Alan George Speers Interview
Today is the 15th day of July 2019. I’m interviewing Alan George Speers formerly of Takapau and latterly, Reporoa. Alan’s going to talk about the life and times of his family. Right, Alan?
Yes, I was born in 1930 on the 8th April and my first memories really go back to a wedding of my aunt Doris, and I can remember being a pageboy for that. I specifically remember Mum dressing me up for the occasion and so forth, and for some reason or other I seem to remember travelling down Mutiny Road. I do not remember the wedding.
Moving further forward from that, my next memories were actually starting at Hastings Central School, and because my parents lived seven miles out of town I stayed with my grandmother and my grandfather and twin aunts on my mother’s side, at 505 Hastings Street. Hastings Central School of course was just round the corner, so that was quite convenient. The first thing I remember being told … I only had half a day of school that first day, because at ten o’clock I came home thinking that was the end of the day, when the bell rang. I was taken back, I presume it was by my grandmother; I don’t remember going back, but I finally learnt how the curriculum worked and stayed the full day at the school. I went to Hastings Central School until just at the end of the war in Europe in 1945. After that when I went to high school; the Hastings Co-ed High School on Railway Road. The war had completely finished; the Japanese had surrendered.
After that I went out to work. My father gave me a job on the farm that he had which was down at Mutiny Road, and I spent about two years cutting thistles and repairing fences, which I had never done before; it was a good learning curve. Then later on I got a job on driving the tractors. My father had become a contractor as well as a farmer, and I drove the tractors on Middle Road, Te Awanga, Haumoana, and out of Turamoe, just behind Pakipaki.
What sort of tractors were they, Alan?
The tractors were … the one I drove was a Caterpillar R2, and my plough mate was Whenu Peakman from Pakipaki, a wonderful man; taught me to plough; taught me to drive the machine. I couldn’t have had a better boss. He drove the 22 which was a year earlier. The first was manufactured by Caterpillar in 1938; the machine I was on was manufactured in ‘39. Both machines were reliable. It was a very enjoyable part of my life, although sometimes weather conditions weren’t so hot when we were out on the back country blocks, ‘cause we didn’t actually have any real accommodation. We used to carry a tent; we’d put that up, do the job, and then we’d move on to the next job and take the tent. If shearers’ quarters were handy we utilised those shearers’ quarters, and so things were a lot more comfortable.
I did that for about six years, then I got the opportunity of partnership with my brother, Don, to buy a block at Takapau, and we went there in 1931  … March 1931.  And Don was a sleeping partner in that he stayed back with our father, and he carried on doing the work that I used to do. And we operated our partnership in that way up until 1980 – no, I’ve got that wrong. It was 1974 when we dissolved our partnership, because [in] the interim space between when we got the Takapau farm until when we split our partnership, we started another business up in Hastings at Bridge Pa which was a poultry unit, because Don had met Judy and they had married and they wanted a business to do. And when that was a viable proposition we then decided to split our partnerships and go our separate ways. Don and Judy carried on with the poultry and later changed over to deer farming until they retired into Havelock North some years later.
Natalie and I carried on farming at Takapau from about 1974 until 1980, and by this time there was a big project going on down the road which wasn’t very helpful from our point of view – a new freezing works was being built at Takapau and was likely to cause problems with water draw-off and so forth, and some of the areas were affected pretty quickly. So I decided we needed a bigger block, because we had a son by then; Phillip was with us. He was interested in farming, and so we sold the Takapau farm and bought another farm at Reporoa.
Now at Takapau we had been farming two blocks over the last seven years. At one stage my neighbour across the road, Reg Power … friend as well as a neighbour … had reached retirement age and he wanted to retire to Napier, and gave me the option of taking on a lease of his block, which was called Keretu Block. So I took the lease up, and we used up seven years of that lease until I decided to find another property elsewhere.
In the years before this I had built a boat … a seventeen foot New Vivid Hull designed by Hartley, and we used to take this boat through to Taupo once a year, usually about March, April, ‘cause that was the slack time on the farm. And I’d take either a neighbour or a friend with me and we’d go to Taupo and spend a week fishing. In the process I had noticed that the Taupo Plains used to be very brown or yellow – very poor-looking country, initially all covered in bracken and fern. And as the years went by and each trip showed that the properties were slowly but surely being broken in, and the sick, yellowish-looking grasses were slowly becoming a more palatable-looking proposition. So when we went to look for a farm I went to the Taupo area because I love Taupo region. I liked the climate; I liked the people; and I liked the beautiful scenery that was in the area, quite apart from the lake.
We ended up buying a farm in the Reporoa Valley on a road called Tiverton Downs, which was twenty-seven kilometres on the eastern side of the Waikato River. The property was seven hundred and fifty-one acres. It had flat land at the front on which we could grow lucerne, and crop … very good lucerne growing country; had a very steep face which was called ‘The Escarpment’, created by Taupo volcano at different times during its eruption stages. And then on the top there was rolling country, very similar to parts of the Waikato, and that had the best soil on it, too. It also had very heavy fern and manuka and kanuka. Some of this had actually already been broken in by the previous owner. To cut a long story short, we purchased this property and I carried on farming there; we carried on with the developmental work that the previous owner had done until we decided to retire in 1988. We’d thought about it … we thought we wouldn’t retire probably until about 1990, but the opportunity came for a good sale, and so we thought about it and decided to do a deal, which is what we did.
Natalie wanted to come back to Hawke’s Bay for retirement, but I was very stubborn; I wouldn’t budge. You’ll remember I had built a boat, and I liked that boat; and I did not like salt water as far as my boat was concerned. So anyway, I got my way and we retired onto Kurapae Road in Taupo at number 55, and it was a great move to make.
