Story: Barrett Crumen

Page 1 - Biography

Barrett Crumen

1878–1968

Seaman, swagger

This biography was written by John E. Martin and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998

Barrett Crumen (or Krumen) was perhaps the last of New Zealand's old-time swaggers. He was reportedly born in Latvia on 26 March 1878, and was a member of the Lutheran church. Nothing is known of his family and it appears that he neither married nor had any children. Even his real name is uncertain, as 'Crumen' may refer to his being a crewman on a ship, and 'Barrett' did not seem to mean anything to him. To everyone who met him he was 'Russian Jack'.

As a boy Barrett spent three years at school and then worked in local 'scrub camps' for a time. At the age of 24 he left home to join the merchant marine, and probably spent the next decade working as a seaman. In 1912 he arrived in New Zealand on the British steamer Star of Canada. At Gisborne, on the night of 23 June, the ship was blown ashore and wrecked during a fierce southerly gale. Barrett later recounted that he was nearly swept away as he attempted to free the anchor.

It seems that he decided to save his money by walking to Wellington, where he presumably intended to sign on with another ship. He never made it. He decided to stay on the roads and for the next 53 years he tramped around much of the North Island, particularly Wairarapa and Manawatu. He reportedly avoided Hawke's Bay after experiencing the 1931 earthquake there. Like several other swaggers before him, Barrett was called 'Russian Jack' – 'Ivan what you call Jack', as he himself put it – probably because of his thick accent.

Photographs in later life show him as a fairly squat man with a deeply tanned face and a drooping moustache, wearing a wide-brimmed felt hat with the brow turned down, and supported by a stout, gnarled walking stick. He smoked a pipe that he put out by jamming a cork in the bowl. Rather than a single rolled swag he carried two or more large sugar bags tied together over his shoulder, and a cut-down kerosene-tin billy. In his swag he carried blankets, towels, clothing, two or more pairs of boots, food, and tins of dripping, which he rubbed on his chest and neck to protect against ailments. To keep out the cold he wore layers of brown paper or newspaper under his increasingly patched clothes, and even under his hat. He had the odd habit of stuffing his ears with brown paper wads soaked in mutton fat, to protect against the cold wind and to 'keep the bugs out'.

Barrett kept a number of rough bivouacs ready for his next visit, as well as sleeping in derelict huts on stations. He kept himself, his billy and his various dwellings extremely clean and tidy, and was well known for his large appetite, particularly for legs of mutton and eggs. But when calling on country people his requests were usually confined to a billy of tea and some dripping.

There are many tales about Russian Jack and undoubtedly some of them refer to a similar character who travelled the Wairarapa roads earlier. Oddly, both men were described as having the same distinctive habit: they would take off their boots as soon as they had left town and walk barefoot to preserve their essential footwear. However, Barrett probably wore his boots all the time in later life. As they wore out he lined them with paper and corrugated cardboard, and patched them with leather and car-tyre rubber on the outside. In the end his boots together weighed more than eight pounds.

Although largely known for his perennial presence on the roads of the lower North Island, Barrett would occasionally venture into Auckland and Wellington. On one visit to Auckland 10 shillings was taken from him when he was asleep; he never went back. He enjoyed his tobacco and alcohol, and in Wellington he would often get drunk; he claimed to have been arrested for drunkenness a dozen or more times. In one incident, after emerging from the Trocadero Private Hotel, he avoided arrest by hiring a car for half a crown to take him around the block to the backyard he used as a camp while in town. It was the first time he had ever been in an automobile.

Barrett Crumen finally relinquished the swag in the mid 1960s because of declining health and the increase in road traffic. He was by then into his late 80s, very deaf, bow-legged, footsore, and with one foot increasingly bent over. In 1965 he was admitted to hospital with frostbitten feet. He spent the next three years in the Buchanan ward of Greytown Hospital, where he died after a short illness on 19 September 1968, at the age of 90.