WREN Florence Helen Phibbs – Oral History

It is important for people reading this manuscript to remember that these are the personal recollections of Mrs Phibbs. Time and lack of resources have precluded the researching of facts to draw attention to any errors. The views expressed in this oral history are those of the interviewee only and not the NZDF, RNZN, and the Navy Museum.

This is an interview taking place with [Florence] Helen Phibbs nee Fenwick at her residence at Amberlea Rest Home 14/665 Mahurangi East Road, Algies Bay, Warkworth, on 4th August 2008. The interviewer is Kelly Ana Morey, Oral History Project Officer, Navy Museum, Devonport, Auckland.

Helen, when and where were you born?

Auckland, [282] Remuera Road.

What year?


Just before the Great War?

Yes. My father went to war in August `14 and I was already born then. My impression is that I was … [rather an attractive child though] to say that you were probably a fetching little thing and I think everybody about this size [indicates small child height] is [deemed] quite fetching …. My little brother wasn’t born until the following January and there was nobody around to take praise except me, there was no competition. …

What was your father in the Army do you know?

He was a Major, he was a doctor … in the Medical Corps.

Do you know where he went?

Well he talked mostly … and he wasn’t in the Western Front I know, he would talk most about the Sinai area and I think that’s really where he … and when I look at it on the map as I have done, I think, and I must try and read more about that because there must have been quite a gathering of the soldiers who later went to the Western Front, who were initially were in the southern, central part of the Nile I suppose. To become part of the establishment around the Alexandria, Cairo area and Cairo he talked quite a lot about, Alexandria. So he went away in August, but he never came back, I mean he came back, but not back to us. Being away at the war made him realise that he really wasn’t a domestic-type at all and he wasn’t. I think he probably was at heart a selfish person who just loved reading. Reading can be bad as well as good.

Very isolat[ing]?


How did your mother cope?

Because she was what she was. She was a fighter I suppose you would call her. She was just somebody who would cope with anything.

Did she go out to work?

No in those days, well I suppose particularly majors in the army would have quite a good income coming in. And mother was …, I would never have thought of her as a coper exactly. She was not a domesticated person, but she adjusted herself, she was a wonderful woman. … I quite liked my father too, particularly in the latter years because I … both my brother and I were very like him, not in disposition, we both liked reading and learning.
So you were like him in some respects?

Yes rather than like my mother who liked a good laugh.

She was a social animal?

Yes she was. They were both professional, my mother was a dentist and my father was a … doctor and so they were both professional and you might think … but not all professional people hit it off together… as time goes by you know [people regardless of their common ground grow apart]. I think, looking back as I do from time to time … I think they could have lived together quite happily, but given a different impetuous perhaps. …

I know you went to Diocesan School for Girls and you went right from your junior years, was that because it was your nearest school or was it a conscious decision to send you to as good a school …?

Oh it was a conscious decision. Both my parents were keen on learning and education and they both had quite a social prejudice in favour of a private school. My mother would be influenced by the fact that it was a church school, it was an Anglican school and that would count with her but not with my father. On the other hand he would be quite pleased to think I was at a church school. My mother would be really keen.

Where was your brother sent?

Wanganui Collegiate. So he was sent away as a boarder. My brother and I were the only two and we got on wonderfully well together, always. Well we had a lot in common, as I say we both loved reading. We had enthusiasm for different things just as I am enthusiastic about cats my brother is not at all. That would be unusual I would expect. My mother when things broke up which they did really before they hardly started going … but I don’t think that my brother and I ever felt any sense of loss you know. Mother made things [whole] we had a loving atmosphere I’d say.

Did either of your parents remarry?

No. They got a divorce but not for years and years, they were almost dead before they did, and there was some money left for us and I have forgotten what. But we didn’t really feel … I think I could have … particularly around my brother, have become fond of my father I think. Because we both liked, I was thinking the other night in bed, we both like Latin for instance. When I was about seventeen I can remember asking my father for a translation on a verse from the Iliad. Though he had been away from learning Latin … for many years he was able to dredge that up again.

Ingrained in there?

Yes, he could just produce a Latin translation. He had a very good brain and his father had had and so it was inherited.

Did you see much of him as a child when you were growing up?

At weekends Saturday or Sunday I can’t remember which … he used to take us all, mother, George and me, we used to be taken out for a drive to somewhere on the outskirts of Auckland like Blockhouse Bay. … Mother would cut a marvellous lunch, sandwich lunch and we had a lovely picnic basket made of cane, and mother would put into this, these sandwiches, good … oysters that she would think my father would like …. Women will go to any length and they might be reconciled to their loss, but they still, in the back of their minds are thinking, how it will please him. He would really love oyster sandwiches. Well he loved caviar and things like that, he had a taste for the more unusual and expensive foods.
But we both … I don’t think we felt at all that we had a harsh lot and we didn’t. And I think going to ask his help with a translation, Latin translations and that sort of thing. He liked doing that, you know he liked to think that he wasn’t as bad as all that. They both lived as far as I know and I am sure mother did, immaculate lives centred around [in Mother’s case the home and us children. His would have been centred around his work, his professional work. Mother had given up dentistry when she was married, but she … was a loving-hearted person and loved us. … She had a letter from his lawyers, my father’s lawyers when my brother was about eleven to say that he was to be sent to boarding school. Well that was a terrible day for her.

