The Chaffeys of Asbestos Cottage

Pioneers aren’t just people who climb mountains and discover waterfalls. Some­times the sheer don’t-give-in grit of living can be just as extraordi­nary. Annie Fox was one who demonstrated this quality. Unusual for her time, she left an abusive husband, took her pride and dignity and trans­planted it “above the bush.”

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Alexander Turnbull Library

For nigh on 40 years a couple inhabited a shack amid remote mountains in north-west Nelson. Well beyond youth when they came, he left in death, she reluctantly.

The man, Henry Chaffey, started probing around the Arthur Range behind Motueka during shearing trips around 1908. Annie Fox fled north from Canter­bury in 1913, to be taken by Chaffey to desperate isolation in the form of a wooden but near Arthur Creek. She left behind two sons and a brutal husband.

After two or three years, the couple moved to Asbestos Cottage on the eastern side of the Peel Range, between the Takaka and Cobb valleys, many miles from other habitation. There they remained. Annie left the mountains only once in the next 39 years, and that for a lonely, unwelcome spell in Nelson hospital where she was treated for colitis. On another occasion, she refused to leave despite a broken leg.

Yet these were not people accustomed to wilderness and isolation; nor were they adventure-seekers. She had come from a poorish city background with five brothers, two sisters and a twice-wid­owed mother. Each of the daughters eventually married twice.

A streak of improbability seemed to linger in all the children. One brother, a professional boxer, was barred for hitting his brother in a pub. Another, gentle, was disembodied by booze. Annie’s elder sister—a woman of tremen­dous presence—took a man “well documented as Wellington’s most extraor­dinary rat catcher” for her second husband. Then there was Annie herself. Remem­bered while a teenager for fastidiousness in dress and for her airs and graces, she was nicknamed “Gentleman Annie” by her family in Timaru. A surprising candidate for montane monasticism.

Chaffey was a very different character. Born in 1868 in Somerset to a comfortably well-off family, he is thought to have emigrated to New Zealand at 17 with a brother to become a farm cadet. Later he became a rural contrac­tor in South Canterbury, where, presumably, he met Annie. He himself was married in 1903 at Welling­ton, but the union broke up after one year under strains of infidelity, prostitution and drink. A divorce was granted in 1908.

What drove Annie and Chaffey to this remotest of hideaways? Perhaps it was fear of vengeance from Annie’s harsh husband. Prominent on the path to Asbestos Cottage was a sign commanding, “Call out for Chaffey,” or a more ex­planatory “Visitors are required to call out to give us warning.” This was no idle request; Chaffey always carried a gun, and both he and Annie could shoot, so all heeded the sign. In later years, though, the tone softened to “Cooee for Chaffey.” They did not like surprises.

Their home in the mountains was a 25ft by 12ft wooden shack. One end was partitioned off to form a private bedroom, and at the other was the massive fireplace. The fire itself sat on a stone hearth three feet above the floor. At an altitude of 2700ft, snow, cold and rain were common companions. All cooking and water heating was carried out on the fire, since electricity never reached the hut. Baking was done in a camp oven—a large pot on legs, with a lid which could be covered with coals to give more even heating.

When the Chaffeys moved into the but about 1914, an array of goat skulls was the principal decoration. Even then the but was 20 years old, a relic of early interest in the nearby asbestos-bearing rocks.

That deposit became a big part of their lives. Years were consumed in trying to stir up commercial interest in the asbestos. Chaffey, largely alone, blasted, picked, sieved and graded at least 50 tons of longer fibres.

But he also spent much time roaming the moun­tains in search of further mineral deposits, and gold. These jaunts could last for two weeks at a time. Chaffey was particularly drawn to the Roaring Lion River area. While he is thought to have paid some bills with gold, there was never enough to make life comfortable.

Annie accompanied Chaffey on day excursions, on one occasion extracting gold from a crevice with a hat pin, but generally remained behind alone. On rare occasions she let others see her crushing loneliness, but for the most part she endured stoically. For the first seven years she saw no other woman, only the odd tramper or musterer running stock into the Cobb Valley from Upper Motueka. Some companionship and communication was provided by a succession of dogs.