We were fortunate because we had been in the Reporoa Valley area for something like eight years we had made a lot of friends in Taupo too, through different organisations that we belonged to. I belonged to U3A (University of the 3rd Age); Natalie belonged to several of the women’s clubs and so forth, and the library … did some library work and that, and we had a good group of friends when we came to Taupo to retire. And we stayed there until 2006. At that point in time we were both starting to notice the stairs were quite steep from down below up to the top of the house. I certainly was sure the side of the house lawn was much steeper when I was [chuckle] mowing the lawns than it used to be. Natalie didn’t like the big garden that we now had, and I have never been a gardener – I was a farmer. If the tractor can’t do the job, it’s no good to me.
So we decided to move – we up-anchored; we came down to Hastings . We sold the property of course – our next door neighbour bought the property. Good neighbour, he’s been there quite a few years. And we came through to Hastings. We purchased our current home right next to the hospital, and my friends and of course most of my family who’re still in the Hastings area who come to see us said, “It’s convenient!” I said, “If we get sick we’ve got the hospital; if we don’t make it we’ve got the cemetery at the end of the road. And I’ve still got the wheelbarrow.” [Chuckle]
Now coming back … at some stage in your life you met Natalie; where did you meet Natalie, and what was her family background?
Natalie and I … Nat never saw me the first time I saw her. We had a group, and in those days I had my first vehicle. It was a 1927 half-ton Chevy truck, and it had been a delivery truck. It was one that had been owned by Donovan’s Wood & Coal Merchants in Hastings; used for delivery to the houses around town. And Dad had put aside money from my wages when I was working for him, and he bought the truck, and I had that. I used that for a short while, while going to work – this was all before I went to Takapau. And on the weekends a group of us used to get together … Rodney Thompson from Pakipaki was one, and his sister Pam was another; the Druzianic girls from Hastings who the Thompson family were very friendly with. There was Ray McDonald from Pakipaki, whose father was was an agricultural contractor who lived just below the Lime Works, and there were two flats at the bottom of the hill. And we’d go away to dances, and sometimes to speedway and things like that, and you could sit three in the front and four or five in the back – you wouldn’t get away with that now! On one of those trips we went to Sherenden, to a dance, and it was a lovely little country hall, the first time I’d ever been there. And while I was sitting on the forms at the side of the wall I saw this girl dancing by with somebody. I’d never seen her before because when I was working in those early days I didn’t go out to dances or anything like that, because I was usually away on tractors and busy on the farm. So although I could dance, I wasn’t very experienced anyway. I managed to find out from one of those … I can’t recall who now … someone from my load on the truck knew who it was, and where they lived. So the next morning was a Saturday so I got my bike and I [chuckle] … and I rode into town looking for this St Aubyn Street, ‘cause I didn’t know where it was. I found it … found the number, and went around, knocked on the door. A very tall lady came to the door, rather stern-looking … rather like a matron at the hospital. And I said who I was, and asked “Is Natalie there?” And she says, “Yes”, and went away and Natalie came to the door. And that was the first time I spoke to my wife-to-be. [Chuckle]
So you took the bit between your teeth and did it?
Yes. Now, I had to talk a bit to get her to come out with me for a couple of times, but she finally did, and we went together for two years … I think it was two years. And then we got engaged for a year, and then we got married. And it was when Natalie and I married that I moved from living in Hastings to living permanently at Takapau and running the farm, and Don took over the job that I had been doing.
Did you have a house already on the farm, or did you build one?
The only structures … there was [were] only two structures on the farm. There was a little crutching shed … it wasn’t very big; it actually would’ve been a home originally, because the farm comprised of early settlement blocks just after the First World War. Each of those blocks was one hundred and sixty acres. They were subdivided for returned soldiers coming back from the war … those that wanted to go farming … and it was to be used for dairying. And in a lot of ways it proved to be a disaster for those people. The main reason was the ground was very wet in the area I’m speaking about, so there were a lot of those returned men walked off the farm – because you must remember, the Great Depression came along. They just couldn’t make enough for them to live. Most of them had wives; some of them with children, and there was no living on the farms for them. So the powers-that-be divided the blocks that were emptied into two blocks. Our type of country, the wet ground, was cut off at a hundred acres, and the dry ground was cut off at sixty acres, because remember they were all one hundred and sixty acre blocks. Anyway the farmer that took on the hundred acres got the wet country; the one that took on the sixty acres got the dry ground.
And so it happened that a block between myself and my new neighbour at Takapau – that was the Oakley family there – was a block where the person who drew the marble for the block originally had walked away or gone back. I don’t know what actually happened … I don’t even know their name. But anyway, the hundred acres came to Mrs E B Walsh whom Don and I bought our farm from, and the other sixty acres went to Roy Oakley, the returned serviceman, because he was wanting to run a Southdown stud farm, which is exactly what he did. So that’s really what happened to those blocks.
So on those blocks you grew cash crops; what type of cash crops did you grow?
Initially the only cropping we did … remember, we had no machinery, all we had was a Bradford truck … the only thing I had. But Dad was very good; I was able to use the Bedford truck. I already had a heavy traffic licence – I got that when I was eighteen and shifted the tractors around for Dad. And we used to load the gear up from Hastings, bring it down and plough a paddock so we could put crops in. The crops usually would be chou moellier or kale, something of that description, for winter feed for the colder time of the year in Takapau. Later on we further developed the blocks and we fenced it up; a lot of extra fencing was put in; new water lines were laid. Later on of course, new wells were put down and so forth to get the quality of water that was required.
