The Maori Cheesemaker
Peter, what did you do during the Second World War? Both your brothers, Bill and Fred, were in the forces. Were you?
No. I ended up like my father had during the First World War, in an exempted occupation.
Dad had been a railway engineer, and in his time the railways were of vital importance. They were one of the essential industries, transporting goods and troops up and down the line. He was based at Whanganui when I was born, and later we shifted to Palmerston North. I was only a nipper then.
But when the Second World War came along, in fact even before it started, when I was in my late 20s, there was a big swing in the dairy industry from buttermaking to cheese. And I got sent from Palmerston North to Tiraumea, up near Woodville, to learn cheesemaking. There was no choice given to me. ‘You’re going to go and learn how to make cheese.’
So I went off to learn this new trade, because it was being expanded, and they needed more cheesemakers. The important thing here is that cheese wasn’t regarded as a fad thing in those days. It was an essential industry — it was wartime — and I was more or less forced into it. It was all because of events in Britain.
Of course there was an amusing side, a little incident that sticks in the memory. Well, I set off from Palmerston by train, there was no option but to go, I was directed to go. When I arrived at Woodville station, just up the line, I was met at the station and taken out to the factory. Here I was, taken by the man in charge, and stood up in front of all the staff. This job, this place, and these people were all completely strange to me. And I got introduced. ‘This is Peter Leyland, he’s come to learn cheesemaking.’
Well, one of the workers who was standing there, he looked me up and down, and he had a loud comment — so loud everyone could hear. ‘Another bloody Maori!’ he said.
You see, I’d spent a lot of time working outside with Dad, logging and that sort of thing — out in the country wearing a pair of pants, but no shirt. I had a kink about getting tanned, so I was brown as a Maori.
Were there any Maori in the crowd?
I don’t think so. There were some parts of the country where Maoris were pretty thick on the ground, but up Tiraumea it seemed they weren’t popular. Or it might have been a joke. You never know.
So you were a Maori cheesemaker during the war?
Not just a Maori — ‘Another bloody Maori.’
Two of many reports of wartime changes in the NZ dairy industry. Evening Post 1941.