Frizzell, John Alexander Interview

I’m with John Alexander Frizzell this afternoon, and he’s going to tell us about the Frizzell family, and then his years with Hawke’s Bay Farmers’ Co-op [Cooperative Association] in the sale yards. John’s well known in the Bay, and he’ll have quite a story to tell. Good afternoon, John.

Good afternoon, Jim.

So if you can sort of start from the beginning when the family first came to Hawke’s Bay and then go on from there; and I won’t be interrupting you at all.

Good, Jim. Well we’ve got a very proud history of Frizzells in the Hawke’s Bay. My three great-grandfathers came from Ireland in the 1860s, two to the South Island and one to the North Island. And my father, George Frizzell, raised our family on three acres of a market garden in Pakowhai Road in Hastings. His mother was a Carswell, one of the original Carswells from Puketitiri, and she raised the family after her husband, my grandfather, died prematurely.

Dad was a [an] apprentice nurseryman for Horton’s Nursery in Hastings and established the market garden when he’d finished his horticultural apprenticeship. He was a hard worker, and we lived on a main stock route, the Pakowhai Road, where stock came from the outer Hawke’s Bay, along Pakowhai Road to Stortford Lodge, and then through that into the sale yards; and also the other way, from the sale yards and the other side of Hastings to major killing works, Whakatu and Tomoana. And the early days of my stock interest were following the drovers up and down the road as they came past our gate with stock.

I was very lucky; my mother, who was Scottish-bred but Irish heritage, was a great lady and gave us great latitude as kids; and I was able to go miles up the road with one drover and then get a ride back with another, and that fostered my interest in stock. Dad wasn’t interested in stock at all. As time went on, before I went to high school I would go to the sale yards at Stortford Lodge before school; do a little bit of work for various agents there, all voluntary, just to be round the place. One that I remember very well that you would know well, Jim, was Jeff Russell. Jeff Russell was very good to me, he helped me a lot; and then I’d scrub myself up and get to school.

But eventually I wanted a career in and associated with stock, and after not being a brilliant or very interested scholar, left high school after my third year of my fifth form. I joined the Hawke’s Bay Farmers’ Co-op as an office junior and eventually graduated to work with them for quite a few years as a stock agent and auctioneer at Hastings. And then in 1961 I was transferred by the company to Waipukurau where I was one of their auctioneers in the thriving Waipukurau sale yards; and as well, coming and working quite a bit at Stortford Lodge. But they were great days and it is very interesting to me now to probably see the changes there are in the industry in the way stock moves and everything is run.

Some characters of the early industry, Jim, I could go through, but you might guide me in where you’d like me to go with my reminiscences.

Was not the Waipukurau sale yards one of the biggest in the country?

It wasn’t ever quite as big as Stortford Lodge, but it was one of the biggest sale yards in the country. The features of Waipukurau were a very big heifer fair … two-year-old heifer fair … they used to have in October every year; they used to come from all over New Zealand to buy the well-bred heifers there to establish breeding herds; and the Waipukurau ewe fairs. I think the record number of two-tooth ewes yarded there on one occasion was sixty-seven thousand, and I can remember that day very well – we sold ‘til late in the afternoon; teams of auctioneers with tea and refreshments brought to us in the pens [chuckle] where we were selling. And it was a massive effort for the agents, the carriers and everyone to get through such big yardings. But those days are gone; the two-tooth ewes aren’t nearly as big in the yardings these days, but they’re compensated for by a lot of other stock. And I think Waipukurau sale yards closed … must be ten or twelve years ago; oh, be more than that now I guess … and they centred logically on Stortford Lodge. I think Stortford Lodge now is the second biggest sheep sale yard in New Zealand, and still very, very active sale yards.

