1913: Wireless man tells of Chatham Islands life

Ellesmere Guardian, 1 November 1913, p3

The layout of text has been altered slightly to improve readability and to emphasise text relating to the Chatham Islands wireless station.

The Chatham Islands.

Mr J.H. Hampton, a former resident of Southbridge, who recently went to the Chatham Islands as assistant wireless operator, has written a very interesting letter to us describing his observations. In the course of his letter Mr Hampton says:-

I found when I received word to come here that the average New Zealander knew and heard but little of the islands so I will endeavour to give you some idea of my surroundings.

My trip over on the Himitangi took 72 hours from Lyttelton. It was raining hard on arrival at Waitangi, which is the first port of call and also my destination. On commenting upon the rain to my friend who met me (after I had come ashore in a small launch as the boat does not get to the wharf) he replied “Oh! this is nothing. It has been like this for six months, I hope you are not frightened of a bit of mud.” I replied that I thought I would be equal to the occasion but in saying that I did expect something in moderation. I have seen many a stockyard in New Zealand but I do not think any one of them could compare with the mud that was around Waitangi at that time. However, since I arrived this has all been changed, for a fortnight later the rain ceased and since then we have had lovely sunshine every day which has dried up everything and caked the ground beyond all recognition.

The wireless station, which was not opened till a month after my arrival, is situated a mile to the back of Waitangi and besides being a boon to the islanders relieves the islands of one of its charms of not being able to hear anything of the outside world between the boats which run about every six or seven weeks. Then the boat was always so irregular that probably she would be expected weeks before she did arrive. Now all this is changed and instead of having to look out daily to see if the boat was in sight they know by wireless exactly when she is leaving and when she will arrive.

I had a good opportunity of seeing everything during my month of idleness at the Government’s expense and practically rode all over this island, Chatham Islands consists of about 20 small islands of which Chatham is the largest and Pitt, which is next, is about one third the size of Chatham and the others are very small. Pitt Island has only five families living on it and the rest of the population of 500 live on this (Chatham) island. Chatham Island would only be about 40 miles from end to end but it has hundreds of miles of coastline and about one third is taken up in lakes.

The township of Waitangi is the principal place on the island and has about 10 or 15 houses in all. The two hotels are the only stores and shops. The doctor is chief magistrate and has other positions as well. The police constable is also post-master add has other positions too numerous to mention. The chief food on the island is potatoes, mutton, fish; fish, mutton, potatoes. Practically no beef is eaten and no vegetables at all. Apples and gooseberries are the only fruit that will grow in these parts. Mutton can be bought from the farmers at 2 1/2d per lb but one has to take a large quantity, fish as a rule is plentiful but just at present there is a scarcity.

On the lakes are myriads of swans and ducks. Swans can be shot all the year round and besides offering good shooting make a very good dish. They lay all round the edges of the lakes and islanders go out and gather hundreds of their eggs in a day. Ducks can only be shot during the same season as in New Zealand. The lakes are full of flounders which can be easily caught but are peculiar in that they will not keep beyond 24 hours. Dogs and horses there are here in plenty. It is estimated that there are 3 horses and 4 dogs to every inhabitant.

Any person whether he be a stranger or not may call at any islander’s home and say he is staying the night and he will be made quite welcome. They are very sociable and always pleased to see anyone who may call on them.

The chief industries are sheep farming and fishing, and the climate is practically the same as the South Island of New Zealand. The headquarters of the fishing industry is at Owenga (14 miles overland from here), where the Chatham Island Fishing Company, who own the Himitangi, have their freezer. About 100 cases is the usual weekly catch at Owenga, and all fish caught there is sent to Sydney, where the company have an unlimited demand. The arrival of the steamer at Waitangi brings gladness to the heart of every islander. Once more a mail is received to learn of one’s friends and their doings in other parts, and once more the welcome sight of a newspaper. At present a Press Club is being formed with a view to having 200 words of the principal news wirelessed weekly for the information of all. Every islander comes into Waitangi for the steamer, and directly she goes they depart till she arrives once again.

The wireless station is doing exceptionally good work, and every night we work with the Wellington and Auckland wireless stations and ships at sea. From here we have spoken to, Sydney, Suva, Hobart, and Macquarrie Island, which are considered good distances for wireless working. We hear Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, Hobart, Suva, and the New Zealand stations nightly working with ships at sea. On one occasion we heard Port Moresby station in New Guinea, which is 2807 miles from here, as the crow flies, working with a boat near at hand. Of course it is practically only at night when we work, as darkness is more suitable for wireless purposes. At night we can work five times as far as we can in the day, as the light and the sun’s rays have a nullifying effect on the signals, but as soon as it gets dark all goes well again.

Mr Davies (the officer in charge) and myself are the only operators, and we are both well satisfied with these parts. The Government provide first class quarters for us at the station, which are well furnished, and we two batch together.