Coddington, Russell James (Russ) Interview
My mother was born in Napier and my grandmother was also a Napier girl and her father built the first house on the Marine Parade and it’s still there. I think it’s called the Steak House and it’s still there. And what a lot of people didn’t realise was that all the people who owned their properties on the Marine Parade had riparian rights. They owned the land down to the high water mark and there was a row about somebody wanting to build, I think it was the skating rink, and one of the owners said you’ll build it if I say you can because that’s my land and all hell broke loose over that. But they sorted it out. But it was interesting that that house from the Steak House right down to the high water mark was owned by the owner.
Where did your grandparents or parents come from?
My grandmother came from Woodville originally. My grandparents of course, on Dad’s side they stayed in England. So all I had really was a grandmother and she was in Napier.
So she lived in Woodville and then your folks came to Napier.
She was born in Woodville. Dad originally worked for Barry Bros.
Yes, a well known company in Napier.
And then he joined the Napier Borough Council and I think he was a pay clerk or something like that. And then he got the job alongside a well known Napier identity, Alec Oliver who was the first original traffic inspector and he worked with Alec Oliver until 1937 as a traffic inspector, and explosives inspector and dog inspector and Uncle Tom Cobley and all. Well there wasn’t the traffic in those days to keep him busy. Dad joined the Transport Department in 1936 when it was formed. It was what they called the twelve apostles because there were twelve traffic inspectors in New Zealand and that was it and Dad’s district went from Woodville up to Wairoa and all in between and it was a hell of a district for one man to look after. I can well remember as a kid we never saw Dad at Christmas time. He was out on the road all the time. Growing up too this was one of the things we missed out on. Dad never ever took me to the big rugby matches because he was on duty all the time. We lived in May Avenue which was very badly knocked about in the earthquake and that’s about the history of my parents.
So you were born in Napier. Went to school in Napier.
Yes. 5th November, 1927. I went to Napier Central and Napier Intermediate and it’s amazing how odd teachers stick in your mind. Miss Hannay, she was a real old school teacher and Henry Bell who went on to the inspectorate. They were two teachers who really made an impression on me. And then in 1940, the family, Dad was transferred to Auckland. I went to Auckland Grammar and I was there for 3 years and all I learnt from that was that there was no way I was going to be a doctor or a lawyer, better get a job. That was our contact with Napier which was broken off for quite a number of years.
Brothers and sisters?
Yes, two brothers. Ian my second brother he wound up as Chief Superintendent for the Ministry of Transport and Graeme my youngest brother went to Australia and he wound up as the News Director for Channel 9. Both of them had a lot to do with royalty. Ian with the Royal Tours and Graeme with his contact with Prince Charles. I’m about the only one that couldn’t skite about knowing anybody.
And what about sports. Did you play any sports when you were young?
Yes. I finished up after three doses of concussion and they wouldn’t have me any more.
Well, that was good advice wasn’t it?
Actually it was pretty strict. This was when I was at Auckland Grammar. They kept a note of the times that you were off injured and that’s it you’ve had enough. Not that I would have got anywhere.
And so in those days did you go to the beach much or mostly activities round home or what did you do?
Used to do a lot of boating when we lived at Herne Bay which wasn’t the Herne Bay that it is today of course and there was a little beach down the road and an old chap we knew who had a yacht and we used to do a lot of sailing and by this time of course it was during the war and I joined the Air Training Corps to fly with the Victory squadrons and never got near it. I was pretty tied up with the Air Training Corps until I went into the Air Force but by that time the war was practically over.
So it was after the war that you then joined the Ministry of Transport was it?
