James Cox, Carterton and me

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This blog has been silent too long. I’ve been distracted by various difficulties and diversions. In particular I have made the big move from central Wellington to the Wairarapa township of Carterton. I bought a little house there and have been obsessively home improving. But I’m slowly getting back into writing. Expect some reports-on-work-in-progress blogs soon.

One little research task kept up has been the daily tweets from the diaries of James Cox, for the Ministry of Culture and Heritage WW100 "Life 100 Years Ago" website. (It is not very onerous. I knock them off in one evening a month.) As some of you will know Cox was a Carterton-based casual labourer who kept a remarkable series of diaries, written up every day for over 36 years. Miles Fairburn wrote a fascinating book about him, and a DNZB entry. I have also done a couple of earlier blogs about his life and diary keeping, here, and here.

The diary entries are brief, never revealing much about Cox’s inner thoughts, but providing a rich record of his struggles to make a living, labouring for the better-off. He gardens, chops firewood, clears scrub, does orchard work, breaks rocks for a road gang, and more. He is getting old, however, and such work was tough - “sometimes I feel anxious as to how much longer I will be capable of earning my living” he wrote on his sixty-eighth birthday in 1914, Right now (that is, now, 100 years ago) ill health and frailty meant he is becoming less employable. “I loafed about town all day and am tired of this idleness” is a frequent refrain. Poverty and homelessness were an increasing threat, and life only gets harder for him over the remaining war years.

When I began the Cox tweets as part of my work at the Turnbull it never occurred to me that I might end up in Carterton too. It has been a good move, and thankfully, life for me is a little bit easier than it was for James. His diaries, though, have helped me get to know Carterton, and I sense his presence around the place, especially on Sundays, when James did his regular long walk out past my letterbox to the Waiohine Bridge and back. I’ve got to know and like him as we grow old together. He comes across as a quiet man, content with his own company (he remained single all his life) but liked by those he lived and worked for.

Co and me2

James and me (Rachel Colquhoun). The portrait of Cox remains the only one known, taken in 1921 when he was 75.

Since my move here I’ve spent a little time exploring Cox’s local world. One visit was to the Carterton Historical Society rooms to try and locate the Trocadero boarding house where James lived for many years. They know their local history there and I now know the Trocadero, long demolished, was at the town’s north end, opposite Vinnie’s Opportunity Shop. They had a newspaper clipping photograph of it, too:


Trocadero boarding house, ca 1908 (Carterton Historical Society)

This image is from around the time Cox first moved in, in 1908. Soon afterwards it was taken over by a Mrs McAllister, who took a friendly interest in her long-term boarder. Perhaps she became the nearest thing he had to family in New Zealand.

Next I checked out the Carter Old Men’s Home, out in the rural outskirts, where Carter spent the last seven years of his life. Unlike many other such institutions, which had a harsh reputation, the Carterton home was well endowed and benignly run, and these last years were happier times for Cox. The free food and board and the Old Age Pension gave him a financial security and contentment he had never had before, and he remained fit enough for his regular long walks around the district.

Carter old mens home

THe old men's home today. The owner, Sue Hoskins,  is on the front step. The residents' sleeping quarters were in the wing nearest the camera.

The house has been a private home for many years now and owner, Sue Hoskins, was happy to show me around. It’s a fine home, still with traces of its institutional history. There was the smokers’ lounge, and one for non-smokers (evidently hardly used) on either side of the front door. The east wing contained the sleeping quarters – very spacious dormitories. Sue and her family are in the midst of renovations and pn the rafters she pointed out traces of a near-disastrous fire arising out of a fierce argument between two of the elderly residents (after Cox’s time). One of combatants angrily set fire to his rival’s belongings, and the house very nearly burned down.

Cox is buried in the Greytown Cemetery. It was an unmarked grave so there seemed no point in visiting. But then local historian Adele Pentony-Graham emailed that she was a Cox enthusiast too, and that after reading Miles Fairburn’s book she had commissioned a headstone for Cox. I checked it out. There it was, a lone marker in that stretch of lawn – “James Cox 1846-1925 ‘Itinerant’”. Nicely done Adele.

Cox grave

At the Greytown Cemetery

Find out more: Read the daily entries for Cox on the “Life 100 Years Ago” section of the WW100 website. If you are a twitter user why not sign up for James’ daily tweet. Read more about Cox in Miles Fairburn’s 1995 book Nearly Out of Heart and Hope: The Puzzle of a Colonial Labourer’s Diary, or his DNZB entry, and in my earlier blogs (see links above)

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