Sailing the Great South Road
In 1932 Lawrence Beavis sailed a very small ship into Auckland's main port. The Ysabel was twenty feet long and three feet wide, but it boasted several intricate sails. Above the ship's prow an angel carved from a block of pine clutched a Bible. A crowd watched Beavis manoeuvre between the ferries and cargo ships of Waitemata harbour. According to the New Zealand Herald, the 'Lilliputian' craft prompted both 'admiration' and 'facetiousness'.
After tying up the Ysabel, Beavis introduced himself as a veteran but unemployed sailor from Silverdale. He had steered his ship down the Weiti River from Silverdale into the upper Hauraki Gulf, then headed south around the Whangaparoa peninsula to Auckland. With wind in its sails the vessel could travel at three knots an hour.
The little ship was named after the barquentine that Anglican missionaries had sailed for decades between the islands of the tropical Pacific. Beavis had worked on the missionaries' Ysabel, but the vessel had burnt to the waterline in 1927. Now, like tens of thousands of other New Zealand men, Beavis was unemployed, and doing relief work for a few shillings a week. With the miniature Ysabel he could travel cheaply.
In the 1930s Silverdale was still a small settlement stretched along the banks of the Weiti River. In the nineteenth century fishermen, boat builders, smugglers, and pirates had been attracted to the complicated and sheltered coastline near the village. By the 1930s, though, metal vessels built in large urban shipyards had taken over the work once done by Rodney's wooden schooners, and the Great Depression had closed many wharves.
Lawrence Beavis was not content to build small ships. At the end of the winter of 1933 the Auckland Star published a photograph of him standing on a ladder that leaned against a forty foot long vessel with two tall masts. Loose timber lay at the bottom of the ladder; kanuka and pine rose behind the ship. The Star explained that the photograph had been taken beside the Weiti River, where Beavis had been working on a 'gospel ship' called the Ysabel.
An article published in several other newspapers called the Ysabel as 'the strangest craft an amateur boat builder has ever planned'. Beavis had used wood 'obtained in the bush', and 'measured everything by the span of his fingers'. His chisel was an old file. He had cut verses from the Bible onto every piece of timber in his craft.
On the night of February the 14th, 1935, the Ysabel was tied to the wharf on Weiti River when it caught fire. Beavis could salvage only a few pieces of his ship.
In the months after this disaster, the old sailor bought a series of advertisements in the personal columns of the New Zealand Herald, where widowers often placed requests for new brides and children were offered for adoption. On the 26th of March Beavis published the message 'To the Glory of God, will rebuild the Gospel Ship'. In April he requested 'Timber and Bolts...to build New Gospel Ship'.
On the morning of the 16th of July Beavis pushed his barrow from Auckland's central post office up Anzac Avenue and Symonds Street, down Khyber Pass Road, and onto the Great South Road at Newmarket. He was wearing white sandshoes, a soft hat, and a dark suit, and had pinned a sign saying Auckland to Wellington on his craft.
Wheelbarrowing was popular in 1935. In New Zealand and many other parts of the British empire, 'wheelbarrow derbies' were being held in many towns and villages to raise money for charities and entertain locals drained of disposable income by the Great Depression. A popular Auckland race went from Mount Mangere to the Waitemata waterfront. Lawrence Beavis was unusual in pushing a barrow without a passenger, and in planning to push his barrow so far.
Beavis told the New Zealand Herald reporter that he hoped to play his guitar for audiences in the towns and villages along the Great South Road and Highway One, and to ask these audiences for money to rebuild his 'gospel ship'. When the ship had been reconstructed he would first sail it in the Tasman Race, an annual event that began in Auckland and ended in Melbourne, and then take it to the Holy Land, where he hoped to observe the fulfilment of a series of prophecies made in the Bible. Beavis planned to cover twelve miles a day on the White Barrow, and to reach Wellington in seven weeks. He would not push his barrow on Sundays.
