Charles John Ayton was born in Newcastle upon Tyne, Northumberland, England, on 24 February 1846, the son of Ann Maria Gales and her husband, John Featherstone Ayton, a corn factor. Otago legends say that Charles had a good education, but that after inheriting the family business he sold it, squandered the money, and left Britain for a new life.
Ayton is said to have arrived in Dunedin, New Zealand, in 1881 and to have accidentally met another Tyneside man, William Storey, whom he followed to the high, storm-battered Serpentine area of Central Otago. There he began a tough, challenging life of self-employment and contract work. Before long he began noting daily events, expenses, and earnings in a diary, giving them a lasting significance which would have surprised him.
At first Ayton worked mainly as a goldminer, but made barely enough to cover his basic expenses of about 9s. 6d. a week (£25 a year) for mutton, flour, oatmeal, potatoes, onions, salt, sugar, coffee, tea, butter, cheese, candles, soap, kerosene, tobacco, matches, and chaff for his horse. He also grew vegetables, kept hens, fished, and caught eels and ducks. However, his income increasingly had to be supplemented by rabbiting in winter, and labouring contracts for the surrounding stations in the warmer months: peat cutting, fence repairing, and filling dangerous holes left from mining. By the late 1890s these contracts had become Ayton's main source of livelihood, earning him a more comfortable (although less than average) income of £30 to £60 a year.
Ayton worked hard in most weathers, but was unable to go out every day. Typical diary entries read 'much snow and big drifts', 'Creeks & River in high flood'. He was sometimes kept at home by rheumatism and other health problems – 'In hut all day with toothache' was a regular complaint. Sundays (always marked with a cross) were seldom spent in gainful employment. However, he always had plenty of essential work to do around his hut: repairing its thatched roof and sod walls, getting in peat for fuel, washing, bottling yeast, baking bread, pickling meat, and tending his numerous cats and dogs during sickness and accidents. He mended clothes, boots and equipment until they were beyond repair: once he soldered up 56 holes in an old bucket. Watches, spectacles, tools and equipment were also mended for neighbours.
In his spare time Ayton read the Otago Witness and the Newcastle Chronicle, and books were swapped around the district (ranging from Jude the obscure to A ghostly witness ). One year he tried to learn Chinese numbers – perhaps for better communication with Chinese neighbours. Another year he studied arithmetic. In 1894 he bought a barometer which he watched enthusiastically. A passing traveller described him as being of 'more than average intelligence…a sort of Astronomer Royale of the district.'
Although he lived a mile from the nearest neighbour and further from others, Ayton was part of a network of men who visited each other every few days to talk, borrow provisions and equipment, and deliver mail (in Ayton's case usually bills, papers, various goods and occasional letters from English relatives). Once a month or so, he rode the 10-mile journey to Serpentine or Styx to buy stores, and go to the pub. Christmas was always a time for communal celebration: in 1898 Ayton invited two men to his hut for a 'great feast. Six roast ducks and bacon. Fathen greens. Rich plum dough and whisky sauce.' It was a largely male society, but included some wives and sisters, such as Annie Edmonds, the storekeeper at Serpentine, whom Ayton helped with office work after her husband died.
As an educated man Ayton had a significant role in the community, writing letters for less literate neighbours, and also performing most official functions, such as collecting census figures and acting as returning officer in elections.
Perhaps because of ill health, Ayton sold his hut in 1905 and went to work at Wanaka station. But in three months he returned to the people and landscape he knew so well. He continued to work around the Serpentine area in the summer, although he began wintering at a hut he bought in the settlement of Patearoa.
At 74 Charles Ayton finally became unable to meet the rigours of his life and began suffering from senile dementia. He lived unwillingly in Naseby Hospital for two years, and was then committed to Seacliff Mental Hospital where he died after three months, on 29 July 1922. He had never married. His had been a strange life for an educated man, but it was apparently a surprisingly satisfying one, which resulted in a rare record of a rural worker's experience.