Eric David Murfitt Interview
Today is the 13th August 2016. I’m interviewing Eric Murfitt … Eric would you like to tell us something about the life and times of your family?
I’d be delighted. I didn’t know I was going to be a celebrity here today. I wrote a little bit of stuff down on paper here on various days when I thought about it, until I got sick of it and wanted to read a motorbike book.
But anyway, I suppose my life started on a cosy night when Nazaire, my mother, conceived at Ngatarawa, sired by my father Mick Murfitt, a legend in his own right. All my childhood years were surrounded by farm life in those halcyon years of long, hot, predictable summers. I clearly remember eating green walnuts while waiting for the school bus, with disastrous effects to my stomach and messing myself on the bus on the way home from school. All the clean children sat up the front of the bus and I sat down the back in my own embarrassment. Mum said she had a surprise for me that afternoon – she had knitted me a golliwog. And I said I had a surprise for her, as I walked bow-legged down the driveway. Poor Eric.
You know, I’ve had a charmed life really. Valerie, my sister, was swinging a golf club one day and I stood too close. She clouted me above my right eye as I stood behind her and knocked me to the ground with blood gushing down my face. She thought she had killed me, nearly. I was only about seven years old then.
Another time Tommy, the farm pony, shied when I was riding up the driveway and I fell off onto my head and got concussion. Mum thought I was nearly dead then, too.
I was only about ten years old when my best cousin, Robert, and I were getting some kittens off the washhouse roof one evening. As I was descending the ladder Robert stood on the rotten spouting and we all crashed to the ground – old pumice chimney with a concrete pot, the ladder, Robert and me. He was taken to hospital to get stitches in his head and I was sitting up in bed with a blood-soaked bandage on my head when Mum and Dad came home from town. We were both in a bit of trouble – nearly dead that time, too.
My truck driving days started when I was only about four years old. John Shewan, Alex’s father, did our carting from and to the farm at Ngatarawa, and he let me sit between his knees and steer the lorry down the drive to the house. Later on I drove the hay trucks picking up hay in the paddocks being very careful and accurate to not dislodge the load on the sometimes undulating ground. The high load was not tied on, paddock to barn. I even drove the International KB6 in the residential streets picking up bales of hay for Shewans after school, when I was attending St John’s High School.
After attending Maraekakaho School for primary education and then St John’s High in Frederick Street, I threw myself into full time farm work. Jimmy Talbot had a shearing gang including Boy Sowersby, Donald Hammond, Des Burkin, Robert Sowersby, Ellison Dorreen and me. I was only a sheeper and rousey after I left school. Jimmy Talbot used to call me ‘Snowball”, because I had lovely black wavy hair. Look at me now. [Chuckle]
Jimmy Talbot let me shear a sheep at half-way through a run, and that introduced me to shearing full time for a season with Bill Meech, as I was fortunate to be in the pride of his gangs, the Bay Gang – Harry Enwright, Mac Potae, Jimmy Talbot, Des Burkin, myself and Sonny [?Voors?] At that time I was a single boy with a Mark 1 Zephyr Zodiac, the envy of the teenage boys and girls in Hastings. Beverley, a single girl in town, sought me out and we were married in 1960.
My back was suffering from fencing and shearing, so I got a job truck driving full time, first with Peter Lowe carting metal and forming roads. The pay was ₤11/12/8d a week, exactly the same amount we were paying a month for our mortgage on Tollemache Road. Derek Stacey who was working for Bill McGavock, carting logs, got me a job with Bill McGavock and so my introduction into logging began … seven and a half years in the logging game. Indeed, the latter part of logging I brought the logging concern from Bill McGavock. I was a big-time owner driver then, of [a] logging truck, even if it was a Thames Ford and trailer.
The pressure of being self employed got me into depression, and the only way out was to sell up and then work for Roy Sherwood who had a big fleet of trucks serving the wider expanses of Hawke’s Bay. I was happy and relaxed working with a lot of men again. After nine years they wanted me to drive their newest purchase, a brand-new Kenworth K100, cab over. Little did I know they wanted me to work up to twenty hours a day. I lasted a bit over a year on that truck, and then they bought another one and wanted me to drive that one too. So I said “let a young fellow make a name for himself”, and I left, and worked for M A (Morrie) Valler for the next fifteen years. Well, I started off just town and around, then I was a long-distance driver again out the back of Gisborne and all over the North Island. One man said to me at the Taupo sale yards “I see these orange and green T-line eight-wheelers everywhere – all over”. And I said “There was only one, and it was me”. [Chuckle] A great eight-wheeler and driver … the ceramic clutch showed minimal wear at seven hundred thousand kilometres.
