Jill White grew up in Feilding. Throughout her busy life she has been a nurse, secondary school teacher, Labour Party Member of Parliament and Mayor of Palmerston North. she has also been involved in many community activities.
Interviewed by Leanne Hickman for the Ian Matheson City Archives.
Length: 3 hours, 28 minutes
PART 1: Start: Grandmother came from London and grandfather was a New Zealander. They met and married in Pretoria, South Africa. Grandfather (Frank) worked in Pretoria after the Boer War and eventually returned to New Zealand and settled in Auckland. Had 21 children! The story is that the family had cooked some fish on a fire and the youngest two (twins) died of food poisoning. Jill’s father was five or six and was in hospital for some time with food poisoning.
5:40: Father was a builder and moved to Whakatane where he met and married Jill’s mother. Strong Methodists.
7:10: One of Jill’s uncles was a plumber in Feilding which became attractive to Jill’s parents and they moved there. Jill was born in Feilding.
8:20: Long hot summers in Whakatane with grandparents were an important part of childhood. In the 1950s there are two trips that Jill remembers. One was the year of a great railway strike in New Zealand. Meant a long trip to Whakatane with part train journey and bus journey. The other trip was when Jill’s dad was working in Feilding and he had a little truck. He built a canopy for the three little children to sit on the back of the truck and the children waved to everyone all the way to Whakatane. On the way back they punctured the tyre and they rolled but it was a slow roll and no one was hurt. They were just outside a mission station where people came out and gave them a cup of tea and some Maori men came and put the truck right.
18:50: Went to Manchester Street School. It was a good school and Jill loved learning to read. One or two teachers were particularly wonderful. Remembers doing hand embroidery while the teacher, Mrs Lumsden read books like Jason and the Argonauts and loved it when she read The Hobbit. School went to Standard 6 which would be intermediate now. One teacher, Mr Charles was a suburb teacher. He made learning enjoyable.
25.05: Feilding in the late 40s and early 50s. As a child Jill remembers the polio epidemic about 1948. The school was closed down for quite a long time. They weren’t allowed to go to the swimming baths or the movies. They were allowed to play with the other kids in the street (Sandilands Street).
29:30: Lots of book in the house, mother was a great reader. She would read to the children.
30:35: Knew some people later in high school who were badly affected by polio.
31:20: Feilding had two picture theatres. One ran the Young New Zealanders Club. As part of the club you went to the movies. Serials were important such as Zorro. It was a regular Saturday afternoon activity.
33:17: Mother took Jill to the doctor because her feet turned in a bit. The doctor recommended dancing classes which were at the old Drill Hall on a Friday afternoon. Did not enjoy it because everyone else seemed to know what they were doing. Jill wasn’t embarrassed, just bewildered. Was very grateful and the end of the year when dancing class ended and they decided to not continue. However, later it was useful to understand what it was like as a student when you feel like the teacher is talking a foreign language.
38:25: Went to Feilding Agricultural High School in the 1950s. Jill was very happy as her older sister was sent over to Palmerston North Girls High School. Jill had plans to be a doctor and it was decided that Feilding Agricultural High School had a better science programme. Did well at the schoolwork. Not so good at sport which was a focus of the school. Enjoyed debating and house competitions such as learning and reciting poetry. Mostly great teachers.
44:15: Spent a few years learning music from some of the nuns at the convent school for about two years. Learnt the piano but failed advanced preparatory so it did not go so well. But Jill started learning poetry from the nuns which she enjoyed.
51:00: Had a sixth-form quad at high school where the students could have their own space. Remembers a boy who was hanging across a beam in the roof who had crashed through the ceiling. Some of the gear was stored in the roof. The head mistress came out and laughed. Made her seem more human.
55:30: Remembers going to Roscos for morning tea in Palmerston North. Occasionally, would also go to the Astoria Ballroom for dancing in Palmerston North.
57:04: Feilding was a good place to grow up in as the education system did well for Feilding people. Also, lots of activities available including Brownies, Girl Guides and Rangers. Jill was a Brownie, then a Guide and then a Ranger plus a Brownie leader. Helped to develop values and had fun. Met in the Scout Hall and had an occasional dance there.
