From bombings to the back country: A Kiwi mum's story

Alexa with a pet calf at Branches Station. Photo: supplied
Alexa with a pet calf at Branches Station. Photo: supplied

The Anderson kids, including my mother Alexa, were luckier than many. There was no escaping WWII’s deadly bombing raids, but for them, amongst the fear they found a surprising amount of fun. It was a character-building childhood, which led to a life of adventure in travel, fashion and motherhood in the mountains.

Now in her late 80s, Alexa remembers clearly when war was declared in 1939. Her mother Brenda was preparing for the birth of her fourth child and the London maternity hospital abruptly notified all expectant mothers to make their own arrangements - they were converting into a military hospital. Alexa was nine, her sister Margaret, seven and brother, Peter, only four.

“Mum panicked, the man next door had a car and he drove us down to Cornwall and dropped me and Margaret at our aunt’s house in Liskeard. We went to school there and if the air-raid siren went you were marched into the woods and told to stand in a hollow tree. We thought it was quite a laugh my sister and I because we already knew all about air raids in London. It was still pretty scary but the country kids were much more frightened than us.”

Months passed but it was too much for Brenda having the family scattered, with her and Peter down south and husband Arnold in London.

She brought the family back together and despite every aspect of their lives being engulfed by war, the couple got busy organising garden parties and gatherings.

Alexa, aged two, with her mother Brenda in London. Photo: Street photographer
Alexa, aged two, with her mother Brenda in London. Photo: Street photographer

“We used to put on concerts in our garden and raised quite a few 100 pounds for the family’s ‘Spitfire Fund’. We would provide lemonade and all the neighbours would come together. My father was very good like that, very social.

''At Christmas all our neighbours came and met for drinks and every other Christmas we had a big party at our house, decorations and games and lots of fun. We were still all on rations and the war just went on around us. Our biggest daredevil stunt was to run out after a bombing and see who could get the biggest bit of shrapnel. Mum used to get cross because it tore your clothes and clothes were rationed too.”

When the Battle of Britain really got going, waves of enemy aircraft began to sweep over London, day and night.

“The worst was the drone of masses of bombers, you would listen to work out where they were going and you would hear them pass on over. You felt sorry for those people but were just glad it wasn’t us that day.”

Evacuations were eventually ordered as bombing intensified. The girls were old enough to go and were loaded onto a double-decker bus, destination unknown.

“We had no idea where we were going, nor did our parents. It was all secret in case there were German spies. The bus took us to Paddington Station and as our train went along I was excited to recognise the countryside as we went toward Devon. We arrived in a village and sat in a hall while people came to chose us. We were lucky because ours said they’d take us together. The house was on the edge of Newton-Abbott, home to Colonel Mockler and Mrs Mockler. He was a retired colonel from the British Army in India. We ate in the kitchen with the maid and weren’t allowed to use the front door.”

Alexa’s mother never threw out the letters which arrived from her daughters dutifully informing of their location, the words mostly washed away with homesick tears. For them, however, time slowly passed and their slightly odd existence at the Mockler mansion became normal.

They frolicked in the elegant gardens and delighted in being chauffeur-driven to school by Rolls Royce on rainy days.

Lin Herron outside the Herron's first home at Branches Station, preparing to truck wool. Photo: supplied
Lin Herron outside the Herron's first home at Branches Station, preparing to truck wool. Photo: supplied

Two years later, they were allowed home. The war ended and following high school Alexa found herself working in the Bank of England.

“The bank was very grand. When I went for the interview there was a terrific guy with a red fur-trimmed coat and a gold and red hat. He greeted me and showed me which staircase to use. I went home and told mother I’d met the Lord Mayor of London, that he’d been at the bank that day too. It was actually the doorman. I thought I was so clever passing the interview test because everyone else was from posh families.”

After eight years, however, the novelty of a fast-paced life on Threadneedle Street was wearing thin and Alexa began to rebel against conservative post-war Britain.