When Don and I dissolved our partnership, I had taken on my neighbour’s block … Mr Power’s, across the road. That was a block [of] three hundred and sixty acres. It had better type of cropping soils than what we actually had on our own block at home. It was more silty; it was nearer to the smaller rivers that come down and eventually flow into the Tukituki. They were called the Tukipo and the Grant, and those types of rivers in that area. And when that actually happened, it opened the door to the possibility of growing crops for the canneries. So I had had contact made to me previously when I only had my home block to try growing peas, but I wouldn’t do that because I knew that it would be unsuccessful, because it wasn’t properly drained. But with the Power block available I contacted Jock Houston, who was the field officer in that area in those days, and Jock came out and saw me and I showed him the land and so forth, and we decided to have a go. And that worked out very successfully. I couldn’t’ve had a better field officer – he’d been involved in agriculture himself in his younger days, and that suited me fine because I came from the same agenda. And we put the crops in there right through for the full seven years. They were all successful – I can only remember one year where we had extra rain for longer. moving through into the spring, and we did lose part of one paddock but it wasn’t a disaster, the crop was still profitable. When we sold out the new buyer carried on with the lease, and also I understand, he carried on with the balance of the leases with Unilever. About two years after we had left, the company changed its policy and wouldn’t take crops any further south … I think it was a little bit north of Waipawa. That just about covers that.
You used to grow potatoes too?
Yes, potatoes were grown, but not by me. The potatoes were actually grown on Reg Power’s block … the block I took on a lease … and they were grown basically by Reg’s father – his name was Thomas. And I met Tommy Power just once, when I first went to Takapau. I didn’t have a shearing shed so we used to shear over at Reg’s shed, ‘cause Reg was running the farm by this time – his farm. And one day he brought his dad down for me to meet him, and so I had the chance to talk to him. And he was a nice chap, and I thoroughly enjoyed the time talking to him. He had grown a lot of potatoes on part of their farm, so that when I took the lease on, the area that he grew the potatoes on I decided to try pea crops. And it worked successfully except for one thing – I found out there was a lot of couch in that particular area. And it is created basically through the potatoes being grown there, because the couch will just grow through the potatoes. And the potatoes are left in the ground and the couch germinates again the following year. And of course it takes seven years to fully eradicate couch grass, anyway.
However at the time that I took the lease on, Monsanto had started to come onto the scene when it came to sprays. I was involved with sprays for my other crops, but I used to do all my own spraying. I had my own gear, and by this time they had came out with Roundup. And we did a twenty-acre trial spraying which looked to be one hundred percent; they guaranteed one hundred percent. Unfortunately, after about six weeks after the spraying had been done, we’d get a regeneration of couch. For some reason Monsanto didn’t want to know about it. I’m afraid I always had the feeling I had done a very good experiment for them. [Chuckle]
So, Reporoa; we went down to Reporoa, and we had wonderful neighbours. Our neighbours were either the original settlers in the Reporoa Valley, or they were the sons of – and couldn’t have asked for more helpful people, because farming at Reporoa is totally different to farming on the Takapau Plains. I knew that would be the case, but I wasn’t aware of the severity of the mineral deficiencies; trace elements; and although I had read quite a bit about it there was more to it than I thought. However, I didn’t have to worry. I’d only been there I suppose a week, and my neighbours were climbing over the fence to put me in the picture about selenium deficiency, zinc deficiency, and so on and so forth, and watching livestock for different problems that arise on that country. And so it took me two years to learn to farm again on that country, but it was wonderful – I loved it up there! I left it ten years too late to go up there – I was fifty before I went there, and it was a great place to farm. And there was plenty going on; when you think of the social side of things there was always something going on in the district. But Takapau was the same, it was a very social place too. Yes, so we really felt at home there, as well.
So you had fat lambs, and did you have stores as well?
On our property we had both. We were Romney ewes, Romney rams, full production, fat lamb production. Used to be Downs and Dorset and all those types of breeds at Takapau. And they were all Romney that we had at Tiverton Downs. We were breeding for wool and for lamb, and we ran beef cows and supporting livestock. We had two and a half thousand breeding ewes; we had two hundred and twenty beef breeding cows and supporting livestock. It kept me pretty busy – I farmed on my own for the first two years; later on I had some help on the property.
But there was a lot of developmental work going on at the same time. The previous owner had fenced off a lot of blocks up in the river area on the steeper country, and he’d started a project of conservation with the Waikato Valley Authority, who were the group that looked after that part of the country per the government agencies. And they turned out to be great guys. We carried on and got the planting in – not in pines, although we did put a few pines in, but mostly we put in Douglas fir, two varieties of Douglas fir; sequoias; and we put in quite a few Australian gum. But they weren’t actually put in for harvest in the true sense of the word; they were put in as shelter belts because we had melanoxylon trees there as well … Tasmanian blackwood. And you put four rows of gums; you put a row of Tasmanian blackwood, then four rows of gums. And because the gums grow much faster than the blackwoods, they give shelter because the blackwoods do not like frosts and strong winds and things like that in their early stages, so they got the protection from the gums. And once they got up to a certain height you cut out your gum trees and let the melanoxylons just stand on their own.
We’d just got to the point when the gums should’ve been starting to be removed when we retired off the block, so for many years I didn’t know what had actually happened on that block. I did go back once, but they hadn’t done anything. The gums were just there, and they were overgrowing all the melanoxylons, so I think they were going to lose the trees the way things were going.
The interest had moved away from forestry over a period of time. When we moved there it was very strong. Whole stations were putting large blocks of pine in and all that sort of thing, not just around Reporoa, but all the way towards Gisborne and Wairoa; right out through there, so there’s some pretty big money put into that.
So what sort of grasses did you plant on that country?