Oh the decision was made for her?

She was … just the thought of not having him at home was almost intolerable, but she accepted it of course, she had to. She then waited breathless for his letters and got a basket [indicates] like this of his letters and Mother kept every one. So she pulled herself together, she had to and what else could she do. To go back to work and this was around, it would have been around 1922. …

So, no thought of your mother going back to dentistry?

No she never did and I think that was such a mistake, but her lawyers advised her: “You go back to work and he won’t send any money.” And he may well have not. And of course that’s so often the threat that’s held over a woman. She’s been away from work if she was working, or if she was trained in a profession, she’s been away from it, and she’s doubtful about herself I suppose, although mother was not give to doubts about herself. But I think that many women are [accepting of this] because that’s their lot in life. Or it was then.

So you went through Diocesan through to the seventh form and then you went on to university?

No I went when I was seven.

So you went to nursery school first then?

I went to school at seven and that was straight to Dio’. … I think Miss Twiss’s little kindergarten at Takapuna I know I went to, because at one stage …, you remember idiotic things … and I remember Miss Twiss, who was such a dear woman, saying: “Well we’ve got two naughty little boys and so we have to have a good little girl to sit between them and we’ve got a good little girl.” And I think that was my reputation always, good little girl, and so I sat between them. Tim and … I’ve forgotten the other one. Anyway, so I don’t think I had an unhappy childhood at all.

No, it doesn’t sound like it.

All thanks to mother who could have sat looking miserable every day. It would have been totally against her nature. Her nature was to be happy if possible.

Were there any moments that stand out from your time at Dio[cesan]?

I don’t think [so]. I should have done better at school than I did, but at the time I don’t think that worried me in the least because I had from my grandfather and my father and my mother, this good brain you see. I’m not any good … if you said to me, get up now and run to the end and back, I might well fall over. I’ve never been good at physical things.

Okay you weren’t sporty at all?

No, I was just good at learning. I loved learning and so did my brother, we just loved to learn.

I understand that.

Do you?

Yes I really do.

Because lots of people wouldn’t. When I think, looking back now … [though at the time I probably didn’t realise that] … going to see my father and asking him to help me with Latin translations. I can quite see that scene now [in my imagination] and that he would like doing that, you see. He was using his … and I don’t know if the word talent is right, it was something he was good at and appealed to him.

To connect with you as well?

Yes, connect on the right [for us] sort of footing, for instance I don’t think he was ever much of a sportsman any more than George or I. You either are and you live that or you just can’t be bothered with it if you aren’t much good at it ….

When you went to Auckland University what did you do? What was your BA in?


Any particular period that you liked?

Not really and at the time I know there was … I just liked history all together. I know for instance I wasn’t interested in Victorian history, it was more history further back or even the Middle Ages that caught me.

Restoration and the Roundheads and James the First, that sort of period?

Yes and further back than that.

… the Tudors?

Yes … but history all together …. I can remember as a younger child really being wrapped up in Greek and Roman history.

They are good stories aren’t they?

Yes and then Mother, my mother at home as a girl she had learned … to recite. … But mother used to, in the kitchen, mother would be reciting. … And mother could do this very well and with quite a flourish because she enjoyed doing it and she was good at it and she loved it.

It was her party piece?

Yes. But she had a lot to call on. She just … enjoyed, and I do too, reciting. She could recall things quite quickly … [quotes verse] and mother would carry on like this in the background of the kitchen and we loved it and we just drank it all in. Well my father wouldn’t have thought of doing that or he might to a slight extent and very quietly, but that was not mother’s way.

Okay sure.

She didn’t do it to impress, she did it because she loved doing it so much. It was so lovely.

While you were at university you lived at home with your mother still?


What happened after you graduated?

… You know I used to ask myself: what am I going to do for a living? I remember my father saying to me: you know you’ve got to earn a living? Mother was thunder-struck at this because she hadn’t grasped that this was to become my way, because I had never thought of anything else and … would not have been happy at all not to [make my own way]. My grandfather … any brains I have all come from my grandfather and so did my brother’s. I’ve been awfully fortunate ….

I like that you thought that you would have to earn a living rather than get married, I really liked that.

I was so plain-looking really. …

[break in taping]

How long did your father stay in England after the war?

About six years.

Oh that long?

He went in August 1914 because I have got a silver table napkin ring [engraved with the date] which was a popular thing for soldiers to leave behind. A table napkin ring, August 1914 ….

So he basically left the day the war happened really, because I think August the 14th was the outbreak.

Well, I think it had been going quite a while.

Oh no sorry that’s World War II, … you’re right.

I know they were at the Cargon quite a while which was then a rather superior hotel down in the city proper. And there, I was about one, and mother wanted a bit of free time, free from me so she put me in the lift with the lift man who was so nice. He used to say,: “Leave the little girl here, because I can watch her while you are out.”

