Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 6, Issue 2, 1998
Alexandra Home: The Early Years Remembered
A report in January 1995 that the Alexandra Home was to close sent my mind racing back to the rather unusual life my brother Lloyd and I had experienced in growing up in the old Alexandra Home at Richmond after our parents, Arthur and Mary Hunter, were appointed as the Master and Matron in July 1926. The Home had opened to provide accommodation for the elderly at the corner of Queen and Hill Streets in 1917.
Earlier provision for the elderly had been made in a former immigration barracks at the corner of Waimea (now Rutherford) and Examiner Streets in Nelson. The building became infested with vermin and was deliberately burned down in August 1909 and the residents were relocated to an establishment at the corner of Waimea Road and Tukuka Street It was named for Queen Alexandra and had 33 inmates in the charge of the superintendent Mr F Liley.
This home was destroyed by fire in 1916 and a temporary provision was made for the inmates at the Home for Defectives in Richmond which was on the former property of Roderick McRae, Bonovoree. This is now the location of Salisbury Girls School. On 5 April 1917 the Alexandra Home reopened in a residence built in 1895 for Mr T Hodson, situated at the corner of Queen and Hill Streets in Richmond. It had beautiful views over Richmond and the plains to the ranges and the Home remained there until 12 June 1968, when it moved to Gilbert Street in Richmond.
Mr and Mrs Hunter were appointed as Master and Matron on 8 July 1926 and the change from private to public life proved a tremendous challenge for them. The Home at that time was more like a Victorian poor house, with me most basic facilities, and the Hunters immediately set about trying to improve things. They were both tireless workers. Mr Hunter was a capable carpenter, plumber, painter, gardener, beekeeper, orchardist, poultry keeper and stock keeper. In addition he had demanding duties relating to the administration of Hospital Board business such as compiling monthly reports, seeing to inmates' pensions, correspondence, estates and personal affairs. He took a keen interest in politics, was a public speaker and, for relaxation, had an extensive library of over 700 books.
The old people were given entertainment at times by visiting concert parties and church groups. Mrs Hunter usually acted as organist at a weekly service, which was conducted on a roster basis by clergy of different denominations. Mr Hunter sometimes showed lantern slides with spoken commentary on subjects such as the Suez Canal, the pyramids of Egypt, Tutankahman's tomb and Robert Burns.
Mrs Hunter was responsible for the care and welfare of the old people and would take the place of the cook or any of the maids when they were on leave. Her standards were very page 13high and there was always a waiting list of girls wanting to work for her. All meals were cooked on the premises and the cook used a big black double-doored coal range. Preserving, bottling, pickling and jam-making were done in season, and happy bands of staff and old people would go into the surrounding countryside on blackberrying expeditions. Mushrooms were plentiful in season, and a washing basket would be taken in which to gather them.
On washing days two coppers had to be boiled for the sheets and linen and the residents' personal items. Soap was made on the premises. Some of the old people would help with small jobs, and I remember a gentleman we called Tonty scrubbing the large oval boilers, pots, baking dishes and pans in an outside area by the coal-box. He also helped with the preparation of vegetables and fruit for the kitchen.
My father milked four or five cows night and morning and there was always plenty of milk and cream and delicious home-made butter. The dairy was concreted and would be hosed down in the summer months to keep the large pans of milk fresh. A big day's work came when it was time to kill one of the pigs. It would be shot and taken to the big red shed behind the main buildings, where it would be hung from a hook in the rafters and then scalded in a big old bath kept for the purpose. The meat was processed and the legs of ham and cured bacon which were hung from the ceiling in the kitchen had an unforgettable flavour.
In addition to the animals, the Home grew its own fruit trees, vegetables, maize and tobacco, and was therefore practically self-supporting. When I came home after school I would see my mother sitting at her sewing machine in the big bay window mending sheets and linen or shirts and trousers. Some of the old ladies would be with her, helping to mend socks and sew on buttons, or podding peas, peeling apples or other little jobs which they enjoyed and which gave them a feeling of self worth.
