Renton, John Richardson Interview

It’s 23rd November [2018] and I’m talking to John Renton from Hastings, and retired farmer from Maraekakaho. John, I welcome you this morning, and I will just ask you to give us the story of the Renton family, and I’ll leave it with you.  It’s all yours, John.

Right. We’ll start with my great-grandfather, William Nelson, and he was born at a place called ‘The Lawn’ in Warwickshire in England; and he was born in 1843. As he was growing up as a child he gained a lot of experience in the family’s gelatine factory, and he actually specialised in refrigeration at that particular time. He sailed to New Zealand in 1862 with his brother Frederick, on a ship called the ‘Devonshire’. There was an interesting connection with William Nelson with James Williams … J N Williams … they both owned Kereru Station together, but that’s another story actually.

William Nelson married his first wife, a woman by the name of Sarah Bicknell, and that was after he’d returned to New Zealand for a second time. He actually lived in ‘The Lawn’; a place called ‘The Lawn’ at Clive, and it was there, with Sarah, that they had their nine children. My grandmother was the last of their nine children; her name was Gertrude. It’s interesting to note that in 1881 ‘The Lawn’ homestead was cut up and shifted by traction engine over the Tukituki River to Tukituki Station, an area of ten thousand acres owned by the Nelson brothers at that time.

Now in 1869, a fellow by the name of Wellwood actually built Waikoko homestead. Great-grandfather, William, bought Waikoko in 1884. At that stage Sarah had died … his first wife had died … and he married Emma Williams, J N Williams’ daughter, [Correction:  Bishop William Williams’ daughter, sister of J N Williams] which is interesting because J N Williams’ father was Bishop William Williams, so he had that connection there. I’ll just throw in a little bit about the Waikoko lake – that was actually originally the metal pit for the roads in Hastings. William died at eighty-nine years old in 1932, I believe it was. Prior to that he had sold fifty-one acres to the Hawke’s Bay A & P Society for one hundred bucks [$100] an acre, and the house of course is on a separate title … Waikoko … which he lived in until he died in 1932.

He started the Works (Tomoana Freezing Works) in 1880 as a boiling down industry, and the reason it was called Tomoana Freezing Works is that he was a great friend of Henry Tomoana, and he was the big Chief at Waipatu Marae. And he gave William the road that’s now called Elwood Road as a right-of-way to his Works, so William thought fit to call his Works after Henry Tomoana. And also he actually built the small church in appreciation for [of] what Henry had done for them; he built the small church which [is] still standing at the marae.

Now his daughter, Gertrude, as I’ve mentioned, married Hector Smith in 1899. And I think one should know a little bit about Hector Smith, and where he came from. Hector Smith came from Olrig House in Scotland, in Caithness, and he came out here in 1837 … no, sorry, his father came out here; H W P Smith came out to New Zealand on 1837 on a ship called the ‘Mary Ann’, and he founded Olrig Station in 1859. What makes it a little confusing is that three generations have the same Christian name, Hector … Hector [William] Pope Smith, and my grandfather, being one of his sons, is Hector [John] Smith also.

Well, Hector married Gertrude, as I’ve mentioned, in 1899, and they lived at ‘Ormlie’, which is now Ormlie Lodge. Gertrude’s father, William Nelson, built Ormlie for them as an engagement present when they went to England. So that’s not a bad engagement present, is it, to come back to Ormlie? And of course they lived there until their deaths in 1950, 1960. So that covers that one I think.

My mother was a daughter of Henry [Hector] and Gertrude Smith; they had four daughters and one son. And two daughters, Olga and Judy, who were in fact – they weren’t engaged but they were near enough to it – to soldiers that unfortunately went to the war and didn’t come back. So they remained single for the rest of their lives. Gretchen being the older daughter, she married Leslie Nelson and they went to live at Whakamarumaru Station; and my mother, [Rachel], married my father, Moore Renton, in [from] Christchurch. At that stage of the game he was licking stamps, or the next best thing to it, in Dalgety’s in Christchurch, but I’ll go into his past in a minute.