At the Carlton did you say?

No Cargon Hotel.

Where was that?

Down … see Auckland’s so changed. But if you walk to the end of Princes Street and turn right and you go down the hill and The Cargon was there and it was a very, at the time, well known good, quiet hotel.

Why were you living there?

I wonder. I don’t know I was born out in Remuera Road and then my father went off to the war. I think mother was a very sociable person … well she wouldn’t have been a dentist if she hadn’t enough brains, you know. So I think she was probably delighted to have a rest from somebody of one and a quarter, something like that. And the liftman’s there. “Well you can leave the little girl down sitting here with me while we would go up and down. Well I must have spent some time in there and nobody minded at all.

Do you know how long you stayed at the hotel?

The Cargon no idea no, I suppose I could work it out.

Oh no don’t worry about it. So by the time you started at Diocesan at seven you were back at Remuera Road?

No my father was still at the war, the war trailed on and on for an awful long time and I suppose he wrote to mother and said, well the little girl would … Diocesan sounds just the school for because we want her to have a very good education and I don’t think he cared whether I was brought up an Anglican or what I was if anything, but Mother wanted to be a good Anglican. … And the longer I live the more I think it doesn’t matter what you are as long as you believe …
We were living in lower-Symonds Street and up the road was Dr Horsleigh, a women’s doctor and Dr Horsleigh said that if her three big girls could look after this little girl on the way to school and look after her, put her on the tram and look after her on the tram and look after her once the tram stopped and they all got off at Clyde Street, Epsom. … I remember my … all my time at school was quite a happy time, see I loved learning and if it had been based on being good at sport I would have been very unhappy, but learning give me something to learn.

Yes I get that totally ….

My brother did too you see. We both just loved to learning. …

Now you said that when you were back at school you sort of had to make that decision about pursuing something that would eventually lead to a career and you went to university, Auckland University I gather to do history. Were there many women doing BA’s at that time?

Lots. It wasn’t unusual. I had a best friend who was with me and we used to walk up, there were some evening lectures in history and we would walk up Constitution Hill after dark and nobody thought anything about walking up Constitution Hill in those days. Now we would hesitate. Say, oh I don’t think you ought to do that. But then yes Hilda and I toiled up the hill, off to university and sit there for an hour listening and go back and walk down Constitution Hill.
Catch the tram back to Remuera?

We walked most of the way, in fact sometimes the whole way we walked. We were great walkers in those far-off days.

[Break in tape]

So you did your three years doing your BA?


You had to face the idea of getting a job?

Well yes, but you see having been told that, I was … I think I was looking for guidance all the time. And so my father said to me: “So I think now that you have got all this education so what you need now … is something you can use. And this was to go to Auckland Business College and I was quite happy to go to Business College. I was awfully good at doing what I was told ….

[Break in tape]

So you went off to Auckland Business College?


Where was that?

Down one of those streets near High Street on the far side of Queen Street.

Just down from the Art Gallery?

No, on the other side of Queen Street.

Off Victoria, but I know where you mean.

The other side, … I can’t remember. But I thought I would be hopeless at business, but no I just was good at learning and so was my brother and we picked this all up from our father and grandfather really [though] Mother must have been also or she never would never have got her dentistry. I think we just liked learning, we were good at learning. Eager to learn.

By this stage was your brother at medical school?

I think he started there in 1931, I think.

Did he start at Auckland University?

Yes he did that year [pre-med] at Auckland, then he went down to Dunedin. I loved Dunedin I would love to go back there.

How long did you spend at business school?

A year.

And what happened after that?

Well I suppose that’s when I went to Dunedin. It must be.

So the whole family moved to Dunedin to accompany your brother at medical school?

No not my father. … well his practise was in Auckland and I don’t think he had any great wish to [go to Dunedin] whereas Mother, wherever my brother was there Mother had to be.

Oh how fantastic.

The funny thing is, looking back, I never minded, because I thought he was so nice too and I never minded at all the fact that she obviously preferred [him, though] nobody would have known other than me that she thought the world of him, because I never minded. It’s funny, well it’s not funny, it’s understandable. If you think someone is marvellous it’s not surprising that someone else does too.

So did the three of you up-sticks and move to Dunedin?


Do you remember where you lived in Dunedin?

I think I can, I know the grandparents lived in …. I know it was beyond High Street, the grandparents had a house of which I have a photo. You would go up High Street and turn right into Albert Street and the Albert Street school area where they were. And when I went there, when I was in Dunedin in January [of 2006], I was so disappointed to find that the school had gone, there seemed to be no sign of it. The Albert Street School.

So when you moved to Dunedin was that when you got your first job?

I think so.

Yes what were you doing?

I was at the wool research … was the wool research my first job? I think so.

What were you doing there [at the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR)] running the office?

Yes the whole office, which was one room with one person, was my concern. The professor of chemistry was the head of all the wool research and it was all under the government because it was war-time and the wool research was a war issue and so I sat there in charge of this room. … I used to think and I do more now, that I have really been very fortunate in my life.