Geordie was the first—a renowned catcher of woodhens (weka) and kiwi, but also distin­guished as a dragger of firewood to the woodpile and as a messenger. Annie could tie a note or a forgotten pipe and tobacco around the neck of the faithful dog and bid him, “Go find father, good Geordie,” and he would, even if father was days away. Later Joey and McGrithy performed similar functions, but were also guilty of worrying sheep. Woodhen was a dietary staple, so being able to command the dogs to “Go fetch a woodhen” was akin to a fast-food service.

Particularly frightening hazards that Annie faced alone were persistent attacks by stags on the but during the roar, and earthquakes. Chaffey was away when the great Murchison earthquake of June 17, 1929, struck. A few weeks later he wrote, with characteristic understate­ment, that watching surrounding rock falls “caused an uncomfortable feeling to Mrs Chaffey.” In Asbestos Cottage everything was thrown down from the shelves, and the access track annihilated in numer­ous spots. Frequent, substantial tremblings continued for a year. On July 1, Chaffey wrote, “last night boornings were numerous, some followed by vibrations and tremors lasting for perhaps 30 minutes or more.” Between August 15 and November 5 they recorded 171 shocks, some “pretty bad.”

Around the cottage, Annie planted a garden with flowers, fruit and vegetables—all running the gauntlet of frost and snow, goats, deer, hares, quail and other bush gourmets. Potatoes, peas, beans, carrots, rhubarb, turnips, cucumbers, many berries, lettuce, sprouts, parsley and apples were grown, together with a range of flowers: hollyhocks, geraniums, daffodils, at least. But not everything grew there. When Annie was given an orange in 1941 she stroked it in delight, exclaiming that it was the first she had seen in 28 years!

During the summer, Annie bottled copious amounts of jam—goose­berry, raspberry, blackberry, peach, plum. She used cut-down whisky bottles for jars, and when her shelves were full she stored the jam under the double bed. The Murchison earthquake destroyed 80 pots alone!

Within the but she made things as comfortable as possible. The walls were papered with photos, especially of the royal family, mostly taken from magazines. Deerskin mats civilised the rough wooden floor. She was a keen needlewoman and made all her own clothes. Never was she seen except punctili­ously attired in a floor-length dress of restrained colour, a prim hat, high collar and self-made lace. Deportment was ramrod straight. Her dress styles remained staunchly Victorian to the end.

Visitors were generally (although not invariably) welcomed. A few were told that “Mrs Chaffey is not receiving today.” Tea in china cups was served on a lace-covered tray. Homemade jam and biscuits or bread were also proffered. Butter was infrequent, although at times Annie kept a milking goat and made cheese and butter.

In public, Annie was always a lady, and re­tained her pride and dignity. She was never seen working, discouraged questions of a personal nature and abhorred any form of patronising.

About 1930, the radio came, providing human companionship for Annie during Chaffey’s long absences. She became a devoted listener, especially to the serials, and on more than one occasion Aunt Daisy greeted her over the air. Annie also read light novels and magazines.

These reading materials, plus batteries for the radio, sugar for the jam, fabric for clothes and every other item needed for life that could not be foraged locally was carried in, mainly on Chaffey’s back.

He was trim, lean, always neatly shaved, and very tough. His pack consisted of a voluminous chaff sack with sugar bag shoulder straps. Until his last few years (when he was over 75), a pack of less than 701b was judged not worth carrying, and generally the sack contained 100-125Ibs. On occasions, he was seen trimming his pack by putting in a few river boulders. He regularly carried a case of whisky in with him, consuming more than a little along the way. On at least one occasion he lugged in a five-gallon keg of beer.

The distances he humped these loads were not trivial. Before the Murchison earthquake, the Graham Valley 13 miles away had been his nearest contact point with civilisa­tion. Several times each week a grocer would bring up supplies for the locals, and Chaffey would periodi­cally try to meet him. If he missed out, it seemed no great concern to him to walk another 12 miles down the valley to Motueka to collect mail and supplies.

