Not generally well known is MOTAT’s considerable and growing oral history repository. Over the last twenty years the Walsh Memorial Library has been developing its collection of oral histories.
The library has over 400 hours of recordings archived, covering themes of aviation, transport, telecommunications, and more. Interviews with former MOTAT volunteers and staff members and others give an intimate and lively account of the museum and stories about our collections.
Members of the MOTAT Society are welcome to visit the library and listen to interviews. For this issue of Squeaky Wheel, we continue to feature excerpts transcribed from two of these histories which we hope will give you a taste of what is available.
The first - you can find it here - is from the late Eric Burns about his time employed with the Auckland Transport Board. The second, below, is an interview with the late Phyllis Harwood, an early Conductress on the Auckland Trams, by Megan Hutching of MOTAT.
The MOTAT Library is open Monday to Friday 10am – 4pm (except public holidays). Contact via phone 09 845 3690 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Phyllis Harwood began her working life as a ticket writer for Woolworths. She then travelled and worked overseas - a cook at a private school in Bangor, made pelmets for curtains in Belfast - and then during the war, worked again as a ticket writer at McKenzie’s department store in Queen Street.
“We fire watched. Now in England, in London they'd be up on the roof with a bucket of sand and something else and as they threw their little fire bombs down they put them out. But we had to sit downstairs on the ground level and knit or talk waiting for the fire bombs to be put out. How can you fire watch when you're right down there! But we as girls we used to be there – we stopped at half-past five. I think at six o'clock we were allowed to go out and have something to eat and we went at half-past nine. And then the boys came and they had a little room with beds in. And they fire watched all night.”
“I used to do it with the manageress and she was a nice little woman. But she used to sit in the office and do office work and things. And I would sit and knit you see. And one day she looked down and she went – she froze. She froze so badly I noticed. . . . And she had picture holes and they weren't being used at the bottom and one had a hole and there was a big fat rat looking up at us. And she froze. She honestly couldn't move. . . . and so I got a tin box and put it over the hole and shooed it back. But it was really funny. The rats in Queen Street were terrible. [They came] up the sewer. You see there was a stream right up the middle.”
After the war, Phyllis and her friend Noel Evans and three other friends from McKenzies travelled to Australia. Intending to continue ticket writing Phyllis unfortunately had to compete with graduates of the Sydney Art School and ended up dressmaking instead.
“I ended up going dressmaking because the landlady came and asked us what we were doing and I said 'I'm hoping to be a ticket writer.' I was like 'I wouldn't mind dressmaking.' 'Oh my dressmaker wants someone,' . . . She rang up and had me a job before breakfast was over.
“The new look came out before we left and everyone had little waists and longer skirts. And of course, you needed a new wardrobe. So before we came home we'd been to all the Dior fashion parades and all that kind of thing so we had a new look in our eye. We came back and we had tight waists and fitted tops and it was the sleeve you see it was so tight that you couldn't put your arm up. . . . And so we came back with all these new clothes and everybody said 'Where did you get them?' And I said 'I made them.' It was fatal. It meant I had to make for them.”
When Phyllis arrived home the girls she'd worked with in McKenzies and Woolworths were all working as tram conductresses and encouraged her to join.
“They said 'You have more time off.' Otherwise, you'd just have Saturday and Sunday but there you had days off during the week and you had three weeks holiday. ‘You get a man's wage,’ . . . Equal pay. It was the first time. And they said ‘It's outdoors and it's sunny,’ you know. They were all enjoying it. So we went in straight away and . . . the first school was after Christmas. And so my father and mother were furious 'You're not going to do that rough job.' 'Ooh,' my father said 'You'll ruin your skirt.' My mother said 'You'll break your fingernails.’ But I said 'I'll get some money and I'll be all right,' you know so I did it."
After a medical check-up and character references Phyllis, along with 20 other female colleagues were trained in the art of tram conducting - how to pull the pole down, how to turn the seats, where the fare sections started and finished.
“You'd be put on a tram where they were just working and he [training conductor] would sit and he'd tell you what to do and he'd say 'Go and see what they're doing,' you know and then he'd see what you'd done you know? It was really he went right over the whole system. I think it was a week . . . and then you're on your own.”
Initially, Phyllis was only given a man's shirt, a skirt, and a hat in navy blue serge as a conductress uniform. Phyllis suspected that her employers believed she wouldn't be staying for long and so kept the uniform allocation to a minimum.
“I was only given a skirt and a shirt – navy blue. And I think we were given – yes that's all we were given, a shirt and a skirt. Down below the knee with one pleat in the middle. And I wore those until they started to look raggy. Just where your bag goes would just go into a hole. . . . And we put elastic, I think, across our back and made it look as though it was supposed to be a coat. . . . I think it had long sleeves. . . . By the time I'd finished with it we looked like we had suits. They didn't say anything but that's all we had.
