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Pioneering the Pumice

Chapter V: The Workmen

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Chapter V: The Workmen

The labourer is worthy of his hire”—Luke x, 7: I Timothy v, 18.

When a number of Labour Members of Parliament were looking over Broadlands they expressed astonishment at the amount of work which I had done. To this I made answer: “It is the work of my ‘wages slaves.’” (To quote the jargon of the Labour Party itself.) And it is true enough. All a man can effect on a vast area with his own two hands is negligible. While he is fencing the back boundary, the house cow is hiking away in search of elysian fields where calves are not killed and teats are not pulled twice a day; the rabbit is beating the multiplication table; the ragwort is exercising peaceful penetration, and the very common blackberry is vigorously justifying its scientific name (rubus fruticosus) and proving that it possesses in marked degree the quality in which our butter is said to be deficient — spreadability.

Of course the quality of the assistance he can command has much to do with an owner's success or failure. Some “bosses” can get much more out of their workers than others, and I must confess that at first the want of previous personal contact with rough labour — and consequent failure to understand and appreciate the viewpoint of the labourers — was a serious drawback. In farming, as in other businesses, it is best to begin at the page 97 bottom. The actual starting of one's career as an ordinary farmhand has this and many other advantages; and perhaps the chief of them is a knowledge of the tricks the “hands” play to beat the “head.”

Most of my early work was done with Maori labour. Throughout the North Island the natives have been most useful in the first breaking in of wild country. I found them very anxious for work — or at least for wages. They had no clocks. So as not to miss his job a man would often arrive at 7 a.m. and when 5 p.m. came, he was not particular about an extra half-hour. And if you gave him the remains of a warm coat you were the good fellow. Of course there is as much difference between individual Maoris as there is between individual Englishmen; but, as a general rule, they are better tempered and more easily controlled than Europeans. They are intelligent and work well. Of course they have defects. Continuous labour is foreign to their nature and their experience. They must, at not infrequent intervals, have time to sit in the sun on the sheltered side of their whare and while away the happy hours. They cannot help it — any more than a certain distinguished parliamentary orator of Maori origin simply had now and again to seek the seashore and scratch for pipis. Another defect is that they will insist that they understand your instructions, whereas the fact is that very few Maoris really understand English: and, until the Pakeha boss has trained his mind to think in Maori ways and comprehend their difficulties, trouble is likely to ensue.

Of course this difficulty is not confined to Maoris. It obtains with Pakehas also. Quite often the fault lies with the boss. He knows what he wants done, but fails in giving clear instructions to his men. On the other hand some men display a misunderstanding of orders which amounts almost to ingenuity. If there are half-a-dozen ways of doing a job wrongly you think of five and warn your man not to employ any of them, but he will find page 98 the sixth wrong way for himself and use it. Some men are so ingenious that, if you gave one of them a bowl of soup, he would attempt its consumption with a fork, and if you were to explain that the proper implement is a spoon, you would find him using the handle instead of the bowl.

Gradually I had to take the Maoris off continuous toil — such as team work — and confine them to small contracts and jobs where time was not of the essence of the contract.

For my Pakeha workers I got all sorts — some good, some bad, mostly medium. In some cases — I think I may say in many cases — I have been astonished at what men will do under adverse circumstances. I took possession in midwinter, and our first job was to erect a bridge to get on to the land.

In charge of these works was Fred Smith, one of the last of the real “Old Colonial Hands.” He would tackle anything. He built the bridge, made the road (in a way), and built the house (a shade off the square).

For my first manager I had another real old pioneer hand who could do anything and had been everything from Plymouth Brother to Publican. He had established himself as a carrier before my time but had given up the business and his home lay derelict. He came to manage Broadlands, and certainly had a difficult job. His main trouble was over-estimating the carrying capacity of the place, and the winter seasons automatically reduced the stock (at my expense) to what would live. The fact is that, without preparation, the Pumice Country will carry very little stock in the winter time. This chap had a certain vein of humour. He would say to one of the boys: “Hullo Jack! Now you've got your heart up, take a reef in your belt and keep it there.”

