Saturday, September 17, 2011

Hanson The Hermit?

Just who was Charlie Hanson? A hermit? A soldier? A dreamer? An old sea dog?
That question has gnawed at me, ever since I wrote about an aged vessel he bought in 1930, to use as a breakwater. The hulk was Rewa (once the Alice A.Leigh, last barque on the British shipping register). She had a colourful past, which you can read about here...
Charles P. Hanson was born in Scotland on 21st.October, 1873 (the International Genealogical Index says his name was actually Peter Charles Hansen, the surname being spelt with an "E"). He was the fourth son of Mary Edgar and Captain Peter Hanson, Anglicans from Tighnabruaich, Scotland.
Hawera Mounted Rifles in training
He immigrated to NZ in the 1890s, possibly on an 'assisted immigration' package (at least one of his brothers later followed and settled near Wellington). Charles worked at the Patea Butter Company in southern Taranaki, and gained weapons experience in the Hawera Mounted Rifles before volunteering for the 1899-1902 South African (Boer) War. His military records say he was 6ft.1½", weighed 12st.8lbs, was 25 and a labourer.
Trooper Hanson C. (Regt.No.90) departed with the 1st.Contingent, No.1 Company from Wellington on 21st.October 1899, aboard the SS Waiwera (as you can see in the photograph, the men took their own horses with them, stalled on the top deck). It was his 26th birthday...
Hanson was with the baggage-guard from Middle Bosch in February 1900. A baggage-guard cared for all the baggage on a march, as well as the wagon horses. The wagons were numbered by companies, and followed each other regularly.The baggage-guards had to pay strict attention to any obstacles that may hinder the safe passage of the supplies. In June 1900, he was assisting at the Primrose Hospital at Elandsfontein. Hanson received the Queen's South Africa Medal with medal clasps for several campaigns: namely the Relief of Kimberley; Driefontein; Wittebergen; Paardeberg; and Transvaal. He was invalided to England in November 1900 (for reasons barely legible on his records, but which appear to have been some sort of fever) and appeared on the NZ Military Pensions 1900 List.
He had quite a good time both in England and near his family home in Scotland, socialising and attending speaking engagements.
The Empire's long-reigning monarch Queen Victoria passed away in January 1901. After lying in state, her funeral was on 2nd.February in Windsor Castle. Hanson was present - he was actually part of the cortege, in some sort of antipodean military representative capacity (his hospitalisation was obviously not too serious, so I wonder why he was sent from the field in the first place)! The reports of his involvement in the procession suffered from identity crisis: "Trooper Hanson, of the 1st Contingent, who has been spending his sick furlough away up in Scotland — Medrox, Tighnabruaich —was one of the few New Zealanders who took part in the Queen's funeral procession through London... the incident has figured in all the papers, the New Zealander being identified as a 'stalwart colonial', 'lithe sinewy Australian', 'a hard-bitten burly Canadian', 'a handsome Maorilander' etc..."
His commanding officer had granted him two months' leave on full pay upon his departure to England and an additional two months' leave on no pay, with a 'discharge' option should he decide to leave the service. This option was duly exercised, but a dispute over pay necessitated him threatening legal action against the army when he returned to NZ.
Once back home, Hanson was chosen to be a body guard for George Prince of Wales, during his 1901 visit
Tom Kidd's mail coach
to The Colonies.
Charles returned to Taranaki for a few years, recorded as living in Inglewood in 1906. He was probably the 'Charles Hansen' in a fatal incident involving the Eltham-Opunake mail coach in August 1903. While trying to cross a swollen river, and against the warnings of the horse-wise passenger 'Hansen', the coach tipped over and the owner/driver Tom Kidd drowned.
Hanson soon bought a large sheep station in the central North Island at Waiouru, "a bleak, wind-swept tussock region in the midst of a wide country devoted to sheep grazing on large runs", and spent the next decade trying to make a living in that isolated area. But not much wool was produced, as overgrazing by sheep had led to a plague of rabbits.
He must have felt a nationalistic stirring as WWI raged in Europe because, in November 1916, it was reported under the headline "A True Patriot" that "A large sale of sheep has just been reported, Mr Charles Hanson, proprietor of the Waiouru sheep station (76,000 acres), having disposed of his flock at a price approximating £30,000 cash. Mr Hanson was a member of the First NZ South African Contingent...he is now enlisting as a private. He believes that the man of wealth should fight to hold that wealth from the Hun." In January 1917, the Evening Post mentioned "Mr. C. P. Hanson, proprietor of Waiouru Station, of 92,000 acres, has gone into Featherston Camp as a trooper in the 25th Mounted Rifles." (The station seems to have gained an impressive 12,000 acres in two months! Methinks a journalistic error somewhere!) Though Charles volunteered for the Mounted Rifles, his service was with the NZ Field Artillery. Before he was shipped overseas, he had a brief spell in hospital in March 1917:
"Trooper Charles Hanson, of the 25th Reinforcements, was yesterday morning removed to a Wellington private hospital in order to undergo an 'internal' operation. Trooper Hanson is the owner of the Waiouru station of 90,000 acres." (Oh dear, the farm had shrunk again, while his personal health was exposed for the whole country!)
