One of New Zealand’s last swagmen was known to all as Russian Jack - but his real name might be a mystery.
His actual name was often said to be Barrett Cruman - but it has never been known if it was really his name or it was taken because he spent time as a crewman on a ship.
Born in Latvia in a small village called Alexandria on March 26, 1878, he only did a few years of education before working in scrub-camps then joined the merchant marine, working as a seaman.
He arrived in New Zealand in 1912 on the British steamer Star of Canada, but off the coast of Gisborne the ship was wrecked and he was swept ashore.
He worked on coastal ships for a while but then took to the land working as a scrub cutter and a farm hand.
Then one day he took to the road.
For the next 53 years Russian Jack wandered around the North Island.
He was best known in the Manawatu and Wairarapa. He just avoided being in Hawke’s Bay during the 1931 earthquake.
He called himself Russian Jack - or Ivan in his native tongue.
In Masterton the statue of him by artist Kenneth Kendall shows a shorter man with a deeply tanned face, a drooping moustache, most often wearing a wide brimmed felt hat and a walking stick.
He smoked a pipe that he usually put out by jamming a cork in the bowl.
Russian Jack carried several large sugar bags and a cut-down kerosene-tin billy, along with tins of dripping which he rubbed on his chest and neck to protect against ailments.
He had a number of rough bivouacs around the North Island that he kept ready for his next visit.
He wore newspapers layered in between his fraying clothes and a pair of boots he fixed over and over again.
He was remembered as a man of honour, being good natured and courteous.
It was only in the mid-1960’s he gave up the life. In his 80’s he was deaf, having trouble walking with one foot becoming deformed.
He was admitted to hospital with frostbitten feet in 1965 and spent the next three years in Greytown Hospital, dying on September 19, 1968, aged 90.
It was a life he had chosen, one that made him happy and in his words, "Man oh man I vos FREE! Free to have a beer, have a smoke, – happy what you can call all the time, you know. They was free days."
Russian Jack was buried in the Greytown Cemetery, given a funeral from the proceeds of a pension he never collected in life.
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