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 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
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
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
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.
was in Napier for the 1931 earthquake – and he
never went back. He also disliked the Manawatu Gorge
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
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
"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
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
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.