Story: Traill, Robert Henry

Page 1 - Biography

Traill, Robert Henry

1892–1989

Labourer, fisherman, wildlife ranger, bushman

This biography was written by Brian O'Brien and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

Robert Henry Traill, known as Roy, was born at Ringaringa, Stewart Island, on 1 December 1892. The son of Arthur William Traill, a farmer and schoolteacher, and his wife, Gretchen Wohlers, he was delivered by the well-known local midwife, Granny Harrold. Arthur Traill had come to New Zealand from the Orkney Islands as a seaman; Gretchen was the daughter of Johann and Eliza Wohlers, Lutheran missionaries who had come to Ruapuke Island in the 1840s.

Roy Traill was educated at Halfmoon Bay School and Southland Boys’ High School, and learnt the natural history of Stewart Island from his father. After leaving school in 1909 he worked briefly for the Union Bank of Australia in Invercargill, but his outdoor upbringing had left him ill-suited for office work. Within a year he was in casual farm work before returning to Stewart Island as a fisherman. Then, wanting to see more of New Zealand, he went to the North Island, where he worked as a station hand and fencer. While on the Gisborne wharf one day in 1914, Traill began chatting to a crew member of the schooner Awanui. He was offered a job on board and sailed to Auckland, then went on to Whangarei to join his brother Charlie on railway construction work.

Later that year Traill returned to Invercargill and in January 1915 he enlisted for war service. After training at Trentham Military Camp, he arrived in Egypt in May. By his own admission, ‘I wasn’t much of a soldier. I died every day at that war. And better men than me were killed every day’. He was hospitalised with severe heatstroke, but after recuperating rejoined his unit in Egypt, where his brothers Charlie and Arthur were now serving. Soon after, he accompanied the force to France, where he was wounded by a shell at the battle of the Somme and hospitalised in England.

After returning to New Zealand in 1917, Traill worked as a fisherman and fossicked for gold. He married Dorothea Ellen Moseley (also known as Moffett) at Invercargill on 29 October 1924; they were to have a son and a daughter. In 1925 he became a part-time ranger for the State Forest Service and the Department of Lands and Survey on Stewart Island, supplementing his ‘very small’ salary by fishing. The island then abounded in bird species such as kokako and tui, and ‘the most valuable thing I did was to stop respectable people from helping themselves to the birds’. But in spite of his official responsibilities Traill occasionally ate weka stew and found that kaka stew was ‘very good, too – very sweet eating’. These birds were then plentiful ‘because we didn’t ever take more than we needed’.

In the course of his work Traill tramped over most of the island, living largely on tinned bully beef: ‘I didn’t worry about veges; they’re for the town people’. He built up a detailed knowledge of the bush and its animal and bird life, and assisted botanists such as Lucy Moore and Lucy Cranwell. He became a close friend of the conservationist Noeline Baker and helped stock her Halfmoon Bay property, Moturau Moana, with native and exotic plants. After she presented it to the nation in 1940, Traill sometimes acted as its caretaker. He also cleared and marked a track to Port Pegasus at the southern end of the island, and helped to keep deer off the islands in the Bravo group.

Dorothea Traill died in 1958, the year Roy finally retired (although he continued to act as honorary ranger). He was made an MBE in 1963. In his later years he lived with his son, Alex, at Halfmoon Bay. Traill had ‘always been on the outside edge of modern life’ and joked about their lack of material possessions: ‘we’ve got a chain-saw and a lawn-mower now, so we’re rising socially!’ He had once owned a car, but sold it as soon as he learned to drive.

In his 80s Traill used to put himself to sleep by reciting The rime of the ancient mariner or memorising the track to Port Pegasus with ‘all the bends and rises in the right order’. At 91 he had his firearms licence renewed. He spent his last years in Riverton Hospital; even there, he was happy as long he was allowed to smoke his pipe. He died at the hospital on 11 September 1989, aged 96. He was survived by his children.