Thornton, (Hugh) William Hugh Interview

Good afternoon, my name is Jenny Hall. The date today is 24th April 2023. We’re presently situated in Havelock North, and my guest today is Hugh Thornton; he has offered to talk about the life and times of his family.

Good afternoon. I’m Hugh, and this is my story, or part of my story.

My story goes right back to my great grandfather, Robert Henry Head, who was being sent out of the Royal Navy for refusing to order a flogging on [of] one of his men on his ship. He was decommissioned, and he then shipped himself out of Britain to the goldfields of Australia. And while he was in the Australian goldfields, gold was discovered in New Zealand at Gabriel’s Gully in Otago. He came across to try his luck, but the winter was so cold that he went back to Australia. And once again he had the call of the sea, and he decided to sign up on the crew of the brand new vessel belonging to the London Missionary Society. This was the ‘John Williams II’.

Do you know what year that was?

Yes, in 1867.

The ‘John Williams II’ was built in Aberdeen from funds raised by the school children of New South Wales and Victoria, and he was on the maiden voyage of the ‘John Williams II’ up into the Pacific Islands where she became wrecked on Niue Island. She had been standing offshore for a couple of days when a very strong current came up and pushed her onto the cliffs. The sea was dead calm; they could not raise sail to get offshore and the current [was] too strong for the ship to be towed out with two of their boats. The current caused huge seas to crash on the island and the ship broke up at the foot of the cliffs that night. All hands aboard were saved and later taken to Samoa by Bully Hayes aboard his ship, ‘Verona’.

Robert Henry Head did not leave Niue; he stayed there for fifty-four years as a trader. He was a young man, and found a lady, the daughter of one of the village chiefs. This was an arranged marriage by the missionary of the islands, George Laws, to keep it correct in [the] eyes of the church. This couple are my great-grandparents, Robert and Pelenise Head; they went on to have fifteen children. My grandmother, Frances, was number twelve.

Do you know the maiden name of the girl he married?

Yes, Pelenise.

What was her christian name?

I can come back to that one later. Robert and Pelenise … maybe it wasn’t. We’ve been there ourselves to walk the path; we’ve all been over, thirty-two of us. [Chuckle]

And they went on to have fifteen children. Frances arrived in New Zealand, Auckland, New Zealand, from Niue on the barge, ‘Isobel’, on Christmas Day 1894. She was ten years old and spoke no English. She lived in Epsom, in a home her father had owned, for his children to get [an] education. Frances went on to Epsom Girls’ Grammar School.

She came over with family, or she came over on her own?

She came over on her own, but was connected to family. They had their own big house in Epsom. There was family here, yeah.

Meanwhile back in Kidderminster, England, my other great grandparents, Henry and Jane Barnes, were raising a family of nine and becoming disillusioned with what was happening in England and decided that they’d emigrate to New Zealand. So they sent out their eldest son Thomas to check out the country and report back. On receiving a good report, they sold everything in Kidderminster and shipped out to New Zealand on the ‘Arawa’, arriving in Wellington in 1888. The younger children went to school at the Terrace School, and the older ones became confectioners, painters, ironmongers and accountants. My grandfather, Joseph Glenham Barnes, was the second youngest of the children and became an architect and builder.

On arriving in Wellington they lived in Austin Street, number 64. My grandfather married twice, with a daughter of his first marriage; but was separated not long after the daughter was born. I can tell you why he got divorced – he came home and found his wife in bed with his lawyer. [Chuckles] But the divorce didn’t happen until 1914, but he had met my grandmother, Frances Head, about 1907; and they lived together and got married in 1915 in Gisborne. They built a home together in Gisborne and had four children. The eldest was my mother, Margaret Josephine Barnes.

And at the same time in Grimsby, England at Number 8 Pelham Street, lived my paternal grandparents, James Fowlds Thornton and his wife, Jane Elizabeth, née Sutton. They had four sons of which my father, William Thomas Thornton, was number three. His father, James Fowlds Thornton, was an engineer on the fishing trawler ‘Rosedale’ and was killed when the ship was mined in the North Sea and sank with all hands. This happened in October 16th 1915, and his wife, Elizabeth Jane Thornton, died of cancer nine years later, leaving four orphaned boys, the eldest being sixteen. And there is a plaque in one of the parks in London which we saw when we were over there, that has my grandfather’s recognition.

So he’s not buried there?

No, no. No, they never found his body, he was blown up on the ship. Percy, the eldest, had already gone to sea and did not know of his mother’s death until he arrived home from his first voyage to find another family living in what had been his home when he left. His three brothers had been sent to Newlands Home for the orphaned children of British seamen, in Hull.

It was from here that the three brothers in the orphanage came to New Zealand. Each one came as they turned fifteen, under a Scheme for a Trust run by the New Zealand Sheep Owners and [in] acknowledgement of debt to British seamen. All the boys and girls that came to New Zealand under the Scheme are orphans. They came to Flock House at Bulls in the Manawatu and were given six months farm training before being sent out on different farms around the North Island. The Trust looked after their charges very well and made follow-up visits to check out on their welfare and make sure that they were not exploited.

Bill Thornton arrived in Wellington on the SS ‘Rotorua’ in 1927. My father, William Thomas Thornton, ten years later was working up the Ruakituri Valley when he met my grandfather, Joseph Glenham Barnes, who was in the valley building a homestead for the Smith family. He got a ride with him to Gisborne and was invited to stay with the Barneses for a short time. My mother, Margaret Barnes, met him for the first time as they [she] came out of the bathroom, and as she told a short story, she thought, ‘He’s mine.’ [Chuckle] The rest is history. They got married and had eight children, seven sons and one daughter; I am the second child of Bill and Peggy Thornton.

Are we going to follow on with you?

When Mum and Dad got married they lived at Ruakituri for a while. Then Dad, would you believe, was the chauffeur for Turihaua Station owner – one of the Williamses, I can’t think of his name – he was the chauffeur that drove around in the car. But Mum got pregnant with her first boy, Albert, and when they found out she was pregnant – no babies allowed, so Dad had to find another job. And I think from there he went to live in Cook Street [Gisborne]; then he moved on from Cook Street and lived in Taruheru, in a two-bedroomed, almost country cottage owned by a dairy farmer down the road. It had, I think, two bedrooms and a room outside; in between was a dirt floor, and Mum had to keep it oiled to keep the dust down. We’re going back to 1943, ‘44, ‘45. At the bottom of where we lived, down at the bottom of the hill, was the Taruheru River.

We always like to tell the story of my eldest brother and I; we’d gone down to have a look at the river, and we were only four and five. We cheekily walked out – it was low tide – to the water’s edge; and we back-pedalled and put our feet in our boot marks so that it looked like we’d just gone into the water. And my Mum came down, and she couldn’t find us but she saw the footprints. The next thing we heard the wailing and the gnashing and the crying, and … we were [chuckle] hiding behind an old willow tree. When we jumped out we weren’t very popular. [Laughter]

But then we lived there until 1951 when I went to Mangapapa School from day one until Standard Three. Granddad passed away and Mum and Dad bought the ten-acre farm. But in those days, Granddad being a very staunch Englishman, still carried on the tradition of the farm going to the eldest son; but he’d come back from the war, my Uncle Henry, and had already built a new house, etcetera, in Oates Street in Gisborne. His son is still living in it today. So Mum and Dad – they had no money, but Dad’s brother offered them £500 as the deposit for the house. They paid £2,500 for it, and the ten acres.

There was a condition to the fact that £500 that Dad had borrowed off his brother. Another brother of Dad’s had come out on the third draft to Flock House, and he got injured when he was fifteen, kicked by a horse. And he thought he was fine but the injury started to calcify his bones and within a matter of two or three years his body was just one slab of calcium. But Flock House were very, very good with him; they sent him back to England for operations prior to the Second World War, and he was actually in one of the hospitals in London that were being bombed. But he could only move his arms, open his jaw … arms, jaw, and … he couldn’t turn his head even. Now the condition of the £500 was that we had to take him as a lodger. And I remember the day that he arrived in a big Buick … a 1936 Buick … and he was laying fully stretched out in the car. And we were all out in the country – country bumpkins as it were – looking at this guy that was arriving and how they pulled him out of the car; and we’d had a room all set for him. But he got around by walking on trestles. He had his arms on either side of the trestle, he’d move his body forward on the swing, and then he’d move the trestles forward and zigzagged like that, and that’s how he got around.

A trestle like a trestle table?

No, no. And the trestles actually were made on his return back from England in 1947 by one of the ship’s carpenters, and they today are still with my brother in Wellington.

So no walking frames in those days?

