Page 1: Biography
This biography, written by Jane Moodie, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Catherine Hill was born on 28 August 1893 at Brunnerton, a coalmining town near Greymouth, Westland. She was the fifth daughter of William Hill, a blacksmith from Lancashire, England, and Ann Jane Matthew Josephine Robinson, a housemaid from Ireland. Her parents had married in Dunedin in 1883.
With her brother and five sisters, Catherine attended Taylorville School, enrolling in 1901 and leaving when she reached standard three at the age of 14. The family called her Kitty or Katie, and seem to have regarded her as somewhat strange. In the 1920s she worked as a live-in maid at a boarding house in Greenwood Street, Frankton, just outside Hamilton. She appears to have been living in Palmerston North in 1931 (when she was reportedly placed on probation for stealing a table mat worth two shillings), and in Dunedin in 1938–39, but during the Second World War she returned to Frankton, where she lived on an invalid’s benefit. She would never marry.
Over the years Catherine Hill became a familiar figure in Frankton and Hamilton, scurrying around the streets and frequenting the Frankton railway station. It was widely believed that she had lived in the town since the First World War, and that her mind had been affected by her fiancé’s death in the war, so that for the rest of her life she walked to the station to meet all the passenger trains in the hope of seeing him again. She earned the nickname ‘Coffee and Bun’, apparently because of her habit of ordering coffee and a bun while she waited at the station. Most people knew neither her real name nor where she lived, although she was believed by some to live in a stable or wash-house.
She was small and thin, with beady eyes and wispy grey hair done up in a bun. People remember that summer and winter she wore gloves, thick, dark stockings, sturdy walking shoes and a dark, heavy coat. Although she was feared by many children, she was also a figure of fun and stories about her abound. Many recall how they used to tease her by calling out her nickname and clapping their hands as she went by, sometimes even throwing things at her. Occasionally she would give chase with her umbrella, whereupon her tormentors would flee to safety. Some even imagined her ‘dragging’ children into her house, ‘never to be found again’. Understandably upset by the treatment she received, Catherine would complain to parents, teachers or the police, who would attempt to pacify her but appeared unable to stop the harassment.
Most people thought she was simple-minded, but the few who knew her better found that, although abrupt in manner, she was quite intelligent and articulate. Over the years successive town clerks treated her with tolerant amusement but learned to appreciate her visits to the Hamilton City Council offices to report fallen trees and broken footpaths.
On 14 July 1980 Hill was admitted to the Assisi Home and Hospital in Matangi, where she died on 12 August 1983. A Requiem Mass at the home was attended by neither friends nor relatives, and she was buried in the Hamilton Park Cemetery, Newstead. She left an estate of $7,600 to the Salvation Army. After her death, the daughter of one of Hill’s few friends told the Waikato Times that the stories about Catherine’s fiancé were untrue, and that she was simply a proud, independent and lonely woman, estranged from her family, who sought company at the railway station. Regarded as an oddity, she was known to almost everybody in Frankton and Hamilton, but remained an enigma.