Houses rekindle great memories
Armin Blum doesn’t expect an occasion to mark the 60th anniversary of Austrians building houses in Titahi Bay, beyond him taking a drive over to see the homes he helped build.
The Summerset Aotea resident was one of 190 Austrians who sailed to New Zealand in late 1952 and early 1953. It was part of a Government initiative to construct homes for the thousands of Kiwi families on waiting lists.
The first state house in Porirua was completed in Kapiti Crescent in October 1948, but the Minister of Housing announced a special project for 1953-55. It called for 1000 precut houses to be imported, 500 to be erected in Titahi Bay. Mr Blum was in the wave of Austrians who arrived in February, 1953. In all, 194 would come to our shores. He and a friend were attracted by a newspaper advertisement asking for tradesmen.
‘‘I thought ‘New Zealand, where is that?’ It was too far away for me to imagine, but I was convinced to go. I was 27, wages in Austria were not good and I was a joiner.
‘‘There was not enough room in my house and I thought ‘If I go, I will do it for two years’. I’m still here!’’
After medical and security checks, the first Austrians boarded their ship for a journey that took many weeks. In a speech he wrote for the 50th celebration of the Austrians’ arrival, Mr Blum talked of stopovers in Genoa, Naples, Aden and Sydney, the heavy Indian Ocean seas breaking portholes and the ‘‘strange landscape’’ that confronted them when docking in Wellington.
He was even more dismayed to find Titahi Bay had no pub.
‘‘We couldn’t believe the whole place was dry, we were very dismayed. But we had parties right from the start, we were invited to the pa [in Takupawahia] in the first week, I think we were quite popular.’’
The Austrians lived in huts once occupied by the American Marines, and a workshop was set up on the site where Ngati Toa School is today. Mr Blum says the camaraderie among the men was high.
The 40-hour work week wasn’t too taxing – morning and afternoon tea was unheard of in Austria – the locals were friendly, and, aside from the wind, the weather was generally fine.
Swimming in the sea after work, a novelty for many of the Austrians, became commonplace.
Dances at Prosser’s Hall, near where Porirua New World is now, were well-attended.
‘‘It was that classic ‘ women up against one wall, men up against the other’ to start with. But when the music began it was like the Charge of the Light Brigade, there were elbows flying as we rushed towards the prettiest girls.’’
The contract to construct the houses was extended from 18 months to two years when some of the timber, made from Austrian larch and spruce, was condemned on the Wellington wharves. Mr Blum, who became a foreman, says there was a lot of pride taken in the homes built, which have stood the test of time.
In Piko St, Arero St and Whanga Cres, there are examples of the properties, which have distinctive covered porches.
Following the contract, and with permanent residence offered, only a small number went home, he says. Some scattered to other parts of New Zealand, while a great number stayed in the Wellington region.
Mr Blum had every reason to stay. He met Joyce in July 1953 and they were married in March the next year. He worked on the Wellington wharves and drove a bus for many years.
Mr Blum stayed in touch with many compatriots through the Austrian Club and they met regularly for events and commemorations, especially the 50th anniversary, which had an exhibition at Pataka, hangi at Takapuwahia Marae and a reunion attended by 200 people.
That’s unlikely to happen as they approach the 60th, he says.
‘‘We are all too far away and there aren’t many of us left alive. It’s sad but that’s life.’’
Porirua Mayor Nick Leggett says there are plans to do something to recognise the 60th anniversary.
‘‘It would be nice to acknowledge the legacy of the Austrians, which will just go on and on. I think people are more aware of the influence they had in Titahi Bay today than ever before.’’
Memories: Armin Blum often visits Titahi Bay to see how ‘‘his’’ houses are faring.
Working away: Two Austrian tradesmen among the bare hills of Titahi Bay in 1953.