Housekeeping at Sea

From Ngaire’s Journal, 13th May 1958
Onboard RMS Rangitane II, En route for Southampton, England

The sea today is indigo, just like a tub of Reckitts washing blue water.
I have noticed the deck hands use electric scrubbers. Rangitane

In 1958, a time when travel was still something of a novelty,  my grandparents went on a ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe. They sailed out on the Rangitane, and my mother remembers them leaving, dressed to the nines with an extraordinary amount of luggage. Ngaire had a small suitcase just for hats (I have it now, and it’s not the hatbox you might be imagining; it’s a proper suitcase.) It was a glamorous time.

Reckitts blueBut while you can take a girl away from the housekeeping, you can’t stop her thinking about laundry. Not in Ngaire’s case anyway.

My grandmother was a very proud (and very competent) housekeeper. I remember her telling me, in her bustling sort of way, that all she had ever wanted was to ‘keep her own house.’ Privately, she considered that she had been dangerously late to marry (she was 28), and had worried she wouldn’t have the chance to be a ‘proper housewife’. I was a teenager at the time she told me this and was probably studiously disinterested (in my defence, you did have to be on your toes around Ngaire –  she was like a one-woman marriage agency). But now, as I read through her diaries, I can see what the rituals of housekeeping meant to her – how for her, the cooking and the cleaning, the making and the caring was so much more than a job.

I plan to write more about Ngaire and Gerald’s ‘grand tour’, but in the meantime you might be interested in these posts:

Battle of the Bulge

Over the Edge

Acknowledgement: I found the postcard of the Rangitane on Reuben Goossens’ site I suspect it’s the wrong ship (they were on the Rangitane II), but the water is such a perfect colour in this picture.


Where Ngaire and Gerald return from their Tour of Europe,
the National Party is re-elected
and Ngaire celebrates her birthday.

From Ngaire’s and Gerald’s travel letters

21st September 1958, from RMS ‘Strathmore’
We arrived at Bombay at 12.30 pm and went ashore at 2.45 pm when we commenced the Bus Tour organised by the British Women’s League of Mercy (£1 each)…The heat was slightly more bearable that that of Aden.
The Taj Mahal Hotel is a tremendous establishment…
In the centre of a public square were the Men’s conveniences, shielded only by a trellis fence – one better than Paris…
The Hanging Gardens were beautiful…

StrathmoreWe passed the Tower of Silence and saw the huge vultures…
There were men selling beautiful crochet cloths of all sizes…
We passed the Laundry where all the citizens send their washing. Men stood in the water and beat the clothing against concrete slabs. How on earth anything comes out white is a mystery, but our courier assured us that she sends her sheets and pillowcases there and they are returned washed and ironed, beautifully – 1/6 for a week’s wash.

Further along we heard some cheering and musical instruments and found a bridal procession. The bridegroom was arrayed in glittering gold and flowers…He was being led along the main street by his friends and followers, to the home of the bride.

Ngaire's 21st

Ngaire on her 21st birthday (1927)

23rd September 1958
At 1.15pm we passed the ‘Stratheden’ sailing northwards. Poor things. They have to pass through the Red Sea.
The SW coast of India seems to be covered with jungle and very seldom is a house seen.
We are due to arrive at Colombo at 6am; the pilot is to come aboard at 4.30 am. We have bought tickets for a tour, so should see a little more of the Mystic East.

Thank you so much for your birthday greetings. Daddy has given me some beautiful pearls and I am very thrilled.
My cotton frocks are getting a good wearing and washing so I suppose I shall need some new ones for home.

We haven’t entered the Deck Games on this ship. There is no Deck Golf and I am hopeless at the other games.”

I’ve been jolted into blogging action by Ngaire’s birthday (she would be 108 tomorrow), and the return of the NZ National Party. My very one-eyed grandmother would have approved (she even linked Labor with a shortage of nice dressmaking fabrics at one stage).

Tomorrow I’ll bake something suitable in her honour, or perhaps just iron the pillowslips.

Assorted Creams and Thoughts on Marriage

In a letter from Ngaire to Caroline (my mother), written at the Parkway Hotel, Bayswater, London, August 1958
We all have our trials and tribulations to overcome, and it is better for our characters in the end.
All the engagements here are very formal…naming the man first, without fail.
Kindness to each other is a tremendous thing in marriage and makes up for a lot of defects.”

Assorted creams - Monte Carlos, Orange Crisps & German Cream Sandwiches

Assorted creams – Monte Carlos, Orange Crisps & German Cream Sandwiches

I was going to be clever and talk about home-made making up for any defects in the assorted creams my daughter Alex and I made, but it seemed a bit of a stretch.  Besides, the defects were strictly aesthetic – imperfect shapes and smeared jam.

Well, the Orange Crisps were a bit odd.

I’ve written a little about Ngaire and Gerald’s ‘Grand Tour‘ of England and the Continent before.  They were away from Christchurch for over five months, during which time my mother Caroline moved into a flat with friends.  She talks about this as being great fun and very liberating, but clearly marriage was firmly on my grandmother’s mind, even from a distance.  In fact, Mum was seeing my father Stanley by this stage, and agreed to marry him, defects and all, a few months later.

Orange Crisps (Gert Simpson)

Orange Crisps

Orange Crisps

4 oz (120 g) butter, 2 oz (60 g) sugar, 1 packet orange jelly crystals, 1 egg, 2 oz (60 g) ground rice, 2 oz (60 g) coconut, 4 oz (120 g) flour, 1 tsp baking powder

Cream butter and sugar. Add jelly crystals then other ingredients.
Put in small spoonfuls on cold greased tray and press out flat.  Bake in hot oven for 8 to 10 minutes.
Cool then fill with chocolate icing (or may be left unfilled).
Honestly, more interesting than inspirational.

