It is with a hint of sadness but no self-pity that Mary Duffill speaks of that long ago wish to become an architect and join her father in business. “I wanted to do architecture. I wanted to follow in Dad's footsteps. I was always good at instrumental drawing and I could have taken a course in technical drawing and drawing plans. I could have gone into business with him.” And the only thing that stopped her was a skirt. “At that time, girls didn't wear trousers and Dad said because you had to climb up on buildings, if you weren't wearing trousers, the men would try to look up your skirt.”

It might be hard to understand now, how a young girl's hopes and dreams fell victim to the fashion of the day, but looking back, for Mary it remains very clear. “In those days, there wasn't much choice for girls. I did physiotherapy” she says. Despite her disappointment, she remembers her father as a good man and someone she got on well with. “He was a very good father to us” she says.

Two sisters and two lost brothers

Mary was born in 1914. Her first brother John, died at the age of two from malnutrition. “I think he was one of those who couldn't tolerate milk” Mary says. Her brother James, the fifth and last child, died during World War Two at the age of 24. “He needn't have gone to war, but he said he wasn't going to be conscripted so he joined the air force.”

She wrote to him just before he was shot down over Germany. It was a letter he wouldn't get. “They [mum and dad] were very upset of course. He was the only boy.” There is a stained glass window in St Mary's in memory of Jim.

The man

Mary says her father would often go back to work at night so he could work without interruptions. Sometimes, he would leave Mary behind after school to answer his phone. She remembers how he used to bring his plans home to copy. “He had a big frame and he used to get paper that was sensitive to sunlight, and he'd put the draught in the frame and the paper behind it and put it out in the sun for a certain time. Then he would bring it into the washhouse to wash it, and then you had blueprints.”

She describes her father as a popular man who was usually involved in whatever went on in Hāwera. Though he was asked to sit for council, he declined because he had once worked there. He became managing director of the Hāwera Theatre during the Depression, which Mary says was the family's only source of income during that time as there was no money to build houses, factories or shops.  Being the manager meant she and her brother and sisters always had tickets to the movies, but her father was not a movie goer. He did meet Nellie Melba, once, she says, and other theatrical stars who came to Hāwera.

Family life

She remembers Jack Duffill as a handsome, dark-haired man, jolly at times, and who wished he had been taller. “He was just under six feet and he always tried to get to six feet which he never attained. He stayed just under six feet” she says.

Her childhood home was a big house at 103 Argyle Street in Hāwera. “There was quite a bit of land and we had a big orchard at the back and it went right through to Wilson Street. We had a big tennis court on the front lawn and we used to play tennis till it was just about dark.”

Her parents often played tennis with their children - hardly surprising as they met on a tennis court. Mother Joyce was musical and though Mary could carry a decent tune, she wasn't offered singing lessons as her two sisters were. “Sometimes that still rankles” she admits.

Her father's hobbies were playing Whist, spending time at the Gentlemen's Club and fishing. “Dad was a keen fisherman. He nearly always caught fish. He knew where they lay and he knew if there was a fish in that pool and he didn't catch it, he'd leave it and go back another day. He used to go to Taupō every year, fishing. Later, we had a cottage there.

“His favourite spot was the Waingongoro River. We had a cottage at Ōhawe, where he and my mother camped down there in the summer and lived in a tent. Then I came along and so a floor was put in the tent, and gradually, as the family grew, the cottage grew.” There the family spent 'wonderful times' washing clothes in the river, and even Christmas dinner was cooked on a little Dover Stove. Business partner Stephen Gibson stayed in a caravan with an added kitchen that looked out over the river.

In 1925 the Duffill children spent two years at Ōhawe while the schools were closed during the polio epidemic.

Love and marriage

The Duffill’s were together a long time. Joyce died in 1965 and Jack 18 months later. When asked if her parents had a happy marriage, Mary says yes, with perhaps one flaw. Jack had a very bad temper, thought to be inherited from his mother. “Sometimes he wouldn't speak to my mother,” she says. “He was very fussy about his food and if he thought something wasn't cooked right, that's when he would lose his temper.” Few people knew he was capable of such punishment. “We knew of course. But I only got spanked for something wrong. He wasn't a cruel man.”

Though the fallout from his cold shouldering ways caused suffering to her mother, it would only take a few days for things to come right again, Mary says. She believes Jack loved his wife. “If there was anything wrong with her, if she was ill, he couldn't do enough for her. I think he was in love with her. He must have been.”

So who was he really?

Jack Duffill appears an organised man, someone who ran a tight ship, adopted frugal ways and kept a sharp eye out for sound investments. He never remembered birthdays without being reminded, but then, most men don't, Mary says. He was good with his hands and could fix things, and he may have spoken Māori, though his daughter can't be sure.

As the only architect in Hāwera during the boom times, he made a pile of money, though money wasn't always his motivation. After the Napier earthquake of 1931, Duffill went to see if he could help in the rebuilding. One can only imagine his pleasure at seeing the art deco buildings rising from the ruins.

A four-cornered memorial

When asked how she feels when she sees her father's buildings today, Mary says she doesn't think about it much because they've always been there. She has a fondness for the Wilkinson/Patterson store in Hāwera and is pleased with the restoration of the water tower. “I thought it was a good idea. When you're coming back to Hāwera, you always look for the first sight of the water tower. When you see it you know you're home.”

Mary never married and lives in an unassuming house her father designed for her more than 40 years ago. Though she had a successful career as a physiotherapist she knows architecture might have been her passion.

Related Information


Puke Ariki Heritage Collection: Duffill architectural drawing collection


Puke Ariki Heritage Collection: John Alfred Duffill


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