Stone Knapping with James Cox, Autumn 1915

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For almost two years now I have been contributing a daily tweet to the WW100 NZ 100years ago website. It draws on a wide range of primary sources to present a twitter view of New Zealand in wartime, 100 years ago. My tweets are from the daily diary entries of Wairarapa casual labourer James Cox. (I do a month's worth one evening every month – it’s not too onerous). You can read more about Cox and his remarkable diaries in an earlier blog here.

James cox

This is the only known photograph of Cox, so I'll be using it in any Cox blogs I do. He was 75 here, photographed at Carterton in 1921. Is this the suit he had made in June 1915 after his stint on the Tupurupuru Road? Photographer unknown. Ref: 1/2-164539-F, Alexander Turnbull Library.

 By now, May 1915, the New Zealanders were entrenched on Gallipoli and the carnage was just starting to be reported in the local papers. As might be expected the WW100 website tweets are now dominated by diarists and letter writers from Gallipoli, and war reports from local newspapers and other sources.

For Cox, though, the war always remained a very distant backdrop. There are passing mentions of military developments in his diaries but his main concern is always about how to find work. That has never been easy. Now he was 68, and labouring work was getting even harder to come by. On his last birthday he wrote “sometimes I feel anxious as to how much longer I will be capable of earning my living.”

This Gallipoli autumn of 1915 was a particularly tough time for Cox. He had been depending on gardening and landscaping work for the better-off of Carterton, but that seemed to be drying up. The only work he could often find was working on the roads – heavy work using special hammers for breaking up (spalling) and further shaping (knapping) rocks as they were spread onto the road surface. In the days before mechanisation such road work was one of the hardest jobs going. At first the work was around Carterton, so he could return to his boarding house in the evenings. The only work available from April, though, was on the Tupurupuru Road out past Gladstone. That meant he had to set up camp and live in a tent for the duration of the job.

Road Workers

Road workers, Waipoua Forest, Northland. [ca 1910]. Photographer unknown. PAColl-6585-56. This is the closest photograph I could find to the rock-breaking road work Cox was doing on the Tupurupuru road

 Other workers came and went and Cox was given the task of organising food supplies. That proved problematic, for the camp was beyond the usual circuit of the Carterton suppliers. “I have all the trouble of keeping the camp in stores and no thanks for it, only growling” he complained. He was worried, too, that he was often paying for supplies himself, and getting IOUs from his fellow labourers.  Could he trust them?

For eleven weeks he slogged it out with his knapping hammer, working six day weeks, with just one visit into Carterton, a tiring half-day walk each way. 

Finally, at the end of May the contract was done. The next morning he got a ride back into Carterton, after which, by Cox’s quiet standards, there was almost a celebration – “We stopped at the Hotel and had three drinks…I changed into a decent suit after dinner I went to see the football match Gladstone v Te Huia, a Maori team and the first I has seen for years.” He was even happier when everyone paid their bills and he ended up with a little more than he had anticipated. He was able to pay out six guineas for a much-needed set of dentures (rather ill-fitting, unfortunately) and another six guineas for a set of new clothes - “they will be alright when I get used to them I think” he wrote after trying them on one Sunday.

Carterton, 1914

The main street of Carterton, 1914. Photographer: Frederick George Radcliffe. 1/2-007094-G, Alexander Turnbull Library

 It was a brief respite. Soon his diaries entries are again all about his stoic efforts to make a living as a manual labourer. There are even harder times yet to come, though, for Cox during these war years.

For all their opaqueness about what he really thought of the world around him Cox’s diaries do provide glimpses into an abstemious life lived very close to the poverty line. Rural casual labourers like him had none of the legislative protections that the Liberals had earlier introduced for urban and unionised workers. His labouring life was a struggle, and became more so as old age crept up on him. It is hardly surprising that his diaries reveal little interest in the war on the other side of the world.

The Life 100 Years Ago Twitter feed, pulls together the different voices of the project into one stream. The excerpts of James Cox’s diary are being posted out from @cox_diary. Add him to your feed to have them delivered to you, or just visit his page to see what he’s been up to lately.


As with my first blog about James Cox, I acknowledge the classic book about Cox and his diary keeping by Miles Fairburn Nearly out of Heart and Hope: The Puzzle of a Colonial Labourer’s Diary, Auckland University Press 1995. This blog would not have been possible without it.  I am starting to develop a slightly different view of Cox though. I will write more about that in a later blog.


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