Was It All Cricket?
Chapter 38 — Sawmilling on the West Coast
Sawmilling on the West Coast
After these sketches of Nydia Bay and Port Craig the story of a third sawmilling venture may not prove as interesting, yet, when the tale is unfolded, it will be seen that here, too, there were difficulties to overcome.
When nearing the end of our operations in the Opouri Valley, our old friend James Jack, the head of the firm of Jack Brothers, asked me if we would be prepared to join them and the Nyberg brothers, who, in order to protect their flanks from rival sawmilling interests, had built a mill at Nelson Creek. This was intended to prevent a wedge being driven between the holdings of Jack Brothers and the Lake Brunner Sawmilling Company, in the latter of which the Nybergs were partners. From this Nelson Creek mill they had been hauling the sawn timber by road with a steam traction engine. The road was getting cut up, and the County Council took out an injunction against their using the highway. The only alternative was to lay a tramway line from the mill to Ngahere, a distance of about seven miles. The building of this line, plus the cost of a locomotive and timber trucks, as well as a yard at Ngahere, was beyond the purses of Jack Brothers and the Nybergs. After examining the proposition and getting our John Craig to make a report, the shareholders of the Marlborough Timber Company subscribed sufficient capital to build the line and purchase additional plant.
The Forest Sawmilling Company, thus extended, became a substantial concern. As Ngahere is the Maori word for forest, the company was well named. James Jack became manager, although he still had some responsibilities with regard to Jack Brothers. For a while the Forest Company prospered; the bush was close to the mill and James Jack was a forceful manager of the old type. However, it later became evident that the joint arrangement was not a satisfactory one to either party. Jack's appointment had been for a term of five years and at the end of this period he decided to return and manage his own mills. page 532 It should, perhaps, be said that his own interests had suffered from his main attention being given to the Forest mill.
At this time William Brownlee, already the principal shareholder in the Lake Brunner Sawmilling Company, bought out the interests of the Nybergs and became sole proprietor. This change created an extraordinary situation; the Nybergs' sole sawmilling interests were now in the Forest Company and John Nyberg succeeded James Jack as manager. We thus automatically became the wedge between Jack Brothers and the Lake Brunner Company which the Forest Company was formed to prevent, but regretted that circumstances had again made us rivals of the fine old man with whom we had contested for bush in the Opouri Valley. This situation could not be helped, for we had now become the principal shareholders in the Forest Company and had to keep finding more and more money to complete the erection of a second mill.
It was not long before this rivalry made itself felt, for the back country bush areas were valuable, and on them depended the life of our respective mills. Soon we were racing along with the laying of tram-lines; they did the same. When the workmen of the Forest and Lake Brunner Companies met in the bar of the country pub, there was banter and chaff about who would get there first. The whole atmosphere was one of rivalry and competition. Both parties were adversely affected by this unreasonable contest, but nevertheless the fight continued.
Nyberg's term of management sped along with much expansion and much work done, but no dividends came from the very considerable quantities of timber produced. He was of the old school and did not appreciate the value of team-work.
Coming from Sweden in the 'nineties, they told many amusing stories of him and his brother Emil, when they were learning to speak English. There has always been a shortage of trucks on the West Coast when extra shipping is in port. This often greatly inconvenienced the sawmillers when their timber skids became fully loaded. The Railway Traffic Manager was not to be envied during these periods, for his telephone would ring all day. Once, when Nyberg rang him, only to get the same old answer, the irate Swede yelled back into the receiver, “Send us the bloody veels and ve'll make ze trucks!”
Nyberg's son-in-law, John Becker, now took over the management, but had not been long in charge when the trade page 533 depression that had shaken the Marlborough Timber Company to its foundations, dealt a similar blow to the Forest Company. Prices fell, but we still kept the mill running, showing a considerable loss in the first year and a bigger loss for the second. High finance, with bank overdraft and guarantees, made it necessary to review the position of the company; we decided to close down, accept responsibility for all accounts, and reconstruct. We restarted the mill by letting it on a labour contract system, based on a price that would just leave us a margin on which to work. The depression continued, and the outlook became indeed black. The old Sawmillers' Association had ceased to exist; each mill fought for its existence; each fought the other. One of the big mills went out ahead of the others and booked large contracts to assure the turnover that would enable it to run at a profit, even at the cut rates which they quoted. Had the other millers responded immediately, this mill would have been quickly brought to heel. Instead, equally big and stronger organizations preferred to nurse the bush they had, in the hope of better times arriving. This sounded all right in theory, but in practice it was making a present of the market to the runaway mill. Presently one of the strongest mills came out with a price list that would not only stop the first price-cutter, but eventually close most of the remaining mills still in operation. Our contract system enabled the New Forest Mill—now renamed—to keep going, even in the face of this intense competition, but many mills had closed down. Having studied the position for some time, and the latest assault on prices seeming to provide the opportunity to stop this futile contest, I asked those still operating their mills to attend a conference in, Christchurch, to see if it were possible to come to some arrangement whereby we could work together more, and begin again the rebuilding of our Association.
