who was the manager those days?

Alec Logan. And when Fropak's packed up he got a job selling small goods out at Tomoana. Bill went over there as the safety man. Bill was a nice bloke [chuckle] ... old Alec wasn't so nice. Well, I never had an argument with him, I just ignored him. But we were taken over by Unilever, and then I became Assistant Planning Manager in the Engineering Costing Department, and I left there and then went to Industrial Training Service.

My area was quite a big one, I was responsible from right up to Te Araroa down to Dannevirke but I didn't work in Te Araroa but I worked in Dannevirke. It was one of the things that old Roger Douglas reckoned they weren't making enough money, so we got the chop. But, I'd been going to Gisborne Refrigerating Company for quite a few years, and I was walking down the chain one day with Wally Varley and I said “Hey Wally - do you reckon I've made any difference coming to you?” He said “well, if you can think of six to eight percent improvement in productivity.” [Chuckle]

Then our son Marshall was getting a bit toey. Lorna was the sort of person who always thought she should be able to have a good discussion with our kids and they would then behave. Well sometimes you've got to give them a clip over the year don't you?

You've got to establish some guidelines.

Yeah, right. [Chuckle] Lorna hadn't done that you see, so I get back from Gisborne and I said “how's Marshall been?” “Oh, he's been a real so and so.” “Do you want me to talk to him?” “No.” So - he was a real so and so ... he's not too bad now.

Well then I decided when I went down to Wellington I could transfer to Wellington. And I worked in there for about three months before coming back. And I had applied for the job of Management Services Officer, Hawke's Bay Hospital Board. This was investigating problems in many departments - CCSD, X-ray, Engineering, Safety Scheme, Disposal of Contaminated Sharps and Flats.

That's an interesting term.

Yeah, well that's what they refer to them as. And what they did when I went there, they would get the large empty coffee tins, solder up the top, put a slot in it - they all went in there, and they went to the dump. Well when I got there we changed it to a special container you can get and they used to be destroyed through the incinerator down at the Port.

But one thing I'd say about that particular job, I was working in five freezing works at one time, and that just about made me a vegetarian. [Chuckle] I thought it was a bit rude, here was a poor little sheep getting its throat cut, and twenty minutes later it was in the chiller, ready to go.

Yet those men up there were so hardened they didn't even ... some of the revelled in it.

Yeah, that's quite right. But I think the worst part of the lot was - a bloke that used to put the chain around the leg of the cattle beast. He was already ready to get out the … Not for me thank you.

1993 I was appointed Archivist, appraising and cataloguing administration records from '67 to 1993. And my full-time work was forty-nine years and ten months. Doing the archives I used to take them to the top floor in Hastings - it was empty then you see. And I was able to catalogue something like about seven hundred boxes and I got rid of about five thousand. The last three Chief Executives were real paper men - instead of writing on one piece of paper they'd take about six. And one of the first things you do when you do a job like that – you get all the confidential ones first, you read them all, and you say to yourself 'now what was confidential about that? I knew that any rate'.

So Bob those archives would still be there wouldn't they?

They were set up in the bulk store in Onekawa and they should still be there.

It's interesting that you worked for forty-nine years ten months - how come you didn't do the fifty?

Because they told me “that's when you're leaving.” [Chuckle] Any rate that's…

Now other employment. I got home from school once off the train and Dad was there to meet me and he said “oh, so-and-so at the cinema has got the ice cream concession ... wants somebody to sell ice creams at interval.” I said “I'll see you later Dad”, and I went home. And he had a tray – there was … I think there was twenty-four ice creams. Once they were finished – gone. And I would come home with two bob in my pocket and have seen the pictures. [Chuckle] I was supposed to see the picture from the front row stalls, so as soon as the light went down I came back.

See it's interesting there – other things - delivering telegrams, sharemilking one cow owned by Bill - it's the little things – there were no other alternatives to make any money was there, you had to do what was available.

Well telegrams at Christmas ... that was on my bike, you got a certain rate and that was it, but one of the things I omitted to say at Bill's eulogy in Wellington is that as soon as we got to Eltham Bill wanted to be in business. He was fifteen, two years older, and that's what it was ... he bought a cow and he also bought a little separator and a small churn. He had all the gear, yeah. [Chuckle] And his job in the morning - he'd milk it and take it down and he'd tether it where the County Engineer would say and he'd tell me at school and I'd go down and get the old …

Now delivering telegrams at Christmas they had to get special permission to employ me because I was thirteen. So any rate they did, and we had no problems. But Bill had this desire to be in business. What did you do in Taranaki if you want to go into business?