Our neighbour Mr. Butcher used to have the habit of altering his personal appearance by sometimes wearing a full beard, sometimes close shaving, and again: all sorts of side whiskers page 99 and moustaches in between. The women folk of the district were discussing how Willy looked best, when our friend murmured: “It's an awkward kind of a face to know what to do with.”

Yet another of the old school was Eric Anderson. He was already in the district when I arrived. A Dane by nationality, a good and honest worker by nature, a jack-of-all-trades by upbringing — could do almost anything “well enough.” Later on he acquired a farm section and a wife to work on it.

Another I remember was Jack Hull, a Maori, but I think not full-blooded. It was a treat to see this man drive a team of bullocks, but he was very quiet so there wasn't much to hear. One day I saw him with his team of live tractors travelling through the streets of Rotorua at a full two miles per hour. Arrived at his destination he backed his great lumbering wagon through a narrow gateway into a store with nothing but the power of his bullocks.

To him I gave a contract to erect eight and a-half miles of fence on the back boundary between me and King Edward VII. The posts were to be split in my own bush Aputahou. There were some noble trees if you like: straight as an arrow: sound as a bell: five hundred posts and over from a single tree. Jack let a sub-contract for the supply of posts laid on the line at £3 10s. per hundred. What do you think of that? Of course there was no royalty to pay, but the transport was not easy. It would make your hair stand on end to see the country over which those Maoris drove the loaded wagons. Jack made a real good job of the fence. But King Edward VII, in exercise of his royal prerogative, declined to pay his half of the cost!

I have remarked before on the hardships with which the good pioneering workman will put up. Thus when I was breaking in some country about two and a-half miles from the homestead, the ploughman, in order to save travelling his horses so far page 100 every day, lived in a little portable humpy about ten feet by six. There he fed his horses, cooked his own food, sat in a wonderful armchair which he constructed out of benzine boxes, and lived a godly, righteous and sober life — he had little opportunity to do else!

Another ploughman I had — and a good worker too — had a mania for spending his sum and substance on “art unions.” Every week twenty-five shillings went to Tatt's, and if ever he won a fiver, he was for several days as pleased as a dog with two tails. Of course his real objective was the big money. He is still after it, though now more inclined to admit the correctness of Adam Smith's maxim: “There is no proposition in mathematics more certain than that the more tickets one takes in a sweep the more certain one is to lose.”

Then there was Rory the shepherd: A good-natured, jovial Irishman, dependable, and a loyal worker and friend. He writes to me to the present day, though it must be fully twenty years since he left. He was one of those happy persons, thoroughly convinced that he could do anything as well as anybody else — and most things infinitely better. Indeed this fortunate state of affairs extended even to his possessions: and he certainly did have the cleverest and best dog that I ever came across. He rode a very good station horse — perhaps the fact that he rode it made it the best on the place. As the annual district sports approached, I noticed that feed oats were disappearing at a greater rate than usual, and “dropped to it” that my noble Rory had entered his hack for the races. So I said nothing. He also entered himself for almost every event. His hack would certainly have scooped the races had not a new neighbour introduced a racehorse with jockey and silks and all complete. Seeing that our meeting was unlicensed and only for settlers' hacks this was unusual. However, our old prad carried the oats round the course in real good style and frightened the life out of the page 101 racehorse. When it came to the wrestling, Rory was so kind as to warn his competitors. He did not want to hurt anybody. However he had the misfortune to draw a particularly hefty Maori in the first round and his warnings were wasted. In the end he came home with several prizes, the result of willing efforts.

I may here remark that during the period in which there were only the three stations, the Annual Sports was a great and happy event. Races for horses and also for humans, jumping, wrestling, and the like, made a very full and a very jolly day.

