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Monday, 25 March 2019 07:49 pm

Gun-toting teacher has lived the good life in Masterton

Two years ago veteran teacher Helen Johanson retired. At least she tried to.

Helen, originally from Britain, has developed a reputation as a self-described “no nonsense, get the kids to do the work I want them to do” teacher over the last 50 plus years teaching in Wairarapa schools.

So, when she retired she got snapped up as a relieving teacher at the state secondary schools in Masterton.

“I now work more than I did before I retired,” she says. “Makoura College in Masterton keeps me pretty busy these days.”

In her years in Masterton’s classrooms Helen has seen two and three generations of children in a family pass through her classes. She has also taught some notable Wairarapa representatives, such as Kieran McAnulty, Labour List MP based in the Wairarapa.

Kieran says he remembers Helen Johanson well.

“She created an environment that was more than learning about art, it was learning about life” he said. “She was a fascinating teacher with an incredible back story”

Go for a walk with Helen in the street or the supermarket, and it’s not uncommon for those former students to recognise and greet her warmly. The regard shown by former students may be testimony to her skill and passion for teaching, but Helen originally wanted to be a museum curator or similar. Life had different plans.

Her teaching career began in the mid-1960’s in London, at the Royal Pinner School, before she married. It continued in Jamaica, and eventually Masterton.

Helen was born on a snowy Christmas Eve in Birstall, a small village outside Leicester during the early years of World War 2.

She recounts an old family story of her being put in her pram soon after she was born and being parked outside under a tree for a sleep. When the pram was brought inside there was a hefty covering of snow on the top of it.

Helen remembers the air raids and playing in the bomb shelter at the bottom of the garden. She also recalls being seriously ill and under doctor’s orders to not be moved. The sirens went up and she couldn’t be moved to the shelter, so she was left inside the house – alone. She still reacts to sirens and loud bangs as a result of her wartime experiences.

A few years after the war during a family holiday in Wales, Helen was knocked over by a car owned by renowned plastic surgeon Sir Archie McIndoe.

She doesn’t know who was driving at the time, but according to her aunts some years later, Sir Archie promised to operate on her facial damage and make her as beautiful as she was before the accident, which he did.

Helen was academically gifted. She sat the 11+ exam at age nine which got her into the local grammar school.

Her mother died during her later years at secondary school. “I remember the Head Mistress coming into the exam room and calling me outside. She told me my mother had just died and then sent me back in to finish my exam.”

Her young age when finishing grammar school made going straight on to university difficult, despite having won a scholarship to attend Nottingham University.

The scholarship funding wasn’t available until after she turned 18 so she changed direction and attended the Leicestershire School of Arts to study fine arts, which included classics.

“I moved to London to study post graduate art history at the Courtauld Institute. It was hard work and we could only stay for the whole five year course if we passed the first two years’ course.”

The qualification she gained enabled her to teach.

Helen has been invited to teach everywhere she’s been – the Royal Pinner (which no longer exists), in Jamaica and schools in Masterton.


Caribbean capers


Helen with Mordecai, her horse in Kingston, Jamaica.

Helen always carried a gun when travelling around Jamaica, including to the school she taught at in some 55 years ago.


She also sometimes rode her horse, Mordecai to school. The horse was given to her by the then Mayor of Kingston and looked after by a blacksmith named David.

She and her family lived in Kingston while her husband Gerry was working on the Pegasus Hotel rebuilding project. Helen was invited to start teaching classes at the Priory School by the then principal. Her two sons went to a different private school.

Helen fondly recalls living in Jamaica, despite the difficulties that came with its independence.

“The corruption was rife,” she says. “The government offered expats protection when it got really dangerous. I remember being in a bank when it was robbed. The robbers got shot and their bodies were left on the ground outside to act as a deterrent,” she says.

“There were murders every day, there were parts of Kingston that white people couldn’t go by themselves, they needed an escort. I could go anywhere though, David [the blacksmith] said no-one would hurt me, and no-one ever did.”

Helen met Bob Marley singing in the Plaza.

“He lived in Trenchtown, which was like living at the tip.”

The school Helen taught at was totally different from the schools in Britain. The Jamaican classrooms were open-sided structures and classes ran from 8am until 1pm; after that it was too hot.

