Peter Wilson Interview (J G Wilson, Historian)

Well, Peter Wilson, if we can just start in terms of a bit of your own background. Your family came to Hawke’s Bay – can you remember how long ago it was?

Peter: Oh, yes I can but … come on, Richard.

Richard:  1907.

When they first came to Hawke’s Bay what were they involved with – farming? Business?

No, mainly … mainly I suppose farming, and… yeah. That right, Richard?

 Richard:  Yes. It was actually 1902 that they first went to Hatuma, but 1907 when they took over the family …

 Peter:  Yeah. Yeah. He knows a lot more about it than I do.

Okay. So 1902 the family first came to Hawke’s Bay …

Yeah, Hatuma.

… and 1907, first got involved in farming?

No, they’d been farming before up Dannevirke way.

And in those days, farming at Dannevirke – was that dairy farming or sheep farming?

Well, I think they avoided the dairy farming as best they could, but probably they had to do some. But they certainly didn’t stay there very long, which speaks for itself I suppose. Yeah.

And moving from Dannevirke to what – Hatuma, just south of Waipukurau – was that because of better soil type, better farming conditions?

Oh yes, it would be – more sheep farmers, yes. Yes, but I’m not sure that they came all that way – Richard might know. Did they stop at Takapau or anywhere round there for a while?

Richard: Oh, Gladstone.

Peter: Where Gladstone is?

Richard: Gladstone was the first place they …

Peter: Yeah, yes.

Richard: … stopped at.

Peter: Yeah. Yes, then they moved up to Hatuma, and just over the hills. Yeah.

And the block that they had, was it – what, a mixture of flat land, hill country, mainly flat?

Oh, easy country really. No, it wasn’t steep but it had rolling country in it … yeah. Mainly fairly flat.

Of course in those days the breeds of sheep available to farmers was pretty … pretty restricted – Romneys, Cheviots …

Probably. Firstly the Romneys that were there, and some other brands [breeds] come to light, but as far as I know they were … yeah, but I could find this out because I’ve got all those diaries.  Yes.

And in terms of your own farming experience – you obviously grew up on the farm and went off to school where?

Well, some people say I never grew up. [Quiet chuckles]

So did you go to school locally?

Yes, at Hatuma. Then I went off to boarding school when I was about – oh, I suppose about eight, or ten … nine or ten or something.

And where was that?

Havelock North.

So was that to Hereworth?


Okay. And then what, a couple of years at Hereworth, and …


… then off to Wanganui Collegiate?

No, I went to Wellington College with my two brothers – they went there too.

And then back from Wellington College to the farm, or did you look at other pursuits initially?

I did but they were all in London. [Laughter]


They were all in London. [Chuckles]

So what was the attraction of London?

I’m buggering this up, am I?

What was the attraction of London?

Oh, see the world – yeah, to have a look round and enjoy it. Yes. Travel round Europe and have a good time.

And how long did you do that for?

Oh, I suppose about eight months or so, yeah.

So we’re talking here in terms of heading off to Europe, in the early 1950s?

Probably would be. They were boom years … boom years – what, two or three years, Richard? Yes.

And then you came back … went straight back on the farm?

Well I’ve got … had two brothers, and we bought more land and we were contracting, ‘cause there was a lot of driving tractors and a lot of work like that.

And you say you bought more land, so did you …

Oh, well …

… did you stick with sheep and cattle?

Yeah, sheep and cattle, yes. But then we actually carried a lot of cattle, you know, there when it was profitable to do so. Yeah – bit of everything I suppose. Yeah.

In terms of your growing up, the fact that you went off to Hereworth at the age of eight …

Not age eight. No, I only had two years there.

Oh sorry, I thought you said you went to Hereworth when you were eight.

No. Did I? Did I say that?

So you would have been ten?


So in your growing up years, your father, JG Wilson, was a well-known Hawke’s Bay historian.

He was.

When did you sort of first become aware that he had this real interest in history?

Early. Early. I’ve lived in the library and [chuckle]

Richard: Ooohh [chuckle]

Peter: It’s true.

Richard: We all grew up with it.

Peter: Yeah. Yeah. We all … I spent ages in there with Dad and what was going on and … yes. My sisters were interested in it too, but … yeah.

And what sparked that interest? Was he, you know, quite enthusiastic about wanting you as children to know all about it?

Well that’s a difficult one, but … yes, he helped. He didn’t say “oh no, I’m not going to answer that”, or anything like that. He always helped if you enquired, and … yeah. And he was a good man, Dad. Deafness was a terrible handicap to him.

So when did he initially … as a child growing up in your memories … have time to not only get the farm work done but devote time to history, and write it.

Well he seemed to … he employed people. We seemed to have a spare cottage there and he always employed somebody. And of course I think it would be fair to say that Dad’s main interest was the history, and the world, and what’s going on, and … yes.

And in terms of, you know, what was going on, I mean did he go and buy books and then …

He did.

… you’d read them?

