The Swagman’s final tweetMarch 25th, 2019 By Jay Buzenberg
“The end of the year finds me laid up in Carters House and of no more use but certainly much better off than I deserve to be”
James Cox wrote in his final diary entry of 1918. Exactly 100 years later his words were tweeted out on the last day of 2018. It was to be the ‘tweeting swagman’s’ final post, and one that marked the end of a five-year effort, almost 2,000 individual tweets, to add Cox's voice to others of the Life 100 Years Ago project.
Life 100 Years Ago
Life 100 Years Ago is part of the larger WW100 initiative commemorating the First World War. The collaborative web and Twitter project was supported by the First World War Centenary programme office, part of Manatū Taonga, the Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Featuring daily quotes shared on Twitter from a variety of sources such as diary entries, letters and newspaper articles. These accounts enabled us to see history in real-time, as it happened, from the perspective of New Zealanders who witnessed it first-hand.
While some of the contributing accounts were based on war diaries from those who fought on the front lines, such as gunner Lincoln Lee or Lieutenant Roy Thomas Bruce. Other accounts offered a different perspective: from the home front. The James Cox diary and others by George Leslie Adkin and Charles Septimus Clarke fit into this latter category, giving us a picture of life at home in New Zealand during the war years, 1914-1918.
The Cox diary is distinguished for other reasons too, however.
Who was James Cox?
Two people who spent considerable time with Cox’s diary are Miles Fairburn, Cox’s biographer and the author of the only book written about Cox: Nearly out of heart and hope: The puzzle of a colonial labourer’s diary, published in 1995. The other person is David Colquhoun, the former Manuscripts Curator at the Turnbull Library for 25 years, freelance historian and curator and lead transcriber of the Cox Diary Twitter project.
During his considerable time spent selecting and transcribing passages for Twitter and the Life 100 Years Ago project, and in his previous work with the diary for exhibitions like Logs to Blogs, David became a master at deciphering even the toughest of Cox’s scrawls. Not only that, he came to know something of the man, building on the earlier work of Fairburn.
The most fitting description then, of James Cox, comes from David’s own hand, taken from his 2013 blog, Meet the tweeting swagman:
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.
Many volumes, one diary
The sheer volume and immense scale of this undertaking can be difficult to comprehend. Especially when you consider that Cox never used ready-made notebooks. Instead, he constructed his own from cheap notepaper that he cut into a series of strips. Each strip was folded in half to make four small pages, 4 inches long and 2 inches wide.
At the end of each year, he would bind the pages together creating a single notebook. By the time he stopped writing, he had 37 individual volumes representing a 38 year period – 1888-1925. Only one year is missing from this series – 1894. The fact that more haven’t gone astray is surprising on its own, considering the many opportunities there have been while he was traveling around the country to lose a sheet or notebook, not to mention the many hands that have helped steward the collection to its final resting place in the Turnbull Library Manuscripts collection.
When viewing the zoomed-in digitised pages of these small, hand-made notebooks it’s easy to forget the scale with which Cox recorded his daily entries. Given the tiny size of the pages, and the fact that he likely wrote his entries in a variety of conditions, very few of them well-lit or comfortably seated at a writing desk, we can forgive the sometimes indecipherable penmanship. All things considered, the diary is highly organised and quite tidy.
Cox was aged 42 at the start and wrote near-daily entries in his characteristic pencilled hand, all the way until he was 79.
Typical diary entries
Typical entries include references to the weather, his health or ill health, any work he managed to do, plus his movements and routes taken on his daily walks. These details are occasionally supplemented with brief commentary on social and political events.
Mundane details like these may not seem of interest taken individually. The value in Cox’s diary does not come from any individual tweet or entry. Rather, it is the entirety of his writing, taken as a whole, which reveals its true worth. Here, the words of Cox’s biographer Miles Fairburn puts his remarkable achievement into context:
The richness of the diary instead comes from something which is far more mundane and not easy to recognise: it is an immense store of concrete information about the minutiae of Cox’s everyday life… The value of the material in the diary lies in the diligence with which he as an ordinary person at the bottom of society took note virtually every day over a period of 38 years of the mundane (and often bizarre) incidents that both affected him and occurred around him. The importance of this activity is not apparent in any given entry: each contains a shower of tiny particles of data which by themselves tell us little of consequence about him or the structures underlying his everyday life. The value rather lies in the cumulative impact of the entries, which is frequently dramatic. (p. 11)
Fairburn goes on to write: “Cox did not possess an imaginative, searching, enquiring, original or thoughtful mind. When he says anything interesting, it is unintended.”
Cox diary on Twitter: @cox_diary
Although the Twitter project included almost 2,000 entries detailing five years of Cox’s life, this is but a sliver of the overall 38-year timespan that his diary covers.
By the time we meet Cox on Twitter, he’s nearing the end of his working life. Fairburn’s entry on Cox in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography puts things this way:
His advancing years, combined with the shrinkage in the supply of casual work, made it difficult for him to win labouring jobs and hold them down, even though he believed in the gospel of work and was an orderly, industrious and reliable employee. He sank to the bottom of the unskilled labour market, went through myriad jobs, was often on the move, and suffered from long and frequent periods of unemployment. Basing himself in Carterton, he eked out an existence as best he could, always fearful that he would be forced into vagrancy again, too proud to think of asking for charity or to return home, not bothering to apply for the old-age pension since its weekly value covered only about a third of the cost of his board and lodging. Worse was to come. His ability to support himself was impaired by heart trouble from 1916 and then brought to an end by cancer requiring major surgery in early 1918.
The desperation we see in earlier volumes when he was forced onto the road for months at a time looking for work, or even during his months-long job at the flax mill enduring extreme cold and wet that impacted his health, is mostly replaced by quiet resignation – the economic security and independence that he longed for was forever out of reach.
Cox does eventually recover from his bout with cancer. Long enough to secure a place at the local home for indigent elderly men, Carter House. In the words of David Colquhoun, “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.”
Unfortunately, David did not live to see the end of the Cox Twitter project that he began. David died 18 March 2018. With the help of David’s former colleagues in the Turnbull Library, the final diary transcriptions were finished, allowing the Cox diary tweets to continue through David’s own preferred date of completion: the centenary of the wars end in 1918.
After retiring from the Turnbull Library in 2014, David moved from Wellington to Carterton. I imagine that during David’s frequent excursions around town he would have regularly travelled many of the same roads and walks that Cox details so frequently in the pages of his diary. All of this would have helped David form a more complete picture of a man who left behind very little in physical belongings, but a wealth of historical information in the diary he so faithfully kept over so many years.
My own involvement with the project was from the start, helping to set up the Twitter account, organise the transcriptions and load the tweets (ensuring they met the required character limits). Later, I worked with David to assist him with transcribing passages from the diary – always marvelling at how quickly he could interpret and decode Cox’s most illegible longhand.
I know David would have been grateful for those who continued his challenging work to transcribe Cox’s handwritten diary entries. Thank you to Sean McMahon, Assistant Curator Manuscripts; Joan McCracken, Outreach Services Leader; Natalie Marshall, Curator Photographs; and Diane Woods, Field Librarian.
Thanks also to the administrators of the Life 100 Years Ago project, Virginia Gow and later Matthew Tonks, for marshalling the various accounts into a single coherent stream of 100-year-old histories in real-time.
- See each of the 37 volumes of the Cox diary in all its digitised glory, on our website: Cox, J. Diaries, 1888--1925. MS Papers 4296 / MS-0621-0655
- Cox diary on Twitter is here: @Cox_diary
- Read David Colquhoun's other posts on the Library’s blog
- See this Stuff article about the James Cox diary: Flashback: Extraordinary diary brought posthumous fame to humble labourer
- Follow the remaining contributors to the project on this Twitter feed: @Life100YearsAgo
Miles Fairburn. 'Cox, James', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996, updated February, 2019. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3c39/cox-james (accessed 14 March 2019)
Miles Fairburn. Nearly out of Heart and Hope: The Puzzle of a Colonial Labourer’s Diary. Auckland University Press, 1995. Link to this title in our catalogue.