I think you have done some very interesting things. How long were at the Wool Research?

I left the Wool Research simply to go to work in Wellington because wherever my brother went, Mother had to go, that is all there was to it. It’s funny, it’s strange rather, I think now looking back, but I never minded at all and I think on the whole you do mind. It never struck me … [that it was somehow wrong] … that Mother obviously to me, obviously preferred George. Because I would have too. …

[Break in tape]

Can you remember what year it was you moved en masse to Wellington? It would have been before the war yes?

Yes I was thinking it was well before the war, but it couldn’t have been of course because I was at the university and that was in the mid-30’s. … Then the war began and everybody’s lives just changed.

Were you in Wellington when the war began?

Yes I think I must have been. I remember things … I find it hard to remember really important things and remember more personal things. Mother reciting, my mother had learned elocution. And she had a good voice and she just loved to recite and standing in the kitchen Mother would recite for hours. She would. We loved it, we were brought up on mother’s recitations. Some of them were often things like Hiawatha. And I always remember [recites poem] … .Mother loved and brought us up on listening to her reciting. And it bought us the greatest pleasure.

So we are figuring this is 1937/1938 when you moved to Wellington, does that sound about right?

I wonder … I will have to work it out.

Your brother did he get a job or was he doing more medical training?

He was actually in Wellington Hospital and taken almost at once by the Army and then transferred from the Army to the Air Force. He did eyes you see.

He was an eye specialist like your father?

Yes he was all ready beginning to [specialise] he had made up his mind that he was going to do eyes.

What job did you do in Wellington before the war?

Well I had a job with Navy Office.

Yes you were at Navy Office, you were an assistant to the assistant of the Naval Secretary, is that right?

Yes that’s right. The secretary … you see and how can I put this so it isn’t skiting. … Well the things that I took up perhaps I only took them up because I knew I was good at them. I think that’s highly likely. So I knew that I was quite good at learning and in Navy Office I was made assistant to the assistant secretary and I knew I would be good at it.

Where was your office while you were assistant to the assistant Navy Secretary?

Down near the water. … The three services shared about three stories. It wasn’t as far down as [Lambton] Quay Street but nearly and the top was the Navy, the middle one the Air Force on the bottom floor was the Army because there were so many of them that they were considered the least important, and of course we would now not look back and think that at all. But in those days they considered [the most refined of the three services] I suppose.

Were there many civilians working in Defence?

In Navy Office, in the building. Not a huge lot. There were some, but no, not a great many. It was a very happy time.

What sort of jobs were you doing?

What did I do? … Mostly typing because they had reports galore, and not much shorthand, hardly any. Nearly all just plain copying and then any sort of secret, well that was typing. For instance there might be a report that: the Mauritania would be leaving tomorrow and the time. Well that couldn’t just be shovelled on to the [general] office [typist]. That was highly secret: four o’clock tomorrow the Mauritania goes out. There was quite a bit of that sort of stuff that I had to do and people all love to be told a secret.

If it has got top secret written on it you want to read it.

Yes. …

The war started … and how long at that stage was your brother in New Zealand before [being sent overseas]?

He was sent to New Caledonia, he was never sent to Europe, only to New Caledonia. Where else was he sent? So my poor mother used to be on tenterhooks all the time: “What has happened to him?” I don’t think mother ever worried about me, and I never minded. …

[Break in tape]

So your brother was off to New Caledonia for the war, and that must have frustrated your mother enormously, because she couldn’t go?

Of course it did. I remember in Navy Office, you see he was in the air force, not immediately. But Navy Office, Mother used to get into such a state about what could be happening to … [my brother] that I remember one day going down to the air force floor and speaking to one of the men there to ask him if he would mind telling me how my brother was. And he was so nice about it and looked up and made enquiries and told me that he was perfectly all right, and so Mother stopped worrying for the moment. The war must have been a … for mother …. It doesn’t matter what happens to the millions of others but what about him.

So you were at Navy Office when the idea was floated in late 1941 I would say they started talking about that, about developing a WRNS … in New Zealand based on the RN [equivalent of the same]. I gather that you were one of the first people that was put forward as a possible person to lead the WRNS … but in the end because of your youth they gave it to somebody else. You weren’t even the slightest bit miffed? You were relieved.

I was relieved. Miss Herrick was 52 when I was still in my 20’s and she obviously … she wasn’t as suitable perhaps with the administration, if I’ve got the right word I’m not sure, as me. But so much more sensible about making important decisions. She had been Head of the Girl Guide Association and she was a very able woman, and I dreaded this … [first meeting] because I had seen many photos of her [and she looked quite formidable]. Oh what’s this going to be like? Which, when she turned up, we got on very well. She had a great sense of humour … and so everything went swimmingly. So latterly she would often be absent because she would have flu or she would have this or that and then I was in charge and I never minded by that time. I never felt that things would crash around me because I knew they wouldn’t.

I gather Miss Herrick had some unusual dietary habits?

