Catherine Caughey’s re­mark­able life

Auckland City Harbour News - - News -

As an in­fant Catherine Caughey was carted around not in a pushchair, but strapped to the side of a horse.

She had been only the sec­ond white baby to live at the Kenyan hospi­tal where she was born in 1923.

Raised on her par­ents iso­lated farm, she ex­pe­ri­enced a “very Vic­to­rian up­bring­ing” and de­vel­oped a pas­sion for an­i­mals and the out­doors which never faded.

The English fam­ily made sev­eral trips back home by ship and on one of th­ese voy­ages, Catherine found her­self play­ing with the Duke and Duchess of York, who would later be­come the King and Queen, the late Queen Mother.

Daugh­ter Chris­tine says her mum was “very much a coun­try girl” who spent hours play­ing with an­i­mals and the na­tive chil­dren. She was flu­ent in Swahili and re­mained so un­til her last days.

Catherine’s life turned up­side down when her fam­ily walked off the farm be­fore the war be­gan and moved to Eng­land.

At 14 years old she went to school for the first time.

Catherine strug­gled with her new life and found the rigid­ity of board­ing school very con­strain­ing.

“She didn’t get into the gos­sip about movie stars, she would have much pre­ferred to talk about an­i­mals or the latest farm­ing tech­niques.”

Af­ter school she stud­ied home science be­fore be­ing called up for war ser­vice in 1943. She was put through a rig­or­ous in­ter­view and test­ing process be­fore be­ing as­signed to work at Bletch­ley Park, where she used the first elec­tronic com­puter, a room-sized ma­chine called the Colos­sus.

There, she was part of the Wrens, who de­ci­phered coded mes­sages of the Ger­man high com­mand and even­tu­ally cracked the Enigma code, help­ing to shorten the war by two years.

“She was work­ing along­side some of the top brains in the war – Max New­man and Alan Tur­ing,” Chris­tine says. “She knew she was do­ing ab­so­lutely top work and of­ten won­dered why she was se­lected. She came to the con­clu­sion it was be­cause she was good at maths and be­cause she had no net­works, no peo­ple to chat to.”

While work­ing at Bletch­ley Park she lived un­der an “ab­so­lute code of si­lence” her own mother was not al­lowed to know where she lived and she was for­bid­den from talk­ing to her neigh­bours.

She was sworn to se­crecy for 30 years af­ter the end of the war, only able to tell her fam­ily when con­fi­den­tial­ity was lifted in 1975.

Her hus­band Ron had died not long be­fore.

“It was the great­est sad­ness for her that she never got to share that part of her life with dad,” Chris­tine says.

While Chris­tine and brother Martin had never given much thought to why their mother taught them morse code and flag sig­nals, it fell in to place when her past was re­vealed.

Af­ter the war Catherine at­tended Dorset House in Ox­ford where she trained as an oc­cu­pa­tional ther­a­pist. She worked in an Ox­ford psy­chi­atric hospi­tal af­ter qual­i­fy­ing.

Chris­tine says her mum’s time at Dorset House gave her the op­por­tu­nity to de­velop her cre­ativ­ity.

“She be­came an ac­com­plished sewer, wa­ter­colour artist, knit­ter, she did cro­quet, pot­tery, spin­ning and weav­ing,” she says. “She was very eco­nom­i­cal in ev­ery­thing she did right to the time she died. She lived with a very sim­ple foot­print.”

Dur­ing a ski trip to Switzer­land, Catherine was search­ing for her cam­era in the snow when a dark­haired gen­tle­men wear­ing ga­loshes ap­proached her.

With the cam­era lost, Ron Caughey, a chil­dren’s spe­cial­ist in Lon­don, took her ad­dress and promised to send her his own pho­tos.

The pair dis­cov­ered they had mu­tual friends, and be­fore long a ro­mance de­vel­oped and they were mar­ried at Ox­ford.

Soon af­ter the wed­ding Ron earned a fel­low­ship to work at a chil­dren’s hospi­tal in Philadel­phia, where they stayed un­til mov­ing to New Zealand in 1952.

Af­ter first liv­ing in Ep­som, the cou­ple moved to an ex­ten­sive Re­muera prop­erty, where both Chris­tine and her brother Martin were raised.

Along­side moth­er­hood, Catherine bus­ied her­self with in­volve­ment in the Girl Guides move­ment and was on the Auck­land YWCA ex­ec­u­tive.

“She was a de­voted wife to my fa­ther, who led an in­cred­i­bly de­mand­ing life,” Chris­tine says. “They were very close friends. When he dropped dead in 1975 with a heart at­tack the bot­tom dropped out of her world. She was dev­as­tated.

“She had to re­build her life, and not one that was sort of shad­owed by her hus­band, and I think she did so with im­mense strength.”

In hon­our of her hus­band, Catherine ded­i­cated her life to child health and was in­vited to the board of the Child Health Foun­da­tion, which Ron had founded through the Auck­land Ro­tary club.

1979 was de­clared the In­ter­na­tional Year of the Child and Catherine was nom­i­nated as spokes­woman for the “child in a mul­ti­cul­tural so­ci­ety”.

Catherine founded the Auck­land Mul­ti­cul­tural So­ci­ety, which sought to build aware­ness of the in­creas­ing mul­ti­cul­tural char­ac­ter of the city.

The group held ex­hi­bi­tions at the Auck­land mu­seum, food and dance fes­ti­vals, and pub­lished ed­u­ca­tional books for schools on com­par­a­tive cul­tural prac­tices.

“She used to host Kiwi din­ners here at home with the mem­bers and for some it was the first time they’d been in a Kiwi home,” Chris­tine says.

Catherine was a mem­ber of the Friends of Ti­bet So­ci­ety, the U3A, and the Med­i­cal His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety. She vis­ited pa­tients at Star­ship, taught Bi­ble stud­ies at New­mar­ket Pri­mary for 25 years, vol­un­teered for Red Cross’ Meals on Wheels pro­gramme and was ac­tive in St Marks Church.

Her ded­i­ca­tion to com­mu­nity ser­vice was ac­knowl­edged in 1994 when she was awarded a Mem­ber of the Bri­tish Em­pire.

“She didn’t fit the Re­muera mould. She was very dif­fer­ent. She was very much a free spirit and not afraid to call a spade a spade. She had a strong char­ac­ter and was not into con­form­ity,” Chris­tine says.

She and a close friend Nobuko Shimo trav­elled the world to­gether, leav­ing few places un­seen.

Catherine lived in her beloved Re­muera home un­til her last nine days, when she was rushed to hospi­tal af­ter suf­fer­ing a stroke.

She passed away peace­fully in Auck­land hospi­tal on April 12 with her fam­ily at her side.

The wo­man who touched the lives of so many, lives on in the hearts and mem­o­ries of those who loved her.

Photo: ME­LANIE VER­RAN

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