Saturday, 19 October 2019

Peter Densem 1917-2019

Peter in a Fleet Air Arm dive-bomber cockpit. Densem Private Collection
Peter Alex Densem was born in Tauranga on 9 May 1917 in The Palms, a nursing home on the east side of Cameron Road between 8th and 9th Avenues. The parents of Peter and his two siblings, Rod and May, were Mary and Peter Densem, who had a confectionery and tearooms on The Strand. The Densem family lived at No.28 Durham Street and in that house, Peter grew up and from it he went to his first teaching jobs and then to war.

Alongside his lifelong friend Alf Rendell, Peter began his education at the Tauranga District High School (now Tauranga Primary School) in Cameron Road between Arundel Street and Fifth Avenue in February 1923. Peter chose a professional course when he entered the standards, gained the highest educational standard, matriculation, in the fifth form and planned to leave school, uncertain of what career to pursue. To earn money immediately, he managed, in late 1937, to get a job with the Bay of Plenty Times. While engaged in this work he met his teacher, Mrs Mackle, who enquired what he was doing. On being told she advised Peter that teacher training colleges were being re-opened and suggested he return to school for another year and study for the “D” teaching certificate. This he did, and in 1939 he entered the Auckland Teachers’ Training College.

Peter’s first permanent job was at a new one-room sole-charge school at Pehiri, 50 kilometres west of Gisborne in the Urewera hinterland. While teaching during the early World War Two years Peter also completed Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) courses. The roll at Pehiri School had grown to 19 pupils when he entered the RNZAF in 1941. After completing a basic training course with the RNZAF in New Zealand with the intention of becoming a pilot, Peter had a change of course. The service had discovered that he was a good mathematician, and at that time the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm (FAA) was desperately short of competent navigators.

Peter flew first in a Swordfish open-cockpit biplane torpedo-bomber and then in the Barracuda, a monoplane torpedo/dive-bomber, from which he progressed to the more powerful and faster American-built torpedo-carrying Grumann Avenger, equipped with a power-operated gun turret. His service included a tour in Trinidad flying cover over convoys far out into the Atlantic Ocean. A forced landing in an Albacore at Trinidad’s Piarco airport wiped the wings off his aircraft and left Peter with a badly-injured leg. After recovering in a London hospital, he served in the aircraft carriers HMS Furious, Indefatigable and Formidable. Peter was among the Barracuda crews whose mission it was to sink the mighty German battleship Tirpitz. So great was the sudden change in air pressure as the Barracudas dived almost vertically on their target, he suffered permanent damage to one ear-drum.

After the war Peter married Christine, a Scots girl he met while overseas, and bought a house at the east end of First Avenue, planting out the land around it with native trees. The situation appealed particularly because it overlooked a beach, the harbour and his boat mooring. After Christine died in 1959 he lived there with his mother and sister May.

Home from the war, Peter with his Tauranga Primary School class. Densem Private Collection
Returning to his teaching career Peter attended a short course at the teachers’ training college, completed a B.Sc. degree in biology and began work at Tauranga Primary School and then as deputy headmaster at Tauranga Intermediate when that school opened in February 1958. He was appointed first headmaster of Arataki Primary School at Mount Maunganui when it opened in February 1963 and was the second headmaster at Otumoetai Intermediate School in 1967, a year after it opened. Peter retired from Otumoetai Intermediate in 1975.

It was in the 1930s that Peter became interested in boats. Peter’s first craft, in association with his brother, Rod, was the 12ft 6ins centre-boarder Koa, with a flat bottom and clinker sides. In 1934 they bought the 16ft Doreen. An open clinker boat, they put a cabin on Doreen and sailed her all around the Tauranga Harbour. After the war Peter had a variety of craft. He had Sanda, a 28ft motor-sailer of English design, built by Percy McIntosh in Fraser Street, Tauranga, in the late 1940s. Peter bought Jeanette from Phyllis Dumbleton and sold her to Captain George Carter, later Tauranga harbourmaster.

He obtained the 30ft launch Anne-Michelle in exchange for Whangaroa, a 34ft sloop-rigged motor-sailer, and next owned the 24ft launch Tauhara, the last launch built by Henry Geros (later of Tauranga) in W.G. Lowe’s Auckland yard. Then came Peter’s last yacht, the 30ft Koanui, built by Barwick Harding at Pyes Pa. His last boat was Ngako, a 16ft clinker launch built by Percy Vos in Auckland, bought in 1979 and kept on the foreshore beneath his house at the east end of First Avenue. Peter used his boats to good effect when he was appointed an honorary wildlife ranger for the coastal islands, thereby continuing an interest in fauna and flora established with Bernard Sladden over many years. He and Sladden had cruised regularly from White Island to Great Barrier, monitoring the Raurimus, Plate, Mayor and Cuvier Islands, the Mercuries and the Aldermen.

Lifelong friends Peter Densem and Alf Rendell, January 2016. Fiona Kean Private Collection
In 2003 Peter moved to Althorpe Village where he and his tabby cat Katie had a much-loved townhouse with a view of Mauao. In 2017 Peter celebrated his 100th birthday and was surrounded by many family, friends and formers students who gathered to acknowledge the significant impact he had had on their lives.

Peter will be greatly missed by all who knew him.

Taken from Max Avery’s article on Peter Densem and Alf Rendell which featured in the November 2017 edition of the Bay of Plenty Historical Review


  1. RIP Sir, I recall Orumoetai Intermediate as an awesome school while I was there 72-73. I made a Kauri wood stool with woven seagrass top, did seamanship classes, could splice an eye in a rope, split finish a rope with twine, was a member of the Elusive Trackers camping and clearing/repairing tracks in the Kaimai Ranges. Maori hymns at assembly, sports and ballroom dancing classes. School excursion to Mayor Island, working B building conservation reserve at back of school,. Etc etc. I went to 15 schools before navy of which this was the best. Although other teachers and volunteers were involved this man had the helm.

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