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Tuesday, June 9, 2015 - 5
ohn and Peg McGee had never
been to Greymouth before they
arrived in 1960. The only reason
they moved to the Coast was
because train driver John was
offered a house with the job.
He could hardly have started out
further away from the West Coast,
or from a life in trains.
Growing up in Northland, John began
working in the freezing works and then
worked as a butcher while growing up in
Whangarei. In 1948 he started a career in
the railway, staying until retirement in 1989.
“I joined the railway and that ’s it,” he puts
John worked on rail in Palmerston North
from 1951 to 1954 before moving to
“I don’t know why I went to D unedin,”
“ To meet me,” Peg quips.
“I ’m an Aussie,” Peg says proudly. “I came
over to New Zealand in 1957, I think it was.
I was working in a wool mill in Australia
and they sent me over to Mosgiel because I
was an invisible darner and I came over and
showed them how to do it.”
She began working for a mill in Australia,
not realising where it would one day take
“ When I left school (in Geelong), the
woollen mill just was across the road from
our place so I went there. It was good
money. My horses were in the paddock just
next to it — I was always horse mad.”
Swapping Australia for the deep south of
New Zealand was a big move: “It was pretty
scary going to Mosgiel for a start. It was
winter and snowing — I’d never seen snow
It was so cold the windows of her hostel
windows would freeze. “In the mornings
you’d wake up and there would be icicles
Peg was not in the country long before she
met her future husband.
“My first Saturday night in New Zealand I
went to a party with one of the girls and met
John would occasionally take Peg along
when he worked on the steam trains, but
one trip with Peg’s sister did not go down
“My sister, when she came over to visit, she
was only 17 and she wanted to go on the
train,” Peg says, “Johnny was on the night
train and they said in the end they ’d take
her. They left about 8pm, but they had a
breakdown on the way back and they never
got back till lunchtime the next day.
“My sister was absolutely covered in black,
with a face on her like thunder. She said ‘I’ll
never get on another train all my life’.”
John started his career with the railways as
a cleaner, rising to the position of fireman, a
position he held for 12 years.
“I worked with a lot of drivers but none
were the same, in temperament or in
behaviour. Every one that you struck was
different and they drove differently, they
spoke differently and if you were with one
person for longer than two years you’d get to
start talking like them and acting like them,
that ’s true.
“There were fellas with drivers for the
whole of their firing lives, and when they
got their driver’s ticket they acted exactly the
same as the driver, the characteristics were
all the same. I stayed with one fella for three
years and I got to speaking like him.”
During that time John covered nearly the
entire South Island and saw plenty along
“Every winter you used to get the southern
aurora. The shimmering rays of that aurora,
they were something to witness.”
Night driving between Milton and Gore
would provide some sights.
“ You’d see wildfire flitting across the
mountaintops on the alps and they’d go
right down to Invercargill, but they never
went backwards, they never went north.
They ’d light up like wildfire. It would stop
and then it would be there for about two
According to John and all his night
driving, the best spot to see shooting stars is
“You’d look up at the sky,it had to be a
clear night and you’d see shooting stars, not
just one, several, always around June and
July, never any other time. It used to amaze
However, the best phenomenon he can
recall was viewed from Greymouth.
“ We were on the night train and we were
coming through into town on top of the
Omoto bank. We just looked for ward on to
the river and there’s this big moon, it was
the biggest moon I’ve ever seen. It covered
the whole Grey River mouth and you could
see every crater, and as we moved down it
got fainter and fainter. When we got to the
signal box it was up in the sky.”
Other drivers saw more unusual sights.
“ You see a lot of things at night. I never
saw any UFOs. Honestly, a lot of railway
men have seen UFOs. ”
Since retiring, there is only one thing John
misses: “ The only thing I miss is the night
In 1960, with a three-month-old child, the
McGees embarked on the unknown.
“I applied for a house and I was prepared
to transfer anywhere that had a house, and
Greymouth came up so I took it,” John says.
Neither of them had set foot in
The couple moved to their first house at
144 Shakespeare Street, where they lived for
10 years, surrounded by other rail workers.
“ You soon got to know everyone,” Peg
says. “ Then every Saturday night there’d be
a party at one house. All the kids played
together. You never see it now but when our
kids were little they could play out on the
road and be as good as gold. ”
While John worked on the rail, Peg got a
job at the Recreation Hotel and later got the
catering job at the Muritai House railway
hostel, at the junction of Shakespeare and
Alexander streets, where they would stay for
another 10 years.
“O ur best time was at Muritai,” Peg says
While there, she raised four children, while
cooking for 30 to 40 people.
“The older ones used to say ‘mum worked
us to death’. They used to do the dishes and
set the tables. No, it was a good life, the kids
loved it there. We had some horses up the
hill behind it and they looked after them.”
When Muritai House closed the family
returned to Shakespeare Street, a few houses
down from their first house, to No 138.
“ We like Shakespeare Street,” Peg laughs,
but says being a train driver’s wife was not
“It was hard on the wives and kids because
there was a lot of night work, and trying to
keep the kids quiet during the day so the
men could sleep.”
Being a driver was not easy either, with
plenty coming across John’s tracks. One of
the strangest was in 1969: “I nearly ran over
a baby at Totara Flat. ”
“I was in a railcar coming down the straight
and I saw someone had dropped a pillow in
the middle of the track. And a little kid lifted
its hands and he was throwing stones so I
stopped and I picked him up and took him
off the line. His mother came running out,
arms flying and screaming. ‘He’s okay ’ I said,
‘ I recognised it was a little baby so I stopped’
then I took off home . . . I never thought
much about it until I got a note.”
Two months later he got a letter thanking
him, though he has since lost the note and
forgotten who the baby was.
Another incident was not so fortunate,
when his railcar struck a car crossing the
tracks at the Omoto Racecourse, killing one
of the occupants.
“ I was coming back on the railcar from
Otira. I hit the car. I hit the front left door
of the car,” John says.
That was to be one of three incidents he
experienced on the same date 12 months
apart, over three years. Though he has
forgotten the date, he remembers the events
The second event came when another car
turned in front of him.
Workers were resealing the road at the
Nelson Street crossing near the Australasian
“There were lights everywhere, warning
signals, my lights probably confused that
driver really,” John remembers, “He turned
left right in front of me.”
The car was cut in half, but the driver
sur vived unhurt.
“ It was at night, 10.45pm — 12 months to
the day as the first one.”
The third incident was less dramatic, but
occurred exactly 12 months later again.
While driving through Kokiri his rear railcar
uncoupled. As his train stopped, John got
out to see what had happened and realised
he was missing a car. John walked back
to find it down the line, with his assistant
driver unaware that anything had gone
“ Here’s the assistant driver, he’s sitting
there reading a book!”
PICTURE: Nicholas McBride
John and Peg McGee at their Shakespeare Street home, originally a railway house and just down the road from their first house when they moved to Greymouth.
Meet the McGees
Husband and wife team John and Peg McGee’s journey to Greymouth has been a winding one; he grew up in
Whangarei, she came from Australia. Wool and trains took them both to Dunedin where their paths crossed and they
got married, before eventually moving to the West Coast and settling down in Greymouth. NICHOLAS McBRIDE
listened as the pair shared their story.
John McGee, left, and Peg, second from right, have a night out with other Greymouth railway couples in
John McGee in his train driver gear, with son Peter,
A crowd marks the closing of Muritai House, with John fifth from right. Peg jokes she would have been too
busy working to be in the picture.
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