1956: A radio operator’s life on the Chatham Islands

By Clyde Williams

Clyde Williams

Clyde Williams

The ‘Chatham Islands Radio’ section of Maritime Radio is already rich in information with a large number of photographs, staff history and (particularly in Jack Ryan’s recollections published first in NZART’s Break-In) greatly detailed descriptions of the operations and history of ZLC.

There is very little I could add to that. My record will be primarily about my life in a society that was different from any I had previously experienced – a quietly dignified and confident people in which many of the locally born would say, when travelling away, that they were “going to New Zealand,” not Christchurch, nor Wellington, etc; a society which was 45 minutes head of the mainland, and one that could rightly say they were the first in the world to see the new day.

Prelude

I have already mentioned why I went to the Chatham Islands: basically to save money.

I did have another target: to study for a 1st Class PMG certificate. In another article I noted that in mid 1950 senior technician Reg Motion spent a couple of days on Raoul Island. While there he asked me what I did in my spare time. Among other answers I mentioned that I had with me the Post Office Correspondence School’s course of study for the PMG certificate, and went on to say that it was so out of date (it still featured spark transmitters!) that I had given up on it.

Reg said that he had (I think I am right) just released a four-volume study course for Post Office radio technicians who hoped to obtain a Certificate In Radio Technology (CRT) and he would send me a copy each of those volumes. He did, and I had carried them with me without doing anything serious about it for the intervening years.

And so, I decided that the second objective for my time at ZLC was to study these volumes and get my ticket when I returned to Wellington.

Arrival in the Chatham Islands

The Ansett Sandringham flying boat (a civilian version of the wartime Sunderland) took about four hours for the trip to the Chatham Islands, mainly at about 5000′ and quite slow, relative to modern aircraft. (This particular aircraft, pictured at right, is now in the Flying Boat Museum at Southampton, UK.)

A number of mainly older school age children (there was no secondary school at the Chatham Islands) were on the aircraft returning home for Christmas. There was also a contingent of media people to cover the visit the next day to the Chatham Islands of the Duke of Edinburgh.

On arrival I was met by Pat Columb, the Superintendent at ZLC and taken to his home at the radio station, close to Waitangi. I spent the first few nights as a guest of the family until Irwin Smith departed for the mainland and I moved into the single operators’ quarters. This was a busy day. Not only had the flying boat arrived but the MV Port Waikato/ZMJN on its six-weekly supply trip had arrived the previous day and the Duke of Edinburgh on the Royal Yacht Britannia was to arrive the following morning.

In the midst of the organised chaos, and just on tea time, the operator on Post Office duties came to the “boss” and told him that the cash balance for the day was short by exactly £100. This was a serious matter, particularly for the operator concerned whose annual salary would have been about £800. In those days, if your balance was short you had to make up the shortage from your own pocket.

An examination of the day’s transactions showed only a few involved amounts greater than £100. A couple of quick visits narrowed the possibilities down to one. That person lived at Owenga, about 30km away. (More about the roads and distances later.)

Pat, the operator and I went out to Owenga and to the home of the local concerned, a shearing contractor. It was obvious from the noise that some kind of function was going on. Pat explained to the contractor what our problem was. This caused great hilarity to all except us.

When he had stopped laughing, he said the sum he had drawn out was to pay his shearing gang and he gave Pat a list of all the payments and the balance of the cash left. It was exactly £100 over. There was cheering all round and a delayed return to the station – a wonderful introduction to my time at ZLC.

At Chatham Islands Radio in 1957

At Chatham Islands Radio in 1957, adults L-R: Pat Columb (Supt), Doug Condell, Clyde Williams, Nancy Columb and Bill Riley. Photo courtesy Clyde Williams

The station

The radio station was located about a mile up the road from Waitangi to Te Ngaio, or “Durham Point” as it was known then.

Map: Chatham Islands

Map: Chatham Islands Council

The 1913 photograph below is taken looking roughly northwest. There are two buildings. On the left is the station itself with staff quarters to the rear, and on the right is the engine house.

Chatham Islands wireless station in 1913

Chatham Islands wireless station in 1913. Courtesy: David Smith. Click to enlarge

Now look at the photograph below, which was taken from the road on the Waitangi side of the station and looking roughly southwest.

Chathams Islands Radio ZLC in 1957

Chathams Islands Radio ZLC in 1957

The station in 1957 is the small solitary building to the left. The original buildings are the two farthest away in the row of buildings to the right. The farthest building was the single operators’ accommodation in front (the only part you can see) and the married officers’ accommodation behind it. The second frontage (partially seen) was the engine house, still performing its original function, re-engined of course. The large building in the front of the photograph is the Superintendent’s accommodation and the smaller building between it and the engine house was our recreation room.

The 1957 station was basically two rooms plus a cubical where people making radiotelephone calls to and from the mainland sat. On one side of the larger room were the transmitters seen in the photograph below.

Chatham Islands Radio transmitters in 1957

Chatham Islands Radio transmitters in 1957. At left are two 250W NZPO 351 AM/CW units made by RCA, and the dark unit in the centre appears to be a Collier & Beale 277 75W CW transmitter.

The equipment with the small shelf in front of it was the 500 kHz receiver with the 500 kHz transmitter above it. In the last rack was the Radfone equipment.

At right angles to the shelf was the equipment in front of Dave Smith in the photograph below. Main items were the receivers and (from memory) the daily sked transmitter/receiver.

Radio operator Dave Smith at Chatham Islands Radio ZLC in 1958

Radio operator Dave Smith at Chatham Islands Radio ZLC in 1958

The two daily skeds with the outlying stations were on a frequency just above the broadcast band. They were referred to locally as the “news” and most people listened in on their normal broadcast receivers.

We would broadcast such things as boat/aircraft arrival times and “what’s on at the movies”. Our distance from “civilisation” made possible these shocking departures from normal operating procedures. The general operating schedules, etc. are well described in Jack Ryan’s article.

Visit of the Duke of Edinburgh

The Royal Yacht Britannia anchored off Waitangi early in the morning of 16 December 1956 and the Duke was ashore by mid-morning. He spent the day visiting various points of interest in and around Waitangi and Te One, attended a civic welcome at which he was presented with a framed map of the islands, beautifully hand-inscribed on the back of a cured sheep fleece, and visited the local school and mixed with the children, much to their glee.

The locals gave him a great welcome and indeed the Duke and his party seemed to enjoy mixing with ordinary people for a change. A highlight of his day was a meeting of the Chatham Islands Racing Club (watch video). As well as viewing the horse races, he mingled with locals and joined them at a hangi.

A visit to the radio station was included in the Duke’s itinerary. It was fairly short; he came up to the station, shook hands and had a short conversation with each of us and talked to the wives and children.

By late evening it was all over and the Royal Yacht departed. From comments passed in the next few days I gathered that local opinion was very favourable. There was some inevitible ‘point scoring’ but by the month’s end the visit was a ‘past’ event.

Single operators’ quarters

Note: None of the staff paid any rental for their accommodation. One entered via the kitchen/dining area, turned right into a reasonably spacious two-bed room or left into the bathroom. While the bathroom had a bath and a hand basin in it, there was no toilet. But the bathroom did house our refrigerator.

The toilet was about 10 metres away and was a “long drop”. To get to it, one had to walk through our vegetable garden, through a hedge and there it was!

To the innocents among you a long drop is simply a deep hole in the ground with a little tin shed sitting on top of it, wherein there was a bench seat with a hole in the middle of it and, if you are lucky, a selection of suitable reading material. If you wanted to read, you had to leave the door open as there was no electric light or other lighting system, nor indeed a flushing system – gravity took care of that.

The kitchen stove was a standard coal burner range altered to use a diesel burner. The diesel was drip fed to a circular band wick. It was highly efficient with a drying rack above it and the hot water system alongside it. In the winter the stove kept the three rooms quite warm.

Up until that point in my life a refrigerator was a white metal upright box. The inside was cold and, if you were lucky, it had a small freezer box in it. If you had to turn it off you simply flicked the switch on the wall. How it worked, I did not have the faintest idea.

