Boxers, a hairdresser, a stuffed kiwi, an accordion player, a gun, a newspaper, a lute, and a stack of whiskey bottles. Charles Anderson discovers the story behind this portrait of a unique part of New Zealand history. This story originally ran in Barker’s 1972 magazine.
In the entrance of a thin, dark corridor filled with moa bones, old typewriters, saddles and horseshoes, is a wall filled with faded black and white photographs.
I found myself in that corridor one humid morning, staring at the characters it depicted, seemingly living amid the untamed landscapes of the northwest South Island. But despite the environment that enveloped them, there were cottages in these photos. There were picnics and families. There were men with trousers stained dark with sap and horses towing buggies up seemingly impassable forested hills. This part of the wall is a montage of a time that has no memorial. It disappeared almost as quickly as it arrived. Not quite a boom or a bust, but a quiet drifting away.
My eyes scanned those photographs in the Collingwood Museum at the tip of the South Island and came to naturally settle on one that seemed to punctuate them all. It wasn’t a depiction of an industry or workers’ luncheon, or a portrait of a well-to-do family. It was a photo that I couldn’t quite understand. It was distinct in an almost anomalous way, as if it did not belong on that wall. The only way to describe it is perhaps to call it the Most Badass Photograph Ever Taken in New Zealand.
The Nelson Provincial Museum describes it thus: “Full length outdoor portrait of 17 men outside a hut in the bush in theatrical poses depicting leisure activities. Props include boxing gloves, a button accordion, a mandolin, a penny whistle, “Truth” newspaper, alcohol, and a shotgun. One of the men appears to cut the hair of another.”
I took a photograph of that photograph and stored it away as a curiosity. But it stuck with me. Whenever I drove from Nelson over the Takaka Hill and onto the edge of the island, my mind was always brought back to it. I would look around the landscape as it morphed from dry, golden sand beaches to subtropical nīkau palms. I would look to one side where colossal cliffs protected dense forests and then to the other overlooking the wild, spitting ocean. I would see all of that and think of those men outside that hut in the bush. Where was it? Who were they? What were they doing? And what the hell were the circumstances that day, in that black and white world which led to those 17 men being lined up quite like that?
Not long ago, I set out over the Takaka Hill once more, looking for answers.
The photo I found had been described in various terms. Captions in the New Zealand encyclopedia, Te Ara, described the the photographs variously as “Mates having fun” and “Hard cases about 1906”.
“New Zealanders have always liked a bit of a laugh,” one caption reads. “These jokers are taking a break from work at the Prouse and Saunders flax mill at Whanganui Inlet, north-west Nelson, and posing for a comical group portrait. Isolated work gangs such as this one provided much of the basis for New Zealand’s brand of humour.”
I didn’t like the caption. Though it offered some information, it didn’t allude to the general awesomeness of the photograph. It seemed almost passive aggressive. It was a caption that was not at all badass.
The original caption in the Collingwood Museum was dull but clear. The men were Prouse and Saunders Flaxmill workers at a more specific place called Patarau. The photograph, it says, was taken in 1906. And it belongs to the Tyree Collection.
Despite living in the wider Nelson region, none of these names meant anything to me. So I emailed the only person I knew who I was confident may know something of the photograph.
Gerard Hindmarsh has lived in Tukurua, in Golden Bay, since he bought a swampy plot of land there in 1976. From then he has spent his time documenting the characters and stories of the region. Gerard would know.
“It sticks out amongst them all, doesn’t it,” he says from his dining room table. “It’s definitely one of his coolest.”
Gerard knew instantly the photo I was talking about. He knew about who took it, where it was taken and had thought in great detail about those circumstances that would have led to its development.
He knew about Patarau, a remote river a short distance from the Whanganui Inlet. He knew the photographer was Fred Tyree, an entrepreneur who travelled to the Nelson region with his brother, William, in 1879. Fred worked briefly with William, who set up a photographic studio on Nelson’s main street. They would take portraits of industry leaders and well-dressed families. But they would also document a colonial city slowly taking shape. Soon Fred went out on his own, traveling to Takaka to establish a new business.
While living there, Fred travelled widely around the region, turning his attention to the flow of goldminers chasing the rush in the Aorere Valley. He would show up in these areas unannounced and just be able to sell his work, Gerard says. He would charge up to five pounds for a photo.
But soon after the gold rush came a growth in the area. That is where Gerard deferred expertise – the history. Cheryl would know about that, he said.
Cheryl Winn grew up not far from where the photo was taken. She has seen ancestors of people like those in the photo pack up and move on. She has seen new families come in not know what took place here all those years ago. So she documented it. She trawled through archives looking for photographic pieces of history from “North of Kahurangi, west of Golden Bay”, as her subsequent book was titled.
She too moved from that region many years ago but she still had a fondness for it, and the history that brought it into being.
Over coffee and white chocolate and raspberry muffins, Cheryl told me of the company the men worked for. It must have been a somewhat audacious act when a 21-year-old Percy Prouse arrived in the area in 1901. He was a young Levin-based entrepreneur who was looking for a new opportunity. He was looking for a place with quality timber and had heard about a large London-based consortium which owned a large tract of land in the South Island. They were selling parts of it off and leasing others.
The challenge was the tidal nature of the area. At high tide, river beds are boggy and impassable, but low tide reveals mudflats which offered easy access to various points around the region.
The timber must have been good and the challenges not insurmountable because by 1903 Percy and his business partner Norman Saunders had arrived by ship, bringing with them a saw milling plant and honeysuckle railings to lay down a tramline.
