Was It All Cricket?
Chapter 35 — The Timber Industry
The Timber Industry
My brother first entered the timber business when he was appointed selling agent for Messrs. Jack Bros., one of the leading sawmilling firms on the West Coast of the South Island. Next was added the agency for Messrs. Craig & Sheedy, whose mill was situated on the Greymouth—Otira line. There was no Otira tunnel in those days and all timber from the coast, destined for the Canterbury market, was railed to Greymouth for shipment to Lyttelton. At this time steamers predominated, but there were still a few scows and schooners engaged in the coastal trade, with some of the bigger sailingships loading occasional cargoes for Australia. Canterbury was the principal market for the West Coast sawmills, for the North Island was still heavily timbered and, generally speaking, the northern mills were able to fend off any serious competition from the South Island.
This was the position when I joined my brother. My first work was selling timber and this proved most interesting. I had a fair knowledge of timber and could, to some extent, talk intelligently about it. We started as free lances and this soon brought us up against a strong association of merchants. As in the case of our trading in cement and lime, we were to benefit from the support and goodwill of old friends of our father's. We were soon operating on a considerable scale and extending beyond the confines of Christchurch. Ashburton was our first extension to a wider field, and was followed by shipments to Timaru, with some of the timber going to inland towns. My first trip to these latter places was made by taking my bicycle on the train as far as Timaru, and riding through Washdyke to Temuka, then on to picturesque Geraldine, situated some ten miles from the railway. I called wherever there was a timber merchant or a builder. It was great fun, but looking back over the years and comparing this mode of travel with the motor-cars of to-day, one wonders at the urge that inspired such energy and enterprise.
Next we were operating on the Wellington market, which page 470 at this time was the only North Island port in which southern mills seemed able to gain a footing. Then came Gisborne, a seaport not in any way connected by rail with the great timber areas of the North Island. James Greig, an old Christchurch builder and great friend of my brother's, was now practising as an architect in this northern town and wrote and advised of the possibilities on that market. Off I went to Gisborne. It was not an easy trip in those days, but for the next few years I was to visit this place frequently, and we built up a good connection with the merchants there.
The builders-cum-timber merchants who had supported us were now a force in the timber trade and, backed by our supplies, were in a position to hold their own against older-established firms. There was now a tenseness in the trade which might at any moment have developed into severe competition and brought about a break in the market rates; fortunately wiser counsels prevailed. In the end an association, enlarged by the entry of the outside merchants, became the controlling body, and all differences disappeared, although there remained a slight cleavage between the old and new members. The new arrangement curtailed our operations with outsiders, but opened the way for us to trade with the old members. That the older generation were men of generous natures may be gathered from the fact that they did trade with us in friendly fashion.
I cannot leave these Christchurch merchants without reference to the high standard of the code of honour in which they conducted their business. Names like England, Waller, Goss and Keighley, to mention some of the most honoured, live on in the timber trade.
This sketch of events in the early years of our business may prepare the reader for our entry into the industrial side of the timber industry.
It was still less than two years since my return to New Zealand, and I was still under thirty years of age. With such keen rivalry in the timber trade, and the development of the other branches of our business, plus the close shaves at three o'clock at the bank, it will be seen I had plenty to do.
It was about this time that simultaneously with the development of a close friendship with John Craig, of Craig & Sheedy, we learned of a big area of splendid bush situated in page 471 the Marlborough Sounds. Craig was anxious to leave the West Coast and so, after some discussion, we decided to have a look at this bush and, if it proved worth while, to join in partnership in a sawmilling company. Craig went from the coast, via Nelson to Havelock, and I met him there. Next day we hired a wagonette and drove to where the Rai and Ronga valleys meet. The valleys inland from Havelock are a replica of the beautiful, deep-water Marlborough Sounds that wind in and out among the hills and mountains, the only difference being that the floor of the valleys is above sea-level. We met a friend of Craig's who was to tell us the best way to get to the bush we wished to see.
