Michael Philip Winstone Kitchin Interview

I’m Frank Cooper. Today I’m interviewing Michael Kitchin, formerly of Kahuranaki. The date is the 24th of July, 2015. Michael is going to give me the life and times and the adventures of his family since they left the far shores many times ago. Michael, would you like to start off telling us about your ancestors and so forth please.

Yes, Frank, I’ve had a great deal of pleasure of going back through all my history over the last few years and I knew lots of it but it’s just been reaffirmed. And some of my ancestors came out here in the 1843 period and they went to Nelson. My cousin is still on the first farm that the family had out at Redwood Valley. Bob Bright’s been there for all of this century and most of last century and his son is living there and had to carry on. Some of our family came from London but others came from the Highlands of Scotland and they were cleared off the Highlands by the loving English who are also my ancestors, and ended up in tin mines in Cornwall from where they went on to Kalgoorlie in Australia where they worked in the mines there and then came across to Ross. They did 50 years in Kalgoorlie.

Isn’t that interesting that I bought you that book?

Yes indeed. They came to Ross where they worked on some tunnels and some roads trying to establish another goldfield and they found there wasn’t enough gold there having put a year of hard labour into building tunnels and things. So they moved to Marlborough where they got a 500 acre farm and they developed that and I had a cousin still living there in 1990 when I was working down there. I met him and saw the property.

From the time of the First World War my mother’s father, Ernest Carr, was a wheelwright and coach builder in Nelson where he’d finished his apprenticeship. He was part of the Territorial army and he volunteered and went off with the main body to Egypt where he served in Gallipoli and miraculously survived. He then went on to France where he was wounded and he spent the rest of that war as a training sergeant at Grantham Camp in the south of England.

He came back, proposed a toast to the allies on the ship coming home. Came back and married his sweetheart and they brought up 4 daughters. My mother was the youngest and she married my natural father who was Albert Lyall Andrew from Gisborne. He went off to the war as well and didn’t really recover from his wounds and never was able to settle down so mother married Keith Kitchin in 1955 and my brother and I became Kitchins. They were from Dunedin where they had come to New Zealand in the mid 1870s and were coal miners and gold miners and then Keith Kitchin became a pharmacist. He went to University and got a degree and became a pharmacist.

My one desire in life was to get my own farm because I had been brought up by two grandfathers, one at the Military Camp and one at Gisborne where they had a lovely farm and I learnt the love of the land from them and love of horses and love of fine fat stock. So I wanted to pursue a farming career and I was fortunate enough to be able to go to a decent farming school called Flock House in Rangitikei which trained many very fine farmers around New Zealand and we still have a loose association of Old Boys that meets now and again and we attend one another’s last rites, and it’s a very loyal tight group of people to belong to. Most of those young men got their own farms. It was quite amazing because in those days you had a lot of assistance to get on to a farm and you were valued for your skills and stockmanship and the knowledge that you got.

So having gone to that school I was able to get on to my own farm by the time I was 25 and I would never have been able to do that today because you didn’t have the one on one teaching that we had at Flock House and you didn’t have the one on one teaching shepherding on big stations around the countryside where there would be three senior shepherds, head shepherd, senior shepherds and you would be the junior shepherd and learning to do your lambing beats and learning to handle the stock. That was a wonderful career – very satisfying.

At that point I wonder whether we can just go back a bit. Do you have brothers and sisters? And something I know you are very proud of and that’s your Maori heredity.

Yes well the Maori side of the family is intriguing. My great-grandfather was Frederick Goldsmith who was born in London in 1840 and as a child of 13 he and his two brothers were swept up off the streets of London and brought out to New Zealand in a sailing ship where they were cast ashore at Ruatoria. At 17 years of age he married Heni Te Rongo a Maori lass and a couple of years older that himself, and they had 8 children.

And my grandmother whose picture hangs on the wall here was Lizzie Goldsmith, so my natural father was her middle son. And she was married initially to another gentleman who died in the flu epidemic up in the Ruakituri Valley just north of Wairoa. She lost all her family. She was nursed by the Niania family at Te Reanga Marae and I first saw a copy of this picture hanging in the meeting house at Te Reanga, and George Niania who was the chief at the time introduced me to my grandmother and the history of that.

