Russian Jack

Russian Jack was known all around the lower half of the North Island, and is remembered for the large loads he carried with him

Russian Jack on the road

Many people stopped their cars to have a quick word with the familiar figure of Russian Jack as he walked the roads of Wairarapa.

Russian Jack statue

Kenneth Kendall created this statue of Russian Jack for Library park in Masterton.

Russian Jack

Russian Jack adopts his usual pose for one of the many photographs taken of him as he tramped around the roads of the lower North island.

click images to enlarge

 

RUSSIAN JACK

For well nigh a hundred years swaggers were a common sight on the roads of Wairarapa. Men of all ages, all sizes and nearly all races, walked the dusty roads with all their worldly possessions tied in a swag held over their shoulder, usually balanced with a stick. Originally they were a mobile work force, moving from station to station, hoping to pick up seasonal work. Later they came to be men who were looking for a life of freedom on the road.

The first big swell of men on the roads of New Zealand came in the 1880's when large groups of itinerant labourers walked the country roads, moving from farm to farm. Word quickly spread through the swagger network when a station owner was hiring casual labour, and many men would take up their swag and head for the work.

Sometimes they were disappointed.

Among the famous folk stories of our area is the story of Peter Gray. He was reputed to have been a contractor, awarded a large contract to clear a substantial amount of scrub. He offered good contracts for good workers, and men flocked from miles around to work for Peter Gray, either as wage workers or as sub-contractors. His only stipulation was that they had to buy their goods and tools off him. It is said that all the workers found, when they had finished their work, that they still owed money to Gray for a portion of their goods - that they had worked for nothing. Gray is said to have then declared himself bankrupt, and to have milked the suppliers as well.

The Ballad of Peter Gray became known among all the workers and swaggers of the North Island.

"Oh, leave me not,"the maiden cried,
"To eat my heart in grief away."
"Let me depart"’ the youth replied,
"I must go south to Peter Gray."

The parson said, "My flock, farewell,
I must be going without delay;
And someone else can toll the bell,
I'm going south to Peter Gray."

The 1880's were called the hungry years, and there were many men on the swag. It is recorded that sometimes there would be up to twenty swaggers on any one station. Country etiquette demanded that they be fed, and required that the swaggers, in return, move on in the morning. It was not acceptable to arrive at the next billet before sundown.

Among the mix of men on the road were those who claimed they had once been ennobled, those who had been famous but had fallen on hard times, and those who were yet to make their mark in life.

Those who tramped the roads of Wairarapa included 'Baron' Fred de Lacey, a monocled man of aristocratic bearing who was said to have been commissioned in the cavalry in England, and who is recalled for reciting Shakespeare and Burns.

Henry Lawson, later to become known as Australia's great bush poet, spent time tramping thorough northern Wairarapa. Even more surprisingly Thomas Bracken, journalist and composer of 'God Defend New Zealand', also took up the swag. In the 1890's he travelled the country, trying to sell copies of his poems, and giving badly attended lectures. Arthur Viles, a Masterton newspaper editor, recalled taking up a collection among his staff to allow Bracken to buy a rail ticket to his next stop. He said he had seen "nothing sadder than poor Tom Bracken, weary and footsore, trudging from village to village."

In the mid 1890's thing changed a little. The Liberal Government introduced an old age pension, and some of the older swaggers were able to draw on that. Transport was also easier, and the Benevolent Societies would help those who genuinely could not find work. Although the swaggers were generally well regarded there were those who were not recalled with great affection. Tom Long, the Government's hangman, is said to have taken his swag through Wairarapa in between jobs, and the threat of a visit from Mickey Dalton, another famous Wairarapa swagger, was used to scare children into behaving better.

One of the elderly people interviewed as part of the Wairarapa Archive's Oral History project recalled being frightened of Mickey Dalton, and remembered that when she misbehaved her mother would threaten her with being sent to live with Mickey. Another interviewee recalled that Mickey Dalton instructed him in boxing, although the style was certainly not in keeping with the Queensbury rules. Another lady recalled that the "notorious" Dalton would always sleep outside, "even in frost."

The other, most famous of all the Wairarapa swaggers, the man we came to call Russian Jack, was not in New Zealand during the hungry years or even for the first years of this century. He arrived, rather abruptly, in New Zealand on 23 June, 1912. The man officially known as Barrett Crumen but known to all as "Russian Jack" was born in Latvia on 26 March 1878, in a small village called Alexandra. He later said that he had received a small amount of schooling in his village, before being sent out to work in the forestry camps around his home town.

The life of forestry did not appeal, and at the age of twenty-four he joined the merchant marine and set off to see the world. After ten years of working the oceans of the world he was on the British ship Star of Canada when she was caught in a southerly storm off the coast of Gisborne. She quickly drew water and the crew was rescued from the ship.

It is often said that Crumen then decided to go to Wellington to join another ship. Being short of cash he decided to save money by walking, and just never got out of the habit.

Although a good story, it seems unlikely that it is true. In an interview with Radio New Zealand's Jim Henderson Russian Jack recalled that he spent time on small coastal ships in New Zealand. He then took to working on land, perhaps moving with his swag from job to job. Many old timers interviewed by Jim Henderson for his 'Open Country' programme remembered working with him on the back country stations of Wairarapa. He was remembered as an immensely strong man who worked as a scrubcutter and shed hand at Awhea Station for many years in the period around World War One. He was also recalled for his prodigious appetite. "The cook would carve two helpings from a shoulder of mutton and hand Jack the rest," one workmate recalled.