We planted rye grass and clover, like we did at Takapau. There was one real infestation on the property, and it was there when we went there, and that was nodding thistle. It was so bad in some of the gateways that you actually couldn’t get a gate open. So we had a full compaign on that; and that’s where the hormone sprays came in, and all the gear that I had taken from Takapau to Reporoa with me. By the end of the second year we had it pretty much under control, and later on, I think it might’ve been the third year … no, it would’ve been the second year … we bought a flock of feral goats, and we quickly found out that the goats were the answer to the nodding thistle – they absolutely loved them. They chewed them down and then they’d dig round the roots and chew the roots out as well.
Was this before they were sprayed?
As they germinate. We didn’t let it get the the stage where we had six foot high nodding thistle – it would be sprayed to hold it down to that level. When the seedlings from the previous year germinated, that’s when you put your goats in. Let it get up to about a foot, and put them in when it was palatable for them, and they went straight into it.
Now you have a son … just one son, one daughter?
No. I haven’t told you yet … when we were at Takapau in 1967, there was a terrible accident that affected our family. It was during the time that we were building one of the fowl houses for Don and Judy in Hastings here, and I came through and gave a hand, because they had a builder but they were short-handed. So I came through and helped with that, and Natalie came with me. I have a feeling we might’ve had a dental appointment that day down here, too. But what actually happened was, when we got home we’d lost our youngest son, young Ross. He’d come home from school and we’d arranged for him to stay at a party on the next door neighbours. And there was a lot of children there, and the children, after the party, had gone across to the shed, and there was a tractor parked there. And a ten year old little girl climbed on to it and played around with it. And – hello, it was a tractor; it was supposed to have been childproof. Somehow – I don’t know how, ‘cause I always thought it was childproof, but it wasn’t – she managed to start it. And our kids were all playing around; Philip told me later … my oldest son … that she was going to back it out of the shed. So Ross went and stood in front of the tractor. She got it into gear accidentally, put it into a forward gear and slammed him against the wall of that building.
That’s so sad …
And we got home, I suppose about half, three quarters of an hour after it happened. So when we went to Reporoa we had a son and daughter. Raewyn, the daughter, was adopted in Dannevirke in 1964. She’s a lovely person.
Were they still at school?
The two boys were actually going to school – Raewyn was too young for school when this happened. The two boys were going to Waipukurau Primary. After the accident our next door neighbour at Takapau who was a school teacher, Joe Burgess, offered to take Philip and later on Raewyn, into Takapau School and they were primary educated there. Philip went on to the college at Waipukurau; so did Raewyn, and then before Raewyn finished … I think she had one year to go … we went to Reporoa and then Raewyn went to Reporoa College for the last year. Didn’t like it because she was an outsider; she was new and she didn’t know anybody. And it was true … I’m not saying there was anything wrong with the people … it was just that she felt uncomfortable. But she decided that she wanted to go to Waiariki University, or College, in Rotorua. And so she organised it all by herself. Raewyn’s always been a very determined person. She organised it all herself. I thought she was doing the wrong thing, but no … she was hitting the nail right on the head; she had it exactly right. She went there, and she spent one year there, and that opened so many doors for occupations from that College. I just couldn’t believe it. And then she started looking for a job, and at that time it wasn’t easy to get a job, and each week I could see her sort of shrinking away. As I say, she’s pretty determined, and she started to get it all together. Finally, she got a job in [at] Direct Transport … I can’t think of the name of the road it’s on. It’s on the way going towards Tauranga … Te Ngae Road, that’s it. And she worked there for quite a few years on computers, and then later on she got another job working on the Post Office (in those days), and she was working there, and again it was to do with computerisation.
Then she decided to go with one of her work mates to Norfolk Island for a holiday. She wanted to go for a trip. Well she was going to go to England – that’s what she had in mind – and she managed to talk Mum and me into coming with her. So the three of us went as far as Norfolk Island, and Natalie and I stayed there for two weeks – had a royal time. Lovely place for a holiday for farmers!
Raewyn carried on with her job that she had there, and she stayed there over six months. And then she came back home, and I think from memory she went back to the Post Office again for a short while, and then she set off on this trip to England. She had a girlfriend went with her … can’t remember her name. And they got to Melbourne; they must’ve decided they’d have a job for a while, just to boost up their funds before they got to Europe. Well, they boosted the funds all right, but Raewyn began to see the value of the dollar, [chuckle] and she wasn’t leaving her job; she was carrying on. She was working in a wholesale foodmarket distribution centre on computerisation I think it was, so she stayed there, and her friend carried on on her own, and went over to Europe. I don’t know what happened to her after that, but she did get over there and came back later – I know that much, that’s all.
And then Raewyn stayed at [in] Melbourne, and started flatting and doing different jobs. And it was while she was there that she met her husband-to-be, Ross … Ross Toomer. Ross was not Australian, he was a Kiwi, and his family came from Tauranga. His father was a builder, and Ross apprenticed under him before he went to Australia to live, some … I think it was about five years previously to Raewyn getting there … and he was building houses over in Australia. And that is where they still are, over there. So they built about three or four homes for themselves, and thumbed them off after a few years, then built another one, and they’re in the middle of that process right now. So that’s where Raewyn’s occupied.
Philip of course – he married Sallie. Sallie’s father worked on the hydro station.
What was their surname?
Sallie Barker. Met Sallie at a Young Farmers meeting one night, and they went together for a few years and then finally married. Later on they bought part of Brian and Dorothy’s little lifestyle block … ‘bout ten acres, I think it was. And then they built themselves a new house there, and they of course had a family by this time – they had two boys and a girl.
Sean is the eldest, and then there’s Daniel, second, and then Seren, youngest. All of them are working now; one of them is married, Sean – he works where his father works actually, in [at] Tenon, which is an American company which make mouldings and so forth for finishing work on houses and buildings. Sean works for that same company, and he’s been there for quite a few years, too.