Miss Herrick, at a time when people were only just beginning to drink coffee at all, liked to go to the coffee shop and buy coffee. People didn’t do that.

Because a cup of tea and a sandwich was the New Zealand thing back then yes.

Tea. Just about that time I suppose, it more or less disappeared. You know there was a time when we used to drink tea, nobody thought of anything else, then it just all went to coffee.

I gather Miss Herrick was a fan of Fagg’s coffee?

Yes Fagg’s were in Grey Street, down by the Post Office …, but yes she did. But we got on very well I felt, all my fears about somebody that I wouldn’t get on with, well they wafted away.

So you were put in as Wren # 2 and Susanne Walker was Wren #3?

Susanne was only with us a short time. We missed her and we wished she could stay ….

She went to the RN didn’t she?

She went with her father and mother back to England. … I saw her again when I went to England and I kept in touch. … Miss Herrick turned out to be very, I found, easy to get on with, because we could laugh at the same things and that’s so important.

What were those early days of establishing the Wrenery like? Lots of running around …?

Miss Herrick had been used to being Chief Commissioner of Guides [and] now she had to take orders from the Naval Board, which is tough, and she had been a Herrick from Hawkes Bay. Everything contrived to build Miss Herrick up. And she wasn’t difficult at all and we had laughs galore and it’s very easy to be working with somebody who likes a good laugh.

With your initial intake of Wrens that you took on after Miss Herrick was established and you were put in as second in command, what sort of girls were they looking for initially?

I think the sort of girls that you’d have in the Guides, just ordinary … girls. I remember there used to be …, when Miss Herrick was away I used to have to go to these meetings which I hated … which had Miss Milemparry[?] [who] was a friend of the Fraser’s and was a member of the committee of the Women’s War Service Auxiliary. I found her a difficult woman.

In what respect?

The Women’s War Service Auxiliary’s intention was to combine the three services and they would have a meeting, luckily very seldom, and I remember going to the Navy one, being rung up and told I had to come to the Navy one, it was the Navy’s turn and I walked in and Miss Milemparry[?] says: “And why doesn’t the Navy take working girls?” “But we do, we’ve never had any policy not to take working girls.” Somehow that had got in [to people’s minds that that was how the Navy was] and Miss Herrick was the last person to worry about the background of the girls, so long as she was an able girl and ready to work, that’s all that was wanted. Not this … [perceived], it was a sort of phobia, I think, if she’s of a working girl class we don’t want her. …

(End of Tape 1 side A – Beginning of Tape 2 side B)

We had a lot of people wanting to join, there was so many and Miss Milemparry[?] was right in that [yes we were turning girls away] but it [the criteria] didn’t ever come from the top, it didn’t come from Miss Herrick and it certainly didn’t come from me that we were rather special. She was so anxious that we should be regarded as just another able service. … the sort of exclusivity [for which the WRNS became known] was far from her [ideal] always.

Where was the WRNS based in Wellington? In Hinemoa Street?

Hinemoa Street, yes.

It used to be a Reserve base didn’t it?


I gather it was full of rats?


You had a fox terrier that you used to have to kill rats? [This story is found in Happy in the Service: An Illustrated History of the Women’s Royal New Zealand Naval Service 1942-1977 by Grant Howard]

I remember one rat, we weren’t running around looking under things.

I gather because it was near the wharves there was a vermin problem?

I don’t think it appeared a problem to most of us at all.

What sort of things were you doing now that the service was up and running?

Well the big thing was interviewing, recruiting and interviewing. And she [Miss Herrick] did …, we tried to share it as much as possible and she would, or I would go to New Plymouth, Timaru, about five centres. And before going there, there would be a notice written to everybody [there] who had applied to join, to tell them that there would be some … [interviews at their centre] and where. That just had to be arranged and some of the girls were nervous about this. Miss Herrick of course was not [perceived as the most approachable woman], although we got on, I thought, wonderfully well and I enjoyed it the fact we could have a good laugh.

Did you enjoy the travelling?

I never minded.

When you travelled where would you stay?

At a local hotel and the Navy used to pay. Because we wouldn’t stay at the best hotel and we wouldn’t stay at the bottom, we would be somewhere in the middle. …

[tape break]

So you were travelling around recruiting and interviewing?

Yes, I didn’t mind that at all I rather liked it because you were supplied with details of the person before you got to the hotel wherever it would be, so you had time to grasp what sort of person [you were interviewing]. We probably would not have ever encouraged somebody that we thought was hopeless anyway.

On the whole were you impressed with the quality of the girls who were applying for the service?

Not especially. … I don’t think I was, well I expected a lot. And probably at school I’d tended to make friends of the girls like me, steady sort of people, not the flibberty-gibberties. [Well] you do though, if you yourself are that sort of person, those more like you … [will be the one’s you gravitate towards].

[Break in tape]

As well as recruiting what else did you do during those war years?


Were you and Miss Herrick doing the bulk of it or did you have other officers coming up giving you a hand?

