Topic: Memories of Kawerau 1954

Topic type:

In April 1954 young Australian Ray Kitson answered an advert and came to work in Kawerau. Over the next 8 months Ray witnessed the birth of a town and industry. Ray shares his memories of the people and the town.

 In 1954 while on a working holiday from Australia (already 4 months at a Motueka tobacco farm, 1 month in a Christchurch factory) I answered an ad for an Accounts Clerk at the construction site at Kawerau of the Tasman newsprint mill. I was accepted and arrived in April, having just turned 23 years old, and was to stay until December of that year. The Administration office was a single-storey timber building similar to an extended house.  The construction consortium was Fletcher-Merritt-Raymond. Merritt-Chapman-Scott, specialists in mill building, supplied the Manager and other principals, excepting one from the Raymond Concrete Pile Co. of Delaware. I'm not sure who was supplied by Fletcher. There were engineers, draughtsmen, etc at the other end of the building from the Accounts office, no doubt Fletcher people among them.

The Manager, Mr Hammer, was a big man about 70yrs old, whose last job was reputedly "4000 houses in Texas".  I don't think he did a lot of day-to-day work, but dealt with Fletcher, Raymond, the Government, major suppliers and contractors, major industrial relations etc. Next in line was the Site Superintendant, Joe Goddard, who gained respect from the men on the construction site for his ability and willingness to accept responsibility.  He appeared to be about 40yrs old, of good appearance, and I wonder if he went far in construction or elsewhere. Their secretary was Shona a New Zealander who had lived in the States (now single, but possibly a war bride), who presumably knew American office ways of working.

Next along that side of the passageway was Joe (Jose?) Cosio, a picture of Florida glamour - well dressed in light colours and well groomed.  Not sure what his job was - possibly specialist engineer or Raymond representative. Opposite was the Purchasing Officer, Ralph Barrow, who spoke in an intense, emphatic way in what I took to be a New York accent. His observations were sharp, as were those of his Assistant Perry King, who was his opposite, a laid-back Canadian. Perry's wife worked in the Pay Office. The adjoining office was that of Jack (surname forgotten), who had the wonderful title of Expediter, whose ways seemed deliberate rather that hectoring.

In charge of the Accounts office was the amiable Mr Davidson, on his last assignment before retiring ("My next job is in Florida - fishing."). It seems he was apprehensive about accidentally transgressing NZ laws ("He's sure he'll end up in gaol here", his Chief Assistant - a New Zealander - commented). He would pile pine offcuts into a centrally situated heating stove to the point of extreme heat. (In later years I would read of an American passion for the potbelly stove and the high temperature sought).

I was not familiar with the Engineering end of the building but recall a large bear-like Canadian called Hudson, who was either a specialist engineer or the Raymond representative. In another smaller building was the Pay office headed by an American named Briggs. At a party one night, rather lubricated he declaimed the American virtues of hard work enabling one to work from bottom to top, as he had in his previous job. What was the business, someone asked - "My father's" he replied. Bursts of laughter followed.

They were the North Americans in the office that I recall. On the site I recall two section superintendents: one a fleshy man in his 40s calling himself Peanuts in charge of the cranes. His real name was something like Arthur Schweringer Junior. The men thought Peanuts so apt: they considered him quite dumb. The other was a tall Texan, elderly, in charge of the carpenters, who defied the film images, being quite a serious Methodist or similar, and neither expansive nor a ranch type.

A town was being built (at that stage a kilometre or more away) for the future mill staff. Some houses were completed or near-completed, and quite a number of these were occupied by Management and office staff. One house occupied by women was ungraciously known as The Hen(n)ery.Single Mens Camp 1954

A handful of office staff (myself included) stayed at the site accommodation. This consisted of several hundred wooden (one-man) huts, each of which had a wood-burning stove for heating (free wood available). These huts were eventually intended to be toolsheds for the houses. Later that year barracks construction commenced - one block was partly occupied when I left - as the workforce continued to grow. Women were not permitted to reside at the site. However one morning there was fire in a jut, and a surprising number of wives, girlfriends and hangers-on popped out to observe. The canteen meals were free, and as much as you wanted. I saw some prodigious appetites. Sustenance was needed, as the construction workers worked 7 to 5, clerical and support 8 to 5, six days a week. But that was ok, as we were all there for the money the job brought, it was some distance from Whakatane and Rotorua, and cars were scarce.