The son was Ian Smith, and he was the only son of Gertrude and Hector. He lost his life in Germany in a flying raid in 1944 … unfortunately lost his life. So that left my grandfather [Hector John Smith] that [who] managed half of Olrig which he called Whanakino, with nobody in the next generation to take over. So he asked my father who was based in Nelson if he’d like to come up to Hawke’s Bay to manage Whanakino Station.  So in 1946, Dad, who was at that stage of the game Manager of Dalgety’s in Nelson, came up and managed Whanakino Station in Hawke’s Bay.

A little bit about my father’s history, which I know very little about; his father Jim Renton … Jim Renton’s father came out to New Zealand in … what the heck was it? ‘Bout the mid-1800s [1866] … and they settled in Hokitika and created a hardware store they called Renton’s Hardware.* That functioned right up until, would you believe, about three or four years ago when they had to face competition with Mitre 10 and Briscoes and what-have-you, and they just couldn’t afford to compete against the competition of these bigger companies, so they sold up. My [grand]father, [Jim] who was a partner in Renton’s Hardware very early on at the turn of the century, left the other brothers to run the hardware business in Hokitika and bought two high country runs in the South Island; or the freehold of two high country runs in the South Island. One was … oh, the name escapes me for a minute; and the other was Brunswick Downs … Mount Heslington and Brunswick Downs. And Grandad naturally enough owned the freehold of those two high country runs.

His son, Moore, the only son in that family – my father – was requested by his father to go out snow raking on several occasions, and it was during those days that he was snow raking that he was discovered with undulant fever. [Brucellosis] That’s why Grandad had to sell the freehold of the high country runs, get out of farming altogether, and send Dad to Christchurch. And as I say, he [Moore] started off in Dalgety’s in Christchurch, licking stamps.

He was a very good tennis player, and he won the South Island Junior Tennis Championship in the late twenties. He married my mother in the early 1930s, and of course I came onto the scene in about 1935.

So Jim, at that stage of the game we lived in Nelson where my father was managing the Dalgety branch in Nelson. He was due for a posting to Whangarei, which was one of the four main branches of Dalgety’s in New Zealand, when my grandfather invited him to come up and manage Whanakino. So he accepted the job, as opposed to carrying on and no doubt reaching the apex of Dalgety’s and Company Limited. Consequently we moved up to manage – or Mum and Dad did – moved up to manage Whanakino Station in 1946.

Now, it made all the sense for Mum and Dad to leave me in Nelson doing my schooling, so it was at that stage of the game that I joined the preparatory department at Nelson College. I had a very, very bad stammer, and I couldn’t really say my name. It was an exceptionally bad stammer, and it was thanks to a gentleman by the name of Mr Botting, who was a teacher at Nelson College that [who] gave me extra lessons. And the fact I was made a prefect, and I was singing a bit, I managed to eventually get rid of my stammer by 1948; ‘49, anyway.

At that stage of the game I was in charge of the Nelson College Battalion and I was Head Chorister of the Nelson College Cathedral Choir and in the Nelson College First Fifteen. In fact, I was Head Chorister of the Cathedral Choir at the time that the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh visited New Zealand on their [the] coronation. And as history recalls it, they had a Coronation Service in the Nelson Cathedral, at which time I had the opportunity to meet the two of them.

So I stayed at Nelson College really, until 1953 … ‘52 or ‘53 … at which time I came up to Hawke’s Bay; and I didn’t go anywhere else shepherding. I thought, ‘Well, if Dad treats me as I expected him to treat me, it wouldn’t matter if I worked at Whanakino Station as a shepherd.’ So I spent most of my working days before I went out to Glenmore, which I’ll tell you about in a minute, working as a shepherd on Glenmore, and Dad treated me just like anybody else. It was a brilliant time. I was just one of the boys and we all got on and so forth.

After I’d spent my time shepherding at Whanakino … well I might add, Dad put me in a shearing gang for three months and he put me on a fencing gang for six months; so I learned to fence and I learned how to shear. And I’ll never forget my father telling me, “Never ask anybody else to do something you’re not prepared to do yourself’; so I’ve grown up with that concept as much as humanly possible.