After thirty-five years of stock and general cartage, my best wife said “Don’t you think you had better slow down?” So to keep Beverley happy I drove a shingle truck and fruit delivery for the next ten years.
Now comes the best part. I didn’t have time for any social activities while truck driving, getting firewood, and sleeping a few hours at night. So my old friend Len Basher said “Come out to the Hawke’s Bay Classic Motorcycle Club and see if you like it”. I became hooked on the family atmosphere and welcoming camaraderie mixing with an eclectic array of men and machines, ladies there too. He advised me to get a motorcycle with an electric start in case my kick start leg [chuckle] couldn’t start one without an electric leg. A 1986 GB Silver Honda Single came my way with advice from Mr Honda, Roger Gray. For the first three months of ownership I didn’t ride it because an intense polishing programme was under way. Now the fruits of all those hours fettling it is evident in its gleaming alloy surfaces and pristine condition. It’s not a big bike but it suits me. You all know my prophetic saying ‘whatever you are comfortable with’.
And is that a 500?
Yeah. It started off 400, and now it’s a 500. That’s just between you and me and the insurance company. So you can see it before you go home, Frank.
That’s all I’ve got.
Interesting to hear you mention Alec Shewan, because we all knew the Shewans as carriers those days. You mentioned the Meech family, the shearers. You mentioned Bill McGavock. Must have been quite a thrill for you to be put in a cab over Kenworth, ‘cause they were pretty big trucks. In those days the Sherwood’s had a big company.
Biggest in the Bay.
I was only about sixteen years old when I went only about two miles up the Taihape Road, when my father Mick Murfitt was cutting chaff in partnership with Walter Kupa at Fernhill. I was sewing the three-striper bags of chaff at the rear of the chaff cutter, and we had a pyramid of bags stacked up. And then J Mills’ truck duly arrived after lunch to cart the bags away. The driver, whom I won’t name … hello, I’ve just found his name now – Eric King – didn’t have a clue how to stack a load properly as he strutted around in his short shorts and his weight lifting singlet, twice as strong as me. And Dad said to me “Eric, get up there and stack that load for him. We haven’t got time to muck around here”. [Chuckle] And me only a skinny-legged boy. So I stacked the load for him and he threw the bags up to me.
As the years progressed, so I ventured further up the road working. When I was about eighteen years old, my cousin told me to give ‘Snowy Owy’ a hand shearing at Graham Tolley’s place at Mangawhare on the Glenross Road. I had to travel to Mangawhare to find him. Little did I know I was to traverse the Taihape Road to get there, and many times after that in the next forty-odd years.
Shortly before I got married I worked for about a year as tractor-driver-general for Alec Agnew on Flag Range Road. I lived in his house with Elsie and six children, as part of their family even. I actually babysat all those children when Alec and his wife had a night out. Alec didn’t have his own woolshed early on, and I used to shear his sheep at the general’s place across the road at Tunanui Station. Alec did all the contracting at Tunanui in those days.
After I got married I started truck driving full-time. A few years spent road metal spreading with Lowe’s, and progressed to logging with Bill McGavock on various properties on Taihape Road and River Road, and around Otamauri, Whanawhana, Glenross Roads. Derek Stacey and I were sub-contractors for Bill at one stage and we clear-felled all the trees on Glenross Road up to Bill Drummond’s place, from Waiwhare. When we first arrived Bill said “You’ve arrived at the right time – the wind has just stopped. It’s been blowing for fourteen years”. [Chuckle] Wow! Lucky!
The next associate [association] with Taihape Road was when I started driving for Farmers’ Transport. My first job was on the mail truck, delivering bread, milk and mail to all the rural owners on Taihape Road as far as Rob Comrie’s, opposite the Forestry HQ at the start of the shingle.