No, as a matter of fact I had a very interesting job in the meantime. During the war (the Air Training Corps was only in the evenings and weekends) I worked for a firm called Henderson & McFarlane and they were agents for the Matson Steamship company, (the Monterey, Matsonia, Lurline) and we were taken over by the United States War Shipping Administration and we looked after all the convoys coming in to Auckland and sort of fitting them out. I was Assistant Staff Clerk, the stores clerk that used to get all the requisitions from the purser of the skipper, the chief mate, and get all organised and get it along on to the ships. I can remember going out to Sylvia Park which was a big American with some Mac trucks and the truck that I came back in (the Navy stocked up for the war in the Pacific) and the truck that I came back in had a truck load of Superman comics, or I assume they were Superman comics. They were comics which got me thinking a bit. And another job in the company was the job of exporting war brides. We sent all the war brides. I had to take them up to the American Consulate to get all their papers filled in and hold their babies while they signed papers and we sent a lot of young ladies up to the Islands on a ship called the Tallamac and from there the American navy took them over. But that was a fascinating job for a 17 year old. But after the war when the financial situation wasn’t too good the firm sort of folded and Dad said what are you going to do for a living, you can’t live off us. So I went into the then Transport Department and I spent 2 years in Head Office as an assistant staff clerk and I can remember the Chief Traffic Officer in Wellington coming down and saying “Look I’m sorry I’ve got some bad news for you”. I wanted to join the enforcement staff and he said “You won’t be able to transfer over because we’re going over to the Police in October and you’re too short and they won’t have you”. Well that was in 1949 and we finally went over to the Police in the 1970s. So I got in and had my whole career there.
So once you left the clerking job you then went to train as an officer did you?
So where was that training done?
On the Hutt Road with another officer. There was no training school in those days. You learnt on the job and I can well remember as a trainee the first ticket that I ever issued. There was this Chev car. His right hand head light was out and his Warrant of Fitness had expired so I asked the driver for his Driver’s Licence so I could write him out a traffic offence notice and it was Bob Semple, ex Minister of Transport. So I wrote out the ticket and told him that he could make an explanation, that my job was to report the offences. And as I was walking back to my car this voice said “Just a minute young man” and I thought Oh God here it comes. “Do you know who I am” and I said “Yes sir I do”. And he said “Well I’ll tell you something if you’d let me off you’d be looking for a job on Monday”. And that was old Bob Semple.
So you worked around Wellington initially as an officer.
And then I was transferred to New Plymouth, there were two of us Burt Shaler and myself. We were the Transport Department in New Plymouth and then I had a phone call from my boss in Wellington one night to say “Come down to Wellington next Wednesday. We’re going to give you a motor bike”. So I went down there and got the first motor bike the Ministry of Transport, the then Transport Department, had A 500CC Aerial and the other bike was a Triumph which was going to go to a chap called Howard and he had it in his mind that he would be the first one to ride a motor bike for the Department so instead of going down on the Tuesday like we were supposed to he went down on the Monday night but poor old Howard getting off the train in Wellington fell and broke his wrist. So I wound up by being the Department’s first motor cyclist.
Good Lord. That’s interesting too. Yes that’s exactly what we’re looking for. And, you know, experiences you had especially in New Plymouth now you’re a fully fledged motor cycle traffic officer.
Yes, I remember there was a dear old chap, he was a local Doctor and he used to come to town every now and again and he’d just stop outside the shop that he wanted to go to and in those days the New Plymouth tram lines were only a single line but they had loops in them and nine times out of ten the Borough Council in those days were becoming a bit berserk about it and so when I saw the old chap, lovely old bloke, and I said that they were complaining and I said “What about coming to town and parking your car off the main street somewhere and walking round to do your shopping” and he said “That’s a fine thing to tell a doctor what’s good for his health”. Anyway about three weeks later this old chap arrived in my office. He said “Well I’ve done what you told me to do” and I said “Well that’s good doctor”. And he said “Now you’ll have to help me. I can’t find my bloody car”.
And so how long were you in New Plymouth?
And had you married at that stage or were you still a single…
I got married while I was there and we had the back of an old house. Housing was impossible in those days and it was just down from Pukekura Park and as young newlyweds we used to love going up to Pukekura Park after church on a Sunday night because they had music going. It was really wonderful. Then we were transferred to Stratford.
You could still see the mountain.
