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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 6, Issue 5, 2002

Charles Thomas Heberley 1918–2000

page 70

Charles Thomas Heberley 1918–2000

Those who heard Charlie speak will never forget him. He was a kaumatua of the Ngati Awa people and a born story-teller. In the two years before he died he spoke to over 20 groups around Nelson including the Nelson Historical Society, recounting his life as a whaler.

Whaling brought hard men to our shores in the 1800s, many of whom met and later married Maori women and raised families throughout New Zealand. Charlie's great grandfather, James 'Worser' Heberley was one of these early whalers, arriving in New Zealand first in 1826 on board the Caroline. Four years later he joined Captain John Guard in setting up the first shore-based whaling station in New Zealand at Te Awaiti. This was two bays down Tory Channel from Okukari, the farm Charlie bought in 1945.

Charlie left the family home in Oyster Bay, Tory Channel, in 1926 and was sent to Wellington, where he spent the next seven years receiving his education, first at Hutt Valley Primary, then Miramar Primary and, from 1931–1933, at Wellington Technical. He played rugby for the Miramar Rugby Club and represented Wellington Technical at cricket.

On his return from school Charlie worked with his father on the farm. In 1939 he married Ruby and they lived at Oyster Bay. Charlie's whaling career began in 1941, when he was asked to work at the whaling station, and he soon became an acknowledged leader. When a gunner died after the gun on the bow of the whale-chaser exploded, Charlie found himself behind the dead whaler's gun the next day.

Charlie and Ruby, with their three children, Donna, Jocelyn and Joe, moved to Okukari in 1945, the same land Charlie's ancestors had lived on after driving out other tribes in the Marlborough Sounds.

As a gunner, Charlie was the best. He shot over 1000 whales in his years behind the gun. "It was a job" he'd reply to those who criticised. In the years before he died, however, Charlie became an ardent conservationist, blasting those countries which persisted in unbridled whaling, under the guise of 'research'.

page 71

When Charlie was asked to manage a whaling station on Great Barrier Island in 1959 he jumped at the chance, leaving the farm in the hands of a manager and heading north with Ruby and Joe. They stayed there until the decline in whale stocks due to foreign nations whaling in the Antarctic forced its closure. The family returned to the farm and, with son Joe now married to Auckland girl Heather Mcauley, began a successful fishing operation in Cook Strait.

Charlie and Ruby retired to Nelson in 1979, but he never cut himself off from the only way of life he'd ever known. He made all the fishing gear for son Joe and his two grandsons, young Joe and James. He went down to help when sheep work needed to be done, and only a month before he died was helping build new gratings in the woolshed.

When Ruby died in February 2000, as the result of a car accident, Charlie's spirit died too. Ruby had been his only love and a beacon in a life full of danger and suspense. On 30 June 2000 Charlie died in Nelson Hospital.

His daughter-in-law, Heather Heberley, has written his story, linking the past and the present. The whaling stories are not woven in bright colours, but are written gently for readers to enjoy. They are stark, often cruel stories of a savage occupation not followed now by any New Zealander, but they are a true and significant part of our history.

Last of the Whalers: Charlie Heberley's Story was published in August 2002 and is available from all good bookshops.