Monday, June 25, 2012

Snow Harris, The Other Hermit

Two hermits. One island.
I previously wrote about Charlie Hanson, the hermit of Moturekareka Island in the Hauraki Gulf. While researching him, I found reference to another recluse who lived there after Hanson…he was known as "Snow".
Clifford Crago Harris was born in Auckland 14th.Sept.1904, to Kate Isabel (née Noton) from England and Frank Harris of Ponsonby, who'd wed in 1896 (the NZ official records name him as Clifford George Harris).
NZ Electoral Rolls place him in the Auckland district of Mt.Roskill (1 Watling St.) in 1928, and in 1935 at 18 Oaklands Rd., Mt.Eden - still living in the family home with brothers Neville Crago, Ronald Crago and Stanley Crago plus a sister Valerie. I also found him in the NZ Army's WWII Nominal Rolls but, as the Cenotaph Database didn't have anything on him, I applied to the NZ Defence Force Archives for his Service Records. Meanwhile I found out more…
Seems he was the sole survivor of a 1933 shipwreck which claimed the lives of the three others aboard! John Harrell, T. Neville, captain J. Kelleway and Harris had set sail from Auckland on 19th.April, in a small 9m/27ft.keel yacht Mizpah. They had plenty of collective sailing experience. Clifford, acting as sailing master, had previous connections with the Auckland yacht Celox. Kelleway had held a yachtmaster's certificate for some time and owned a launch, the Wainui in Auckland. Both Naylor and Harrell were connected with the yacht Kestrel. The 25 yr.old Mizpah had been recently bought by a T.McCauley: "stoutly constructed", it had a trysail, jib and staysail (as well as a small auxilary engine). This was to be its delivery down to Wellington: a non-paid pleasure trip for the four lads...
A week later on 25th.April, Mizpah was off Porangahau along the Hawkes' Bay coast, when a ferocious southerly gale drove it 24km/15 miles back up the coast. The sea anchor could not keep it off the rocks and in the darkness at 2am on the 26th., the yacht was smashed to pieces in the breakers at Blackhead, 16km/10 miles SE of Waipukurau.
The men were washed overboard. Clifford grabbed a floating butter box and eventually reached the beach. More dead than alive, he warmed himself by vigorously rolling in the sand. Then he ran at full speed through the storm to a nearby farm to raise the alarm. Searchers combed the coast all that day while high seas continued to roll in, but all they found was wreckage strewn for several miles. Eventually they discovered Hurrell's body a short distance inland: he'd managed to reach shore but, stumbling around in the darkness, had eventually collapsed exhausted and died of exposure. Harris was the only survivor.
The inquest four days later found there were no lifebelts, buoys or other lifesaving equipment aboard. A dingy had been lashed to the deck but, once the hurricane reached its full fury, it was cut adrift. In his findings, the Coroner ruled "that the Marine Department has jurisdiction over all privately-owned boats leaving their own waters to make ocean or coastal cruises, regarding the qualification of the master and lifesaving equipment aboard."
North Shore Times Advertiser (May 1979, a year after Harris' death) wrote that, "when recovered from his ordeal, he returned to Auckland and then chose to live the life of a hermit on Hanson's Island". The inference was that one was as a direct result of the other, but in fact he didn't move to the island until the mid-1950s, over two decades later. Between the shipwreck and the lonely existence of a hermit, there was a marriage and a world war...
The 1938 NZ Electoral Rolls find Clifford in Wellington North - ship's carpenter on the Union Steamship Co.'s vessel SS "Wairuna", serving with the Territorials, and courting.
In his WWII service records, when attested in 1940, #73333 Private Harris, Clifford Crago (36) was 5ft.5" tall, with fair hair and blue eyes. He was listed as a boat builder with his own business on Kawau Island. Initially the typed records said he was single, but there's a later hand-written amendment to 'married' – next-of-kin changed from his brother Stanley Crago Harris to his new wife Betty Harris of Main Road, Johnsonville near Wellington (he married sometime after July 1941: he's listed as single then).
Snow saw war service in the Pacific: in Fiji and the Solomon Islands Campaign with the 2nd.NZ Expeditionary Force 3rd.Div., Ammunition Repair Company. He received the 1939-45 Star, Pacific Star, Defence Medal, War Medal 1939-45, and NZ War Service Medal.
After the war, he moved back to Auckland, and bought a property there. In 1946, the Auckland High Court recorded an 'Application For Consent To Sale' from Alfred Amos Gray to Clifford Grago (sic) Harris. But soon after, he registered on the Electoral Rolls in Rodney District, north of Auckland (1946, 1949, 1954, 1957, 1963, 1969 and 1972) and Kaipara, Northland in 1978. There was probably more boatbuilding work in that area: he was again listed in 1949 as 'boatbuilder, Kawau Island'. But an intriguing question: what happened to his wife? I've found no further reference to Betty Harris at all.
