Webster, Ian George Interview

I’m interviewing today Ian George Webster on the 2nd of May 2017. Ian is a very good voluntary worker for the Hawke’s Bay Knowledge Bank. And a very knowledgeable man about virtually anything we talk about and I think this is going to be very interesting. Good afternoon Ian. I’m going to leave this over to you to tell us when your grandparents first came; parents; and yourself in your working life.

Right, well my grandparents came from UK. My mother’s family came from Leicestershire. They came to New Zealand in the 1850s, going firstly to mid-Canterbury. And my father’s family came from Kingswinford in Staffordshire and they came here in April 1942 to Nelson. The family – the group that came out to New Zealand, shifted out of Nelson very quickly to Motupipi near Takaka where they mined coal and built ships. To some extent – there are family stories that they were involved in the Wairau Massacre – not true, but they had problems with the local Maori at Motupipi and had their wharf burnt down. The magistrate from Nelson came over, held a court case, fined the Maori chief I think ₤5. The Maori chief was a fairly quite bloke so he paid it. Some time later, as you know, in the Wairau area the surveyors pegs were all pulled out by the local Maori, and to do something about this same Magistrate went over to Wairau, and remembering how well he got on at Motupipi, he tried the same story but didn’t realise that the Maori chief he was talking about was Te Rauparaha, and things went wrong. So that’s our connection with the Wairau Massacre.

I was born in Petone and lived there ’til I was around thirty.

What year was that Ian?

1929 I was born. I went to school in Petone at the local primary school and Hutt Valley Memorial Technical College. Nothing very exciting there. My sports – at that stage I was rowing and cycling. The reason I was rowing was we lived close to the rowing club and my uncle was probably the equivalent of Mahe Drysdale of today. He was a New Zealand sculling champion. So we thought I’d be like him, but never was. I started work – left college when I was sixteen – started work as an electrician in Lower Hutt – worked for that firm for about six years and then left there and worked for New Zealand Electricity Department in Wellington.

Could I ask now … did you have to serve an apprenticeship?

I served an apprenticeship, yes. We were an industrial electrical firm. We did most of the heavy industrial work round the Lower Hutt area, and the flax weaving mills at Foxton. After I left there and went to New Zealand Electricity in Wellington, I went straight into an office job there in the administration of the electrical wiring regulations. I was going to say, a couple of the more interesting jobs I had were … all the reported electrical fires came through me and I had to analyse these and reported electrical accidents.

Now, where do I go from there?

Around about this time I met my future wife at Lower Hutt at a dance. We were married in 1955 in Petone. My wife was Ellen Keddy. She came from Liverpool. We lived in Wellington for around about a year and then I got transferred to the South Electric Power Supply which was part of New Zealand Electricity Department. I was there for a couple of years, and during that period I was involved in putting the first power into Te Anau. Te Anau at that time had a hotel, a flying boat base, a general store and miles and miles of scrub.

Was that about time of the ‘Wanganella‘?

1956, it must have been about then.

They had the workers all staying …

Yeah. Then my first daughter was born in Invercargill in 1957; second daughter was born in Upper Hutt in 1958. At that stage I was on the move from Invercargill to Rotorua. At Rotorua I worked as an electrical engineer with the Tourist Department, which at that stage ran the electricity supply for the Rotorua area. Nothing particularly interesting happened at that area at that time, except we were able do a lot of touring around Rotorua area.

In 1960 I applied for a job with the Napier City Council as an electrical engineer and I came over to Napier and lived on the Marine Parade just close to where the Aquarium is now.

So you did quite a lot of moving around?

Did quite a lot of moving around at that stage.

So how long were you at Te Anau?

At Invercargill only two years.

Okay, and then moved to …

To Rotorua – I was there a couple of years. Then I moved to Napier – I was in Napier for about seven years. My first son was born in Napier.

And what year was that?

That was 1960. We were still living in an old house on the Marine Parade, and in 1961 my first wife died in Napier – died quite suddenly. My children were sort of farmed out for a while with relatives until I finished building a house we had started … built a house in Corbett Place and got a housekeeper in, and got the three children back.

And this is in Napier.

This is in Napier. Around about that stage, the sort of first major job in Napier was putting the fluorescent street lights along Marine Parade. Up until that stage it was all power poles and little … like candles. We undergrounded the length of the Parade and put fluorescent street lights in. There was a lot of criticism of these street lights from the surrounding councils. I know the Mayor of Havelock was quoted in the newspaper as saying that they were so bright that they kept him awake at night. Doubt that was true, but they were bright.