Taking up Government bush areas in those days was like gold-mining prospectors trying to establish a claim. Secrecy was necessary, so instead of entering the valley from the end we were now at, and risking being seen by rival interest, we decided to return to Havelock and stay the night there. Hiring a launch the following morning, we went to Nydia Bay, a branch arm of the beautiful and famous Pelorus Sound. This bay was the only port from which the timber from Opouri Valley could be shipped, unless it was to fall into the lap of William Brownlee and the logs railed to his big, new mill already erected at the mouth of this long valley. Brownlee had for many years been the Timber King of this particular district. First erecting a mill at Havelock, his logging operations had eventually reached the Rai, Ronga and Opouri Valleys, some thirty miles from Havelock, to which port they were connected by both road and Brownlee's railway line.
On arriving at the head of Nydia Bay we were surprised to learn that Mr. Brownlee had worked a mill in this district some thirty years earlier, and smiling farms now stood where his mill and bush had been.
An examination of the contour of the country soon showed us why the Opouri Valley bush had not been cut out many years before. The obstacle had been a range of hills 1,500 feet high, which stood between the forest and the bay from which we proposed to ship. We camped at the foot of these hills and next day climbed the range, going down into the timbered valley to find that it contained splendid bush.
Craig and a bushman named “Tassy” Morris, whom he had brought with him, began a survey of the areas. They were page 472 both crack men in the bush and it was not long before they had me perspiring in trying to keep up with them. I was as fit as a fiddle, but unused to climbing over fallen trees and fighting my way through the thick undergrowth of New Zealand bush. They each had slashers and cut away small branches and saplings, while I made the best of it, following close behind. The end of the day, after climbing the hill back to camp again, found me a very tired young man. These men of the bush had a good laugh at me, for they knew of my cricketing career and thought it a joke to make me struggle to keep up with them. Next day we moved our camp over into the valley, and Craig and Morris went on with their survey. A day or two more of this trekking through the bush found me picking up form; I could now keep up with them and finish just as fresh.
The bush was magnificent, probably the best ever grown in New Zealand. The protection given by the hills forming the sides of the valley enabled the trees to grow to a great height and almost as straight as lead pencils. The climate being warmer and dryer than on the West Coast, and the soil better, the trees were at least, on an average, six inches bigger in diameter than in the Greymouth area. The percentage of heart timber in these trees was comparable with that of the North Island trees and this added greatly to their value.
Each night in camp the conversation was always about the forest. Craig kept saying it was the finest bush he had ever seen and that we must find a way of getting the timber out. Our first hope had been for the possibility of making a sideling, but the hill was steep and there were too many ridges and gullys. We discussed placing a steam-hauler at the top and laying a tram-line straight up the face of the hill and hauling and lowering truck loads with a wire rope. The grade on both sides was about one in three, but this did not frighten us away from the hauling idea, although we saw no clear way of holding the timber on the truck.
After long discussion we returned to Nydia Bay, then to Havelock and on by coach to Blenheim. There was no time to be lost. The regulations covering the purchase of Government bush stipulated that not more than 800 acres could be taken up for each mill erected, and extended areas would be granted only when the previous one had been nearly cut out. We page 473 went straight to the Lands Office at Blenheim and lodged an application with the Commissioner of Crown Lands, who at that time did all the work now done by the Forestry Department. In due course our application was granted.
We had heard there was a mill in the North Island, at a place called Shannon, where timber was hauled over a hill much the same as the one we had just seen. Craig had to get back to the coast, so it was arranged that I should go to Shannon. Leaving Wellington I stayed the night at this country town and having found out all the local knowledge required, set off next morning, on an old white horse, to ride the five miles to the foot of the hill. Tethering the hack, I climbed up the tram-track to where the hauler was situated. As soon as the first truck of timber was hauled up I saw at a glance the point we had not been able to solve at Nydia Bay; the end of the wire rope, instead of being attached to the truck, was taken round the timber like a sling—this meant that the truck merely carried the weight. There was no fear of the timber sliding off sideways or endways, for the steeper the grade the tighter the pull of the rope round the timber. Next day I wired Craig “Easily Done,” and he told me afterwards what these words meant to him.
We lost no time in getting to work, landing materials at Nydia Bay for the erection of a wharf and laying the tramline to the foot of the hill. The first thing to decide was where to erect the wharf. Two brothers named Gould had settled on the land in the valley at the head of Nydia Bay. With the wharf on the one side we had to make arrangements to go through both farms; on the other side it meant a right-of-way through one farm only. On taking soundings from a rowing boat, we found that deep water was more readily found on the side that would mean getting a right-of-way through both farms, but so tense was the rivalry between the two brothers we decided it would be safer to deal with one only.