My grandmother walked from Te Reanga about 1910 we think roughly, and she was walking back to Ruatoria to her family who she hadn’t seen for some years and she met Jim Andrew who was working teams of horses. He had come across to Marlborough as a young man, about 15 – you grew up really quickly in those days – and he got himself a team of horses and was working way up the railway line, landed at Lake Ferry, bought some horses, bought all his own harness and gear across on the scow and set himself up as a contract teamster. By the time he got to Gisborne he had 5 or 6 teams and had men working for him. Grandma Lizzie was walking down the road and she asked him if he could spare a cup of tea and he said “of course I can spare you a cup of tea”, it was just on dark right where the Gisborne Showgrounds are today, and they were camped alongside the road and he said “ look, share my dinner” because being the boss he had to sort of be apart from the men.

Anyhow (this is a true story) after having dinner she said “I must go now, I must get back to my family”. He said “where do your family live?” She said “Ruatoria”. He said “that’s a bit far to go tonight isn’t it?” He said “Well, just sit down and have another cup of tea” and he said “I’d like to come back to Ruatoria with you tomorrow on the steamer. We’ll go on the steamer”. Because it’s 3 or 4 days walk up the coast to Ruatoria and she was pretty frail. Anyhow they went on the steamer and they got married. They actually got married in the Registry Office in Auckland, but they got married.

What a wonderful story. How old would she have been?

He was probably 23 or 24 and she I think was 6 or 7 years older than him. And they brought me up in Gisborne as a kiddie – I was born in Gisborne and they brought me up for much of the war period and I went back to Wellington with my mother, and my baby brother had been born at that stage. My father had come home from the war for a bit of a rest, my brother was conceived and born in March 1946.

So I went back to Trentham Camp. Unfortunately, I got mis-mothered from that wonderful grandmother and grandfather but I had fond memories of them and I went on several occasions to try and get back to them but I was thwarted at every turn and missed them. They died before I could find them and they died within hours of one another up in Rotorua and they are buried up there. They used to go up there to the hot pools and get treatment for rheumatism so that’s why I was missing them. She was a fabulous horse woman and they taught me to ride and taught me to handle horses and talk to horses and that skill stayed with me till now and I have her picture here and I think fondly of those days.

Okay, back to Flock House where I interrupted you.

Well the tutors there were very much like my grandfathers so it was like going home. It was Fred Burling who looked after the cows and he rode a horse and there was another Fred who looked after the draught horses and between them I was sort of adopted by these two blokes. We had draught horses at Flock House and it was just amazing and I used to get top marks with the horses and it was just amazing to have left horses when I was 6 and to be back with horses again when I was 15. It was pretty special.

I failed miserably in the State schooling system and I got 38th out of 39 in my industrial class. When I went to Flock House I became 5th out of 25 which was a pretty good improvement and there weren’t many points between the top 5 trainees. George Drayton was the top trainee the year I was there and we remained friends. Tragically I had to go off to Ohakune to his funeral in March this year. I thought George would have lived forever having been brought up in Ohakune. His parents lived to 100 but I’m afraid the cold got him at 74 years of age. He didn’t quite make 75.

I moved up to Hastings because I wanted to get back up to the East Coast and got the opportunity to work in the Whakatu Freezing Works which was owned by the Hawke’s Bay Farmers’ Meat Company. That was very good because most of the people working there had been farm people and they were all working there for the season to get money to get themselves established in life. They didn’t spend much of it, they saved it, and many of those men became orchardists and small farms around Hawke’s Bay. That’s how I got my finance to start my own farming operation which was very successful at that time. It was a great place to work, wonderful people and lots of fun. We went fishing together and we were all working on contract and we had many family celebrations together and if a man’s wife was having a baby he was able to go to the hospital to visit his wife whenever he liked and the other men covered for him and he didn’t lose any money. If you were sick your mates would cover for you and you wouldn’t lose any money. You got paid. Social Security had been sorted out at the level of the Union and between the Company and the Union, and blokes would come to work with the ‘flu’ and all sorts of things but they would sleep in the wool bales or wool dryers and get paid.

Michael while you were at Whakatu Farmers’ Meat Company you became involved with the Meat Workers’ Union? Would you like to elaborate a bit on that?

Yes, there had always been a lot of strife in some of the Meat Works. Well it had got that way that there was strife. I’d had the privilege of working with people who were farm managers and who had been brought up in the Meat Works and they had taught me the skills of being a mutton butcher and beef butcher and those sorts of things. So I learnt that on the farms I was working on and I learnt it at Flock House and so I was pretty well multi tasking from an early age and I got involved at the Works and I understood how the process worked and I was good at problem solving so I made some progress through the Meat Workers’ Union and became a Union official at the tender age of 31 I think it was. The job had been quite confrontational being a Union official, but I sort of moved it into an area of problem solving so that we could get the place working at a higher level and it increased the Company’s financial stability and it also increased the wages of everybody on the place and we did that by co-operation – we learnt to do it in a very co-operative manner and we got the productivity of that plant up to very high levels and the performance of the Company was such that they were able to build a new Works elsewhere.