I was stunned to find that the refrigerator in our bathroom had a kerosene burner in the bottom with a vent to the outside wall; I noted also it had no light! If you did not keep the kerosene level up and the burner alight everything inside the refrigerator melted. I did not want to show my ignorance to anyone so said nothing and, there being no Google in those days, it was not until I stumbled upon the refrigerator’s instruction manual which covered briefly the theory of refrigeration that I understood that you had to first have heat before you could have refrigeration. One was always learning something.

We did not have a refrigerator in any of the houses I lived in as a child (nor did we have electric light until we moved into “town”). The first refrigerator my parents had was not obtained until after the 2nd World War. Wall ‘safes’ had been my background. A ‘safe’ was a wall cupboard with the outside part basically wooden floor and top but ‘mesh’ sides exposed to the elements. Ice cream and frozen food? No way.

There was a small laundry on one side of the quarters which had an electric washing machine equipped with roller. We could only use this when the station generators were running. In the quarters we had generator-powered lighting but we also had 12V battery-powered lights for use when the generators were not running. We did not have electric jugs or toasters, etc. The stove did it all.

Clyde Williams with Eddystone 750 receiver at Chatham Islands Radio ZLC in 1956

I jury rigged a 230V connection (visible by my left shoulder) to run my Eddystone 750 receiver in the single operators’ quarters.

Necessities of life

We single operators had our own vegetable garden beside our quarters. There were milking cows on the station and the two married men did the milking and their wives made butter. I know we single fellows had quite a large quantity of condensed milk.

A local farmer supplied Doug and me with fresh mutton at a pretty reasonable price. It would usually be a forequarter or hindquarter and we would butcher it ourselves.

We made our own bread: If I say it myself, I found that I could produce, after the learning curve, a pretty good loaf. Indeed a couple of the local women asked for my recipe. We did not generally bake but fruit cakes and standard biscuits were an easy job.

A good range of general goods was available from the two local stores. These stocked everything from normal human requirements to items to repair your house, etc.

Everything was expensive. There were no rates on the island but everything that crossed the wharf incurred a tax. Goods that arrived by aircraft were few in number.

A rule of thumb was that if something cost “x” on the mainland, it would be sold by the storekeepers on the Chathams Islands for “2x”. A 9 oz beer on the mainland would cost you sevenpence. For the same price on the Chathams you got a 5 oz beer. Petrol/diesel/oils were more than double the mainland price per measurement.

Consequently most people bought most of their needs in bulk direct from the mainland. Even with shipping charges included it was far cheaper to do so. About once every three months Doug and I would order a list of groceries, fruit, vegetables, etc. from a grocery source in Lyttleton. This establishment was used by a number of the locals and the management would purchase outside if they did not stock a particular item, which was very handy. Sausages, tomatoes and fresh eggs would arrive in quite large quantities. Once on the islands the eggs would be preserved in mutton fat in kerosene tins and would last for some considerable time.

In those years the central lagoon was home to hundreds, if not thousands, of black swans. It was easy to gather their eggs and they would be found in most larders. A single swan egg is quite large (from memory about 15-18cm long and 10-12cm in breadth). Scrambled swan egg was a favourite (a rich orange colour) and it was also used where large quantities of a product were being produced. It was preserved in large quantities. Some boasted of having eaten a boiled swan egg but the thought of eating in one meal the equivalent of half a dozen ordinary eggs was a bit much for me.

I recall one of our ‘orders’ had a last item as “one blonde and one brunette”. When we opened the box, on the top were a couple of Playboy magazines and a note saying “These are free – take your pick”. We ourselves did not order liquor but bought what we needed from the local hotel. The price kept our purchases to a bare minimum.

Roads

There were three shingle roads that were, in general terms, all-weather roads They radiated out from Waitangi to Durham Point, to Port Hutt via te One, and to Owenga. There was no extension of any sort past Owenga. Beyond Durham Point there was a pretty good track towards, but not reaching, Point Gap. The Port Hutt road was generally an all-weather road but the last few miles could be pretty rough in prolonged wet weather.

