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.
The most famous of all the Wairarapa swaggers, is the man everyone came to call Russian Jack. He 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 hometown.