PART 2: Start: Church life and Sunday Schools. An important part of social life including Easter Camps, which were big gatherings of young Methodist people. These were held at the Sunday School buildings in Grey Street Feilding. Particularly enjoyed the singing. Worked as a Sunday School teacher for a while.
5:00: Went to have an interview at Palmerston North hospital to work in the laboratories. Implied she needed to go and get qualifications. Went to university in Wellington with Teacher’s Studentship Bursary and studied Science. Lived at the Baptist Youth Hostel in Wellington. The Teacher’s Studentship provided enough to live on but bound to teaching for a certain length of time. Five years at university.
9:45: Also continued with Brownies in Khandallah. Also, involved with the Methodist Church in Taranaki Street in Wellington. The Baptist Youth Hostel community was an important group, which continued to meet throughout the years. It was a mixed Hostel which resulted in some marriages.
13:50: Moved to Christchurch Teacher’s College for secondary school teaching for one year. Flatted with others who Jill is still in touch with. It was quite social and didn’t take it so seriously.
18:25: Main class was Biology with a bit of Maths and Physics. Best memory was going on a Biology trip up into the hills, opened eyes to the incredible mountain flora in New Zealand.
22:20: Became engaged to a Wellington man so applied for jobs in Wellington and worked at Wellington East Girls College. However, engagement broke off but liked Wellington and flatted in a ‘dreadful old place’ in Wellington with three other girls. Moved flats to a nicer one in Wadestown.
26:45: Wellington East Girls College had high expectations of the staff. Quite stressful but learnt a lot. The other science teachers were very helpful. There for two years.
31:05: Began working at Paeroa College. Flatted with six others. The school was more relaxed and enjoyable.
40:00: In the second year moved houses in Paeroa, next door to a colleague. Became engaged and then un-engaged.
42:25: Became interested in Volunteer Service Abroad. Travelled to Wellington for a course with the VSA. Offered to go to a high school run by a congregational church in Samoa.
47:05: Arrived at Auckland airport to go to Samoa having never been on a plane or in an international airport. Stopped over in Fiji. Others on the plane going to the same school including a couple from Gisborne.
49:20: Magic of arriving in Samoa. Will never forget the drive from airport through the villages, beautiful plants and the lovely outlook to the sea. Arrived at the school and shared a house with two other women. But for the first week Jill stayed with and made wonderful friends with the headmaster and his wife: John and Gretel (she was a nurse) and remained friends with them to today (Gretel had died recently).
52:12: Loved teaching the Samoan young people. They were so mature in many ways and fun. Some of the students were up to 21 years old as they sometimes had to take time off to earn money for their tuition. Some hoped to be ministers. The congregational theological college was right next to the school so some transitioned from one to the other.
53:15: Visited some of the families of the students. They would invite the teachers to a special weekend once a year, sort of equivalent to Christmas. Once you walked out the gate the students became the hosts, and they would be allowed to address the teachers by their first name.
55:27: While in Samoa the Pope came to visit. He was staying at a village that was part way between the airport and the high school. One of the other volunteers had a little Honda 50 scooter. Jill bought it from him and meant they had transport and saw the Pope at a distance. People flocked to see him and it was a real communal experience – even for Methodists.
57:22: Remembered listening to the first landing on the moon in 1969 on the radio.
59:14: Suffered bad migraine and Gretel looked after Jill and had tricks to help ease the symptoms. Saw something in nursing and when she left Samoa started to seriously consider nursing.
1:01:15: First went to Scots College in Wanganui and taught there for a year. Marked contrast with teaching in Samoa. Boys only school.
1:02:07: Decided to leave teaching and applied to go for nursing training at Wellington Hospital. It was at the cusp of when polytechnic courses were opening but there was still hospital-based training which meant earning some money. Until the course started Jill taught for a term at Wellington High School. Had a flat on the hill above Oriental Bay.
1:04:58: Jill was one of the older age nursing students at 30 but it was a good class. Three years training.