Some men after work would soak in hot pools that bubbled up outside one part of the perimeter. But the main relaxation was beer and lots of it.  The store set up opposite the site entrance was not permitted to sell beer bottles on demand, the practice being to order a carton (or cartons). In the morning a truck would trundle up from Whakatane or wherever during the day and we would collect after work.  No doubt there were exceptions - the men running the store were quite streetwise, or should I say sitewise (they were said to have been at the Tokoroa mill site previously) but I never tried it. Playing cards was another activity among some groups.

On Saturday night in a hall erected near the river, a film would be shown. A frequent highlight occurred during I-love-you scenes, when someone (always the same man) would let forth a very loud, distinct donkey bray. He had a good eye, that man, as he always chose the soppiest scene - or near-soppy scene. On the Sunday day off some would wander the nearby bush with rifles looking for game:  it's a wonder no one was shot whilst being mistaken for an animal in the adjacent heath land. There was late-night shopping once a week (Thursdays I think) at Whakatane (transport available). It was quite busy too, and a reminder that there was a normal lifestyle. Late-night shopping had not resumed in Australia postwar at that stage, so it was a novelty for me. Some would go to Rotorua on Saturday night and stay over.

Another draw was at Te Teko, 10 kilometres away, in the form of an illegal casino. Obviously aimed at the Kawerau workforce. A couple of visits convinced me that my savings were better invested in me than the casino (the "casino" was in fact a large room or small hall). This was the year the great Rising Fast won the Melbourne Cup. The casino proprietor was also an illegal bookmaker, and Rising Fast being both locally owned and a hot favourite, translated into a lot of money bet with him. After the horse's win the bookie could not be found, and was said to have bolted with the wagers.

Every couple of months an overnight trip was arranged for those interested to a place of interest. A busload of mainly Australians and English etc. would take off which meant we had Saturday off as well as the usual Sunday. One trip was to Waitomo where, going through the caves I noticed a passage leading off that the guide had not mentioned. On enquiry he said "The Queen was here a few months ago, and they thought, just in case, a special toilet should be created." My republican beliefs were confirmed. Another was to the snowfields at Tongariro. A couple of the guys could ski, or at least go 200 metres. We all tried though and I still have a photo of myself on my bum after 20 metres. Another excursion was made to Auckland, probably 2 nights away. Seemed strange to be in a city again after 6 months, but being a city boy I soon clicked into mode.

In the Accounts office my job was to check invoices against orders and to pass them on for payment or query with someone higher when needed. I checked half of these, and Maurie Collins the other. I don't recall but I presume the quite big ones were vetted elsewhere. The mill was a huge project and was given priority from the Government who were keen to gain its benefits for the New Zealand economy. This was why I was most interested to see a copy of a letter from Mr Hammer to the BHP subsidiary in New Zealand (either Stewart's and Lloyd's or Lysaght's) stating that if it continued to mess around and frustrate the project by its offhand and dilatory response to supplying large quantities of steel or whatever, plans were in hand to get the material from the USA. Strong stuff. It was almost impossible to import from the USA and BHP, as a monopoly, was used to pushing customers around. The only conclusion was that the Government had agreed to back the threat if needed to keep the project on track.  FMR got the material required much more smartly from BHP, I understand, and I got an insight into how necessary results could be obtained at the highest level if the stakes were high enough, and how Americans could act in such a situation.

Back to the Accounts office, and Mr Davidson's No.2, defact, if not actual, was a competent, observant New Zealander, Gordon Mac/McFarlane.  Others I recall were Mrs Brown, an able typist and secretary, Les who was English, Janet Grange a Scot, and the Dutchman Tony Perry. All three were migrants.

Anyway, along came December 1954 and it was time to return to Australia. I have not been to New Zealand since, but have good memories of the job, the people, the experience, and watching something new being born.

Personal recollections of Ray Kitson, 8 September 2011