Bettie Grant grew up in Warkworth when school children dived into the crystal clear waters of the Mahurangi River and Mansel Price would thunder down the street on horseback. After competing in the boys-only 880-yard swim, ‘and beating a fair few,’ Bettie went on to succeed in the predominantly male dominated Warkworth business sector. Now aged 88, Bettie had a chat with Mahurangi Matters reporter Rod Cheeseman about fast cars, difficult husbands and the Warkworth Town Hall …
I was born on October 13, 1928. I can’t tell you where because I honestly don’t know and no one ever thought to tell me. I think my mother and father were born too soon; they lived their lives like young people without children would today. My mother would go overseas every year and my father was always busy working at his various businesses. I didn’t know I had sisters until much later. Jean and Doris were 10 years older and both boarded at St Cuthbert’s College in Auckland. Jean would come back occasionally. I loved her and looked up to her. My other sister Doris was a bit of a snob and preferred to stay with family in Remuera during the holidays. Her favourite pastime was teasing me; needless to say I didn’t like her much.
I’ve always been a fast runner. I had to be because I was left at home with the housemaid and she used to like whacking me with the cob broom. I would scarper and climb the plum tree or hide under the house to avoid another beating. I used to run from the school dentist, but the school would send the older boys to try and catch me and bring me back to the dreaded dentist’s chair and drill. Our family home was opposite the Mahurangi Matters building, behind where the little supermarket was. My father, Ben Hamilton, kept hunting dogs and it would be fair to say that my childhood friends were of the four-legged variety. My father owned the Hamilton buildings, on Queen Street, Warkworth, which housed a variety of businesses. There were mens, ladies and childrens wear, a chemist, sporting goods and farming supplies. I can remember hiding behind the hat cabinet, and then darting upstairs to get a free ice cream when my dad wasn’t looking.
My father and his brother Willie both married into Nathaniel Wilson’s family. Nathaniel arrived from Glasgow with his parents in 1842 aboard the Duchess of Argyle. Nathaniel had 10 children – five boys and five girls. He was chairman of the Warkworth Town Board and officially opened the Town Hall in October 1911. He owned the cement works, but Clark’s Patent Glazed Bricks, which later became Crown Lynn, made the bricks for the Town Hall. Willie married Nathaniel’s daughter, Isabella, and my father married Nathaniel’s granddaughter Florence Warin. My grandparents, Alexander and Elizabeth Warin, lived in a beautiful old villa on lower Lilburn Street. Alexander was a blacksmith and made beautiful wrought iron gates. I can still remember the sound of Mr Mansel Price thundering down the street, cracking the whip followed by hordes of barking dogs. My grandparents also gifted the area on Mill Lane to the community for the bowls club.
Every summer, I was sent away to my aunt and uncle’s in Papatoetoe. They had a beautiful home on Kolmar Road with a swimming pool and tennis courts. My uncle had taught his dog to carry a basket in his mouth, and I can still remember getting the groceries and putting them into the dog’s basket for him to carry home. I would get homesick and I used to run to the post office and tell the postmaster that he needed to tell the Hamiltons in Warkworth that I was homesick and they needed to come and get me. I loved swimming and the bridge at Elizabeth Street was the diving board for the Mahurangi River, which doubled as the Warkworth School swimming pool. The water was crystal clear and much deeper because it didn’t have any of the silt and debris it does today. The boys would dive off the bridge into the clear water below. I got my certificate for swimming 50 yards in the Mahurangi River. The boys were doing their 880-yard swim and I told the teacher I wanted to do it. He asked if any other girls were interested, but in the end I was the only one. I did the 880 and I beat a fair few of the boys, too!
When I was about 13, Mum took me out of school. I was devastated. She took me home that day and gave me a list of household jobs including preparing and serving a meal. I didn’t have a clue how to do any of it! I’ve always had a good head for figures, and in my 20s I ran my father’s business and the BNZ sent their accountant to help me. He left after two days to report back that I had everything under control. I can’t understand why people don’t use their brains for calculations anymore. I went to the store during a power-cut, the lady told me to come back when the power was back on because she couldn’t work out the bill. I only had two items!
My father offered me many opportunities, but I told him, ‘You worked hard and achieved your dream and I don’t want any handouts. I will make my own way’. It’s good for people to make their own way and achieve their own dreams. I ended up running my own business in the Hamilton Building. I would show my staff their wages and the weekly earnings. They knew they all needed to sell one and half times their pay, or we would go under and they would be out of a job. I married my first husband, Bruce, on his return from the war and we had three glorious months together, but it was not a happy marriage. He took up golf and spent most of the time playing the 19th hole, which is drinking in the clubhouse. I had no idea that he was a recovering alcoholic when I married him. He died while teeing off one day. Exactly one year and four days later, my only child, Wendy Elizabeth, died of a brain haemorrhage and heart failure. She was 25 years old. My second marriage wasn’t a happy one either and I would rather not discuss it. Let’s just say that when I met his first wife I said ‘Why didn’t you warn me about him?’
In the mid 1970s I had to leave the business in my father’s buildings to make way for development. I contacted North Shore Hospital and worked there as a volunteer. We were called ‘hostesses’ in those days. I loved the uniform and my job was helping patients with correspondence or shopping. I did that for a few years and then a friend suggested I become a ladies companion. I went down to ‘millionaire’s mile’ in Taupo and basically became a chauffeur for a wealthy lady. I had to wear gloves when driving and she told me that she would be very displeased if I scratched the car. I think it was a Citroen because the suspension used to go down when I turned it off.
I love cars! When I was very young I jumped in the car and started fiddling with the levers. The car started to move and I thought it was absolutely thrilling! My mum flung open the door, dived in and pulled the brake on. She probably saved me because the road went down a very steep hill a little further on. I used to drive to Wellington and back along the East Coast, West Coast or straight down the middle. I never went to the South Island because in those days you had to reverse up a ramp and onto the boat. I was convinced I’d end up in the water! My last car was a Renault convertible – there were only five of its kind in the country. It had so many gadgets and would change gear on its own. When I sold it, the dealer asked me to come and explain how it worked to the new owner!
I’m a little bit past my sell-by-date now, but I do hope that I continue to make sense. There would be nothing worse than not realising your brain is letting you down. My memory is not as good as it should be, but I blame Mrs McGregor for continually whacking me over the head with a ruler in class!