No walking frames; but they were ideal for what he had. He was very fortunate in many ways, because he came to live with us in ‘52; he died in 1973 I think. But it was our job, from the eldest right through – and Mum and Dad had eight children – well, seven children that survived. Mum had four under five from 1940 to 1945, and then she had [there was] a big lapse and had another four from the 1950s – same Dad. It’s just the way it was in those days.

Uncle Ted came to live with us and it was our job to get him up in the morning and put him to bed and do anything that he wanted. To get him out of bed … he’s laying prostrate on the bed … we would then grab his feet and pull them round to the edge of the bed, and then we would pull him to the edge of the bed and pull his body over so that was almost balanced. We’d put a trestle on either side, flip his body up, and away he went.

So he could still eat?

He could roll his eyes, but he couldn’t move his head; he could open his jaw and move his arms. But he had a great disposition; I think it taught us compassion, because we all did it. As we got older and one left home, the next one would move in and sort of be the one that was there. And I can remember taking him out in a friend’s 1947 … probably the first ute that was ever around. It was a Vauxhall converted into a ute, and I put a mattress on the back of the thing there and we did exactly what we did – pushed him back, pulled him into the thing; we drove him into town, pulled the mattress out and put his trestles down, and we walked down. And that was totally uninhibited. [Chuckles]

So where did you got to high school after being at Mangapapa Primary?

No, no, I was at Mangapapa Primary and then we went to Makauri School for three years. Makauri School had the best influence over me; the teacher that was there, his name was Alfred Bullen, and he was a wonderful teacher. I think he ended up being there probably for forty-something years. It was the country school closest to Gisborne. But he taught us things that just, you know, made life so much easier. We had to go for our manual training once a week to Te Karaka, which was twenty miles away, and this is where the story really starts. On the way to Te Karaka, just prior to crossing over the Waipoua River but looking over the river, on your left was the old Waipaoa Freezing Works.

Now, my granddad, James Glenham Barnes, was the carpenter for W D Lysnar who was the MP for Gisborne at that stage; I think about 1914 they were trying to get a freezing works operating and it had to be built. And my grandfather had a lot of concrete experience and W D Lysnar used him, and he was one of the foreman and the construction engineer for the building. But it sat there empty; unfortunately it only lasted, I think in production, probably for nine years and then it went broke because of one of the other firms. And that’s when Nelson Brothers who owned Tomoana Freezing Works in Hastings came in and bought it. Now that Works sat there from 1929, and it’s still there today. Once a week we’d go back and I’d look at this looking over [the river] and just thinking of my grandfather etcetera, and how it could be utilised; but it’s just remained a memory in my mind.

Thinking back, with Mr Bullen one of the fortunate things that I was lucky about, and I didn’t know this at the time – I was the teacher’s wife’s pet. [Chuckle] She lived in the country schoolhouse; she didn’t work. But I always the one that always had to take the messages. It never ever clicked to me until I was told some years later. But he was what I call a man of wisdom as well; his teaching ability was so good; once every day after two o’clock playtime, we had to write a diary and he would give us a topic – two sentences, a verb, an adjective and a noun, and he would then mark them, etcetera. The easiest one to do was how he taught us the weather; we’d go out and he’d [??] the weather, and then we could go in and write the weather – the clouds, the cumulus, the nimbus, the way the winds were going, etcetera, etcetera, and that’s how we learnt the structure of the clouds.

Going back to his wisdom, on a Friday afternoon the girls used to do sewing, the boys had to do gardening. And we were doing the gardening around the swimming pool. The power pole that went into the school was planted in the grounds of where the swimming pool was, but it had started to loosen the soil around it and was very loose. And silly me, I grabbed hold of it and I shook it, and I could see that, ‘Jeepers, this is loose’, so I gave it another big shake. Next thing, the wires are starting to swing like this and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, I’m in trouble here.’ And they met and there was a big spark, a big flash; the school went into darkness and I thought I was for the high jump. [Chuckle] And nothing happened … nothing happened. And I was prepared to take whatever, but no one was called out. The school had to all go home, girls had to go home. But twenty years later when he retired he went up to my mum and told her the story, and this is where I say, “A man of wisdom.” He simply turned around and said to my mum, “He saw it all, but”, he said, “my reaction afterwards was enough punishment.” [Laughter] So that was Mr Bullen, he was a great old guy.

I think children who go to country schools always get up to some sort of mischief … [Chuckle]

Course you do, course you do. But he controlled everything. If you went to school and your road was that way, there was no way that you were going to go home the other way. He had everybody totally in control. But that was the way it was … it was good.

Did you go to high school?

Yes, but prior to that though, while we were at high school, I was helping the neighbours milk cows, and as brothers we took it in turns to do milking of probably about … a herd of sixty, I think they were … Bill [?], who was one of the rangatira of the local Maori there.

Yes, I went to high school, Boys’ High, and I took the agricultural class; I wanted to be a farmer. And then two and a half years into high school I remember coming home and Mum and Dad saying, “Look, do you want to leave school?” And I said, “Yes.” We’ve just been approached by a guy and he’s broken his leg in eight places, but he needs someone to milk the cows.” And there was only a small herd, and that was a guy by the name of Eric Hart. And so I left school, and I had a wee bit of farming practice and it wasn’t as though it was difficult [?] to get in – it was only a small herd. And that was my first experience with farming as a career. I worked for him for five years. In the off season … his best mate, Les Jakes, was one of the major agricultural contractors in Gisborne, and he used to maize pick and crib. I don’t know if you understand cribbing of maize these days?


Today people would just not believe what we had to do. The maize was picked by machine, elevated into these cribs that were made of poles with netting, and up to about eight, ten feet high. And you had to fill them, and as you were filling you had to make sure all the corners were full and then move the elevator over so far, so far, so far. We picked a thousand acres each year, three of us, over a ten-week period. And I have to say they were the best working days of my life because it was absolute fun meeting the farmers and raiding the orchards, but it was just unreal – quite unreal.

So what did they use the maize for? Was it sold?

Well the farmers … we never had maize dryers in those days, and we’re going back into the 1950s, 1956. Maize wasn’t dried at all, it was all cribbed; that’s how [why] you had to crib it. So the maize wasn’t ready to be processed until September, and most farmers had a contract with poultry growers or firms that would take the maize off them. And the shellers would then come in and shell the maize. And that on its own was wasn’t an easy job. The machine would back into the cribs, and each six feet there was a door of [to] the crib. Some of these cribs could be a hundred feet long. And there’d be an opening there and you’d then put the machine there, then you’d lift the thing up so that the maize would glide out, then you had to rake it; then you’d have to get in and shovel it. And I remember, I think it was the second or third year of doing it, I got to know the guys very, very well. They were all Maori boys etcetera, and my boss wasn’t there so I helped them in the crib, and the idea was last man standing was the champion. And I can remember each one of them just dropping out and dropping out and I was the last man standing. The boss came up to me and offered me a lot more money than I was earning; and I told my boss at the time, and he wouldn’t let me near them again. [Laughter]

So the maize was used for animal food?

No, for poultry food. Oh, well … what people don’t realise, when you’re eating Kornies, you’re only eating the outer layer of the grain. The inner layer which has all of the energy is virtually siphoned off, and it goes into hominy meal as a pig food. All you’re eating is that outer shell like the skin of an apple. But it’s treated to make it look like that.

But going back again, at the same time as we were doing this in my first year of working there, we grew sweetcorn, maize and peas; three hundred acres plus the dairy, and I managed it. There was only probably thirty-five cows, and then we did the agriculture work. And he’d planted a crop of fodder beet – I didn’t even know what fodder beet was, but I could see that it was doing well. And then he asked me to go down and weed it by hand with a hoe, but he didn’t show me how to weed the stuff. [Chuckle] I went down with a hoe and I pulled the soil away from the plant, pushed the hoe up to the plant, pulled the soil back and went down one side and then went down the other, and he had a perfectly weed free … but a plant that was looking pretty sick. But between each row, and each row was three foot, I had to thin as well because in those days you didn’t have the [?] that they’ve got today and you had to hand thin at about eight inches per plant. We were in our biggest drought Gisborne had had for many, many moons; we were cutting willows down to feed the cows etcetera. The crop ended up like a potato row in the centre and the peak was down the bottom, and I believe every time it rained the water went down there. He had the best crop that he’d ever grown.

So you were taking the soil away from the bulb?

Yeah, but … yeah, only very small. And then …

So what did they do? They cut the tops off to feed or whatever?