Oh, I went overseas [chuckle] in between. 1957 or ‘58 Peter Holden, Judith Simmonds … what’s her name? Jock McKenzie’s wife … what’s her name, Jim? Lovely looking lady. We formed an unofficial New Zealand team and represented New Zealand at the Sydney Royal Show, and interestingly enough won the inter-country elimination contest, which paid for our trip at least. [Chuckle] But that was an education and a half too.

From there I went on to England, and I bought an Austin Healey Sprite for £450. That’s all the money I’d saved up to go for my trip; I splashed the whole lot on buying a car, in one fell swoop when I got to England. However, that stood me in quite good stead, because on one occasion when I was in London … my father had won the New Zealand Chilled Beef competition, and the ten top carcasses which went to London to be judged at Smithfield. Well I went to that judging and surprisingly enough our carcass won the competition in London. So it was after that occasion that I decided to travel around Europe. I had no money, but I had an Austin Healey Sprite. But it was through that association that I met the British Livestock Exports Chairman, by the name of Mr Thompson, and he introduced me to a Mr Beddey in Scotland whose stud I was working for about eight months in preparing his bulls for the Perth sales, so I’d earned a bit of money there.

But I didn’t have anybody to do my European trip with, so I thought, ‘Well I’ll go to the Overseas Visitors’ Club and see how I get on there.’ Well I went to the Overseas Visitors’ Club, and lo and behold here’s this lovely lady in a red skirt. I might add that the upholstery in the Austin Healey Sprite was red, and it was painted cream. And this woman wore a red skirt and she wore a cream top, so I thought, ‘Well she’ll go well – she’ll match the car at least.’ So I asked her if she’d like a trip around Europe, and she accepted that. The long and the short of that story is that I travelled seventy thousand dollars [miles] around Europe, travelling I don’t know through how many countries; brought that car back to New Zealand; sold it to a fellow in Wellington by the name of Tony Shelley from Shelley Motors for twice as much as I’d paid for it originally, which meant that I’d travelled around the whole of Europe for nothing. So that was quite a successful operation.

Now I sent my car back through Southampton. But after my experience at this property north of Aberdeen, and having been to the Perth bull sales, the British Livestock Exports Corporation gave me the job of bringing the American contingent that they had purchased at Perth, back to America. And because of the foot and mouth disease scare, I had to take that contingent of about eight bulls and twelve heifers from Southampton, we left, through a quarantine station at Saint John, New Brunswick, to America. So eventually we left the quarantine station and I delivered the Champion bull at Perth, by the name of Elevated [?Estrium?], and he was purchased by Ray R Hill-Graham Junior, Edgehill Farm, Antony, in New York for 64,000 guineas. It was at that stage a world record.

And I had the pleasure of bringing back the Reserve Supreme Champion,​ a bull by the name of Emitre of Haymount, bred by John Arnott in Scotland, and he was purchased by a fellow by the name of Thomas Daly, and it was on his farm that I spent nearly nine months in America managing his stud. And we travelled through forty-eight of the fifty-one states of America during that nine months, to all the State Fairs, so I had a pretty good view of America.

And from there of course, in 1959, I came back through Hawaii and Japan, totally broke, and I had to stay at the Salvation Army outfit in Sydney ‘cause I didn’t have any money left apart from my car that had been exported to New Zealand that I told you about.

So I got back to New Zealand in 1959 and married my wife, Margaret, in 1960.

Now John, she wasn’t the lady that you took round Europe?

[Laughter] She certainly was not. [Chuckle] No – she was a lady I met in her grandmother’s shoe cupboard about ten years previous, [chuckles] in Masterton. [Laugh] That’s another story that we won’t have recorded, thank you very much.

Anyway, so I married Margaret, who was the daughter of a doctor in Wellington, Doctor [?] – and he was a doctor of the Shaw Savill Line, incidentally. So we got married and lived at … my father at that stage of the game purchased half of Whanakino from Hector Smith, and called it Glenmore. So I was lucky enough to inherit Glenmore. 1964 Dad handed the reins over to me to farm Glenmore on my own account, and we built a house at Glenmore around about that time … 1962, ‘63, I think.