No Miss Herrick and I did all of the recruiting I would say. Because the Navy was the smallest women’s service, the army was by far the biggest and the air force was some way in-between, not particularly large or small. No I think looking back, the big thing was the fact that Miss Herrick and I got on so well, it certainly was a great factor in things.

As part of your recruiting were you ever given a list of the areas where they wanted to put Wrens in?

No but we did have a pretty good idea.

Because there were obviously going to be certain girls that would be more suited to radar and that sort of stuff as opposed to cooking and stewarding?

And would also have … we had some [that had] already been working up at Karori Hill, wireless girls, girls who already had a certain amount of knowledge and the obvious thing was to put them in [where they had experience].

I see with the wireless girls did you got out and actively recruit them or wait for them to come to you?

We waited for them to come, we had no problem about recruiting. The Navy, the WRNS they just bounded in. And good girls too, we had no difficulties.

You would take married women I gather?

Yes. … But we recruited very few, not many applied. And they mostly were women on their own for one reason or another.

Or had already been in the Civil Service?

Yes. But there were very few.

At this stage when you were in Wellington were you still living with your mother?

No, I suppose the war had been going about a year and a half and mother was going to have a long spell in Rotorua and I asked the Naval Board if I could live in the WRNS Hostel while she was away and they said: “Yes, but you must not interfere with the hostel administration.” They had to do that. … And so I tried not to [get involved and there was only one occasion when I remember finding it difficult. Because some Wren … the American soldiers and sailors and Marines coming [to New Zealand] made life less easy and this little girl was found by a Marine and stayed out to goodness knows when … nothing came of it. But we had no real problems at all that I can think of. If we had any it would be in one establishment and not last long [in terms of disruption it caused as it would] be quite a minor one. Girls were not difficult.

So in the latter days of the war once the service was up and running, were you ever at any stage based in Auckland or were you always based in Wellington?

I was never based in Auckland I would liked to have been, because the Naval Base was an obvious place, but I never was, I was always [in Wellington]. I think in Auckland, Miss Duthie was … what’s the title, I’ve forgotten … Miss Duthie, things could become a little complicated because Miss Duthie had been in a senior position in the Guides and was a good deal older than me and felt that, I think, that this [a women’s naval service] could continue and that was not the wish of the Naval Board. It was just a temporary difficult situation.

How long did you stay on in the Navy after the war ended?

… I think only about a year.

Were you involved in the demobilisation of the men coming back?


I know a lot of Wrens were retained on for that.

Some wanted, very few really wanted to get out before the end of the war.

Did you ever think the war was coming to an end and you realised that the writing was on the wall that it was going to be over soon how nice it would be if the service carried on?


Your interest wasn’t really …?

No it wasn’t. It should have been I think. … Well my mother was what you would call a possessive sort of a mother … yes I would say mother was a possessive sort of woman.

In what respect would she be possessive?

She was just a loving-hearted person.

She definitely wanted her family around her didn’t she?

Yes and she had this loving heart. If she had had 10, boys in particular, she would have been content perhaps.

When did your brother come back to New Zealand?

He was always in the New Hebrides, he was never in Europe, and I suppose about 1944/45.

Where did he set up practice when he returned?

In Auckland.

I gather he left the air force after the war is that right?


… Okay the war ends and here you are now demob’s finished, it’s heading towards 1947 and what are you going to do with yourself? … You would have been in your early 30’s is that right? … So by about 1947 you are about 32?

[Break in tape]

… Towards the start of 1947 you had run out of your Navy job to do and you are still in Wellington. What happened after that?

No idea. … My brother would have been back from the war.

Based in Auckland?

No, when he came back he was with the air force and I think he was still with the air force in Wellington. Now really I’m going to have to put my mind to things.

So you can’t remember what you did after you left the Naval service? When did you go to China?


Well there you go, you were in China after the war! What were you doing in China?

Well that’s right. You see the end of the war was … there and what will I do for a job? And I can’t remember who told me or how I knew that these interesting well-paid jobs were going in China and I applied and well I must have been interviewed first, and I was given a job. I was asked where I wanted to be in China. “Oh I want to be in central China please?” I knew nothing about it. So off I was sent and I remember arriving at this building in Shanghai with another New Zealander and standing at the window was an American woman, looking out while I was coming in, and she really, I don’t think, knew what to say because the whole thing was very new being set up.

You were working for the UN was that right?

Yes and she was the … interviewer, someone who would take you on …. And she was standing at this window looking out with some American man who was talking to her, and he had been there before she came in I think. And so she said … : “We do want someone to come and work for us up in the Kafung area.” And he said: “This is just where this young lady wants to be.” I said: “Yes I do.” Central China you see. … I might still be in China but my mother used to keep writing to me: When are you coming back? This went on a great extent and eventually you get a bit worn down.

Can you remember the name of the nearest town that you were based in, in central China where they sent you?

Kafung … The interviewing place was Nanking, but the centre was Kafung.

What were you doing?

Mostly shorthand or typing or writing, a lot of writing reports on this, that and the other … and we had interesting reports to write, to concoct about this and that.

Where did you live while you were there?