It was found that only six out of forty odd mills were now selling on the East Coast market where most cutting of prices took place. Several other mills were still shipping timber to the Wellington market. Nine only of the millers on the coast met to attempt to work out a scheme. There is nothing like adverse conditions and hard times to make people 'umble, as Uriah Heep said. We met in friendly but chastened spirit. The trade of the past twelve months was taken as an estimate of the immediate future turnover, and the capacity of the different page 534 mills was assessed. This showed that there was less than a half output for each mill still operating.
We began on that basis. We raised the price by sixpence a hundred feet only, for we knew that any substantial increase would stir the closed mills into activity and reduce the already small proportion of cutting provided for each mill. Greymouth had always been the centre of control of previous Associations, but there had developed a rivalry between the milling interests of that district and those in the Hokitika area, and the meeting decided that we should make Christchurch the headquarters, for several of the larger milling companies had their head offices here. I was elected chairman, and A. O. Wilkinson, a well-known public accountant, appointed secretary. We met once a month. This proved to be the beginning of a remarkable illustration of what a group of men can do, provided there is trust and goodwill. Knowing the part that mistrust had played in smashing previous associations, I stipulated, on taking the chair, that there were to be no inner councils and that every member was to know all that was going on; this proved a wise policy and did more than anything else to make members trust each other.
The rise of even sixpence caused another mill to start. We brought him in to get his share of the market. Another small rise and two more mills reopened and came in under our umbrella. Although these extra mills affected the turnover of the first members, the price still held. Fortunately, trade improved, and soon all mills were in operation again. There is a minimum turnover below which no mill can operate; we had several small millers whose proportion of the trade brought them below this minimum. We gave them a little more at the expense of the big mills. These men now knew we were genuine in our desire for fair play all round, and trusted us implicitly. It was a splendid spirit that prompted the big fellows to agree to this disbursement of extra cutting. It was also a remarkable achievement to have a body of men held so firmly together without any rules to bind them.
The interests of the industry were as jealously guarded as self-interests. There was only one clear understanding—one out, all out. There could be no runaway mill now. We left each miller to sell his own timber, and thus maintain his own connection, but he was not permitted to exceed the quantities allotted page 535 him. At each meeting the secretary submitted in detail every mill's cutting and the markets that were supplied. Our only-concern was to see that each miller got his fair share of the market at a payable price. The success of our scheme proved that the basis of a satisfactory combination must be a reasonably fair share of trade for all. This alone will ensure prices being maintained.
The advantages of getting to know one another are to be found in the following incident. Old William Brownlee had long since died, but his son, John, remained chairman of their company. John B. Reid, a sturdy Scot from Glasgow and grand-nephew of William Brownlee's, had taken over the active management of their large interests. One day I said to him, “Why do we go on fighting one another for back country bush areas? Can't we come to some arrangement?” I explained how it happened that we had again become their next-door neighbour and rival. Reid at once agreed, and we fixed our respective spheres of operations. John Brownlee approved and the Forestry Department gave its sanction. It is a tribute to the character of the Brownlees that their friendship with us remained unaffected by the rivalry in business. We were now both free to meet opposition, should it approach from the roadside, and this was not long in showing itself.
The North Island market, in particular, now showed signs of recovery, but, on the other hand, Australia, once a big importer of red pine, continued to take little interest in our rimu supplies. It was decided by our Association that I should go to Australia accompanied by J. W. Callwell, one of our most experienced members, with an intimate knowledge of the Australian trade. I represented the view of those who believed in the policy of operating through the organized timber merchants; I had always followed this method of trading and knew personally all the merchants of Sydney and Melbourne. Mr. Callwell, on the other hand, had been the principal supplier to agents who took the short cut to the user. This often meant getting a slightly higher price for the sawmiller, made possible by ex-ship delivery to the factories.
