Flax merchant and sailor repaid backer in the end

MATTHEW GRAY
Last updated 05:00 25/02/2014

Few people knew too much about 79-year-old flax merchant and sea captain John Randle Roberts.

But it was assumed he had no living relatives at the time of his death on August 4, 1887, and there was some speculation over who would inherit his estate.

Gossip turned to surprise when John's will revealed he'd left everything - a store on Lower Albert St and savings all totalling an estimated £6000 - to his long time Sydney based employer, Forsyth and Son.

One of his few close friends, auctioneer George Binney, was able to shed some light on the unusual development.

John, he said, had struck difficult times as a much younger man and the company founder, Robert Forsyth, had helped him get on his feet again.

The deceased, it seems, never forgot a kindness.

John Roberts was born in Wales around 1808 and newspaper reports suggest he was commanding a trading vessel in the South Pacific by the time he was 30.

He appears to have based himself for a number of years in Adelaide before hopping across the Tasman in the early 1860s and setting up shop in Auckland as a flax buyer working on commission for the firm he would later leave his estate to.

Flax was a particularly lucrative crop in New Zealand from about 1820 and fibres from the plant were exported overseas and generally used to make rope and string.

John employed a small staff and lived on site above his storeroom - earning enough to keep himself going for three decades or so before succumbing to age-related ailments.

He largely kept to himself and was regarded as a bit of an eccentric by those who did not get to know him so well.

But he made an impression on others - despite having a preference for his own company: "Master mariner of the Australasian colonies," says the epitaph on his tombstone erected at Waikumete Cemetery by the Forsyth family - "known for his honest and straight forward conduct in all circumstances".

Leaf disease and an economic downturn conspired against the flax industry during the early 20th century but new doors opened in the 1930s when manufacturing plants were built locally and the emphasis on exports dropped off.

Flax fibre was again in great demand and used to produce items including, floor coverings, upholstery materials, underfelt and wool sacks.

The advent of synthetic fibres saw another reversal of fortunes and the practice had all but ceased to exist by 1970.

The country's last flax manufacturing plant closed in 1985.

- Western Leader

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