Volume 9

Memories of Life as a Technical Trainee at Tairua Forest in 1956

Ian Barton

I grew up on my parents' dairy farm, near Mangatangi in the hills of North East Waikato. Even when at Primary school, I was fascinated by the bush and native plants but, unlike my younger brother, was never very interested in farming. So what to do when I left school? In those days, there was very little advice given to pupils about careers – probably because there was full employment and people had no trouble getting jobs. I think Dad had asked me what I wanted to do when I left school, and he must have formed the opinion that something to do with trees would be a good career choice.

Because there was no such thing as an Intermediate School in the area, I remained at the Mangatangi Primary School, until Form 2, my school days there ending in December 1950 when I was 13. Then my parents had a problem. The nearest High School was at Pukekohe, about 35 Km away. There was a school bus but it only came as far as the State Highway turnoff, 8 km from our house. It was too far to walk, and anyway, it would have taken far too long. There was no way my parents could drive me in the car because Dad had to milk the cows and Mum could not drive. There was nothing for it, I had to go to boarding school. The nearest one was Wesley College, a small Methodist Church school with about 130 pupils at Paerata.

At some stage, when I was in the 7th form, it was settled that a traineeship in the NZ Forest Service would be the way to go. Even though most of the work of that Department was by then involved with planting exotic species, there was still quite a lot of work going on with indigenous forests, and that was probably what attracted me the most. So an application went in, and toward the end of 1955, I was summoned to Wellington for an interview. This necessitated an overnight train trip from Pukekohe to Wellington, returning the same way the following night. Dad decided to come too. Although there were sleepers available, my memory is that we got seats, which with a pillow, allowed you to get some sleep. On arrival, I was interviewed by two senior Forest Service staff -Joe Johnson and T. T. C. Birch. I cannot remember what Joe Johnson’s job was but the senior of them was T. T. C. (Tom) Birch, who was Inspector-in-Charge of the NZFS Development Division. The interview went well, and I was selected for the 1956 Technical Trainee Induction Course.

The author, Ian Barton transmitting the fire weather data from Tairua Forestry HQ in 1956.

Partly as an introduction to forestry and partly to earn money, I had worked at the Maramarua Sawmill during the holidays in my 6th and 7th form years, staying in the mill’s single men’s camp. The mill was not far from home so Dad would drop me off at the beginning of each week and pick me up on Friday. During one of my last stints at the mill, a man from the Forest Service stayed at the mill camp for one night, and I talked with him, telling him that I hoped to join the Forest Service. He was an Englishman, Jim Buchanan, and we met again a year later.

In January 1956, I was introduced to my new career by spending three weeks on an Induction Course at the Forestry Training Centre, located on the Forest Research Institute campus in Rotorua. There were 32 trainees from all over New Zealand on this course. The man in charge was Jim Buchanan, who I had met the year before at the Maramarua Sawmill. He was quite knowledgeable and a good speaker, but easily side-tracked. In his lectures, we soon learnt that if you asked him an interesting question soon after the beginning, he would spend the rest of the hour talking about that. It was an entertaining hour but, of course, right off the subject he was supposed to be covering.

After the induction course, all trainees went to work at a forest for the next year. Then they would be split into two groups: those to go to University and those who were to continue working at different forests and who would ultimately become Forest Rangers. As far as possible, we were sent to forests close to our homes.

The house occupied by the trainees
at Tairua Forestry HQ in 1956.

My first posting at the age of 18 years old was to the Tairua Forest. I cannot remember the exact pay when I started but think it was about £2 - £3 a week. I do remember that the Forest workers at Tairua were paid approximately 5 shillings an hour which was about £10 a week.

Tairua Forest had three forestry gangs, each with a leading hand, containing about 8 men. There were also tractor, grader and truck drivers, mechanical and store staff. So, including salaried staff, there must have been about 40 people working there. The salaried staff all had accommodation on the Forestry HQ site, but most of the workers lived off-site, in Whangamata or somewhere else close to the forest.

