From sharing Downing Street with Churchill to teaching nature study to Kiwi kids


On the balance of probabilities it's highly likely Reg Coleman is Rotorua's only resident who can boast to having had daily contact with Winston Churchill.

That claim dates back to the days Reg was a British bobby standing sentinel
at No 10 Downing Street, when the country's wartime leader became its Prime Minister.

Downing Street apart, Reg has manned the entranceway to the Palace of Westminster, his job to ensure Lords and elected MPs 'free way and access' to their allotted parliamentary places.

He's done duty at Buckingham and St James Palaces, the royal houses. Home Office, Horse Guards Parade, Hyde Park and eyeballed Trafalgar Square demonstrators.

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All that before he turned 30 and set sail for New Zealand.

He met his Kiwi wife, the late Pat Johnston, at the 'Mother of Parliaments'.

"She became separated from a guided tour so came and talked to me."

His interest was piqued in both Pat and her homeland; he'd been contemplating immigrating.

Fate's a funny thing, the next time Reg saw her they were both going up the gangplank of the New Zealand-bound Mataroa; a shipboard romance blossomed.

There's a lot of ground to cover before we plunge into that point of his life and times.

With 90 years behind him we've chosen to stick to Reg's personal timeline, with his schooldays the start point. During their latter part he only attended classes for half days no, he wasn't wagging, but it was wartime and schooldays were divvied up between London evacuees and the local Hertfordshire lads.

At 14 he quit the classroom to become a local doctor's houseboy "doing everything from making his soda water to cleaning his shoes".

The doc was the Air Raid Precautions (ARP) medical officer and with Reg a Boy Scout his boss drafted him into the organisation as a messenger.

"Following first aid teams on a bike to see what transport was needed, one day I commandeered a Rolls."

When he was old enough to join up Reg chose the air force and was sent to Manchester University for preliminary air crew training, graduating to flying tiger moths.

But with the pilot quota filled he was diverted to picking sugar beet in Norfolk, war work interspersed with various training courses.

He remained in the RAF until 1947, taking a government-sponsored automotive engineering course which led to work making Ford tractor parts.

"When the bottom fell out of that I joined the police."

Three months training took him into the Met's A division and his plumb Whitehall postings.

His first-hand assessment of Churchill: "An amazing person, when he asked one of the guys why he smoked Woodbines not cigars, he said he couldn't afford them so Churchill sent him a box for Christmas."

An atrocious mid-January day turned Reg's thoughts to New Zealand.

"I was wet through, freezing, went back to the barracks next to Scotland Yard to find a letter from a mate already here crowing he was lying in the sun on a beach. He said 'why don't you come and join me?'."

That was all the encouragement he needed. With two other mates he was at New Zealand House pronto.

"The High Commissioner shook our hands, said 'we'd be pleased to have you' however they subsequently discovered police weren't on the list of accepted immigrants."

Installing automatic telephone exchanges was, Reg snapped the opportunity up.

It's here we back flip to his shipboard romance. "Pat and I got very close but she had a boyfriend. When we arrived he was standing on the dock with her parents, she told him she'd finished with him, her father blew his top."

Reg's job with Post & Telegraph (P&T) was in Wellington.

His first week there he and his mates 'looked into' joining their adopted country's police force.

"The recruiting super said we didn't need training, just spend a couple of days with a beat cop. I said I can't do the job without knowing anything about New Zealand law, there wasn't a police college then so I stayed with the P&T."

He and Pat corresponded regularly.

"She wrote that her mother said I was very welcome for Christmas, when I got there her dad gave me a really hard time about being a Pom but ended up saying 'I've done everything I can to upset you so you can't be too bad, come down the road for a beer'; he became more like a brother than a father-in-law."

Reg transferred to Auckland, the couple married, rented a house but were given notice to quit when Pat became pregnant.

"Extraordinary today, but that's how things were then."

Some years on a family friend with the Auckland Education Board suggested Reg become a teacher.

The idea appealed. A year at teachers' college was followed by a posting to Takapuna Primary. "I was given the problem class, the principal said he knew with me being an ex-cop I could control people."

Further into his chalk face career he was asked to teach nature study, being a man who likes to know his subject, just as he wanted to learn his new home's law when he considering joining the police here, he declined.

"I said I didn't know the plants here [New Zealand] so they sent me on a course, I enjoyed it tremendously and taught nature study until I was asked to teach new maths and science, it was the same pattern, I knew nothing about them but courses fixed that.

"I ended up at the education department as science advisor but without a degree, I felt a bit guilty when I got that job ahead of people with science honours degrees."

He remained until his retirement 15 years later.

Retirement introduced the Colemans to Rotorua where their son was managing Farmers; within three months they were permanent residents.

"It was a great decision, people are friendly, it's not too large, there's no way I'd ever return to Auckland."

REG COLEMAN
Born: Hertfordshire, UK, 1926.
Education: St Paul's School Hoddesdon, local council senior school (UK).
Family: Widower, two sons, four grandchildren.
Interests: "Looking after myself, exercising, walking." Reading (history and air force-related books). Membership Royal Air Force Association and Probus. Former stamp collector and 'gadget' maker.
On his life: "I've had lots of different experiences many people haven't had the chance to, meeting some marvellous people."
Personal philosophy: "Always look on the bright side, sitting down crying won't achieve anything."