Some of the characters of my early sale yard days were the drovers, and of course in those days transport lorries were nothing like the big triple-decker or sometimes four-decker units you see with massive trailers today. They were quite primitive crates, and didn’t carry anything like the number of sheep. And of course all the carrying was very localised; any transport outside the district was deemed by the government to use the railways – a massive support for the railway system, and you had to have a very special situation to take stock outside the district on a truck; you had to get special permits and that sort of thing. But a big part of our work as young agents was loading and unloading railway wagons with stock for Hastings or Stortford Lodge. Probably one of the greatest things they had from our point of view was a special trucker man, employed just solely to load railway trucks and unload them, and three I remember quite well at Longlands; Harry Fieldsend was one of the last ones; Bob Brooker was there for a long time as well, and a fellow called Dorky Johnson; and prior to that there were permanent people there. Yep.

And droving?

And the droving – well I think … it’s hard just to remember how many drovers there would’ve been, but there could well’ve been twenty drovers located round Hastings. And of course, if they were bringing stock in to the Stortford Lodge sale from way out Elsthorpe, or right up the Taihape Road, they were three or four day drives to bring that stock in. And in the early days a lot of the drovers used to camp out, but in my day as a stock agent, one of our jobs as a junior was to pick up the drovers at four in the morning – or earlier, some of them, if they were a long way out – and take them from their homes and take them out to where they had their horse or horse and gig, and their dogs, and the cattle in a holding paddock … county holding paddocks. And then they would set alight for the next stage of their journey, and then they’d get a ride back with the paper car or a farmer or something, back to their home, and then we’d take them out the next morning. So that was quite a big part of our work.

But some of the drovers that I remember well – there was a very good drover, a man called Harry Roil, who was known as a gentleman drover. And Harry always wore a collar and tie and was immaculate on a horse; his horses were always very well presented. Another one of our drovers for the Hawke’s Bay Farmers was a very good man called Donald Struthers; but as I say, there were sort of twenty or so drovers, and most firms had their own drovers who did most of their work for that company. And that’s how it worked, yeah.

I’ve seen drovers on the Gisborne road for instance, taking stock as far away as Feilding …

Absolutely. That was a big part of particularly the East Coast, either way. Drovers would start off from, shall we say Gisborne, and if they were coming this way they would virtually winter stock on the road. Families like the Hurley family and the Duncan family stocked their big stations, Otairi and Siberia – those big places in from Hunterville were stocked with a lot of cattle that used to be walked over the winter down, and would arrive ready for their spring growth in those places. And likewise, a lot of stock was taken through to the Waikato right round the coast; and they were notable drovers, those fellows – they were on the road permanently. Some had a caravan, some camped; fellows like Link Campbell – he was a legendary one, and a good number of others. But it was a big part of the stock industry, Jim, in those days. Yeah.

Okay. And from there on in your position? You climbed the ladder?

Yeah, well I started off … I loved being round the sale yards and the stock; and then with a man called Keith Burrell, who was a prime lamb drafter for the Hawke’s Bay Farmers’ Co-op, the company that I was working for. And I worked for the first few years basically as his dog, I suppose you could say, chasing sheep and just … but generally, all the time getting to know more of the industry, and how to select prime lambs and draft them and that sort of thing. And then the next progress was having a vehicle … a company vehicle … and then came some clients and establishing clienteles and then selling; learning to be an auctioneer, which you just picked up as you went along. Used to practice in the car. One of the old auctioneers told me I should take bids from the lamp post as you drove along, [chuckle] and practice your patter; and so I did that. But I enjoyed auctioneering, it was a challenging craft and trade; and [of] course you were responsible for a lot of business, especially in some of those big ewe fairs, and cattle sales, ‘cause there were very big cattle sales at Stortford Lodge and Waipukurau as well. But a great industry, and some tremendous men I worked with. I was extremely lucky to work with Mr Douglas Grieve, a legend in the stock business being a successor of Mr Norman Stewart – Hoadley, Son & Stewart – who the Hawke’s Bay Farmers’ took over; both very, very qualified men. Work was no problem … earlier the better, and you finished when you finished the job … but tremendous experience, and I really enjoyed it very much.