They had taken over a hostel which had belonged to an Italian postal official apparently, they took this over and must have divided up some of the very big handsome rooms into small bedrooms. And I found myself with a New Zealander. There was only one other New Zealander …. My mother who later met Kathleen, didn’t much like her, but I got to realise that she had such good qualities underneath a rather odd exterior.
And there was this very handsome two-storied house with a room below that had been the post master’s drawing room and had a piano in. I thought it was marvellous, very well paid. So I had Chinese lessons from nearby, not a monk ….

A scholar?

No I don’t think he was a scholar.

A translator?

Perhaps ….

What made you want to go to China?

What do people want to do anything they do?

Escape? Adventure?

I suppose adventure more than anything. I don’t think I had any escape in mind, no I think it was adventure probably and it was well-paid and I had to have a well-paid job. So all in all I was delighted with it, but mother used to keep writing to me: When are you coming back?

[tape break]
So how long were you in China?

A year and a bit. I did take lessons in Chinese, but I’m not a natural linguist, I didn’t make much progress. … I can remember coming back to Shanghai in the train with two Chinese and because it was slightly different [the dialectic differences between the regions] I could order a meal for them better than they could themselves. It was a simple meal. It was more or less, can we have two boiled eggs, I think. That was partly [to do] with liking learning I think.

Perhaps a little bit of survival in there too, because if you can’t speak the language?


After China you went to the World Bank in the United Kingdom, is that correct?

Oh very temporarily. Only for a few days. But I did have a job for a week with the International Monetary Fund. It was having a conference with the World Bank. The World Bank is always headed by an American and I can remember this man saying to me, an American: “Would you get my old China for me?” He was a very nice man and so was the old China when she appeared. …

So you just spent a short time in the United Kingdom and then you went to Paris?

I got in touch, no I think the United Nations kept in touch with me because they do and said: “We’ve got a job in Greece that we would like you to go to.” I would loved to have gone. I had studied Greek and all my life I have been interested in Greek [history]. My mother was the stumbling block, I had to be somewhere within cooee and where France was alright, Greece was just not, too far. So I explained to them and they said, that’s all right they could change me from Greece without any trouble. And I got a flat, a lovely flat, very central and nice and got my mother over and I think she was probably often lonely, but she would never have … I don’t think she would never have inferred that she would like a change.

This is in Paris?

This was in Paris.

So you brought your mother over to Paris how lovely.

Yes 1947 I think it would have been.

At that stage Paris was post-war was fair hopping, did you get involved with any of this [cultural revolution]?

No. … But on the whole I think I’ve had a really interesting time.

What were you doing in Paris for UNICEF?

Mostly shorthand and typing. A lot of typing of reports, that sort of thing. …

You were working for UNICEF and how long were you there?

I really liked that year, because I felt it was worthwhile work, it was well paid and there was lots to learn and although Sam Kearney, who was head of the stores’ department which I was working for, was a very short-tempered man. He was an able person and very experienced. He’d been doing child stores work for a long time and he had such a nice wife from the south [of France?] … And I can remember one or two days when he said to me: “I wonder if instead of coming in here this afternoon, you spend the afternoon entertaining Amelia?” “Yes.” Amelia was so nice that I would jump at the thought of entertaining her for the afternoon.

What sort of work was UNICEF involved in at that time?

Sam Kearney who was the head of the European part that I was working in, went around countries that supplied something, or were willing to, to get them to supply more of dried milk or anything like that. So Sam would be off to Norway, off to Switzerland, off to somewhere like Sweden.

General child welfare in the European post-war?

Yes. I used to think, why couldn’t you stay home and send me? But Sam didn’t think along those lines at all. And though he was so terribly short tempered, he was terrible in a way, but he was so experienced and good at his job that you had to feel you were lucky to be doing that and so I thought I was. So after a while I thought, well … my mother used to ring me up from England and my brother was in England doing medicine, well he’d done medicine, and he was now at Moorfields Hospital. This flat that I had, had belong or still belonged to a countess and the countess’ husband had been killed in a car accident. So she had to get in, she had four children and had to get in as much money as she could. So mother was quite keen to come in a way, but I felt sometimes it was a very lonely life for her because she found her school French [studied] so long before hand that it wasn’t easy for her I don’t think. But Mother was always the one to make the best of any situation.

How long did she stay in Paris with you?

A year … less a month.

So you did your year with UNICEF and what happened after that?

At the end of that time? …

There must be a reason why you didn’t stay on in Europe with UNICEF, had the family made the decision to go back home to New Zealand?

That was it really. My mother, just about everything she did revolved around my brother. She just was never happy if he was far away. And though you might say that had nothing to do with me, of course it had a lot to do with me. So I could quite see why she just [adored him].
Sometimes, [during the war and this was] a bit of an embarrassment, because mother was determined to find out when he was several thousand miles away, just how he was. I would find myself going to a different floor in Navy Office and talking to one of the officers to try and find out, to make sure that he was in good fettle. You know that kind of nonsense that I had to do.

So after a year in Paris, your brother is in the UK doing further medical research and work and at the end of the year he came back to New Zealand is that why the family [did too]?


