When she was ten years old Mary Renner was at school in New Zealand when her teacher asked her class if anybody wanted a penfriend in England. She volunteered and was put in touch with John Milne, then aged 12, and a pupil at the former Leeds Boys Modern School.
They started writing to each other, telling each other stories about their lives, each thrilled when a letter from the the other side of the world popped through their letterbox. Now 70 years after the pair struck up a friendship Mrs Renner has travelled to Yorkshire to stay with Mr Milne and his family for the first time and visit some of the places she has learned about in letters and calendars sent over the years.
Mrs Renner, 80, from Ashburton, below Christchurch, said: “My sister had a penfriend and the teacher came in and said: ‘Who would like a penfriend in England?’ I put my hand up.”
Grinning at Mr Milne, 82, she adds: “He wanted a boy penfriend and he ended up with me!”
“To have a boy penfriend was the idea initially,” Mr Milne, of Horsforth, Leeds, agrees.
He added: “I think more than anything it was the thing to do, having an English speaking penfriend on the other side of the world was fantastic.”
Initially they would write every six weeks and whenever Mrs Renner received a letter from her English pen pal she would read it out in class.
Mr Milne, a former chartered accountant, says he cannot recall what he wrote in their letters saying: “I have no idea it was probably about Leeds United and Elland Road.”
The pair would send each other birthday and Christmas gifts, a tradition they gave up when they married and had children, then the presents they sent would be for each other’s families. The pen pals still write to each other at Christmas time but these days they are more likely to telephone for a chat rather than write a letter.
In the 1940s when their lifelong friendship began they never dreamed they would actually meet up.
“Travelling is nothing now,” Mrs Renner said.
“But back then if you went to Scarborough it was the other side of the world,” Mr Milne added.
They first met up in 1993 when Mrs Renner came to the UK with the All Blacks Supporters Club and she has also visited the UK on other occassions with the pair meeting up in other parts of the country but she had never been to visit him at his home.
“There were tears on my face I could not believe that it was happening,” Mrs Renner said of their first meeting in 1993.
But Mrs Renner, who has two sons, said she was keen to come to Yorkshire and see her lifelong friend.
“I said I have got to come over here before we get too much older.
“I could not get over when he sent me a calendar of the Dales and the moors, I just couldn’t relate to the size of the place and the stone walls, they intrigued me and I have been to all sorts of places.”
They have been to Wharfedale, attended the annual St George’s Day parade in Morley, visted Scarborough, Kirkstall Abbey in Leeds and other attractions. Mrs Renner is a member of the Women’s Institute in New Zealand and is also attending a meeting of Bramhope WI while she is here.
Neither is quite sure why their frienship has endured all these years but both agree the time has flown by.