In the early 20th century, many swagmen wandered the country from farm to farm earning their keep as they went, and living a simple life. Jack Allen was one such wanderer.
Jack didn’t often speak about his early life and a rumour he was Steve Hart from the Ned Kelley Gang, in hiding, was never confirmed or denied. He was born in Victoria, Australia, and arrived in New Zealand around 1886 with his parents. They settled on freshly felled land at Tokirima, near Taumarunui, and lived in a tent for several years.
Jack was tall and stocky with uncut white hair and a beard to match. He usually wore denim dungarees rolled half way up his calves and a cotton shirt. He carried a leather bag which contained his money and essentials. His wife had run away with another man and he swore he would not wear a coat or socks until she was found and her new beau had been dealt with. Neither event occurred.
He was not fond of washing, claiming bathing made him ill. Jack’s feet were particularly notable; he was rarely seen wearing shoes and his bare feet were as tough as rawhide. He climbed Mt Taranaki (Mt Egmont) barefoot, although did remark afterwards that he probably left it a little late in his life to properly enjoy the experience.
In his later years, a man who remembered him from childhood ran into Jack on a train and was surprised to see him wearing leather shoes. Jack replied by saying, “It’s the Doctor, dammim, said I was getting old, dammim, and ordered me – ORDERED me, if you please, to wear shoes. What does he know? Nothing, but I wear them to please him. Maybe the roads are a bit rough, but he didn’t order socks. I have not come down to that yet.”
Jack was a gentleman towards women, a friend towards men, and was always kind to children despite their initial trepidation. He was known to wear flowers in his hair and had even trained some small birds to land on his head when he whistled. He was never known to drink or smoke and was a talented concertina musician.
In Australia Jack earned fame by droving a flock of geese from Melbourne to Sydney on foot. He earned a living in New Zealand by travelling between Taumarunui and Whanganui, shooting rabbits, selling fish, picking fruit and selling it at the local train stations. Jack was offered a bed and meals where he worked but would usually sleep on the floor with a single blanket and would take his meals in the doorway rather than at the table. He regaled his hosts with tricks such as balancing a broom on his toes while spinning in circles and was an entertaining story teller.
Jack always insisted on paying his own way and earned extra money through local competitions. He was a crack shot with a rifle and rarely missed his target. He also swung an axe with expertise. He was a common sight at country galas and often took away the prize money. He was always eager to complete a dare or a fight a colleague for money.
A hard nomadic life eventually caught up with Jack and he was found in the Taumarunui Railway Station, suffering from pneumonia. He was put into a taxi which he told the driver would be “Jack Allen’s last ride”, and sent to the local hospital where he died on 19 April 1937, aged 86 years.
Sandi Black is the Archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.