Page 1: Biography
Labourer, flax worker, swagger, agricultural worker
This biography, written by Miles Fairburn, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996, and updated in February, 2019.
The only thing distinctive about James Cox is his complete lack of distinction. He was born on 11 October 1846 at Snodshill in Chisledon, Wiltshire, England, where his parents, William Cox and his wife, Fanny Jefferies, were prosperous small-farmers. Although James's early childhood seems to have been happy, its tranquillity was shattered in 1863 with the death of his father. Soon after, the 17-year-old boy ran away from home with his younger cousin, Richard Jefferies, later a well-known naturalist and writer. Although intending to walk all the way to Moscow, the two boys were forced to return home when they reached France and discovered they could not speak the language. James returned to his job as clerical assistant in the Great Western Railway Company. He never married, and after living under his mother's roof until he was 34, took the fateful step of emigrating by himself to New Zealand. This decision appears to have been prompted by a desire to prove his independence when his beloved mother sold the family farm and retired to the vicinity of London in 1880.
Cox's existence in New Zealand is minutely recorded in a remarkable diary, the surviving portions of which total approximately 800,000 words covering the period from late 1888 to early 1925. Cox landed in Christchurch in 1880 and lived there until 1888. He probably worked as a labourer and, despite the advent of a severe economic depression in Canterbury, enjoyed a modest prosperity. He formed a small circle of friends and contacts, an embryonic social network which was essential for acquiring reliable job information. A prolonged spell of unemployment, however, eventually drove him to move to the North Island in early 1888. After months of fruitless job searching in Wellington he travelled to Foxton in November, gambling that this would improve his prospects.
By a stroke of good fortune, Cox secured employment as the fibre-washer at John Jones's flaxmill near Himatangi, perhaps the most lucrative job he ever held in New Zealand. He worked there almost continuously from November 1888 to late 1890 and found camp life and the routine at the mill eminently agreeable, although his job soaked him to the skin, making him susceptible to endless respiratory infections.
With the crash in flax prices in mid 1890 the mill closed, and Cox took a series of bad decisions that helped to push him into a life of poverty. He frittered away his savings of £30 on a six-month holiday in Christchurch instead of conserving them and looking for a job elsewhere. After the holiday he returned to Jones who had started another mill in Manawatu where the working and living conditions were atrocious. With the coming of winter in 1891, Cox went down with his worst-ever respiratory infections, quit the job and spent his wages on a six-week break in a Palmerston North boarding house. With few options left he then tramped around Manawatu looking for work and ended up once more with Jones, who was setting up a sawmilling venture in Shannon. All Jones could offer was a temporary position as camp cook. When the job finished in early 1892, Cox entered a nightmare world of vagrancy.
In 1892–93 the labour market over the whole of the lower North Island was acutely depressed, and Cox had neither the savings nor the experience nor the social networks to help him find work and cope with life on the road. For about a year he tramped almost blindly around Manawatu, Wairarapa and Hawke's Bay, begging for food at sheep stations and picking up scraps of work. Often sick, chronically undernourished, sometimes in despair, Cox was prevented from breaking down only by his belief in self-order and his regular correspondence with his family. The intense insecurity permanently destroyed his confidence about taking economic risks and occupational initiatives.
Between 1893 and 1902 Cox's fortunes improved. He found employment as a labourer with a small firm of agricultural contractors in Carterton, and was put on the permanent staff through the good efforts of Arthur Spooner, the firm's foreman (and later its enterprising owner), who became one of Cox's best friends. The work took Cox on arduous threshing and chaff-cutting migrations all over central Wairarapa, but for a very low and uncertain wage since he was renumerated on a purely casual basis and earned very little during the off-season.
With the collapse of Spooner's business in 1902, Cox lost his job and was hit by yet another set of problems. His advancing years, combined with the shrinkage in the supply of casual work, made it difficult for him to win labouring jobs and hold them down, even though he believed in the gospel of work and was an orderly, industrious and reliable employee. He sank to the bottom of the unskilled labour market, went through myriad jobs, was often on the move, and suffered from long and frequent periods of unemployment. Basing himself in Carterton, he eked out an existence as best he could, always fearful that he would be forced into vagrancy again, too proud to think of asking for charity or to return home, not bothering to apply for the old-age pension since its weekly value covered only about a third of the cost of his board and lodging. Worse was to come. His ability to support himself was impaired by heart trouble from 1916 and then brought to an end by cancer requiring major surgery in early 1918.
Cox recovered from the surgery, and on the advice of his doctor retired in 1918 to Carter Home, Carterton, a well-endowed charitable institution run by a local trust for elderly indigent men. Here he enjoyed complete economic security and unaccustomed comfort with few restrictions on his freedom of movement, and was now able to establish a wide circle of friends and take some part in local community life. He died at Greytown on 19 July 1925 and was buried in Greytown cemetery.
Although James Cox's life had negligible impact on the making of New Zealand, his recording of it – with its almost overwhelming mass of systematic detail – has provided an unrivalled account of the daily life of the subordinate classes.