Tairua Forest is located on the east side of the Coromandel Peninsula and in 1956, was quite a remote place. Although reasonably close to my home on the farm at Mangatangi, it was quite hard to get to in the 1950’s because the Thames – Hikuai Road across the ranges was not built until 1967.

To get to the Tairua Forestry HQ located a few kilometers north of Whangamata, you caught a NZ Road Services bus to Waihi, and then took the Service Car that ran daily from Waihi to Hikuai and back. This meant an hour on a dusty winding gravel road before reaching the Forest. Here the Trainees lived in the old Nurseryman's house about 5 km north of the Forest Headquarters. Here we fended for ourselves and cooked all of our own meals –just as well my Mum had given me some rudimentary cooking lessons! There were three of us in residence early in 1956; Alan Rockell from Manurewa, who was a Trainee from the same induction course as me, and the Trainee who had already been at Tairua for a year –Barry Brickell. Barry was soon to leave the Forestry and eventually to become a well-known potter. He was a character! He was already doing pottery in an old shed near the house, mainly making beer mugs. And he also made the home-brew beer to go with them. His other passion was trains – later to eventuate in the Driving Creek Railway at his Coromandel pottery.

The Officer-in-Charge's truck outside the Tairua Forest Office in 1956.

To get from our house at the old nursery to the office each day, and out into the forest to work, we Trainees had an old Ford V8 pickup. It should have been retired years before but vehicles were in such short supply at the time that it just had to be kept running. We used to joke that it would do ten miles to the gallon: -of oil! There is no doubt that it did go through a great deal.

The Officer-in-Charge at Tairua in 1956 was Bernie Guthrie, the 2 I/C (second-in-command) was Roy Henderson and the clerk, Hec Frew. I don’t remember many other staff members although one of the Leading Hands was Lemon September, and the mechanic was Wilf Jonikait, whose family was a local one of Russian origin. He was a somewhat eccentric gentleman who had trouble sleeping and could often be seen late at night working in his garden by the light of a ‘Tilly Lamp’.

The Ford V8 pickup somehow slipped off the road at Tairua in 1956. Culprits: Three Trainees: Ian Barton, Alan Rockwell and Dick Bush.

The men were paid every fortnight, and one of Bernie Guthrie’s jobs was to go to Waihi early on payday to pick up the pay from the bank. At this time, Public Service rules stated that officers carrying pay must have a revolver with them; this weapon being carried in the bag with the money. On one occasion, Bernie had returned and given the bag to Hec Frew so he could make up the pay packets. We were sitting having afternoon smoko when Hec came into the room, somewhat agitated.

'Where’s the gun?' he asked Bernie.

The latter, looking somewhat sheepish, replied: 'Oh, it must be on the floor of the truck'.

It transpired that, while coming over the Whiritoa Hill which in those days was a very remote and winding section of the road, Bernie had heard a loud report. Fearing he was about to be attacked, he pulled the revolver out of the bag and prepared for the worst. We later surmised that the likely cause of the bang was the engine of the truck backfiring as it proceeded down the hill.

Given the generally poor state of the roads at the time, it was no wonder that vehicle mishaps occurred. On one occasion, three Trainees; Alan Rockell, Dick Bush (who had replaced Barry when he left) and myself were driving up a narrow road when somehow, we slipped off. We had to call in the bulldozer from HQ to pull us out.

The landrover stuck when Ian Barton was on a soil survey with Charlie Sutherland, Tairua Forest, 1956.

On another occasion, the local Constable had called at the office about some matter and parked his car outside the entrance – several meters behind the place where we parked our vehicles. At about 4 pm, Roy Henderson threw up his hands and said, 'Hell, I was supposed to pick up the grader - driver half an hour ago.' The latter was working some distance out in the forest. Roy jumped into his ute and, reversing at a furious rate, piled straight into the nice shiny police car.