Sometimes – yeah, sometimes. Not in the early years, but later on, yes. He always encouraged me to buy them because I was the only one that sort of stayed behind on the farm, you see … yes. Yes.

And where did he source the books from? I mean, was there a local bookshop that he … or did he go to Wellington, or ..?

Well he had … the books in here are from London. Get that one over there, Richard, see the narrow one? Further back … stop! [Chuckles]

Okay, so we’ve got a book here called ‘Voyage to the South Seas’ …


… by a man named Parkinson.

That’s right.

This just looks like a leather bound book of some age, and so this is one of the books that your father got from London?

Yes it is. He was in correspondence with the London people before the war, and then quite a gap and then after the war. Yeah, he was … quite a few of the letters here of the correspondence with them. Probably in here there’s some. Yeah.

And how did he know where to get these books from London? I mean can you remember, did he subscribe to a magazine that … it’s not the sort of thing one would normally …

D’you know Richard? How did he ..?

Richard: I don’t know.

Peter: It was a bit before my time, but he was always in his library writing to them and …

Must have been quite exciting though, when these arrived in the post?

Absolutely … absolutely, when they arrived. Yeah. [Chuckle]

Richard: That’s how our library was developed as well.

Peter: Was it? Yeah.

Richard: It came from England.

Peter: Yeah.

And you know, growing up, here he is working the farm – as you say he had people working on the farm for him, but you and the rest of your family and your mother, you know, must have … must have found it you know, quite exciting to have all these things arriving at the house.

I think so … well, yes. ‘Course it was war-time years and that slowed thing[s] down for a long time. But yes, there was always a rush to see what was coming in the mail and yeah, coming from London particularly, quite regularly. Yes. Anyhow, that all seems to have gone.

Now his own writings – can you remember as a child growing up seeing him sitting in the study, or sitting somewhere in the house?

Who’re you talking about now?

Talking about your father.

Oh, yeah, yes. Yeah, yes – a lot. Yes. He was hard of hearing, so of course they had to yell like hell at him to get him in for a meal. [Laughter]

He put together the book about the history of Hawke’s Bay for …


… a commemoration way back in the mid-thirties?

That’s right.

That wouldn’t have been done overnight – I mean obviously, you know, in the mid-thirties you were very small. But it’s something which was obviously a huge undertaking. Did he ever sort of talk to you about that?

Yes, he did, but he just disappeared into the library and … didn’t seem him for a while. My Mum got used to it – yeah. And of course the mails were coming in … yeah, always very exciting for everybody to whizz down and see where they were coming from. Yeah.

And did he talk to you much, you know, when you got older about all the work that he was doing in terms of writing articles, writing books?

Didn’t need to, because they were just there and you could see what was going on and … yeah. But oh – am I getting where I was describing Dad?

Richard: You would’ve gone off with him when he went off to interview people.

Peter: Sometimes.

Richard: We all did.

Peter: Sometimes, yes, yes. Yes.

I was going to get to that – that obviously, you know, to compile a book you have to travel …

Yes, yeah.

… and talk to people.


And in the History of Hawke’s Bay there’s … it’s not just devoted to Pakeha history …

No. Oh, no … no.

… of Hawke’s Bay, but also Maori history. And you were very small obviously when the book was published, but in years after that, you know, what are your memories of heading off in the car with him?

Well Dad was a bit deaf of course, so you couldn’t ever change his mind anyway. But [chuckle] he’d end up getting out of the car and walking round somebody’s farm quite a few times. [Laughter] Yeah.

So you’d entertain yourself while he went and talked to people on the farm?

Yes. Yeah, but I wasn’t the only one. I can’t remember Graham … my two brothers going through that, but I seemed to be at the period when it was going on after the war, and … yeah, a lot of activities. Lot of visits to the big stations round about.

And presumably that was what – in the farm truck, or in a car?

The car.

D’you remember what sort of car it was? Was it a big ..?

Buick. Buick in my time – an old one, yeah.

Straight 6 Buick?

I think it was a 6, yes.

With riding boards on the … on the sides.

Oh, gee it was – it did have boards, yeah.

And in terms of your mother, how did she cope with, you know, your father sort of heading off to the study and burying himself in this interest?

Didn’t seem to mind at all. Well, she got used to it, yeah.

And then, you know, as you grew up, in your early adult years you came back to the farm …


… and was your father still embroiled in that interest then?

Oh yes, yeah. Always was. Yeah. But I suppose it might’ve eased off a bit – I don’t know, but he was always interested in going to somebody’s place where they had books or … yeah.

Now the collection that you’ve got in this room – obviously a fantastic collection …

Not really. I don’t know whether it’s … Dad was too poor to buy a lot of the good books. Too short of money, shall I say. [Chuckle]

Well I guess in the boom years, the early fifties you know, when wool prices …

Yeah, that’s when he wrote … with London all the time, yeah. I called in at the places in London, and they knew all about him. [Chuckle]

Oh, that’s interesting.


So he must have been quite a good client, to be ..?

In London?


