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Russian Jack was known all around the lower half of the North Island, and is remembered for the large loads he carried. Russian Jack, after his arrival in New Zealand in 1912, was the nickname of Barrett Crumen, a Latvian who walked around the lower North Island for over 50 years.

Russian Jack was known all around the lower half of the North Island, and is remembered for the large loads he carried. Russian Jack, after his arrival in New Zealand in 1912, was the nickname of Barrett Crumen, a Latvian who walked around the lower North Island for over 50 years.

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.

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.

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.

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 remembered working with him on the back country stations of Wairarapa. He was remembered as an immensely strong man who worked as a scrub-cutter 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.

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 statue is a gift to the Masterton community by the Masterton Licensing Trust to mark its 50th anniversary in 1997. The selection of Russian Jack portrays a slice of New Zealand's social history. A colourful bygone era that was steeped in hard living.

The statue is a gift to the Masterton community by the Masterton Licensing Trust to mark its 50th anniversary in 1997.

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. The selection of Russian Jack portrays a slice of New Zealand’s social history. A colourful bygone era that was steeped in hard living

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.”

It’s easy to list the things that would have been missing from Russian Jacks life – he’s said to have only ridden in a car once, he had no family that anyone knew of, probably he never saw a movie. But he would have known those roads, those trees, the slightest differences that come as the seasons change. He’d know the best places to sleep, where to find shelter, how to get a fire going with a few twigs, where each creek and stream could be found. And maybe this is why Russian Jack remains a hero of sorts. It might not be a life you’d envy, but you know that there’s something to it that the rest of us miss, that he was on to something there.

Lady Barker tells her English friends about swaggers in 1870

” The custom of the country demanded that you should ask no questions, but simply tell any travellers who claimed your hospitality where they were to sleep, and send them in large supplies of mutton, flour, and tea.

“On one occasion a party of four swaggers made their appearance when I was alone at our Station just at sundown. No true swagger ever appears earlier, lest he might be politely requested to move on to the next station; whereas if he times his arrival exactly when the shades of night are falling fast, no boss could be hard-hearted enough to point to mist-covered hills and valleys, and desire the wayfarer to go on further.”

Bev Young remembers Russian Jack

“Russian Jack,  takes my mind back to when I was a child and Russian Jack stayed at our house. I was only about 4 and a half and we were living in a settlement called Homewood, on the East Coast of the Wairarapa. Dad was working as a roads labourer and for the rabbiting board. Interesting times for my young parents who’s minds still harked back to the time of the 2nd world war.

“Anyway, we lived in this wee cottage in the middle of no where and my mum tended her 60 Rhode Island Reds and sold the eggs, and made her own butterŠ you know the kind of thing. Russian Jack stayed with us at least twice, perhaps three times. He would never sleep in the house, preferring the outdoors, so my parents made him a bed of hay in a redundant bathtub which awaited installation in vain on the back porch.

He seemed a happy guy and not at all scarey, tho my sister said he smelled bad. I never noticed that. He had very intense eyes and leaned down to talk to us. He seemed to think we should dislike him which, of course, made us like him the more.

“He did odd jobs for my dad, who in turn mended his boots, which were very worn and holed. And he had a curious layer of newspaper on his head and chest which he said kept out the cold, and wads of newspaper stuffed in his ears.To keep out the bugs, he told my horrified mother. He was very deaf, so we all had to shout, but it could just have been the wads!

“When he went off on his travels, my parents would fill his two billy cans, one with milk and the other with eggs, and off he’d go with his billies dangling off his pack.

“We found a wee pile of stones with an arrow of stones pointing to our house. Dad said it was a signal for a sanctuary on the road and that we should leave it alone. My parents liked him because he would milk the cows and stuff, but when another traveller turned up my dad took him in dislike and sent him away. He didn’t want to work, my dad said.

“My parents were travellers themselves, in their way, and shortly after Russian Jacks’ last visit we moved away. But it was a happy place with happy memories, and a large part of what made it memorable was Russian Jack.”

Who was ‘our’ Russian Jack? His name was not ‘Jack,’ and 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.

His memory lives on in NZ with many memorial tributes to him including the divine Martinborough, Pinot Noir, Russian Jack.

Gareth Winter

Photo, courtesy of the Palmerston City Library.

Russian Jack

Barrett Crumen


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