We had not been long in Australia before learning that there were reasons other than a sluggish market that were retarding the sale of rimu. The operations of these “book and pencil” agents, or “bootleggers” as they are sometimes called, had created the page 536 hostility of the merchants, who had other timbers from which to choose. This interfered with volume business, which alone would provide the cutting required to give relief to West Coast mills that urgently needed orders. Another feature of these direct sales was that the timber was often used before being properly seasoned. We found examples of quantities being machined even without having been put into strip to dry. This was fatal to the reputation of rimu, for in the hot climate of Australia seasoning was essential. Although my colleague had developed a very good Australian market for his own mills through these free-lance agents, he was soon convinced that our Association could not succeed by adopting these methods.
Visiting Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Newcastle, we found the same conditions existing on each market. Retracing our steps, arrangements were completed with the Merchants' Associations in each city, whereby, on our undertaking to supply their members only, they agreed to buy all their rimu requirements from our Association, and guaranteed that only seasoned timber would be sold.
Before leaving Australia we visited Canberra and interviewed Mr. Lyons, the Prime Minister, and his Ministers of Customs and Trade; we were well received. Australia, with steel now added to her exports, already held a great advantage over New Zealand in the balance of trade, and could not reasonably object to our drive for more trade with the Commonwealth.
We also met timber representatives from Queensland, the only Australian state that grows soft woods. These cornstalks had always objected to New Zealand's competition. Being in a position to discuss white pine, their principal competitor, as well as rimu, we found them less hostile than we expected and were able to make arrangements that were to their advantage as well as to our own.
It will thus be seen that the diplomatic side of our mission was not neglected. Our visit took six weeks, and the results which followed are perhaps best illustrated by the fact that during the next twelve months our rimu trade with Australia increased five-fold.
I was Chairman of the Association for seven years and I look back with satisfaction on the growth of the ties and friendships that contributed so much to moulding our organization into page 537 one of the best of its kind in the Dominion. We still hold together, without rules, without penalties, and without fear of anyone breaking away.
It has been necessary to recite the story of this combined effort, for the progress of our New Forest Company depended upon the success and survival of the Association. It will thus be understood how hard I fought to overcome all difficulties, and there were many in the early stages, for men used to freedom of action in the conduct of their own business are not always amenable to the sacrifice and discipline that a united effort demands.
And so the years rolled on. Our mill was now among the biggest and best on the West Coast. A Dutch oven on the furnaces, similar to those used at Port Craig, enabled us to burn sawdust; one man was thus able to fire two or more boilers. Our output had risen to more than four million feet per annum. At last we had set sail to wipe off the bank overdraft, the interest on which had been such a severe drag on the company. Confidence in the venture had been restored and we were looking to the good times that appeared to be ahead.
This was the state of affairs when the hand of Fate took another turn at the wheel. I was on a visit to the mill, and staying at the hotel at Nelson Creek. Anyone acquainted with the West Coast of the South Island will know of the license that is allowed country pubs, especially on the evening of a cricket or football match, or a sports meeting. On this night there was a din in the bar that kept on till long past midnight. Just before the break of dawn, someone came into my room and walking stealthily across to the bed said in a droning voice, “The mill's burning.” Thinking he was one of the lads who had had too much to drink, I told him he was in the wrong room, and turned over to go to sleep again. With that he shook me and said in a louder voice, “The mill's on fire. Look out of the window!” On pulling up the blind I could see the bright glow in the sky, and dressing hurriedly, reached the site shortly after daybreak. The fire was a devastating one, for a gale was blowing and soon it was apparent that nothing could save the mill. Flames raced along the beams of roof principals, leapt from boiler room to the filing room, from saw-bench to saw-bench, from benches to log skids. The fierce wind made it appear as though a blast furnace was blowing the flames into a white heat. Four-inch shafting page 538 bent like a piece of wire, castings cracked, and everything in steel and wrought iron was twisted and bent. It was no use attempting to put out the fire in the main building; instead, all efforts were concentrated on saving the engineering shop. The heat was intense, but our men stuck to it nobly. Gradually, the fire-fighters got the upper hand and held on until the main fire began to die down, when all further danger was past. The machine shop was thus saved, but the mill itself by this time had burnt to the ground.