No, no, no … oh, no, no, no, not at all. The plant was grown, then [a] beautiful crop; had a lovely crop. And because it was going to be used as a supplement over the winter we had to pull it and store it. It was put into a dray – a horse dray is what I used with a tractor – and you’d fill it up [with] as many as you could get and you’d go into the hedge and you would tip it and it would stay there for six months. It would shrivel, but the value of it was still there because it was condensing itself. And that was the beet, and it left such a huge impression on me; and when I worked out the fact of what you were growing proportionate to what you’d get out of the grass, the actual return of sustainable product was much more than grass. But you couldn’t eat the leaf. You had to be very careful because it’s high in oxalic acid and that could kill the cows. But it left a huge impression on my mind.

Now simultaneous to all of this taking place we also grew sweetcorn, and when the machines went through to harvest the corn, as they do today the stalk is still left in the ground. It surely must have a food value attached if you ensiled it, and it hadn’t been ensiled – not in Gisborne anyway, or even down here. So I approached Dad, and I was able to put a little pit at home and I was given a paddock that I could take for nothing, and I was able to get the machinery to harvest it. I harvested the silage, and the object of the whole thing was to fatten store cattle on it using the fodder beet as the supplement, and the corn stover, which was there for nothing – I mean, there was [were] hundreds and hundreds of acres. So I made the silage and I was very successful at that.

I was still working for this guy for another three years after that – I think this is important to mention as well – I got interested in electronics to a degree, which was whatever was there. And building a Leyden jar caught my eye; and you probably don’t know what a Leyden jar is …


… but if you go to the Faraday Museum I think there’s one over there. But the Leyden jar is a very simple construction of a glass jar, lined with … and I had to line this with tinfoil taken off cigarette packets in the day. You remember how the cigarettes were in the day? I had to line it, glue it to the outside and glue it to the inside, and the jar’s about probably two quarts, three quarts? And I had to make a wooden cork to put on the top, drill a hole through the centre, drop a copper wire down but make sure it was held there on the top with a bit of a knob; sit it in the centre and it would be floating there. Well the next thing I had to do was make a kite and run a length of string out and then attach a thin wire to it with a flash that would capture the lightning bolt. My mum caught up [with] what I was up to, and I never saw it again. [Chuckles] Everyone that had done it got killed. [Laughter] Now that’s called a Leyden jar – I was only about eleven then, so I’ll cross that one off. [Chuckle]

Going back, Mum’s two brothers and sister and their spouses all came out every Sunday afternoon … it was just a tradition, and everyone would sit round the table; no alcohol, nothing of that nature; it was just tossing everything in and there’d be huge arguments on the political side etcetera. And everybody that was there in the family just remember[s] those political arguments.

Now going back to the maize cobs, I’d read an article in I think, 1959 or 1960 – I’ve never been able to trace it back to get it definite – where Khrushchev during the Cold War – I’m not sure if it had eased off or it was prior to what happened on the Bay of Pigs in Cuba – but he wanted to go to America. And the first stop he wanted to go to was New York, Coney Island, to where they were fattening cattle. And the recipe of the fattening of the cattle was the grinding down of the corn cobs and combining it with urea. The urea was the protein, the corn cobs were the bulk.

Was it corn or was it maize?

No, no, the cob … you know the cob? The cob that the maize stands up in? Oh yeah, maize … maize, sorry, yeah. When you’d taken the grain off there’d be massive big bonfire things like this; we had to set fire to them. They burnt like old wood.

The husk?

No, no, the husk came off during the process of harvesting. That came off on what they call the husking rollers. No, no, it was the corn cob, the cob itself. And that’s when I thought, ‘Jeepers – if you can do that, we should be utilising our corn cobs with urea.’ But I didn’t quite understand what urea was and I don’t think anyone did in those early years; and Fonterra have just stopped the farmers from using it as a supplement, did you know that? You knew that it was being used as a direct supplement, the same stuff that you put on the ground? Yes, incredible! But I never got a reply.

So that was all right; I was a member of the Young Farmers’ Club and I could see the possibility of them using the old freezing works as a beef fattening unit and using the silage – the sweetcorn stalk that’s left – growing the fodder beet to give you a total supplement of feed that was easy to do as it were, using the old works as a holding pen for fattening.

And I was still putting all this together and I then went to Ruakura [Research Centre] for twelve months. I’d left my boss and I’d gone to another farm, but the beef prices had fallen and they were going to go into intensive beef but he had to cut it out. He then wanted me to go to Massey University through the back door; his father-in-law was a professor. But that wasn’t on, so I went to Ruakura for twelve months. But at the same time I took a sample of the silage just to convince myself of its value and it came back as a very, very good supplement and I still have that documentation with the stamp on it, today … it’s somewhere around. So that’s fine.

We had another guy that was an American coming up – just one of the Young Farmers’ schemes that they had. An American luckily got the draw, came to New Zealand and I knew he was in New Zealand; he came from the maize growing area in Iowa. And I wanted to contact him, so I knew he was in Auckland and he was taking off, so I hopped on a plane and flew to Auckland without knowing how to find him, but I knew he was in Silverdale somewhere. Made contact with him – he was so pleased to see me. He came back down; he was flying out the next day, he had a conference final at ten-thirty, and he said, “I can give you the rest of the day.” So eventually I found him, we were in Queen Street, [and] he tried to convince me to go into pigs. He said, “Beef would be your secondary; pigs would be the stable one”, within an area of what we had. But he said, “The book that you need is the one that’s used by all the major universities in America and it’s called ‘Feeds and Feeding’ [by] Morrison.” And it has every item of foodstuff there that could be utilised into stock food … it was incredible. So he said, “We’ll try and get it”, so we went to all the bookshops; we couldn’t get it. Then we went to Technical Books in Queen Street and there it was, upstairs. And that was my Bible over the next few years. But just to emphasise the importance of that book, about eight years ago I was invited to a fiftieth wedding, and one of the guests was a soil scientist by the name of Peter Lester. He’d done his studies in America and he was telling me this at the table. I said to him, “Did you ever come across a book called ‘Feeds and Feeding’ by Morrison?” “Yes”, he said, “that was what we used for everything, and when I came back to New Zealand I had a suitcase full for my students.” [Chuckle] So that was only eight years ago. I couldn’t master what we call the ‘nitrogen-free extract’; I had no one to work it through. But apart from that it was very …

So you were pretty innovative for that time in what you were trying to ..?

I went outside the square.

Were you still a single guy at that stage?

Oh yes, I was still single.

Yes, so you could go off and do those things, you didn’t have to worry about a family?

Oh no, no … I courted my wife for seven and a half years; totally platonic. She was just a lovely, lovely lady. We haven’t got very far, have we? [Chuckle]

So that was all right, I made the silage and the fodder beet; I’d grown the fodder beet, etcetera. And then I’d gone to Whatawhata, to the Research Station. I was there for twelve months. I was very fortunate when I got there that the superintendent that was there when I first approached them – ‘cause it was very hard to get in there – he’d been offered a job at the World Bank in Uruguay for three years, and the guy that he was very close to was coming back from getting his doctorate from Cambridge University … [a] guy called Ian Inksler … and he would only go to Uruguay if Ian could take his job at Whatawhata. And that’s what happened. But that’s when I got very close to Ian, and he was the one that helped me go through all these other bits and pieces, etcetera. But that type of life wasn’t for me because it’s regimented to a degree where it’s so easy, you know … I mean it was ridiculous. We were housed in lovely accommodation, we had the cooks doing all the meals during the week, but on the weekend you had to cook for yourself. But you had to put your hours down for how long it took you to cook … and get paid for it. [Chuckles] It was crazy.

I mean you know, farms after that sort of started trying that, didn’t they?

No, no, never happened.

It didn’t happen?

No, it didn’t happen, no, no. Good question though, and I’ll come back on to that again as years’ve gone on – if I remember. [Chuckle] I could interrupt that now at this point, with the question you’ve asked.

Going back to my brother who was a sharemilker, and then he bought his own farm down at Rangitata. I kept at him to grow fodder beet for the cows during the off season. This is twenty, twenty-five years ago, and if he wanted a hand I’d be down there to help him. The way they were farming then, all the cows were moved off the farm and they went to graziers – it was so easy, strip the farm of all the stock, put the grazers out, pay the graziers. And it was huge money they were paying, but the price of the return of the milk was so great that it was an easier lifestyle. But then, I think around about, 2012, 2013, when the price plummeted, they couldn’t afford to pay the graziers. So I tried to get my brother again to grow fodder beet, and eventually he did. And from not having any fodder beet grown in the South Island, today there’s about forty-eight thousand hectares. Now it’s a supplement that’s used – I know it upsets a lot of the greenies – but it’s a food thing there; what you get back is far greater than anything else you can grow, and you can store it. [Noise on recording is wind] I’ve digressed a wee bit on that one, so every year he says to me now – and he’s growing his fodder beet for five, six years – “You saved me $180,000 each year.” [Chuckle]

Anyway, going back to the freezing works … we still haven’t dealt with the freezing works, have we​? So I went to the Works, and I went up to see the guys that were leasing it – it was in the same people’s hands since 1929 – put a proposition to them. At the same time the local fertiliser company, Fieldair, were using the second floor as aircraft storage from the Second World War. The whole area was covered; a lot of the parts were still in their shellac and their paper. We were able to do a deal with Fieldair, and they moved into what we call the administration building and we took over the three floors. We were going to set it up as a piggery, and we started.