They also brought with them a couple of handfuls of workers and soon set about building a line from Patarau to a suitable point for shipping flax and timber to Wellington.
Flax milling was messy, wet, and often miserable work. Men would take their machetes into the deep flax that permeated the coastline. They would work all day, hacking it down and transporting it back to the mill where the raw flax would be scrubbed on an underwater revolving drum, separating the fibre from the flesh. They would then dry and bleach the fibre on racks in the sunlight before being packed up and barged down the tram line. From there it would be shipped out, mainly across the Tasman to Australia to be used for rope and cordage in the rigging of ships.
During the industry’s peak, between 1901 and 1918, flax fibre made up almost five percent of the value of principal exports.
The workers took families and stayed there because it was difficult to get in and out.
“There were lots of families,” says Cheryl. “There were socials and a school. They were very reliant on each other. They were quite resourceful people.”
Some of Tyree’s photos of the time have names of these people: Charlie Mussen the cook, Alex Leeboy, Alex Walker. Prouse and Saunders themselves also feature. But when you look at them now, from the other side of the photograph, their lives seem so distant. It is hard to appreciate them as people with distinct personalities, rather than an amorphous blend of black and white humans. Cheryl has thought about it too. What was the region she loved so much really like back then?
“It was a totally different life,” Cheryl says. “It would have been really interesting to see it with all those people. And now there is nothing.”
It was a boom area. But what killed the flax industry was declining prices and World War I.
“A lot of men went to war and never came back,” Cheryl says. “By the time the war was over, the price for flax was poor and it never started up. It’s just how it is.”
Some of the men stayed on in farming or found other jobs. Norman Saunders bought land close by and hired a manager to take care of it. He would come back for holidays and to visit but never again lived there.
The drive to Patarau follows a dusty metal road over causeways and tidal flats. Looking out to the inlet it was hard to imagine Tyree atop a buggy negotiating the terrain.
Gerard Hindmarsh has theorised about the trip that Tyree would have made that day. He would have taken his horse drawn buggy, laden with heavy photographic equipment and food, out of his property in Collingwood and headed northwest. Ahead of him would be Golden Bay’s expansive tidal flats. He would have picked up a muddy track that followed an old Māori trail over Pakawau Saddle and down to Whanganui Inlet.
He would have had to ford a deep channel for his horses, Photo and Lana, to be able to cross. The twelve kilometre path across the inlet’s muddy flats would have been a race against the incoming tide. Then, Hindmarsh says, there would have been a final treacherous channel crossing where two men had recently drowned.
He would have found a makeshift jetty on the shores of the river and carefully unloaded his Thornton-Pickard plate camera. He would have set it up on a wooden tripod as a steam launch carrying flaxmill workers pulled up alongside. The men obliged Tyree, trying their best to keep perfectly still while Tyree exposed a glass plate with their image.
That night he would rest at a tiny settlement manned by workers of Prouse and Saunders. Perhaps, Hindmarsh went on, Tyree would have joined in on the Saturday evening festivities, pleased to make it in time for the workers’ one day off a week the following day. Tyree would have drank beer with them, ingratiated himself so by the following day they were more than eager to indulge the photographer in a staged image.
Sunday morning would have been spent setting the scene beside one of the camp huts. A pirate flag was hoisted as a backdrop, bundles of flax carefully placed. Tyree would have choreographed every detail before finally climbing under the hood of his camera. Those 17 men posed in rock-still formation – one reading a newspaper, two pretending to box, another pointing a rifle at a stuffed kiwi, the cook standing proud in his whitest apron while a boxer drained a bottle. Some men bore tools, others washed clothes, three men played musical instruments.
Then, it was done.
“If a picture is worth a thousand words,” says Hindmarsh, “then a Tyree print could say a million.”
I drove down Prouse Rd and found myself at the beach’s edge looking back to the mouth of the Patarau River. My mind instantly tried to superimpose Tyree’s photographs over the top of this sight.
In front of me driftwood melded with rocks and sand lining the beachfront. The river ran swift out to the ocean which roiled with white capped waves. You could see small bunches of flax still at the river’s edge – the reason why those men had arrived here in the early-1900s.
It would have been a dramatic sight. Wild, with little sign of civilization. Today, though, nīkau palms lead the eye up to sharp cliffs. Below, dogs trail behind quad bikes while barking orders at herds of sheep.
But there wasn’t even the whisper of a ghost talking through a glass plate negative. My mind could not expose Tyree’s world over this one.
The land had been taken back. The industry that once sprouted was gone. The only record they were here, I thought, looking down the river, was those photographs. Any indication of their character was that one picture that had caught my attention in the Collingwood Museum.
There was a sadness to it now as I brought the photo up on my phone. The Kiwi larkinism exhibited by men at the edge of the frontier had taken on a futility now.
I studied the photo before slowly driving back along the road. Then I stopped and got out. I had missed something as I had entered. It was a stone structure topped with a metal plaque.
“Between here and the hillside was the site of Prouse and Saunders Flaxmill – 1904-1911. Patarau was the first area of settlement on the Tai Tapu Coast.”
It was commissioned by the New Zealand Historic Places trust. I was glad it was there. It was something, at least.
The area the plaque referred to was now filled with a modest holiday bach which had mountain bikes and cars parked outside. No-one was home, but I looked around and soon saw an outcrop that looked familiar. If it was covered with vegetation and had a jolly roger flag hanging in front of it then that outcrop would be unmistakable.
Though I don’t know their names, I feel I know them better. So I’m sure it was here where I was standing that those 17 men had arranged themselves on their day off in 1906. All because an enterprising photographer wanted to go through hell to make a few pounds.