More Nelsonian characters in passing parade

BOB IRVINE
Last updated 09:27 09/07/2012

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Saluting passing parade of Nelsonian eccentrics

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Bob Irvine

And now, a word about all these goings on Germs and rules lurks round every corner Backyard moonscape is fertile ground for fakery Warm fuzzies and buzzies in Deep South When we were very young Hats off to the people who honour promises Christmas twists Help, I need to sit down Seek out regional pests and destroy their future Flying south into a brave new world

The yarns about Nelson's "characters" have poured in. Without further ado:

Archie Gascoigne was a frustrated inventor, reports Shirley Miles, Nelson's well-known Pearly Queen. When her husband John worked at the old Wright Stephensons farm supplies store, Archie walked in with his latest brainwave, a piece of wood about five inches long and an inch wide, with a nail hammered through near the end.

You used this to hook your hottie and hold it aloft while filling it, eliminating the risk of burning your hand. Archie wanted the retail chain to market his device.

He was a "remittance man" from England, says Shirley. Titled or wealthy families would dispatch their wastrels to the colonies, consoling them with regular payments.

Maire Connor says Archie would collect timber offcuts daily from Webleys factory in Alma Lane, holding up traffic on the Bridge St bridge as he carted them home.

Maire also nominates "Blossom" Lake, the Port policeman and the terror of sly drinkers near The Boathouse dancehall – he earned his nickname because of a very red face.

Traffic cop Dolph Neale would sleep on duty in his car beneath trees at Hays Corner, Maire adds. Another source says larrikins once tied a rope between his back axle and a macrocarpa, bringing him to a sudden halt when he took off after a speedster.

Ollie Strange, the Church Steps knitter, liked to stick her wad of chewing gum to the instep of her shoe sole when she tired of chewing it, reports Graeme Adams. As she progressed down the street she would retrieve the gum periodically and pop it back into her mouth.

Tonkie's most famous exploit was immortalised in a poem, Tonkie's Epic Ride, say Annette Henigan and Rex Westley. In 1946 he was challenged to a race to Motueka and back, competing against Nelson Cycle Club members for a prize of 1 , which Tonkie needed to buy a bridle for his horse.

The gun racers had sleek machines and group tactics of drafting, or taking turns in the lead while those behind rest from the headwind. Tonkie had his sturdy roadster bike and one tactic – go hell for leather. He took off from the start and the pros saw nothing but his rear-end for the whole race, except when he flashed past on his way back to Nelson, of course.

He sprints across the finish
And the hats fly in the air
And Tonkie wins the bridle
For Invermay the mare

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Sue Cross was new to Nelson when she encountered Tonkie as she crossed Halifax St bridge with her preschooler. "An elderly man pushing a bike stopped me. The conversation went something like this (his speech was like a loud machinegun going off): "Do you know how to make jam?"

"Yes."

"Do you have a plum tree?"

"No."

"Where do you live?"

"In astonished bemusement I told him, whereupon he gave me a lecture about how to keep children safe from being burnt when jam was being made.

"That evening there was a knock on the door and it was Tonkie with a bucket of plums. I got another long lecture about keeping my children safe. When he finally drew breath I got a word in to thank him for the plums, but he continued on as though I hadn't spoken."

Tonkie was often seen bailing up some unfortunate, unleashing the full force of his opinions, says Sue.

Another correspondent, who did not want to be named, witnessed a long shouting match between Tonkie and fellow character Reuben Stephens in town.

"Tonkie had the usual bale of hay on his old bike."

He looked after Mickey Howson's race horses in paddocks in Bolt Rd.

"Mickey owned some butchers' shops and the Marina Cafe in Trafalgar St. He drove a silver Rolls, had silver hair and wore silver suits He disappeared mysteriously and turned up in Invercargill.

"And Happy Jack lived in a tent in the sandhills then at the end of Parkers Rd, about 1951-52. He carried a sack over his back scrounging for food for the 52 cats he kept."

As for the Chicken Lady, she was apparently a successful model who lived overseas for many years. Her father bought her a house in which she kept cats ("lots of them") and chickens. She even took a chicken to her Dad's funeral.

The house was condemned and the Chicken Lady now sleeps rough, or in the sleepouts of kindly souls. She's said to be very fit, walking every day.

Perrine Moncrieff once attended a gathering of spinners in Wellington, Wendy Rolls reports. When the ladies were asked for a "show and tell" of their artistic efforts, Perrine climbed on a chair, lifted her skirt and announced that her knickers were made of homespun, knitted wool.

"They almost came down to her knees. It brought the house down." (Another reader confirms that two Nelson businessmen did indeed buy the Moncrieff home and 23 acres overlooking the Cut for $101,000 in 1970.)

Ro Giblin remembers that in the 1950s-60s, when Buxtons occupied the Farmers site, a couple of retired farmers from "up-country", the Coleman brothers, leaned on the wall daily, watching the world go by. We also hear about Smiler Pike, who would hang around the Trafalgar-Bridge St corner with a little foxy (dog, that is).

Judith Savage says wide-boy Reuben Stephens was parked at the top of the Whangamoas one day when a police car pulled up. Petrol rationing was in force and Reuben explained that he had run out of gas.

The cop towed him back to the farm at Delaware Bay. At the bottom of his drive, Reuben unhooked the rope, thanked the good samaritan, started up his car and drove home. Graeme Adams says that during World War II Reuben had used all his petrol rationing coupons and Post Office staff refused to give him more. He parked a truckful of pigs outside the building and refused to move it until they saw sense. When the odour drifting into the PO became too much for staff and customers, Reuben had his coupons.

Also during the war he would take boxes of vegetables down to the wharf, explaining to Customs staff on the gate that he was selling fresh produce to the ships' cooks. Beneath the veges were blackmarket silk stockings and cigarettes. Reuben was also allegedly sacked from the Rutherford Hotel building site because he charged people five shillings to ride the cargo lift up to the roof for a look at the view.

Graeme says Reuben was once up before Magistrate Joe Watts and was asked if he had anything to say before sentencing. He replied: "Joe, don't fine me more than five quid. I passed the hat around and that was all I collected."

Another story had Reuben drinking at the Post Boy Hotel and coming out to find a traffic ticket on his vehicle. He got a mate to give him a lift to the Customhouse Hotel and then rang the police station to report the vehicle stolen. Police soon found it, of course, and rang him at the Customhouse. Reuben bowled up and told the cops the thief was obviously the traffic violator. They tore up the ticket.

Another source says Maori land at Delaware Bay included a lovely picnic spot and Reuben would go round the pubs selling keys to the padlocked access road. Every three months he would change the padlock. (He obviously missed his calling in the computer software industry.)

Legend has it that on his deathbed, Reuben was asked by the minister if he wanted to go "to the good place or the bad place."

"Well, Reverend," he replied, "it doesn't really matter – I've got friends in both places."

Graeme reports the "lovable rogue" had a huge funeral.

We're done. It's been a blast. Thanks also to Rosanna Martin, Ken Wright, Jacquetta Bell, Alec Woods and Naomi Arnold.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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