The Monday Extract: The loves and tragedies of Dorothy of Franz Josef

An extract from a fascinating new book by ex-Hokitika Guardian journalist Cheryl Riley, who tells the stories of remarkable men and women of Westland.

Dorothy Fletcher was born in 1927, the youngest of four children to Alec and Isabella Graham, part-owners of the Franz Josef Hotel. Her mother did not keep good health after Dorothy was born and she grew up guided by her father’s common sense philosophy. Dorothy adored him. “Daddy told us to use our heads – we did – and it worked,” she said.

Barefoot winter and summer, Dorothy learnt mountaineering, guiding, and Search and Rescue. Watching her father organise the construction and maintenance of the water supply, the hydro system, the hotel and later the setting up of the National Parks, she also learned the hospitality industry inside out. She knew every person living in the area, well enough to think of them as family.

But she was sent to boarding school in Christchurch, to Rangi Ruru.  It was “ghastly” wearing a school uniform every day – shoes, socks, tie, blazer, hat and gloves. There was worse. “We were not allowed to seal our letters. It was hateful to know that the headmistress had access to the contents. We were not allowed to go anywhere alone – except to the toilet. Oh yes we were alone in our three-minute bath every second day. The matron ran the bath to three inches deep. Then she timed us – we were allowed not a second over three minutes.”

Travelling to and from school meant a four-hour drive from Franz Josef to the train station in Hokitika. It sometimes happened that there was no one to meet Dorothy when she got off the train. Instead of panicking the young student used her head as her father had so wisely taught her. “I would race around trying to find a ride. The first option was Captain Bert Mercer’s Fox Moth aeroplane at the Southside Airport. Many was the time I would race across the railroad bridge to catch the plane as it was about to leave.”

When World War II was declared, there was an exodus of Franz Josef community members, including hotel staff. The high school student seized her advantage, and returned home. “And so began the best – well the most precious years of my life.”

The day began before daylight in the laundry where fires had to be lit to heat water in a copper container set in concrete over a fire box. White towels, and bed and table linen went into the water to be boiled with soap, and agitated by hand with a stick. The washed linen was then put through a handwringer and into a long concrete trough of cold rinsing water.  It was put through the wringer again, dropped into cane baskets, carried outside and pegged with wooden pegs onto a long, single wire clothesline.

All was well when the sun shone and the wind blew but at Franz Josef, nestled in rain forest beneath the Southern Alps, perfect drying days were not that regular. When it rained the washing was piled into a cart and transferred across a yard to a room set aside for drying. The room had two metal stoves that needed regular stoking.

“The mornings were the busiest, especially in the kitchen when there were often more than 100 packed lunches to prepare and the wood fire had to be kept well stoked for cooking porridge, bacon, eggs and toast for around 200 guests.” Mutton, beef, pork, turkey, duck, chicken and geese were reared for the hotel table on the family farm.

Staff shortages during the war started to take its toll on the Graham family and they decided to sell the hotel business in 1947. That year the hotel had accommodated over 5000 guests. The business had simply grown too big to be run by one family. Sale negotiations were underway when a fire broke out that destroyed the annex and killed four people. However, the sale went ahead. Alec and Peter Graham continued mountain guiding and the hotel burnt to the ground in August 1954. More than 10 years passed before the Government decided to build another very grand hotel at Franz Josef.

Dorothy’s life took on a whole new meaning when she met Peter King in 1957. She was 30 and for the first time in her life she was smitten. King was a handsome war hero who was awarded the Military Cross as a British Commando in World War II. He immigrated to New Zealand in 1946 and joined the New Zealand Army in 1950. Serving as a captain in the Korean War, he lay seriously wounded in the battlefield and was saved by Gunner Derek Rixon who was also wounded but managed to carry his captain to safety. King was awarded a Distinguished Service Order and Rixon was awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal for this heroic deed.

Completely at home on the glacier and in the mountains, her new masculine companion measured up to the challenge. Together they traversed every nook and cranny in the Franz Josef Valley and mountains. In 1959 they were married and the next year Peter King became the first Westland National Park Board appointed ranger. Their cup of happiness was overflowing. They had a son and Dorothy was in the home after giving birth to a baby girl when tragedy struck on December 12, 1962.

Peter was on his way to visit his wife and daughter when his vehicle went off the road and into Lake Wahapo. Dorothy was left to bring up the two children on her own.

Dorothy worked for the Department of Conservation at an information kiosk near the terminal face of the Franz Josef Glacier. The new chief ranger, Peter Fletcher, frequently called into the kiosk for a chat. One day the ranger’s head appeared around the kiosk door and he popped a question: “Why don’t we grow old together?”

Dorothy liked the idea and they were married in 1974. For the second time in her life Dorothy found happiness married to a Franz Josef Chief Conservation Ranger by the name of Peter. Sadly tragedy loomed just around the corner yet again. After three years of marriage Peter Fletcher was killed crossing the Copland Pass. Peter was with a party of Westland National Park Board members when he and Jim Maitland fell to their deaths on the Mount Aoraki/Cook side of the pass.

Dorothy was philosophical about suffering another devastating loss. “I am no worse off after growing up in the worst Depression,” she said, “and managing on my own with two children and very little money.”

From Guts and Determination: History Makers in Westland by Cheryl Riley, available for $49.95 from selected bookstores on the West Coast, by emailing the author (write_riley@xtra.co.nz) or through her Facebook page.


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