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Was It All Cricket?

Chapter 39 — Railways Board and Personal Anecdotes

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Chapter 39
Railways Board and Personal Anecdotes

In 1931 the Prime Minister of New Zealand invited me to become a member of the Railways Board set up to manage the country's state-owned railways.

On two previous occasions New Zealand had decided to follow the example of Australian States, and lift this great service out of the arena of politics. The trials were short lived. Political power is something that is cherished by the parliamentarian, and the control of 20,000 odd workmen places great power and opportunity of patronage in the hands of a Minister of Railways. Is it any wonder that efficient management is often sacrificed for expediency and the welfare of the party machine? In the reverse way, civil servants have been known to misuse their powers; it is, in fact, on record that an Under Secretary, leading a deputation of civil servants to interview a Prime Minister, thumped the table with his fist and exclaimed, “Don't forget we represent 26,000 votes!” To-day it would be nearer 100,000 that could be thrown into the scale against a government. This surely makes a case for independent authority and control!

Mr. Forbes's government decided to set up a Royal Commission of enquiry into the administration and working of the railway system in New Zealand. It was on the Commission's report and advice that it was decided to place the management of the railways in the hands of a Board that would be entirely free from political influences; Mr. H. H. Sterling retired from the position of General Manager of Railways to become Chairman of the Board; the others were Sir James Gunson of Auckland, The Hon. Edward Newman, C.M.G., of Marton, Mr. G. W. Reid, a well-known public accountant of Dunedin, and myself. It was a good Board, and was given almost unlimited powers. The Minister of Finance alone had any legal authority over us and then on matters of finance only. The Prime Minister was Minister of Railways during our term of office, and his loyal support was always helpful. The practice page break
Rimu Tree at Port Craig

Rimu Tree at Port Craig

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Bridge Over Gully—Reaching the Back Country

Bridge Over Gully—Reaching the Back Country

page 549 of employees communicating directly or indirectly with the Minister of Railways was soon in evidence. Mr. Forbes's formal but polite replies, which always said: “The matter has been referred to the Railways Board for its consideration,” soon ended these attempts to go over the heads of the department. The Board quickly saw the wisdom of shielding the management from all interference of a political character. The effect was most gratifying and, although it took time, the result was administrative control comparable with privately owned industrial concerns.

We were impressed with the ability of the men who had risen to the highest positions in the service. They often told us of the benefits derived from having their authority unquestioned and their decisions on staff matters backed up by the Board. This was one of the principal advantages gained from the elimination of political control.

There is no need to relate in detail the work of the Board. It was a great experience to see the inside of the running of a concern so big, and which was by far the largest employer of labour in the Dominion. The visits made by the Board, covering the inspection of all the railway lines throughout the Dominion, took us to many outlying places; they also brought us in touch with many interesting people. The Board was always received officially, and if the district had any claims for the improvement or extension of the railway service, opportunity was given for stating the case.

We heard interesting stories of the pioneering days, and of the early political life of the country. One of the brightest was about Mr. Seddon's first visit to Pahiatua, after becoming Prime Minister. He was to address a big meeting in the local hall. Arriving early, he was busy in his room at the hotel receiving visitors. He enquired who was to propose the vote of thanks, and on being told, asked, “Where is he? Send him to me.”

After an exchange of greetings, the Prime Minister said, “You are going to propose the vote of thanks to-night?”

The man beamed with pride and said, “Yes.”

“What are you going to say?” asked Mr. Seddon. The local orator was taken aback and could not find words to express himself. Mr. Seddon then said, “Well, I'll tell you.”

Pahiatua is a farming centre, and after the meeting the page 550 proposer of the resolution was congratulated by his farmer friends, who were astonished at the knowledge he had displayed when praising the Seddon government for its land policy of subdivision and settlement on leasehold terms!

In 1935 a change of government brought into power a party that believed in direct Ministerial control of all things of the State and in the following year the Railways Board was disbanded. As the party of the new government had not previously been in power, it is perhaps natural that it should wish to rule in accordance with its own avowed principles. I am sure that experience will teach them otherwise as far as the railways are concerned, and that some day all parties will agree that such a great industrial and transport organization should be kept apart from the influences of politics. Australia provides shining examples of the advantages of independent control.

My term on the Railways Board was to be the closest I got to entering public life. Over the years a number of attempts were made to induce me to stand for Parliament, the most serious one being when, on my return from the Australian cricket tour of 1913, Mr. Massey delegated one of his Ministers to see me with regard to a seat he was anxious to win for his party. I had learned from my mother of the mistake my father made in entering Parliament at the height of his business career, and how our family fortunes had suffered in consequence, for the slump of the 'eighties hit New Zealand during his term as an M.P. It was, therefore, not difficult to say no to the flattering words of the Prime Minister's envoy. In any case, I had no inclination for a political career, even though I had always closely followed parliamentary debates and knew many leading politicians.

