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“Russian Jack”: a true gentleman of the road

Marlene Ditchfield tells the tale of a statue in Masterton’s Library Square – and the intrepid, hard-wearing Wairarapa traveller it personifies.

Man, oh man, I was free! Free to have a beer, have a smoke, happy what you can call all the time, you know? They was free days.”

This was a cry Russian Jack was often overheard exclaiming. Freedom is something many yearn for, but few make it their life’s work.

Russian Jack, one of the last swaggers in New Zealand, is personified by a bronze statue in Library Square, south of the Masterton District Library. He was born Barrett Crumen on March 26, 1878, in Latvia – a long way from the Wairarapa roads he wandered for over 50 years. Still with an unquenched wanderlust, but when his old body cried “enough”, he spent his last few years in Greytown Hospital’s Buchanan Ward. He died in 1968, aged 90, and was buried in Greytown Cemetery. He was given a respectful funeral, paid for by the pension he never claimed. Following the creation of the Library Square statue in 1997, the South Wairarapa Rotary Club located his unmarked grave and paid for a headstone to be placed on it.

The Russian Jack statue was a gift to Masterton by the Masterton Licensing Trust [now Masterton Community Trust] to mark its 50th anniversary. It was created by Kenneth Kendall, an acclaimed bronze sculptor, who made his home at Bideford, north Masterton. The selection of Russian Jack for Library Square portrayed a slice of New Zealand’s social history – a colourful bygone era steeped in hard living.

Swaggers were a familiar sight on New Zealand roads in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These “gentlemen of the road”, among them Barney Whiterats and Shiner Slattery in Canterbury and Otago, became legends. While some were in search of freedom and decidedly work-shy, others were looking for employment and, as such, played an important role when farms relied on the travelling workforce to boost numbers at busy times. Russian Jack was of the latter.

When his ship, The Star of Canada, was wrecked off the coast of Gisborne in 1912, Barrett Crumen set off on foot for Wellington. Somewhere in Wairarapa, the magic of the road captured him, and he spent the next 53 years as a swaggie. Retaining a strong Eastern European accent throughout his life, Russian Jack established a regular beat between the Wairarapa, Manawatū and Rangitikei regions. He became a familiar figure on the roadsides, and his bivouacs dotted the countryside. Picking up work, food, and occasional lodgings wherever he could, he was described by the farmers he visited as “extremely honest”, never taking anything without working for it. He turned his hand to anything, but mainly worked as a scrub cutter and shedhand.

Russian Jack travelled equipped with a strong walking stick, a kerosene tin billy, and two huge sugar bags crammed with blankets, towels, clothing, food, and tins of dripping – which he rubbed on his chest and neck against ailments. To keep out the cold, he wore layers of brown paper or newspaper under increasingly patched clothes and even under his hat. He had the odd habit of stuffing his ears with brown paper wads soaked in mutton fat to protect against the cold and to “keep the bugs out”.

His most treasured possession was a pipe, which he would briefly puff on before putting out by ramming a cork into it. He carried two stones, which he would place firmly in the toes of his boots at night to retain their shape. His boots, which he would endlessly repair with nails, cardboard, and tyre rubber, ended up in the Whanganui Regional Museum collection.

It was frostbite in the toes which finally took the old swagger off the road in 1965, when he was admitted to Pahiatua Hospital. He was later transferred to Greytown Hospital, where he spent his final three years.

Russian Jack is remembered with great affection in many Wairarapa people’s memories. He was said to be a man of honour – good-natured and courteous, with bright blue eyes.

His headstone reads:

“O spread thy covering wings around till all our wanderings cease, and at our Father’s loved abode our souls arrive in peace”.

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall is the editor of the Wairarapa Midweek. She has been a journalist for the past 10 years, and has a keen interest in arts, culture, social issues, and community justice.

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