He became one of New Zealand’s heroes and several landmarks in Wellington are named after him, but when Bernard Freyberg arrived in Wellington on December 2nd 1891 with his parents and four older brothers he was just a toddler of two and a half years old.
Bernard was part of a second family for his father, who was 64 years old when they emigrated from England – the children ranged in age from 2 ½ to 10 years old. James Freyberg had little money when they arrived. His fortunes had been in decline for some years and he had been in a business partnership in London which went bankrupt. The family went to live at what was then 40 Hawker Street, then moved to No. 60 in 1895.
McDonald Wilson, a neighbour and the same age as Bernard, describes how, when they were young in Hawker Street:
“. . . we youngsters did not enter one another’s homes very much, and mothers who had large families did not encourage their children to bring additional youngsters into the house. Consequently we boys tended to play either in the yard, the street, or on the open hills. In those days apart from the odd butcher’s or baker’s cart that came along we had the street to ourselves for playgrounds.”
Unfortunately, 60 Hawker Street burned down in the great fire of 1901 and, amongst other things, the family lost all the precious family records and photographs they had brought with them. After this, they moved to 27 Hawker Street (now No. 43), which looks almost the same as it would have in 1901 when they moved in.
Bernard’s father’s work in Wellington was variously described as a timber advisor to the government (until he had a row with the Prime Minister, Richard Seddon), a surveyor and a land agent. He seems, however, to have been a difficult man with a violent temper.
Bernard was nicknamed Tiny as a boy – no doubt because he was the youngest and smallest in a tall family. Even though he grew to be six foot one and a half, he continued to be called Tiny by New Zealanders, even when he was a general.
The five Freyberg boys were a tight-knit group and distinctive as they grew older because of their stature and strong physiques. They were good athletes, particularly swimmers, and keen sailors.
Bernard’s mother refused to let them attend Clyde Quay School because she mistrusted state education and felt that she could give them a better primary education than anyone else. She had attended university in Scotland or England, although she didn’t have a degree as it was not possible for women in the mid-1870’s to study for degrees. Bernard was taught at home until he was eight, in 1897, then he joined the first form at Wellington College. He never excelled academically, however – his passion for swimming dominated his school life. The description of one of his contemporaries at school shows how at home he was in the water: “his movements were seal-like, in fact he reminded one very much of that animal. Rather clumsy and awkward on land, but given a few feet of water, immediately transformed into a body of grace and vital activity and flowing movement.” When he was 16, he went to Australia to represent New Zealand in the Australasian Championships and in 1906 he was swimming champion of New Zealand.
In December 1904, however, Bernard suddenly left Wellington College. His authoritarian father had decided he should be apprenticed to become a dentist. Legislation was about to be introduced abolishing apprenticeships and requiring four-year degrees to practice but this would not come into effect until 1 January 1905. Clearly, Bernard’s father was keen to get him in, and earning, under the old system. It so happened that a well-known dentist, J S Fairchild, lived in Hawker Street so, at the age of 15, Bernard was an apprentice dentist. He remained a member of the dental profession until he left Wellington nine years later.
Bernard lived mainly for swimming, though. One of the principal attractions of the apprenticeship for him was that it allowed him to continue living at home in Hawker Street, close to the Te Aro Baths for swimming and water polo and to Oriental Bay for sailing. He was also interested enough in military matters, however, to join the Corps Volunteers when he left school.
In 1908, James Freyberg retired and the family moved to McDonald Crescent.
Source: Freyberg, Paul. Bernard Freyberg VC: Soldier of Two Nations, Hodder and Stoughton, 1991