A Visit to the ‘Murder House’ by Robyn Boswell
Mention the ‘Murder House’ to anyone in New Zealand who was a child in the 50s and 60s and they’ll know exactly what you’re talking about. The School Dental Service was established in the 1920s. Dental Clinics were built in schools and children throughout the country had the ‘joy’ of visiting the school clinic a couple of times a year. The school dental nurses were lovely women who cared about what they were doing, as I discovered when I became a teacher, but to us children they were incredibly scary in their starched white uniforms, red cardies and nurses’ caps. We just knew they were going to inflict horrific pain on us. No gum-numbing injections in those days.
The year before I was born, Dad was appointed the Headteacher of Parua Bay School, a tiny school of 12 children that was hovering on the edge of existence. Luckily the roll grew until we had two classrooms and two teachers. Now when you drive past there’s a huge two-storied building and around 300 students. How things change.
I was lucky to have an idyllic childhood. The school was on a hill overlooking the bay. The beach was at the bottom of the hill. For nature study we’d go fossicking along the shore then finish by collecting cockles that we’d cook in an old kerosene tin over a fire on the beach before devouring them as fast as we could. Once someone spotted a sunfish that had stranded on the shore so the whole school marched down the hill to look.
Mr Kunak owned a vineyard up the hill. Vineyards were unheard of in those days in New Zealand. The local people considered him a little odd, but every year after he’d harvested the grapes to make his wine, he’d invite the whole school up to the vineyard. We’d spend a hot afternoon gorging ourselves on the leftover grapes and fending off the wasps that were attracted by the sticky, oozing fruit. I can still smell ripe grapes and hear the buzzing of the wasps.
The land and sea fed us. When it was getting to the end of the month and money was tight, Mum would walk down to the Bay and spear flounder for dinner. There were buckets of blackberries on scratchy bushes to be harvested and clothes baskets full of fresh mushrooms to gather. Mushroom time was shooting season and Dad would go shooting pheasants or ducks while we collected the mushrooms. The Bay was full of fish and most summer weekends we’d be out in our boat catching enough to fry and smoke. Who needed a supermarket when we also had a huge veggie garden to harvest?
Our swimming pool was the sea. When the tide was high, the whole school would walk to the end of Ritchie Rd where the beach was sandy and the water was crystal clear, for our swimming lessons. So was born my lifelong passion for swimming in the sea.
After school I’d often walk over the paddocks of the neighbouring farm to my friend’s place and watch while she hand-milked their house cow. I never could master that skill. We’d often visit friends of my parents who had a creek on their farm. We’d throw a couple of rotten eggs into the creek to fish for eels. Thank goodness we never caught one, I’m sure we wouldn’t have known what to do. Dick, the farmer, had been a chef at Claridges Hotel in London. He met a young woman from New Zealand whose family were farmers. They got married and moved to New Zealand for Dick to try and become a farmer. His bumbling attempts were a source of great amusement to the local farmers who had farming in their blood.
When we were in the ‘little kids’ classroom, we’d sometimes be told scary tales by the older kids who had had their turns at the ‘murder house’. Much of it was a great exaggeration to prove just how brave they were, but it was one thing we weren’t looking forward to.
By the time we got into the ‘big kid’s’ classroom, the spectre of the Murder House was hanging over all our heads. I looked forward to it with a huge amount of trepidation and just a little bit of anticipation. The nearest school dental clinic was at Onerahi School, which was in our nearest town, only 30 minutes away now, but much further in those days when the roads were dirt. In fact, we were so far from town that once a term we’d have a shopping day where the school closed so families could go into town for shopping and appointments like haircuts. It was a whole day’s trip then.
Every day for a week or so, twice a year, some of the kids would be missing from our two classrooms as they spent the day at Onerahi School to visit the dental nurse. Once our turn came around, the teachers would pack up a day’s work for us to take with us and Mum would pack my lunch for me. Since we lived in the school-house right next to the school I was thrilled to be just like all the other kids for once and was able to take my sandwiches – carefully wrapped in greaseproof paper – with me.
It was exciting to be let out on our own for the day. The ‘big kids’ in Standard 7 and 8 had the important responsibility of looking after the rest of us.
We’d have to wait at the cream stand across the road from the school gate for the bus which ran up to town in the morning and back each night. The cream stand was where the farmers left their shiny milk cans full of milk to be picked up and taken to the dairy factory in town. It used to frustrate me that the big kids could haul themselves up and sit on the ledge on front of the cream cans, but I was never tall enough or strong enough to pull myself up there.
Our milk at home actually came from Ritchie’s farm and my brother Dave and I would walk up the road to their milking shed and come home with a billy full of warm, fresh milk. Sometimes Mum used the milk to make hot chocolate for all the kids at school to drink at playtime in the winter. Other times she’d make a big pot of veggie soup for everyone.
The road into town was indescribably dusty and corrugated in the summer and muddy and slippery in the winter. Travelling on the bus that ran into town every day by ourselves seemed such a grown-up thing to do. The two bus drivers were known by everyone in the district and everyone seemed to love them. One of them, Lionel, was ever the gentleman and was never seen without his hat – even in his latter years after he retired, it was always a fixture on his head. They really looked after us kids every time we went on the bus. No doubt they knew what was facing us at the end of the dusty road and felt sorry for us. It seemed to take forever to rattle and bang all the way to Onerahi.
The whole day was spent in the dental clinic waiting room, trying to block out the sounds from the next room, whilst ploughing our way through the work our teachers had prepared for us. Maybe I was a bit of a ‘girly swot’ but I really enjoyed sitting there, completing the little books with the comprehension challenges and the colouring in or drawing we’d been given.
At playtimes we’d stick in a little bunch by ourselves. A big school full of hundreds of kids was a very scary place when you’d never seen more than 50 or so kids in one place at a time. The dental nurses often let us eat lunch in the waiting room before we ventured out into the playground in a group.
One year, someone had the brilliant idea of putting us into classes in the school for the day. I was in Standard 6 by then and my uncle taught the Standard 6 class so that’s where I went. The terror of that experience is with me to this day. There were only around 6 kids of my age in my class at Parua Bay and here I was in a class of probably around 40, all my age. That was petrifying in itself. The Onerahi kids didn’t take kindly to having strange kids thrust upon them and we were ‘country bumpkins’ to boot. Kids can be cruel little beings and they taunted us all day. I couldn’t wait to get on that bus and get home to our safe little haven at Parua Bay School. Fortunately that was my last year at Parua Bay, so I have no idea if the experiment continued.
The actual reason for the day away was one that I didn’t like to contemplate in advance. The dental nurses were lovely ladies who tried hard to put us at our ease, but we didn’t see it like that. Those scary uniforms and hats were intimidating though. One at a time we were summonsed out of the waiting room and into the real ‘murder house’ where the instruments of terror were housed. There were no gum-numbing needles, just an “Open wide” as they poked and prodded along your teeth assessing where to put the inevitable fillings while you sat there in sheer terror knowing what was to come.
I’ve been told in later years by my dentists that many of the fillings were unnecessary. The dental nurses would drill out the centre of your tooth, fill it with mercury, then ram it in so hard that for me, at least, in later years the sides popped off my teeth more often than the fillings fell out.
Once the poking and prodding finished, the drilling started. Fortunately they had electric drills although Dave still recalls the time he went to the clinic and the electricity wasn’t working so they used an old treadle drill which was worked like a treadle sewing machine. This was no doubt the beginning of his dentist phobia that remains to this day.
I’m not sure how such kind women could work in a job where they inflicted so much pain on poor innocent children day after day. A lot of their time was no doubt spent mopping up floods of tears although the amount of paraphernalia in your mouth meant that screaming wasn’t possible. Drilling into teeth without numbing your gum first seems so barbaric now, but it was what we were used to, so you tried to be stoic and suffer the pain – but that suffering wasn’t always silent.
There was always a competition on the bus on the way home to brag about the number of fillings you had had. I can remember we were in awe one day when one kid had had twelve. It was rare to have less that five or six.
As a reward for surviving the day, the dental nurses always gave us little presents – a couple of cotton wool wads that they called fairies and – even more exciting – a little plastic container with a blob of mercury in it. Oh how we loved that mercury and its amazing properties. For several days afterwards we would tip it onto our desks and break it into smaller blobs then watch fascinated as it all rolled back into one big blob. We’d carry it around in our hands stirring it round with our fingers. Eventually it would disappear – probably absorbed into our desks or dropped on the floor, but it was exciting while it lasted! Imagine if that was to happen nowadays? They’d probably evacuate the school.
Somehow, however, we all survived and by the time the next visit rolled around I’d remember what fun it was to be able to be independent for a day and I’d try to forget what we also had to suffer for those moments of independence.