And I got married at this stage. I had no job when I came back from my honeymoon. We’d built a new home … bought five acres, built a new home on it … and I was sharemilking two miles away, so my mortgage was being paid by the farm owner ‘cause they had no house on the farm. And at the same time I was doing that I wanted to set up the piggery as well, so I went up and was able to come to an arrangement. The guy that was up there at that stage was growing mushrooms as a living, and he was doing very well out of it. Then I stopped the sharemilking and we started setting up the piggery. Now our first pig pens were Tiger Moth wings. We used them as the …

As the pens for the pigs?


Well, where did you get those wings from?

Fieldair left them behind on the second floor [chuckles] along with two reconditioned Tiger Moth motors that had lost the logs so they couldn’t do anything with them. Anyway, I’ll move on.

How long did you have the piggery?

I can’t remember, but a lot of things happened over that period.

So the pigs were sold … what, to the local butchers or something?

Yes, we sold the pigs to the local butchers. We were one of the biggest producers. If we’d’ve kept that going as [with] the potential that it had, we’d have been the biggest piggery in New Zealand. Six hundred sows … we could’ve run six hundred.

So they were all inside, they weren’t outside?

Everything was inside; all the drainage was there. So away we go, we set up this piggery. Simultaneous to that, Gold Top Brewery, the old brewery in Gisborne, does that ring a bell with you?

Not that name …

Gold Top, D J Barry’s Gold Top – that’s where my dad worked for fourteen years. It closed, and they just wanted everything removed and I was able to go through and we bought a lot of pumps and stuff that saved us thousands of dollars. And we were able to take that out – all done legally – and we set up the piggery. We put in a big Myers bulldozer pump which we got from the brewery; we dropped it down where the 1931 earthquake had been at the Works, and blocked the flow of the water. Well, we dropped the pipe down and it’s running to this day. We set up the piggery. My wife and I put up the finance to set it off, to buying the sows and to moving through, etcetera. And at the same time we had a contract with Wattie’s; we were taking all of the Wattie’s foods, very much like Steiner’s here in Hawke’s Bay used to take Wattie’s food by the truckload and take it out to Meeanee.

Oh, take it out for feed?

Yeah. Well we were in the same boat as that in Gisborne. We only had two trucks but we were able to utilise that food.

And then we needed to automate it, and unfortunately for me I had a bad accident and lost an eye, so I was out of commission for a wee while. I was also delegate for the Pig Council as well, and Poverty Bay had a great field advisory officer on pigs; he was brilliant. Steve Reece, he was just magic, and he set up an awful lot of piggeries.

But at the same time, another guy, Jock Booth, who was an engineer in Taupo, had set up a piggery off Spa Road, and he’d done it in conjunction with the owner of the Spa Hotel, Jim Birnie. They’d set it all up and they were going for some years, and it was all automated; you just had to walk around. And it was heated naturally, and all the food was mixed through a cooker which was then dropped down into the main holding tank. And they pulled whey from Reporoa with two D1000 truck and trailer units. They were big time. But unfortunately they’d built it on a ten year block of Maori land, and the Maori wanted it back to convert into a caravan park, so he had to get out.

There was no one in New Zealand could take the equipment, and we went through and offered a price on it, and took it all back; [to Gisborne]. This is 1972. [We] brought all the equipment through, the boilers … no, we had to get another boiler which we got locally. We managed to get the tanks in and put the tanks on the second floor – everything was in duplicate – to pump the food out, inch pipe.

Then I had a bad accident and I lost an eye, and it sort of put me out of commission for a while. And the guy that I was in partner[ship] with, it just didn’t quite work out as it should’ve. I was going to buy him out and I was going to buy the Works. So again, I approached the local Gisborne Sheep Farmers and I was turned down, so I went to the local MP, [Member of Parliament] Esme Tomlinson, and told her what we had. We were actually doing a service for the community at that stage, and Esme approached the Australasian Managing Director for the whole of Nelsons – Tomoana and all these other things that they had – to see if we couldn’t purchase. She did the groundwork for me, rang me up and said, “Whatever plans you’ve got, fire ahead; it’ll go through in a fortnight.” The price was incidental because we knew that we’d be safe then.

So by that time you must have had a fair few pigs?

Oh yes … oh yes.

I mean, wouldn’t have been just supplying the Gisborne area, it would be national …

Yeah, we were sending them outside as well.

So were they actually killed there and then sent out as carcasses, or sent live?

We could kill in Gisborne and sell them to the local butcher’s shop, although ‘cause we were dealing with Wattie’s, and Wattie’s wanted a big number of hams, we could do it. The local butcher, who had taken over the running of the local abattoir didn’t like that, and he stopped us from killing them; wanted me to kill the pigs in Gisborne. That was a twenty-four-hour session [chuckle] he couldn’t do that. [Chuckle] We jumped up and down. No names mentioned. So everything was getting automated; couple of funny stories – add those in?


Two funny stories. I’d get locked up today for this one – we were having to put a twenty-four-inch culvert through from the main building; we had a cesspit that we’d dug. When we took all the equipment from the brewery, we also had to buy a four-ton, three foot radius with a six foot bed, lathe. We didn’t even have to lift it up. A guy by the name of Peter Holdsworth … Holdsworth’s at Te Karaka, they’re big forestry people … the boy, Peter, was one of the first to get computerisation on [in] farming. He wanted the lathe, but he also had a dragline in those days; so we swapped the lathe for the dragline to dig this huge pool. And I mean, you had to have that, that was aerobic and anaerobic thing to take the effluent away.

This particular day we were putting a twenty-four inch track through and a guy selling American Eagle Insurance comes right up to us; stops his car, jumps out, “Gentlemen, I’ve got just the thing for you”, he says. “Everyone around the area has signed up for this insurance. Got all the neighbourhood …” Should never probably have done it; but we weren’t interested. And he turns to my brother and he said, “Well, are you into it?” And Peter said, “No.” “Well what are you doing?” And we told him but he didn’t believe us, and he was getting quite obnoxious so I said to my brother, “I’m going to give him a three minute fuse.” One minute, fuse; one foot, two foot, three foot – that’s three minutes. And I lit it. And his car’s only six feet away. And I realise I shouldn’t have done that. And [chuckle] so in no uncertain terms we convinced him that if he didn’t get out he was going to be toast. So he puts it in reverse – we started pushing him back, then we had to scarper; and he gets around, goes back fifty metres, does a side turn and goes out; and up it went like this. The last we saw of him he was waving his fist, saying every … [Laughter] Never saw him again. [Chuckle]

One of the other incidents, following through, we had to then put it in the three-phase power. We had the effluent ponds all there, been running for two years, had a big crust on them. The electricians had come out and were doing the job, and one of the guys wanted to go to the loo so he just goes from the corner of the building to the other building, and he just kept walking. He disappeared into the effluent …

Oh no! [Laughter]

And the third one was when we first got married, there was a farming group there; two lots were part of the nudist colony. I mean, it wasn’t our scene to be in the nudist colony, my wife and I, but we still … you know, we communicated etcetera. And then one day he came to me and he said, “Hugh, we’ve lost the area where we’ve got to be and we’re looking for a new area.” I said, “Oh … third floor of the freezing works. It’s open, it’s got thirty-five thousand square feet.” And I should never’ve said it … they came out, they had a look, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, what am I going to tell my wife?’ And the [chuckle] … the smell put them off. [Laughter]

Anyway, we’ll go back to the piggery. Labour got settled, and then we were building up our gilts; we had eighty gilts for the new stock that was coming through. A gilt is a female maiden sow. And they were all probably three or four weeks off farrowing, maybe even closer, and suddenly they started to abort and leptospirosis went through the whole eighty. That was one of the bigger knocks that we had.