Oh, he would be I think, yes. Yeah.

And in terms of, you know, what came from London to New Zealand and ended up in this wonderful collection, are there books, you know, which are quite special to you?

Now? Oh yes, yes – I like them, I don’t like disposing of any of them at all. I enjoy them.

Any particular books that, you know, you would say that if you had to choose half a dozen, that they would be among them?

Well that one that I just had earlier on … is it there? Yeah, that was one that always appealed to me, yeah. But – oh, you have long times when you don’t get engrossed in them, but I like that. I like it when somebody comes in and asks for a book, if they can see something – I really enjoy that. And then sometimes, not all times by any means, I can help them. Yeah. Yeah, Richard’s probably better at that.

Now you say that in later years, you know, your memory is your father still had an interest but he slowed down a bit. I guess as he grew older and you were working on the farm, you were doing more of the work, he was doing less of the work so he’d actually have more time to devote to his collection and to writing?

Oh, yes, well he just knocked off working altogether and was always writing to somebody. Yeah, always sending letters off to people, and yeah – he was a busy man like that, yes.

And did people come to see him?

Yes. I suppose not a great number, but it’d just depend – yes, he did. Well he liked company and … yeah.

And what – presumably the odd mayor might have had to drop in, too?

Who might’ve?

The odd mayor of Hastings or …

Which one?

Well any one … can you remember the sort of visitors that he did have?

Well he would have had, but I can’t remember any of those.

Richard: A S Reid.

Peter: It was a pretty lonely job for the wife. You know, Dad of course, when it came to a book shop the wife didn’t exist. [Laughter]

Well that’s realistic – I mean that’s very honest. I mean that’s just [laughter] probably the same with you know, men who are interested in cars. [Laughter]

That’s right. [Laughter]

So in terms of your father, I mean, what sort of contribution do you think that he made to Hawke’s Bay?

I’d have to think about that. But a lot of people were coming in always wanting bits of information ’bout this and that, but how big a contribution I wouldn’t have the slightest idea. But people knew that if they wanted to you know … there, they could. But I don’t know – not floods of people turning up, the cars stacked up in the driveway or anything like that. Just people would ring up and ask if they could come and get some information about … yeah, that’d be fair enough wouldn’t it, Richard?

Richard: He did a great service by you know, just stopping and … if he saw an elderly Maori person sitting in their rocking chair …

Peter: Oh yes, Maoris – yes.

Richard: “Stop!” Stop the car and hop out and go and talk to them, and just forget about everyone else. He just wrote it all down when he got back home – what they’d said. He got the history of that tribe, and iwi, and … no one else would have done it. No, he saved an awful lot of history.

Peter: Yes.

So he must‘ve had a lot of notebooks and ..?

He must have had?


Well if they [he] had they’re in here, and I don’t know where they are.

Richard: Lost a lot in the house fire when Netherby burnt down.

Peter: Oh yes, that’s right, yeah. Yeah, we had our bad times – yeah.

And can you remember when he did you know, write in his notebook – I mean, did he write in pencil? Did he write in fountain pen?

Bit of each I think – do you remember that, Richard?

Richard: No, mostly pen I think. Mostly pen.

Peter: Yeah, pen.

But someone obviously … you know, with your interest in books you’d be very proud of your father.

Oh, absolutely. Absolutely, yes. Yes. Oh, yes – because when we went to Auckland he always knew where to go and who to see, and all the places, yes.

Well you’ve done very well. Have you got anything to add, Richard?

Richard: He had a wonderful sense of humour, didn’t he?

Peter: Oh, yes, yes.

Richard: Just one-liners like … I don’t know if I should read it out. He had to make a speech on the occasion of his eightieth birthday, and he recounted the story … asked the secret of living to a ripe old age, a man of ninety years, answered “Keep busy, have a hobby, and take an interest in the opposite sex. Well, collecting books and writing has been my hobby, but when it comes to looking at taking an interest in the opposite sex – nothing doing.” [Laughter]

He was married very late in life – he was over forty when he got married. [Laughter]

Well he obviously must have had some interest otherwise you wouldn’t be here today. [Laughter]

Richard: All five of you. [Laughter]

Peter: Oh, well – you’ve got enough from me.

And just finally – you know, the interest that you have in books, is that something which is special to you as one of JG’s children, or is it something which all your siblings …

No, I don’t …

… became interested in?

I don’t think about it like that really. If they are interested we’d love to have them, but I don’t try and push them or anything at all like that. Yeah. That’d be about right wouldn’t it, Richard?

Richard: Well you’re virtually the only one left.

Peter: Yeah. Yeah, I suppose I’m the only one left. And I don’t know what’ll happen to these books when … they’re here, but somebody will enjoy them I hope. Yeah.

Okay. Well done.

Original digital file



  • James Gordon Wilson
  • Peter Wilson

Additional information

Interviewer:  Heugh Chappell – recorded 1st January 2013

Present:  Heugh Chappell, Peter Wilson, Richard Harding

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