Dallimore and his followers built their own church, close to the Great South Road in Otahuhu, but most British Israelites worked inside mainstream denominations. William Massey, New Zealand's Prime Minister between 1912 and 1925, was a British Israelite and a Presbyterian. It would not have been difficult for Lawrence Beavis to serve on a mission ship like the Ysabel while espousing British Israelite doctrines.
Beavis' proposed wheelbarrow journey to Wellington must have seemed almost as far-fetched as his plan visit to the Holy Land. In the 1930s New Zealand's roads were improving, and the Automobile Association felt confident enough to publish a series of maps and guidebooks and hold rallies for its members in remote and newly roaded districts like the Ureweras. Some of the least popular stretches of the Great South Road, like the muddy, rutted, and vertiginous route over the Razorback Hills at the southern end of Auckland, had been bypassed. But the road still had many miles of gravel, and was often blocked. Even in the southern suburbs of Auckland drovers still took cattle and sheep up and down the road; sometimes their herds proved as erratic and obstructive as the numerous creeks and rivers that the road crossed and followed.
On the sixth of August Beavis was telling readers of the Star that he had entered the King Country, after a journey through the 'rough seas' of the Waikato district. South of Hamilton he had encountered 'rough weather', and had needed to 'dock for the night' at a farmhouse. The White Barrow had sailed into Te Awamutu at one thirty the next afternoon, then weighed anchor a couple of hours later. At two the next morning, though, Beavis had been forced to 'hove to' and spend the night under a seaside tree. 'Weather looking bad' he reported, 'but nothing to do but sail'.
Beavis played his Hawaiian guitar in some of the towns and settlements along the Great South Road and Highway One, but the cold rain that fell for much of August 1935 kept his audiences tiny. In a letter to Wellington's Evening Post, he complained that many of the people he met on the road considered him warily. Instead of recognising that he was raising funds for a holy mission, they considered him an eccentric, or a con man, or both. In the winter of 1935 thousands of men were walking New Zealand's roads. Disillusioned with the relief work offered in the cities and in prison-like camps by the government, they scavenged and begged for food, and sometimes found temporary employment planting potatoes or cutting gorse for shorthanded farmers. Beavis' plans to sail across the world must have seemed quixotic, at best, to these men, and to the people he asked for money.
Beavis appears to have followed the Great South Road as far as Te Awamutu, then taken Highway Three through the King Country, 'dropping anchor' at Otorohanga and Te Kuiti, before rejoining Highway One on the North Island's cold central plateau. At Waiorou, the highest town on the island, two feet of snow lay in his barrow. Gales blew his suit 'to ribbons'.
While Beavis was suffering, a couple of younger, more affluent, and more glamorous men were beginning their own wheelbarrow journey to Wellington. On the fifth of August Gordon Lukey and his friend JC Schofield set out for Wellington. Lukey was a well-known cyclist, and the wheelbarrow he pushed had been sponsored and designed by several Wellington businesses. The 'snailoplane', as Lukey and Schofield called their vehicle, had pneumatic tyres specially designed for their journey by a rubber manufacturer, a comfortable seat, a footrest, a clock, and a horn.
Supporters followed Lukey as he pushed Schofield down the Great South Road, stopping at Greenlane for twenty minutes, at Otahuhu for half an hour, and at Manurewa for forty-five minutes, before putting in for the day at Papakura, where a crowd of locals surrounded the two young men, and the snailoplane was pronounced the most luxurious wheelbarrow ever to enter the suburb. Lukey praised Schofield as a 'jolly good passenger', and told a reporter for the Auckland Star that he hoped to reach Wellington in a month.
After following the Great South Road through the Waikato, Lukey and Schofield turned away from the central plateau and travelled along the Taranaki coast, where the weather was milder. Crowds and journalists waited for them.
While the two young men were cruising south, Lawrence Beavis was sending a series of melancholy but defiant notes from the small towns of the Manuwatu and the Wairarapa. In a letter mailed from Bulls he complained of continued bad weather, and warned that he might break down shortly owing to trouble all round'. But Beavis maintained that, even if he was 'wrecked', he would 'have the honour of having played straight'. He may have resented Lukey and Schofield's willingness to race their barrow on Sunday.