Farmers’ Transport had the delivery of seedling pine trees from Fletcher’s Nursery on Mutiny Road to the new Kaweka Forestry blocks, so I was able to go nearly to Kuripapango delivering these baby pine trees. What lay across the bridge was a mystery to me then. I believe before the concrete bridge the old bridge was suitable for trucks only – no heavy trailers allowed.
As I graduated on to bigger trucks and trailers longer distances were a normal day’s work for Farmers’ Transport. Steel-belted tyres were a wonderful prevention of the many punctures experienced on a road made up of crushed rock, that ended up with the sharp side facing up always – especially after the grader had just been through. Big stations like Te Mahanga, Ngamatea, Otupae, Mangaohane, Springvale, Ohinewairua, Erewhon, Mowhanga, were normal destinations and back on long distance time sheets. And let’s not forget Pukeokahu, too.
After ten years of Farmers’ Transport my best wife suggested I got a town and around job, so I started working for M A Valler. His operation only needed three trucks when I first started with him, but his increased popularity and efficiency demanded a new eight-wheeler T-line, and once again I was all over the North Island carting livestock to various freezing works and saleyards … a long way away from Stortford Lodge.
One fat lamb season Valler Transport was asked to cart all the fat lambs destined for Whakatu works from Te Mahanga from Jack Roberts’ Pohurakura block. The road out to Pohurakura was freshly formed, and their D4 bulldozer was needed to tow the T-line in and out.
The notorious Bonny Mary hill was steep and corrugated by preceding traffic, so to guarantee I was able to get over the top when the T-line was empty I would fill two forty-four gallon drums with water and put them in the rear of the truck crate, to give me half a ton of weight on the drivers to be able to get over it with enough traction. I was on my own with a deadline to meet, remember. When over the steep part I would upend the drums to empty them out. One day a concerned motorist stopped me and said the lorry was leaking a lot of water. [Chuckle] He was relieved when I explained the reason and he was quite surprised by the ingenuity.
Another time when I was on my way to Ohinewairua to pick up a full load of wool destined for Napier Woolstores, I came across a motorist in a Triumph 2000TC motor car, looking so bewildered – stopped by Ngamatea’s entrance gateway. “What’s the trouble?” I asked him. “The car’s lost half of its power”, he said. I had a look under the bonnet and found the connecting shaft between the two carburettors had come adrift. A roll pin had dropped out, so without that pin one carburettor was not even working. A safety pin which I carried for emergencies was the right diameter to fix the problem. The married couple were so thankful … indeed a week or so later I received a box of chocolates in the mail. They were so appreciative, and they came all the way from Gisborne. The sharp stones on that road were responsible for a multitude of punctures and wrecked tyres. I remember one fairly bald tyre on the trailer which was past recapping, so Morrie Valler said to “just run it out”. You could actually see the tube through a small cut in the tread. That tyre did many trips up that road without puncturing. Probably Murphy’s law. One trip to Mangaohane to pick up three truck and trailer loads of cattle on a very cold, frosty winters day, the units ground to a halt to the count of sixteen punctures on that road. The reason was attributed to the fact that the stones were frozen to the road and didn’t roll over when the lorry’s tyres rode over them.
Even new tyres weren’t immune to the damaging stones. When we were on the way back, the hoar frost was sticking out from the shaded banks on the shaded sides of the road … an extremely cold day that was. As far as visibility is concerned, a driver has to be more vigilant now that the road is sealed all the way because when a vehicle was on the old road when it was shingle, a column of dust could be seen many miles away, warning of an approach.
I got a surprise one day to see a Napier taxi at the Taruarau River bridge. A wealthy American tourist wanted to catch a trout in a mountain stream so he hired a taxi in Napier and the taxi driver gladly obliged. “Don’t worry about the cost”, he said.
The New Zealand film ‘Utu’ was predominantly filmed at Ngamatea station in the tussock country. The film crew were based at the station. Ian McAuley and I transported all the horses that were in the film from the local Pony Club in Hawke’s Bay around Hastings. Some of the film props were transported over the Annie too. I have a pewter tankard as a souvenir.
That’s all I’ve got written down Frank.
Original digital file
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Interviewer: Frank Cooper