The place soon became a hive of industry, with more and more workmen arriving and regular shipments of materials being delivered. It is interesting to record that the Gould who failed to win our patronage and get the wharf built on his side of the bay, was in the end to win the richest reward. He owned a launch and used to bring the men from Havelock, some twenty miles from Nydia Bay, charging one pound per page 474 head, no matter how many travelled at a time; John Gould was soon making more money than he had ever made on his farm. His brother William, as his side-line, started a store, and in the end did very well, so I suppose they both felt satisfied, but I fancy the man with the launch—who gave no credit—netted more than his brother.
The building of the wharf and the laying of the line went on apace. Soon we were at the foot of the hill, and then started up a spur. Up a grade such as we had to tackle was no small task, but Craig and his team steadily plugged their way, chain by chain. At last the top was reached, a steam-hauler installed, and the first wire rope put into operation; the men and materials were now hauled up every morning.
We were unfortunate in not being able to find a spur on the other side that would be directly opposite. This meant we had to cut a track along the top for more than half a mile before finding one. As illustrating the ingenuity of Craig in what we call bush surveying, he laid off this line with no instrument other than an aneroid. Even with this he provided a track along the top that gave a slight downhill run for the loaded trucks. A second hauler was now installed and the camp moved over into the Opouri Valley. The finding of a pig track gave us the spur that led down to the mill-site.
By the time the bottom of the hill had been reached, and the erection of the mill begun, we saw clouds gathering on the horizon. The original sum put up by Craig and ourselves had long since been spent and we were now carrying on on Reese Brothers' credit. We already had plenty of financing to do for our own growing business, so our anxiety will be appreciated. I used to go to Nydia Bay about every two months, and in the talks at night with Craig the question of finance was now our chief topic. Our original budget had proved too optimistic; now we were budgeting again. More work to do, more machinery to pay for, the mill building, the houses and huts to be built; it was obvious we were up against it. Craig used to laugh and say that all he knew about money was spending it on the job; he could estimate the time needed to finish, he could add up the cost of contracts let for machinery for the mill, haulers for the bush, rails for the tram-line and a locomotive, to mention the principal items, but we had to find the money! We were now reaching the stage of having spent page 475 £10,000, and had committed ourselves for more thousands. Who will decide whether we were brave or foolhardy? Craig's sage judgment of the greatness of the forest, and our estimates of the amount of money that could be made, if we got through, may shield us from being judged super-optimists. We finally agreed there was no alternative but to enlarge our partnership into a company.
What could be more natural than for us to turn to the splendid men who had so generously traded with Reese Brothers from the inception of this business? And so it came that Peter Graham, John Greig, Richard Scott and Andrew Swanston, all men who had worked for my father, each took up shares, as did William Banks of Papanui, Fred Smith of Ashburton and Harry Cornelius, a wealthy farmer who had married my eldest sister. This made a strong company, made still more powerful when T. G. Russell, the lawyer who prepared the Articles of Association, noting the estimates placed before the new shareholders, asked to be allowed to come in. As all these men, except Cornelius and Russell, were clients of Reese Brothers and large buyers of timber, it will be realized what a dual strength was given to the Marlborough Timber Company, the name decided upon for this new saw-milling concern. It was, in fact, the coming of our new company, and the increased supplies now open to the men who previously relied upon timber from Jack Brothers and Craig & Sheedy, that was in the main responsible for bringing about the enlargement of the Timber Merchants' Association that I have already referred to. It also had the effect of giving us a more direct interest in maintaining market prices.
When the mill was finished all our anticipations about hauling the timber over the hill proved correct. The output of the mill was about a quarter of a million feet per month, and it was not long before the returns began to have an effect upon the Company's banking account.