So during that three or four years I don’t know quite how Margaret put up with me, because I happened to be Chairman of the Maraekakaho Sports Club, Chairman of the Kereru Sports Club – both at the same time – Chairman of the School Committee, and one or two other things … Young Farmers Club … so I was kept pretty busy. And after about eight or nine years – no, quite a wee way after that – when my father retired from the Riding member for Maraekakaho on the Hawke’s Bay County Council, I stood, and would you believe it or not, successful. So I was on the County for about fifteen years representing the Maraekakaho Riding.

It was during that time that I also had climbed up the ranks of the Agriculture and Pastoral Society, became President of the A & P Society in 1991. And during my time on the County Committee, I was of the Noxious Plants Committee, and was the elected member for the New Zealand Forestry people, and it was through that probably, that I had quite an interest in timber … or developed quite an interest in timber.

So in 1978 I decided to get rid of my life insurance policies, which no one’s advised to do but I wanted to do it, to buy timber every year. So with the money that I had tied up in life insurance policies that my parents had so kindly organised, I bought ten cubic metres of native timber every year, and that was the start of my business I called J Rs Feature Timber, and I established at Whakatu. And although I’m very much a greenie – or not overly, but I believe in the preservation of native timber – there was no regulation then on podocarp timber and its milling, so that’s why I decided to get … well, I did get … because I imagined that at one stage of the game there’d be legislation that would disallow any milling of native timber in New Zealand, which is in fact now the case other than on private land where you can mill on a sustainable yield system which is one tree per hectare, which makes sense. That’s six hundred year-old tree[s] – it will take [a] period of time to grow, sixty years, so one tree per hectare. If a private person’s building a house that makes sense. One big tree of that age would just about build a house, but commercially speaking it’s not on. So that’s why now native timber is so extremely difficult – and it’s very, very good because it’s being preserved in New Zealand – it’s very, very difficult to procure.

Right, so my sons … Twiggy [Margaret] and I had a family of four, two daughters and two sons. They all got married, so consequently we’ve got twelve grandchildren. Far too many you might say, and it certainly is from a point of view of Christmas presents and birthday presents – you’re walloped fairly hard, but however, we’ve ended up with twelve grandchildren. Two of the girls married and the two boys – we split the station in half and one got one half and one got the other. And Twiggy and I then decided to retire to Havelock in 1996 … March 1996. We bought in Tainui Drive in 1991, and it took about six years to organise all the estate planning and this, that and the other thing. We moved in March 1996; I’m not quite sure if Jim Newbigin was at the farewell party or not at Glenmore, but it was a bloody good party. [Laughter]

I think I was. Now I know after hearing you, being the Head Chorister in Nelson, now I know where your singing comes from. You’ve got a wonderful voice …


… heard everywhere, very loud …

And I speak too much.

But now I know where that voice came from.

So the boys … Glenmore was split in half and we retired to Havelock [North]. And here we are still happily married in Havelock, and our golden wedding will be in 2020. So that’s about it.

Yes. John, that’s very interesting …

Well Whanakino of course being a Māori name, you wonder where that came from. I still don’t know, other than to know that ‘kino’ is ‘bad’. So that’s all I can tell you, unfortunately, but Ian Renton might have the answer to that one, or my brother, David Renton. You see, he moved onto Whanakino Station.

Well you’ve given us a pretty good talk there, John, on your life and your forebears as well. Tell me, what year was it that you were in the UK?

1958 … ‘57, ‘58.

Well you had the right car to travel around in, too, eh?

[Chuckle] Well, it was only a Sprite, but it was a small Austin Healey. But there were only two in New Zealand, and so that’s why I got a thousand bucks for it – £1,000 for it. I said a thousand doll[ars] – it was £1,000! [Laughter] You wouldn’t read about it, would you?

No. Well I see some of the cars at the golf club where we have the petrol heads there for coffee every week, and there’s two Austin Healeys there.

There’s two Austin Healeys there – Austin Healey. Yes, it’s not the Sprite, the smaller one.

No, no.

Okay, well I think I’ve covered a few …

Thank you, John – we’d like to thank you very much for that talk, and we’ll leave it there, okay?

Yeah. Well, I’ve told you I don’t like skiting about anybody, let alone myself, so I hope not too many people hear it. [Chuckle] Thank you; cheers.

Thank you.

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Interviewer:  Jim Newbigin

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