Daniel came and stayed with Natalie and I here in Hastings for about eight or nine months; working in an orchard to make a bit of extra cash, because he wanted to sit for an apprenticeship exam to get into aircraft designing, manufacturing and repairs. And so he made the money and got accepted for the exams, and he actually ended up coming out top equal out of fifty-eight in the groups that went in. There were three groups; I think there was about twelve or thirteen in each, and he was top equal of his group at the end of his apprenticeship. So he then applied for an apprenticeship job at Air New Zealand. And he’s a very hard worker … very studious bloke; quite different from me. And he then qualified – he was top equal again with a young Asian chap, and he is now an apprentice for Air New Zealand, and is moving towards the end of his second year in the apprenticeship.
Seren – she has a job. She is doing … I think it’s clerical work … it was only the other day I was talking to her, too. It’s in business anyway – it’s involved in business work. All of them of course are computer literate, not like their grandfather. [Chuckle]
We come from a different era. [Chuckle]
Anyway – yes, so they’re all doing pretty well for themselves. Coming back to Raewyn in Melbourne – she’s got three daughters. The oldest one is Alysha, the second one is Kayla, and the youngest one is Lily, and they’re all very, very sport-minded. Kiwi ancestry, Australian born. So I can’t speak about rugby or anything like that … not good news. [Chuckle] However, two of them are working; Lily has still got a bit of time to go with her education. They’re lovely girls; I’m very, very proud of all my grandchildren – I don’t think we could have been luckier. [Chuckle]
Coming back to Mutiny Road, it must have been fairly hard going breaking the swamp and stumping. How did you do it? Did you have tractors or did you blow it out?
All those things; my memory of early stumping doesn’t really exist. I don’t remember Dad having the relief gangs there for example, ‘cause I was born in 1930 and those relief gangs were there probably, I would guess about 1927, ‘28, and ‘29 … around about that period of time. I’ve seen photos of some of them. It’s one heck of a big job. But the reason it was such a big job was, there’s not just one forest, there were three forests. The first forest that would’ve been there were totara, and some of them were pretty large totara with tremendously long barrels, because the logs are still there, or were still there. I saw logs come out of that swamp that would’ve been forty feet long, all in one piece, and occasionally you’d even see the leaves and foliage on there, yet they must’ve been there probably even thousands of years. The main crop of stumps and the ones that caused the most trouble, was actually the second crop, the second forest, which was grown at a much later date – I’ll explain in a moment why I know that – because they were white pine – kahikatea.
And when I was working for Dad, we actually got a … or he got a contractor coming up from Shannon, Robbie Robinson was his name, and he had a big HD7 – this was an Allis Chalmers diesel tractor, and he had a special stumping apparatus set up on front of his tractor for pushing the stumps out. Well where he was working apparently had not [no] big stumps. He got down to Mutiny Road and the whole situation changed. He put a bulldozer blade on and dug trenches around it like a moat round a castle, round the trees; and that would let me get in there with gelignite and blow some of the bigger roots. And when you blow those off you then roll the stump out, but you couldn’t push it out – too heavy for him. So we had to get Dad’s two crawlers, the 22 and the R2 that I mentioned, and had to hook a wire rope onto those and strop it round the stump over the top. Then Robbie got behind with his tines back on again and he would lift and we’d pull, and that way we were able to roll them out of the hole; get it away from there so we could fill in the holes. Now I’m talking – when I say that I’m talking about the biggest of the stumps, they weren’t all that size. Most of the stumps would’ve been six feet through, I suppose. They rot above the water line, and as soon as they get out in the air they very quickly decay. You need to use the wood up for firewood – I would say within three or four years.
There was a final crop – black maire – and the rest were all stumps. They’re like a large manuka or small kanuka, the stump itself, and they’re absolutely pitch black – they’re ebony coloured. If you try to cut a piece of black maire on your circular saw you’ll just throw sparks, and you‘ll only cut one piece of wood, ‘cause you’ll have to sharpen the saw again after that. Fortunately, most of it is pretty small diameter, only about six inches through, most of the ones that I saw. I think there were some there that were up to eighteen inches I remember Dad saying; I never saw those, they’d have been in a different part of the swamp.
I mentioned that the totaras were the oldest trees. The reason that I said that was when you dug down – you could only do the stumping in the summer too, by the way, otherwise the water table was too high. When you dug down on either side of the stump you followed the trunk which was still standing in the ground below the surface. You’d dig down and when you get down to the blue loam which was right on the bottom – I never ever found out for sure, but I suspect after having lived in the Taupo region for a few years later on in my life – that the blue loam would’ve actually been very fine pumice, probably from the Taupo eruption. The totara roots were all in that. The white pine and the maire was all up the top again around about two foot, two foot six above the level to which the roots were for the totara.
Dad would’ve started doing that sometime in the late 1920s, and the whole job wouldn’t have been finally cleared and completed until just about before I went to Takapau, which was in 1955.
So how many acres was the Mutiny Road farm?
The Mutiny Road farm was just over eighty acres. I think it was something like eighty-one or eighty-two acres. It’s hard to get an accurate acreage because on the Middle Road side of the farm there was a drain. We called it the main drain – it has a proper Māori name these days – I don’t even know what that is now. My brothers might know, but I don’t. And they had to keep deepening it all the time because it comes down from the hills up Middle Road, the same gully Middle Road runs through. And from the limestone hills on those ridges the lime dissolves, comes down in the creek and keeps building the bed up, just like sand on the beach. And then sooner or later the water starts flowing over into the swamp country again, which is much lower. So they had to keep going through clearing it out in the early days, and I can remember this myself – they had a dragline in there digging it all out. And each time they dug it out they had to widen the drain, so they could only go towards my father’s property in widening because the other side there was a row of poplar trees, and they were really big poplar trees.