As I watched this blazing inferno destroying buildings, machinery and plant representing many thousands of pounds, I thought of the loads we had already carried, and wondered why Fate should be so unkind. Surely this would be the last straw in adversity. Seven or eight years had passed since the beginning of the depression years when we had been hit so hard and hit in more than one place, yet here was another disaster of formidable dimensions. This time there could be no blame attachable to us from mistakes committed. We had water laid on to the mill, fire pumps installed, and also had a night watchman. But these men who guard property are not immune from human frailty. The party that night at the pub in Nelson Creek had spread to our sawmill village. A bottle of beer, perhaps two, sufficed to make our trusted man drowsy, and he was sound asleep in his hut when the fire started. It began on the weather side of the building. This fact and the gale combined to make a clean sweep. In less than three hours nothing was left.
When the work of fighting the fire was over and we went to breakfast, I was to witness a contradiction that surprised and touched me. Joseph Tibbles, a young man in the middle thirties, who was now our mill manager, had been in our employ since he was a boy. Working hard to bring the mill up to its present state of efficiency, it was due to his efforts that our output gradually climbed until it was one of the biggest on the coast. He was a determined, hard-working manager, with no outward signs of being sentimental, and had conducted the fire-fighting with all his men around him. There was no time to think of anything but the saving of the engineering shop, and to prevent the fire from spreading to the timber skids outside the mill. At breakfast I turned to speak to Tibbles and saw tears running down his cheeks. His loyalty and pride in his page 539 work were to be seen in these moments of the release of pent-up feelings. I was never so proud of him as I was then. It was but a momentary break and we were soon discussing the “whys” and “wherefores” of the tragedy. The glow of the fire had awakened him and he was on the site in time to see the watchman, in a dazed condition, coming from his hut. One glance told him why the fire already had such a strong hold.
Before the day had passed we were planning the rebuilding. The proper site for the mill was at Ngahere, but when we first built our mill a rival concern was in possession of the only site available there. Some two years before the fire occured, the Lake Brunner Company and ourselves had bought out a roadside mill that was threatening our respective bush interests. We took the mill building, plant, and rails, and they were glad to accept the adjoining bush areas as their share; it was a satisfactory arrangement for both parties. Now we were to receive great advantage from the transaction, for the mill was immediately available for re-erection. We decided to build two separate mills at Ngahere and thus not put all our eggs in one basket, for this was not the first time we had suffered from fire. I secured an option for the purchase of land for the mill sites and returned to Christchurch.
Death had taken a heavy toll of our old comrades; Richard Scott, Peter Graham, John Greig and Andrew Swanston were no longer with us. Of the original group, my brother and I alone remained. Although the estimated capital expenditure was considerable, we were able to show a budgeted position that would place the new mills in an even more favourable light than the big mill had been before the fire, due to the fact that the mills were now to be situated alongside the government's railway. We turned to our old stalwart—the bank. I paid a special visit to Wellington to interview Sir James Grose, the head of the National Bank of New Zealand, who, like Mr. Alfred Jolly before him, received me in the same kindly way as Sir James Coates had done at the outset of our business. Returning to Christchurch, I completed negotiations with C.G. Littlejohn and R. A. Barnsdale, two able bankers in charge of the local branch who agreed to our operating on an overdraft elastic enough to finance the rebuilding of the mills.
With banking experience so similar to the Baldwins of Bewdley, is it any wonder that my brother and I felt as Mr. page 540 Baldwin expressed himself when, on becoming Prime Minister of Great Britain, he was granted the Freedom of the City of Worcester and entertained in his home county. He said:
It is interesting to remember the connection which has lasted for about one hundred and twenty years, between my own family and the old bank of Worcester. It was from the old bank, one hundred and twenty years ago, that we raised, with infinite difficulty, five hundred pounds. It was the old bank that helped us through the crisis in the 'twenties of the last century, and much credit is due to them for having survived a period which brought down so many banks throughout the Kingdom. Time and time again did they stand our friends in days when we were less able to stand on our own feet than we are now, and I shall never forget it!
No words are better suited to express Reese Brothers' gratitude to the National Bank of New Zealand.
In these days, when so many people speak glibly of the banks, it is well to remember the assistance they have rendered to the business community, and the number of people they have hauled back from beyond the breakers, when any further drift from the shore meant disaster. The banks of this country have a record of which they might well be proud.
