Everlasting love

Peter and Berta Welten are as smitten with each other as the day Cupid’s arrow struck in 1952.

“It was love at first sight,” said Berta, 85, who met Peter and his family at St Peter’s Catholic Church in Cambridge that year.

“You love each other, and the love actually gets stronger as you get older.  It’s not just I love you but I’m in love with you, and they are two different things.”

Part of Peter and Berta’s initial attraction was that they both spoke Dutch and had come from the same place, 18,000km across the globe.

Both grew up in Deurne, a rural village in the south-east of the Netherlands, in large catholic families who left their country after WW2 and immigrated to Cambridge to escape a desperate economic situation.

“There was no future for eight sons and six daughters, there was no work,” said Berta, whose parents left their farm for a better life in New Zealand in 1949.

Her mother had been determined to leave after the tragic loss of Berta’s 12-year-old brother Willy in 1944.

Willy had been out walking in the countryside with Berta, who was eight at the time, and their younger brother John, six, when he discovered a live grenade on the ground and detonated it.

He was killed, Berta lost her left eye, and one of John’s hands was partially severed.

“I couldn’t see anything; everything was just white, like a fog,” Berta said.  “My sister said the only way she could tell I was still alive was because it was winter, and she could see my breath.  My stomach was full of shrapnel.”

After the accident Berta’s mother saw a map lying on a table one day and pointed to New Zealand.

“She said, here, we will go here – there will be no wars in that country,” Berta said.

After their family left Deurne in 1949, many others from the village followed, including Peter’s in 1952.

“They called Cambridge little Deurne.  You had to have work and housing before you could come and the only way you could do that was each family helping each other,” Berta said.  “That’s why we all came from the same village.  There must have been at least 50 of us.”

Peter and Berta remember Cambridge’s population being about 7000 when they first arrived and the town was served by a variety of shops including a department store, Calverts in Victoria St, and a furniture store, Howards, in Duke St.

“Cambridge had everything you needed,” Berta said.  “Life was similar to Holland, but the people were very friendly here.  They were reserved but we were well respected.”

Peter and Berta’s families met at St Peter’s Catholic Church and the pair began socialising together regularly.

Their romance blossomed and they courted for almost four years before tying the knot in a special double wedding on April 14, 1956.  Peter married Berta and Peter’s sister Joan married Berta’s brother Tony.

While they were dating Peter had run his own building company with his father, helping to build numerous schools in the district.

The couple had given all their earnings to their parents while living at home, as was traditional in Dutch families, so they began their married life desperately poor, with “no savings, no car and nowhere to live”.

They moved to Tokoroa in 1957 to capitalise on a building boom and lived in a borrowed caravan for 21 months but eventually returned to Cambridge, where they have now lived together for more than 60 years.

Over that time, they saved enough to build their own house and bought land on Thornton Rd to start a poultry farm. They supplied Turners and Growers in Hamilton and local customers from 1964-1984.  During those years they had two children, Paul and Marion.

After selling the poultry farm Peter returned to the building trade, teaming up with Paul on numerous projects in Cambridge, including the development of townhouses in Fort St.

Now retired, Peter is 88 and Berta 85.  They have four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

They still enjoy spending time together today just as much as they did in the early days of their courtship.

“Sometimes he goes out for the day and I feel a bit lost,” Berta said.

“I feel the same when she’s gone,” Peter said. “She’s a lovely girl and she looks after me and I look after her.”

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