At the beginning of September hundreds of Wellingtonians applauded Gordon Lukey, as he pushed his friend down Lambton Quay to the city's central post office. Newspapers celebrated Lukey's feat, and he and Schofield were treated to a concert at Wellington's opera house.
More than a week later, a short article in the Evening Post summarised a series of epistles the paper had received from Lawrence Beavis. Beavis' letters had, the Post said, 'a plaintive note'. He had grumbled about receiving no acknowledgement, let alone welcome, when he pushed his barrow into Palmerston North. In a letter posted a few days later from Levin 'Beavis gave expression to his opinion that playing a Hawaiian steel guitar as a means to raising money is futile'.
At a quarter past twelve on the afternoon of the eleventh of September, Beavis dropped anchor in front of Wellington's central post office. His journey had taken eight weeks and twelve hours. He had raised only two pounds on his way to the capital, and had no alternative but to return on foot to Auckland.
But Beavis had not given up hope of building a new 'gospel ship'. He told a report for the Evening Post that he wanted a forty-nine foot vessel, with auxillary engines. Instead of talking about sailing to the Holy Land to witness miracles, though, he now fantasised about taking a missionary ship and sailing it to 'all the ports of New Zealand'.
By the end of September Beavis was writing to the Auckland Star from Otaki. 'Instead of pushing the barrow, I'm towing its astern' he explained. 'Pushing is too common, so I'm doing something different. I hope I get a better hearing on the return.' By November he had reached Huntly, 'after a stormy trip from Hamilton': being 'in ballast', he had felt 'very uncomfortable'. Beavis planned to 'anchor' in Papakura, and spend the last Sunday of his journey in that suburb. He had received a little more money on his return journey, but had spent most of it on food and other necessities, and now 'despaired of ever being able to raise funds honestly' for his ship.
On the afternoon of the sixth of November, after a return journey of forty-one days, Beavis reached Auckland's central post office. A crowd gathered outside the building, but according to the Auckland Star its members were in a 'jocular' rather than celebratory mood. As Beavis stopped his barrow, observers 'passed witticisms concerning his adventure'.
Beavis' adventures were not over. He returned to Silverdale and, despite a lack of funds and encouragement, built a new ship. Like the Ysabel that Beavis had once helped served on, it was a barquentine, with a square-rigged foresail, two smaller back sails, and a long and elegant prow. Beavis' new ship as fourteen feet long, with wheels at the bottom of its hull.
On the 19th of January the Evening Post ran a photograph of Beavis 'at the helm of the barquentine Israel'. The photograph, which had been taken just south of Petone, showed an elderly man with a soft hat and a suit seated behind the aft of his ship. He was leaning forward and hunching his shoulders slightly, as though he were driving a sulky behind a racehorse. Beavis had almost finished yet another journey.
Media interest in Lawrence Beavis had almost evaporated by 1937, and only scattered and brief mentions of his latest journey can be found in the archives. We do not know whether he returned by sailboat from Wellington, nor whether he ever raised enough money to rebuild his beloved gospel ship.
Because the paper trail runs out, we can conjecture about Lawrence Beavis. I like to imagine that his thinking shifted, during his long journeys up and down the Great South Road and Highway One. Once he had wanted to escape New Zealand, and had seen his time on North Island's roads as a means to that end. The White Barrow had been made for fundraising, not adventure. Palestine, not New Zealand, was the Holy Land.
But the vivid and occasionally exultant language of Beavis' reports from the 'seas' of the North Island suggests a consciousness gradually anchoring itself in the New Zealand of the 1930s, and perhaps forgetting fantasies about an apocalyptic Middle East. When he abandoned talk of sailing to the Middle East, and told that the Evening Post that he wanted to take a ship to every port in New Zealand, Beavis perhaps signalled a new interest in the fallen local world. Perhaps his journeys became ends in themselves; perhaps he continued to sail back and forward between Auckland and Wellington for years, and became a sort of Flying Dutchman of the Great South Road.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]