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Pioneering the Pumice

Chapter II: The Man

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Chapter II: The Man

Man is the measure of all things”—Protagoras.

In order fully to understand the development of any area it is helpful, indeed almost necessary, to have knowledge of the antecedents, career, and qualities of the man who undertook the job. Errors, follies, want of adequate funds and general bad management are often charged against the land, which is false accounting. It is said that he who never makes a mistake never makes anything else. That may be true enough in a way, but after all is but a poor palliation. My own life has shown far too many mistakes — but the greatest of them all was the first — being born too soon.

My grandfather, George Vaile, arrived in Auckland in 1843, bringing with him my father and six other young children to face the cannibal and the desert. He was a real pioneer. He erected with hand-sawn kauri a house at the top of Wellesley Street West which was, I believe, the first two-storey private dwelling in Auckland. The Maoris strictly warned him that so lofty a building would inevitably be blown down! An intensely religious man, he had left England because he would not submit to the dominance then held and exercised by the Church of England. A real “hard-shell” Baptist, he was a most decided, positive person who knew that he had the truth in him. Consequently if you did not agree with him you could not have the truth in you! As he was not in a position to impose his ideas on others, he at least would not allow others to impose their ideas on him. So he decided to shape his course according to the page 22 ninth and tenth verses of the One Hundred and Thirty-ninth Psalm. He was known locally in the early days as “The Bull Buffalo.”

My paternal grandmother, whose maiden name was Poole, was a most pious soul though her private diary showed that she had once committed a dreadful sin, repentance for which filled several pages. A fit of drowsiness had overtaken her in the Lord's house! Her great interest in the improvement of the Native race led her to establish a school at Rangiaowhia for the religious instruction of Maori girls. My father and one of his brothers took her in a canoe down the Manukau, over the Otaua portage, and up the Waikato River. There she worked in collaboration with the Reverend Mr. Morgan and Sir John Gorst for the education and elevation of the Maori.

My father was Samuel Vaile, “The Railway Reformer.” His life and work are too recent and too well-known to require recounting in these pages, but I may perhaps say for the information of recent arrivals that his idea was to charge both fares and freights not by the mile but by “stages” of varying lengths according to density of population. By this means advantage would be given to sparsely peopled districts, tending to remove the disadvantage of distance, and to spread the population more evenly. He also advocated substantial reduction of charges to encourage settlement and increase railway turnover. With great energy, industry and perseverance, he continued the advocacy of this scheme to the day of his death. His ideas were adopted in some countries, but in New Zealand he succeeded only in effecting a reduction in long-distance freights. Passenger fares are still charged by the mile.

My mother's maiden name was Annie Earle. She was a very accomplished woman, educated in the old style, finishing with two years in a college in France. She was frightfully “well up” in history, among other things, and knew all the victories, virtues page 23 and achievements of the English by heart. Also well versed in practical relativity, she knew her own relatives even to the forty-second degree, and the Royal Family from beginning to end.

“They tell me” that I was born in London: but, though it must be presumed that I was present on the occasion, the event happened so long ago that I don't remember a thing about it. However, I believe that I arrived “out of the everywhere into here” on the 3rd March, 1869. Now, prior to my arrival, the greatest man in the world was my mother's father, Edward Earle, so his name was plastered on to me, thus raising me to the peerage at a very early age under the title of Edward, Earle Vaile — ultimately transmuted into The Earle of Broadlands.

I regret to say that it is credibly reported that my father's first exclamation on beholding me was “What an ugly little beggar!” This so upset my mother that she became seriously ill and insomnia supervened which proved very intractable; but where the doctors failed, good old Father solved the difficulty by producing an old volume of sermons and reading them to Mother in a sanctimonious sing-song voice. Drowsiness soon overcame her — and as it was not in the Lord's House, no sin was committed! At the early age of three months I began my travels, for my parents had decided to return to New Zealand. We took passage to Melbourne in The City of Somerset, an auxiliary steamer — sailed when there was a favourable wind and steamed when there was none. From Melbourne to Auckland the voyage was completed in an old tub called the Blackbird. By this time I was six months old, so the whole of my conscious life has been spent in Auckland.

Until I was eight years of age my education was undertaken by my mother. Then I interviewed the late Mr. Farquhar McRae and was admitted to the Auckland College and Grammar School as it was then styled. This was the year after the celebrated “siege”, and the school was like the county of page 24 Cromarty — all over the map. The lowest form, which I either graced or disgraced, was housed in an old wooden building at the back of St. Andrew's Church.

My mother sent me off to school one day early in February, 1878, decked out in a velveteen suit with large mother-of-pearl buttons, my hair beautifully curled, and my hands in kid gloves. My welcome was enthusiastic. The rude boys of that day had never seen anything so pretty and they hustled me along to a pool of muddy water in which they rolled me. When school assembled the master noticed that water was still dripping from my clothes and said:

“Are you wet, boy?” Already terrified half-way to death I said:

“Oh no, sir! I'm all right, sir!”