The other major … particular job I did in Napier at that time was to install the floodlight towers at McLean Park. It’d be around 1963. These towers – you probably can see – they were a hundred and twenty feet high and had the big lot of lights on them.

And they’ve been changed haven’t they?

They have been changed. There’s been more lights put in, and the towers have actually been lifted about fifteen-twenty feet to make them higher. The big difference we see from then to now was that we built these towers flat on the ground and then stood them up on hinge because there were … we didn’t have workers who had worked at those sorts of heights. We had problems lifting them up -had to use two cranes and a pulling rig. Nowadays I see when they lifted the towers recently they just walked in with a big crane, lifted them up, carried them around to where they wanted them and that was that.

In November 1963 I married again to Betty Bradshaw who came from Clive … actually I think she came from Cabbage Tree Flat in Waimarama.

In 1964 my daughter Denise was born, and a couple of years later in 1966 I applied for and was appointed as electrical engineer for the Tararua Power Board at Pahiatua. I shifted down there – I was down there for about fourteen years, then shifted to the West Coast Electric Power Board based in Greymouth.

You were pretty well sought after weren’t you?

Well yeah, I chased the jobs.

Were these jobs advertised?

Yes these were advertised. Went to the West Coast. I eventually ended up as the … I was the Engineer Manager of the West Coast Power Board. And I was there doing … we had five hydro power stations among other things. I was there ’til 1989 when I was offered a short term job at Napier City as the City Electrical Engineer, which was good because Napier’s a good place to live, and I didn’t really want to spend the rest of my life on the West Coast. So I came back here for a couple of years as the last City Electrical Engineer for Napier. I suppose the only really interesting thing we did there was, we took out the last power pole in Napier during that period, and became the first Electrical Supply Authority in the country to be completely underground. So that’s something that Napier has. I retired in 1990 and went on an overseas trip to Europe … did Europe, Italy, Greece and back to England.

Your first time?

My first time, yeah. We went to see the Oberammergau Passion Play and generally enjoyed ourselves round Europe. What else did we do?

And then went to Thailand?

Yeah, I went to Thailand later for three or four weeks. Some years later we did about a month in China, which was very interesting.

Did you enjoy that?

I enjoyed China. It’s a place I’d like to go back to. It seemed to have most things you wanted. I can remember in particular, cruising up a river on a boat with an American guy … like about my age, who was a New York Jew. And we were arguing about accents for a couple of hours – eventually decided that neither of us had accents, so there wasn’t a problem.

After that went back in New Zealand for a while and then we went to … my niece’s husband was running the New Zealand Dairy operation in Russia. So – you have relations in a place like that, you visit them. So we went to Russia – went via California. We spent some time up in Sacramento, up near Lake Tahoe, with some friends, and then flew to England, then into Moscow. Spent a few weeks there. We were actually in Moscow at the time that Princess Diana died, so we sort of followed all that in Russia. We went from Moscow to St Petersburg by train, which was a long train journey. Did a bit of touring around in that area. The day we were leaving St Petersburg was the day of Diana’s funeral, and it was also one of the anniversaries of Moscow – I don’t know how many hundreds of years, but that was big thing in Russia at that stage. But I remember standing in the bar of the hotel in St Petersburg and rather that watching the festivities in Moscow, the people in the bar were actually watching the videos of Diana’s funeral and one of the bar people was translating into Russian for them. That was more important than Moscow’s four or five hundredth anniversary.

Where else did we go? We went to Bali. Oh yeah – we went back to England, went up to Lancaster where my Webster family came from – that area.

And what county’s that?

This is in Staffordshire. Staffordshire isn’t it? Yes, Staffordshire. [Lancaster is in Lancashire]

We went to Kingswinford where they came from, and sort of got close to where they were just before they came to New Zealand. Didn’t find any relative but probably there were some there.

Next trip was to Bali via the Kakadu National Park in Australia. We did a week’s camping out there, and then took off to Bali and had some time there. And our last overseas tour was the Top End of Australia – the Darwin side … right up above Broome … which was interesting. And then we came back from Broome and we came back over the Tanami Desert, which is sort of between the coast and the normal main road down to Alice Springs. That was interesting. Half way down the dirt road – it was about twelve hundred miles down through the desert – in the middle of it we spent the night parked on the side of the road in the bus, and sat and watched the thunder and lightening and everything right round the horizon. There was a place where you could buy provisions just off the road, up the side road there, and they took the bus up. And they told us to get out, because if it rained we would have been stuck in there and we’d probably wreck their road on the way out.