So you had that strip of land on the roadside, and it dropped straight down to the main farm that was on the swamp flats?
Yes. The fence that runs along Mutiny Road was the road boundary fence for the farm. That strip of land where the buildings all are – that was always known to us as the ‘bank’. We called it the bank; it was just the family called it that.
There’s a [no] possibility … we didn’t know it at the period of time I’m talking about, but later on when my brother went on that farm, he drilled for water. They could never get good water supply from the swamp. They could get the water, but they couldn’t get it up because that fine green [blue] silt that I told you that those totaras were sitting on, would flow in from down below … I don’t know how deep they went; I would’ve known at the time but I can’t recall now … flow into the pipes and fill it up and block it. And then when the well-sinker would try to lift the pipes to try elsewhere, he couldn’t lift them. So it would end up shearing it off at one of the joints. They could get about one third of their pipe back and the other two thirds would still be in the swamp. Can’t think of the name of the guy that did the work; doesn’t matter, he was a well-sinker from Hastings and he was very, very well-known, and he tried for years to get water for Dad.
So when your father was farming Mutiny Road, did he have any input into the Longlands farm?
Dad worked down in several places before he was married, and he worked down at Longlands – I’m assuming it was harvesting – he certainly did later on, but he also had a job on what was Mr R C Williams’ property, or was up ‘til a few years ago; that’s the property of Mr Jimmy Inglis, Dad had worked at Longlands when required; he had a job on a block of land at the top of Mutiny Road which came down to the junction between Mutiny Road and Middle Road – that block of land which was later owned by Mr Bob Williams. Dad shepherded on that for some years for the previous owner. The previous owner had about four farms – he had one at Woodville, another one down in the Manawatu … I can’t remember exactly where. And then he also had bought Alexander – or Alex, as he was known here – Speers’ block at Longlands. He also owned that block at Longlands.
Then the Depression came along and he came under financial pressure, and he sold the Woodville farm, and he sold the farm at the end of Mutiny Road that Bob Williams bought; and he handed back the block of land he’d bought from Alexander Speers – in other words, Alex Speers. I use the name Alexander because that is his proper name; he was known always in New Zealand as Alex.
Yes, my grandfather. And that block of land came back to him again. I don’t know when all this happened, but I do know that the old house that’s on the property he built in 1913, so he was in that house from then on. He lived there when I first met him as a little kid and he was there right up ‘til he died, basically. He also … oh, I suppose I can just go back … and where do I start? With Ireland?
Yes, you can start wherever you like.
Alex Speers came originally from Ireland. He came from County Donegal in Ireland. His full proper christian [and] surname was Alexander Speers. He was the first generation to be born after the Speers name had been changed. How shall I put this? The original name of the family was Speer. [Spells] A George Speer married in Ireland – can’t give you the actual date. He married a Martha Gailey, County Donegal, Ireland – came from a place called Killylastin. They married; they took over the farm called Aughadahor. Aughadahor is a townland in Ireland – Ireland has a very complicated identification system for land ownership. Townlands are a purely Irish way of identifying an area, and it always means there’s something in that area that you can identify it by, for example, Aughadahor, where the Speer/Speers family came from, means in English “the land of the eels and herons”. Well, when I first heard this I thought, ‘why would you call your place the land of eels and herons?’ But when Natalie and I went over there to meet the family in 2006, I took one look at the area and I could see it straight away. All that part of Ireland is the bed of ancient glaciers. During the last ice age there would’ve been anything up to two miles of ice sitting on top of it, and it gouges all the mountains away and it makes them look like saw teeth on a saw. And in the valleys it formed swamps or ponds; if there’s a low area it turned into a pond and over time vegetation grew in there and it turned back into peat swamps. So that’s where Aughadahor was.
Now, when George Speers … or Speer as he was then … started having his children, when his first child was born the Irish government had changed the regulations in Ireland. It’d gone from non-compulsory to register a birth, [to] being compulsory. When he went to register the birth of his first child he added ‘s’ to the end of the name, and at the same time he changed his own name from Speer to Speers. And that is the reason given to us down here – that so many of them were staying in the same area because they didn’t have the means of transport getting [to get] far away from the area, it was continuous repetition of a given name being taken over and over again. If you were talking about George, you never know which one; if you were talking about Mary, you didn’t know which one – so it was his way of getting around the complication of knowing. That as far as I know was the reason the name was changed. He was buried at Doe Castle Cemetery, and Natalie and I went and saw that and took photos of this, and so forth.
And that’s where Alexander came from. He left there when he was either fifteen or eighteen years of age, and he came to New Zealand, obviously by ship … no other way. He landed in Dunedin or Christchurch; we’ve never been able to confirm which, ‘cause I can’t find out what ship he came on. He may have gone to Australia first, and then came at a later date because remember, the gold rushes were on in those days. So he may have gone there and then later come over on a smaller vessel to New Zealand.
So eventually he got a job in Christchurch, and he worked on the stations there for about five years as a ploughman, and as a gardener or general hand. And then for whatever reason he came to Hawke’s Bay, and he did the same thing when he got here – he worked on the stations around as a ploughman/gardener.
