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Bringing home the Bacon

The Bell family’s basic home at their ‘Pacific paradise’ on the Kermadec Islands. PHOTO/WAIRARAPA ARCHIVE

This month celebrates Family History. Gareth Winter from the Wairarapa Archives delves into the fascinating life of Alfred Bacon, a Masterton-raised boy who had a love of Pacific paradises.

During the late 1870s a man with the Dickensian name of Septimus Bacon made his arrival in Masterton from his native England, via Auckland.
He was adventurous and involved in a number of business ventures, often with family members.
But his family life was a little complicated. While living in Auckland he had met and wooed Elizabeth Fogden – who was already married to Henry Fogden. She was swayed by Bacon and left to live with him, in the slab walls of a whare in the Waitakeres, surrounded by kauri.
It was here their son Alfred was born in 1871. His birth was registered under the name of Alfred Bacon Fogden, and his father’s name was entered on the register as Harry Fogden, but there is no doubt who the real father was.
Septimus and Elizabeth shifted to Masterton shortly after Alfred’s birth, along with Elizabeth’s other children. At one stage Septimus owned a planning mill in combination with a step-son and a step-son-in-law, and at another stage owned a mill roughly on the site of the Horseshoe Tavern.
Not the luckiest of people, his mill burnt down as he was in Wellington arranging the fire insurance.
Septimus and Elizabeth were keenly involved in the Freethought Association and local amateur theatre.  It was through the Association that Alfred learnt to play the zither.
He later recorded that he had been taught by “an old German”, undoubtedly Arthur von Keisenberg, who had married a Braggins and lived in Masterton.
The first recorded stage appearance of Alfred Bacon was in a different role however.  In a programme staged in the old Theatre Royal in 1886, “Master Alfred Bacon, the Wairarapa Blondin” was advertised to perform his wonderful wire walking feats, and the audience were won over.
He walked from the dress circle down to the stage, then returned backwards. The paper was impressed with the “little imp”.
His next move was even more dramatic – along with his parents and the Masterton musician Robert c, he joined a group to settle the Kermadec Islands. They envisioned a Pacific paradise, and headed north in 1889 to join the Bell family, who had settled there in the late 1870s.
Ironically for freethinkers, they went to Sunday Island.
The free and easy life the new settlers had envisioned failed to occur and within a year the settlers had to be rescued by the Government steamer Tutanekai. The Bacon family returned to live in northern Wairarapa, where Septimus was interviewed by the Masterton newspaper.
He said the settlers had largely lived on kumera and mutton bird but that some had felt the lack of intoxicating liquors. He was hoping to return and try to settle again. Young Alfred felt the same – the islands had got under his skin.
Septimus never sailed to Sunday Island again – he ended up a newspaper editor in Kohukohu on the Hokianga Harbour – but Alfred never forgot his youth clambering around the lakes and pohutukawas of the Kermadecs, and in 1926, along with Jim Ashworth and Charlie Parker, kissed his wife and sons goodbye and set off to colonise the islands again.
Ashworth had bought 275 acres from the Bells, and Bacon was keen to return, but things rapidly turned against the small party. Rats and cats had invaded the island from a shipwreck, wreaking havoc on the wildlife and destroying young plants and fruit. Then Jim Ashworth contracted tetanus and died.
Alfred Bacon and Charlie Parker returned to New Zealand, and tried to set up another settlers’ association, but in the end it was Alfred Bacon and his friend Bruce Robertson who trekked to Sunday Island to settle and grow oranges.
For a while it went very well. The island provided them with fruit and meat, and they soon had a great vegetable garden under way. For five years they led a quiet fulfilling life, but approach of World War Two changed all that.
Sunday Island, halfway between New Zealand and Tonga, became an important military site, and radio and weather experts were sent up, much to Bacon’s dismay.
The Government took his land, offering to build him a house and employ him in a caretaker role, but he felt the joy of living virtually alone on the island had gone. He packed up and left the island.
He returned to New Zealand, living in a small bach in the Waitakeres, playing the zither he had learned all those years before from the “old German” in Masterton.
His time on the Kermadecs cannot have done him too much harm – he lived to be 99, dying in 1970.

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