1:05:35: Went travelling when she finished the hospital-based training. Had friends who were living in the US in Washington DC. Went there for several weeks. Loved it. Enjoyed the art galleries and the Smithsonian Museum.
1:07:10: Then headed off to Britain to earn some money nursing. Worked in Oxford in a neurosurgery ward in Radcliffe Infirmary. Brilliant team of nurses there and learnt so much.
1:08:46: Went to do a neuro-medical nursing course in Edinburgh. By that time there were some men coming into the nursing but mostly women. Spent time in places such as long-term recovery places for people with permanent disabilities. There was a tendency for young men to wrap their cars around trees, so there was quite a lot of young men. Some who fell and broke their necks. Remembers a young man learning to put on trousers. It was very hard work for him. Some coped well and some struggled to find the strength to put in effort. Some mentored newer arrivals. This was a place just out of Edinburgh in Musselburgh. Had an offer to return to Oxford but decided to return to New Zealand.
PART 3: Start: Arrived back in New Zealand. Worked briefly in Auckland Hospital before she decided to try Public Health nursing. Became the Public Health nurse for the Palmerston North district which actually meant Jill ended up nursing in Dannevirke as the district stretched that far.
2:36: Met the wife of one of the doctors who introduced Jill to the Guiding movement in Dannevirke. The wife was also a very knowledgeable bush person and a keen tramper. That led to a few times out tramping in different parts of the country, including the Heaphy Track. Introduced Jill to a great part of life.
4:43: Part of Jill’s job took her out into the country east of Dannevirke. She went out to Norsewood and Ormondville to visit schools for health education work. Enjoyed getting to know the communities, including the policeman at Norsewood. The policeman helped to let her know when an old man got lost wandering the street. Jill was able to get him help in Dannevirke.
7:48: Worked in Dannevirke for a couple of years, then worked in a supervising Public Health job going from the main office in Palmerston North. About 1981 – 1982. Was able to see more of her parents who lived in Foxton. Bought a small house in Palmerston North in Knowles Street. Her brother, a builder, extended the house for her.
9:40: Enjoyed studying again. Had begun some extramural study in Dannevirke on some nursing studies papers. Back in Palmerston North Jill moved her study into History and Sociology. Also entered politics.
10:48: Friends had talked about the Labour Party and what they were doing. Entered local body politics through the ‘80s but became interested in government – politics at the national level. Wasn’t always impressed with what the Labour Party was doing in the 1980s.
11:40: Went and joined the Labour Party the day after they lost the 1990 election. Thought they would be listened by then. A number of people from New Labour had split off so membership had shrunk.
13:15: In the early ‘90s it was obvious there was not going to be great competition for the Labour candidacy in Palmerston North, so Jill put her name forward. Jo Fitzpatrick a Labour staffer came over from Wellington and helped Jill and her husband Bruce get organised for a Labour campaign leading up to the ’93 elections. No one thought she had a chance, but it was funny times. Young people like Hamish McIntyre were feeling at odds with the National Party so he started the Liberals and then joined the Alliance. So, the race became a three-way race, but Jill won by 163 votes.
16:05: Jill and Bruce married in 1992. Met through friends from university days in Palmerston North.
PART 4: Start: The Manawatu electorate went to Shannon (says Foxton but it should be Shannon – corrected later). The small team there worked very hard. Big change in life. It became harder to stay involved in local body politics but had enjoyed being on the Palmerston North City Council and the Regional Council. Great experience going down to Parliament. Lived in Wellington with Hamilton MP Diane Yates.
3:20: One of the first issues was the leadership of the Labour Party. Mike Moore had taken over around election time and then there was a lot of interest in Helen Clark coming in as leader, which did happen.
3:45: Interested in the work of the select committees and the relationship between the legislation that occurred and the workings of that out in everyday life. On the Regulations Review Select Committee. Each piece of legislation needed certain regulations to be brought in.
5:05: Jonathan Hunt ran the Regulations Review Select Committee which was a great learning experience to see how legislation could work in everyday life.
6:25: Enjoyed working on things like environment and conservation issues.