After the end of the war, times were not good for Hanson. He owned the sheep station until 1919, when he exchanged it in part payment for 80 acres of land at Hobsonville, NW of Auckland. He had plans to sub-divide it into smaller sections for sale: this however fell though, and the land was forfeited to the mortgagees. Then he had to sell his Glenfield house, which he exchanged with his car for a 1,000 acre farm at Pokeno, south of Auckland. But the post-war economic slump meant he lost that property to mortgagees too. The hawks were circling but Hanson did not give up: he began to deal in land in Marlborough... those plans also fell through.
In 1924 when his creditors were meeting, his debts were listed as £1443 17s 10d, his assets – nil. By this stage, he was living on Moturekareka Island, a small island less than a kilometre long, off the end of Mahurangi Peninsula near Kawau Island, but failed to appear at the creditors' meeting. The information had difficulty reaching him out in the Hauraki Gulf...
Though declared bankrupt in 1927, somehow in the next few years, this "fine-looking, big jovial Scotsman" was able to purchase Moturekareka Island…as well as two other tiny islands nearby, Kohatutara and Motutara. One can only speculate as to the source of his money – but he was after all a canny Scot! He built a small house and storage shed on the northern side, overlooking a small sheltered bay.
Rewa at rest
The western third of Motutara Island was taken for quarry purposes in 1929 under the Public Works Act, to supply material for the main highway upgrade between Auckland and Whangarei. That quarrying operation, mainly in the 1930s and 1940s, removed a lot of rock from the island.
Charles bought the hulk of the barque Rewa in 1930. Many stories circulated about his intentions for Rewa: one was that he was going to equip her with accommodation facilities for friends, but this was not possible once she heeled over.
Otimai: 'twas not Charlie!
Another said he was thinking of creating a floating cabaret. Newspapers of the time reported he planned to moor the ship across the entrance to the bay as a breakwater. But a storm put paid to that and she ended up scuttled near the shore on a steep angle, with only enough shelter for a few smaller vessels at a time. Hanson is also said to have beached a much smaller iron-hulled schooner Otimai near Rewa, shortly after her stranding, but this is incorrect. Otimai was beached in that location but in 1958, long after Charlie’s demise.
Hanson never seemed to give up on his ideas: a May 1932 paper told of elaborate plans for a £10,000 luxury steel yacht to be built in Scotland and owned by his cousin, Mr.E.Hanson. Based in Auckland, it would make numerous trips into the Pacific, carrying enough supplies to last for two years! Needless to say, this superyacht never saw the light!
Charles Hanson spent most of the rest of his life on Moturekareka Island…and, after so many get-rich-quick schemes and failures, this is when his reputation as reclusive hermit grew.
In the 1930s, an Aucklander Johnny Wray needed rigging so he visited Hanson. The blog Simply Sailing writes that "Charlie lived ashore in a sort of nautical Nirvana…" and then quotes from Wray's 1939 book South Sea Vagabonds: 'To anyone nautically minded his little home was a perfect delight. It was built largely from gear salvaged from this ship "in his front garden", as he called it. Lifebelts, binnacles, wheels, flags, shrouds, ropes, rails; in fact everything dear to the heart of a sailor was built into that little home. There was a library that must have contained every nautical book ever published…a perfect home for an old sailor.' It was from Charlie and the Rewa that Johnny got the mast, boom, rigging, assorted fittings and enough canvas to make the sails for his yacht. The price? 'A bag of flour, a bag of potatoes and a few other things'." It's interesting that Charles is described almost as a retired salty seadog, yet there's no evidence he did any sailing at all, though he evidently had an interest!
One author recalls that "not many people landed, except the scow with his grog and his supplies of food, since he was more inclined to welcome uninvited guests with a shot gun than ask them in to tea". Another mentions Hanson stalking and firing his shot gun into the rear of a person poaching his turkeys at night!
In 1941 Charles tried to sell the islands, asking the Crown if it wanted to buy the remainder of Motutara and the whole of Moturekareka. But the Commissioner of Crown Lands saw little value in the islands and, noting five mortgages, thought it unlikely it could acquire the islands cheaply. Consequently the Crown didn't buy the islands and Hanson sold them in the 1940s privately.
So what eventually happened to him? One author writes that, due to ill health, he left the island and died in Auckland in the early '40s. But local legend has it that he'd often row from his island to Kawau Island to socialise - and drowned one night in the 1940s when attempting the return journey in bad weather, after one tipple too many! This is incorrect, but makes a good story!
1944 is the date of probate, and shows he died aged around 70. But where? KiwiCelts, the NZ Cemeteries Database Index, claims he lies on Moturekareka Island…although it provides no details. His military record says he died in Wellington, 14th.April 1944 – a long way from his island – this is supported by some Evening Post inserts. It seems he spent his last days with his brother in Paraparaumu near Wellington.
So ended the interesting life of Charles Hanson, in the Soldiers Section of Karori Cemetery, plot 70SA. His house is no longer standing (the Department of Conservation removed it in the 1990s). His wreck rusts away quietly, popular with kayakers and snorkelers, a testament to one man's big dreams. As is often the case, those who choose reclusive lifestyles can have very colourful backgrounds indeed.