But we got over that, and we were then building up. And as I said earlier we were going to buy the works and the locals had turned us down. But the pressure was put on them from the Australasian managing director Roger Golding, and so whatever plans, fire ahead. And I signed an unconditional bill of sale two days later to sell the five acres and the new house, so we had the cash to do what we wanted to do. Two weeks later it went through; we were turned down again. I went back to the guy that was going to buy the house and he wanted the equivalent of today, $55,000, to call the deal off. An uncle of mine came out and wanted me to take the money but – he was prepared to back it but we were too proud then. So we went to Auckland to a big piggery at Hellaby’s. Left the piggery; sold the interest in the piggery. But there’s still more to come.

So you went to a piggery up [in] Auckland?

Went to a piggery in Auckland, Hellaby’s; they were producing forty-five thousand [?] at Paerata.

What was the fascination with pigs?

Well I’d already got to that point and I had the knowledge of it all, but I didn’t really like pigs. My brother-in-law asked me that not so long ago.

It must’ve been easier in those days dealing with it, though …

It was totally different. But when I went to Hellaby’s, they were doing it on the scientific basis as a means of tax evasion [avoidance]. But at the same time growing the mushrooms … I’ll divert briefly, but the guy that I went into partnership [with] was growing mushrooms. And he rings me up one night and he’s as excited as anything; he said, “You’ve got to come out, I’ve got great news for you.” My wife and I went out, and it turns out his godmother had died who was Rose Hellaby, one of the major Hellaby … She was his godmother and had left him an amount of money. It had to go into mushrooms, and if he challenged the will they were going to [??]; and he challenged the will. And I said to Simon, “Use the money to buy what we need for the piggery and we’ll just pay you back, but make it as a mushroom thingummy – I mean, you need a tractor, you need a this and a that, but he didn’t want to and he lost it, which was crazy. So that was all right.

So how long were you in Auckland with your pigs?

I went to Hellaby’s and I was there for twelve months; I didn’t like the attitude of how they treated their staff. I mean I was all right because I had the experience etcetera. And they had this new guy come along; he was doing well, and then one day they decided they didn’t want him so they put him on a bus. And he had nowhere to go. So I saw an ad in the paper and they wanted a sharemilker. [Chuckle]

Where was that?

Karaka. [Chuckle] Just down the road from where the piggery was, so I applied for it. And I had my brother with me at that stage – he was up on holiday, and I was growing a moustache and I thought, ‘I can’t go to an interview with my moustache.’ So I had my electric thingummy there so I took it off, got half-way and the battery went down [chuckle] so I went home; didn’t go to the interview. [Chuckle] Went back the next day; anyway we got the job, and we were then going to be sharemilking town milk in Auckland.

So how long did you do that?

Three years, but there’s a story attached to that as well. The first year we were there was the biggest drought that Auckland had had in seventy years. We’d gone to Karaka, Lewis Road; didn’t know anybody and for the first two or three months I was trying to sort out the way the farm operated, etcetera, etcetera, and [I] could see there was no water table so I moved everything forward, the hay making and silage, etcetera, and was able to get away with it – the only one in the district and I believe I might’ve been the laughing stock, I’m not sure. But at the end of the season we were the only ones that supplied quota without any supplement. The Dairy Board asked me if we’d open the farm up to the local farmers, and I had over three hundred farmers from South Auckland come on the farm. The owners didn’t know; they’d gone to Australia and they were mining for sapphires. They’d given up farming to go mining for sapphires.

So you really had an innovative mind to be able to do what you did – I mean you were …

Oh yeah, just for a bit …

…obviously a leading person in …

There’s more to come too, with the fodder beet, ‘cause that’s only recent. [Chuckles]

And did you have family at that stage?

Oh yes, I had three daughters.

So were they born up there, or born in Gisborne?

Oh no, they were all born in Gisborne. And it was the time of the Harvey Crewe murders. A couple that were living in the farmhouse which we didn’t need – we had a huge, huge homestead house that we were living in but it was owned by restauranteurs in the 1930s – they’d come from Pukekawa, and they reckoned the guy was totally innocent. They knew him and reckoned he was [??] etcetera. And that was interesting, to get that feedback from them.

But the first year we were there we opened the farm up at the invitation of the Dairy Board, and I can still see them coming around and asking me questions and saying, “But he’s got weeds.” And I just turned round and said, “It’s medicinal.” I walked the farm every day, I knew what was going on; it was just the way it was, and we were lucky to get away with it, but I do believe that [on] that particular farm, in the early forties I found out later, one of the fertilisers that they used heavily was called basic slag. Does it ring a bell with you?


It’s a product of manufacturing iron; it’s a low releasing phosphate, but I believe I must’ve got the benefit of that too, because I was doing things that others couldn’t do, and [I] could only put it down to that.

So anyway, we were there for the first year, we did that. The second year we were cruising long, we were going to increase quota. The third year I got a letter saying that they wanted us for another three years and thanks for increasing the quota, etcetera. Then out of the blue, six weeks before, they came back, and they wanted to sell the farm … out of the blue. And the reason for it was that Bjelke Petersen, Premier of Queensland, had changed the mining rights where they were, and they had four weeks to get onto the ground floor of being stabilised and the mining rights for themselves, so they wanted to sell quickly. And we should have bought it, but we didn’t.

Simultaneous to that my wife’s family were running the catering at Tomoana canteen [chuckle] and they offered us …

So that’s where your catering started?

I’d never cooked a meal in my life. [Chuckle] Well in those days you were a farmer – life was so different.

So you had to learn very quickly?

Oh very quickly. [Chuckle] Very quickly. It wasn’t difficult.

Was a bit different though to dealing with, you know, everyday work with animals, wasn’t it?

Both of them were pigs. [Laughter]

I mean, you’d spent all those years you know, farming, and then suddenly you had to change career …

Well yeah. I came down, and I overhead someone say, “He won’t last a year.” I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll fix you.’ [Chuckle] And then of course we had the big fire at Tomoana, and we were in the old building at that stage. The building where the catering was was sort of offsite where the barracks used to be, and the union, the secretary, the president and all those guys, were in the same building as we were, at the back. And we had no problem at all, it was really good.

So you would’ve been catering for, you know, quite a number of people?

At the peak, if everyone came, two thousand.

And doing what, three meals a day, ‘cause people were shift work?

No, the shift work we did meals at night. But once the barracks went it was all takeaway foods, but I had to start at two in the morning and accept it. But we had some funny stories there to tell as well … some of the classics. [Chuckle]

Probably had to learn by your mistakes, did you?

Oh well my aunty and my wife’s mother were there to start with; I just observed. I changed everything pretty soon, and they’d go round and collect the bread, then they’d slice it. You could buy sliced bread for the same price, and I changed everything in that direction, and it wasn’t too hard.

So how long were you doing that?

About nine years … nine or ten years.

Was it from there that you went on to the catering you did here in Havelock?

We went to Splash Planet … we were there, yeah. Then we went to the Havelock Community Centrethe council asked us to go in there. And then I sold that, but unfortunately it didn’t work out, and I was guarantor for several, and I think we lost $200,000. But that’s life; you get on with it … you just get on with it.

Funny story, you’ve got to laugh – these are good stories to tell.

No names.

Oh no, no names. In the afternoon, we had a particular group of eleven which always came over, we knew, twenty past three they were always going to be there. If we had food left over …

Where was that, Splash Planet or Havelock?

No, no, Tomoana. If there was food left over we virtually gave it to them; but if not and they wanted it made up for them we only charged them the basic … we looked after them. And this particular day they came over and they were all laughing. They didn’t see me at the back; they knew that my wife, Norma, was in the front and they saw Norma and didn’t know I was in the back. But, “Oh, Norma, we’ve got something for you”, and they were all laughing their heads off. “Oh, thank you, boys, what have you got?” And they rolled this sheep’s eye down the counter. [Chuckle] And my wife turned round and said, “Oh no, that’s not for me – Hugh, they’ve got something for you, come and have a look.” So I go round the front; and … sheep’s eye. They’re all laughing away. I said, “Oh, thank you very much, boys”, and I grabbed a serviette. And I picked it up and I said, “Look at that”, I said, “right size, right shape, right colour” … whipped out my glass eye …

Oh no!

[Laughter] They just bolted. [Laughter] So yeah, that was Tomoana, there’s lots of things that happened there.

That would be an interesting place to be, though …

Oh, totally, totally. And we treated everyone equally. Everybody was treated the same. You couldn’t make too many friends because it was difficult, but if someone had died … in one case there, a young guy … very good customer … his wife died of an asthma attack with six kids. So we’d go round every night and take food to them; and one night we went around there and there were six adults all drunk on the floor – I never went back. But those kids never forgot us – we saw them years later and they were just … it’s amazing.

So what did you do in those days with leftover food?

