Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 6, Issue 3, 2000
Recollections of The Chaffeys
My first meeting with the Chaffeys took place in 1936 when I began work on the ridge at the Cobb. We were forming by hand the first road1 to be constructed for the power scheme which took advantage of the fantastic drop from Cobb Valley to the meeting place of the Takaka and Cobb rivers.
Many of our acquaintances from our gold-digging days were working on the road, amongst them Bertie Macpherson2 who I knew had corresponded regularly with the Chaffeys when he was away from the area. The new road was only about a mile from Asbestos Cottage where the Chaffeys lived and Bertie had promised that on his next visit he would take me along. So as soon as we were comfortable in our new living quarters, the already erected tents, Bertie said, "Right Boyer, let's go and visit the Chaffeys." He had long before explained to me how it came about that Mr Chaffey and his wife had lived for years in remote isolation in the Cobb area.
As the crow flies the cottage wasn't far from our initial camp. First it was a fifteen minute walk to the lookout, where a big sign warned all comers: "If visiting Asbestos Cottage call out here." Bertie's idea of letting them know he was near consisted of yelling and shouting and whistling loud enough to wake the dead. It took about another fifteen minutes to the cottage, and as we went he explained why he carried on for so long. The Chaffeys liked to have plenty of warning of visitors, and he wanted them to know it was Bertie Macpherson who was coming, hence the unique performance.
Sitting alongside the doorway to the Chaffey home was a big polished boulder, a convenient seat for any tired trampers who needed a rest. We traded greetings and handshakes, and being the stranger, I sat on the boulder while Bertie received VIP treatment.
Mr Chaffey provided no surprise in appearance, but his wife rather overawed me because I had somehow expected a much smaller woman. She was not quite as tall as her husband, whom I guessed hit the six foot mark, but whereas Henry Chaffey had the lean toughness of an oldtime prospector, Mrs Chaffey had a well proportioned figure, one usually described as 'motherly.' Whenever the old chap addressed or spoke about his wife he used the old-fashioned term 'mother.' He in turn was always 'Harry.' Both of them appeared to be dressed in their Sunday-go-to-meeting finery, which had me putting Bertie on page 66their list of very important visitors. On the way back to our camp Bertie told me they dressed up for everybody.
Presently a move was made into the cottage: Mr Chaffey interested to know how the road was progressing, while Mrs Chaffey bustled about with cups and saucers for afternoon tea with an apology, "it's only biscuits today, the tins are empty after unexpected guests and baking day is Tuesday anyway."
After our 'cuppa' we made our departure, stressing the fact that it was Stan's day to cook the evening meal and he created a fuss if we were late. Mr Chaffey told me to be sure and bring him with me next trip and "don't make it too long. I look forward to meeting your brother, Jack. Is he older or younger than you?"
"Two years ahead of me," I said, "and twice as big. He's a plumber by trade and not a bad one at that."
Bertie chipped in, "Stanley is a terrible bloke to argue," and Mr Chaffey grinned and said, "Just like you, eh, Bertie?"
We left on this cheerful note, ending a very pleasant afternoon, getting to know two people whom it was my privilege to eventually call my good friends.
Visiting the Chaffeys during my time in the Cobb became an agreeable and regular pattern, however after a time, as the monotony of pick and shovel work lost its appeal, I set off for Christchurch on an AJS motorbike I bought from fellow worker, Pat Jones. Before leaving I talked with Mr Pearless3 about the installation of the tramline signalling and telephone communications system. He advised that conditions were not yet ready for the installation, so I gave him my address and away I went. Sure enough he kept in touch and offered me the job of foreman at two shillings and tenpence an hour. I lost no time in wiring my acceptance, sold the bike and bought a plane ticket to Nelson with the fiver Pearless had sent me for travelling expenses. I also wrote to the Chaffeys to advise of my impending arrival back in the Cobb and for them to expect a visit in the near future.
After this break of several months, I began seeing them on a regular basis. No longer did I go with Bertie, I knew them well enough to go alone. They were always pleased to see me and showed it.page 67
I'd like to mention one little peculiarity I always remember about Mrs Chaffey. When she shook hands it was a strong almost manlike grip but never a full clasp. She seemed to grab your fingers and press.
