MARY AITKEN Gallery
Mary Aitken is the oldest living resident from the Head of the Lake and until recently has been in her own home in the Rees Valley. She now resides at the Wakitipu Home in Frankton.
Mary was born in London in 1919 and arrived in New Zealand aboard the Pakeha on 9th January 1921 with her parents, John and Winifred Lowen. Her early days were spent in Gore where she well remembers going to school on the bar of her father's bicycle. He was a qualified plumber and ran his own business. The family moved to Queenstown six years later and Mary recalls when they arrived late at night in the middle of winter Mrs Veint (Jim's great gran) had lit the coal range at their new abode and boiled eggs ready for their tea. From her bunk bed Mary could watch the steamers leaving for Kingston and Glenorchy.
Times were very hard in the 1930s and work was often difficult to find. The Kingston Road was under construction and men dug the route with picks and shovels for 10 shillings a week. Although the winters were very cold, Mary muses in her memoir that the boys at the local school never wore long trousers and is still thankful the girls could wears long black woollen stockings. Ski fields had not been thought of, but children had a lot of fun on home made sledges. Her younger brothers were banned from sledging down the hill above the old school after her brother Jack had a potentially fatal accident as he came whizzing down and shot straight under a coal truck making its slow way up Stanley Street.
Mary's first visit to Paradise was in 1929. Mrs Heffernan, the owner of the world renowned guesthouse at Paradise engaged Mary's father to install a flush toilet which had become regulation by law in guesthouses at the time. Because the Heffernans were finding it difficult to pay for the work, they asked if Mr Lowen would accept a week’s holiday for the family in lieu of cash. It was an exciting time for the Lowen children going on a holiday with the added bonus of the Aitken children to play with.
"We had marvellous times building roads on the clay bank just below the big house. Ian was the lucky one for he had a square bottle for a car that went well on the clay bank!"
Mary finished her official schooling at 13 having gained her Proficiency Certificate. In 1935 her family moved to Palmerston. She longed to do a nursing course but did not get the opportunity for secondary education. She worked locally for an elderly couple and helped her father in his business. She also spent a lot of time helping her mother who suffered from Rheumatoid Arthritis. She loved gardening and applied for, and was accepted, as a trainee at the Dunedin Botanic Gardens. However, she never took that up as she returned at 18 to work at Paradise to work as a waitress.
She was delighted to arrive back in Paradise in 1937 having bought a suitable uniform off one of the girls on the Railway: black frock, stockings, shoes and a wide stiff white collar, cuffs and waistband. "Our social life was small for there was only one other house at Paradise and that was Arcadia, owned by Jack Reid.”
He had two men working for him and the boys would come over on a Saturday night to play cards or to dance to the schoolteacher's music on the piano. The Aitken boys Jock, Ian, Jim, and Brian were always there for the summer holidays until the war took them off the land. Mary reminisces on the lovely picnics and excursions they all had on Diamond Lake. They very rarely went into Glenorchy itself, often referred to as The Head, but a dance in the community hall was a wonderful thing to attend and Mary loved music and dance with a passion.
On the days the boat came to Glenorchy there could be a hundred or more guests for a midday cooked meal which would have been served in three sittings before the tourists boarded the boat again for Queenstown later in the day....high turnover catering considering it was all done on a coal stove!
Mary spent six summers waitressing at Paradise. Each winter was spent with her mother and father in Palmerston. She finally resigned from waitressing at Paradise in 1942 as Brian had proposed to her in the Garden of Eden and she had accepted. She would miss her old friendships and Paradise itself.
They were married in July 1943 in Palmerston and following a brief honeymoon arrived back in Glenorchy. Mary exclaims of the conditions " What a welcome! At Campbell town where we were to live there was eighteen inches of snow frozen solid and we had sixty consecutive frosts. The only water had to be carried up from the steep sided Bucklerburn, milk froze, there was no electricity and men could not access the scheelite mine on Mt Judah to work. Brian had a wee car, a tiny Austin I think. One had to sit on the floor and one day he took me right up to the mine at Mt Judah and onto the Bonnie Jean and Heather Jock.”
After the war, they moved away from the mountains but Brian was always yearning to return. He was a mountaineer and loved guiding people up the rugged and unpredictable peaks for any reason from ornithology to deerstalking.
Later on, Brian worked on Earnslaw Station which coincidently his grandparents had owned for 5 years in earlier times, and stayed about two years there but was not a happy farmer. He and Mary with their six young children decided to settle up in the Rees Valley and to that end negotiated a purchase from Doug Scott of a sheltered haven above the Oxburn. Mary points out that it was the very last sale of leasehold land in the 1950s and they were overjoyed to have it.
In 1956 Brian and Mary moved to a temporary dwelling on their site with a view to slowly building a stone house from local rock. They had two milch cows, Polly and Jersey and made their own butter. At first, Mary explains, they had to haul water up from the Oxburn in a ten gallon milk can and "I blessed Heaven when Brian managed to obtain a pump from the Army stores and install that."
Brian was a natural mechanical engineer in today’s parlance and always wanted to own his own service station and garage. Mobil were willing to back him and Laurie Smith was happy to sell. They were to take over the enterprise at the end of the week in May 1958 that Brian was fatally injured in an accident on the farm and died in Kew Hospital five weeks later.
Mary moved her family to Queenstown where Ron Inder built for them one of the first houses on Panorama Terrace. Mary and her children slowly settled into town life but every holiday they returned to the Oxburn "as this was where my heart always was." and many of her dear friends.
In 1968 Mary took on the role of Matron at St Hilda's School in Dunedin for five years.
Her dream to be a nurse resurfaced and she enrolled into the Community Nursing Course available at the time. She graduated a year later at the age of 53 and put her skills to use by returning to Glenorchy at one stage to care for Doug and Jean Scott . Jean was in her home until her care became too demanding but Doug was a wonderful person to look after and they enjoyed each other’s love of literature and talking of old times. Subsequently she managed Lesley Groves Home for the Aged in Dunedin and Bursell Home in Blenheim, the town where her father lived and was still alive and well.
In 1975 she went to Tenerife to attend Tommy and Reta's daughter Jill Thomson's wedding and there began her travel bug. Mary visited the UK many times over the next twenty-five years often staying for many months working privately as a nurse or visiting aunts and old friends residing there. She was intrepid in her adventures with Phyl Boutcher a very dear friend who had lived next door in Queenstown and ran the Earnslaws lunchroom until she moved to England . She visited Africa, Europe, Scandanavia, Turkey and Russia and always wrote full accounts of her travels in copperplate writing for her children to read.
However for all her travelling abroad and helping her offspring wherever she was needed most her heart has always been most content in her glorious garden high in the valley with her most loving memories.