It seemed to be that Hawke’s Bay was going to produce a never-ending supply of lamb and mutton for the world markets but that came to an end and the land wouldn’t sustain the sheep population and the World markets couldn’t take the full amount of what we could produce so the Meat industry went into decline and Whakatu Works closed in 1987 with huge losses of jobs for people in Hastings and Napier. It was a pretty sad day but it was one of the things that had to happen with rationalisation.

While you were there you did instigate I believe a major project known as the Whakatu Afforestation project.

Yes, well that was a great thrill. It was before I became a Union official. I think it was one of the things that got me elected to the position of Union President. We had this huge issue of unemployment in the winter time so we set about to do something about it ourselves rather than relying on the Government or relying on anybody else. So we set up this Whakatu Afforestation Trust with 1500-odd shareholders contributing to the financial strength of the Trust during the season, and we leased some land off the State with the help of Duncan MacIntyre and we put the roads in and we burnt off the fern and planted the trees by the hundreds and thousands of trees and we ended up with about 4000 hectares of trees. That went from strength to strength. I think at the height of our operation we had about 86 boys/men/women working on the job for varying periods. Some of them only wanted to be there for two weeks, some wanted two months, but we filled that niche and provided jobs for a lot of young people who would have otherwise got into trouble in town. We ran a pretty tough boot camp and people got trained in these other skills. It meant that they could go off anywhere and work in the forests and it was very successful.

After 40-odd years it was wound up because you really needed a bigger scale than 4000 hectares to make it all operate. You probably needed 10 or 15,000 hectares to get the administrative scale into perspective. But it was a very successful organisation and we put millions of dollars into the Hawke’s Bay economy. We also had set up a Credit Union at the Works. A man by the name of Dick Orbell came from Awatoto Fertiliser Works. He was a fitter. And he got up and spoke about setting up a Credit Union. It was a wonderful place because once they decided to do something they did it. That Credit Union is now one of the largest financial institutions in the country. It’s huge. It’s amalgamated with other Credit Unions. The last time I had a look at the figures it had more than thirty million dollars in kitty and was operating from Gisborne to Palmerston North and Wellington and Wairarapa and all round the place. I’m not sure if it’s in Wanganui or not but it’s certainly in Palmerston North which is where their annual meeting is going to be this year.

During this development period of your life you met Jan. Can you tell me something about that?

When I was 23 I had been away from home since I was 15 and I was looking to set up my own home. And I went to a party in Hastings and I met this lovely lady with red hair. So we went out to the beach the next day and we ended up falling in love and we got married the following year. And we went off on our honeymoon and Jan had chicken pox, so we had to go home to Mum for a few days and then back to the farm.

And I was working for Bay de Lautour down in Southern Hawke’s Bay at Te Whangai. We had a nice little cottage down there so we had 6 or 8 months with Bay and I learnt to work very hard with Bay de Lautour and I also learnt some very very good farming skills. I went to him because I knew instinctively that I could learn more off him in six months or whatever I stayed with him for than I’d ever learn off anybody else. We operated a tractor round the clock week in and week out. Poor old David Brown crawler tractor. We were giant discing and harrowing and sewing crops and sewing new grass and the poor tractor never got an hour off. We worked 12 hour shifts on it and he worked as hard as I did and I worked as hard as he did. We knocked off when the job was done and had a couple of days off and then moved on to the next paddock. So we were able to produce a lot of very good stock on that property.

I decided that I had better get back to the Works and get my own farm. If I was going to have to work that hard I might as well go to the Works and do it and get twice as much money and get my own farm and I did. Within 18 months we were on our own farm at Puketitiri. It was quite interesting. The Hawke’s Bay Farmers’ Co-operative Association was our stock firm and Athol Hutton was the finance manager and he came down and he’d seen me working on the property and he thought ‘that’s a good young fellow. We’ll have to keep on eye on him’.

When Jan and I bought a house we actually bought a house next door to Athol Hutton in Havelock North and he said “Good God, you’re that bloke that was on the tractor down at Bay de Lautour’s”. I said “yes I am”. He said “Oh well I’ve got some fencing work for you to do on such and such a property” and I went out and did that and 18 months later we were on our own farm at Puketitiri and that was a wonderful experience and Athol was a good friend and godfather to our two boys. It was amazing and if you worked hard and you got recognised for your work you went places in Hawke’s Bay. I just knew that this wonderful co-operative spirit that was with the Hawke’s Bay Farmers’ Co-operative Association, Hawke’s Bay Farmers’ Meat Company which was a Company but it worked on pretty co-operative principles.