Not quite sure what else there is …

Ian there must have been a lot of changes in the electrical side in your lifetime.

There was, yes.

You might just tell us about that from way back. There’s rules and regulations.

Well yeah – I spent …

And the break up of the Electricity Board way back when Brierley came in …

Oh, yeah – well before that I actually spent six years in the section of the New Zealand Electricity Department which administered the Electrical Wiring and Supply Regulations, and was involved in the writing of the 1961 Electrical Wiring Regs. Everything seems to have changed – I don’t recognise the Regulation book now. I still can’t understand why they had to split up the generating and transmission system which was cost efficient by any standards – why they should break it up into three bits and say it was going to be more cost efficient, which seemed to be the watchword in those days. I had seen no real benefit to anybody other than the politicians who got their way. The changes that were made to New Zealand electricity … probably there was some need for changes from a purely commercial idea, but it was the Electrical Supply Authorities and Power Boards where the real change should have happened. There were about sixty scattered around the country, and they varied from extremely efficient to probably not too efficient at all, and that’s where the changes should have been made. It has happened I suppose, naturally. Around the Hawke’s Bay area we see what was the Hawke’s Bay Electric Power Board, now running Napier City … Rotorua. That is the sort of thing that should have been pushed right at the beginning, but wasn’t.

Can you remember who the Minister was at the time of the breakaway that we had? From Rotorua.

Yeah, I’m trying to think who he … I did see it the other night.

I often think of him and think ‘idiot.’

Yeah, yeah – that’s right. No, I can’t think of his name now. Most of my dealings with Ministers was …

We’re all getting on – we’re forgetting these names of course.

Forgetting these names, yeah.

 Anyway, you’ve had a wonderful life and made that your forte in life – the electrical side of things.

Now that you’re working or helping out at the Knowledge Bank, and you seem to be spending many hours here, how are you finding the Knowledge Bank … the way that they do things, such as looking into the past for Hawke’s Bay.

Oh, I think it’s a very good thing. They’re preserving lots of stuff that people have collected, and they’re preserving it in a form where it’s going to be accessible … hopefully accessible to everybody in time. Sometimes when you’re sitting there scanning some of this information into the system, you wonder why you’re doing it and you wonder why anybody ever collected it. But when you look at it overall, it it’s not done, it’s going to be lost.

 It’s very, very interesting. 

It is – very interesting.

 And the number of people that I have interviewed, the history of Hawke’s Bay is amazing … what’s gone on. We had the Maori Wars … from right through.  

That’s right.

 It’s great reading. And we’re lucky also to have Michael Fowler. 

Who’s doing a lot of the … I suppose being an outsider, I can sit back and look at the Napier-Hastings thing and laugh at it, if it wasn’t so serious. I just can’t – even though I have seen this before – the same thing happened with Greymouth and Westport – the Buller area around Westport. People there got very upset if you suggested that they were part of the West Coast. And that seems to be the, seems to be what’s happens here. I mean you don’t tell a Hastings person they’re part of Napier, [chuckle] or the other way round.

Okay, well I think that’s a pretty good background on your life, and I thank you very much. I wanted to ask you how to spell Motupipi.

[Spells] I was over in that area recently at a farm owned by a Webster who is a distant cousin of mine. And he’s built a house on his farm where he can actually sit in on his verandah and look at where the original Webster and the group of people had their wharf and built their boats.

And this is where?

This is in Motupipi.

Which is where?

Near Takaka. Just over the Takaka hill actually. There are books – I have seen the books where they were discussing with the New Zealand – what’s the New Zealand Company man’s name? The bloke that started the New Zealand Company? You know, the criminal bloke that … they’ve got a big building – they’ve got a place in Wellington …


The original New Zealand Company that brought immigrants out here.

It’ll come to you in the middle of the night.

This is in, you know, 1830s … 1840s. I thought it was one of these things we learnt at school.

Well Ian, that was … I thank you very much on behalf of the Hawke’s Bay Knowledge Bank for your talk today, and we wish you well. Keep up the good work at the Knowledge Bank.

I’ll do that.

You are missed when you’re not here.

Oh, that’s nice.

And so I say once more, thank you for making the time.

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Interviewer:  Jim Newbigin


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