And of course some wonderful carriers too, in those early days. Your father-in-law, Jim, I remember very, very well; wonderful man called Dave Walker who established a very big carrying business, and then sold out later in his life. But I remember Mr Walker very well, for (a) the help that he used to give us young fellows, and two exceptional backing dogs that he had to shift the sheep round the sale yards and load ‘em on the trucks. They were a couple of tremendous dogs, and [of] course that was another big part of the whole industry, the dogs – drovers’ dogs, and [a] few of us as agents had dogs, and they were good. I had a couple of dogs all the time; I loved having the dogs, and I used to do a lot of extra work with them.

But they were real characters, some of those old boys. Harry Roil, the drover, had a wonderful gentleman lived opposite him that [who] he actually didn’t get on too well with – a man called Mr Les Milne, and he was a very, very good stock buyer for L E Harris Ltd … Mr Lew Harris, one of the legends of Hawke’s Bay … had the meat company, and he used to buy all his cattle. Then another man, Alan Scott, was the sheep buyer. He was a good friend of mine; they were both good friends of mine, and great judges of stock; and legends in the early days, yeah.

Interesting times. They’ve changed a bit …

Well, we’ve come right through from just judgment of stock, all weighed in pounds. And then pounds, shillings and pence being the currency, through to decimal weight measures and dollars and cents. So it’s been quite a change. But the incredible thing have [has] been the change in values over the years; I can remember the bad years at Stortford Lodge in the eighties when it was virtually worthless to bring ewes of lower quality to the sale yards. In fact, people would give them away; right through to now where you’re seeing top two-tooth ewes at a ewe fair making up to $260-70. The change in values really mean[s] a lot to a farmer’s profitability, and a big part of that of course is the change in the killing situation, where most of the meat was frozen and went to England basically, as frozen carcasses. Now you’re seeing a lamb being cut up into fifteen or twenty different packets and being sent all round the world to the various markets that those cuts suit best. So big change, and same with the beef. Hot boning was brought in by a wonderful gentleman, Mr Graeme Lowe, who revolutionised the beef industry in Hawke’s Bay here, and New Zealand. And the hot boning of the cattle made for a very efficient processing situation that helped the return to the farmer. All in all, I guess when you see the drop in the sheep numbers, with our ewe population well under thirty million from seventy or eighty [million] many years ago, and still producing the same tonnage of lamb meat, it’s a credit to those people that have bred these sheep that are finishing so well. But I guess these are changes that will continue on, and it’ll be interesting to see where the industry goes next. Most of the stock, or the cattle anyway, are weighed before they’re sold at auction now, and people are very conscious of a price estimated from their weight associated with their final price, so you’re getting a dollar per kilo assessment now.

I suppose the personalities in the stock agent business are what made it so interesting in the early days; in the early days we told a lot of stories. You waited round for trucks to arrive – had to fill in the time, and yarned away. But a lot of great storytellers amongst the early stock agents and carriers. Dave Walker was a good storyteller; [chuckle] Ian Bambry was outstanding [chuckle] – he’s another character of the Bambry Brothers carrying company; Joe Barry was an agent for The Loan & Mercantile Company I think, Joe, but he was a rugby announcer, and he could tell pretty good stories too. The highlight was the Christmas party at the sale yards where there’d be many stories told, and recitations and poetry. One bard was the late Alec Shewan, also a carrier, not quite in the finer class but still had quite a major business, but a real character and would break into poetry and sing at those early stock agent Christmas parties. Other characters were the people that ran the cafeterias in the sale yards – quite a different thing to what I see at the sale yesterday when I was there, where they’ve got a caravan with a booth – they had a fully-fledged kitchen which functioned up until just very recently. And one of the early ones to run it was a fellow called Baldy Christieson and his wife. Baldy was a market gardener; he grew raspberries and strawberries and that sort of thing, but he and his wife used to run the sale yard cafeteria as well. And then there was Ma Herries, she was wonderful for many years; and her daughter Anne – they ran the cafeteria for many years. Recently there’ve been quite a few changes, but they were notable, those people, looking after all the agents. Early breakfasts were a big thing … early starts, so you went to the cafeteria for breakfast; cup of tea, and then lunch, and they were a big part of it. But that’s slipping away now. As I said there was a caravan there yesterday dispensing tea and coffee; so all changed, Jim.