For the first few weeks on the job, we Trainees worked with the forestry gangs on a variety of jobs. This ended for me when the axe I was using to thin a pine block glanced off a tree and went into my foot. This was a good chance for the First Aid man of the gang to try his skills! I was taken through to the doctor in Waihi and had stiches put into the cut on the top of my foot. That meant a few days off while it healed. I had turned 18 during my last year at college which meant I was required to do ten weeks Compulsory Military Training. I was not called up until part-way through 1956, and this occurred just after my accident. I was meant to go by bus with a number of other 18 year olds from the district into Waihi for our medical examination, but could not because of the accident. This put my call-up back until January 1957, and I missed the first few weeks at University as a result.

Trainees working with one of the forestry gangs clearing fire-breaks at Tairua in 1956.

Other jobs I did in my first year at Tairua were learning to do compass and chain surveys of blocks of land which had been newly planted, marking trees for pruning and thinning and setting out pole-lines for tree planting (to ensure the trees were planted in straight lines). Probably the best job I had was driving Charlie Sutherland of the Soil Bureau around in a Land rover. He was at the Forest to do a survey of the soils. As this was done in spring and it was very wet, I spent a lot of time getting stuck, and it says a lot for Charlie that he tolerated this. One good result of this was that I learnt to drive on some terribly muddy tracks.

Probably the highlight of our week was the weekly Friday trip on the night bus from Hikuai to Waihi. We would go into town almost every Friday to do shopping and go to the pictures. Then we returned to the Forest on the same bus, which left Waihi when the pictures finished. As I had got a camera and took lots of photographs, this was the only chance I had to drop films in for developing and pick up anything from the previous week. Other than this weekly trip, we had little to do over the weekend. However there was fishing –never very successful- and going to local dances, birthday parties and football matches, most of which I remember were accompanied by a great deal of alcohol consumption.

Technical Trainee Dick Bush surveying at Tairua 1956.

Next-door to us lived John Wilson who had a small dairy farm. As he was single, and only a little older than us, we had quite a lot to do with him. We had a black cat, called Tom I think, that was quite adventurous. On one occasion, a very incensed John came across to our house threatening to kill our cat. Apparently he had left a large cooked leg of mutton on his table and, according to him, our cat had got into John’s house via the fanlight over the kitchen window and stolen it. It had undoubtedly disappeared but we managed to convince John that a relatively small cat could not have carried a leg of mutton, larger than himself, across the room, up to the top of the window and outside.

On another occasion, John had to go up to Auckland for the weekend, and he asked us to milk his cows and take the cream out to the road to be picked up. The cows were not used to us at all so we had quite a lot of trouble, including catching up with one that had bolted from the shed with the front gate of the bail around her neck. There was also trouble with the diesel motor that drove the milking machines and separator. And then we had to heat water in a wood-fired heater to wash the milking gear. This would be easy when the wood was dry!

Later in the year, I was called to go to Wellington to be interviewed for selection to go to University to get my degree and train as a Forester. I was selected and left Tairua. After finishing my Compulsory Military Training, I was transferred to the Auckland Conservancy Office, where I worked part-time while attending lectures. I did not complete my B.Sc at this time, failing chemistry twice, but did finish it during the 1960’s when I was working as Forester for the Auckland City Council (ACC). In the early 1980’s, I went on to do a Master of Philosophy degree at Waikato University, the subject being the ecology and physiology of Kauri trees.

I left the Forest Service late in 1961, taking the job as Forester in the Hunua Catchment area with the ACC. Later, all Catchment staff transferred to the new Auckland Regional Council, and I stayed with them until 1986. After this, I left to start up as a Forest and Environmental Consultant; gradually retiring from this over the period 2000 to 2007.

In writing this article, I have become aware of the fact that, apart from reports on some archival files, very little has been written about the 85 year history of Tairua Forest. I hope to remedy this by researching some of the archival files and writing further articles.

Ian Barton May 2015.

A map showing the Tairua State Forest and the location of the Tairua Forestry HQ, near Whangamata, Coromandel Peninsula.
Source: 'Coromandel Forest Park' 1979

Tairua Forest HQ, 1956.


  1. 'Coromandel Forest Park', New Zealand Forest Service Information Series no 79, Wellington 1979.
  2. Photographs from the Ian Barton Collection held at The Treasury, Thames.


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