In my time there were no real completed roads to Waitangi West, to Wharekauri or to Kaiangaroa. From a point where the current completed roads join with the Port Hutt road there was a recognised track which would lead to those areas. Traversing these tracks one followed irregularly spread ‘marker’ poles. One could actually drive a vehicle to those points, but the vehicle would have to be well equipped and the driver experienced in getting through bogs.

The doctor’s Land Rover had a front anchor winch with a 50-foot cable lead but even that (as I personally experienced) could sometimes fail to get one out of trouble. When I first asked how long would it take to get to Kaiangaroa, the person I asked scratched his head and answered that I could be expected to get “stuck” x number of times and each “stuck” might take a few to many minutes to get out of, etc, etc and ending with “you will probably have to stay at Kaiangaroa the night if, etc, etc. Are you going to be by yourself?”

Not encouraging, but an honest attempt to help. Unless they were accompanied by other vehicles no one even attempted to do it by themselves on the first try.

Most vehicles on the island were utility vehicles with relatively few cars to be seen. While all drivers were supposedly licensed, there were many who were not. A number of vehicles were neither registered, warranted nor insured.

I returned to ZLC in 1983 for a brief visit while Principal of the Radio Division. I found all the island roads were very good, well maintained and extended into more localities. Key roads were sealed and non utility vehicles were to be seen everywhere. It seemed then the legal motor vehicle and driver requirements were then being observed by most.

Aviation

Flying boats were landing in the Te Awanga lagoon in the 40s and 50s and by the time I arrived there were a number of flying boat flights each year.

On 15 May 1957, the Hapupu airfield was opened. This grass strip was located across the lagoon at Kaiangaroa. Its length was such that neither the RNZAF’s DC3 nor the later Air Safes Bristol Freighter aircraft flying into the strip could be operated at full capacity. The flying boats were however still used until the 1960s.

The satellite image below shows the relationship of the two landing areas: Tuuta Airport to the left with its sealed runway and across the lagoon the grass strip at Hapupu. To the left of Tuuta the projecting piece of land between the two small bays is Port Waikato, the Flying Boat base.

Satellite view of Chatham Islands lagoons and airstrips

Satellite view of Chatham Islands lagoons and airstrips. Click to enlarge.

While the large plan appears to show about three separate lagoons, in fact to the eye there was just one vast expanse of water. In some places the lagoon was extremely shallow. If one draws a line from the right hand end of the Tuuta runway and traces around the lower shore of the apparent small lagoon to the point nearest the Hapupu strip, the water depth was less than a metre. When I was there the Tuuta airfield did not exist and to get to Hapupu overland was a long and dirty journey around the top of the lagoon.

The flying boat option was the one the locals preferred. A typical New Zealand stop-gap solution was found. Using a chassis with four very large Bristol Freighter wheels and a converted bus body, the whole contraption towed by a tractor with big wheels and following the drawn line route, passengers and freight could be taken across the lagoon directly to Hapupu quite safely and in very much less time.

For some years after I returned to the mainland the government and the locals still argued about the best solution. Finally the Tuuta Airport was built and from then on most people movement to and from the Chathams was by air. I note from various articles that there is now a landing strip on Pitt Island. The real local aviation success on the Chathams was, I would believe, the introduction of the helicopter but that could only follow the developments above.

Shipping

During my time at ZLC there was a fairly regular shipping service to and from Lyttelton. The main vessels were the MV Port Waikato and the MV Holmglen. These vessels had accommodation for about 10-15 passengers.

There was a visit from a Union Company vessel, MV Kopua, which stayed in my mind as the radio office was under the starboard wing of the bridge, and probably only about six feet square. It must have been uncomfortable in any sort of weather. The vessel was built in 1937, and had a long single hold designed for loading timber. That function had long ceased and this particular visit was general cargo.

MV Kopua

MV Kopua

MV Port Waikato

MV Port Waikato. Photo: Clyde Williams

I travelled back to the mainland on the Port Waikato. It was a two-day trip in quite pleasant weather. I can remember sitting in the sun on the aft cargo hatch with a number of others and sharing this with a caged (lashed to the top of the hatch) bull. There was some consternation when the animal urinated.