You get a cow.

Buy a cow [chuckle]. She was a placid old thing, a little bit deformed, but as quiet and gentle as you could wish for. I can still know how to milk.

Now … '65 I became a Director of the Hawke's Bay Consumers' Co-op. There was nine supermarkets we were the first to introduce discounting.

'71 to '91 – Sub-enumerator for five yearly censuses. The first one I was on was at Tawa in 1971 - Marshall was about ten or eleven, and I took him round when I went to pick all the things up - and boy, did I work him hard. [Chuckle] He still talks about it.

Now I did Parliamentary elections; Deputy DRO in charge of booths. Most times Lorna was my poor clerk. And most times we were in the Salvation Army in town. I did the same for the Hastings City Council and the A&P show Hastings - I was … for three years there I was the cashier. And that first year I got a balance and I said to Arnold, the secretary - I said “its all balanced.” He said “how did you do that?” He said “nobody else has done ...”

Was that Arnold Baker?

No, no. He was a public accountant.

Now Photographic Concessions – Toy Shop Hastings, photographing children and Father Christmas. I employed a girl to start off with … a young woman ... and then I'd take it over myself. And it was so geared that the Grandma that brought the kids in would have to come back three times to get their prints. That was quite handy.

'65 and '70. Oh yes, ran a part-time photographic business, mainly pre-schoolers and weddings. Pre-schoolers are delightful because they haven't learnt to be cheeky. That was … I enjoyed that. Weddings – I reckon I've done about a hundred and twenty weddings over the years.

1961 when I first got married to Lorna, and 1970 we were down there for twelve months, I worked for Roberts Photography, he was in Porirua. Now the bloke you employ at a wedding or some such function who is not the photographer, is always referred to as the stringer. Mainly on Saturdays. In Wellington there one day I did two weddings - one in the morning, one in the afternoon.

That's a big job, doing two weddings.

And I was buggered at the end. [Chuckle] I did the first Maori wedding in St Paul's Cathedral in Wellington.

And '70 to '93 ... Oh - when I got back from Wellington they asked me to join the local Institute of Management, and then they gave me the job as Chairman of the Subcommittee for Education. So it was my responsibility to find the tutors. Well two of them had left. One had gone to Nelson and the other one had gone to Dunedin I think, so I thought 'well I've never done it myself ... I'll have a go'. And I did right it right through 'til 1993.

Did you really? What were you tutoring?

Anything for the Institute of Management.

'Cause you had that broad background didn't you?

Oh, yes.

And you were hands-on; you weren't someone doing it out of a manual.

No, well what they liked ... my style was discussion groups, and they were only small classes, ten or twelve at the outside. Oh no, I thoroughly enjoyed that, and it was well paid too.

Oh, and I did Examination Supervisor, School Certificate and Bursary and NCEA. I only gave up about two years ago - NCEA down here at Havelock High. The problem with that was the font that they used on the papers was getting a bit small, and that was …

Now, sports ... did you play any sports during your life? What did you play?

I played rugby, but my position on the field was left right outside. [Chuckle]

Was this because you were disorientated or  [chuckle]  … or hadn't they told you your position, so you just played everywhere?

Well, no it's a little bit more … [chuckle]

Obscure than that.

At the age of nine my mother started me on highland dancing. She thought it might help me to grow because I was … plenty of photographs on the computer there. If Bill had put his arm out like that I could walk under it - there was only two years difference. Well, any rate – I didn't … oh, I won some … oh, around about five medals and money ... I must have been all right at it. Well, any rate I bumped my leg on the gate at the front, and it came up like Mt Egmont. So in the end we went to the doctor in Taihape, and the last time I went to him he said to Mum and Dad ('cause he was also the Surgeon Superintendent at the hospital) - he said “I'm going to have to operate”. So he rung up there and I went straight in, and I was operated on. And he told Mum and Dad afterwards he thought he might have to amputate my leg. Well fortunately they didn't.

Did you get a bug in it?

I don't know how or what happened.

No, 'cause you were too young to probably even think about … well that's good, and they're both yours still aren't they?

Yes. [Chuckle]

So did you carry on playing rugby after that?

Oh, the same position. No - the doctor said no contact sports and no highland dancing. I think I've still got the ... the scar's up about here.

And so did you play any sports later in life?

Oh I used to do a lot of tramping in the Tararuas. No I think – when you look at what I've done, most of my jobs have been solo operators, so therefore in sport I'm better solo operating.