On my first trip to Nydia Bay after the mill was operating, I decided to call on old Mr. Brownlee at Havelock, where he had a fine home overlooking the head of Pelorus Sound. I was anxious to remove the tenseness from the rivalry that had naturally developed. I had also a good reason to make a personal call. Mr. Brownlee, like many of the Scots of his time, had been a keen draughts player, and when he came to page 476 Christchurch in the 'seventies and 'eighties used to come to our home to play with my father. One of the cherished old photographs in our family is one of the Canterbury Draughts team that went to Dunedin to play Otago, with my father as captain. Sitting in the centre, he had a draughts board on his knee, and on his right sat William Brownlee. This will explain the kindly reception I received. When I told him of our wish to be on friendly terms with him, even if we were rivals, he turned quickly and said, “Mr. Reese, I have nothing but admiration for what you have done. You have performed what I thought was an impossible task. You are entitled to any success that may come your way. My complaint is against the Government; after clearing and settling so many miles of country and erecting a mill at the mouth of the long Opouri Valley I think I was entitled to more consideration, and had reason to believe that the splendid forest in this valley would have been reserved for me.” Looking back to those days, I sometimes think he was justified in holding this view.
He certainly showed his keen disappointment, but repeated that he had no grudge against us. He then made kindly references to my father and said how much he had enjoyed playing draughts with him. At this time, Mr. Brownlee was in his late seventies. He was tall and straight with a white beard. The afternoon I spent with this strong, determined, but kindly Scot and his wife, whose gentleness reminded me of my own mother, remains with me as a charming picture of old age spent in happy and pleasant surroundings.
Despite the sincerity of Mr. Brownlee's reception of me and his words of encouragement, this was not the end of our contest with this great timber man. When our original saw-milling area had been granted to us, Mr. Brownlee was so insistent in his claims for the greater part of the remaining forest to be reserved for him, that the Under Secretary of Lands finally decided to fix a boundary line across the valley which was to limit the operations of each party. This was a departmental arrangement, but as it was not a matter of law it could hold good only so long as each side agreed. We would have preferred an open field, but as the area already reserved for us was going to provide twenty years' cutting, we agreed. On account of his larger operations Brownlee was given more than half of the timber areas in the valley; although this page 477 did not satisfy our rival, he eventually acquiesced. Whether our rapid progress frightened the old man, I do not know. At any rate we had not long been in full operation when I learned that Mr. Brownlee was again pressing the Government. I then heard a whisper that he was prepared to build another mill, and thus make himself legally entitled to additional bush.
I left for Wellington at once, and interviewed Mr. Kensington, the Under Secretary of Lands. He referred me to the Prime Minister, Sir Joseph Ward, for Mr. McCallum, the forceful member for Wairau, had made it a political matter. When I met the Prime Minister, he made it clear that he had decided upon prompt action to clarify the position. He said, “Well, Mr. Reese, I am determined that a matter of this sort will not be allowed to intrude into politics. I have been continuously pressed to alter the original boundary fixed by the Under Secretary. I have to-day written Mr. Brownlee, and have also written your firm, advising that the law governing timber areas must be allowed to take its course.”
I realized there was no time to waste. I wired to my brother to arrange a special meeting of the Marlborough Timber Company's Directors for the following morning. We did not take long to decide, despite the fact that we were just emerging from the financial strain caused by the cost of building the first mill. I left for Wellington again the same night and lodged our application for a further eight hundred acres of land, and undertaking to build another mill. There was great joy in our camp when we got word that our application was lodged just twenty-four hours ahead of Mr. Brownlee's! Fighting for bush is an old, old story in the timber industry. Peter B. Kyne, in his Valley of the Giants, tells a thrilling tale of contests for forest areas on the Pacific coast.
The financing of the second mill was arranged by an increased overdraft at the bank, supported by guarantees. I do not know what we would have done without the bank. It was not long before the second mill was erected. Additional bush haulers had to be purchased, but the haulers on the top of the hill proved capable of handling the doubled output. In the winter months there was little time to spare between the lowering of the last truck and the setting in of darkness. The total output from the two mills was five million feet per annum, so it will be realized we had jumped into a concern of con- page 478 siderable importance in the timber industry. The years which followed were to rank among the happiest of my business career. The mills proved an immediate success.
John Craig was a man of fine character and outstanding ability. His handling of men, as well as machines, was remarkable. It is true this was in a time when men could be driven along, but he paid them well and expected them to work. The slackers did not stay long, but most of the men remained with him for years. They told some good stories about Craig, whom someone nicknamed “The Bull.” In his home he was a gentle and kindly man, but on the job he was all energy and forcefulness.