Oh, they either took it or we gave it away. Never had anything left for the next day … no, not at all. Right from the beginning when we first went there and I was totally green on everything, I remember the rubbish man would come and take the rubbish, and he came in one day and the rubbish would be on one side and he had blood and bone on the other. And I said, “Gee, that’d go well in the garden.” When I got home there was two big bags in the boot of my car. I said to my wife, I said, “We’re not taking that”, and I took it back; I didn’t take it out of the car. And the next afternoon I waited for him and I said, “Don’t you ever do that to me again.” I said, “Take it out and [??].” That’s how we operated. We were there what … eight, nine years; no contract, a key twenty-four/seven to the whole facility. Two weeks before [we left] the manager, Dave Gusscott, called me over and said, “I think you better sign this for the new contract.” [Chuckles] There was [were] fifteen clauses. [Chuckle] But oh no, we had some good times there; it was good.

But we left that, and one of the guys that was working for me wanted to go into business at Splash Planet – in those days it was Windsor Lodge. And he was a chef from London, and he was good. And I seemed to be the lackey; I was quite happy just to do whatever. And he was a wonderful guy, and he was a charmer … a real charmer. But that was his problem …

It wasn’t a full year, was it?

Oh no, no, no …

No, but work wasn’t for the full year, because Splash Planet was never open …

Oh no, it was always open in those early days. Yeah, before Splash Planet it was always open … always, every weekend. But we did weddings and … yeah, at the big rooms there. But unfortunately, Pom – his name was Pom, and I don’t blame him – he just couldn’t leave the women alone, and you know, you’re doing a function … he’s just not there.

That was your start of being involved with catering?

At Tomoana.

Yeah, I mean catering for functions …

Oh yes, yeah that’s the start.

Which would’ve been a little bit different to what you were doing at Tomoana?

Oh, it was totally different. So I realised, and I said to Pom, I said, “Look, it’s not going to work out.” I was going to buy him out. I said, “Now what I want to do is, when you do an interview etcetera, I want to just be with you and write down notes, and when you’re cooking I want to watch what you’re doing.” I mean if he walked in here now, I’d say, “Keep your hands in your pockets, Pom.” [Chuckle] He didn’t stick to the recipes; everything was different. I said, “It’s got to be the same”, and that’s how I did it.

So his recipes were in his head, and he just did them as he …

[Chuckle] Yeah, that’s right. He nearly got killed over in England when he was a young fellow, jumping on the back of trains. He said he went forty ks [kilometres] at the back of a train, and they were lucky to survive.

So then when you came out here to catering it must’ve been very different because you’d be catering for a different purpose?

Oh yes, we were catering for a totally different … but then we had seventy clubs that we were looking after.

When you were at Splash Planet?

At Splash Planet; we had seventy different groups from Rotary …

People who came in for meals, or ones you provide[d]?

No, the ones that come in for a wedding or something. And they sort of followed us out there. But when we got out to the …

Community Centre?

… for this thingummy there and it wasn’t finished, I could see that it just didn’t look right, so I brought in … oh, what was her name? She was Chef of the Year twice. And if we needed anything special she was going to be the one that would do it. But when she came in the kitchen she just swore, she said, “Oh, not another one.” [Chuckle] We had to change the whole thing; they had to pull walls out. I went and got Gibbs and Paterson [who] came in and restructured the whole thing; pulled out two walls and re-did it.

When you were down here, were you just catering for people onsite? Or did you go out?

We were doing offsite as well; we actually ended up with the Havelock Club, the Heretaunga Club, and we did a lot of catering for the Masonic Lodge. We went everywhere … funerals; I think in the course of the year when we were there or we were doing funerals for [?Regal?], we did over six thousand funerals.

And they still do funerals, don’t they?

Pure do, yes, and they’re very good.

They took over from you?

No, no, no, no, no – there’s been three changes since then. Yeah, I sold it.

So what was the business called when you were there?

Regal Catering.

How long were you there?

Oh … 2004 I finished.

When did you start there?

Oh … 1995 or somewhere there.

When you left there where did you go? Or did you retire?

No, no, no – we’d built a new home in Hart Drive, and I was semi-retired. My son-in-law was farming down opposite Mount Bruce, and he was the farm supervisor there. It was a new dairy conversion that they were doing; they were short of staff etcetera, so I’d go down and give them a hand to do a bit of watering …

So farming never ever got out of your blood, did it?

Oh no. There was a nice story attached, it’s almost unbelievable. So we went down; I left my daughter living here for … don’t know how many years we were down there … and I was going backwards and forwards. Then I was offered a job down there to do herd management of one of the herds. Oh no, I did the waterline, then I did the fencing, and then it was split into two herds [and] I took on one of the herds. And then the owners decided they wanted to go overseas and invest overseas, so they went to China … the English problem; South America … too many guns; went to the [United] States, and they thought they’d buy a farm over there. My son-in-law went over with them and they went right over to Mississippi and Minnesota, I think, and that area there … Georgia … and they decided to buy a farm. And I’m down here on the farm – this is six weeks. And I said to my daughter, “I took on here, and you guys are going to be out of here in six weeks.” And the boss came up and asked me, “Would you guys, Norma and you, go over to the States and help set up a dairy farm?”

So did you?

Yeah! Then he rings me up and said, “I think you need another guy.” And my brother was standing beside me; he’d retired. Engineer, and just what we needed. There was no sitting around the table at all, we just … they did everything. Everything was paid for. Got to America; no briefing or anything, got a wee bit lost; we went to Georgia, and we couldn’t get on the farm. It wasn’t fully paid for, so … took about eight days, I think, ‘til all that was sorted. We were with two of the owners – still waiting for a briefing. And then they get on the farm, and they’re there for about eight days and they turned round and said, “Oh, you guys’ve settled in well here; we’re going home. [Chuckle]

So you had to set it up?

Set it up – we had to start from scratch; we had to ring fence. It was all … do the fencing, then do the waterlines, and then work out where the dairy was going to be etcetera. Then he turned round and he said, “Oh look”, he said, “here’s my Rabobank card – take that.” And my wife wouldn’t wear that one so he had to get his cheque book, and he just kept signing the cheques. That’s what we did. So they went home.

So where were they from? New Zealand?

New Zealand, yeah.

So how many years were you in America?

Oh no, we were only there to set the dairy up, only there for ninety days. Right from the beginning. So I had no visa, shouldn’t’ve been there. [Chuckle]

A green card I think you mean, don’t you?

We had to have the certification of somebody with the Certificate of Operation for running of a dairy farm in conjunction with the Effluent Required Fertiliser, Ballance fertiliser, water etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

And I had to go to the Georgian Farm Bureau, and they told me, “Just go there and you’ll sign a few papers.” When I got there it was two days and there were seventeen lectures, and if you didn’t pass, come back next year. We arrived there, my wife and my brother, and I said to them, “Oh look, you’d better give me my passport.” Then when I opened it up I realised what we’d done – ‘You Shall Not Go to Any School of Learning’, and ‘You Shall Not Work’. I just shut it up, and said, “If I’m not back in half an hour you guys can go.” And I got up there, ‘bout five storeys up, and I was introduced as the guest from New Zealand. [Chuckle]

Exciting …

Oh, it was … it was magic! Absolute magic, yeah. I passed, got my thing through.

So is that farm still going?

Yes, I think so. Yeah. I was going back and [to] do another one, but I ended up with cancer. But that was in Georgia.

So you know, your career has gone from one extreme to the other …

Oh, absolutely. But I haven’t finished even on the thingummy there. If [there’s] anyone in the Bay with the fodder beet I’d go and help them if they wanted to plant a crop of fodder beet … no, I’d talk to them.

You think you’re the expert?

I would turn round and … only an acre or two acres; we’d do it by hand and we’d weed it etcetera. We did one for Tony Ironside who’s well into his eighties, and I put him on that. I knew Tony through the running of the Harriers. But we went into a drought … it was really dry, really really dry. And my brother’d come down to have a look what we were up to as well. So we decided that we would do a rain dance. [Chuckles] And we did this rain dance; I’m on a bag for colon cancer and my brother’s filling me in, and I’m making all these weird noises, and the bag is going up and down like this, on the video later on. And a guy’s coming down on his motorbike, one of Tony’s neighbours, and I recognised him from being at Tomoana. “Hugh”, he said, “I heard a lot of strange noises – has Tony been attacked by a boar?” [Chuckle] So anyway, that’s all right.