Helen and her family had to return to the UK in 1973 when her husband got sick.


Arriving in Aotearoa

By the end of 1974 Helen had been widowed and moved herself and her two sons to New Zealand.

She landed in Wellington at a time when “anyone could just walk into the country”. They stayed in Wellington to start with. One day she drove over the Remutukas. Once in the Wairarapa she decided she wanted to live there, and there she has lived ever since.

Her teaching career in New Zealand began at Masterton Intermediate School in 1975.

Helen remarried a Cockney-born Welshman in the mid-70s. Her second husband was an Oxford trained accountant and Vietnam veteran who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

She stayed at the Intermediate School for two years and in 1977 moved to St Joseph’s – the local Catholic boys’ school which became Chanel College when it amalgamated with St Bride’s for Girl’s in 1978.

“I was unsure about teaching secondary school here to start with because of the differences in the educational systems between the UK and New Zealand,” she said

The system was also behind the UK. The university courses here were the equivalent of the upper sixth form courses in England, especially in subjects like literature.

“When I moved here there was a ‘she’ll be right’ attitude and the education system was the same.  Teaching arts subjects here was easy compared to teaching them in the UK.” Helen has also been a guest lecturer in art history at Victoria University, and other institutes around Wellington.

While education standards may have been lower, outside of the classroom Helen found the ambience of New Zealand much easier. She liked the lack of people around.

“It was so different to Jamaica, Jamaica was frenetic. Lots of expat wives didn’t stay, they were so terrified.


Making Music a family tradition

Helen comes from a musical family on her father’s side, so music has always been a huge part of her life.

She still has the 200-year-old violin her father played (pictured right). Various other aunts and uncles played the piano, the trombone or sang, one uncle was a renowned British opera singer, and Helen played the violin herself from an early age.

She was also a member of the Leicester County School of Music and on occasions was called up to play in the British National Youth Orchestra. She travelled around Europe with the Leicester School of Music Orchestra.

“I had quite a restricted life til I was about 10, and then when I went overseas with the orchestra I discovered what life was all about. Until then, I was quite unworldly.”

In Masterton Helen has maintained her involvement with music by being a part of several incarnations of a baroque group over more than 30 years.

“When I got here I couldn’t believe how many talented musicians there were in the Wairarapa,” she says.

“I was lucky enough to be able to play with some of them, such as Ed and Juliet Cooke, Bill Carter, Steven Allwood. We made up the only baroque group in the lower North Island outside of Wellington.

“I recall playing at a garden party in Greytown and the local vicar was there. The host (and fellow band member) went inside the house for something and came rushing out to tell us the vicar had died and we had to keep playing.”

She has also been involved in the orchestras for school productions, at Majestic Theatre and amateur dramatic group shows during that same time.

As well as being a ‘retired’ teacher Helen is also a retired racehorse breeder and trainer. Her favourite horse, known colloquially as Johnny, now lives down the road at stables owned by former baroque mate David Fisher.

Helen and her third husband, Eric Johanson, raised and trained several successful racehorses.

In her early days of horse ownership in Masterton she kept the horse at Chanel College. This worked well until a recalcitrant pupil decided to ride the horse over the cricket pitch.

Brother Edgar, the cricket coach, was absolutely furious and ordered the horse be removed, so Helen had to find alternative accommodation for it. A fellow teacher’s parents took on the horse on their farm just out of town.

Over the years Helen has collected a diverse and interesting group of friends who visit whenever they’re in Masterton. The local ones drop in regularly. Some of the visitors are former students who can treat Helen like a second Mum, often staying with her when in the area.

Many people who have been to her home have learned how to grow enough food to feed themselves courtesy of Helen and her instinctive talent at passing on knowledge.

She has taken advantage of the climate here by always having a huge vegetable and fruit garden, and she lives out of her garden.

Helen is also a dog lover. She had Alsatians for many years, until just a few years ago. Now she has Rumble, a huntaway-cross that is as big as a small horse.

Sometimes Helen wonders what it would be like to be truly retired. To actually have the time to potter in the garden, sit with a leisurely coffee and the crossword and not be rushing to and from school, kids, grandchildren, and animals.

But for now she keep on being a “no-nonsense, get the kids to do the work I want them to do” teacher.




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