The number of men coming and going was responsible for many jokes. Some said Craig was a sleeping partner of John Gould's in his launch enterprise—a pound fare for every man he sacked and a similar amount for the man who replaced him! The climax of these facetious references came when our old engine-driver visited Christchurch for a holiday. He had spent all his money and called at our office for an advance. He was hopelessly drunk and I was called into the main office to try and get rid of him. When I was endeavouring to humour him, he said, “Do you know how many men Jack Craig has had on the payroll at Nydia Bay?” When I replied no, the rugged and very intoxicated man said, “Three thousand of the booggers!”
I visited the mills frequently and in the summer months it was more like a short holiday than a business trip. The scenery to be seen from the launch in the run up Pelorus Sound and into Nydia Bay was very beautiful.
When the housing accommodation was completed, two separate settlements had sprung into being. The bushmen and sawmill hands made up the greater number of our employees, so their village, situated in one of the most isolated spots in New Zealand, was made as comfortable as possible. A dance hall was erected, and then followed a billiard room; the latter proved such a success that we doubled the size of the building and installed a second table, thus providing the men with plenty of amusement. A library, with a suitable range of books, completed the amenities of this far-away bush settlement. A grocery store, a bakery and a butcher's shop gave the place the appearance of a country village. On the Nydia Bay page 479 side William Gould's store provided for the requirements of the settlement there. His wool-shed was used as a dance hall. A tennis court was made on the flat near Gould's home.
While the number of men employed in the yard, on the wharf, and as truckers was much less than on the other side of the hill, the two Gould families and local settlers from small farms in the little bays and on the hillsides of the beautiful sound brought the numbers who attended the Saturday night dances about equal to the “Bush Cabarets” held at the head of the Opouri Valley. As was natural, there were occasionally combined dances. Modern young men and women, with motor-cars and good roads available in even the most remote districts in New Zealand to-day, will find it hard to believe that the youth of those days, aye, and the older ones too, in going to a dance, negotiated that hill by the same route and on the same trucks used for taking the timber from the mill to the wharf. Even though a moonlight night was always chosen, it required some nerve on the part of the young women to make what appeared to the layman to be a somewhat perilous journey. I can still hear voices echoing round the hillsides in the stillness of the night, as parties of merry men and women sang while the trucks, with their passengers, were being hauled up and lowered on the other side. On the homeward journey especially, one noticed gallant young men holding their partners even more tightly than they had held them in the men-to-the-centre movement of the lancers, in the dance hall below!
My brother was an excellent dancer and revelled in the Saturday night parties at the mill. He tells an amusing story of one of our rugged bushmen, who, being without gloves, put a bright red silk handkerchief on the hand that went round his partner's waist; he thought more of saving the girl's frock than worrying about giving her his brawny, ungloved left hand.
Another of my brother's stories of these dances was of one he went to when there were present many more men than women. Bad weather had prevented the people on the bay side from coming over the hill. There were no programmes at this dance, so it can be imagined what a scramble there was for partners. Instead of booking for the next dance, my brother kept booking for the one ahead of the next, and it was about page 480 three parts of the way through the evening before someone noticed he had had every dance. This was a good performance for a middle-aged man! How they had combed out the village for women dancers that evening may be gathered from the fact that in one set of lancers there was a girl of sixteen, as well as her mother and grandmother!
When our tram-way line had been extended a number of miles down the valley and Brownlee's line crept closer, the employees of our rival used to come all the way up Opouri Valley to dance at our mill settlement. They travelled by truck to and from the terminus of each line and, following the track, walked the remaining distance through the native bush. More laughter and song as they groped their way, with lanterns to light up their path.
This brief sketch may help the reader to picture a happy settlement in a very remote part of New Zealand. It will also show that the Marlborough Timber Company, led at the mill end by John Craig, paid considerable attention to providing comfortable living conditions and recreation for a splendid team of workmen and their brave womenfolk.
