‘Marlborough Treasure’ turns 102

Peg Moorehouse is set to celebrate her 102nd birthday. Photo: Paula Hulburt.

There is the barest hint of mischief behind her smile, a smile that lights up a face etched with the patina of passing time, a smile that invites confidences and giggles.

Marlborough woman Peg Moorhouse turns 102-years -old today (Tuesday), much to her surprise, she confesses.

She hasn’t smoked in decades, doesn’t drink alcohol and is still as slim as the debutante in the portrait of herself that stares self-assuredly from where it graces the walls of her Sunshine Bay home.

“I’m not quite sure how I’ve done it,” she says.

“I never expected to still be here.”

Len and Peg Moorhouse on their wedding day. Photo: Paula Hulburt.
Len and Peg Moorhouse on their wedding day. Photo: Paula Hulburt.

Her long locks are pulled back in a bun and her earrings catch the light as it shimmers across the Marlborough Sounds and pours into the living room.

Colourful works of weaving adorn the walls and a huge loom takes pride of place. It is only fitting that one of New Zealand’s most celebrated weavers should live in such an inspiring place.

The inaugural recipient of the Living Cultural Treasures award in 2012, Peg is modest about her success. But as she talks about taking a call from Te Papa recently for a possible exhibition of her work, there is a resonance of quiet pride.

“I still weave most days,” she says.

Born in 1917 near Ashburton, Peg grew up in Christchurch with her cousin the painter and potter Margaret Anderson at Risingholme, a grand old house that was later gifted to the city.

Peg had her portrait painted as a debutante. Photo: Paula Hulburt.

The death of her mother when she was just four years old did, she says, leave a gap.

“I few memories of her as I was so young when she went.

“I lived a life of luxury at Risingholme. I remember turning 16-years-old and getting a cup of tea and then a piece of bread and butter in bed like the rest of the household.

“I wore my hair up for the first time and changed into a velvet dress and, later, got to try a sip of sherry. I didn’t like it,” she laughs.

Peg’s laugh rings out sure and clear. It is easy to imagine the young 19-years-old who caught the eye of her husband Len. At 33-years-old, his attentions, she says caused “a bit of an uproar” at home.

“I was dancing with him and he asked if he could ring me and when I told them at home, all hell broke loose.

“When he found out how old I was he tried to stay away but he didn’t for long. The night he proposed we went for a walk in the garden and he asked me to marry him.

“I hesitated slightly as I didn’t quite expect it and he threw me over his shoulder and said I could stay there until I said ‘yes.’

“I only kept him waiting for a few seconds,” she giggles.

In 1937, the pair were married, Peg in a family heirloom veil that was “so precious” it had to be kept in a bank safe.

She was, she thinks, the last bride to wear it.

Talking about the man she loves and still misses, there is a wistful air to her words. Six years after he retired as head of NZ Breweries, Len died aged 66-years-old.

“We had a happy marriage, no real rows or anything. I was only 52 when he died, and I still miss him.”

Peg's weaving is admired across New Zealand. Photo: Paula Hulburt.
Peg’s weaving is admired across New Zealand. Photo: Paula Hulburt.

In 1963 she and Len moved to Marlborough’s Sunshine Bay.

The spot had captivated Len, she says, and when he heard the bay was for sale, the pair rowed over to talk to the owner.

“It was all sealed with a handshake and a shilling,” she says.

The couple had four children and Peg is very proud to be a great grandmother to eleven.

Following Len’s sudden death, Peg sought solace in her family and in her talent.

Accepted to exhibit at the inaugural Wearable Arts Award in 1987 spurred her on to experiment. The award-winning professional fibre artist is notable for her do-it- yourself attitude.

It is her strength and tenacity that she had to rely on after the death of her husband but also a man she grew close to later in life, a Scottish fisherman called Bill.

“I was tempted again when I met this great big Scotsman who followed his love of the sea.

“We spent four years together in a fishing village in Australia. The police came to the door one night and told me his boat was missing in a storm. I said, “no, not Bill, he’d always get his boat back’. Ten days later they found his body.

“The other awful part was that his son and my eldest son were crewing for him and they lost their lives too that day. They were never found.”

Her gaze is drawn to the water that rushes into the small beach below in small, hurried waves.

She scattered Bill’s ashes in the Cook Strait and draws strength from its proximity, and from the bay where she was so happy with Len.

“I just got up and got on with it, you can’t dwell on the bad times. I’ve had a full life and I’m grateful for it.”

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