Health

There was one resident doctor and a hospital at Waitangi. There was a dental nurse attached to the school. The hospital was under the responsibility of the North Canterbury Hospital Authority and was primarily there to provide a maternity service.

The resident doctor was normally a qualified person in the last part of his permanent appointment to a city hospital. The hospital itself was staffed by nuns of the Order of St Mary. The Sister was a middle aged American woman and one of the most admirable persons one could ever meet; extremely confident and capable but always concerned and sympathetic. Sadly while I was there one of the Nuns had to be evacuated by air with a very serious health issue. They were highly respected by all.

Serious cases and longer term bed care were normally evacuated to the mainland as quickly as possible. The doctor could carry out simple surgery where it was needed.

On a trip to Owenga to visit the grave of the last Moriori, with the doctor (right) and his wife

At Owenga, on a trip to visit the grave of the last Moriori, with Frank the doctor (right), his wife Elva and baby John

I did become a personal friend of the doctor and his wife, a registered nurse, and was once enjoying dinner with them at their house when an injured motorcyclist arrived at the hospital. The doctor excused himself and went off to attend. Some time later a nun arrived to ask that I go to the hospital to assist the doctor. Somewhat mystified, I went over to the hospital.

It turned out that the patient had broken his leg and the bones had to be “drawn apart” before the doctor could proceed further. A splint had to be fitted to the leg and the bottom part of the broken bone drawn away from the top part. The procedure was that I would lie over the patients body (who was anesthesised) steadying it while the doctor pulled the splint apart and ‘locked’ it into place.

While he was doing this the patient suddenly let out a very load groan. I remember that part, but the next thing I remembered was looking up at the theatre light and the grinning faces of the doctor and the nuns. I had fainted. I never lived it down.

Social interaction

This was much the same as that of any mainland rural community of some 600 people. A large part of social interaction arose out of the activities of the local school and churches. Various funding functions were frequent and well supported. There were local halls at Waitangi, Te One and Owenga.

There was very little, if any, “society” activity. Disregarding the race meetings and sporting events, most groupings of people would be to do with birthdays, weddings or funerals.

Relatively few homes would have had AC electric power. Quite a few had battery lighting and most would have had a battery-powered radio. There was no local telephone system as such.

The local constable, always an expatriate mainlander, dealt with very few problems relating to drinking, fighting or theft. His interventions mostly arose out of ownership of specific stock, access to land and property and some social issues.

The Resident Commissioner presided over the local court. Offenders held for serious crimes would be moved to the mainland for further court action. The Post Office, the local store and the only pub were situated within yards of each other and probably were where most met up with their friends.

There was no bank and the Post Office was a needed importer of cash. On mail days one of the problems was that the public space, particularly in bad weather, would become very crowded as before and after their transaction there was always a reason to stay and talk with others. We became quite adept at, smilingly, moving them on as it were. There were no hard feelings, indeed the locals always made us feel welcome and each of us received many invitations to visit with them on family occasions.

Noting that I am writing of a time 60 years ago: as an expatriate you were always going to be exactly that; only if you were born there could you be accepted as a Chatham Islander. It was not a question of nationality or anything like that. I never found that it was meant to demean me nor did it separate me from any activity. But quietly the local people were firmly of the Chatham Islands, some of whom might temporarily or permanently go to New Zealand.

I confess to be of the view that from time to time the attitude of central Government to some of their problems could only reinforce their position.

My term ends

I had planned to be back on the mainland for Christmas 1957 but Staff Division had difficulty finding a replacement and asked if I could stay at ZLC a little longer. Neither my fiancée nor I were too unhappy about this as our respective saving plans were going very well. Also, my “ticket” study had not yet reached the stage where I felt comfortable sitting the exam.

It was not until April 1958 that I was able to leave the Chatham Islands and later that month I resumed duty at ZLW.

Next: Clyde Williams returns to Wellington Radio ZLW for the last time