The erection of the first mill was now proceeded with. As our disastrous fire had originated in the boiler-room, and as a previous fire which had partly destroyed our original mill had also started in the same place, we decided to abandon steam as our means of power. A Ruston Proctor Diesel engine was installed. When the mill was completed it was realized that even a full output from one mill was not sufficient to carry the overhead expenses of our company. We therefore decided to work a night-shift, an arrangement to which our workmen willingly agreed. In this way we were able to make profits while the second mill was being built.
Tibbles and I inspected a small electric mill on the West Coast and, impressed by its possibilities, decided to install this power in the second mill. With a separate motor for each saw-bench, as well as for hoists, hauler and conveyors, the arrangement proved an overwhelming success. Although the cost of electric power equalled the wages of an engine-driver-fireman, the advantages of full power all the time, even in the heaviest cut in breaking down the logs into flitches, meant no slowing up of the saws.page 541
Before the big mill had been burnt down Tibbles had carried out the finishing touches that had made the plant so efficient. This was experience and training for him. It was during the period of constructing the new mills at Ngahere that our young manager showed outstanding ability. There was nothing he could not learn. A month after the completion of the first mill he knew all about Diesel engines. Next came electricity. Soon he could talk of volts and amps, direct and alternating current, motors, starters and transformers. It was as though he had served an electrician's apprenticeship in a few months. We had had our Craig and our Daly, but here was a young man who delved deeper into the mechanical and engineering side of sawmilling than had his predecessors. In all my experience I had not met a man in our industry who showed a keener conception of what plant and machinery could be made to do. Every possible labour-saving device was put into the mill; high-lead logging was adopted in the bush, bulldozers and steam shovels for tram-laying and ballasting. This may seem commonplace and ordinary practice to-day, but Tibbles was early on the scene with his ideas of mechanical power wherever possible.
He had great organizing ability, and his handling of men was in keeping with the more tolerant ways of to-day. He had not Craig's impetuous way of “quick-firing” men. He was quiet and calm, compared with Daly's resounding shout. Tibbles did not speak often, but his men all knew that he meant what he said. To this description one must add a fine physique, finely chiselled features and the portrait of our manager is complete.
How comes it that a young man of such capacity is to be found in the ranks of the rugged, practical sawmiller? The story is an interesting one and shows how easily a boy can be diverted from a chosen career. Young Joe Tibbles, the son of one of our bushmen, attended the Nelson Creek school. He was always a bright pupil and top of every class he was in. When he passed the sixth standard he was the cleverest boy in the school, and the pride of his school-master. At the age of fourteen he sat for a scholarship which, at that time, was the only way a boy could win a secondary school education if his parents could not afford to pay for it. When the results were published there was no sign of Tibbles' name; to the school-master it was incredible that his prodigy had failed. A re-count of his marks would have page 542 made no difference. It was some time before further light was thrown on this unexpected happening. In the country districts of New Zealand, law and order are maintained by a constable, usually in plain clothes, mounted on horseback as he rides from place to place. To the boys of Nelson Creek there was nothing formidable in his appearance when he paid occasional visits. However, for country lads to go down to Greymouth by train to sit for an examination among strangers was an ordeal in itself; but imagine their feelings when they found that the scrutineers were two, big, blue-uniformed policemen. So here were the bobbies they had heard of; they were there to catch them; they were cheats before they had started! This was too much for young Tibbles; he was overawed; it mattered not whether it was arithmetic or grammar, history or geography, the lines on his paper were blurred, his nerves were upset, he could not concentrate on anything.
Thwarted in his ambition to get into the civil service, young Tibbles now turned to “follow in his father's footsteps.” He became a whistle boy in the bush with the New Forest Company. As he grew up heavier work was given him. He next took a turn in the mill; first a slabby, then a log fiddler, then a tailer out, with occasional lessons in sawing, but the youth preferred the open-air life of the bushman, and so went back to felling trees. He became a champion with the axe and the crosscut saw, and took part in many Axemen's Carnivals; his saw was always the best kept, and his axe as sharp as a razor. Success in this field of competition, together with being captain of the local cricket and football teams, contributed to his becoming an accepted leader among the men with whom he worked, This brief sketch illustrates the personal qualities of a born leader of men who played such a part in restoring the fortunes of the New Forest Sawmilling Company.