When we went to the States – I’ve got to tell this story as well – we went over there and we were very, very well received; they just did not want us to come away. But the guy that we had to bring in to do a lot of contracting for us … Doug Schmidt was his name … and within a matter of about three or four weeks things were starting to dry out and he said to me, “What’s the weather going to do, Hugh?” And I said, “Oh, Don”, [Doug] I said, “next Tuesday the heavens’ll open up, you’ll get all you need.” And you know, it did. So that was all right …

Someone was looking after you …

Oh yeah, but it was a bit scary! Then he laughed, and we laughed etcetera. He said, “Oh, newcomers always do that.” Three or four weeks go [by] again, drought conditions again. Come [He came] back to me … “Hugh”, he said, “you got it right last time – are you going to try it this time?” I said to him, “Yep, no problem, Doug”, I said, “Friday the heavens’ll open up.” Friday – heavens opened up. When it rained you got a huge [?], so he says, “Probably see you on the golf course.”

But that was all right. We went back to say our goodbyes with the people that we’d made contact with etcetera. And the last thing he said to me, “Well Hugh”, he says, “you guys … I don’t know why you guys are going home”, he says, “but anyway, you’re going. What’s the weather going to do?” And I just said to Tony, and I looked him in the eye, and I looked to the east and I looked to the west, turned myself and I looked to the south; and I looked him back in the eye, and I says, “Tony“ – I have no idea why I said this – you’re going to go into big trouble. You’re going to go into the biggest drought you’ve ever experienced.” Came home.

And did it happen?

Five months later I got the New Zealand Dominion; there’s a photo of Georgia farmers praying for rain on the steps of parliament. [Congress] [Laughter]

I’m amazed at how innovative you were to start, you know; and going from your farming and being able to do what you thought you should do, and then moving on into catering, and then going to America.

Oh yeah, that was in 2006 I think – it was that long ago.

So if you go back to pig farming in Gisborne – is it still there? Is someone still running that farm?

I know very well; all that equipment we put in is still there.

And is it being used?


Mind you, you would’ve had pens which they probably wouldn’t’ve liked today.

Oh, exactly. But I mean, that’s another story. There’s a huge story attached to that one. I sold it to my partner who was going to pay me over some years. And he rings up one day, and he’s crying on the phone; his wife had left him. He didn’t know what he was up to, and I might’ve said, “Just buy me a couple of cows and we’ll call the debt … “ but he owed me thousands and thousands. And that was that. So I was sharemilking; came down here. Then … I think was it the first or second year? Big headlines … there was a big drug bust up there.

Is that what it was being used for?

It was being used.

[Chuckle] Well it’d be making some money …

Yeah, but I was called into the trials. I had the evidence that put him away.

Your name still wasn’t on things, obviously?

Oh, well the lease was still in my name. And the cash that they found there, technically speaking, probably … oh, I could’ve put my name to it but I wouldn’t. It was $55,000 in [19]73. [Microphone interference]

So going back to your parents in Gisborne, they stayed there?

Oh, they never moved, they stayed there.

Your dad was a farmer?

No, no, Dad did sharemilking for a while, but he was a labourer. He got called up in the army in 1942, and he was doing his training down in Greytown. He was there for … I don’t know how long, but he was going out on a route march, and he collapsed. And he came right; went on another route march, I believe, and he collapsed again. And he had a sore stomach, and I don’t know what happened there but he went into one of the army surgeons and he [said], “Oh, I think I know what’s wrong with you, you’ve got bowel cancer.” So he opened him up and he had bowel cancer. Twice Mum was sent down to the Greytown Hospital … I think it was Greytown, is it? Where the hospital was there? D’you remember when the Japanese army ..?

Yeah, Featherston …


Just this side of Featherston.

Yeah, that’s right, ‘cause the hospital was right beside that; Mum and Dad were down there at the time, and Mum was called out twice to be with him – he wasn’t to pull through, he was so crook. And Mum always told the story [of when] they were there the second time, they were [he was] convalescing and walking through Featherston; and one of the orderlies that was on duty at the time when Dad was really crook, saw Dad, and he goes as white as a ghost. And he says, “Jesus bloody Christ, Bill Thornton! The last time we saw you we were laying you on the slab!” [Laughter]

So he was very lucky by the sound of things?

Yeah, very lucky.

You said you’ve got three daughters … they were all born and brought up in Gisborne?

All born in Gisborne, yes.

What are they doing now?

Nicola’s asleep at the moment, she’s going to work at Royston [Hospital] shortly. Debbie’s marriage has just broken up unfortunately, but she’s working at Royston as well, in the kitchen; for fourteen years she had Cuccini in Havelock North … Cuccini Cafe; she was there. She put all the kids through school. She had four daughters and a son. And Joanne is working out at Hygge, out at Clifton.

Yes, so they’re all here. That’s really nice … nice support for you.

Oh, it’s unreal. I’ve got three daughters, twelve grandchildren, nineteen greats.

Ooh, wow! [Laughter]

Nineteen greats. And we had a christening – one of them wanted my church, St Columba’s – she wanted the baby to be christened [there], and I think it [chuckle] almost doubled in size, the congregation.

Oh, that’s nice.

It was lovely – that was only ‘bout three weeks ago.

Did you have other interests outside your farming and your catering?

Oh yes, yes … amateur radio. And I dropped it for quite a while; I’m just setting myself up again now. During the big storm one of the wires came out of the rotator that I’ve got; cost me $1100, from Australia, and I re-soldered it but can’t see the finish, and I think I’ve got everything together – can’t see properly. But I’m making another one out the front.

What do you do with that?

Talk round the world, yeah. Yeah, but you’ve got to be licensed for it. I’ve actually been licensed since 1980, but I haven’t been active for a long time. But it was quite funny – I went back to the club last year; all new faces, and I was introduced as ‘Hugh – some of you probably don’t know, some do – he was our treasurer/secretary, 1980.’ [Chuckle]

During the cyclone they were using the … what is it called? The sat … star communication … [Starlink Satellite Internet]

No. Oh no, we have our own … I’ve got a room down the back there full of radios, and the boys were there. But I wasn’t feeling too good there at that stage anyway – I’ve got to be a bit careful.

Were you involved in anything else?

I’ve been president of the Hawke’s Bay Ostomy group for twelve years. And I’d resigned last year and no one’s filled the gap, and we might end up closing, which is very sad.

That happens today, a lot of people don’t want to take over.

No. And I’ve been in it for two conferences, one in 2011 and one in 2021. And we did very well out of them, the last one we had at the Centre [Havelock North Function Centre] and it was magic. And we made over $5,000 both times; we netted $5000 at the end.

So you’ve obviously been retired for a while; do you have other interests or is it all family?

No, no – I’ve done a lot of work up at the cemetery when my wife died four years ago. They made a big error on the day that we were going up to lay her ashes to rest. Nicola went up the day before to check everything out, but they’d put her stone in the wrong place and they’d dug out the wrong [?]. But that didn’t matter; I mean, that was sorted out. My wife would’ve just laughed at that.

I’m going to go right back … who was your wife?

Norma Gail Trowell.

Was she brought up here?

A Gisborne girl. But we met each other … she was fourteen and I was fifteen.

Young love.

Yes – on the skating rink, Gisborne – Alfred Cox Park, and we courted each other for seven and a half years.

So she must’ve been a pretty resilient wife to cope with you with all the different things you were doing …

Yes, she never ever complained … never ever complained.

And particularly as sometimes you were starting new, innovative things that meant that you perhaps didn’t spend as much time together?

Well, we worked together on the farm; we worked together all our lives, and the girls … they just looked at it that it was so unique. We never argued; she was just … you don’t cause an argument, she was just too nice. [Chuckle]

I mean, you know, if we didn’t have people like you who were prepared to work through new things and new ideas, we’d all be at a bit of a standstill, wouldn’t we?

Absolutely. With the farming venture … with the fodder beet itself and knowing the full value of it, and how to move the crop forward to get the best results so that in the dry season here in Hawke’s Bay, where you’ve done the right things … I did an experiment down in Rangitata in the South Island in 2015. My brother was putting in fodder beet, and I got the plants struck at Awapuni Nurseries in Palmerston North – a thousand plants. I didn’t have to pay for the shipping; they delivered to Rangitata ‘cause they were moving stuff down there anyway. And the four of us planted the plants, and at that stage, October 6th, October 7th, the plants were about this big. See, normally you’re sowing the seed. Suddenly we’ve got them that big by mid-January we had I think nearly twenty-eight thousand.

So this fodder beet … is that mainly grown and used by dairy farms?

In New Zealand it is. But its cousin, sugar beet … it’s a cross between sugar beet and mangold.

Some of those though, were used by beef farmers, weren’t they?

Yes, yes, some of the [?] farmers used to grow it, yes.

Cause I was brought up on a farm and the only things I can remember was [were] turnips and swedes.