In 1961 I was transferred to Waipukurau as auctioneer and stock agent and really enjoyed Central Hawke’s Bay. I’d always had a feeling that I wanted to be a farmer; that was my goal, to own land. And during my time in Hastings I grazed a few hoggets round orchards and that sort of thing, and started building up a bit of a fund. I was very keen on horses and riding, and was able to develop a few quite good horses and sell them; so I managed to start getting a bit of capital together so that when the opportunity came in Waipukurau, not long before Jan and I were married, I was able to buy fifty acres of land between Waipukurau and Waipawa with a little old house on it, and that was our first piece of freehold land. It was only fifty acres and it wasn’t very good land, but it was a start.

Jan and I were married probably six months after buying that, and to this little old ploughman’s cottage I took this beautiful young bride. We had outside toilets and very primitive conditions, [chuckle] but she was a good pioneer and made the best of it, and we had our first two children of four in those circumstances. It wasn’t really very well regarded by the company you worked for to be owning land, and I was running against the tide a bit by doing this. An opportunity came to buy another thirty-eight acres right in the town of Waipawa which I felt would be a good move; and I made this move and it was not received at all well by the company. In fact my employment with them was terminated, and after probably … what would it have been? Four years, three years in Waipukurau … I was a full-time farmer with fifty acres in one block and thirty-eight acres in another. So it was not probably going to be very sustainable, so I did a few other things as well – I started trading in stock; my experience as an agent helped in that quite a bit. I had a business where I would sell gates; I carted gates round Hawke’s Bay on a trailer and sold them. [I re]member one time going out to my good old friend Bill Robinson at Tautane Station, delivering fifteen or so gates out there and getting home ten or eleven o’clock at night. But it was all [a] means to an end.

And with a fortunate opportunity from grazing some sheep on the Hautope Road with Mr Alan Foster, I used a man called Logan Brewster’s yards to load them out. And I was talking to him; he had been attempting to sell his farm and couldn’t, and I made an enquiry as to whether I could lease it. And he said, “Maybe you should try and buy it.” He had had a difficult time with the State Advances [Corporation]; he owed them a lot of money. And the long and the short of it was, after quite a lot of negotiation I was able to take over his commitment to the six hundred and sixty acre property, so that was the start of our bigger farming venture. It was extremely run down and we worked very hard to get things up and going.

And we were there one year – and I was still doing a lot of competitive riding, quite successfully; mainly riding other people’s horses and a very good horse I had of my own called ‘Ali Baba’, who actually created the height record for New Zealand in 1964 – he jumped 6ft 4¾ [six foot four and three-quarters] at a show in Wellington, and held that record for quite a few years; and he was an outstanding horse.

But this was all going on, selling horses and a bit of dealing and that sort of thing; building up a bit of capital which got us into the farm. But after being there for a year I had an operation on the lower part of my leg that turned to gas gangrene, and they had to amputate my leg. The doctor, Mr Geoffrey Taine, wonderful surgeon in Hastings, was beside my bed when I woke up from the operation – that had been the second one that had been done on it to see what was the matter; and he said, “I’ve got a bit of bad news for you – we had to amputate your leg.” So that was just a little bit of a setback, and I almost died with the gangrene but managed to pull through that, and then was back to the farm. Had a lot of good mates, and I can remember one day when a good friend of mine, Mr Bruce Tweedie, organised a working bee and about thirty guys turned up and did a lot of fencing; a lot of very essential work … made it a lot easier for me to continue.

But we adapted, and over the years thoroughly enjoyed being on the Hautope Road on the property we called Kiloran, and gradually built that up. We improved it a lot; we improved the house, and built sheds and various things.