The cottage was a two-roomed weatherboard musterers' type shack with a large chimney at the entrance and roofed with layers of malthoid, unlike the modern shed built down-hill from it which was used as a store, but also had several bunks for accommodation. I developed a once a month custom of staying overnight. The procedure was always the same. 'Goodnight' at ten thirty and two hot stones in flannel covers to take as 'hotties.'
At daybreak there would be Harry with a hot mug of tea, then an hour long discussion of shoes and ships and sealing wax and wireless. Harry had a fairly rudimentary knowledge of the art of radio, but I was able to put him right on a few fundamentals. He in turn started me on a basic philosophical insight, for which I am forever grateful. He led me to Spinoza4 who is still my foundation stone to this day. Regarding the art of poetry which was 'Old Chafe's' field. I'm afraid he did not manage to convert me to the bards. Mrs Chaffey would eventually call us to breakfast, then more talk until lunch, after which I'd be away back to camp. On the trail back I would stop and search through my pack for the 'goodies' Mrs Chaffey never failed to include, her way of thanking me for coming. There might be one of 'Old Chafe's' choice cigars, a few sweets, or a small pot of black currant jam, maybe a biscuit or two and sometimes a bottle of 'Chafe's' special home-brew.
As I mentioned earlier, Mr and Mrs Chaffey always dressed up in their best, including hats, when visitors came to call. That space between your warning shout and your arrival at the cottage gave them time to don their best. In all the years I visited with the Chaffeys there was only once that I arrived at the cottage and they were not prepared. The episode very nearly cost me their friendship.
In due course I left the Cobb Power Company, before the Government took over the scheme, and went to work for one Alan Clapcott, who was responsible for keeping the Asbestos Road open now that the mine at the end of the road employed a dozen or more staff. I took the job mainly because it made visits to the Chaffeys so convenient. Twenty minutes up hill from the asbestos mine and there was the cottage.
1. Henry Chaffey (left) and Professor Benson of Otago University meet near Hume asbestos mine on 13th January 1948. (Note the shed clad in asbestoscement tiles made at Waitapu, Takaka about 1940.) (The late Doug Preston)
2. Annie Chaffey dressed to meet visitors to her home in the wilderness. She sent this photo with her written greeting on the back to Jack Boyer. (Jack Boyer.)
"We didn't hear you call Jack." No smile, eyes boring straight through me and Harry suddenly striking a match to light his pipe.
"I didn't call out today, thinking of something else and went past without noticing." Mrs Chaffey said nothing, turned and went into the cottage, while Harry led me off down to his storeroom below and showed me samples of asbestos I had already seen half a dozen times. Believe you me I didn't linger. I made some excuse to Harry, a hasty handshake and I was off.
The next weekend, armed with a bunch of flowers, I paid them a visit; my apology unspoken was accepted and the greeting, that for a long lost brother. Never again did I fail to observe the courtesy of calling out loud and long, for I realised that Mrs Chaffey needed to dress in her best to prove one did not necessarily lose one's pride because of an outback shack for a home, with homemade furniture and no carpet (or) modern gadgets or bone china cups and saucers. In Mrs Chaffey you see the true spirit of the early pioneer women. In the old fashioned dress and hat, the neat well-spoken woman was demonstrating the fierce pride which kept her sane and balanced during 40 odd years of living under conditions that only a woman of her calibre could have tolerated.
1 The isolated 1.5 mile road on a 3,500 foot high ridge was to connect two tramways by a motor vehicle. It was not joined to another road for four years.
2 Bertie 'Macpherson with a small p,' English Public School educated, came to NZ alone as a 17 year old. He knew the Chaffeys from gold prospecting near the Cobb and left for the war the day it was declared.
3 Lessels Pearless was the engineer for the private Hume (Cobb River) Electric Power Company until 1940, and until 1942 for the State after government take-over.
4 Spinoza 1632–77 was a Dutch-Jewish philosopher, interested in natural sciences such as astronomy and in Descarte's rationalist philosophy. The Jewish community expelled him in 1656.