Title picture: Climbing Hill Sixty, 1992. © Copyright Arno Gasteiger, arno.co.nz, used by permission.
Ross Webber was not that unusual to start with, but he became a type of person who has now all but disappeared from our modern world- a self-sufficient, self-taught man living alone in a remote place, a burden to no-one. That is what makes him special and here is my best attempt at setting down the story of Ross and his island.
William Ross Webber died in Auckland on 23 January 2022. I met Ross a few times, grilled him about his island incessantly, talked with people who knew him and studied what he left behind on Puangiangi. Ross has merited chapters in at least two books, several newspaper and magazine articles and even TV programs, but I’ll try to stick to what Ross told me directly or can be reasonably inferred from photos and artefacts on the island. Hopefully I have identified any speculation on my part as such. The other articles are listed at the end and they contain many interesting stories additional to mine.
I was surprised to learn that Ross is no close relative of the long-standing Webber families from French Pass or Kapiti. He and his family were originally from Auckland. His grandfather was a Queen Street lawyer. The family of 5 (including a brother and a sister to Ross) moved to Nelson where Ross’ father was a Master at Nelson College. Ross had a couple of years’ schooling there too. When he left at about 16 he worked at many different outdoor jobs around the South Island- a musterer and bushman among them.
In 1949-50, Ross was part of a gang clearing bush from Lake Coleridge to Lake Rotoiti for the new power line. Much of the work was hand-felling the trees. He lived in the public works camp a mile from Inangahua Junction. He also worked on some of the big South Island stations- he has marked up the photo of Mt Algidus station in A River Rules My Life by Mona Anderson (a 1963 Christmas present from his parents) to say that the Iron Store has been moved from where he remembered it. These additions to books are a constant theme- Ross was a big reader and the library he left on the island delights with little surprises: adding the measurements of various seabirds to their chapters in Ronald Lockley’s The Island; a relevant newspaper clipping inserted into one of his maritime books; an aide-mémoire when the number of characters in a biography gets out of hand; an (I imagine) indignant correction of some other poor scribe.
We calculated that Ross left behind about 30 lineal feet of books and magazines. Some were on bookshelves when we arrived, many were in boxes in the big bedroom, and some were sitting damply in the shed, including the 1914 First Edition of Guthrie-Smith’s Mutton Birds and Other Birds. Peter took it home and dried it out to stabilise it as best he could. Besides the book some of its writing has not aged well, with Guthrie-Smith struggling in the preface to reconcile his ideas of the need to preserve nature with having to squeeze nature by growing the (white) human population in a country that was uncomfortably close to the “yellow races”. We really couldn’t move for books and magazines, and we had a big session one night, Peter putting aside a keep pile and a chuck-out pile, and I going through the latter to rescue any I thought worthy. We tried to keep a representative sample of Ross’ wide interests, even if they didn’t do anything for us. We did have to throw out a multi-volume history of the second world war just to make some space. In all, we estimate 10 cubic metres of books and material from the house and shed went down to the beach to be packed into fadges and barged off by Johnson’s.
Ross was a great keeper of newspaper clippings. We held on to some that marked significant events in recent history, and if you visit and dry the dishes, you will find newspapers lining the drawers telling of the Wahine disaster, Murchison earthquake and so on. Much later, Peter and I concluded that Ross’ armchairs weren’t that comfortable and might be due for an upgrade. It turned out they had no stuffing left and the seats were supported entirely with yet more old newspapers. We have to admit to taking the chairs down to the beach, with some petrol and a bottle of Tui each, and pretending to be Dunedin students while we burned the chairs on the beach. The following morning we were able to retrieve the springs from the sand.
It’s clear that when Ross wanted to know something, he would be prepared to prioritise limited funds and send away to buy the relevant book. They were also a popular present, and many of the books dating from a little before and a little after Ross’ going to live on Puangiangi are inscribed from his mother and father. I’ve met one or two people older than Ross who may have had little formal education, but made up for that with intelligent reading and analysis from treasured, physical books. An almost lost art. Ross was really interested in the sea and ships, the Cook Strait and Sounds regions, firearms, military history, polar exploration, natural history, wildlife and self-sufficiency. He subscribed to several magazines- National Geographic, Time, Australasian Post and so on.
The young Ross was clear that he was working to save up and go farming on his own account. I understand he had a boat built in 1954 to allow him to travel around looking at prospects. His savings from his various jobs were not enough for anything substantial, and the island would have been cheap in 1957 as it would have been marginal economically to farm. It would have held no other interest for anyone.