Then a good neighbour and I, Mr Neil Kitto, who was a Hawke’s Bay Farmer of the Year – and Hawke’s Bay Farmer of the Decade as well, actually – we bought and divided a property next door. He took half and I took half – Mr Bill Treseder’s farm; so that gave us over a thousand acres, and that helped because we had a house and a wool shed at that stage.

And then we continued on and went to Otane where I bought an undivided half share in a farm, Mr Malcolm Walker’s farm, and proceeded to develop that into a deer unit. We built a very good deer shed and had a thousand magnificent hinds; sold our first crop of hind fawns for the very, very good money that was going at that time. On the second crop all the stock had to be tested for TB [tuberculosis] prior to being sold, and we came up with a TB reactor. There are two sorts of TB – bovine which is very bad, and avian which is quite all right. In those days there was no blood test; and the animal had to be slaughtered and your herd was under mandatory movement control if they were slaughtered. So we were under movement control, which rendered your whole value right back to meat value, which took us out by the knees financially. And we were very, very fortunate in the finish, when we sold under extreme pressure at a very low price in a very bad time. We were in the aftermath of twenty-three and twenty-four percent interest rates, and we almost lost everything – the Hautope farm, Kiloran, and the whole lot. We didn’t; we were lucky enough to get through that.

At that stage I needed extra income other than the farm, so I became a real estate agent selling farms. There were a lot of farms on the market at that stage, and for about eight years I sold a lot of farms, mainly in Central Hawke’s Bay and round Hastings, and up the coast. I sold a very good Williams property, Huiarua [Station] in Matanui; and Bushy Knoll [Station]; I sold Te Apiti Station twice at the coast here at Elsthorpe. Amazing – quite a few places I’ve sold twice. But that rescued us financially, and we became established again.

And then in the late 1900s I was able to buy another six hundred acres next door to Kiloran, which gave us a total area of sixteen hundred and seventy acres that we continued to farm. Over the years I’d started a Poll Dorset stud, and that has been very successful. In buying top weight gain sires from the best sources of the blood we’ve established a very good Poll Dorset flock, and they’ve continually raised our own lamb weights when we killed them. And they are strongly sought after at an annual sale that I have the first week in December every year.

Our farming programme at home is mainly producing prime lambs with an emphasis on getting them away off the mother. Two-thirds of them to three-quarters of them [are] gone in November, and the ewes weaned; everything weaned at that stage. Then looking after the cattle that we’ve wintered, usually for the early part of the winter, up to about seven hundred cattle mixed between weaners through to yearlings and two-year-olds, and then selling forward or killing the bullocks in June. So we’ve actually developed a programme that suits the property; suits the drier climatic conditions we run into occasionally; and what I was able to handle.

I’ve had some employees over the time that lived in this cottage on the last block we bought; some very good employees over the years. Recently [a] wonderful Maori man called Ossie Tuhou was with me for … I think it was about nine years, Ossie, nine or ten years. A very unfortunate thing with him having a heart attack on the farm, and being killed on the four-wheeler during that heart attack. It was pretty traumatic; but we’re through that now and we’re probably in the latter part of my farming career with my age creeping up – I’m now eighty-two; be eighty-three in November – and we have been off the farm for six weeks, probably just about to this week. Moved away from the farm – I have a very good man on the farm, a guy called Mike Sugden and his lovely partner Trina, and Mike is doing a very good job in the farming of Kiloran.

Jan and I have moved into the orchard we have bought, with a lovely little house and plenty of lawn and garden for her to enjoy and me to relax in, so we’re really enjoying life. The fact that we’ve got three daughters living about Hastings is a magnet for us to get down here to see more sport on Saturday mornings, and see more of the girls and their husbands and these wonderful seven grandchildren that we have here. Our son Hamish is a banker; he lives in Clevedon and he has a lovely block of land in [on] which he’s recently built a beautiful home, and he has three children. Hamish is the eldest of ours, and then we had Fiona who’s married to David France; they have a vineyard and Dave’s a business consultant from Matapiro. Kirsty is married to Sean Moffett … the Moffett family at Puketapu … and Therese is married to Jerome and Annie White’s son, Edward, at the kennels at Clive. So they’re not very far away from us and we’re really enjoying being closer to them and seeing more of them. But that’s probably my life a bit, Jim, I guess.