During the weeks before Christmas, the Hunters put in many hours of extra work in canvassing local and Nelson firms and organisations to get donations to help give the old people a little bit extra at Christmas. Everyone was asked what they would like, and requests were met wherever possible, including trousers, cardigans, boots, shoes, long- Johns, shaving gear, pocket watches and suitable gifts for the ladies. The gifts would be parcelled up and named on large tables in the clothing storeroom on Christmas eve, while we children were told to "keep out". On Christmas morning my father, resplendent in a Father Christmas outfit of fur-trimmed hat, coat and whiskers, distributed parcels, knocking on each door and calling "Open in the name of Santa Claus" much to everyone's enjoyment.
Electricity and radio were in their infancy and Mr Hunter canvassed the borough for donations towards a new wireless set, with a speaker extension for the men in their smokeroom. The men who smoked were given a weekly allowance and the non smokers and ladies were given sweets, which came in large tins from the Griffin's factory. Alcohol was not permitted on the premises, but the men could go to the hotels in the village and a bus which came up Champion Road and along Hill Street provided convenient transport. I page 14remember a dear old Irish chap, who used to keep the lawns manicured, who would go down to the village when the spirit moved him and come back in a quarrelsome Irish mood. We would hear him ricocheting off the walls as he came to bang on our sitting room door, demanding to see my father and accusing him and the cook of being in league with the Pope against him.
As it was the years of Depression there were many unemployed tramps and swaggers tramping the roads looking for work. At dusk they would be seen coming up Queen Street towards the Home, having been sent on from the Star and Garter and Railway Hotels. This rather annoyed Mr Hunter, as the Home was intended for the aged and infirm and not for the able unemployed. However, they were usually given a bed for the night and, being a returned soldier himself, I am sure he felt sympathy for any out of work soldier. After the busy Christmas and New Year season residents had the chance of a holiday at Monaco, where Ken Gibbon's cottage near the Point was rented. Tents were erected at the rear for the staff and we children. Inmates were taken in turns to have a complete change by the sea, and a lot of preparation went into the exercise. A Hospital Board truck was brought into service to help transport bedding and the larger items. At that time there were only about six houses on the peninsular and road access was determined by the tide.
A room at the Home which was of great interest to my brother and myself was me clothes store-room. Today these clothes would be a treasure trove for any museum or theatrical company for their wardrobes. There were top-hats, bowler and Panama hats, long feather boas, black-beaded jackets, men's suits and ladies' long skirts and dresses. They had mostly been handed in from deceased persons' estates by family members. There were also leather and jet-beaded purses, Gladstone hats, tall hat boxes, carpet bags, round leather collar-boxes, cane portmanteaux tied with leather straps, cardboard boxes and tins of assorted spectacles, mostly with small gold rimmed frames, and even the odd monocle. Other delights included boxes of studs and hat pins for the large hats and walking sticks of every variety, some of which were beautifully hand carved. What a treasure trove it was for dressing up.
There were regular visits by members of the Nelson Hospital Board and they would have morning and afternoon tea and chat to the old folk. They were always complimentary and supportive of my parents, and acted on any suggestions or recommendations. The Chairmen of the Board during those years were Mr GM Rout 1925 – 30; Mr T Neal 1930 – 1936; Major Dagger 1936 – 1944 and then Dr DC Low. The Secretary of the Board, and a good friend was Mr George Chapman. The Matrons at the Public Hospital were Miss S Brown 1921 – 1933 and Miss Barbara Taylor 1933 – 1952. A happy event was the wedding of one of the staff, a little Welsh girl who had no family in New Zealand. She entered the Methodist church on the arm of Mr Warren Kelly, the mayor of Richmond, and the reception and wedding breakfast were held in the dining room of the Home, with all the old people dressed in their best included as guests. It was a very happy occasion for one and all.page 15
With our parents' busy life at the Home, my brother and I learned to entertain ourselves, roaming the hills and valleys with our dogs when not at school, or having music or dancing lessons at weekends and going to church on Sundays.
In retrospect we had a rather different and unusual background to our childhood and formative years, and yet we both remember the old Home with affection.
Our footprints were placed in the concrete outside my little room in the 1930's and remained there until the building was demolished when the developers moved in. No sign is left of the old Alexandra Home today which once stood so proudly on the hill at Richmond.