Story: Adamson, John Angus

Page 1: Biography

Adamson, John Angus

1865–1936

Carrier, coach driver, boarding-house keeper, character

This biography, written by Trish McCormack, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.

John (Jock) Angus Adamson was born at Queenstown, Lake Wakatipu, New Zealand, on 15 August 1865, the son of Peter Adamson, a baker, and his wife, Jane Grinley. Nothing is known of his early life or education. On 7 June 1888 at Ross he married Mary Dunlop. The couple were to have seven children.

One of a succession of mailmen who rode the south Westland highway, Jock Adamson took over the Ross to Gillespies Beach run in 1886, using a spring cart and packhorses to negotiate the rough tracks, numerous unbridged rivers and, south of Okarito, the sea beaches. The small communities he served were almost totally isolated from the outside world, and the role of the mailman was critical. People relied on him for far more than the mail; he also carried passengers and delivered medicines, stores and other goods, and news of events in other parts of the region. Infrequent visits from coastal steamers, which called if the weather permitted at the various ports, were the only other means of obtaining supplies.

Passengers on Jock Adamson's run often found the service idiosyncratic. In January 1894 Mildred Westland and her family were stranded in Hokitika for some days waiting for Adamson to take them south: he had a horse running in the Greymouth races and nothing would induce him to leave. She recorded in her diary: 'H.M.'s mails and their delivery might jolly well wait, and no one thought it anything but most natural'. Another early traveller, Bonny Murphy, recalled that mail and passengers competed for space in the spring cart, and that Adamson had little sympathy for any passenger uncomfortably seated on items such as hobnailed boots.

As the road improved, so too did the transport, and Adamson was able to upgrade to a coach for the mail run from Ross to Waiho (Franz Josef Glacier) in 1898. The journey usually took two days, though flooded rivers could easily double that time. Headlands and rivers were some of the most dangerous points: one mailman lost his horse on a bluff, while another saw his mailbags washed out to sea. Jock Adamson had to be a good horseman. A traveller in early 1906, Tom Seddon, wrote that Adamson was adept at encouraging his reluctant horses to enter cold water at the river fords and to swim behind the ferry boat. He also recalled him telling tales of early identities and events and bursting into song while riding along.

In 1908 Jock and Mary Adamson opened a boarding house, post office and telephone exchange in Harihari. Passengers travelling with Jock on the mail run usually spent a night there, and musical evenings were popular. He was a raconteur and singer, and his clients were well entertained.

In 1912 Jock Adamson lost the mail contract to Tom and Walter Foster. Thereafter he continued to work in his accommodation business at Harihari. During his 26 years as mailman he had taken civilisation to some of the most remote communities in south Westland and played an important role in their development. A West Coast identity, many tales about him live on. Mary Adamson died in 1933, and Jock died in Hokitika on 17 March 1936, survived by three sons and three daughters. He and his wife were buried in the Harihari cemetery.

How to cite this page:

Trish McCormack. 'Adamson, John Angus', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3a6/adamson-john-angus (accessed 13 December 2019)