“Come here!” Having felt my clothes he roared: “Don't tell me such lies” and hit me a clout over the side of the head that knocked me half-way across the room.

“Go home!” ordered the master.

I fear that my first day at school was not an unqualified success — damaged clothes, a sore head, and a tearful mother. And whenever it was suggested that I should again make use of the pretty velveteen suit it was discovered that it could not be put on to me. It must have shrunk after the wetting!

I was nearly eight years at the Grammar School, mostly in Mr. Bourne's time as headmaster. Form masters I remember were Robertson, Tomlinson, “Newchie” Thompson, “Mary” Heighton, Kirby, Trevithick, “Jock” Anderson, McArthur, “Timmy” Sloman, and during the last two years J. W. Tibbs for mathematics.

Education in those days was conducted on quite different lines from those at present in use. The master knew exactly where a boy's brains were located; and, if he hit him there with a rod of wood good and hard, he put a lot of knowledge into page 25 the boy. If the skin were broken so much the better. Healing up over the wound it enclosed the knowledge for ever and a day. Thus arose the expression “A seat of learning.” The first master I suffered under was a perfect brute, though personally I had not much to complain of. I was one of those foolish youngsters who always know their lessons and so was something of a favourite. Consequently I never had more than three thrashings in the same day. There were fifty-two boys in the class and when the master returned from lunch refreshed with beer he would sometimes give us all a hiding on the general principle that, even if we did not need it then, we soon would. On one such occasion one of the young Monks refused to take his strokes and, slipping past the master, armed himself with a cricket stump and defended himself valiantly. If the rest of us nippers had been possessed of any initiative we would have rushed in and murdered the old brute of a master; but, as it was, young Monk got the worst of it. He could not have been more than eleven years old. On another occasion I remember this master trying to lift a boy by the ear: but the boy's ear was imperfectly fastened on and very nearly came off, deluging him with blood. How it was that the brute did not then receive the “order of the sack” I cannot imagine, but finally he was dismissed for breaking a boy's elbow with a lump of wood. In the end he fell off his horse when drunk and died in the gutter.

I do not wish it supposed that all masters were like this — for instance, use of the cane by Mr. J. F. (Timmy) Sloman was rare, while Mr. Tomlinson did his utmost to bring us up as superior young men. More than half a century before the great exemplification of his theories he would say: “My boy, if you are only a bottle-washer be the best bottle-washer in the town”; and he always exhorted us to follow the noble example of Admiral Benbow. But most of the masters made much of the cane and the strap as means of instruction.

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Well, anyhow I survived, went on through the forms of the school and spent the last three years in the two top classes. My only success was just before leaving, when I sat in October, 1885, for the Senior Civil Service examination (then very important) and was placed at the head of the list for the Colony. Shortly afterwards I sat for the Matriculation examination, and my name again appeared at the head of the list. There must have been some wise and discriminating examiners on those occasions!

At this time education in the Auckland Grammar School was definitely classical. Mr. Bourne was one of the school which considers Latin inflexions and Greek particles of the first importance in human affairs. As for myself I found the classics very difficult and I cursed the beastly adjectives each with its thirty-six inflexions according to case, gender and number, and the verbs were worse with their moods, tenses, persons, numbers, and their irregularities. My other lessons gave me no trouble, and perhaps the fact that Latin came hard to me was good for my mental training — mental gymnastics as they call it. As for Greek — I did very little. It was not in the curriculum, but good Mr. Bourne, distressed at the thought of our living in a world unenlightened by knowledge of that most expressive language, held an out-of-hours class. This I joined, not I must confess, out of a thirst for knowledge, but from the policy of pleasing the headmaster. I can remember a fair number of words yet — as for instance: Aristocracy — aristos the best; and kratos power — the power of the best. What do advocates of universal equal suffrage say to that?

Pacifism in those days was not in fashion: we went on the para bellum theory and the school possessed a very efficient senior cadet corps. We were armed with sniders (quite accurate up to a hundred yards) and had a capitation grant. When finally we were disbanded this capitation had accumulated to a page 27 tidy sum and I was instrumental in getting it applied to the establishment of a school of woodworking. Good Mr. Trevithick gave us the benefit of his knowledge in out-of-hours classes.

During all this time I took part in the ordinary school sports — as they then were. It took me but a short while to drop the gentle ways of my good mother and become as great a little ruffian as the rest of them. “Kinga-seeny” was the great game and a rough one. Fighting was general — single combats, faction fights among boys of the school, fights with the Wellesley Street School (a district school but known as “Worthington's”).

