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Charlie - leg of wood - heart of oak

Perhaps the best-known character in Kuaotunu was Charlie McNeish, a Māori of big dimensions and outstanding appearance. He was always conspicuous, not only because of his massiveness, but also because he had a wooden leg, having met with an accident when working in the bush as a young man. This had necessitated the amputation of one leg at the knee. He was in due time fitted with a crude looking thing secured to the stump by means of a strap and buckle and likewise another strap went around his waist, making a simple but secure fixture to Charlie himself.

Charlie always boasted of his strength, despite his handicap, and to prove it there was always a challenge to anyone to pull on the lazy stick. Because of his disability, he found an occupation where great agility was not required. Thus, we find him the proprietor of the billiard saloon and barber shop, a few doors from the Royal Hotel. His hand-held hair clippers became very worn and neglected, and when run over the head his victim was almost lifted a foot out of the chair. However, what was not cut, was pulled out, and Charlie received his sixpence.

He was really a remarkable man. He never had a day’s schooling but was self-taught in reading and writing and had a wonderful command of words and really delighted in the use of big ones, which he often applied correctly. He could quote Robbie Burns and Shakespeare and his dictionary was well-fingered.

Now Charlie, like others, did sometimes go on a spree. The only difference was that he did it properly, no half measures. And on these occasions, he could be heard all over town – some say he drowned the sound of the batteries (mine stampers) as well as his sorrows. On one such occasion, after shouting, he lay down exhausted beside a gnarled old puriri tree and went to sleep. Some hours later, when he began to stir, he found his wooden leg firmly nailed to the tree. Nobody would own up to having done this, and everybody kept out of his way for the next few days.

In later years, Charlie acquired a rowing boat about thirteen feet, and he used to do a little fishing and sell the surplus fish in the town. He quite often rowed to great Mercury Island with an important message to the owner, Mr Dawson and later Mr Ridell.

How he survived one of these trips is regarded as a miracle by those who saw it. Though the weather was only moderately rough that day when Charlie set off on the outward trip from the comparative shelter of Kuaotunu Bay, he nevertheless had a stiff wind outside and uncomfortable choppy sea to contend with. But by strength and skill, he made the shelter of Mercury Island Harbour. He delivered the important message and fearing that a storm might be approaching and anxious to return to Kuaotunu, he set off again on his way back to get through before the waves became too high. The decision nearly cost Charlie his life, for the wind had changed direction, and was gradually increasing in violence as he battled across open sea in a rowing boat.

But that was only a foretaste of what was to follow. On arriving around the reef a little distance off the Kuaotunu Beach, he found the seas were mountain high and an attempt to land would be suicide. Charlies had to make a decision quickly – attempt a landing which meant almost certain death or return once more to Mercury Island (ten miles) in the teeth of a gale with only a remote chance of success. He chose the latter, fully conscious of the magnitude of the effort before him. What a heart! What a test of endurance! He battled for hours, finally achieving the impossible, arriving in the Mercury Island Harbour with one oar broken, completely exhausted. But he lived to tell the tale.

Now old Charlie often stated he was part of Kuaotunu and when he died in Coromandel Hospital on the 21st January, 1934 part of Kuaotunu went with him.

Note from Stan Stewart: I commend this history to anyone with an interest in Kūaotunu and Coromandel. It is easy to read, factual, full of human interest with many amusing episodes. The Informer will carry three short episodes taken directly from the book.

This is Kuaotunu’ - by R A Simpson. First Printed 1955 - many reprints. All Rights Reserved. Excerpts in The Informer used with permission. You can buy a copy: @$15 from Kuaotunu Store, 16 Blackjack Rd and the Mercury Bay Museum and Paper Plus Whitianga. Early edition can be found on Trade Me.


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