There arrived one day Harold and Bert, two “new chums” humping their blueys and really looking for a job. They were from Northumbria. The first morning I was busy and could not go out, so I told Harold to take a spade and cut down the docks in the stable yard. Presently he returned saying:

“Where is them docks? I can't see none!”

“They are all over the stable yard,” I said. “You must be blind.”

It turned out that poor Harold did not know what a dock was. Perhaps he had instituted a futile search for the sort of thing that flourishes along the waterfront of Newcastle-on-Tyne. The fact was that Harold's job all his previous life had been boring holes through metal. He knew all about that and nothing about anything else. He was a specialist. In case, dear reader, you are unaware of the difference between a specialist and a statistician I must here inform you. A specialist is one who knows a great deal about a very few things, and as he goes along he knows more and more about fewer and fewer, until in the end he knows everything about nothing. On the other hand a statistician knows a little about a great number of things, and as he goes along he knows less and less about more and more, until in the end he knows nothing about everything. So when I had a job to do on the exhaust of the engine I page 102 thought Harold the man to tackle it. He “gave it a go” and came in to say: “I'm afraid I'll have to 'eat it, sir,” to which I remarked: “I'm afraid you'll find it very indigestible.” This puzzled Harold, but he applied the heat and did his job. After a while he came to me to see whether I would lend him £10, to which I answered: “You must have quite a lot of money. Why do you want to borrow?” Then it appeared that he had a wife and daughter in England: and, if he could raise another £10, he could bring them from the wilds of Newcastle-On-Tyne to the centre of civilization at Broadlands. So the £10 was advanced and in due course the ladies arrived. The family stayed with me until they had saved about £150. Harold then had a fit that if he could get to a township he could secure a lucrative municipal appointment. So they left, but it was not very long before they had dispersed their savings and wanted to return. I gave them the first opening and this time they remained until they had accumulated £250, when they decided to try their fortunes in Auckland. At first they met with disaster, but later “found their feet” and are now comfortably placed. Most new chums who persevere and do their best succeed in the end.

This man's mate was one who had had much better educational advantages. He was quite well-read and managed to “hang on to” some good books. He was a good and honest worker. His enemy was drink. As soon as he had got a few pounds together he must have his fling. Dreadful! How men in “the trade” can reconcile their consciences with the making of money out of the degradation of the people passes my comprehension.

Sometimes one gets an old man who just wants a comfortable home. As long as he is well-fed and kindly treated he is content. One such I had towards the end, a very decent old chap who loved to work in the garden and among the trees, page 103 but would turn his hand to anything within his strength. He left when I left.

One curio I had about two years after the War, came to me under peculiar circumstances. I heard that there was a white man sleeping in the scrub. Such happenings were apt to lower the Pakeha in the estimation of the Maori — so I sent a boy out to track him down. When the man arrived his appearance was not attractive: but, after his countenance had been revealed by the action of soap and water, he did not look so bad. He was glad to work and did all right. In a couple of months he came for his cheque. I enquired:

“Why do you want to go? Do you want to sleep in the scrub again?”

“Oh I've got over £10 coming to me: that will last a long time.” I went on:

“You were at the War all the time. You must have had a lot of back-pay and bonus coming to you.”

“Yes, and I had a real good time,”

“You're a waster,” I said.

“Am I? My mates rushed the Crown Lands Office and put down their money against farms. They have toiled like slaves and gone off their farms in debt. I've not toiled. I've had a good time — and I'm not in debt.” It is scandalous that the follies of governments should put decent honest men in a worse position than wasters like this.

Of course on a station there are unpleasant as well as pleasant jobs. Such a one is footrotting. The aroma is not reminiscent of Arabia Felix and the work is hard. One of the men dropped his knife and it fell through the batten floor. He swore at it but it took no notice. “Old fellow,” said I, “you'll have to go and fetch it.” Grumbling he crawled under the shed amid the more or less moist droppings. Just as he reached out for the knife a ewe seized the opportunity of relieving herself and page 104 the man got it in the neck. His language nearly lifted the shed off its foundations.