Did you tramp as part of a tramping club?


Just solo tramping.

Well, not solo, there were three of us … [speaking together]

With other mates.

... with other blokes. One's died of cancer not so long ago and the other one, he's probably dead by now too, he was going downhill rapidly.

Well it must have been good for you to go tramping because all of your jobs were indoors, using your head and not your body.

Yeah … yes, I'm basically more of an outdoor person, I prefer being outdoors. You see some time ... the week before last I went down on my buggy down to the Village five times.

Well, you know - looking down here there's Fropak's, Patangata County Council, Wool Commission, Fisheries, National Airways – 'course you had a pull to the outdoors all the time.

Yes, oh yes.

A&P shows, City Council, Parliamentary Elections … don't know whether that's a plus or not! [Chuckle]

Now you mentioned Marshall, your son.

He's the one that's the Minister of the Church of Christ in Wellsford.

What age would he be today?


And grandchildren?

Two. One is at Riversdale just out of Gore, and the other one is in Melbourne. The one in Melbourne's got a Bachelor of Music and his two jobs are … he manages a top-line bar in some pub in Melbourne which – I'm going to see it when I'm over there next. And he also plays gigs around the town, as the saying goes.

So was your family musical?

No. The only band Dad was ever in was a band around his hat.


Now, also at some stage or other you became interested in the Knowledge Bank. Were you part of the Genealogy Group?

No. It was Nikki Beattie that said to me “there's an open day - better come out for the open day”. It's in February I think it was, and I did. That was the start of it.

Do you know I've opened the door to the most interesting thing I've ever done in my life.

You didn't have any daughters, just had the one child?


Nicky encouraged you to go to ...

Just to the open day. And I decided there and then ... because three times up to date I've been involved in archives. Now the first time I broke a finger so I couldn't work in any of the processing rooms in the RNZAF, so I did all the archives from 1926 up till that particular year which was about 1954, and I made certain some of mine are in there.

The second one was our Church which is the Baptist Church in Hastings … it was coming up to a hundred years, and I was asked if I could archive all the records they've got. Well there was four multiple bags in a room there, so I brought them home and tipped them in the middle of the garage – “oh lord,” they said, “what's that?” I said “that's your Church”.

So I did those, and the third one was at the hospital. I was appointed Archivist then and I worked for about two years on them or something … two and a half years. So - and I was only thinking the other day that if Bill knew what I'd done with his twenty-five thousand [dollars or pounds] he would be quite delighted because we're a family that looks to our history.

It was really a wonderful organisation to … it can be quite addictive.

Oh yes, very much so.

Janice over in Melbourne has been doing family history for about 30 years. Bill paid for it, she did it and I got the results. You couldn't work anything better than that.

That's absolutely right. Can you think of anything else that we may have missed out on?

Well, you've been here an hour and a half for nearly fifty years.

Yes, and we haven't wasted any time and it's all been in the right order too.

Well, I made these about ... oh, I suppose three or five years ago.

But if you find you remember something else you think's quite important we can always do it as an addendum and tack it on the end of this.

Well there is a cassette in there already I've given to them, so you can have a listen to that and see what I ...


My grandmother was a little … sprightly little quiet lady and she died when she was about 76 or so. Well when she came out to New Zealand from England she had been educated in the secondary school by a … they called it a maiden aunt in those days ... who came over here and then died in the 1918 troubles when we had the 'flu going around. But any rate, Grandma was a … she was a nice old lady even when she was younger, but she was engaged to a bloke - New Zealander - who went off to the Boer War and word came that he was injured and missing. So she decided 'oh well - that's a profit there - I've got the ring, I can't give it back to him'. [Chuckle] So she went and married another bloke and she had a couple of kids. And he died about ... oh, she was married to him about twenty years, he was quite a bit older. Then one day the original bloke turned up on the doorstep. Well in the intervening period he had actually repatriated back to Australia. He'd got a job there and he had a wife and a family, but he called on and saw us you see. [Chuckle]

That happened actually quite a lot in that era.

Well in this case she had not left him – he'd left her.

Well, you know - communication took so long.

I think modern communications – as when the Yanks when into Mogadish [Mogadishu] a few years ago, where they got off their boats on the beach - they run them up onto the beach - the TV cameras were there photographing them coming off.

Well thank you Bob it's been most interesting hearing the story of your life and, as I said, if you have any things that you remember we can always do it as an addendum to it. So thank you very much.

Thank you.

Robert Hector Cowan
Original digital file: 
File CowanRH867_Final_May17.ogg39.87 MB
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