The Coal Yard & other stories (Part 3)

Contributed to Kaikorai – Then & Now by David Still

Bill Ellis

Bill Ellis

THE FIRST TRUCKS

Bill Ellis undertook what could have been the longest journey of his life when he took the train to Invercargill to buy his first motor vehicle. After looking over the old Commer truck and hearing it run he agreed on the price and shook hands with the old owner. Can you drive? the man asked. Being told that he had never driven before, the man soon got Bill sorted out. This makes it go fast, this stops it and here are the gears he said. Around the block went Bill, soon pulling up once more beside the sales man. “O.K” the man said as he pointed his finger. “That’s the road to Dunedin”.

Alma Ellis (later Still) with Fred's truck.

Alma Ellis (later Still) with Fred’s truck.

The old Commer had been used as a bus in Invercargill and so needed to be converted into a usable truck. This work was undertaken by the local blacksmith and farrier, Mr N. H. Brown. His workshop was on the corner of Kaikorai Valley and Taieri roads, where the Shell Service station is at this time (1st January 1999) he soon had the truck ready for work. The gears were changed by sliding a level around a notched metal bracket that curved around just below the steering wheel. Later a 1920 era ‘Thornicroft’ was added to the fleet. Both of these vehicles had solid rubber tyres. Fred Ellis (Bill’s son) suggested the purchase of a light ‘Chev’ truck for local deliveries and to use the big ‘Thornicroft’ for heavy work as there was no insurance available for the Commer. One day Fred was given a contract, to shift a church down south on the big Thornicroft.

All went well until arriving near Warepa, a back wheel came off. Fred did a makeshift repair by wiring a bluegum plank across the hub to keep the wheel on. Fred had earlier worked for the Mobil oil Co. and drove the ‘Plume’ petrol tanker. The Ellis Thornicroft was heavy on petrol, getting only about 5 miles per gallon.

The big truck ended its days with the motor going to Andy Loudon at Kuri Bush to drive a saw bench for cutting manuka and the chassis went on to Ernie Ellis’s farm for a bridge support. Andy soon found that the cost of petrol was prohibitive. One lesson that was learned the hard way with this truck, was on steep hills. A ‘no exit’ street that ran down hill was no bother to a low geared truck, but once unloaded the smooth, solid tyres gave no grip. Winding a rope through holes in the wheel and around the tyres, gave better traction. A lady on watching the men in this situation, rang old Bill, and told him that the truck was stuck.

The men had advised her that ‘with perseverance the truck will be shifted’. Grandad who had taught the men this trick was not concerned, but advised them in future to reverse down the hill before unloading. Some of the staff at the yard were Len Kitto, Jack Sharp, Graeme Swete, Gordon Donaldson. Charlie Hurley Dave McMeekin and Arthur Wilson. Dave McMeekin had worked at Arthur Ellis’s flock mill down the valley. He said the pay was better at the coal yard but you sure worked hard.

Another cartage firm in the Kaikorai district was Mowat’s. They had a chain driven ‘Jeffery’ truck. On one occasion a Syrian hawker was struggling up Kaikorai Valley road with a large suitcase of wares that he had for sale. As Jack Mowats truck slowed down to round the corner at the bottom of Stone Street the hawker threw his case on the back hoping to ask for a lift. Just then, Jack’s dog (a German collie with blue and brown patches) that was running behind the truck, came up to him and the hawker stepped back as the truck accelerated away up the valley with the suitcase.

The big truck ended its days with the motor going to Andy Loudon at Kuri Bush to drive a saw bench for cutting manuka and the chassis went on to Ernie Ellis’s farm for a bridge support. Andy soon found that the cost of petrol was prohibitive. One lesson that was learned the hard way with this truck, was on steep hills. A ‘no exit’ street that ran down hill was no bother to a low geared truck, but once unloaded the smooth, solid tyres gave no grip. Winding a rope through holes in the wheel and around the tyres, gave better traction. A lady on watching the men in this situation, rang old Bill, and told him that the truck was stuck.

Graeme Swete, Mervyn and "Jock" Still in front of the Bedford truck in the coal yard.

Graeme Swete, Mervyn and “Jock” Still in front of the Bedford truck in the coal yard.

Dave Still) & Edward Ellis beside the Bedford truck.

Dave Still & Edward Ellis beside the Bedford truck.

Gordon Donaldson, "Jock" Still & Edward Ellis with the Chevrolet truck loaded with coal.

Gordon Donaldson, “Jock” Still & Edward Ellis with the Chevrolet truck loaded with coal.

