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I remember

The smell of ripe strawberries, the clean tangy perfume of pine trees, and the sweet smell of straw used at mulching time - this is the memory that takes me back to the little suburb of Birkdale over 60 years ago. Who would believe that all this area was once strawberry gardens and orchards? We were a small community, sharing each other's joys and sorrows, and I suppose by today's standards our life would be considered boring and dull -- but not to us. Big events of the year consisted of the school picnic held at Island Bay or Fowlers Bay, the Sunday School Anniversary and concert, and the Birkdale Show, held in the school. No transport except a horse bus which met the ferry - sometimes. I can remember all us children being unloaded at the bottom of a hill to lighten the load for the poor old horses. At the age of four, I was taken to hospital by horse-cab ambulance. When arriving at Birkenhead ferry the horse was led across the gangway. Two wide planks were put across and the skipper and mate lent a hand to push the cab (containing my mother and me) on to the ferry. At Auckland the same procedure took place in reverse. I guess it took about four hours to get to hospital! Birkdale School was served for 25 years by the headmaster Julian Brook. He kept a few cows on his property beside the school house. When a bull calf had to be killed - that was the time for a practical biology lesson. We gathered around the dead carcass, while Brookie explained to us the make-up and functions of the dead calf. I can remember two pupils fainting, several vomited and we all went a peculiar colour. The school motto "Our Aim the Highest" was well and truly carried out by Mr Julian Brook. Shopping was not too difficult in spite of being miles away. Grocer, butcher and baker called for orders, and delivered by horse and cart. Willy Wong served all the area with a cartload of fresh vegetables from his Northcote market garden. Also I remember the cries of "Fisho!" as the fishman rattled along once a week and old "Tomato Taylor'' selling luscious tomatoes at 2 pence per lb. Verrans Stables, where the bus depot now stands, was a fascinating place for us school children on our way home watching the huge draught-horses unharnessed and fed. In 1916 two big wagons decorated with ferns and loaded with supporters, took part in the prohibition procession through the City streets. I remember screaming "Strike out the top line" till I was hoarse, but, alas, my efforts were wasted. It was a milestone in Birkenhead's history when the movies were shown in the Foresters Hall (later Kiwi Theatre) about 1914. Mr Ted Lanigan never missing a note as he changed from "Melody of Love" to "Napoleon's Last Charge". What cheers and clapping he got as he walked down to the piano! Old Mr and Mrs Swindail and their fox terrier dog never missed a Saturday night, the dog occupying a seat between them and never taking his eyes off the screen. I still wonder if they paid admission for him! The old hall holds many memories for us old residents. During World War II, big "farewell" and later "welcome home" concerts were held there for the local lads. Who can forget Tom McDowell singing "Till the Sands of the Desert Grow Cold" - or "Land of Hope and Glory?" The flu epidemic of 1918 took its toll in our district. Again the Hall came to the rescue and was used as an auxiliary hospital. A bulletin was put outside each day reporting progress or decease of the patients. We now had a motor bus transport, a few model T Fords appeared on the road, so we could go further afield. Part of Birkdale was developed and called Beach Haven. Gradually the orchards and strawberry gardens disappeared, pine trees were cut down and streets of new houses were built. The population grew and once more the Foresters Hall came to the rescue as a temporary school while the primary school was built. In 1921 the Municipal Brass Band was formed and was very active, playing on the band-stand in Hinemoa Park, giving Sunday night concerts in the Foresters Hall -- not forgetting their sterling work at the annual Sugar Works picnic -- the ferry well overloaded, flags flying, steaming down to Motutapu or Browns Island. In 1929 a queen carnival was organised to raise funds for a voluntary fire brigade, Miss Gerty Utting being the winning contestant.

The ferries hold many nostalgic memories for many people. One penny a trip for children and threepence for adults. Children and sometimes adults got very cunning and on a nice summer's day you could spend the whole day on the ferry for nothing, as Birkenhead tickets were only taken at the City end, so quite a sea voyage could be taken with stops at Northcote and Chelsea. We often took our lunch and made a picnic of it. Children could run round the cabins, up and down stairs, and best of all, the engine room where small boys watched entranced. How relaxing was the 20-minute trip for workers! The girls did their knitting and crochet and trousseau. The men played poker, solved the world’s problems or replayed the football matches.

Birkenhead changed very little. We still had our little individual shops clustered round Highbury corner, we still waited hours to get on the vehicular ferry to take a car to the City, and to factories and work - shops were kept at bay. And then came the bridge - and with it the explosion of building and commerce. Land values soared and housing estates spread. More schools had to be built. Big supermarkets gradually put the small grocer out of business, and houses were demolished to make room for shops and factories. In 1978 Birkenhead was made a city with population a of 20,000 - so our little community has gone, and in the rush and bustle of today we never even get to know our neighbours. Is it any wonder I reminiscence and wish for those lazy hazy days of my youth in Birkenhead.

- Alice O’Callahan 1980


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