My first glimpse of a political giant was in an incident as unique as that which enabled me to remember seeing the 1886 English cricket team play at Hagley Park. Sir George Grey's name is handed down and revered in the Dominions as one of England's great colonial Governors. After completing his last term as Governor of New Zealand, he paid a visit to the Old Country, but returned to the Dominion and entered politics. From a Liberal Governor he became a Radical politician; he was responsible for the adoption of one man—one vote, in New Zealand; he advocated taxing the unearned page 551 increment on lands that benefited by the building of roads and railways. Had his views on this matter prevailed, they would have had far-reaching effects upon the taxation policy of the Dominion and transferred to the people more of the benefits that accrued from ambitious and extended public works. The argument against this was that the man who goes away into the loneliness of the back-blocks, tills the land, herds his sheep and tends his cattle, is entitled to all he can make when closer settlement follows his pioneering effort. This controversy raged long before the Lease in Perpetuity policy of Mr. Ballance and Mr. Seddon, and the Freehold policy of Mr. Massey. I leave it to the politicians to continue the debate.

Sir George Grey formed what was known as the Progressive Liberal Party. Mr. Seddon was always a staunch supporter. My father was a Liberal and, no doubt, was attracted by the policy, as well as the personality of the ex-Governor. Sir George must have liked my father, for he came several times to have lunch at our home. This was about 1885, when I was six years old. On one occasion my younger brother Alec and I sat on the old man's knee. It was my brother's birthday. He was dressed in his black velvet suit—the Sunday best of little boys of our time. It was new, and following the practice of those days the great man slipped a coin into my brother's pocket. When my uncle used to play this trick on us it was always a penny we pulled out. But apparently Sir George Grey did not deal in pennies, for my brother produced a silver coin, the sight of which thrilled us. We had visions of the toffee we could buy at “the shop at the corner,” but my mother, taking the coin, said she would look after it. This incident remained one of the jokes in our family, for my brother always vowed he never saw the half-crown again. Pennies were really more in our line, in days when boys were not spoilt by being given too much money.

That boys of my time were taught the value of money is to be found in a story of my first visit to Wellington, with the Midland XI, when I was fifteen. Before leaving, my mother gave me ten shillings for pocket money. As this was in the days when visiting cricket teams were always driven to and from the ground in a coach, when moving pictures were not known, and even ice-creams not on sale, there were few page 552 opportunities for a lad to spend money. There was a shout of laughter in our home when I returned with the half-sovereign intact.

An example of quick retort on the cricket field is to be found in a club match in Christchurch, when J. S. Barrett, noted for his ready Irish wit, powerfully drove the first ball he received past me at cover-point. This was the last ball of the over and as we changed across I said to him, “By Jove, Steve, that was a pretty good shot off the first ball!”

“Yes,” said Barrett. “It's always the last ball that troubles me most!”

A bright tale emerges from the post-war years of the early twenties, when Canterbury had again become the leading provincial eleven. In the match against Wellington an unfortunate incident occurred when David Collins, convinced that the wicket had been watered overnight, lodged a formal complaint, and the New Zealand Cricket Council held an inquiry. The finding was that the rolling of the wicket, with the dew still on the ground, had been the cause of the trickles of water that showed in the block-holes. The Wellington players were not entirely convinced, for one needs to live in Christchurch to know how heavy the dew can be in the spring and late summer.

A few months later Canterbury became the champion football province, and their performances included a win against the South Africans. At the end of the same season a Canterbury junior representative football team went to Wellington and defeated the local juniors. When the ferry steamer was about to depart, the jubilant Canterbury lads, leaning over the ship's railing and led by a spokesman, called to the big crowd on the wharf:

“Who won the junior rep. match?”

Chorus: “Canterbury!”

“Who won the Ranfurly Shield?”


“Who beat the Springboks?”


“Who won the Plunket Shield?”


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This was their last triumphant call, for a loud voice from the wharf asked:

“Who watered the wicket?”

When Shacklock came to Ghristchurch in 1921 as a coach to the Canterbury Cricket Association, a wicket at Lancaster Park was in the course of preparation for a match against a team from overseas and the old Notts professional said to me, “Why don't you use fowl manure as a top dressing?” He then explained how it was used in liquid form and sprinkled on the pitch through a watering-can; in other words, here was a recipe for a “doctored” or doped wicket as it is often called, and explains why wickets now stand up to so much more wear and tear than they used to. A few years later when on a visit to Australia I asked the groundsman at the Adelaide Oval what he used as a final top dressing, and to my surprise he said, “Pigeon manure!” Is it any wonder that matches in Australia sometimes last seven days? I had heard of a mixture of clay and cow manure being used in England, but this was my first knowledge of the use of bird manure.

