Story: Rural workers
Page 4 – On the road
Wagoners were another unique breed of rural worker whose lives were itinerant – but usually back-and-forth on one route, delivering supplies and collecting produce. Eight Clydesdale horses typically pulled a narrow four-wheeled wagon. Many places had no real roads, just tussock hills with ruts, and on steep inclines men had to hold down the upper side of wagons to stop them rolling into gullies. As roads improved, wagons got wider. Before the better roads, 3 kilometres an hour was considered a good speed.
Men were employed by road boards, which levied farmers to pay for the work. Road grading was done by a couple of draught horses, a single-furrow plough, a horse-drawn scoop, a shovel and a pick. Before crushing machines, heavy hand-held hammers were used to break river boulders into metal. A horse and cart with a tip tray transported the metal, tipping and spreading it on roads at regular intervals.
Bullock teams could pull heavier loads than horses, and could also negotiate rougher country. In the early days they were the only means of supplying remote stations and taking out the wool clip. A return journey to the more isolated South Island stations could take a month, as flooded rivers often held up the team. Teams rarely moved more than 30 kilometres in a day. Drivers were tough men, known for their bad language.
Bullock drivers were often hard-living men. One Sam Phelps, who was often locked up for drunkenness, named his bullocks after magistrates and loudly cursed his beasts whenever officials were nearby. In the mid-1930s, bullocks in one of the last teams on the Wairarapa coast were all named after drinks – Whisky, Brandy, Soda, Beer, Gin, Wine, Sherry, Rum, Stout, Lemonade, Ginger and Coffee.
‘Working class athletes’
Many itinerant rural labourers went ‘on the swag’ – they walked from job to job. John A. Lee, who later became a cabinet minister, worked as an itinerant labourer in the early 1900s. His 1977 book Roughnecks, rolling stones and rouseabouts detailed the lives of these men. It included the reminiscences of many other people, one of whom described labourers as ‘working class athletes’.
One example was Jock McKenzie, known as the Highland Chief, who was said to be in Ōamaru, drunk, at 5 a.m., but showed up at 9 a.m. for the shearing call at Ōtemātātā Station, some 80 kilometres away. While such anecdotes may be exaggerations, no one could shear more sheep in a day than McKenzie. Physical prowess was respected in rural communities, and still is.
Once the shearing or the harvest were finished on one farm, it was time to get on ‘Shanks’s pony’ or ‘the hobnail express’ – in other words, walk to the next station. Often workers cashed their cheque at the nearest pub. After a drinking binge – sometimes lasting days – they were broke and hit the road again.
The professional swagger
There were also a number of professional swaggers, who chose to stay on the road, avoiding work and cadging free meals from farmers. Famed in rural folklore, they included such characters as Russian Jack in the lower North Island, and Barney Whiterats and Shiner Slattery in Canterbury and Otago. They fell into a band of gentlemen of the road who belonged to the ‘starlight boarding house fraternity’. 1Swaggers spent their lives wandering, finally ending up in an old men’s home, their wanderlust unquenched but their bodies failing.
Hawkers were mobile salesmen or saleswomen, usually with a horse and cart containing their wares. They mainly sold clothing, general provisions, crockery and trinkets. Some offered a service, such as the old Lebanese woman who pushed a pram around the Waimate back roads repairing old pots and pans. Another, known as the Sewing Lady, had a pram containing a hand-operated sewing machine, which she used to patch sheets and clothing.