The Nelson piecart
About 1926 or 1927 our father S.J. [Jim] Samuels finished his sixth form year at Ashburton High School. He went to work at Clark's nurseries in Ashburton. He finished his apprenticeship, but as so often happened in those days, there was no position for journeymen. It was, of course, cheaper to pay another apprentice.
It was coming up to the depression times of the early thirties, when jobs were almost non-existent. He packed his worldly possessions, including a tent, bedroll and a billy for cooking onto his bicycle and rode to Nelson, heading for the apple orchards, hop, tobacco and raspberry gardens looking for seasonal work.
After some time at various jobs and still living in his tent, he came to realise that no matter how little money they had, people still had to eat.
About 1935 Jim partnered with his father Charles and together they opened a pie-cart. It was rather like a large, box-shaped caravan to look at. Four people could sit at a counter at one end. The rest stood at a long counter along one side, standing on the street footpath and protected by a canvas awning.
In the early days our Aunt, Maud Clayton and Grandfather helped with the cooking. After our parents were married in 1937, our mother took over this work.
By the time of my memory, my mother's day started at breakfast time by ringing Cotton's Butchery to order the mince and suet for the day. Then she would ring Nelson Fisheries to order the fish, snapper – I don't ever remember it not being available.
The meat was delivered promptly from just around the block and the mince put on to cook. Just mince, salt and water – not even onions. The dried peas would be put on to soak with a handful of soda. People often asked how the peas were so much nicer than most others, but the secret of the baking soda was never divulged. The flavour and texture of the peas was never to my liking. The beetroot, too, was put on to cook. There was a row of gas rings at floor level along one wall, spaced far enough apart for the large enamel boilers to fit.
A bucket of potatoes at a time would be tipped into the potato peeler, which was lined with a coarse abrasive surface. The potatoes spun around with a continuous stream of water. When deemed ready they were spilled out into a large sink, to have the eyes removed. Some were put on to cook and the others would stay in a bucket of water beside the chipper next to the deep frying vat.
When cooked, the mince was thickened and poured into large shallow bowls then put into the fridge to cool quickly.
The pastry was made by hand-mixing water into freshly minced suet and then the flour and salt mixed in. It was folded and rolled a number of times through a roller reminiscent of an old laundry mangle.
Twenty pie tins were set in a wooden frame and a large sheet of pastry unrolled over them. The pastry was punched into each tin with a wad of dough. A large baking spoon of mince was spooned into each pie case, another sheet of pastry was then unrolled over the top. A couple of runs over the top with the rolling pin neatly trimmed each pie. The excess pastry was removed, a hole jabbed in the top of each pie with a knife; a brush over with a mixture of milk and egg powder and onto the baking tray and into the oven. Ten or twelve dozen on an ordinary day, and up to 24 dozen for a public holiday, New Year's Eve, or at the time of Seddon Shield rugby matches or the like.
When I was very young, the pies would be loaded into the back of our model-A van and taken to Doug Holyman's bakery to be cooked in the huge oven. The trays were slid into the oven on wooden paddles with very long handles. Holyman's Bakery was behind Olsen's Cake Shop in Bridge Street. His own cake shop was in Hardy Street.
In the mid-1940s Dad built a new much bigger cook shop and installed an electric oven that would cook four trays at a time. One evening in the late 1980s my mother-in-law was listening to ‘talk back’ radio about meat pies when she heard John Blumsky say that Jim Samuels' pies were the best he had eaten. I must say I agree.
Mum's day continued by cooking baskets of chips and then making batter for the fish that had now been delivered.
Oysters, in season, were sourced from Smith's Fish Shop in North Beach and collected from Newman’s Bus Depot about 6.30 pm. Some were cooked straight away ready for that night and the rest cooked next morning. Sausages came by air from Huttons in Wellington and were collected from Cock and Co. about mid-afternoon. Freemans Bakery delivered daily as did the milk company. The milk came in cans. A truck came each day to collect the food scraps, to be fed to the pigs at Barnett's farm next to the aerodrome.
Dad would go to Park Davis auctions and vegetable market for the beetroot and potatoes, except in the years when potatoes were scarce and expensive. Then he would use his Canterbury connections to get a supply. Sometimes sacks would disappear in transit.
The menu, as I remember it from the mid-1940s, was “pea, pie and pud” for one shilling, a pie for 4d. One piece of fish with chips 6d. Also sold were bacon, sausages and eggs. In season were oysters, and whitebait patties the size of a plate. Mashed potatoes, cooked dried peas, beetroot and bread and butter were served with most things.
By the late 1940s raw coffee beans were brought by the sack and roasted, regularly, on trays in the oven. They were ground daily and tipped into a clean muslin bag to be dangled in a large urn of milk and kept hot all night.
At 4.00pm each day Dad would scrub the counters, cooking surfaces and floor. Salts, peppers and sugar bowls would be filled and the soft drink rack replenished. The pie-cart would be plugged into the point at home and the bread sliced into ‘ladies' afternoon tea’ slices, buttered, folded and neatly stacked into a large square biscuit tin, to keep fresh. Some of the food was loaded and set to re-warm. The beetroot, now cool, was skinned, sliced and marinated. The sausages, which had just arrived from Wellington, were put on to boil, ready to be quickly reheated when ordered.
5.00pm was family mealtime. Then he would load up the rest of the food and tow it to the piecart stand outside the Bank of New South Wales in Trafalgar Street, ready to open as the town clock chimed 6.00pm. Dad would get home about 1.30-2.00am, wash all the boilers and go to bed until lunchtime. His afternoons would be taken up with visits to the egg floor, bank, warehouses and once a week, the library.
We children were fairly well shielded from the unpleasant things of life but we did overhear Mum and Dad's conversations about the Bank of New South Wales managers whose families lived on Trafalgar Street premises where the cart was parked, wanting him shifted somewhere else because of the noise generated by patrons.
Sometimes patrons ended up in court after some sort of fracas and magistrates were not always polite about such places and the ‘riff-raff’ they attracted. This really upset my father because many of his regular customers were salt of the earth businessmen who would not have known what to do about a ‘fisticuffs’ if they found themselves in the middle of one.
Later in the 40's Roy Chapman, coach-builder, was commissioned to build a new “Coffee Stall Deluxe”. It was built to the same style as the old one, but larger, more streamlined and clad in aluminium. It had aircraft tyres to carry the weight. It had a double deep fryer, stove, dishwasher, sink, zip water heater, bread slicer, lots of cupboards and the splendid National cash register. My father got into trouble with the neighbours, as he used the buffer on his electric drill to polish the entire surface of aluminium. It interfered with their radio reception.
The first night the new coffee stall went into the curbside stand, it was escorted in a parade with members of the Nelson Pipe Band. All meals were on the house. Dad was a long time member of the St John's Ambulance Brigade and had St John donation boxes on the counter. He went through more food than ever before and was most disappointed at the pittance that went into the boxes. Apart from that, the evening was a great success.
By the late 1950s dad was able to indulge in his real love and develop a very successful rose nursery.
The pie cart was sold. My mother always said his greatest regret was that he no longer knew all the gossip. He had always known everything that went on in town. Policemen and newspaper reporters were among his regular patrons, gathering and disseminating the latest goings on.
2018 (updated August 2020)
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Further sources - The Nelson piecart
Ben Schrader (2010) Street life - Street trade and people, 1915–2008. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, accessed 1 November 2018: