Meet the tweeting swagman

Most days for the next five years James Cox (1846-1925) will be tweeting you all about his life during World War I. It is a ghostly voice from one hundred years ago, calling out from his diaries in the Turnbull Library Manuscripts stack.

The only known photograph of Cox, aged 75, photographed at Carterton in 1921 The only known photograph of Cox, aged 75, photographed at Carterton in 1921. Photographer unknown. Ref: 1/2-164539-F, Alexander Turnbull Library.

The tweet project

Cox is one of the diarists and letter writers from 1913 now featured in the web and twitter project Life 100 Years Ago. The aim is to convey life during the war years through the words of as wide a range of New Zealanders as possible, from one hundred years ago. Their tweets will continue until the centenary of the war’s end in 2018.

These excerpts of James Cox’s diary are being posted out from @cox_diary. Add him to your feed to have them delivered to you, or just visit his page to see what he’s been up to lately. Cox’s tweets are also being sent out on the Life 100 Years Ago Twitter feed, which pulls together the different voices of the project into one stream.

Labourer and diarist

Who was Cox, and what sort of person was he? He arrived in New Zealand, aged 34, in 1880 and from then on most of his life was spent working in a very wide variety of unskilled jobs around the lower North Island. It was a tough life, and in most ways an undistinguished one. As his biographer has put it, “the only thing distinctive” about Cox, “is his complete lack of distinction.”

What was unusual about him, though, was his dedicated diary keeping. From at least 1888 onwards he wrote an entry almost every day, in a tight pencilled hand on tiny cut-out pieces of paper. By the end of his life this remarkable diary came to almost 8000 pages, and 800,000 words.

They are a fascinating record of labouring life. Typically a daily entry begins with an account of the weather (important to someone who worked outside), then describes the events and tribulations of his struggles to make a living. On Sundays he would go for a long walk. Occasionally there are comments about local, national or international events. Overall Cox comes across as a quiet man, content with his own company (he remained single all his life), but liked by those he lived and worked with.

Here is a typical Cox diary page, demonstrating their size:

Pages of the Cox diary, showing their small sizePhoto by Mark Beatty.

And here is a close-up page from 1892, when he was travelling as a swagman (the term then used for unemployed workers walking from place to place with nothing but the swag on their back). He walked through Hawkes Bay and Wairarapa, broke, hungry, looking for work, and not finding any.

Diary entry, MS-0624, James Cox diaries, Alexander Turnbull Library Diary entry, MS-0624, James Cox diaries, Alexander Turnbull Library.

Below is a transcription of the above first page, from James Cox's 1892 diary:

April 14 Thur. Some showers in the Night but cleared this morning and was bright and warm all day, this evening it is dull again. I left Pahiatua this morning and walked through Eketahuna and to a roadmakers camp about 6 miles further where I am stopping. I had nothing since breakfast to eat but a bit of bread, it was dark when I got to the camp and I was about done up.
April 15 Fri. ‘Good Friday’ There was some rain in the night. Dull all day and just spitting with rain at times and this evening it is raining again. I got my breakfast this morning at the camp and then walked through to Masterton. The walk was very hard on me and I am terribly footsore this evening and do not know how I can walk tomorrow I am stopping at a Boarding house and my tea bed and breakfast will take my last three shillings and what will happen next I do not know

He was forced into swagging the next year, too. These experiences were some of the worst times of his life. He always dreaded that one day unemployment might force him back onto the road.

On his birthday in 1902 he wrote “I am no better off than when I came out to the colony... hope in the coming years I may do better.” There were to be more times of unemployment, and he never could obtain the economic security and independence he longed for.

The war years

In 1913, when his tweets begin, he was living in a Carterton boarding house, and surviving on casual gardening and landscaping work. He would have been very familiar with this Carterton street view below.

Frederick George Radcliffe, Carterton, ca 1913-1914 Frederick George Radcliffe, Carterton, ca 1913-1914. Ref: 1/2-007092-G, Alexander Turnbull Library.

Over the next few years old age and ill health again forced him into destitution. His circumstances improved in 1918, however, when he was accepted into the local home for indigent elderly men. That might seem dire to some. But for Cox it meant free food and board. He could come and go as he pleased, and the old age pension gave him some spending money. These last years were a time of relative contentment.

The “Logs to Blogs” diaries exhibition

Cox and his diaries are also to be featured in an exhibition I am curating – Logs to Blogs: Diaries from the Turnbull Library, opening in the Turnbull Library Gallery on 29 July. It features a rich variety of diarists and their stories from the Turnbull collections.

This is the painting chosen to accompany Cox’s diaries in the exhibition:

Christopher Aubrey, Eketahuna Hotel, 1891 Christopher Aubrey, Eketahuna Hotel, 1891. Ref: C-140-002, Alexander Turnbull Library.

The Eketahuna Hotel would have been a familiar landmark to Cox, but not one that brought any fond memories. In the years immediately after Aubrey painted this scene Cox passed through Eketahuna at least twice, on his unhappy swagman treks. Aubrey has included two swagmen in the bottom right. They were a common sight. If he had painted it a year later one of them could have been Cox.

All the Cox diaries have been digitised. You can see them here (by clicking on Child records, opening up the full description for the diary you want to look at, and clicking on the View archived copy online link.

You can also read about Cox and his diaries in Miles Fairburn’s classic book: Nearly out of Heart and Hope: The Puzzle of a Colonial Labourer’s Diary, Auckland University Press 1995. This blog would not have been possible without it.

By David Colquhoun

David Colquhoun is a freelance historian and curator. For 25 years he was Manuscripts Curator at the Alexander Turnbull Library. During 2014-2016 he is an Adjunct Scholar at the Library, working on several research projects based on the Library’s collections.

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