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From Finishing School to Waikaretu

Gladys Aston – pioneer too busy to stand for parliament

Waikaretu in 1920 was the back of beyond – an isolated place with a single, often impassable, unmetalled road to connect it with the outside world, no power, no telephone and no school. It was a long way from the high society of Sydney, the Paris fashion houses and a finishing school in Belgium. But this was where Clyde Aston brought his new bride Gladys – to a tiny cottage that had been the Mission House. Gladys and Clyde would raise six sons there and as the small settlement grew, Gladys’ privileged upbringing was to prove no obstacle for this remarkable pioneering woman.

Gladys was born the eldest daughter of Arthur and Rosa Tighe on 16 Feb 1889 in Waratah, New South Wales. She had one sister, Norah, who was also born in Waratah.

Gladys and Norah’s grandfather, Atkinson A. P. Tighe was a very well-to-do and prominent person in Newcastle, NSW, the first mayor of Newcastle and the local magistrate. Tighe’s Hill, a suburb in Newcastle, was named after him and he owned several properties around Tighe’s Hill.

It is not clear what Gladys’ father, Arthur, actually did, but whenever he had money they lived very well, with a large home, servants, cooks, gardeners and horses and carriages for them all. But when there wasn’t any money, they all went to live with Atkinson.

Arthur, Rosa and their girls travelled extensively around Europe and UK, returning to Australia whenever funds got low. They also took the two girls on trips abroad, with their two unmarried aunts often taking them to Paris to buy their clothes.

Early in the 1900s Gladys and Norah were taken to England by their parents and placed in boarding schools while their parents travelled. Reflecting her social standing and custom of the time, Gladys attended a finishing school in Belgium. She later attended German language lessons at the Heidelberg University in Germany.

Gladys became very fluent in French and had a reasonable ‘handle’ on the German language, but said that she “found German much more difficult than French”.

Between Aug 1918 and July 1919 Gladys was in the WRAF (Women’s Royal Air Force) in England, rising to the rank of Lieutenant and appointed as a Deputy Administrator. Her role included working as an interpreter and a driver.

Rosemary Aston, Gladys grand daughter recalls: “I can remember her telling me that when she first went into the Air Force they didn’t have women’s uniforms and they had to wear Army uniforms until they were given their proper uniforms. One of her jobs was to attend court on Monday mornings to get all the girls out of the lockup after their ‘boozy’ weekends as they were needed back at the ammunitions factories for the war effort. Gladys had an uncle Henry ‘Harry’ Tighe, who was a very well-known writer/director who lived in London, so she did have family she could go to while she was there.”

Gladys was always keen on cars and in Wellington drove Dr Purdy on his medical rounds, as he could not drive. She was one of the first motorists in Wellington. Gladys’ sister Norah married a son of Dr Purdy, Robert, in 1915 at Lower Hutt. Judith, one of Dr Purdy’s daughters, married Wilfrid Aston in 1919 and it is at this wedding that Gladys met her future husband Clyde.

Clyde and Gladys married in Lower Hutt on the 7 April 1920 and started their married life on the farm at Waikaretu. Initially Clyde was in partnership with a Mr Boone, but later obtained a Crown grant and bought Mr Boone out of the partnership. It seems Mr Boone had very little farming experience and as it turns out, neither did Clyde. Their 600 acres of land was in the centre of a large Maori community, one of four bush covered blocks bought from Maori by the government for farming settlement.

Gladys’ first home as Mrs Aston was once a Mission House, a resting place for ministers who travelled from Port Waikato down the coast to Raglan. It was built of pit sawn totara with a ponga floor and consisted of two rooms, the larger having on open fi replace, where initially Gladys had to do all the cooking. The vestry served as Clyde and Gladys’ bedroom, being so small that they could only fit in a double bed and had to climb over the end to get into and out of bed. Mr Boone slept in the other room, the lounge/ kitchen. As the children started coming further rooms were added, one across the end and then down both sides.

The hard, slow process began to clear the land for farming, but Gladys had the advantage of a few acres around the cottage already cleared by Maori for their gardens. Water came from the roof of the house and in dry summers, was carried in kerosene tins from a nearby spring. Like other pioneering women, Gladys grew vegetables, preserved, made her own bread and butter, milked a house cow and dressed the farm’s mutton to feed her family.

Between 1921 and 1929 Clyde and Gladys had six sons, all still living with the exception of Brian, their 4th son, who died in 2002. Their eldest son Rodney is now 88 and living at Patumahoe.

As the house at Waikaretu filled up, more rooms were added on, with the older boys moving to a sleepout, which later became shearers’ quarters. “Father built a woolshed where hay was stored,” recalls Rodney.” When it burnt down, instead of building another, he built a cowshed and milked cows for the cream service to Tuakau.” In such an isolated area, everyone organised their own social occasions and Aston’s woolshed would echo to the sounds of music and laughter as the community gathered for dances.

The telephone came in 1925, with Gladys in charge of the exchange and by 1930 she was the local postmistress, a post she held for 14 years. One of her responsibilities was issuing government benefits to Maori. She was asked to stand for parliament for the Country Party, but declined, saying she was “too busy.”

In 1933 she opened a store in one of the rooms of the house and the cream truck delivered the goods to her when they came to pick up the cream. Around this time there was a works camp for the men building the road and some had their families with them. Often the wives, and sometimes the men, would go to Gladys wanting to buy food. She put a slide into one of the windows and this became the ‘shop’, mostly stocked with staple foods like fl our, sugar and rice.

Gladys and Clyde parted in 1943 and Gladys and the boys remained on the farm milking cows by hand for some years, until it was converted over to sheep. Rod and David, her two eldest sons, took over the farm in 1946 and Gladys moved to Auckland. She had a two storied house built in Brighton Road, Parnell and lived there until her death, keeping busy with her grandchildren, the Parnell Lily Society (whose president was Rob Muldoon) and rushing around, visiting family and friends near and far and delivering Meals on Wheels, often to people much younger than herself. It was nothing for her to drive down to Taumarunui to visit family.

“She was a very good dressmaker and made most of my dresses,” says Rosemary.” I’m not sure if she did this for all her granddaughters. I am herfirst grandchild and the family always tease me and say that I was very spoilt by her – and I probably was.”

Gladys died, aged 87, on 19 Aug 1976. At the time of her death she had 22 grandchildren and several great grandchildren.

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