Sally Bernstein, TX said...

A very interesting article.
When you wrote about his time in the Boer War, it doesn't sound as if he did much fighting! Add that to his behavior in England, and I feel he might have been a malingerer...?

Writer Of The Purple Sage said...

Hi, Sally:
Thanx for reading.
Interesting you should say that - it's just what I thought too!
The medal clasps were awarded for battles his REGIMENT was in: HE may not have actually fought but he was there.
When researching his life, I got a feeling that ol' Charlie was always looking for Get Rich Quick schemes...but hey, I may be doing him an injustice. I'd sure like to know how he got FIVE MORTGAGES to buy those islands!!!!

Chris said...

Very interesting, thanks for posting this. My great-grandfather was a Hansen in Scotland, but I'm certain he wasn't a relative. The family moved to the US and now I'm back in the UK. What goes around comes around!

Writer Of The Purple Sage said...

Hi, Chris:
Well, it's a small world, so ya never know... :-)

Chris said...

While it would be nice to have Hanson the Hermit as a relative, the Hansens in my family tree were labourers or seamen, and the timing is wrong (my g-gf was born in 1857 in Copenhagen and emigrated to the US in 1895. The area of Scotland is also wrong (he was in Greenock, which as a seaman makes sense as that was Glasgow's port). But, it's nice to dream. I do have Samuel F.B. Morse in my tree (7th cousin or so) on my mother's side, so that's as close to fame as I get.

Trish said...


Have you traced the second hermit to live on this island. Snow was his name-we use to moor behind the wreck alot when I was a kid-Snow taught me to scull a dingy, we use to have races around the wreck-we were even allowed up in his shack, and also his tree hut on top of the island-he use to row a bathtub to Kawau to get his pension-we often picked him up on his way, and towed his bashtub-he told me he had built a boat and him and his mates sailed it from Wellington to Auckland, but it sunk, and his mates died, and that is why he lived as a hermit-would be interesting to find out more about him.


Writer Of The Purple Sage said...

Hi, Trish:
Actually I do have a little bit about "Snow" and will blog it all soon.
Would you please get back to me about the approximate year when he taught you how to scull, and also more details about the bathtub incident.
I'd really appreciate it!

Writer Of The Purple Sage said...

I just received this email from a lady called Robina, who's happy for me to share it with you.
You've just brought back a wave of memories.
1. My 'Uncle' Ivor & 'Aunty' Leigh Laing-Smith owned Moturekareka around mid-1950s.
Their children: Garth (dec.) Max (still lives on Waiheke Island with his wife Frances) and Zandra Jarvis (Te Atutu).
King tides were great: we could dive from the french doors of the house straight into the ocean. Uncle Ivor used to fling back the carpets and show a a huge brown stain where he said: "Charlie Hanson was murdered! His ghost still prowls the Island!" Of course, being a theatre projectionist (at the Majestic in Queen Street) he'd send us, at night, up into the orchard to watch from the landing...sure enough we'd catch a glimpse of Charlie's spectre! Years later Zandra told me he had it all rigged to scare the wits out of us.
Most of the time we ran naked, buried ourselves in pine-needle 'graves' and collected sea-egg (kina) shells to dry into brilliant shades of aqua with white dots. We thought nothing of rowing over to collect the mail from Kawau (raiding craypots on the way).
Uncle Ivor got so annoyed with yachties trashing the island, that he used to take pot-shots at them with a gun (somewhere I have the newspaper report on his charge for the offence).
2. The 'Rewa' was our playground: we'd spend hours playing chase, clambering over her skeletal remains without a regard for safety (what was that?). Dangling lines to catch fish which Garth smoked, was a real treat.

Lots of memories. No other childhood like it.
Robina McKenzie (nee Trenbath).

Many thanx, Robina!
As a point of interest, a youthful Robina also knew a hermit on the island, "Snow" Harris, who lived there after Charlie Hanson. She's kindly shared some details which I'll be publishing in due course!

griffen the sea dog said...

just checking up on rewa's orig name spelling & found this, well done! sad watching her disintergrate over the years. from even couple months back counter slewing out more & less above water. bit dicky to burrow underneath when diving. she is of much historical interest & peeves me doc have done nothing towards an info board there. with a bach at army bay we grew up with our own shipwreck to dive & play on, the coaster shakespear sank as a breakwater for his keeler. decks & bridge intact back then. funny how history gets interesting as you get closer to joining it! mum's coz drowned when the rangi went down, & i live only a mile from the ships remains.
cheers mark hampson

saltyone said...

Any knowledge of the hermit at Te Kouma Harbour Coromandel, reportedly lived in a Nikau Hut...Fishermen talked of him in the early 60's?