Just talking of my grandmother … my father’s mother, who was [a] wonderful lady and who lost her husband early on and raised her family … she was a Carswell from Puketitiri; they were a big sawmilling family up there and ended up good farmers – Arthur Carswell and Eric Carswell farmed very good properties in that area. But she came down after she’d married my grandfather, and when he died she was the housekeeper for Nelson Lane? No, not Nelson Lane; his brother, at Chesterhope at Pakowhai before the Fernies bought Chesterhope. She worked there as a housekeeper, and then after that she left there and she came to be Sir William Nelson’s housekeeper at Waikoko at the show grounds. She was there, and my father started his nursery time there by working as a gardener’s boy in Sir William Nelson’s garden, before he went to Horton’s Nursery as an apprentice. So she was a great lady, my grandmother, and she had five children – my Aunt Molly, who had a dress shop in Hastings, was the oldest sister – she never married, Aunt Molly. Next was my father, who stayed around Hastings and became the market gardener. Then there was Ted who died early in his life; Uncle Dick, who is the father of Dick Frizzell, the artist; and Aunt Nora, who was a wonderful teacher and never married either. They were during the war years; they had romances apparently, and lost partners and never married. But that was my father’s family.

And then one of the most fortunate things my father did was marry my mother, who was born in Cumberland of Irish descent. And her father was a sea captain, and her mother went to Aberdeen and established a major shop in Aberdeen. Mum tells wonderful stories about the early days of her life round this shop. She didn’t get on with her mother – or one of her sisters – her father was away as a sea captain so she hardly saw him, and decided at seventeen that she was going to leave and emigrate to New Zealand, which she did. She tells wonderful stories of her early time coming out of Aberdeen and ending up in Manaia in Taranaki on a dairy farm, milking a cow and being a housekeeper or house girl there. And then she graduated to the Stratford Hospital where she qualified as a nursing sister; and after doing that came to Hawke’s Bay, where she worked in Sister Cooper’s Nursing Home, and met my father through Sir Robert Harding. Sir Robert Harding’s wife was an invalid, and he used to take her out for drives on a Sunday afternoon. She was there looking after Mrs Harding, and he would take her to my father George’s market garden, and buy grapes. And George met Mum, for a start there; then in town one Friday night they met, went to the pictures, and the romance started; hence here we are, with myself as the eldest of the family, brother Peter and sister Jill, and a younger brother, Bruce. So quite a diverse lot of backgrounds to our family.

And talking about the Carswells, what date are we talking about?

Oh, well the Carswells would’ve been in Puketitiri in the early 1900s … yeah. They were traction engine days, and bullock wagon days; and bringing sawn timber out down to Napier over that Puketitiri road must’ve been quite a thing. Yeah.

Oh. That’s interesting, John, one of the best talks I’ve heard …

Oh, good.

enjoyed it.

Oh, well, Jim, I’d be very happy to do more if you want me to do more, and I’m actually thinking that I might get started on writing a book on my life.

Good boy!

Yeah. Oh, just a booklet for the family, you know, not a novel or anything like that. There’ll be a few things that’ll make bloody good reading; I haven’t told you everything that’s happened. [Chuckles] Oh my God, we’ve had some fun! The greatest thing though, has been to live in this beautiful bloody Hawke’s Bay, and to enjoy the people – that’s what I love. And you like people …

I do.

I love people, and that’s what I’m enjoying about probably being down here … being able to see more of the people I know and enjoy the company of.

John, thank you very much indeed. Really enjoyed it. Thank you.

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Interviewer:  Jim Newbigin

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