I end with some references to the game of golf, and tell of a match played at Auckland on one of the visits of the Railways Board to that city. Although I once got down to the four mark, I was never a good golfer. I was a scratch player with the putter and the mashie, was good with the mid-iron, but my left-hander's slice made me less adept with wooden clubs. This explanation will help to give a background to the story of a game of chatty golf played against Harold B. Lusk, my old cricket companion, who was once New Zealand's champion golfer.

I leave the newspaper report, under the heading of “Phenomenal Golf,” to tell of the sudden change and sensational finish to a game I shall always have cause to remember:

Playing at the Auckland Golf Club's links at Middlemore during the week-end, Mr. D. Reese, a member of the New Zealand Railways Board, registered a phenomenal performance over the last four holes of the course. He was playing with Mr. H. B. Lusk, and his score over the four holes mentioned was 12. At the 15th he holed out with a full brassie shot for 2; he got a 4 at the 16th; another full brassie shot for 2 followed at the 17th, while the last page 554 hole was done in 4. The bogey score for these holes 4, 4, 5, 4. It will thus be seen what a remarkable feat Mr. Reese's actually was. It has never been known to happen previously in the history of the club, and may never happen again. The two players have frequently been associated on the cricket fields of Canterbury and elsewhere in New Zealand, and Mr. Reese has just retired from the position of President of the New Zealand Cricket Council, after holding office for some years.

Both as a school-master and a sportsman, Lusk displayed a sarcasm that provoked laughter, rather than anger, and possessed a humour that was subtle. When I holed out with my brassie at the 15th I was subjected to a typical attack of banter, but on repeating the performance at the 17th, Lusk was so dumbfounded that he could not find words to express himself. One of the things I remember about the 2 at the 17th, was my caddy excitedly calling out, “It's in again, sir!”

Slipping away from one's office for a mid-week game is frequently indulged in by the enthusiastic golfer. The implications that may arise when the player is an employee are shown in the following incident which happened when I was on a business trip to Australia. Val Johnston was the popular and efficient manager of the Union Steamship Company's office in Sydney. He was a strenuous worker, but liked his game in the middle of the week. When Sir Charles Holdsworth, head of the Union Company, paid a visit to Sydney, Johnston was fully engaged all the week. When it came to the week-end, the local manager took his chief to Rose Bay for a game on these famous links. As they walked on to the first tee, one of Johnston's friends, not knowing who Sir Charles Holdsworth was, called out, “Hullo, Val! Why didn't you turn up on Thursday afternoon? You didn't come on Tuesday either!”

One more allusion to the ancient game. A well-known member of the Australian Golf Club celebrated his' sixtieth birthday with a four-ball game on the Kensington Links and invited his companions to dine with him at the club-house. It was late that evening before four jolly golfers decided they had done justice to the occasion. The first port of call was the home of the host, who invited his friends to have “one more.” They thought it was too late. One said, “What'll your wife say?”

“My wife?” exclaimed Mr. “X,” drawing himself up to his full height, “I'm Julius Caesar in my own home!”

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The party, in hilarious mood, entered the house, which was close to the road. With decanter on the sideboard and glasses filled, ready to repeat the toast for the umpteenth and last time, the door opened quietly and in walked the host's wife in her dressing-gown. With one withering look at the visitors, she pointed to the door, and turning to her husband said, “As for you, Julius Caesar, you go to bed at once!”

Jim Phillips, famous umpire of the 'nineties, told us many amusing stories when he was in New Zealand in 1898. I re-tell two of them: The first was of the beginning of his career as an umpire. The game had not long been in progress when there was a snick and a loud appeal for a catch behind the wickets. As Phillips was the first to yell “How's that?” he found himself joined in the chorus of laughter that greeted his appeal, with little need to give a decision!

The other was of the first time he stood at the bowler's end to Spofforth. The Demon Bowler rarely went over the crease, but Phillips caught him with his toe on the chalk line and called “no ball.” The Australian seemed a bit nettled; next time he went six inches over, and again was no-balled, but the bowler had not delivered the ball. “I'm sorry,” said Spofforth, “my foot slipped.” Next ball was a perfectly fair delivery, but once more he was no-balled. “What was that for?” asked Spofforth. “I'm sorry,” answered Phillips “my tongue slipped.” There was no more “foot-slipping”!