When he had accumulated sufficient funds to buy his first block of land … he had two other blocks of land, possibly three, before we [he] had the Longlands block. He had one block at Collinge Road and Jervois Street; he had another block at St Andrews Road, and as far as I can tell he didn’t have them all at the same time, so he would’ve sold one and got another one. The block at Collinge Road – part of that eventually became part of Windsor Park – it was called the Lomas Settlement Block at the time of the sale by the government. The block he bought in St Andrews Road, later on his youngest daughter Florence and her husband bought that off … I think they bought it off the Estate … might’ve been after he died, I think … and they lived in that for quite a few years. The rest of his life he lived at Longlands in the house he’d built there in 1913.
Now coming back to farming – farming methods were quite different – you would’ve had horses, originally?
At what point of time?
At Mutiny Road.
Dad certainly operated horses, because when I said earlier that he worked at times down at Longlands, that was what he’d be working with. He was working with horses, mowing ryegrass and that sort of thing. And that of course was cropped, and then carted in and stacked. And then in the autumn Percy Pilcher from Otane would arrive with a box mill and a traction engine, and then after a hell of a job to get it across the soft peat in the swamp, get to the site where they could set everything up so it wouldn’t sink out of sight – then they would thresh it. I can remember the mill working there, so it was within my memory when at Mutiny Road or Longlands.
Shortly after those events, Dad bought his first tractors. I remember those – they were two Fordsons … the old grey model with the steel wheels … I can see them now; they were sitting in the shed. Dad was good with mechanics; he was able to turn his hand to anything along those lines, and he would play around with those engines ‘til he got them going and running and so forth. Of course that became a burden to him too ‘cause once the neighbours knew that, he ended up with a whole lot of other engines that needed … [Chuckles] It did too – there was a lot of them.
After the Fordson tractors he bought a McCormick Deering W4 which I drove a lot of the time, later on. We used that for mowing ryegrass, pulling a trailer mill – a ‘64 McCormick Deering trailer mill which later on I bought from him and had at Takapau. Later on Dad had a self-propelled. I think my brother … well, Jim … was certainly involved, ‘cause he drove it a lot; drove the self-propelled mill. I didn’t actually drive that at all; I was long gone from the block by then.
The crawler tractors – as I said, the age of the tractors were ‘39 and ‘38 models – they came and they superceded those old grey Fordsons that Dad had been ploughing the flat country with, and allowed him to get onto the hill country and do that work for a time. They used the transmission a lot, that was for sure! [Chuckles] The R2 was a faster machine than the 22, because it had a five-speed box, and there was a three-speed box on the 22. Whenu Peakman drove the 22, and Bill Cracknell from Pakipaki drove the R2 before I came onto the scene. I don’t know how many years he was with Dad – he was there for quite a while. Later on, Bill of course got a job up at Pakipaki Lime Works driving the bulldozer up there for the lime company.
And you would’ve spent some time on the McCormick Deering mill, threshing, sewing bags in the dust?
That was my job – bagging.
Now you’ve retired. It’s very quiet, you wouldn’t know there was any vehicles here, would you?
No … oh, you hear them when they come in and out to work, but they’re not loud.
You’ve been very successful as a family, you know – I hear you saying your father helped you and Don to Takapau; then you worked with your brother and developed the poultry farm, and obviously it worked …
Well, I think you can put that down to one thing – we had very good parents. I’ve got the utmost respect for my father; I thought we were very, very lucky. Don’t get me wrong – Dad would say exactly what he thought, and if you were on the wrong side of the road, you’d better be prepared to step back a bit. But I got on well with Dad, when I got older too – I had some very lovely years with Dad … came down and visit him and we’d have a whisky at home, and that sort of thing. I’ve never had a row with one of my brothers in the whole of my life. We used to chuck rocks at one another when we were kids [chuckle] – that was about the limit. I clobbered poor Don once, with a rock – I can remember it happening. We were chucking rocks alongunder a culvert, and the rock bounced up and hit him. Didn’t knock him out, but [chuckle] he was a bit groggy. [Chuckle]
So what have you forgotten to tell me, Alan? Your brothers … there was Don, there was Jim and Murray … any sisters?
No, no, only four boys – four boys in our family. No, the Hope family, they got all the girls [chuckle] – they’ve got six of them.
So can you think of anything else?
When we were at Takapau we used to go out fishing in the boat. We used to go to the Porangahau River, and got some great catches of kahawai in the Porangahau River. We used to go down to Mangakuri when we were younger – that’s with Dad and Uncle Alec and Uncle Sid. They all used to go out there and we’d camp for the weekend, go fishing for crayfish … sometimes we’d put out set lines, but it was more for crayfish that we went there. Also to Pourerere, Blackhead … Blackhead we went all the time once I built the boat. That’s where I used to put the boat on the sand and go out fishing there.
It was easy to put in the river and take it out, I suppose?
That’s at Porangahau, but at Blackhead you’ve got a channel, and you’ve got to know what you’re doing. There used to be a row of cabbage trees up on the hill up by Blackhead Station house, and when you go out and you’re out at sea, you could swing around and you could bring those three cabbage trees into line. And when you came in, you made sure of those … you don’t worry about anything else in front of you, just keep those cabbage trees in a line until you got to the breakers, and then slow down until you picked up a crest coming in, and then just skied in behind it. It was running right up to the beach then.
My knowledge of Porangahau would be purely and simply about the river, and putting the boat in there. I knew a family that came from Porangahau – they were my father’s neighbours. They were the Cooks … Mr and Mrs Jack Cook. They’re long gone now, of course. They were a Porangahau family, and Brian and I, when were were going primary school, we became great mates. The paper [book] I’ve got actually tells you a bit about that.
Okay – well do you think I’ve got everything out of you?
Yeah, I think so.
