Friday, August 5, 2022

Mrs Alice O’Shea: the Blind Dressmaker

Once again, a dip into the Christchurch Press snippets online from the 1950s has brought up a snapshot of life in Point Chevalier.

“Mrs Alice O’Shea, of Point Chevalier, Auckland, still cuts out her own dresses though her eyesight was destroyed in a motor accident more than 20 years ago. Before the accident she had earned her living as a dressmaker. She cuts out her dresses to a pattern she has designed herself and sews them on an ordinary sewing machine. The only thing she uses to help her is a patent needle-threader. She puts a pin in the right or wrong side of the work, but sometimes when the pin falls out, she has to ask someone to tell her if the pattern is on the right side.”

(24 February 1956)

There was, however, quite a bit more to Mrs Alice O’Shea than her blindness and her dressmaking skills.

Alice was born Alice Walberg Olsen in 1897, one of the children of Captain Enoch Claus Olsen who originally from Christiansund in Norway. Enoch’s birth surname was Schjelvaag, but when he arrived in New Zealand he changed it to Olsen so people here could pronounce it. In 1882, he married Hermione Woodcock, and had a lengthy career on the coastal trade between Mangawhai and Auckland.

In January 1922, Alice married Samoan entertainer Mayo Hunter, who toured around New Zealand and Australia from the 1920s to 1940s as a “genuine Hawaiian” musician. The marriage was short-lived; after little more than five months, Hunter left Alice and travelled to Australia, failing to return or maintain her. She sought and got a decree nisi divorce from him in November 1925, made absolute in February 1926; before that was finalised, though, Hunter had remarried in Australia.

So, we come to Saturday 23 January 1926. Alice’s sister Bertha had married a motor mechanic named Andrew Mercer, who worked for Gilmour, Joll and Williams Ltd, Coach and Motor Builders of Newton Road. In December 1925, the firm imported and assembled a left-hand drive 7-seater Jordan limousine for a buyer in Taranaki. Mercer had the job, once it had been built, to test run it – this he did, up until 23 January. From that point on, it was garaged and meant for shipment to the new owner within days.

But Mercer decided on that Saturday evening to take it for one last spin, and to invite his friends and family along. Five joined him on the trip out that night south as far as Drury: his wife Bertha, sister-in-law Alice, a fellow engineer at the workshop named Harry Booth, and two others.

Night car-rides along Auckland’s dark and in many cases rough metal roads in the 1920s were very common in that period. Some would “shoot the moon,” driving at speed up Maungawhau Mt Eden, and back down, now and then ending the adventure suddenly with a crash into the crater. Night rides were mixed with the exuberance of youth, the jazz and other trendy music of the time (Alice apparently had brought along a gramophone), spontaneous diversion from dance hall evenings and often alcohol (although there was no evidence of the latter involved with Mercer’s trip).

Out at Drury, around 11 o’clock, the friends stopped and had refreshments by the roadside, listening to Alice’s gramophone. Then, around midnight, it was decided that they should all head back, so Mercer could park the powerful car back where he had taken it without his employer’s permission, and none would be any the wiser. Things did not work out as planned.

Mercer drove at around 30 mph along the darkened Great South Road, the weather becoming windy and “boisterous,” the road’s surface slick with rain. They reached Papakura; then, just a bit further along, at a bend, Mercer felt the right rear tyre blow out, and the car started to skid out of control. He knew not to apply brakes, but did all he could to still try to avoid crashing into a telegraph pole that loomed toward them out of the dark, as the car slid into the gutter, and then hit the pole.

All bar Harry Booth were flung out onto the road by the force of the impact. Booth, found semi-conscious on the back seat, would later die in hospital from head injuries. Bertha Mercer also had head injuries and cuts to her face, but she survived. Andrew Mercer received a cut over one eye. With near neighbours who had heard the crash running over to try to help, along with a local doctor, Mercer did at least try to get things sorted. He called his boss Lewis Joll from the nearest available phone in Papakura (that must have been a really “fun” telephone conversation. Hi Mr Joll, I’ve just crashed the brand new car in Papakura …). He asked Joll to drive there (remember, this is the first hours of Sunday morning) to help him ferry the injured to hospital. Joll passed Mercer on the road, the latter in a lorry carrying some of the injured to Auckland.

Mercer was pronounced liable at the coroner’s inquest, and two court hearings, due to careless driving. He lost his job for taking the car without permission, and causing hundred of pounds in damages to the vehicle. He was sentenced, initially, to a month in prison, but this was reduced on appeal to just 11 days.

But as for Alice …

Alice had landed with such force that her nose fractured, and both her eyes ruptured. There were concerns for days as she lay in the hospital as to how she would recover. In the end, she lived, but lost her sight completely. Her story, of course, continued.

We’ve seen already how, by the 1950s, her ability to refuse to let her blindness stand in the way of her skills as a dressmaker was conveyed as news to the public as far away as Christchurch. But of special interest is that, with her in that car that night was her fiancé Patrick Richard O’Shea, who worked at the time as assistant secretary for the Seaman’s Union. They had been courting for some time before the accident. He’d suffered a broken leg and was knocked out, but what struck me was this – five years later, he and Alice still got married, and they lived together until he died in 1965. Despite her blindness, they still managed to be together anyway.

By 1935 the couple were living at 28 Premier Avenue, then by 1941 they were at 34 Fourth Avenue. At the time of the newspaper article, the O’Sheas had made their home at 3 Katoa Avenue in Pt Chevalier. After Patrick died, Alice lived on another 23 years, passing away in January 1988.

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