You couldn’t if it was raining and if you could it was going to rain. Didn’t enjoy that very much. I had 12 months in Stratford and I came back to Napier for a little while and the Department offered me a job in Dargaville. They offered me a job in Maungataroto so we took it and I went into Auckland to our district office to get my car and get organised and the chief said to me there’s a vacancy in Dargaville, would you rather have that than Maungataroto and I said well at least I’ve heard of Dargaville, I’ve never heard of Maungataroto. So that’s how we ended up in Dargaville. That three years in Dargaville was probably about the best three years of my life. It was a wonderful place to work in. The people up there were fantastic. The job was interesting. We really enjoyed Dargaville very much. By this time Joan and I had been married 9 years. We didn’t have a family and we arrived in Dargaville at the beginning of the toaroa season and we’ve got two kids now. But Dargaville really was … the people were so friendly and a lot of people in Napier would remember Tom McKay. Tom McKay was an electrician in Napier for Hector McGregor. His family were well known in Napier and he read in the newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, one night that they were putting on the power up in North Auckland so he went up there with a push bike and a kit of tools and he wound up as a millionaire. A wonderful bloke.
The timing was right and he took advantage of it. And then you had two children while you were in Dargaville.
Steve was born in Dargaville. And then I was offered the job as the school travel instructor in Hastings so we transferred down here.
That was the start of a long association.
That was the rest of my career.
It’s amazing how many people remember you as a traffic officer because you went to most of the schools didn’t you?
Well, I had to visit every classroom in every school between Hastings and Woodville.
That was a big job.
I had to average 500 classes twice a year so that meant on a normal working day I had to go to five classes and if you were in a High School it would take you longer to do a group so you had to make up the next day but it was fantastic.
So how many years did you actually work for the Department in Hastings with the schools?
From 1960 we came down from Dargaville and I retired in 1987.
So that was 27 years. No wonder there’s a lot of children can remember you. So not long after you came to Havelock North you built the house and spent many happy years there.
Then we bought a place and then Joan got ill.
Yes. You were mentioning about your father when the main road to Wairoa was flooded and you had to access Wairoa across the Mohaka viaduct.
I don’t know why it happened. But in the 1938 flood Dad took his patrol car across the Mohaka viaduct and I don’t know why.
I wouldn’t walk across there even in the middle of a…
Didn’t have any sides on it either in those days apparently.
I remember you saying once that he was No. 1 something to do with …… that’s quite historical really. Oh it’s No. 1 on his badge.
That was when he joined in 1936 with the Department. They called them the twelve disciples.
I’ve got here in my hands a Traffic Inspector’s badge, New Zealand Government, with No. 1 on it. That must be very unique.
That was my one.
And I have Russ’ badge when he joined and he was 111. Isn’t that incredible. And you also said you were the first one with a motor cycle in the country.
This is Dad’s old hat badge. He was the Chief Traffic Officer in Hawke’s Bay.
Would he have been …… what’s his name now Walker.
Harry Walker was with the Napier Borough Council.
And your father was with the Traffic Department.
Ministry of Transport yes.
Yes there was a difference.
The interesting thing about that badge is that when my younger brother became a chief Dad passed him the badge and when I became a chief I got the badge so the three of us have worn that one.
Is that right. That’s incredible. Yes I always remember here there weren’t many traffic officers in Hastings but one we all knew was the man by the name of Herbie Green and Herbie we used to think he was a great person because my father used to go to Hastings once a week and drink with his old mates and if Herbie Green was around and saw Dad wasn’t in very good shape he’d put one of his offsiders in his car and bring my father home, put the car in the shed. I got to know Herbie later on when he had the laundry. Those big V8, I think it must have been 1946 or 48 the V8 cars, they were huge, the coupes. So what sort of cars did you drive in. When you were in Dargaville, what sort of car did you have up there.
I started by relieving as a trainee in Mt Maunganui over the Christmas period and would you believe I had it all to myself. The resident traffic cop’s wife was in hospital and I had Mt Maunganui to myself and just to give you an idea how times have changed. On the New Year at midnight I was trying to keep the traffic moving and somebody grabbed my cap and I thought what the hell am I going to do now and about 10 minutes later they brought it back and said we were only kidding mate. In this day and age they would have thrown it in the harbour and when I got back from Mt Maunganui from relieving Dad said to me “what sort of a car did they give you” and I said “I’m not going to tell you” and he said “Why won’t you” and I said “Because you won’t believe me” and he said “Well try me” and I said alright. TD50 and Dad said TD50 and I said Yes TD50. And he said damn it that’s that the car I started with in 1936. Dad and I both started in the same car. By this time it was the vehicle inspector’s car.