The picnic side of visits to Nydia Bay was not confined to my brother and me; the other directors enjoyed an occasional visit when they could get away from their own businesses, and many a party we had on the Sounds. One day was usually set aside for a launch trip as far as Pelorus Sound, where there was a splendid fishing-ground. Blue cod, probably New Zealand's most delicious fish, were to be caught in abundance. On one occasion, when my wife was with me, five of us caught a total of one hundred. My wife had not previously fished and was all excitement when we lowered our lines. It was not long before we heard an agitated voice call, “Oh, Dan, I've got one! I've got one!” She began to haul away, but when it came to the surface was too frightened to pull it into the launch. When I landed the fish and it wriggled violently on the floor, she was up on the seat as quickly as women jump on to a chair if anyone says, “There's a mouse!” How we all laughed! My wife caught twenty-seven fish that day. I caught four. I spent most of my time landing her fish and re-baiting the hooks! Multiply this story many times and you have the picture of the fun we all got from the sawmilling end of this venture.
Then came the problem of marketing the output of these mills, two-thirds of which was rimu, sometimes called red pine, and used almost exclusively in the building and furniture trades; the balance was mainly kahikatea—white pine—with a sprinkling of matai, commonly known as black pine. The rimu portion added great strength to the trading position of the men who joined forces with us. With Brownlee's, it was the best timber on the market. Our rivals' agent in Christchurch was an elderly, dour Scot. He also was an old friend of my father's, but he had not the human touch and kindly spirit of his principal. He apparently considered the Reeses were splendid young men—until they began to sell timber! He had held an unrivalled position for many years and, in competition with the West Coast mills, had always dominated the market. We regretted the transfer of rivalry with Brownlee to the selling end, but had no qualms in fighting his agent. The contest that developed was really between our clients and Brownlee's, through whose yards the timber reached the retail market.page 482
Pelorous Sound is less than half the distance Greymouth is from Lyttelton. This meant a cheaper freight for timber of a better quality. In competition with the West Coast mills the dice was thus loaded very much in favour of Brownlee and ourselves.
New Zealand white pine is probably the finest timber in the world for use in boxes when packing butter for export. New Zealand has been called the “Dairy Farm” of the Empire and exports enormous quantities of butter and cheese to Great Britain. It is in the North Island where most of this is produced, and there were plenty of sawmills in the north capable of supplying all the requirements of the dairy factories, besides having a surplus for export to Australia. Apart from supplying the freezing works with tallow-cask timber, the South Island mills relied almost entirely on the Australian market. As soon as our first mill was completed, I went to Sydney and established relations with Messrs. R. S. Lamb & Co., with whom we were to have many years of profitable business and happy personal relations. The senior partner, always known as Bob Lamb, was a New Zealander, but had lived in Australia for about thirty years. His partner was his nephew, Daniel Finlayson Stewart, popularly known as Fin Stewart. They had a fine business as timber agents, mostly for New Zealand timbers. They also owned the Paragon Bone Mills at Botany; an unusual combination of interests. Stewart managed the Botany works and consequently all my dealings at this time were with old Mr. Lamb. On my first visit to Sydney he insisted on my staying with him at his home at Waverley.
Lamb was an extraordinary character. Brought up in the atmosphere of a colonial Scottish home, where his father always stood up and said a long grace before meals. Bob Lamb showed little evidence of this early training, for at times he could swear like a trooper.
It mattered not to whom he was speaking. I heard many amusing stories about him. On one occasion, when developing a very good export trade in rabbit skins on behalf of an English company, he was visited by a representative of this firm. The Englishman was immaculately dressed, in days when frock-coats and tall hats were worn even in business. In the midst of some negotiations, in which they did not see eye to eye, Mr. Lamb burst out with a flow of words, natural to him and page 483 typical of some rugged Australians, but startling to his visitor. The Englishman rose, picked up his gloves and hat, and, bowing himself out, said politely, “Good morning, Mr. Lamb.” Relating this incident to me many years afterwards, old Mr. Lamb said, “There was a fortune in it for both of us, if only the old b … had known!” He said the incident taught him a lesson, but apparently only in tactics in how to handle an Englishman, for he continued to swear to the end of his days.
But Australians are not the only people who use swear words, for in New Zealand recently, at the end of the children's hour on the wireless, the broadcaster, Uncle “X,” thinking he was off the air, was heard to say, “Now, you little b … s, off you go to bed!”
As Mr. Lamb did not smoke and was a teetotaller, it was astonishing that he should fail to check himself from the use of profanity. In his case this was but a veneer, as it is with most people. Behind it all was a man of sterling parts. Keen, but kindly, and fair in his dealings was my first impression, and this remained with me throughout my years of trading with him.