He was also fond of tobacco. One lady recalled that her father, the Mayor of Masterton Bill Kemp, grew and cured his own tobacco and that Russian Jack always called in to see the civic leader of Masterton when he passed through the town.

As the years moved on so did Russian Jack, predominantly through the roads of Manawatu and Wairarapa, but also exploring much of the North Island. In later life he said he had been everywhere except New Plymouth. He was in Napier for the 1931 earthquake – and he never went back. He also disliked the Manawatu Gorge and always took the Pahiatua Track to move from Wairarapa to Manawatu. He always carried the biggest swag of any of the 'gentlemen of the road.'

He did not confine himself to the countryside. In an interview carried out in the 1960s he recalled with some relish that he had been arrested a dozen times for drunkenness in Wellington. He had once had 10 shillings stolen off him when he was asleep in Auckland, so he never went back to the city. Instead he stayed on the country roads he knew so well, and over the years became an icon to those living in the lower half of the North Island. Many farmers got to know 'Russian Jack' as he walked his beat, and almost without exception, they remember him fondly.

They recall that he was particular about his toilet, and that although he wore old and much-repaired clothing, he was meticulous about cleaning up any whare he was allowed to sleep in. His clothing was lined with layers of newspaper, and he stuffed his ears with brown paper wads soaked in mutton fat to "keep the bugs out" and to keep the cold out. He rubbed dripping onto his chest as a protection against infection.

One lady, who farmed at Taueru, recalled that Russian Jack called on her family about once a year, and was always a welcome guest. One year he arrived at Christmas. Despite her requests he would not take his meal with her family, but was grateful when she made him a plate of Christmas dinner that he ate in the washhouse. Their neighbour also had a present for him. She saved all the cigarette butts from her husband and sons, and when Russian Jack passed through she gave the jar of butts to him. Russian Jack was famous for smoking his pipe, usually in short bursts of a few puffs which he ended by jamming a cork in the bowl.

Although not averse to sleeping in a whare or an outbuilding of some kind, Russian Jack also had a number of bivouacs along the roads he journeyed. These shelters were constructed out of old branches and whatever cladding he could find. He was also known for sleeping in culverts and under bridges.

Many of our interviewees recall that as time moved on Russian Jack's visits became fewer and fewer, and the time between them increased. As the roads became sealed and traffic built up, it became dangerous for the increasingly older man to be on the road. The many country people who had come to know Russian Jack worried about his health.

Originally very tall and strong, Russian Jack seemed to shrink. He became bow-legged and his feet were obviously giving him more and more trouble. One foot seemed to be permanently bent over. In mid 1965 he was admitted to Pahiatua Hospital suffering from frost bitten feet. He was shortly transferred to the Buchanan Ward of Greytown Hospital, where he died on 19 September, 1968.

Somehow the legend of Russian Jack continued past his lifetime. A Taueru man, Bert Ihaka, carved a small statue of the swagger, and he came to represent a time in our history that has passed.

The Masterton Licensing Trust proposal to erect a statue to Russian Jack was not universally approved. Some thought it inappropriate to commemorate swaggers, while others thought Russian Jack, or Barrett Crumen, did not deserve the honour.

There is no doubt, though, that Russian Jack was the last of the real swaggers, and is remembered with great affection in the Wairarapa countryside. He is remembered as a man of honour, one whose "innocence shone through his bright blue eyes"; he is recalled as being good-natured and courteous.

"He was a tailor-made man – only one of his kind ever made."

So why did this Latvian-born sailor leave the sea, and take to the roads of the North Island of New Zealand? In an interview with Jim Henderson in Greytown Hospital Russian Jack, or Barnis Krumen, gave the answer himself.

"Man oh man I vos FREE! Free to have a beer, have a smoke, –happy what you can call all the time, you know. They was free days."

Just who was Russian Jack?

The term "Russian Jack" has been used to describe many different people. The term "Jack" itself, which sometimes simply means "man", was applied to many swaggers. In our research we came across Jack the Bear, Canterbury Jack, Spring-heeled Jack, Dublin Jack, Fistie Jack and Hellfire Jack - and more than one Russian Jack.

Many people said there that had been more than one Russian Jack. One lady said "there were Russian Jacks all over the place. They called most of the swaggers Russian Jack."Another said, "our Russian Jack died on the roadside at Ponatahi." Yet another said that the term was used to describe anyone on the road, probably Russian, who was difficult to understand. There was even a "Russian Jack" who worked the gum fields of Northland.

The term was not confined to New Zealand either.

There was a well-known character of the Australian bush called Russian Jack, and in Anchorage, Alaska, there is even a "Russian Jack Elementary School!"

So who was 'our' Russian Jack?

Firstly, his name was not 'Jack,' and secondly he was not Russian!

Born in 1878 in Latvia, he later said his name was Barrett Crumen, or a variation of that name. Some writers have said that surname "Crumen" could have been derived from his rank in the merchant navy - crewman. Recent research tends to support it being his actual name however. Peter Burins, an Auckland based Latvian migrant, says that Krumen is a Latvian surname, a name meaning literally "little bush." He says that Barrett" is an English name and unlikely to be Russian Jack' s real name. As Russian Jack was also known as Russian Barney he think his name is more likely to be "Barnis", which is pronounced as if it is a French word. Used as a Christian name it means "team leader."

Whoever he was, Russian Jack or Latvian Barnis Krumen, the last of the swaggers will be remembered for a long time.


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  The establishment of the Small Farms Association   Wairarapa's Pioneer balloonists
  The Masterton stockade - Major Smith's Folly   The Maori Peace Statue
  Papawai - the centre of the Maori Parliament   Russian Jack - the last of the swaggers
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  Samuel Oates   Taking a dip
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