Quest to preserve history
The back doorstep of Alexandra’s historic Vallance Cottage is almost level with the ground, because the wife of the original owner was a ‘‘fastidious housekeeper’’ who would scrub it daily. Stories about the past inhabitants of the cottage, which was built in the late 1800s, have been told in the memoirs of the last person to live there. Hazel Wesley was a daughter of William Vallance and his wife Jean. She grew up in the twobedroom mudbrick cottage, built by her father, with her eight siblings and returned home in her late 20s to care for her aging parents. She had just lost her husband, Tom Wesley, leaving her to raise their six-month-old son alone. When Mrs Wesley, who died about a decade ago, moved out of the cottage, she penned her memories of 18 years living there – providing an insight into the lives of Central Otago’s pioneers. When she left the cottage in the 1970s, there was no running water inside and only cold running water in the separate wash-house. Every Thursday she would ‘‘light the copper’’ for bath day. She had to make sure the coal man did not call on a Thursday as the coal store, washing and bathing was all done in the wash-house. ‘‘One day I was in the bath when he came and I just managed to scramble out and inside the house before he dumped the coal.’’ Although having cold running water in the wash-house was a luxury, it also caused problems, because when the pipes leaked, the mudbrick walls would come down. This happened on at least two occasions. In one instance Mrs Wesley woke her brother, Ern Vallance, who was fresh home from the war and had been out playing the banjo and drinking all night, to find someone to repair the wall – but to no avail. ‘‘He called on some cobbers and everyone seemed to shout for him . . . when he arrived home, minus anyone to do the job, he was drunker than ever.’’ Mrs Wesley asked an elderly neighbour and builder – Mr Mussan – to repair the damage. He instructed Ern to first remove the remaining loose mudbricks. Being somewhat ‘‘worse for wear’’, Ern Vallance missed a couple of bricks – one of which hit Mr Mussan on the head before knocking out the tap, causing the wash-house to flood. It was the middle of winter and the water froze faster than Mrs Wesley could mop it up. Her father, who lived to the age of 98, put his longevity down to being contented. Her mother’s dream of having a sitting room and a ‘‘chinie’’ cabinet were not realised. But she was delighted when her husband built the wash-house. ‘‘My mother, who was a very fastidious housekeeper, had to scrub the broom handle every day, also the hearth broom and the back doorstep.’’ Mrs Wesley saw out her days in a pensioner’s cottage in Alexandra. Her nephew, Dick Maskill of Nelson, who provided her memoirs to the Mirror, said one of the saddest things he can recall was helping ‘‘Aunty Hazel’’ move to her pensioner’s cottage and watching her open her glory box with her wedding presents still wrapped in tissue paper, because for 34 years she had nowhere to display or use them.