“Only men got jobs further up, exams could be taken by women but it didn’t mean women could do any of the important jobs when they passed the same exams. When I left I had to fill in a leaving form and I was very naughty really because I put my reason for leaving as boredom. This got rejected as “unacceptable”.”

She hitch-hiked around Europe and later paid ten pounds for a berth on a migrant worker’s ship to Australia.

“It was all very exciting but I was leaving home for God knows what. I went to Melbourne and worked as a nanny for nice people but there was still very much a colonial elite - if you were the nanny you had to have a posher uniform and pram than all the other nannies and I baulked at that. I thought I’d left it behind. I could leave the job but not the country because they took your passport to make sure you stayed two years.”

Friends from the ship had a flat in Sydney and Alexa got a job there at an exclusive fashion house.

Fashionably-attired, Alexa boards a ship from England to Australia. Photo: supplied
Fashionably-attired, Alexa boards a ship from England to Australia. Photo: supplied

“I did the wages and a bit of modelling. They were three couples, all Hungarian Jews who had been in concentration camps. One couple had had their baby put in a gas chamber. They all had numbers tattooed on their arms.”

For fun she did night classes in logic and would sometimes share the exercises with everyone at work during morning tea time.

“One day I started, then stopped, telling one about if you were shipwrecked with no water and food, would you eat the other people. I didn’t want to finish saying it once I’d started, but they egged me on, not realising where the story was going. They all went very quiet when I finished then finally one of the men said Alexa it’s surprising what you can do when you are really desperate. They would have terrific arguments in Hungarian but there was always great laughter as well. It was quite an education.”

Alexa eventually arrived in New Zealand and was finishing a six-month stint as a barmaid at Eichardts Hotel in Queenstown, when her life changed forever. Future husband Lin Herron had found his way to her farewell party. That night there had been another party, a ‘Stag Do’ at Coronet Peak Station woolshed, so Lin had driven out from his remote farm up Skippers Canyon. A friend was talking to Lin at the Stag Do and said he was off now to another party.

“Oh where’s that,” said Lin.

“At the girl’s quarters at Eichardts.”

“Well don’t forget your mates,” said Lin.

Alexa backpacking in Australia with her pet kangaroo. Photo: supplied
Alexa backpacking in Australia with her pet kangaroo. Photo: supplied

The romance began although Lin spent most of his time up at Branches Station beyond Skippers. Alexa stayed on in Queenstown, enjoying a new job at Queenstown Library. When Lin’s mother got wind of the romance she developed a keen interest in books. She frequented the library making polite conversation with Alexa, who had no idea who she was.

“She finally asked me whether I was lonely and I said I’d made some friends but she invited me to dinner. I couldn’t say no and that dinner felt like it went for a year because I suddenly realised Lin hadn’t been out for a while and I was terrified he’d turn up and find me there.”

Once married she moved up to Branches Station into Lin’s hut near the banks of the Shotover River. He had been batching for seven years and to say his hut was basic would be an understatement of high country proportions. The outside bathroom was complete with a visiting cow that sometimes ate the soap and ventilation was provided not only by windows but by holes in the wooden floor. The precarious Skippers Road often washed out so there were few visitors.

The family later had nearby Ben Lomond Station and lived in a remote lodge where Alexa became tutor to myself and my two sisters, doing correspondence school.

Now widowed, Alexa lives with her cat, Cofifi, on my sister’s farm in Northern Southland. Upbeat, social and optimistic, she remains a follower of fashion and of fun, and is, of course, an inspiration to us all.

These days she is often seen at bustling Frankton, driving her much-loved Honda car with its impressive odometer reading of 475,000 kilometres. There she lunches, shops, meets her quilting group and attends lectures with U3A(University of the Third Age).

At 87 years of age, what is it, I ask, that motivates her the most to get out of bed every morning?

“Well I have to get up to check the news and see if someone’s done us a favour yet and shot Trump.”

 - Jill Herron

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