6:50: Drove to Wellington from Palmerston North on a Tuesday morning as the Labour caucus met on a Tuesday morning and spent three day on Parliamentary committees. Sometimes went home on a Thursday evening but was soon on a select committee that met on a Friday morning, so would not get back to Palmerston North till Friday afternoon.
8:25: The Friday morning committee was Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Committee which was chaired by Nick Smith and also Rob Storey was the other Labour Party person. Nick Smith led it well and only had four on the committee.
10:13: Opportunity came for two Labour Party and two National Party people to go to Antarctica for two or three days. Saw history such as the old huts and old materials. Went to various spots around Scots Base and sitting on the ice and all of a sudden Emperor Penguin arrived. Also saw areas where they were working on scientific projects. Went out beyond Scots Base to where there was a hole in the ice and saw a seal poke its head out.
14:15: Also work at home with the Labour Party and the help from the local community. Such as lending a caravan while campaigning.
15:15: Main memory is always being busy and it was always interesting at the beginning of Helen Clark’s government. Being List MP was harder after 1996. The Manawatu electorate disappeared and became Palmerston North and Rangitikei. Shannon became part of Otaki electorate which was a shame as the people had been so good to Jill.
20:44: Jill set herself up to keep an eye on the Rangitikei Electorate. Quite like Dennis Marshall and Jill added a Labour voice. Set up an office in Feilding. Would later go with Dennis to Africa as part of a Commonwealth Observers team.
22:35: 1998 Jill thought she liked being an electorate MP rather than a list MP and stood for the Palmerston North mayoralty. Chose not to talk about that at this time.
25:55: After mayoralty came back onto the regional council for a while. Began to have time at the university, finishing BA that she had started back in the 1980s. Became a regular student. Also completed a MA. Began to write articles for the Manawatu Journal of History.
28:22: Involvement with the demolition of the old St Pauls Methodist Church. Wanted to make sure that the treasures were not lost. Also, husband Bruce wanted to make sure that a good process was followed in the demolition. Helped to care for the plaques – some went to the families. Preserved the stained glass windows at Te Manawa that were linked to Cunninghame (from Collinson and Cunninghame) and the Bennetts (from Bennetts Bookshop). Both had been stalwart members of the Methodist Church but they have strong connections to the business history of Palmerston North.
31:52: Two smaller windows from the Church were newer technique and one was a memorial the first settlers/the first ship who came to Palmerston North and the other was a memorial to the craftsmen of the Church. They are stored at Wesley Church as they very much belong to the Church.
33:32: When the Church was built in 1911 in one of the pillars a time capsule was placed. However, it was punctured, and water got in. There were some coins, Church history information. But it was very wet. Got a phone call from ‘Guardians’ of the Church to tell Jill that the capsules were going to be removed and if she was interested, she should come.
35:11: There was no official to accept the capsule, so Jill was handed it, dripping wet. She was so thrilled. Took the capsule to Geoff at the museum and a conservator opened it. The coins were there but the papers were sodden. An envelope that had been opened was in there. There was a story that the night the capsule was put into the pillar that some lads had possibly taken some things out. But no one knows.
38:35: Just retired as a member of the Heritage Trust group in Palmerston North.
40:25: Possesses records that possibly should go to archives including records of the 2004 floods in the Horizons Region. The local authorities set up a committee to look at needs and allocate resources that came in for relief. Jill became Chair of that committee. There was a person from Foxton, two Palmerston North councillors: Wanna Davis and one other. Also, people from further parts of the region. Had a good look at affected areas, received information from a lot of sources. Jill has records from that time.
43:10: Also has some records from the knitware factory which she has written articles about. When the Manawatu Knitting Mills moved from the old building in Main Street to Bennett Street and Jill was able to have a look around the old building and in the office was a pile of papers dating back to an old share book from 1920s or ‘30s through to letters and a big 1958 pile and fliers. Jill took a pile of stuff and still has them and needs to talk to John Hughes about putting them in the archives.
48:45: Now part of the Museum Society. Had been part of the Museum Society many years ago. Interested in working with people like Fiona McKergow and Anna Weatherstone (secretary).
51:30: Enjoys her garden which is now small and manageable.