Page 1: Biography
Swagger, rural labourer
This biography, written by John E. Martin, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.
Edmond (Ned) Slattery, also known as 'The Shiner', was born in County Clare, Ireland, probably in 1839 or 1840. The names of his parents are not known. After working as a herdsman and ploughman he emigrated with his family to the Victorian goldfields, Australia, in 1869. In the early 1870s he moved to the Shotover River in Otago, New Zealand, to pan for gold. As an itinerant rural worker in Canterbury, Otago and Southland he accumulated a great knowledge of the farms and farmers, particularly in his stamping ground of South Canterbury and North Otago. He also travelled to Australia with the shearing fraternity, possibly for work or to 'cut a dash in Sydney'. He apparently got his nickname from an Irish priest in Lawrence who called him a 'shiner' for avoiding work and getting drunk.
Although The Shiner has passed into folklore as the archetypal work-shy swagger and habitual joker who endlessly played tricks to obtain food, liquor and a 'shakedown', it seems that, at least in his earlier years, he was on the road looking for work like many others. He was certainly capable of hard work and even proud of his skill and stamina when he chose to display them. He reputedly walked up to 50 miles a day on the road.
Slattery was described as being more than six feet tall, gaunt and erect, with a long energetic stride. He was immortalised in a 1905 sketch by 'Sherry', which hung in many shearers' quarters, and in George Meek's poetry as the 'Uncrowned King of the Knights of the Banjo'. He was apparently able to discourse on any subject 'from the Koran to the Bible, from Aristotle to Shakespeare, from the sagas of Norway to the fairy tales of Ireland'; and would hold an audience enthralled. He was described as 'highly educated, deeply religious, clean living, masterless and unmasterable, [and] loyal to his friends, who were legion'. A Catholic, he was apparently a regular church-goer and always took a front pew so that everyone could see him.
Unlike most swaggers he was fastidious with his attire and affected a down-at-heel gentlemanly appearance. He wore a battered and holed straw boater tied to his lapel with a bootlace, a starched or celluloid collar around his neck, a dark tie faded green by the sun, a waistcoat, shrunken dark trousers, carefully fitted boots, and he carried a cane or an umbrella (or at least the handle thereof) under his arm. In his later years only vestiges of decayed gentility seemed to remain, and he began wearing a handkerchief under a cap and another around his neck to protect himself against the sun. He was fond of dogs and for many years a pair of greyhounds were his companions on the road.
The tales of his tricks are numerous. The most famous involved getting others to dig a well for him by conveying 'the impression that he had been buried by a fall of earth'. There was the theodolite trick, which culminated in extracting a £20 bribe from a publican whom Slattery, posing as a surveyor, had convinced that his pub would otherwise have to be moved; and many variations on the theme of obtaining liquor without payment. Although seemingly honest he was caught 'being illegally' in a grocer's shop in Oamaru shortly after Christmas 1888 and sentenced to two days in prison with hard labour.
Slattery was well known for his participation, apparently over 40 years, in the Irish jig competitions held at the Oamaru Caledonian Society's annual games over New Year: 'his famous double shuffle and back skips' of a 'strikingly rollicking order…captured the applause of beholders'. He came second at least once, in 1895, and a hat was often passed around for his benefit.
Edmond Slattery appears not to have married or had children. He continued to tramp the roads in the 1920s when well into his 80s. In his last years he frequented Tyne Street and the Old Men's Home in Oamaru, and in mid winter the Dunstan Hospital in Clyde, Central Otago. During the winter of 1927 he lived in a hut near Outram, but when he became incapable of looking after himself the local policeman took him to the Otago Benevolent Institution in Caversham, Dunedin. He died there of a heart attack within a week, on 11 August 1927, aged 87 years. By then he was suffering from 'senile decay' and had gangrene in his toes.