The fascinating tale of discovering Grace Gooder begins at a Dave Dobbyn concert last November.
In the crowd is Trevor Auger, who’s just finished writing The Warm Sun on my Face, the history of women’s cricket in New Zealand.
He’s really enjoying the opening act, Milly Tabak and the Miltones (“I’d never heard them before, but Milly has a great stage presence; she just exudes joy and it’s infectious,” Auger says).
Then Tabak introduces a song she wrote, Hey Sister, inspired by her two great aunts, both nurses.
“One, Aunty Chubby, was a chain smoker,” Auger remembers Tabak saying, “and the other, Aunty Grace, opened the bowling for the New Zealand cricket team in the 1940s”.
Auger couldn’t believe what he was hearing. The only Grace he knew from his extensive research was Grace Gooder, an Aucklander who had played just one test for New Zealand – against England at Eden Park in 1949.
Little had been known about Gooder when Auger was putting the weighty 676-page tome together – other than she’d made a lasting impact on the game.
In her sole appearance on the world cricket stage, Gooder took six wickets for 42 runs in 23.2 overs. It’s still in the top three bowling performances by a New Zealander in women’s test matches.
And it’s a performance that still reverberates around the cricket world.
In 2013, English cricket journalist and historian Raf Nicholson named Gooder one of her five international pioneers of the women’s game – alongside greats like the first true all-rounder of the game, England’s Molly Hide, and the first woman to score a hat-trick in a test, Australian Betty Wilson.
“Gooder should have played more tests, but she never got that opportunity. I think of her as symbolic of a whole generation of women for whom that was true,” Nicholson wrote.
It wasn’t so much Gooder’s cricketing background that spurred Auger to send Tabak a message through Facebook when he got home from the concert.
He was intrigued by Tabak describing how her great aunt, who was gay, had undergone conversion therapy in her 20s. And how the male inmates in Mt Eden Prison sang ‘Amazing Grace’ when they heard Gooder had died, the day before her 59th birthday.
Tabak replied within minutes. “Holy drum, I couldn’t believe it. I had no idea how prominent she was,” she says. “I didn’t think in a million years anyone at that concert would recognise Aunty Grace.”
But Auger had. “And I needed to know more,” he says.
Grace Gooder was born in 1924, in the Northland town of Ruawai – best known for its kūmara fields and dairy farms.
She grew up on a farm with two sisters and went to Ruawai School. But when their father lost the farm in the Depression, they had to move to Auckland and a new home in Takapuna.
Sport was a constant in their lives. Gooder’s father, Ron, was a rugby referee. “He was really powerful,” his grandson, Simon Tabak, remembers. “He would swim the length of Takapuna Beach, there and back, every day.”
Grace settled into her new high school, Takapuna Grammar, and was there at the same time as Bert Sutcliffe, who was well on the way to becoming one of New Zealand finest male cricketers. In the 1940 Auckland schools cricket championship, the 16-year-old Sutcliffe led the school’s first XI to victory by smashing an average of 97 runs a game.
“There’s a legend that there were only two people at the school who could throw a cricket ball from the carpark, over the buildings and into the quadrangle,” Simon Tabak says. “One was Bert, the other was Aunty Grace.
“She had a strong wrist – she would skim stones across the water at Takapuna Beach for hours on end. She had that flick of the wrist in her bowling and she was famous for her throwing ability – both in cricket and in the softball outfield.”
Gooder was beginning to make her mark in cricket, hockey and softball, and would go on to play for Auckland in all three sports.
She was one of six Takapuna Grammar schoolgirls who helped Dot Simons – a sports journalist and keen sportswoman – establish both the North Shore cricket and hockey clubs. “Grace was the ideal worker both on and off the field,” Simons wrote in Gooder’s obituary.
But her sporting prowess almost came to an abrupt end before she’d even left school.
Tabak remembers the story of his aunt riding her bike home one night when she was hit by a drunk driver. A car door handle ripped through the flesh on her back, and she needed 150 stitches.
“They thought she was going to die from the blood loss,” he says. “And she had permanent damage from that accident.
“It may have had some influence on her cricket career; she was constantly on the physio’s table. They thought she might be in a wheelchair in her later life.
“She was tough though. Later on, she went on a holiday to Houhora and fell down some steps. She drove all the way home to Auckland before she realised her leg was broken.
“You wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of her. But she was delightful.”
Gooder was 23 when she was first selected to play for New Zealand, in the 1948 test against Australia at Wellington’s Basin Reserve. It was only the second international New Zealand had ever played – the first, back in 1935.
A medium-slow pace off-spin bowler, Gooder had been making an impact for Auckland for five seasons.
“A tall girl, who found humorous situations to enliven things when too many ‘ducks’ occurred, she was also an adventurer who swung a meaty bat with the logical results – fours and the odd six, or a crash of falling timber behind her,” Dot Simons once wrote.