All the other companies round about were all locally owned and employing lots of people and there was lots of thought going into how to make the province stronger. It went back to Tanners and previous generations. The Ellingham family were fully involved in making these things work and other families from Central Hawke’s Bay and Farmlands sprang up in Hastings from a group of farmers to provide cheaper goods for farming families and that went on and on and developed into a huge organisation. I think I was 1113 last time I was looking at the numbers. There were more than ten or twelve thousand shareholders and I think it’s probably gone out to 20 or 30,000 now that it has amalgamated with the South Island counterpart.

So that co-operative spirit was there and Sir James Wattie had done so much to develop Hastings and there were many, many other people who had done their bit – and we seem to have run out of those people. We’ve got John Sullivan at Tumu Timbers running his family company and doing really well. We’ve got John Bostock and others doing things on orcharding but we don’t seem to be able to do the big manufacturing operations that we did in the past that employed thousands of people and that’s a tragedy and we seem to have lost that ability to develop big small business that employs a lot of people and passes on the skills.

Yes, we seem to struggle a lot against the low wage rates that your Asian, Chinese, Indian and those people sort of have set a stage that we can’t compete with. So how long did you farm at Puketitiri then Mike?

Six years. We were up there for six years and Jan didn’t really like the country. She wanted to be back in town. She wanted me to go to Massey University. We built a house and we had three children and I was quite happy at the Works for awhile and got involved with politics which lasted about 8 or 10 years and then I got heavily involved in forestry and enjoyed that, really enjoyed it, and set up my own forestry companies and logging operations and enjoyed that. Made a huge disastrous move into my own sawmill which was a bit of a disaster but things aren’t easy all the time. You have to accept that some of it goes well and some of it doesn’t go well. You just shake yourself and get up and go again.

Yes, I’ve enjoyed what I’ve done and feel pretty happy about it and I’ve enjoyed actually nurturing young guys that have got into a bit of strife and got them on the straight and narrow and seen them make a success of their lives. And some of that has worked and some hasn’t.

At one stage you lived in Farndon Road. You had an orchard didn’t you?

Yes. When I left the Meat Works I went off to work for the Maori Affairs Department and I went up to the Far North and I helped set up a forestry operation there with the freezing workers and I was doing work with Maori Affairs with regard to Ngati Hine Corporation and other Maori land development projects. Then I came back and they said to me there was this piece of land for sale and would I like to set up an orchard and I said that sounds like a pretty nice idea. So we developed an orchard in Farndon Road and had 6 or 8 years there but I didn’t like the spray and I’d seen lots of downsides from the chemicals and I was having a bad reaction to it so decided that I had better have a change of profession.

So was this when you moved to Kahuranaki Road?

Well there was a bit of time in between. We lived in Napier for awhile and I had a block of land up in Wairoa which I was developing. The Wairoa property was a bit of a disaster. We had Cyclone Bola come through and pretty well wiped it out. It was a wonderful property we had up there but huge areas of it were destroyed and all we were left with was the woolshed and much of the pasture had gone.

This was after Kahuranaki?

No it was prior to Kahuranaki. It was after Farndon Road. It virtually all went out to sea and we lost a huge amount of stock. The whole area was a disaster zone and I think we came out of there with $9 to start again. With the $9 we went and bought the property at Kahuranaki Road. We managed to get 100% finance on the job and we did a few things there and managed to do a wee subdivision on it and got on our feet again and it was good. We lived out there for 10 years.

I always remember that farm. It was almost organic because when you bought it it had so many dead sheep on it you didn’t need any natural fertiliser for many years.

Underneath the woolshed there were hundreds of dead goats and there were dead sheep all over the property. It was amazing. But I wasn’t interested in farming. I was interested in subdividing part of it and growing forests on the rest of it. It had a substantial forest on it which was I think 16 years old and that’s when I started logging. We production thinned that block and learnt all those skills and went off and did logging contracts all over Hawke’s Bay from there. It was a good stepping stone and we went and bought another property in Wairoa and developed that as a forest as well. I was 50 years of age and went and set up as a logging contractor. It was a bit of a tall order but we did it and enjoyed it.

And so really Waikaremoana forest was the start of you exiting the forestry industry and heading towards retirement.

Yes. You can only work horses for so long and the human body is the same as a horse. You wear it out or let it rust out and I’ve chosen to wear mine out. Now I am just concentrating on whakapapa and family history and getting that written down and leaving a good record for my children and grandchildren.

Thank you Michael, that was excellent.

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Interviewer:  Frank Cooper

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