When we did our trip initially … I’ve got that down in the book … I searched for in total, [from] when I really started to think about it, about fourteen years on the search to do the book. The early years I’d just do it every now and then ‘cause I was still working. And when I’d get the time I’d do it, or if something came up, I’d check that out – that sort of thing. But it was when I retired I started to work in earnest on it. But our problem was we just couldn’t seem to find out where Granddad came from. We thought he’d come from Scotland, because Dad and my aunts and uncles seemed to think it was so.
I joined a Geological [Genealogical] Society in Taupo, and they were wonderful. Why I didn’t mention it is, I’ve got all that in the Speers book. One of the things they taught me early in the piece – don’t go looking for your ancestry unless you know where they came from, because ninety-nine percent of the time you’ll be disappointed.
So I had searched and searched and searched, and I was still searching in Scotland because of a little story I tell people. Dad went down just after his father had died, and his five sisters and Uncle [Alec], his brother, were there and they were burning a heap of old papers and that, cleaning the house out – you know what happens? That kind of thing. And as Dad got there a gust of wind got in and blew the piece of paper out which when he picked it up turned out to be an envelope, and it had an address on it. And it hadn’t burnt it – the gust [had] lifted it off. And it said ‘Creeslough, Armadale, West Lothian, Scotland’. That’s all I had when I started thinking seriously about trying to find out where Granddad came from. I thought it was Scotland; so did Dad – he thought he was from Scotland. I couldn’t find any record of Creeslough … I could find West Lothian and all that, no trouble at all; I couldn’t find this place called Creeslough.
One occasion Natalie and I went to Napier – this is from Takapau – and we went for a meal. And there was a big crowd of people a long table, and I thought they were land agents ‘cause they were obviously celebrating something. And the tables were quite close; at one stage a fork or something fell off the table – we were sitting at a little table separate from them – and I bent down and picked the fork up and handed it to him. And he said “Oh, are you from here?” And I said “No, no – we’re from Takapau”. And we got talking, and it turned out they were actually researchers … genealogy researchers. Now I hadn’t done any really serious genealogy at that point in time, but I told him about how I was trying to find out where this Creeslough was. He said, “Oh, leave it to me”. He said, “I’ll get in touch with you.” So that was all right, and was the end of that. Life went on, and I forgot all about it for about two years.
All of a sudden one day in the mailbox at Takapau there was a bloody big package – opened it up, and all this paper and stuff … they had a whole group of them had gone through it, and they’d come to the conclusion that it was a misnomer, because Cree is the river in Scotland, and lough is the Irish name for a lake. And there was no Creeslough. So I sort of just forgot all about it for a while, and it was only later my interest came back – every time I saw that bloody oval photo. I thought, ‘he’s got to come from somewhere,’ you know.
And I [chuckle] … I went to the library in Taupo one day when Nat was just across the road at the bank, and I had a bit of a scratch round there. They have a nice little search area there. I don’t know whether it’s still there. And I found a map of Scotland; I went over that, and I couldn’t find it at all. They had a map of Ireland on the same page – actually, on the opposite page – go through that, and there’s nothing there, so I just gave it away.
The oval photo was of William Speer, Alexander’s oldest brother, which I had a copy of, but the family called him George in error. The original photo was in Alexander’s lounge, and of course by this stage we were living in Reporoa, and we sold our farm. And the couple that bought it – one was a civil engineer, the other was a district nurse. They were partners, lived together for eighteen years. He had been in oil exploration in Egypt or somewhere … one of the Arab countries anyway. And Edith, his partner, she was a nurse with the same group.
Anyway, they had a lifestyle block down below us, and they came up one Sunday afternoon. They’d heard from someone – and they weren’t supposed to’ve heard anything, ‘cause we hadn’t said anything – asked if the farm was for sale, which it wasn’t. Anyway, he came up with a bloody good offer, so we decided to sell as we intended to retire in two years’ time. And the country was due for a downturn, which turned out to be correct.
Now we did all the negotiations with Edith and Derek, and the last trip they said, “You come down to us this time, and we’ll just make sure we’ve got everything correlating for kids to school, and stock off properties, and all the rest of it”, so each of us knew what the other was doing. We got down there, and finished everything and we were actually having a cup of coffee about half past nine or ten o’clock at night. And all of a sudden Edith turns to me and says, “Alan, do you mind if we use your name ‘Creeslough’ on the farm?” I said, “I don’t mind, but you really can’t – it’s registered as a Trust.” Oh. She went quiet, and then she seemed just a little bit hesitant, and then she said, “If you don’t mind me asking, how did you come to call it Creeslough?” So I told her the story about the bonfire and the address in Scotland. I said “I’ve looked all over Scotland and I can’t find it”. At that stage I didn’t know where he’d come from, you see? “I don’t know where it is.” She got up – two storey house – walks up the stairs – she was gone for bloody ages, and I thought, ‘I must’ve said something that upset her’. And Derek was sitting there, he didn’t seem to be very worried. We were just him, Nat and I – the three of us were there. And finally she came down the stairs, and she’s got a bloody book; it’s that thick; it’s that size; and she’s carrying this down the stairs. She put it on the table and then … no – she had a piece of paper inserted, that’s right. She put it on the table, then she opened it and said, “That’s Creeslough.“ Well, my jaw must’ve dropped! I said to her, “How did you know that?” She said,”Well, I have a bit of an advantage, Alan”, she said, “I was born not far from there.”
Now, I want to know, what were the chances of that happening? The last time we ever saw her, and there was Creeslough – and it wasn’t small; it wasn’t a tiny little spot. There are a lot smaller villages than Creeslough. But when I thought about it later, the book I looked in at the library was much smaller. It only had up to a certain size, and it wasn’t in the bloody book.
What a great note to finish on. It’s incredible really, that that should happen. Thank you, Alan, that was really wonderful; thank you very much.
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Interviewer: Frank Cooper
- Alan George Speers