An Axemen's Carnival in a bush district in New Zealand is worth going a long way to see. It is here that the magnificent physique of young bushmen is to be seen. The Maoris are fond of taking part in chopping and sawing contests. It is amusing to watch great, hefty lumbermen nursing their axes and saws as affectionately as the Chinamen and Filipinos caressed their fighting cocks. Some axemen always cover the heads of their axes with leather cases, just as one sometimes sees a golfer with a cover over the heads of his golf clubs.page 543
We had long since moved on to days when there are no longer anxieties and fears in the matter of finance. When the tide turned in our favour it proved to be a spring tide. Old Bob Lamb of Sydney had a bluff saying about the ebb and flow of business prosperity; he said, “When the tide comes in, the b …. comes in at both ends!” This was to be our experience in this welcome change of fortune, for all sections of the timber and building industry prospered.
We had experienced the short, sharp, but severe slumps of 1908 and 1921; we had felt the full weight of the longer period of depression which began in 1928; now we were to enjoy a harvest of better times and show results greater even than those of our first venture at Nydia Bay in its best days. When we moved from overdrafts to credits at the bank I received a letter of congratulation from Sir James Grose, in which he praised our courage and rectitude. I appreciated his use of the latter term. It was the tribute my father would have valued most.
I finish with an exciting event. The supervision of our saw-milling interests has, over the years, meant frequent visits to the West Coast. The completion of the Otira Tunnel, and the change to an express train journey that takes little more than six hours from Christchurch to Greymouth, makes it difficult for present-day travellers to appreciate the trying, even hazardous nature of the old-time coach journey to the coast.
On my first visit to Westland, in 1907, the train went only as far as Broken River. This left a long coach journey through mountainous country, then over the famous Otira Gorge and down to the railway terminus on the other side of the Southern Alps. The highest point of the Gorge road is 3,333 feet above sea-level. Evidence that there were risks attached to this coach journey over a road that in places is cut out of the solid rock on the mountain side is to be found in an experience I had more than twenty years ago.
It was raining in torrents when we left Arthur's Pass, so no passengers ventured to take outside seats alongside the driver. This point is important, for the driver was thus left with no one to assist him by pressing the foot-brake lever on the left-hand side of the coach. After reaching the summit there is a short, steep run down to Peg Leg Creek before reaching the level road that leads to the Otira Gorge proper. We appeared to go very fast down this hill, and at the foot the driver got down to inspect page 544 the brakes of the coach. At the time no one gave any thought to the matter, and we drove on to begin descending the Gorge; again the brakes would not hold, and soon we were careering down the mountainside at a pace that left no doubt about our perilous situation. Although I knew the road well, the fact that the canvas flaps were down on each side left us with no indication as to where we actually were. I have no recollection of becoming aware that we were fast approaching a sharp bend in the road which, unless safely negotiated, meant instant death for all of us. The coach was rocking from side to side, then suddenly heeled over, striking the ground with terrific force. With the fore-carriage released, the team of five horses, now terrified, leapt forward. The three leaders managed to get round the corner, but the shaft horses, with their view obscured, went straight on and over the cliff to fall more than a hundred feet on to the jagged rocks below. But for the harness snapping all five horses would have been killed.
If ever Providence put out a protecting hand it was on this occasion, for when the coach turned over we were within a hundred yards of the precipice. One of my fellow passengers inside the coach was badly injured when his shoulder struck the ground. His wife, seated in the middle, had several ribs broken, and the man on the back seat was thrown out on to the road and suffered grievous injury to his back. The driver had his head badly cut. Being on top of the “sacks on the mill” when the side of the coach hit the road, I was, when it rolled over again, thrown forward among the mail bags piled in front of us, and was thus the only one unhurt. It was a miraculous escape.
The whole happening just missed being the most tragic disaster in the history of this coach service which had been carried on so efficiently since the gold-mining days of the 'sixties, firstly by Cobb & Company, then Cassidy & Company, and at this time by Cassidy & Hall. There was consternation among the passengers in the other coaches following us when they came upon the scene of the accident. The severely injured were placed on stretchers and conveyed to Otira, then on by train to the Greymouth hospital.
“And the brakes were in good working order?”
“Now, Mr. ‘So-and-so’, you built this coach?”
“And you carry out all the repair work for this firm?”