Isn’t that interesting though. All these No. One’s.
Yes. The amount of coincidences in my life is fantastic.
So then you progressed to Hastings and what did they give you in Hastings.
Altogether, I did a count up some time ago. I think altogether I had 14 different patrol cars. Vauxhalls, Fords, Zephyrs, Austin A70. In the latter stages it was mainly Fords and Holdens. The old TD50.
I saw those photos of the Vauxhall 14. I can just see you getting down a shingle road chasing someone in one of those.
It’s amazing how many we caught. There must have been a few we lost. The old 36V8 was quite a powerful car but it had two major handicaps. One was if you were driving in the rain and you were in a hurry and you put your foot on the accelerator the windscreen wipers would stop because they were hydraulic and the other thing was they had manual brakes.
In those days Russ, when there were accidents did you measure up the same as they measure up accidents today or did you just get the wrecks towed away. I notice that they block roads off for hours now.
No we used to have a tape measure. It’s far more scientific. I wouldn’t even know how to start. It’s far more scientific now than it used to be and I suppose this is because the law has become more intricate.
And of course the cars today, when you look at the power of these Japanese cars and these European cars, they make those V8s and those earlier cars gutless don’t they.
Well the thing about the modern motor car is they go forever. I remember in the days of the Cortina, if they’d done 30,000k time to you know ….
Yes, so obviously you enjoyed your time as a traffic officer because you kept at it for a while.
Well, I wasn’t a real traffic officer. All the other blokes in the outfit used to call me a kitty cop.
But there’s a point there. You stopped the accidents before they happened. You weren’t the band aid at the bottom of the cliff. That gave you a superior position actually.
I’d like to think so. It didn’t seem like a job. It changed a bit as the kids got older. But when you went into the school and all the little kids would come out and say “Gidday Traffics”….. “Hello Mr Coddington”. When it got up to 5th and 6th form at High School they were a bit more blasé.
During that time you could still operate as a traffic officer and stop people for……. You were a fully operational traffic officer.
Yes, I held a warrant but I can remember when I started because I had no training. I went to Hastings Intermediate, the headmaster there was Ned Rankin, a lovely bloke, and I said to him look I’ll put my cards on the table. I really don’t know what I’m about, can you give me some hints. He said I’ll give you one bit of advice. If you are in a classroom of 30 kids and the kid asks you a question that you can’t answer, don’t ever try and bluff your way through because the combined knowledge of those 30 kids far exceeds what you’ve got. So if you don’t know tell them you don’t know and you’ll find out. That was Ned Rankin, he was a lovely man.
You must have met a real cross section of principals and schools.
Yes. They were a wonderful bunch really. This might sound like skiting but I don’t mean it to be. The teacher would say to me “How on earth do you do that, keep them eating out of your hand all the time”. Oh it’s simple. I’ve got a uniform, I’ve got a black and white car with a bright red cherry on the top, it’s got a siren and I only see them a couple of times a year, it would be a pretty lousy excuse if I couldn’t”.
That’s right. I can remember when I was at school which was a bit earlier than when you were there they used to take us from Havelock school over to the Sunday school hall and show us these movies of accidents and it was completely changed when you came on to it. They used to try and frighten us with these movies of accidents.
In the middle 1960s we had a couple of people in charge who were real educationalists and they said either we do it properly or we don’t do it at all. So all of us knuckled down and we used to go into teachers’ colleges and run courses and we professionalised ourselves I suppose you could say and we learned all sorts of educational theories and stuff like that and in the end I suppose we were sort of semi teachers. Not thoroughly changed but…
Well you were specialising in your subject weren’t you?
Yes. And it was an easy job to do because ………
I don’t know whether it’s changed or not but there was more respect shown for the uniform 30 years ago than there is today I believe. There was more respect shown.