Both of those are brassicas, but the fodder beet are what we call beta vulgaris. The botanical [name] is beta vulgaris, where the botanical [name] for turnips and swedes and rape and that sort of thing is brassica. Two different families, totally two different types of research. And with the fodder beet you can get a yield of up to thirty-five thousand kilos of dry matter per hectare if you do it properly.

Some of the farmers in New Zealand are still growing it?

In the South Island – forty-five thousand hectares; that’s a huge amount of dairy farming. It’s causing a bit of a kerfuffle with the greenies at the moment because of the high nitrates level, but you don’t fertilise nitrates on fodder beet; they don’t respond to it the same, but they have a big long tap root and it goes right down and can absorb the moisture. We grew, in 2015, this crop and it was very, very successful. And it was ready to harvest if we wanted it by mid-January, which meant that if you’d done that up here and say you’ve got a drought in January, we’ve got that crop there for you. But you have to do it by hand; but then there’s machinery around the world if you did it on a bigger scale, that would absolutely push it forward. So that was the last thing I’ve been up to.

So you’re sort of an expert on it? Well, you’re very knowledgeable about it, put it that way …

Well, it’s coal-face stuff.

But that’s one thing you were prepared to try?

I was lucky enough to be able to do it; I made what we call dibbles … you know what a dibble is? Okay, you buy them, and they’ve got a thingummy, and you push it in the ground. So I made these dibbles to go down, and we had two dibbles in each sett, and we had four of us planting; each one had a nickname. [Chuckle] I was just lucky to be able to do it. My eldest brother who were [was] actually doing a tree planting on that particular day, 6th October 2015, at the Reserve just up here in Havelock [North] where they’ve done all that housing … Palmbrook. As we were walking back, I said, “Well, I’m off to Ashburton [in] a couple of hours – coming down?” And my granddaughter was there as well; “Have you got your ticket, Pop?”, she said. [Chuckle] And by the time we got to the car, his ticket already booked. [Chuckle] Three of us went down and there was [were] four of us planting. It was all over in a matter of three hours.

Going back to your pig farming days, would computers have been an aid to you?

You mean were they there then?

No, no, I know they weren’t there then; but some of the technology we have today, would’ve changed what you did in the past, you know, back then …

Oh, absolutely, yes. Because you’ve got access to so much information.

But I also think you being a country boy, you obviously had time to go and do the things you wanted to do and you were able to do them; and that obviously was the grounding for where you’ve gone since.

I think so. And I think when I left school and you could see the waste of ‘one way’. As I said earlier on with the sweetcorn stover, then with the corn cobs and with Khruschev [??], and if you go back with [to] the harvesting, how we cribbed cobs. When you went through with the machines the stalk has hit what we call the snapping rollers and then it goes up the elevator and then it’s husk. And when that impact of the snapping rollers hitting that stalk, you lose about eight grains, and there’s always a trail of grain on the ground and you’d run the pigs through it to utilise it … well, if you had the pigs. But once they brought in the machinery where it was cut off and then pushed through the machines on the tractor itself, the yield went straight up because that maize was all being gathered.

Didn’t farmers go through their paddocks with their harrows and harrow that in?

No, they would’ve gone through the discs … they would’ve gone through the discs …

So they would’ve been fertilising the field before it was replanted?

Well it still takes a while for it to break down and to become a nutrient kind of thing, and then its planted actually, all the different …

But that must sort of aerate the soil, or you know, loosen the soil up to make it better.

Oh yeah, absolutely. And the way that they do [it] now with the assembly of machinery they’ve got, where they can just go through with a thin strip of say, a hundred and fifty millimetres, and that would be worked out and that’s where the crop goes this time, and then next year it’s over here, and the next year it’s over here, and then it comes back so that you’ve got it spread out on the thing again.

But with the fodder beet the rows were five hundred millimetres apart; the plants were three hundred millimetres apart, so then that’s how we worked it straight through. It was stony soil and we couldn’t get the dibble to go down, we had a probe out there and it was absolutely perfect with the shape. One of my nephews pushed it in and my brother came along … what did we call him? The [?] was the guy that made the hole; the presenter was the one that presented the plant … we had four mates who came through, and it worked out.

With the sharemilking that I did pretty much after we got married, it was very high producing because we were able to get the brewers’ grain from the local brewery – that was fed into the troughs at the front, and that really made the cows’ milk.

So when you were sharemilking was the milk sent to be processed in Gisborne?

The milk from Gisborne was processed in Gisborne; that was tankered. But in the early days when Dad was sharemilking the milk went straight into twelve-gallon cans.

When we were sharemilking in Auckland and we were proxy voters for the owners because they weren’t there, it was quite interesting. I had to represent them on [at] two different AGMs, [Annual General Meetings] and on the second AGM I think it was, we had it in Auckland. Auckland Milkers was the biggest milk company in New Zealand, and there’s this gentleman sitting at the back, very, very quiet. And when it was all over giving the figures and it come [came] to General Business, he stood up and he said, “Look, I’m an accountant; I don’t understand why you’ve presented these figures like they are.” And there was a deathly silence came over the room, and the reporters and anyone else that wasn’t there in proxy or whatever were all asked to leave the room. And then it was explained – our opposition was Sanitarium and they were actually double dipping [chuckle] on a lot of the milk products. Because they were the first ones to bring in yoghurts … dairy yoghurts, you see, and they didn’t want it to be exposed as to how and why … That was an interesting little exercise.

But we had a Field Day, and everyone could go up to Rockfield Road, if you know Auckland at all? That’s in Penrose; that’s where the milk station was. We went there, and we were able to see how everything was processed and different sections of the products that they were making. And one of the ones that caught my eye was the cottage cheese manufacturing, and as it was being processed etcetera and the stuff was shown off, there was a [??] that was going to …

Sort of like whey?

It was a type of whey, and it was going down into the sewer. And [I] couldn’t work it out, so I approached the chemist – they had a chemist there for the day; his name was Rickerby – to see what it was worth, and he came back and gave me a rundown on it; it was worth three thousand food units a day. If I wanted it it was there, and they would put up a silo and then we would have to move it, but they had to get a piggery. And I was organising a piggery where we were going to set up with another guy. And it was then that the owners came back and wanted to sell the farm because they wanted to get in on the ground floor with the thingummy. And ultimately, I believe, that that product that I’d sussed out went to one of the major piggeries, Colwill Piggeries, in South Auckland. It was total waste. I mean, it might be extracted now. But that’s what happened to the pig industry in the late sixties; pig farming was hugely because of the whey byproduct. But then Fonterra were able to eventually extract pretty much everything out of it so that the end product that was left was just straight water.

Do they not use it like, for irrigation? The whey, it’s a liquid; instead of going down the drain they could’ve been using it to irrigate. Or no good for that?

No, no, I think some of the areas were doing that. When I went to Hellaby’s the whey was being pumped from the Paerata Dairy Company up over the hill, down to the piggery. And I think we [they] get something like twenty-five thousand bacon, and then they had other piggeries as well. In the season when they couldn’t cope, they had a huge dugout that was covered over with a polythene ground[?] and they stored that for winter feeding. Hellaby’s had a wonderful system, a daily routine that was very, very efficient; I was quite impressed with it.

So you were telling me initially that you and your wife went overseas to visit family and whatever; did you have holidays, or were you full time on the farms?

No no, we did have holidays away. We … when you say ‘away’ … went to the Bay of Islands twice when we were in Auckland. We took the girls and my niece in 1981 to Disneyland. They were able to work, as it were, for us and we paid them well; and then when they went to cash their money and the exchange rate was the pound [£] from a dollar to eighty, they couldn’t work that out. [Chuckle] But there was [were] wonderful times. And then we came back and we bought a section in Hart Drive, and that’s when we built.

And then we went over again [19]94 on a tourist holiday; then we went back in 2006, or [200]8 or whenever it was.

And you’ve been back to Niue?

Yes, yes, we went to Niue about 2005 …

And so there’s still family over there?

Probably is, but we’re not quite sure; all of them came to New Zealand. The fifteen were all educated except the young one. They spread their wings, you know; I mean we kept in touch. And my brother keeps a genealogy of everybody, and where they all are.

It would’ve been very interesting. Shall we finish this? You’ve done so many different things, and as I say, I’m amazed by your innovation and your ability to make changes; and changed careers from complete opposites …

Yeah. I have to be honest, though – when I went into the piggery with the guy that I was partners with and I took my wife up the first time to meet him, she just did not take to him. She didn’t want me to be part of him …

Anyway, thank you very much for that…

No, it’s fine.

… and we’ll stop there.

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Interviewer:  Jenny Hall

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