As there was no more cartage work late in the day, Bill had to dig the garden until five o’clock. Rutherford and Walker had the contract for carting coal for the Roslyn Woollen Mill. They bought a steam driven lorry and carted coal far cheaper than anyone else could. The lorry had a cab with a big body and a hoist that when tipped up could be used like a dozer. Another contract that they won was to deliver the drum of steel cable from Dunedin, to the cable car shed at Kaikorai. As they came up the hill the truck would sometimes run out of steam and chocks would be put hastily behind the wheels to hold them from running back down the hill. Once the fire was stoked up and a good head of steam raised, the truck would continue its journey up the hill.

Prior to motor trucks a team of twenty-two horses was required to pull these 11 ton drums up the hill. On reaching the top, only two horses were needed, but a cable car was attached behind the load to act as a brake. The steam truck had iron wheels that were not so good for the roads. A law was brought in regarding rubber tyres and also heavy traffic licences, so Rutherford and Walker bought a big ‘Leyland’ truck. The cable used to pull the cable cars up the hill was replaced now and then. The new would be spliced on to the old by men like Archie McLeod who lived in Greenock St. Where Mrs McLeod kept two cows and sold milk.

Riding on the coal truck was a great pleasure to us children, but not to Mum who washed our clothes. Wedged in amongst the full sacks of coal, we looked down smugly on the local kids as we went out on deliveries. Carrying the empty bags back to the truck from the clients coal bins was also a good perk. A shilling or sixpence from the housewife brought grins to grubby faces that looked by then, like the smiling Negro moneybox on the kitchen mantle. The most fun of all was to travel on the trucks to Burnside railway yard where the coal sat in open railway trucks on the north siding. A chalked consignment note on the corner of each wagon, which merchant’s coal was on board. Coal came from many areas, and was in demand for various reasons, like clean burning, hot, slow burning or low priced. Black Diamond, Wangaloa, Strongman or ‘Kai’ (Kaitangata) coal were common. Local coal came from Brighton and was fetched in Grandad’s truck straight from the mine. This for us was a real special trip. One of these mines was known as Freeman’s and each mine, by regulation, was required to have a minimum of two workers for safety. At one time the coal merchants were assigned certain areas to work in and were not allowed to deliver across these boundaries. Norman Ellis recalled a lady standing at her gate crying. Please sell me some coal she begged as I have had to start burning my picket fence. Jack Sharples had just finished delivering coal across the street said that he was not allowed to. Could you not sell me some of that ladies coal ? he was asked. We take it in and don’t take it out he replied.

PETROL

The old petrol Bowser or pump.

The old petrol Bowser or pump.

In the early days of motoring, Grandad (Bill) Ellis needed to have petrol for his trucks and to supply the local vehicles. The fuel came in wooden cases each with two 4-gallon tins of ‘Plume’ petrol. (Nowadays known as Mobil) This highly inflammable mixture was stored in a tunnel or cave that had been dug out of the clay bank beneath the bench that stored bags of coal at truck height. Later the first ‘Bowser’ was installed along with an underground tank. This bowser had a crank handle that had to be wound round and round. Following this a new model with a lever was installed. Pumping the lever lifted the fuel up into a glass jar above head height. When this jar was full it flowed into the vehicle through the delivery hose, while a second jar filled, to keep the flow continuing. The novelty of ‘pumping’ the lever back and forth soon wore off, yet next time a car or truck came in, we were all crying out to Grandad to ‘let’s have a go’.

After the Second World War when petrol was rationed, an Inspector came to check that the petrol use was in keeping with the quota. Bill Ellis never let anyone get cold through lack of coal and many desperate calls were made for extra petrol also. Although petrol was always paid for, (coal was often given free to poor and starving families) The tank level in this instance was lower than the coupon system allowed. Fred Ellis (the oldest son) returned to the yard to be The old ‘Bowser or pump’ met by his sister Winnie. ‘Dad is in serious trouble’ she cried. ‘What can we do?’ Fred quickly added several gallons of water to the tank before racing down the road to catch up with the Inspector. Together they returned to re dip the level. ‘Our tank has a leak that lets water in and petrol out’ said Fred. The Inspector arranged for a new tank and the problem was solved. After that, Bill was careful only to sell petrol if the correct coupons were produced.

At the back of the ‘yard’ (coal yard at KV. Rd.) the family kept a few hens. Mrs. Rodgers from next door complained that they attracted flies. Grandad got rid of the hens but the flies still came around. Mrs Rodgers had been throwing her old meat scraps over the hedge into the paddock, which was what brought the flies. The Rodgers family came from the Owaka area. Wattie Rodgers drove a Bakers cart. A son, Stanley became a Member of Parliament.

(Original Article by Alan Gilchrist)

Ross

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