I thought that might be the reason why the family came back.

Yes … he finished at Moorfields … and so I had to get a job back here. I never had any trouble getting jobs, I was always a good worker. …

So you came back to New Zealand and where did the family settle, in Auckland?

No in Wellington.

You went back to Wellington?


What happened when you came back to Wellington, you must be near to meeting your husband by now?

Yes. I met Henry I think in 1946 it would have been, I can’t remember when. …

Did you meet him in New Zealand?

Oh yes.

He was in Wellington?

In Wellington, no let me think. My sister in-law’s family were in their day the leading family in Auckland, in that they had the biggest house, the title and this and that and yet they were nice, modest sort of people. They used to entertain young naval officers a lot and so when the young naval officers were in New Zealand they would invite them back, because that is what you did, and so they’d be trotting off to little do’s on boats.

Because he was an RN officer over here on loan wasn’t he?

He was, but he had been here before in the early-30’s on the Wakakura and he loved New Zealand. He just took a liking, the same as I took a liking to China I suppose. He took a great liking to New Zealand. …

When I think of it our family’s movements circled around my brother, wherever he went, it was the sacred place to be moved to.

So you met your husband at one of these house parties?

No I didn’t. How on earth did I meet Henry? I must have met him somewhere, I can’t remember. …

[tape break]

We are trying to work out where and when Mrs Phibbs met Henry and we think it might have been a wedding, though we are not quite sure. You did eventually get married?

In 1955.

And you were 41 and you had escaped marriage for that long?

I thought I was 44. …

Henry’s mother had died and so his father was on his own. His father was a GP and didn’t know what in the world to do with himself. He had this brick house that couldn’t readily be converted into flats which he tried to do. He had two sons in England, both … younger than Henry and he didn’t really know what to do and so he decided and we wrote and said: Well you can come to us. And I can’t remember whether we had seen him or not then, and he came, and on the whole we got on quite well, I could never say awfully well, that’s because it’s not easy and he really wanted his life to go on as it had and that doesn’t happen.

Before you married Henry, what were you doing as a job back here in New Zealand?

In Navy Office.

No you had been to China. Did you come back to Navy Office?

I don’t know. …

We will go back to after you are married and Henry’s father comes over from England to live with you, where do you live? Where did you and Henry set up house?

Henry didn’t know what to do and he was never one to save money and so you could take it for granted wherever Henry was, there wouldn’t be much money around. So he had seen this area [East Rodney] advertised up here and thought, that is just the thing for me. So he bought it, regardless of the fact that he had never farmed in his life, that didn’t worry Henry. It was too small to ever be a paying proposition.

How many acres did he buy, the original farm?

About 40.

Okay sure.

Just enough to call it a farm I suppose. But he was very happy there and he got someone to come and do the cooking, that was a requirement, somebody to come and do the cooking. And here she was! … So Henry was quite happy. The two brothers, the middle brother was a doctor and he was practising, taking over [the] father’s practice in … [?]. And David lived down in Sidmouth in Devon and David was quite different. The other two were not outgoing people, he was and he loved talking to people and gathering them in or pushing them out, dealings with people. He was a very nice chap.

Was Henry originally a doctor as well or not?


He was a Navy man?

Yes. So, that’s right, many of these Navy men have to leave the Navy in their 40’s, they’ve got to. And they don’t know what to do, they’ve never been trained to do anything.

So he became a farmer?

Yes. And then you see it wasn’t big enough to be a … going concern. … Well then he marries me who brings a little in and Henry had a little, in cash, cash I’m talking about and [we had] very modest requirements didn’t want new things at all. Hadn’t got that, sort of, acquisitive … [kind of mindset]. Oh you stagger through.

Where was the farm?

It was right here where we are, [Sandspit Road]. …

With a bit donated as a bush reserve is that correct?


Because I gather both you and Henry have a life-long love of trees and birds?

Yes I think we had …. Also Henry was a man who needed a bit of a push I think it is fair to say, in some ways. He had a wish to do things but he had to have a push to get him to actually do it himself. …

Now I know you didn’t have children and we won’t dwell on that.

I don’t mind.

You of course have filled up your life with animals, from reading about you that has become very clear and you are one of the founding members of the SPCA I gather?

Yes my grandfather started the SPCA in New Zealand and my grandfather was the person who was instrumental, that we should be invited to the Commerce Commission [function that I’m attending next week] and that was how we came to be there. Because my grandfather, how I don’t know, because of something in him, he had to do things and so he believed in animals having rights … and were just as important as people and so he started the SPCA.

[tape break]

So you spent all of your married life on the Sandspit property?

Yes, until I’m here and I still want to go back.

Yes I can understand that home is home.

I may, the thing is … I would love to go back and I might, who knows.

Yes I have to agree with you, I think you’ve had a marvellously interesting life and I think you were a little bit ahead of your time perhaps?

In that women didn’t move round as much I think, but of course I probably would have done more in that way [given the opportunity].

Thank you very much

[End of Interview]

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