Barrett Crumen "Russian Jack" 1878-1968. The last of the swag men.
"Man oh man I vos FREE! Free to have a beer, have a smoke, –happy what you can call all the time, you know. They was free days."
Barrett Crumen (or Krumen) was one of the last of New Zealand's old-time swaggers. He was reportedly born in Latvia on 26 March 1878. Nothing is known of his family and it appears that he neither married nor had any children. Even his real name is uncertain, as 'Crumen' may refer to his being a crewman on a ship, and 'Barrett' did not seem to mean anything to him. To everyone who met him he was 'Russian Jack'.
As a boy Barrett spent three years at school and then worked in local 'scrub camps' for a time. At the age of 24 he left home to join the merchant marine, and probably spent the next decade working as a seaman. In 1912 he arrived in New Zealand on the British steamer Star of Canada. At Gisborne, on the night of 23 June, the ship was blown ashore and wrecked during a fierce southerly gale. Barrett later recounted that he was nearly swept away as he attempted to free the anchor.
It seems that he decided to save his money by walking to Wellington, where he presumably intended to sign on with another ship. He never made it. He decided to stay on the roads and for the next 53 years he tramped around much of the North Island, particularly Wairarapa and Manawatu. He reportedly avoided Hawke's Bay after experiencing the 1931 earthquake there. Like several other swaggers before him, Barrett was called 'Russian Jack' – 'Ivan what you call Jack', as he himself put it – probably because of his thick accent
Russian Jack became a familiar figure on the roadsides, while his bivouacs dotted the countryside.
Picking up work, food and occasional lodgings wherever he could, he was described by some of the farmers he visited as extremely honest, never taking anything without working for it. He traveled 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 it out by ramming a cork into it.
Barrett kept a number of rough bivouacs ready for his next visit, as well as sleeping in derelict huts on stations. He kept himself, his billy and his various dwellings extremely clean and tidy, and was well known for his large appetite, particularly for legs of mutton and eggs. But when calling on country people his requests were usually confined to a billy of tea and some dripping.
There are many tales about Russian Jack and undoubtedly some of them refer to a similar character who travelled the Wairarapa roads earlier. Oddly, both men were described as having the same distinctive habit: they would take off their boots as soon as they had left town and walk barefoot to preserve their essential footwear. However, Barrett probably wore his boots all the time in later life. As they wore out he lined them with paper and corrugated cardboard, and patched them with leather and car-tyre rubber on the outside. In the end his boots together weighed more than eight pounds.
From an interview with Peter Leyland, by his nephew and 'scribe', John David Leyland.
"If Jack came into Palmerston North via the Fitzherbert Bridge, he’d have passed close to your grandfather’s place. Did he ever call in? Did he know Old Phil?
Oh yes. They met. And my old Aunt Florrie, she’d have a kind word and a feed for him.
In those days there wasn’t much by way of Welfare, no handouts or Government assistance, so those homeless ones had to cadge a feed or they’d starve. Sometimes they’d get a bit of a job, or find a haystack to sleep in. And some even established a reputation. They got well known, and old Jack did that — made a name for himself. He survived, and became a real identity. He was the last of them. A survivor.
Now Aunt Florrie, she gave him some attention. She was one who helped him. It was very interesting the way women reacted to him. Some saw him as frightening, scary, terrifying. Old Jack was a good bloke, but he looked a bit ragged, and to some women he seemed like a threat, scary, alarming. But Florrie took it in her stride. It turned out that people’s reaction to Jack was more to do with how they saw things than with what he was actually like. Florrie wasn’t bothered by him, didn’t turn a hair, so he was a regular in the Leyland house in College Street.
There’s no doubt about it, Russian Jack didn’t starve. People watched out for him. In fact some people made a bit of a fuss about him. And Aunt Florrie not only knew Jack and gave him a feed on his way through, she was actually quite proud of it, because Jack had become a bit of a celebrity.
So knowing Jack was something to brag about?
Oh yes. There was no doubt about it. You were really someone if you gave Jack a feed. You could boast about it, particularly as some folk were scared stiff of him, they wouldn’t know what to do if they saw him coming, they’d want to run and hide, or scuttle away, but Florrie was a capable woman. Us boys could shoot a deer or any kind of animal or bird, and chuck it down in front of her, and she’d know what to do. Wouldn’t turn a hair. Out with the knife, split open the guts. Just deal with things. She took care of us. She never married or had kids, she was the maiden aunt — but she watched out for us, she cared. That’s how she was, so she always had a kind word for Jack, no matter how he looked. Just got on with it.
Did Jack do any odd jobs for the Leylands?
Of course. But many of those old swaggies were born cadgers, and in one sense they were all cadgers, but Russian Jack always pulled his weight. It's true, he got to be regarded as a 'gentleman swaggie', and he'd chop wood for the Leyland stove. It was a never ending job in those days, when each house had a wood-fired stove for cooking and baking and heating the water. Chopping — it had to be done. Jack would mostly chop wood for Florrie.
Aunt Florrie had some cherished memories about those days. She was very hospitable, and would give a feed to any of those homeless ones. And she liked to enquire into their lives — have a chat — make them feel welcome. She told me how she asked one swagman, 'How do you fill your evenings?'
He said, 'I lights a fire if I'm permitted, but must be careful to not set anything alight, like a haystack.'
Then Florrie said, 'And what do you do then?'
'I sits and thinks, but more often than not, I just sits.'
Of course that was a widespread and well-known saying back then, and on reflection I think it's the stage of life I've got to. I sits and thinks.
Of course some of those men were drunkards, who would do some odd jobs then spend the wages on grog. Some were wrecks, and would cause havoc, and stuff up the job. But some were okay, like Jack. To him it was 'a profession'.
Florrie told me about another one that she questioned. 'How are things with you?'
He said, 'I eats well, and I sleeps well, but if I sees a job of work, it puts me in a dither."
It was frostbite in his toes which finally took the old swagger from the road in 1965, when he was admitted to Pahiatua Hospital. He was transferred to the Buchanan Ward at Greytown Hospital where he spent three years.
Russian Jack died in September 1968, aged 90, and was given a respectful funeral and buried in Greytown Cemetery, paid for with the proceeds of a pension he had never claimed.