This business trip to Australia was to prove the forerunner of many others. During the next twenty years I crossed the Tasman more than a dozen times. My first contract with this firm was for a million feet of timber, but the doubled output from Nydia Bay necessitated future contracts being increased. I was able to benefit from the experience of others who, in earlier years, had risked large contracts which often took some years to complete. The Australian timber merchants are astute buyers, and it was always a certainty that any keenness shown by them for the purchase of large quantities, signified that they thought they were operating on a rising market. I did not book beyond quantities that could be delivered in from twelve to eighteen months.
One thing in business leads to another and this was soon to be my experience. Messrs. R. S. Lamb & Co. were interested in the hardwood business and, being closely associated with Messrs. R. J. White & Co., assisted me in getting Reese Brothers appointed South Island agents for this well-known Australian firm in New Zealand.
Messrs. Alan Taylor, and Pike & Co. were, at that time, the principal suppliers of the New Zealand market. All page 484 the harbour boards were busy extending their wharf accommodation to keep pace with the ever-growing overseas trade. Lyttelton, the port of Canterbury, in particular had a big programme ahead and tenders were called for a large quantity of timber.
Mr. Cyrus Williams was one of the most eminent harbour board engineers in New Zealand. He was exacting in his demands that the timber being supplied should be up to the specification, but was scrupulously fair. He had previously had a good deal of trouble with regard to quality, and suppliers suffered the penalty of having some of the timber condemned. Our principals wanted to load their tender with an amount for contingencies, and mentioned to us that they had been told about the experiences of other suppliers to Lyttelton. As we knew the upright character of the Lyttelton engineer we were able to reassure Messrs. White & Co., and in the end the price was based on their own standard quality. When the report of the Lyttelton Harbour Board meeting appeared in the newspapers it was announced that Messrs. Reese Brothers' tender had been accepted. The magnitude of the contract was to prove an advertisement for our firm, and I remember on the next Saturday afternoon one of the members of my cricket team saying to me, “Good gracious, I didn't know you operated on that scale!” From this it will be seen that, like Arthur Shims, I had plenty to think about besides cricket.
We immediately urged Mr. White to come to Christchurch and get to know personally the man who was to pass his timber. In the end he came. Mr. White senior was of the old school; as a young man he had chopped, sawn and hewn the trees of Australia's famous iron-bark forests. He was practical to his finger-tips and when he met Mr. Cyrus Williams, his outstanding knowledge of hardwoods, and his transparent honesty of purpose at once appealed to this harbour board engineer. I accompanied Mr. Williams and Mr. White to Lyttelton, where large stacks of timber were examined, and a thorough understanding arrived at with regard to the quality required. It was instructive to hear these two experts discussing the finer points of piles, beams and decking. Mr. Williams was an Australian, and came from Queensland. He had a more intimate knowledge of the different Australian hardwoods than any engineer I have ever met. It was a happy thought to page 485 bring Mr. White to New Zealand. After we had left Mr. Williams, Mr. White turned to me and said, “He will do me; he knows his business.”
The contract was carried out to the satisfaction of all concerned and proved to be the fore-runner of many others. We had experienced keen competition when establishing the agency for Messrs. Chesterman & Co., of Hobart, Tasmania, but our greatest thrill in the hardwood business came from the first big ironbark contract.
It was also due to Messrs. R. S. Lamb & Co. that we were appointed South Island Agents for Cessnock Collieries. New Zealand at this time was a large importer of Newcastle coal and the agency for such a well-known coal immeasurably strengthened our position in the coal trade, which was to be made still stronger when the Moody Creek and Cliffdale Co-operative Parties of the West Coast entrusted their outputs to us.
In 1908, when on my first business visit to Australia, I was one of an enormous crowd that stood at the heads and watched the American fleet enter Sydney Harbour. The warships steamed along the coast in single line ahead and when opposite the entrance the leader turned out to sea and steamed due east for several miles, then turned about and steamed back; by the time the first ship was about to enter the harbour the “croc” was again in a straight line, and one by one majestically entered the port. It was a magnificent sight.
The following week I was in Melbourne when the Americans steamed up Port Phillip. In both cities the Americans were given a wonderful reception.