But it was necessary to invent some original diversions, some “self-expression” stunts, of which I can still remember some three or four. One evening when I was about twelve, my parents being out, I went to the kitchen and indulged in original research into the theory and practice of combustion, with the result that I discovered that it was possible to hold a glowing ember between the teeth — if one breathed on it, and also held the tongue well out of the way. The light glowing through the cheeks showed up the bones and cast a ghastly and ghostly glamour over one's otherwise goodly countenance. I at once decided that so brilliant a discovery must be put to practical use. We were then living at “The Avenue,” Karangahape Road. The grounds comprised about three acres, but the frontage to the street was narrow and took the form of an avenue of trees ending with heavy wooden gates. Well then, I tied a sheet over my head and a chain on each foot and proceeded up to the gate before opening which I lit up. Soon a crowd collected, but I felt the ember going cold. So I shuffled out of sight and lit up again. Re-entering the avenue I found the crowd had followed me in but, on my reappearance they fled — all but one old chap, and I thought he meant to take to me with his stick: but, when I got within about a dozen yards, he ran for dear life. Standing in the gateway for about a minute the street was page 28 blocked from side to side and the fear of the arrival of those spoil-sport “Bobbies” caused me to vanish. But for months afterwards chaps would say to me:

“I wouldn't go down that Avenue of yours after dark for all the tea in China!”

“Why not?”

“There's a ghost there!”

“Ghosts be damned!: there's no such thing.”

“Don't tell me! I saw it with my own eyes!”

At about the same period I was walking down Grey Street on Guy Fawke's Day with my soul full of sin and my pockets full of crackers. In front of me was a pompous little old gentleman with his chest well out and his head well back. I sneaked up behind him and placed a lighted cracker with a double fuse in the rim of his “belltopper”. Then I became interested in a shop window. When the cracker went off the good old gentleman could not have done better — even if he had been struck by “Jack Johnson.” He danced a fandango and screamed “Murder!” With one or two others round about I rushed to his assistance and soon had the dear old chap partly persuaded that he was still alive and more or less restored to health. After a while he was able to “proceed under his own power.”

Some three years or so later I was walking down Nelson Street in the evening with a cousin about four years older than myself who was in work and had money — a very scarce commodity in those days. Through a partly open door we could see a man in bed. My cousin bet me ten shillings that I hadn't enough pluck to pull the bed-clothes off the man. Ten shillings! An immense sum! Having studied the position well I took up the bet. Carefully approaching the cottage in the shadow I suddenly burst in on the astonished man and tore the clothes off him and promptly retreated “according to plan.” Before I was well outside he up and at me, but was slightly delayed by page 29 the bed-clothes which I had thrown over his legs. Running for my life I crossed the street which, as I had observed, had just been remetalled. When the unfortunate chap arrived at this with his bare feet he was done in. And so wickedness was again rewarded.

During most of this time the Newton Brass Band practised in a shed touching our boundary. An angle stop was off and the weatherboards curled up. Through these small openings one could watch the proceedings. One could also insert the end of a peashooter and when the trombone was in full blast give its player an “Indian shot” fair in the eye, which seemed to upset and excite him vastly. This performance, not too frequently repeated, was uniformly successful, and caused my wicked young soul much satisfaction.

I confess to these exploits merely to emphasize that, even if his mother is an angel, a boy must have a good deal of the devil in him if he is to succeed in after life.

At this period the only way of getting anywhere was to keep putting one foot in front of the other alternately, and it is certain that by such means one can get a long way in a long time. Several times I have done sixty miles in a day. To the west coast at Piha or Anawhata or the Lakes and back the same day was a favourite stroll.

Well, schooldays must end, and, in view of my success in the exams, I was offered a “top hole” billet in the Civil Service, but my father strongly held the opinion that when a man enters the Civil Service he becomes merely a part of a huge machine and leaves his brains on the doorstep. Consequently he would not let me follow it up and I got a job in the South British Insurance Company at £2 1s. 8d. a month and “find yourself” — an excellent salary for those days. Most boys worked for six months or a year without wages: others got five shillings a week. My year in the South British was the only easy time I page 30 have ever had in my life. The staff comprised a great lot of lads — “Whacky” Buckland, “Morpy” Hammond, Macpherson, Kight, Rigby, “Paddy” Maguire, with dear old Maris Clark as branch manager. This was not long after the erection of the building on the corner of Shortland Street. To the best of my belief this was the first three-story building on Queen Street and on it was placed the first statue in Auckland — a figure of Britannia. On the occasion of the opening of the building and unveiling of the statue there was a great ceremony and a great assemblage of citizens. After Mr. Upton (Mayor) and Captain Daldy (Chairman of Directors) and Johnstone (General Manager) and others had delivered their several gas attacks on the defenceless multitude (masks not having then been invented) the sheet was whipped off the statue and there stood Britannia supreme and crowned — with an article borrowed from the bedroom and not usually used for display. This dreadful crime was sheeted home to two lads on the staff. One apologized and was retained, subsequently rising to be secretary of the Company; but the other was unrepentant and therefore sacked.