German Sandwiches (Gert Simpson)

German Biscuits

German Biscuits

½ lb (250 gm) butter, ½ lb sugar, ½ lb flour, ½ lb ground rice (rice flour), 1 tsp baking soda, 1 teacup milk, 1 tbsp cinnamon, pinch grated nutmeg

Cream butter and sugar.  Dissolve soda in milk and add to the mixture.  Sift dry ingredients together and fold in.  Beat briskly.
Chill the dough for 30 minutes then roll out on floured surface and cut out shapes.  Bake in hot oven for approximately 10 minutes.
When cool, fill with vanilla cream icing (see below).  Also delicious unfilled – roll the dough out quite thinly to make a crisp biscuit.

Monte Carlos (Australian Women’s Weekly)

Monte Carlos

Monte Carlos

6 oz (185 g) butter, ½ cup firmly packed light brown sugar, 1 tsp vanilla extract, 1 egg, 2 cups flour, 1¼ tsp baking powder, ½ cup coconut, ¼ cup raspberry jam.

Cream butter and sugar.  Add egg and vanilla then stir in dry ingredients. Put in small spoonfuls on cold greased tray and press out flat.  Rough surface with a fork.  Bake at 180 for about 12 minutes.
Cool and fill with vanilla cream icing (see below)  and raspberry jam.

Vanilla cream icing

2 oz butter (60 g), ¾ cup icing sugar, ½ tsp vanilla extract, 2 tsp hot water.

Beat butter, vanilla and icing sugar until fluffy.  Add the water, a few drops at a time, until you are happy with the consistency.

Over the Edge

Letter from Ngaire on board RMS Rangitane II en route to England, 4th June 1958
As you know, we are not very narrow-minded, but the drinking on this ship is over the edge.’

It’s true: Ngaire wasn’t very narrow-minded, but she did have very firm ideas, particularly in regard to how people ought to behave. I’m not sure what prompted this particular observation but perhaps, as a teetotalling Methodist lady, she was beginning to find all the dinners, parties and pirates a bit too much…

31st May
This evening was the Fancy Dress ball. I went with a group of seven ‘girls’ who were captured by a pirate, the pirate being a Mr. Clinton who has a black bushy beard turning grey.’

While Ngaire didn’t drink, she did like to Do Things Properly, which must be why she had this clipping in her recipe book.

I’ve had cider on my mind today. Not how to serve it (in any sort of pretty glass I think or, if someone insisted on giving you one for your 21st, a hideous pewter mug) but how to make it.

Mum and Dad have picked the rest of a bumper crop of Fuji apples at their farm but unfortunately they’ve been affected by Black Spot this year (the apples, not my parents as far as I know). We’ll still stew and freeze some, but there’ll be a lot left over so tomorrow I’m going out in search of a cider press.

All advice on cider-making gratefully received!

(Postcard from the Rangitane found at

Battle of the Bulge

Letter from Ngaire on board RMS Rangitane II en route to England, 19th May 1958
‘Today is warm but pleasant. I have discarded all unnecessary undies but will continue the “battle of the bulge” when we dress for dinner.’

1958 was the year of Ngaire and Gerald’s ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe. Ngaire firmly believed in keeping up appearances (who knows what she’d make of me discussing her underwear here) and took so much luggage, including a small suitcase of hats, they could barely move in their cabin. It must have been very warm in the tropics for her to have dropped her standards to this degree. The officers on the other hand, were clearly keeping themselves nice.

17th May 1958
‘The ship’s officers changed into tropical kit today – all white, mostly with shorts. The dining room stewards wear white coats with dark trousers and other stewards all white.’

In fairness, I should make it clear that the underwear she found to be ‘unnecessary’ would only have been her corset. Not that this diminishes the significance of her ditching it. I have travelled in the back of an un-airconditioned Holden Kingswood from Warracknabeal to Broken Hill sandwiched between Mum and Ngaire and can clearly remember the bones in her undergarments sticking into me. If the ship was hotter than the back of that car it must have been unbearable.

Fortunately, the ship’s captain wasn’t going to let things get out of hand.

15th May 1958
‘The Captain is very fussy over dress, and has given us all to understand that we are to be decently covered while at meals in the Tropics. Perhaps he is afraid of the wandering eyes of the young waiters.’

Back on with the all-in-one then.

Obviously the only sensible response to a story about battling the bulge is to cook something devastatingly delicious and almost certainly bulge-making: Chocolate Éclairs. The surprise is that they’re devastatingly easy to make. Who’d have thought.

Chocolate Éclairs

1 cup water,  100 gms unsalted butter,
1 cup sifted flour,  4 lightly beaten eggs

Put the water and butter in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Add all the flour and stir very quickly until the mixture leaves the sides of the pan and forms a smooth ball. Cool for about 10 minutes, then beat in the eggs one at a time. I transferred the mixture to my mixer to do this.
Put the mixture into a piping bag and pipe 10 cm lengths onto a baking tray (lightly greased or with baking paper). They should be 3 or 4 cm apart.  Bake in a very hot oven (I used 230°C) for 10 minutes then turn down to 180°C for a further 10 minutes. Take out and, when cool enough to handle, cut in half lengthwise. Return to the oven for a further 3 or 4 minutes to dry out. They should be golden and crisp. Cool on a wire rack.

To assemble, fill with whipped cream (add 1/2 tsp vanilla essence and 1 tsp of icing sugar if desired) and ice with chocolate icing. To make the icing beat together 1 cup icing sugar, 2 teaspoons butter, 2 tablespoons cocoa and about 1 tablespoon boiling water.

Best eaten without your corset.