Merville’s Wartime Job

Merville’s Wartime Job In Tobacco Fields

My mother Merville, contributed to the war effort in a way that would be frowned upon today, but during World War Two tobacco played such a huge role in providing support to those serving overseas. And to the community at home as well.

Merville and Iris began their wartime work when they arrived in Motueka in the spring of 1942. Mum has always recalled the war years as being a very enjoyable time of her life. She’s spoken of the different lifestyle they lived with not many people around. Of course the weather in this part of New Zealand is renowned for being warmer and drier than almost anywhere else in the country. She remembers being sunburned and the need for constant sunscreen and wearing of hats. She loved the outdoor work.

I was surprised at Mum’s apparent lack of empathy when talking to her about the war and casualties etc until she explained that apart from her brother John, she had no-one close who was fighting overseas. The casualty lists published in local papers in the Marlbourgh district meant nothing to them as they didn’t know the people involved. Being away from Southland, they weren’t privy to regular news from there, either. Mum doesn’t remember listening to radio broadcasts about the war and thinks they didn’t have a radio available to them. Nor can she recall any attention being paid to encourage women to take up the accepted male work roles. “People just got in and did what needed to be done.”

“There were two adjacent properties belonging to the Heath and the Knowles families at Pangatotara. Four girls worked and lived on each farm. We had a hut at Heaths and two girls who had worked at Wanaka with us (May West and Dorothy ?) were there in another hut so we all got along well. Iris and I were in the hut closest to the road, the others lived further back. Both huts were away from the main house. I only remember two of the other girls, Ethel and Mavis, who lived at Knowles. The huts had two beds at one end divided by a curtain. At the other end was a table and chairs. There was a small stove and we had to cook for ourselves but it was no problem. The stove was electric. Each pair of girls lived separately.” I have made this note during some conversation with Mum. “We used to make Christmas cakes.” Not sure what the story was here, perhaps they gave them away as presents, but I can’t say for sure. When I asked recently, Mum couldn’t tell me anything about their toileting/showering facilities.

“Then we had to bike 7 miles to Motueka to do our shopping and often went swimming in the baths or to a film before going home. Of course there was very little traffic on the roads so we had no problems. Some times we would not pass anyone else the whole way. No-one ever went near the river (the Motueka) at the bottom of the paddock, no swimming there. It must have been dangerous.

“Earthquakes were common. Mrs Heath used to laugh because any time there was a shake she’d see two girls streaking out of each of the huts.



This photo has hung in Mum’s kitchen for probably all my life. But I had never appreciated the significance of it until I began writing up Mum’s journals. I do remember her saying it was where she worked in Motueka but that’s all. Now I’m looking at it with completely different eyes. The photo is quite faded now but the caption reads “Autumn Tints, Pangatotara”. The very fact Mum invested in a professional photograph of the area is enough for me to “know” this is exactly where she lived and worked for three years.


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