I “have no time” for foreigners. They have no “guts” in any emergency. A German with the appropriate name of Sauerbier was sent up by a registry office. I gave him the job of gathering big pumice, carting it to the bank of the Waikato, and tipping it into the river, so that it might float down to Cambridge and Hamilton for the benefit of the inhabitants of those villages. About three in the afternoon a boy rushed in breathless to tell me that the German had tipped the dray into the river. Grabbing a rope and seizing the boy's horse I galloped down but there was absolutely nothing to be seen. The boy followed and indicated where the accident had happened. He said the man had made no attempt to save the situation, but had simply wrung his hands and cried “Yah, yah, yah” and then bolted for his life. I got a boy to dive down and pass a rope through the spokes of one wheel and we dragged the outfit ashore. Having stripped the horse of its harness we turned him adrift for the further benefit of the villagers, by giving strength to their water supply. However I expect the degree of benefit was about equal to that conferred by a dead house-fly in a house tank and hardly worth the £30 which this good horse had cost me.

My regular staff at Broadlands consisted of two ploughmen, a shepherd, a “married man” (usually a roustabout), and two boys. At harvest, haymaking, chaffcutting, shearing, docking, dipping, and so on, extra hands were employed. Then there were scrub-getters, drainers, fencers, and the like, on contract, besides timber-getters, carriers and others partially employed by me. Also seed and manure merchants, and other traders, in part dependent on my business. So it can be seen what a considerable number of men are supported by a great undertaking such as Broadlands.

page 105

Among all these men during a period of twenty-eight years I found a great variety.

Distance and lack of a school were great drawbacks, and many could not endure the loneliness and want of neighbours.

Some men had intelligence above their station in life: others were so dull-witted as to lead one to suppose that they had since boyhood made continuous use of mental contraceptives.

Wages were formerly on a very much lower scale than at present and more and better work was done. The higher the wages the less the work, is very regrettable, but it is a fact. I fancy it is because high wages denote a scarcity of labour and men know that their leaving will be an inconvenience to the boss, whereas they can get another job without delay.

Single men received £1 per week and found; married men £2 per week and a cottage with free milk and free firewood. All hands had the privilege of keeping one hack, and the shepherd two dogs. All single men were found in food and shelter. On a big place employing a large number of hands, there would be a cookhouse with a regular cook. On Broadlands we fed the men in the kitchen, which is really much the best way for all concerned. I never rationed the hands. They had all they wanted — and the tucker bill was not light. The number sitting down to meals when haymaking and other jobs requiring extra hands were in progress gave me the impression that I was indeed the main support of New Zealand, filling the very hungry with good things, and demonstrating the economic maxim “The cost of production is consumption.”

At that time wool was about ninepence per pound for orddinary crossbred fleece; good mutton fourpence per pound; good beef about threepence (dressed weights). Butterfat we did not then produce; and I can bear witness that at those prices and the costs then ruling it was extremely difficult to keep one's head above water. But confidence and enterprise were in page 106 evidence — great assets absolutely absent at this time of writing.

When, towards the latter days, I established dairying, it became necessary to employ sharemilkers. They are sent to try one's patience and one is at their mercy.

As I have said: I have had all sorts — good, bad and indifferent. But one must allow for the labourer's viewpoint. He toils and sweats and endures hardships of isolation and heat and cold and rain — and has no permanent financial interest in the results of his toil and endurance. The boss is even as the Centurion having authority: “He sayeth to one ‘go’ and he goeth.” And that is all there is to it.

In one respect I fear that I was soft. I was very slow indeed in sacking a man. It seemed a cruel and almost wicked thing to turn a man, and worse still a boy, adrift upon the world in hard times with a bad mark against him.