Well, I can put it quite simply. My father, my brother and myself had over 100 years with the MOT and the Transport Department and nobody ever laid a finger on us. And yet I was in the office over here shortly after I retired and I went in to have a cup of tea with the boys and they were laughing about having a group of the Mongrel mob bailed up outside the NikNak and one of the chaps, or he said he was, I don’t know whether he was or not, was an ex-Australian commando and this bloke went up to him and said “I’m gonna fill you in mate” and this ex commando said “I’ll tell you what, you go first and I’ll show you where you went wrong”. But no, I don’t know whether I should say this or not but for a while if you walked into the office on a Monday morning and somebody had got beaten up, nine times out of ten you’d know who it was.
Exactly right. See my son who is a policeman in Wellington he was a senior constable and they used to get a lot of these younger constables to go out and he said they were so full of testosterone that he said they were spoiling for a fight and he said after a while if something had happened on the weekend, he said “I could put a name to one or two who it would be because” he said “they were so aggressive”. He said they actually started the problem not the person that…
There was another side to it too. The chaps that I worked with, I was a bit younger than most of them, but a lot of them were returned soldiers and they knew what the world was all about and they were good solid citizens, they really were.
So can you think of anything else that we have missed, or any reminiscences or anything that ..? I think we’ve pretty well covered the lot. Yes, so we’ll have a look at those in a minute. I think Russ, that pretty well covers what you’ve done … and what age are you today?
And you’re still driving your car.
Only just. They told me next time I go for my eyesight check I probably won’t get it. So I’d give up driving anyway because I’ve told so many people over the years it’s time to give it up and I’d be a bit of a hypocrite if I didn’t.
Have you got cataracts?
Can they be fixed?
Yes for thousands and thousands of dollars and I’d rather give the money to my kids to pay off their student loans.
Well when I think of Fred Hollows who does cataracts in the islands. $25 does a complete cataract operation plus the lenses they put in.
What a wonderful man he was.
So anyway I’ll terminate this…
One more. I was coming back from Dannevirke one day and there was a car broken down by the Mormon Church so I stopped and I said to the chap look I’m not a mechanic but I can drop you into town and he said “No it’s my wife” and I said “What’s the matter with your wife” and he said “She’s having a baby”. I said “How close?” and he said “Bloody close” and I said “Put her in my car”. So we put her in my car and I took her off to the Hastings Hospital, it was a Maori lady and as she was disappearing down the corridor she said to me “What’s your first name Mr Coddington?” and I said “Russell, why?” and she said “if it’s a boy I’ll call it after you”. Oh yeah. Good luck to you. Anyway it must have been 5 years later and I was down at Te Hauke school and this little Maori boy came up to me and he said “Hey Mrs Coddington” because if they’ve got a woman teacher everybody is Mrs. “Hey Mrs Coddington I know whose your front name” and I said “Do you?” and he said “It’s Russell isn’t it?” and I said “How do you know that?” and he said “My little brother is called after you” so she kept her promise. It was a real honour.
Absolutely, yes. I guess there’s lots of little things like that you will think of in time. The other thing that we didn’t touch on and you were a member of Rotary while you were in the village and any other organisations you were involved in.
I was in Jaycees in Dargaville and I was on the High School Board of Governors here for a while.
Well they all make up the mosaic of your life don’t they? All those things that …..
Yes, well they had an election. Bob McGarvy the headmaster from Karamu. I was on the school committee because the two kids were there. He said I want you to stand for the Board of Governors and I thought don’t be silly Bob. The Board of Governors, Ron Shakespeare and all those people, whose going to vote for a traffic cop. He said well I want you to stand. So I did. And I forgot about it and then I got a letter from the High School, I topped the poll by yards.
See, you didn’t realise the mana that you were held in within that community.
I don’t think it was so much as that but at least everybody knew, the kids knew …
Absolutely. That’s great. Now if that’s about all you can think about at the moment ..? Okay well, I’m finishing the interview now of Russell Coddington. Thanks Russ.
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Format of the originalAudio recording
Interviewer : Frank Cooper