In the mid 1950s Snow moved out to Motuora Island, working as a general hand for Roger and Betty Chamberlain who ran a 12-bed guesthouse there. They built him a cottage, and said he was a good worker - as long as they kept the booze away from him!
He then settled on Moturekareka, in the hut built and once occupied by the first hermit (and one-time owner of the island) Charles Hanson. It was made from the radio room of the Rewa, with an old milk churn for an oven. Snow lived there alone, just talking to passing yachtsmen or sailing families. Depending on which way the wind blew, he also had a tree house up in a large pohutukawa tree, and a "well-ventilated shack out on the headland for warm summer nights." He grew his own tobacco and fruit, ran goats and bantams, stewed the odd wallaby and rowed monthly to Kawau Island for other supplies and socialising... 
Snow and the Rewa, 1957
Robina McKenzie (nee Trenbath) emailed me some details from her childhood, spent around Moturekareka Island from the mid-1950s. She recalls at that time Snow was still 'floating' between Moturekareka and Motuora (where he was working), and she sent me this 1957 photo, of Snow and the hulk of the Rewa. Thus the published dates of his occupancy (1962-78) in a Museum of NZ document are out by at least 5yrs. Robina: "Snow used to eat mutton birds...I know because he would stink of them! To tell the truth, I never saw him 'blotto'. He'd share a flagon of wine with Aunty Leigh (Laing-Smith) and when that was finished he'd be off, because the next flagon wasn't due in for several weeks. Aunty Leigh baked bread and he'd drop in to get a loaf every couple of days and leave some fish."
Trish, whose comment on this blog's Hanson post first alerted me to Harris, said "as a kid, Snow taught me to scull a dinghy. We used to have races around the wreck (of the Rewa). We were even allowed up in his shack, and also his tree hut on top of the island. He used to row a bathtub to Kawau to get his pension - we often picked him up on his way, and towed his bathtub." A bathtub?! I trust this is merely an odd description of his old dinghy! Otherwise, as it's 5km over open waters, Snow was lucky to have survived as long as he did! 
Being a legend to the yachties and people of the Gulf, it was easy for stories to spring up about Snow and, as time passed, these stories became fact. Take, for example, claims in the Sunday News after his death - that he won a Military Medal for bravery in WWII. Well, as you saw earlier, he DID win some military medals for service...but none were THE Military Medal (MM). It wrote that "he fled to the island after being jilted at the altar". As I said earlier, he definitely WAS married. It may not have lasted long - who knows? But his island settlement didn't happen for 10-15yrs after that.
NZ Herald called Harris "a right character with a heart of gold"..."a loner with a difference - he loved people", and would often engage visitors in animated chats. When alone, he had his transistor radio so he'd never miss a test match.
He kept good health, described in his later years as "tough, wiry, and fit as a fiddle...with the body of a younger man." He passed away in his sleep in his "well-ventilated shack" aged 73: NZ Herald says it was today in history, 25th.June 1978 (but Auckland Council Cemetery Database says 19 June with cremation 03 July). As no surviving relatives were found, his colleagues later sprinkled Snow's ashes across Moturekareka Bay...
So although Clifford Crago Harris chose to live on his own, he was not lonely…many still remember Snow with a smile, and call him their friend.
"Snow" Harris: 1904-1978


Anonymous said...

What an adventure he had.
Had never heard of him, but you've kept him alive with your really interesting story!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this, I've been searching for more info on Snow. I saw "up at Kawau Yacht Club" something about Snow having written a short book on his surviving the wreck in 33? Do you know anything about this or if it is true?

Writer Of The Purple Sage said...

No, I don't know anything about a book, but it wouldn't surprise me, given the adventure he had! I can't guarantee finding anything this many years later, but will start hunting and let you know if I uncover any details!
Glad you enjoyed the post.


Anonymous said...

The "bathtub" was actually a bathtub with 44 gallons drums attached. This would have been bet 1970-1973 I think.

Trish Costin

Writer Of The Purple Sage said...

WOW!!! Thanks for that classic gem of information, Trish! What a sight to have seen!!!

yachtyakka said...

i have a picture of snows hut, how do i send it to you?

Tyrone Laing-Smith said...

Snow was a good friend of my grand parents, who bought the island off Charlie Hanson. My mother has a super 8 movie of Snow paddling around in his bathtub, many a fond memories from my early childhood

ken Stevenson said...

We used to visit snow in the early 70s on our way to mansion house
What an interesting character had to keep him away from the grog though he used to drink meths if I remember correctly
Always up for a chat and had his hut well set up