Not One Harry Head, But Two

Harry Head, my grandfather, was born in 1872 and died in 1952 when I was seven. I hardly remember him, but he was by all accounts a stern and uncompromising man; a gambler who sought the company of the well-to-do.  My aunt, Harry’s relative by marriage, could never bring herself to call him anything other than the formal Mr. Head, and he did not dissuade her. He was that kind of man. Grandfather was born in Sussex and left the shores of Britain only once when his eldest son Reginald was gassed during the Great War. He made an unauthorised cross-channel passage to the hospital in Belgium to visit his wounded son in the war zone. He owned a butcher’s shop for much of his life, but following the death of his wife in 1926, he married a hotel barmaid and together they took the Cefn Mably Arms, a country pub on the outskirts of Cardiff. It was there that he died at the age of 80.

But this is the story of another Harry Head, with no connection to me or my grandfather other than a shared name. Harry Head the traveller, was born in 1831 and died in Melbourne at the age of 90. Thus for fifty years the world was blessed with having two somewhat eccentric and single-minded Harry Heads; but they were entirely different men.                                                                                                                              The other Harry Head was born in Wiltshire in 1831, the son of a bookseller. As a twenty-year-old he had visited the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace; it gave him the urge to see the world. It would lead to a lifetime of travel during which he made a total of 312 separate voyages and expeditions (an adventurer who kept immaculate notes). He read extensively- he was a good mathematician, a reasonable Greek scholar and could speak at least seven other languages including Gaelic and Hebrew. He was also an accomplished musician, able to play the piano, the banjo and his favourite instrument, the drum. He was a useful landscape artist and was sufficiently knowledgeable on botany to correspond regularly with two contemporary experts.                                   The extraordinary thing is that despite all of these academic and artistic talents, he chose for himself a different way of life, living as a hermit and often dressing as a vagrant. Although he travelled widely, he did not always take the easy road. He lived among the North American Blackfoot Indians for a while and when he arrived in New Zealand, he walked the length of the country on foot. He had an unerring sense of direction, walking incredible distances and able to take a straight line through dense bush. During the course of his nomadic life, Harry had many occupations; he worked as a goldminer, seaman, bushman, scout, inventor, (he broke his arm experimenting with a flying machine) artist, musician, and explorer, and he lectured extensively in Britain and America. Hidden amongst his adventures, is the fact that in Australia in 1860, Harry asked to join the exciting but ultimately ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition to explore the interior but all the places had been allocated.  All but one man died during the expedition; had Harry gone, who is to say whether the presence of this incredibly capable and tenacious man might not have brought the expedition to a different conclusion.                                                                                                                         In New Zealand, Harry was fascinated by the remoteness and geological uniqueness of Banks Peninsula, a giant ‘cogwheel’ volcano of steep hills surrounding a sea-filled crater and littered with isolated bays around the periphery. In 1864 he became the first European to settle in Hickory Bay, known to the Maori people as Waikerakikari. In a small clearing a hundred yards from the beach he erected a tiny weatherboard shanty, roofed with fronds from the punga tree. The bay was bordered on all sides by steep, uncompromising hills covered in dense bush. It was a hard place to get to either by going over the hills or in a boat.  Yet the land at the mouth of the valley was flat and fertile and Harry carved out a life for himself, bringing cattle across the densely timbered hills and growing his own fruit and vegetables.  He lived as a hermit, often just wearing a sack with holes for his head and arms.  When the occasional visitor came, he would often don Indian garb, including a Blackfoot headdress. When riding a horse it was in Indian fashion, using only a single braided rope as a bridle; like the land itself, he was a wild and untamed man. In the finish though, Harry was still restless, he sold his property when another settler arrived at the head of valley- it was becoming too crowded.  Before leaving, in a gesture that perhaps only he could come up with, he presented Canterbury Museum with an Armenian prayer book written in twenty-four languages.

I visited Hickory Bay to see for myself where Harry had lived. If it was remote and isolated then, it is, by modern standards, much the same now. The only road is a steep and narrow gravel snake winding down from the summits.  There are a number of more accessible bays around this fractured coastline, but only Hickory Bay has no signpost. Much of the dense woodland has gone, the timber harvested by later settlers, but the flatlands above the beach are still farmed and stock grazed peacefully. There is no outward sign of Harry’s occupation; his shanty brushed aside when a timber mill was set up in the clearing. But it is an astonishingly beautiful place, an empty sandy beach cradled between steep, rock cliffs, generating lively surf even on calm days. In unsettled weather it would be impossible to land a boat. On the edge of the beach a small, tent-like structure made from driftwood poles provides rudimentary shelter from the hot sun; it is not unlike Harry’s shanty might have been. Rusting tram wheels lay among the beach boulders, left from the timber mill built after Harry’s departure, but that too has long since disappeared.

Walking on the beach, I left a line of footprints in the sand and across the small stream running into the sea. It was hard indeed not to see Harry standing there, shading his eyes from the sun, his wild straggly beard moving with the wind, his unbent frame casting an eccentric shadow.