“And when it all got raggy in the end the Union man - he was such a nice man, he said 'What's the matter with your suit? Haven't you got anything else to wear?' I said 'No it's the only garment I've got.' I had to wash it every week and iron it. . . . And so, in the end, they gave me a coat . . . and you had to go to have a tailored line jacket that was all fitted. And some of the girls took them back to other tailors to get them fitted properly. . . . That had the silver buttons on it and you had a coat like a real conductor. But I didn't get that for quite a while."
After training, Phyllis started her conductress duties on broken shifts which covered the busy morning and evening schedules and picked up the meal relief shifts for those running the straight shifts. In the interview, Phyllis explained how her days as a conductress generally proceeded.
“You'd start about half-past six to half-past seven. . . . and you picked the car up and went and did workers trips to bring people in so there was always a lot of trams on the run. . . . And then you'd go up to Herne Bay, then you'd go out to Mount Eden and you might just do that once . . . But you brought in as many people as you could. They found out where the crowd was and you went – they had it all worked out. Then you might be finished about half-past nine or ten but then . . . you got off your workers' tram and you picked up a meal relief. . . . And it meant that you didn't get home until half-past ten at least. And then . . . we'd go home and make dinner. . . And then we'd go and pick up a mid-shift because the other shifts are doing the long late hours, eight hours and we did the bit in the middle. And when you finished that if you finished that quite late you would go into the depot and pick up workers trams to take the people home. You had to be there from about half-past four till six o'clock. And then by that time the straight shift needed another meal and so you'd drop those and pick them up and did their trip. And then you could go home.”
“[We'd] make sure everybody was clear from the back and you'd ring the bell and start the car up again. You know you would see where they sit and make sure they were not well doing something like trying to open a window when he was going to start the tram moving. . . . if they were with babies too you had to wait until they'd got seated. And you'd get the prams up. . . . I have had up to six.
“[On one occasion] we got to Eden Park when a woman came along and she had one too [a pram]. And I said 'I'm sorry,' - there was something to do with babies in the Town Hall that day and I had them under the front gates and under the back gates and . . . there was nowhere else to put them because there were a lot of people. And I said 'No I'm afraid I can't.' She said 'I hope you have twins! I don't have twins so there!' And that was her telling me off.
“But sometimes they were enormous prams with wickerwork. And one had a nail stuck into the wheel to keep the wheel on and as I brought it up it made an enormous hole in my stocking. We used to wear dreadful stockings. Well, you see it was hard on them but you had to have something because you only had a knee-length skirt and we used to buy these dreadful rayon things. But they were warm and they were only very cheap. They were just a few shillings each pair.
“So every day you did that going in and going out, turned the seats and changed the sign and changed the gate and pulled the pole down. They did that at the end of everything. And [we] got a cup of tea - got a billy of tea. I never drank tea until I went on the trams. . . Mother was a great tea drinker and always drank it strong and I was given it as a child and when I came old enough to drink tea I thought 'Gee that tastes awful,' and never drank it. So the first day I was thirsty and the motorman said 'We get a billy of tea now. It's one and six. You run into the dairy there and order it for the next trip.' You see I wouldn't go in and say 'I want it,' you'd say 'I'll be in here in ten minutes.' We might have just had a little go up and turn round and come back and I'd run in . . . and then they'd give you a billy. . . and do you know I drank tea after that. I've drunk tea ever since. It wasn't very nice but I got used to it.
"We had motormen their wives would bring them a cup of tea out. I ended up with a very nice one Bernie – Bernie Berridge. . . . And his wife would come along with a little billy of tea and we'd drink it. I think sometimes she poured it and took it. And sometimes he brought it and you took it back.
“And then there's people who wanted to be put off. . . . one Sunday it was almost a trip. They came on and all the way out to Meadowbank I pointed out the scenery. You either sat and watched the scenery or talked to somebody. There was always somebody wanted to know something.
“And then there was one woman that wanted to know about Doctor Paul serial. How did she know that I watched Doctor Paul? Because you know see I was a broken shift and it was my first trip after lunch you see and that was in the morning . . . so we'd get home in time for a cup of tea and Doctor Paul on the broken shift. . . . She said 'What's happened to Doctor Paul?' . . . And I said 'Oh terrible so and so and so,' . . . and I was taking fares and I'd come back and give her a bit more.”
The main role of the conductress was to collect passenger fares. Phyllis recalled what it was like to carry the heavy conductor bags and bring them into the depot at the end of the day.