The earthquake greatly damaged this route out, so thereafter he went to Upper Takaka, 18 miles distant. Leaving at 2 a.m. with food Annie prepared, he’d reach Upper Takaka by 11.00 a.m., and set out on the return by 1.30 to arrive home between midnight and 3 a.m., after 36 miles of mountains, rivers and slippery tracks. “Stubborn as a tank, his hide an inch thick, strongest man I’ve ever seen,” was the descrip­tion of another pioneering packman.

Socks were eschewed for all but his last few years. After crossing a river Chaffey would lie back, feet in the air, to allow water to drain out of his boots. Homeward journeys were made with sacks of flour, whisky, brandy and beer (for Annie), potatoes, mail, books and sugar—lots of sugar. While Annie turned it into jam, Chaffey con­cocted home brew in copious amounts. Although a few commented favour­ably on his brewing efforts, most reports place “Asbes­tos Beer” in a unique class, far below the local Nelson beers which were them­selves described as “sour swede juice” at best. Reluctant visitors invited to imbibe almost invariably attempted to surreptitiously 8 pour the brew out—not 3 always easy under the eye FE of the host. One area alcoholic, renowned for imbibing anything, pre­y ferred sobriety to Chaffey’s beer.

Despite prodigious drinking (although never drunkenness) and his austere, impoverished, very physical existence, Chaffey was well educated, widely read, and, in the course of his prospecting, developed keen interests in birds and botany.

From his alpine hut, he wrote to people all over the world about asbestos, and this led to many corre­spondences, some surprising and much broader than asbestos—for example, with Arthur Mee, producer of a substantial children’s encyclopedia in Britain.

Within New Zealand, he passed social comment or promoted development of the region in erudite, dry correspondence with many including cabinet and prime ministers. Some visited the cottage. Parties of geologists and mining engineers also periodically came to examine the mineral potential of the area. Most splendid was a South African cavalcade replete with fire equipment and unimaginable delica­cies. Their own cook preceded the party to ensure an adequate stand­ard of comfort. Chaffey enjoyed the company afforded by these visitors and often acted as the old local expert.

From 1923, Chaffey and Annie made 9 a.m. daily rainfall readings for the Meteorological Service, Wellington, continuing unbroken for 28 and a half years. The Met Office supplied Chaffey with some volumes on physics, and he was also keen on philoso­phy.

When the Cobb dam and power station were built in the late 1930s (and ex­tended in the ’40s and ’50s), the steadfastness of the Chaffey observations was pivotal, and was acknowledged on a small bronze plaque on the powerhouse. Average rainfall proved to be 2.5m per annum.

Annie mailed off presents to friends and relations, but their arrival was not always welcomed. Woodhen oil, wild pork, live (when despatched) giant snails, a kiwi’s head and feet—such items did not travel to advantage.

After 19 years of solitude in their mountains, Annie and Chaffey were married. It was then 1932 and he was 63, she 54. The death of Annie’s husband allowed the wedding, which was solemnised at Asbestos Cottage by Anglican and Presbyterian ministers and a best man. The wedding tea (prepared by the bride) was bread, potatoes, roast goat and whisky. The reverends spent a freezing night in a tent beside the cottage.

Succeeding years saw civilisation creep closer. The road wormed its way up to the hydro workings with a rough spur to the asbestos mine only a mile away. After years of pro­moting, Chaffey finally saw Hume’s Pipe Co. of Aus­tralia develop a small mine. Typical of the true prospec­tor, this development seemed to quench his interest in asbestos, rather than delight him

Now, supplies and mail could be delivered almost next door, so to speak, but Chaffey continued to make extended prospecting trips into the back country, as well as fortnightly jaunts to Upper Takaka to procure stores. It was on one of his supply trips in the winter snow of August 1951—at the age of 83—that Chaffey’s heart finally stopped beating. He was buried in an unmarked grave at Rototai Cemetery, Takaka.

Annie, frozen with shock and apprehension, spent a couple of miserable months at a farmer’s house in Takaka before being ferried back to Timaru to live out two more years of relentless misery in a well-wishing but alien world she could not adapt to.

Today, Asbestos Cottage still stands, as ever a sentinel over the stubborn asbestos, and a few of Annie’s flowers struggle through the grass to leaven the memory.

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