“But it was as a bowler that the North Shore player distinguished herself at both provincial and New Zealand level.”
She was part of the Auckland strike attack that played the Australians at Eden Park before the 1948 test, and took the scalps of four of Australia’s middle order batswomen – all clean bowled.
Gooder, who worked as a clerk at the North Shore Transport Company, had received a telegram from the New Zealand Women’s Cricket Council advising of her test selection, and a follow-up letter suggested if she couldn’t find her own accommodation in Wellington for the three-day test, they would find a family to billet her.
Unfortunately, she was the ‘12th man’ in Wellington and didn’t take the field in New Zealand’s disappointing loss to the Australians by an innings and 102 runs.
In 1949, Gooder was chosen in the New Zealand team again, this time for the single test against the English touring side. She was asked to wear the New Zealand uniform she’d had to buy the year before.
The test played on Eden Park began on a cloudy and rainy Saturday morning in March, with England choosing to bat first on a wicket that played slow and low.
Gooder snared her maiden test wicket when opening bat Cecilia Robinson was caught behind by New Zealand’s new wicketkeeper, Esther Blackie. She then removed two more of England’s top batswomen – Mary Duggan and Grace Morgan – on her way to taking six English wickets.
Her bowling was described as “hostile and thoughtful” in the New Zealand Herald; Dot Simons, writing in the NZ Sportswoman magazine, said Gooder bowled intelligently “as usual” and varied her attack continually.
Gooder joined an elite club – she’s one of just 13 cricketers in the world to grab a five-wicket bag on international debut.
She claimed another two wickets in England’s second innings, but it wasn’t enough to help New Zealand score their first test victory – losing to England by 185 runs.
Simon Tabak has a bail and one of the balls used in that test, which Gooder would have been given to remember her outstanding performance.
Sadly, New Zealand didn’t play another international fixture until 1954, when they toured England. By then, 30-year-old Gooder was already in England, pursuing her next love – nursing.
Gooder must have been someone who dedicated herself fully to whatever she was doing. She won awards for her nursing studies – first in psychiatric nursing at the Netherne Hospital in Surrey, and then in general nursing.
“She was asked to see if she could study all the nursing skills in one year – they wanted to know if it could be done. And she did it,” Simon Tabak says.
Gooder returned home to nurse at Oakley Hospital – otherwise known as the Auckland Lunatic Asylum – until 1974. She then worked at Mt Eden Prison, where she became a highly respected head nurse.
She died suddenly the day before her 59th birthday – and a year before she was to retire.
The prisoners at Mt Eden, it seems, were also devastated by her loss. They sang Amazing Grace for her, and placed a death notice in the Herald.
“For hundreds of men in days of strife, ‘twas Grace who helped give purpose to our life. Admired, respected and a dear friend to all the men of Mt Eden. Farewell friend,” it read.
Her family believe Gooder had a boyfriend who was killed in World War 2 – a Flight Sergeant from Northland whose plane crashed in England returning from a mission. In the early 1960s, she met her partner, Margaret.
Milly Tabak was “heartbroken” when she learned her great aunt had undergone conversion therapy while she was in her 20s – and that it’s still legal here. “Obviously it doesn’t work because she ended up living with Aunty Margaret,” she says.
(Both Labour and the Greens pledged to ban conversion therapy, the pseudoscientific practice of trying to change or suppress someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity, in their election policies last year. So far there’s been no timeframe set for a draft legislation on the ban.)
So back to the Dave Dobbyn concert, and Trevor Auger. He was captivated by the way Tabak spoke with such pride about her Aunty Grace: “It really meant something to her”.
Auger drove out to Whenuapai, in Auckland’s north-west corner, to visit Tabak, her partner John, mum Christine and uncle Simon. They pored over the hundreds of photos, newspaper clippings, match programmes, tickets and nursing diplomas Simon had kept in his aunt’s memory.
For Milly, it added “the missing piece of the puzzle” about her family. She knows how much her dad, John – Gooder’s nephew who died in 2012 – adored his Aunty Grace: “He would have loved all of this,” she says.
“And after writing ‘Hey Sister’, it gave me more of a picture of the woman I was singing about.”
It was too late to weave the personal minutiae of Gooder’s exceptional life into the first edition of The Warm Sun on My Face, but Auger found another special way to honour her.
At the book’s launch at Eden Park last month, Milly Tabak sang an emotional solo rendition of ‘Hey Sister’ (watch in the Instagram post below).
“I sat in the grandstand beforehand and looked out on the field where Aunty Grace played. It blew me away,” she says.
“Then being able to play at the book launch – I wanted to cry all night. I’m huge on equality for women and this was part of my own personal growth. To sing to a room of women who had been trailblazers in the sport, some of them gay, that was truly special to me.”