“Then it would be in your own interests to find that the coach was in good condition when it came back to you?”
Before the witness realized where he was being lead, he replied, “Yes.”
“Thank you,” said Sir John. “That is all.”
The next witness was the man who drove the coach back to Arthur's Pass to be railed to Christchurch for repairs. He swore that the brakes were in good order—he had no difficulty in holding the coach on the steepest grades of the road. Then he faced Sir John who took him over the same ground, made him repeat what he had said so emphatically to his own counsel about the condition of the coach and the brakes in particular.
“Now,” said Sir John, “supposing you had been driving this coach with its load of passengers, and you found that on the short, steep run down to Peg Leg Creek you were not able to hold the coach, would you have gone on and down the more dangerous road in the Gorge?”
The poor chap was clearly in trouble, for he had heard his fellow-driver admit that he had inspected the brakes at the bottom of Peg Leg Hill. He did not answer. Sir John put the page 546 question again, this time with emphasis on the “load of passengers.” In the end the witness chose to be loyal to his colleague and answered “Yes.”
“Thank you,” said Sir John.
But the highlight of the case was counsel's contest with the defendant, who was eighty years of age. Following the trend of modern business practice, this coach proprietor had turned his business into a limited liability company. The object, no doubt, was to have some limit to his personal liability in the event of a major disaster such as this one might have proved. He had, however, been far from fair to the travelling public, for the nominal capital of his company was out of all proportion to the assets of the concern. Sir John Findlay had all the facts. This is how he interrogated defendant when in the witness box:
“Now, Mr. Hall, you turned your business into a limited company?”
“You then took a debenture over the assets of the company?”
“The debenture was for £5,000?”
“Now, do you mind telling His Honour and the gentlemen of the jury what the nominal capital of your company is?”
The shrewd old man was obviously embarrassed, and hesitated to answer. Sir John said, “Perhaps I had better tell them. It is £750, is it not?”
“Yes,” was the reluctant reply.
“Now, Mr. Hall, would you mind telling how the shares are held?” Again there was hesitation to answer. He seemed to sense the adroitness of the questions asked and saw that he was being led down the garden path. Once more Sir John said, “Well, perhaps I'd better tell His Honour. You hold 749 shares, and your wife holds 1!” then quickly added, “I suppose you hold a meeting of directors every night!” The court rocked with laughter, in which His Honour joined, and the discomfiture of the witness was complete.
In his summing up, Mr. Justice Herdman said: “The defence did nothing to shake the testimony of the one independent witness in the case.” Plaintiff got judgment for the full amount of his claim. Sir John Findlay was kind enough to page 547 say that my evidence won the case, but it was, of course, the brilliant pleading of one of New Zealand's most eminent counsels that convinced both the Judge and the jury.
The hazards of sawmilling are to be seen in the following incident: Some years ago I took my two youngest daughters and a school friend for a trip to our mills; they must see trees felled in the bush, always an exciting experience for city people. Coming back on the locomotive bringing in a load of logs, all went well until reaching a decline down a grade of 1 in 22; drizzling rain had made the rails greasy and when the brakes were applied the locomotive began to skid. Soon the log-train was gathering speed; the driver and fireman, finding they could not hold her, yelled “jump” and both leapt from the engine. Our manager was thus left in the cab of the locomotive with three young girls; my youngest daughter tried to push him aside so that she might jump off, but the imperturbable Tibbles told them to hold on tightly while he tried to slow up the train, but it was too late. Providence alone could now save them. At terrific speed the train raced toward the foot of the hill; near the bottom the loco left the rails, but her bolsters ripped into a clay bank; when clear of this the engine shot off the track and rolled over on its side, couplings broke, away went the trucks, and at the bend logs sixty feet long and weighing about five tons each were scattered over a wide area. With their faces blackened from coal dust and legs burnt by hot cinders, it was a bedraggled party that walked back to the settlement. Tibbles suffered some broken ribs, but had the satisfaction of knowing that while it was an unseen hand that guided their destiny, his prevention of panic also helped to save the lives of his young charges. It was a miraculous escape and never-to-be-forgotten experience.
And so I leave the story of West Coast experiences and this sawmilling venture as a tale of ups and downs. Set-backs—and there were many—were eventually overcome and the favourable trade wind that carried us back to the prosperity of earlier years was a factor in bringing success to our efforts.