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No charity fund for hard done by swaggers

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The Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust is fortunate to have in its care an eclectic collection originally belonging to Reverend Anthony Webb, his wife Patty and family. Amongst the items are a series of pencil sketches, drawn by Cecil James Webb (known as Jim) depicting rural life in Central Hawke’s Bay.

In January 1881, while living in Stockingford, England, bereavement struck the Webb family when Anthony’s elder brother Joseph died leaving behind an orphaned family of seven children. Charlie, the eldest, had left home and was in the British Navy; Aunt Mary, (Anthony’s sister) cared for the three youngest children; and the remaining siblings Tom, George and Jim “all of them good, steady, reliable, well principled boys,”were welcomed with open-arms into Anthony and Patty’s family.

Anthony wrote to Charlie: “Tom, George & Jim have all settled down into their own places as my very, dear sons and you must do the same. Remember dear old chap I am your father now.” This sense of fondness was reciprocated by the boys especially Jim, who wrote: “Uncle Anthony and I get on awfully well together and I like him so much that I am not out of his presence more than ½ an hour.” Anthony, Patty and family, including the three nephews emigrated from England to Aotearoa / New Zealand, May 1884.

On arrival in Ōtepoti / Dunedin, Anthony was offered the parish of Ormondville in Heretaunga, Hawke’s Bay and once settled the family readily adapted to rural colonial life. The men of the family quickly gained employment: Jim worked at Tahoraiti Station looking after sheep and shooting stray dogs while Tom and George split firewood from logs in the Webb’s paddock, to sell. To supplement their income Anthony purchased land for farming, the first priority being to clear it of native bush. Jim, Tom and Edmond (Anthony’s son) found this“very pleasant kind of work as there is a good deal of variety with it”.

While working at Tahoraiti Station, Jim, who had a “decided talent for painting and drawing”, sketched several pictures depicting swag men (swaggers) whom he met on the road. This image, drawn circa 1894 and captioned “’oo’s the tourist mate?” shows two swaggers deep in conversation. One, divested of his swag and having boiled his billy for a cuppa, is depicted sitting on the side of the road nonchalantly smoking a pipe. A second swagger has stopped for a chin-wag (talk) and while deep in conversation they are alerted by a third trudging down a hill in the distance.

There were three types of swaggers: the seasonal rural worker who had a wide range of skills from fencing, bush clearing and shearing; the unemployed men who were prepared to do any labouring job from firewood cutting, poisoning, along with general station work in exchange for money, shelter and food and the work-shy “professional swagger” who worked purely to accommodate his immediate needs.

The sketch, although quickly drawn to capture the moment, is historically accurate as during the early 1880s – 1895, New Zealand experienced a serious economic depression. As there was no social system or charitable aid available, hundreds of unemployed were forced to tramp rural roads in search of work. The “Journal of the Department of Labour” stated that there were “many thousands” of itinerants in the early 1890s, the worst years being 1894 – 95.

The swaggers were dependent upon farmers and station owners to provide them with work, money, shelter and food. This informal system of relief for the unemployed (even if there was no work available) was reflected in the generous attitude of the rural community towards travellers, the hungry and shelter-less. One of the reasons settlers had such an empathetic attitude toward the needy was that within recent memory, they themselves had undergone hardships while trying to break-in land to make a living.

In 1894, one Hawke’s Bay station recorded a total of “900 men fed in six months”, another had “400 pass its way in 59 days”, while a neighbour fed “30 in one night alone.” One sheep farmer had to employ an extra hand purely to cook the meat and bake the bread needed to sustain the unexpected visitors. Other farmers gave shelter but provided little food other than a biscuit or two.

Several stations “blocked” swaggers providing them with neither food nor shelter – word quickly got around and these stations were assiduously avoided. If a swagger did not arrive at a desired destination by nightfall they were forced to sleep out under-the-stars. Such an occurrence happened at Waipawa where during one night alone there were over a hundred men camped in the willows.

There was limited amounts of work available for such large numbers of itinerants. On 4 July 1893 the Waipawa Mail newspaper published part of a swagger’s journal, showing the extent of their search for employment. “We arrived at Blairlogie about 5 pm and found six more travellers encamped there. Next morning proceed to Langdale and from there to Lea. In rotation we visited the following stations, Maunsell’s, Castlepoint, Mataikuna, Aohanga etc. We asked for work at all these places and could not obtain any although our feet were foundered from travelling and sometimes we tasted no food for 24 hours, sometimes longer. We were able to do work of any description. Some of the men we met told us they walked all the way from Napier and did not get one hour’s work, went sometimes two days without food and very often had to sleep out.”

Jim’s sketch clearly defines the minutiae of a swagger life: ragged of clothing, unshorn and unkempt of appearance, wearing hobnail boots, a hand-me-down jacket or waistcoat along with hat. Each carried the customary swag consisting of a few belongings rolled up inside a blanket and oil cloth. Inside would be a tucker bag, some cooking implements which would have included a billy. The lucky ones would have a piece of canvas which could form a tent-like shelter when needed. The swag was tied at each end enabling it to be slung easily over the shoulder to ensure comfort when walking long distances.

The drawing also indicates that the swagger preferred to walk alone as it was easier to obtain work, pay and charity, but was always keen to meet-up with others. In doing so the swagger gave-back to the rural communities he was demanding so much of – carrying gossip and news from one station owner to another – in effect breaking-down the sense of isolation.

A few lines from a ditty found in the Waipawa Mail newspaper exemplifies the lifestyle of the nineteenth century swagger:

Here stands a swagger, boys, gone on his feet,

Tired of the tramp and with nothing to eat,

Bound for some station by sundown today,

All on the never, so nothing to pay.

Looking for work with a swag on his back,

Cadging his way on the wallaby track

Luckless, dead broke and a sorrowful sight –

Boots worn clean out and an old coat in rags.

Thus he can manage in a sort of a way,

Rolling his drum up, boys, day after day,

Shouldering ‘bluey’ and trudging ahead,

Waiting for sundown and wishing for bed.

Soon will the swagger belong to the past,

Truly the legs he is on are his last,

Better for squatters and workmen and all,

When all the poor swaggers are gone to the wall.

Published in the Hawke’s Bay Today newspaper on 8 July 2023 and written by Gail Pope, Social History Curator at MTG Hawke’s Bay.

Image: Swaggers at Tahoraiti Station, Hawke’s Bay by Jim Webb

10 July 2023

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