“You had a leather bag and it was in pennies for the front – there were no ha'pennies by that time luckily - but there was thruppences, sixpences, shillings. And notes you kept in your pocket. And you tried to give pennies back as much as possible. . . . Otherwise you had so much weight in the front you'd be falling over. And then you'd have the problem of the little children . . . I was taking fares and ringing bells and I had all these little ones round and they were all putting their hands in to get pennies. I looked and there they were like little sparrows. I said 'No, no'. And I got along the next one and he's got his hand down and nice big eyes and looks up at me like this - shy. And I said 'Come on, give me your penny.' . . . And the man beside him said to me 'You can see he's shy, let him go.' And I looked at the little boy and said 'Just bring your hand up and give me the penny please.' And I put my hand out and he did.
“That was for a child [a penny]. Tuppence for adults. Unless you were in Queen Street. And you can go from the Town Hall to the Post Office at the bottom and that would be a penny. And you can go from there to the railway station for a penny. Or if you were in Queen Street the railway would cost you tuppence . . . you'd put the money under your thumb and you'd tip the thing and clipped it, on the section that they were going. There was concession. . . . You'd buy a ticket for the week or you buy a ticket for the day. They were a shilling or one and two. So you got two extra for the one and two. I think you got 12 rides for that. Otherwise, it was ten for a penny wasn't it. “
“Oh we'd all go into the depot [at the end of the day] and there was a big clamp and a big hole. And you put your foot down there was a hole and you pushed your turn and they went into a safe. But the last trip in if it was easy, you totted up your tickets and as you went in say you had a five – four or five sections - well after a few you had to check them off. You'd check the numbers off that you've sold on the paper and you'd count up your money and put that in a bag. I always kept mine with me. Some girls would put it in the back cabin because the pennies were heavy and occasionally people would take it. “
Phyllis has many accounts of incidents on the trams including one where an obnoxious passenger after the six o'clock pub closing first would not move and then kicked Phyllis as she squeezed past to collect fares. The story of how she kicked him back in full view of the other men on the tram is recounted by Megan Hutchings in her article 'You've kicked me': Tram Conductresses (1) on the MOTAT website. She also remembers a day when she broke the rope on the tram pole.
“It was a big car and I pulled and pulled, it wouldn't move so I used to climb on the back, hang onto it and jump off hanging onto the rope. And it broke in half. And it didn't come down because the rope was holding it or something.”
Another incident was with a tram pole coming off - a regular occurrence - and Phyllis had to go out in the pouring rain and put the pole back on.
“I don't mind in the suburbs but the Civic – just about ten to eight when everybody was there and it teamed . . . and I had to go out and put the pole up. Now I couldn't see very well, it was night and flashing and the water comes down the pole and runs down your sleeves and you can feel it running right down until it gets almost to your knees. That was one of the worst.”
Luckily Phyllis' time on the trams was almost accident-free. She does recall a time she swapped a shift with a friend so he could play a Saturday sports match.
“Well, I didn't know his motorman at all. He was a quiet little man, the kind that had a little handkerchief that wiped everything before he did it. And he hardly spoke to me. . . . We had a head off twice at the reservoir. I had to run right up to Great North Road and drag the head back down the centre of the road. . . . He nearly took the – coming round a sharp corner ….And I was thrown forward and I scraped my leg a bit on the uprights up the fence. When I picked myself up everyone was sitting on the floor looking startled all dressed up to go to the pictures – hats and gloves and everything in those days. And I picked them all up and we came in and we were late.”
Another accident outside the Blind institute could have gone really badly.
“And there was traffic all around . . . I was halfway back and I could see there was a lorry in front of us. And tram cars all down here. And it was the stop to pick up the blind. And it was about the time when they go home. … And I was standing looking to see if there was any blind people and all of a sudden the front started to fall down. The lorry – they were just moving and the lorry stopped. And the lorry tray came over the top of ours and demolished the front. And was it lucky, his feet [the motorman’s] could have been cut off. As it was, where he was working, that was bent down . . . . And I thought heavens they've got his feet you know? I ran – it was quite a busy tram but everyone just looked. I ran and put my hands underneath and pulled him but his feet were all right. But he was still heavy and by that time the men had woken up and they helped get him out. And so we – I went and rang up and said ‘We want another tram.’ And the lorry had slowed and stopped and you see the tram will not stop immediately. It still goes.”
In 1956 Phyllis left her job as a tram Conductress and continued her overseas travels before returning to New Zealand to become a Postie.
“Well they were closing down anyway and everyone was leaving and there really was a lot of work. You had to do the days off because there wasn't anyone joining. And as they left the people that were there already had to do the days off. So we did as many as we were asked.”
Phyllis Harwood passed away in August 2015 at the grand age of 98 after a life filled with adventure (2).
Phyllis Harwood et al. 1 June 2010. MOTAT oral history interview with Phyllis Harwood, 10-0494. Walsh Memorial Library, the Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT).
(1) 'You've kicked me': Tram Conductresses : Hutching
(2) Phyllis Harwood Obituary