At the end of 1886 or the beginning of 1887 my father dealt a severe blow to the South British by withdrawing my valuable services (shortly afterwards the Company wrote down its capital!). He placed me in charge of the books of his firm — then Vaile and Douglas — at a salary of twelve shillings and sixpence per week. This does not look handsome in view of present-day salaries but it was a substantial advance to me and the position gave me importance. It was not long before I discovered that my father's partner had robbed him of every penny he possessed, and had also so foolishly invested trust funds that we felt we must restore them. To meet the position we had to borrow heavily at eight per cent., and paying the interest every half-year was a dreadful burden, for business then was really bad. The recent depression was nothing to it. In Auckland page 31 whole streets — such as John Street, Clarence Street, Norfolk Street, Kingsland Avenue, Victoria Avenue (Eden Terrace) had not a soul living in them. Workmen's cottages handy to Queen Street brought half-a-crown per week: further out — say in Ponsonby — such cottages were gladly let free of rent. A fairly good house in Grafton Road would command twelve and sixpence per week, while the finest house in Auckland would not make more than £2. During this period we sold by auction a decent five-roomed cottage with freehold section forty-four by one hundred feet in Second Avenue, Kingsland, for £10 the lot: and numbers of cottages for £50 apiece. Wages were five shillings per day and a man getting three days' work a week was lucky. No Government payments for no work, no Mortgagors' and Lessees' Legalized Swindles Commissions. On the other hand money was on a gold basis, values were sound and true, and formed a solid basis for recovery. This came in 1893 from various causes, the most spectacular of which was the discovery of Legge's Reef at Coromandel; but the most solid, the development of the meat and butter trades. This country owes a great debt to men like the Reynolds, Wesley Spragg and others.

Well, my job was to get our finances put in order as my father was devoting most of his time to public affairs. My father's partner was put out of the business but not prosecuted, and he got away with some of our best clients. By working twelve hours a day six days in the week I was enabled by the time I was thirty to have reduced these old debts to about £1000 and I ventured to take a trip round the world to celebrate the event. Not long after my return everything was squared up and all debts paid in full with interest added. Then came a period of prosperity — profits shown every year and reserves built up. The receipt of interest instead of the payment of it, was alone a wonderful relief — just as when in a sailing vessel one has been page 32 thrashing to windward to gain a point and is then enabled to pay off and sail before a fair wind.

Not long after this I paid my father (by now an old man) out of the business and admitted my brother to partnership. This occurred in 1902.

Business became very good and the responsibility and work of the control of it much increased. Though I never solicited business from anyone, so much was offered me that I was unable to handle it all with the personal care and attention that I considered clients were entitled to. I became a slave — though an unwilling slave — to money.

I had not taken a great part in public life though holding several semi-public positions. For long I was a member of the well-known Athenæum Society and for a period occupied the presidential chair, my successor being Mr. C. J. Parr (now Sir James). I also held several ministerial portfolios in the Union Parliament. I took a great part in the formation of the Grammar School Old Boys' Association of which I was the first secretary and second president, being preceded by Dr. Roberton and succeeded again by Mr. Parr. I was one of the founders of the political Reform Party, and at the time of my leaving the city was the Auckland vice-president. Mr. Massey was the president and so I got to know him intimately. I am the only person now alive who was a member of the first Council of the Party. I was also president of the Society of Arts at that time and had taken a leading part in establishing the old gallery in Coburg Street. I may add that I organized the campaign for the Town Hall and pushed the project to victory. My committee joined up with that advocating the Grafton Bridge. Nowadays it is curious to reflect that both these great improvements were violently opposed. One of the local dailies was eyes-out against them. But its principal proprietor soon relented and proved his public spirit by giving a magnificent organ to the Town Hall.

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In June, 1907, I bought the fifty-three thousand acres which I afterwards named Broadlands, and immediately started in to develop it on a large scale.

At the very end of 1908 I quitted the business and disappeared on to my estate. I was then just on forty years of age, stood five feet four inches, and weighed about nine stone. I was blessed with a hardy constitution and a superabundant energy and capacity for work.

At least one good lesson I had learned which was to stand me in good stead: if anything went wrong in my affairs never to blame anyone else until I had discovered wherein I myself had been at fault. That discovery made, I could discipline myself to correct it. But, as for the other fellow, he was probably hopeless and the attempt to correct him useless.

Such then had been the preparation for the great task which lay before me and such my qualifications for success — or failure. Be it noted that I had had no previous experience of farming. It was certainly a tremendous act of either courage or folly to pit these small resources against the vast forces of an untamed and untried wilderness. All my friends predicted that within two years at the most either the Official Assignee or two doctors would get hold of me. Let us “wait and see.”