At 27 he arrived on Puangiangi alone and lived in the 11 sq m King-Turner whare. Then or soon after he got a full set of dentures, having read that the main thing that irks people living in remote places is teeth trouble. We found his second-best set in the shed, with his collection of preserved baby octopus and other interesting sealife, chamois trophies, a large box of empty matchboxes (you never know when they might come in handy)…
Ross fished commercially in the earlier days. He built the shed on the northern landing beach to house a freezer. He ripped out the electric motor and ran it from a diesel one with some type of external refrigeration coil arrangement. It came up out of the sand when we were tidying up the shed. The old freezer inside was full of sand and scrap metal, and had to be cut up to remove it, implying that Ross built the shed around it. Ross said that he experimented with wind power too and I jumped to the conclusion he meant for his fish freezer. Next to the shed is a cradle and rails to let his boat be winched in for maintenance.
After a while Ross gave up fishing and eventually gave his boat to friends at Bulwer. Peter and I think we identified the remains under some trees above the beach over there.
As a sheep farmer, Ross was an excellent blade shearer and he was in demand around the district for this. Some of his old shears were on the island. Ross reckoned his muster reached 240 at one point and the wool clip would have been his main income before he qualified for the Pension at 60. He never kept cattle and the areas of salt turf are the better for it.
He had dogs, but was without them for quite a few of the later years. The old dog kennel is up above the house.
Very early in his island tenure Ross took on his sister’s cat when she moved to Australia. He tried to keep ducks, even making a dam for them in one of the big catchments, but the harriers got them. Folklore has it that after he no longer had a dog Ross mustered his sheep with strategic rifle shots onto rocks. He also told me he mustered the central eastern face on foot. Not even Peter has attempted to traverse that.
Ross killed an animal a month for meat. Having no refrigeration (he chose not to eat fresh dairy products and so had little need for a fridge and little means of powering it), he ate the fatty cuts first before they went off and dried the lean ones (in later years in the big bedroom of his house- the biltong-drying room).
We found several bales of wool in the woolshed when we arrived in 2012. The yards were in reasonable order and there is a pulley in the nearby macrocarpa to string up carcasses for butchering. The 1945 King-Turner sheep dip has had a lot of use but Ross seemed to think it was also a good place to dispose of sheep heads.
Ross had lived in what became the woolshed for a few years, but he moved north and built a three-roomed house and long-drop outhouse (which was just standing in 2012) above the northerly landing beach. Actually Ross said it was two rooms with a third added later, but I can’t see the join or any variation in building materials and so doubted him. However, if you squint at the photo above you will see only two windows on the seaward side. The present building has three. Ross was right! He chose the site very carefully and it is a lot less windy than many other places he could have picked. If you scroll down, you will see a 1970 photo Ross took from the same spot, showing the main track on the island and one down to the beach. These are not present in the 1961 photo and I surmise that Ross carted the building materials by hand for the first house he built.
It looks like he had electric light there from quite early on, with a couple of light switches, one next to where his bunk would have been. There is a hole in the ceiling lining indicating where a stove flue was and some nice shelves. Initially there was a dirt floor but now there is a very thin, crumbling concrete topping. There was a woman on the scene and Ross said he added the third room for her, but she evidently balked at the dirt floor and demanded something be done; neither she nor the floor worked out. I am not clear whether there were two women or one or if the years got mixed up in the telling, but possibly in the mid-70s Ross was going to marry a woman from “up the Pelorus”. She found the going tough out on the island and didn’t last more than days or weeks. A neighbour remembers that Ross became a bit reclusive after this mid-70s episode. Ross also told me, in I suspect a well-practised story, that he went to Wellington once with the intention of finding a wife. He allowed a full week, but came home with only a hangover.
After a while, the 30 sq m three-roomed dwelling no longer served its purpose, and Ross began work on his final island house, directly uphill from Dwelling Two, which became the shed. The main island track was put in around this time and he had a truck on the island for transporting building materials. Ross has variously said that he housed the truck at French Pass for going to town, then brought it out later, or that he had two- one at the Pass and one for the island. The ownership papers, number plate and Operator’s Manual for his 1936 International are there; he bought it in 1965 from Vining and Scott in Nelson. Intriguingly there is also a 1942 Chevrolet Truck service manual which Ross has inscribed with his name and the year 1954. I’ll go with a truck both at the Pass and on the island.
The 50 sq m house has concrete and timber foundations, a timber frame, iron roof and fibrolite cladding. Ross ordered the galvanised steel windows from Bradley Bros in Christchurch and their 1969 drawings are in the island library. A lot of the details would not pass muster nowadays and the back wall has a distinct lean, but he built this himself, in the middle of nowhere. Few not qualified as builders could do it these days.
Ross said the house served him well, but noted that a leak in the smaller bedroom caused the ceiling to collapse at one time. For the moment we think we have tracked down and repaired the other roof leaks, without having to replace more than two sheets of iron. Ross used the shed roof as a sunny deck with direct access from his new house, and covered the corrugated roof with six-by-one for the purpose. This eventually allowed the unwashed iron to rust and we had to replace the shed roof. The steel windows have almost no rust, and a putty and paint has them looking good.
The fireplace is made from bricks that Ross made on site, and one is dated 1979, with Ross’ name on it. The outer is mortared/concreted stone and there is a piece of argillite incorporated as a feature. Perhaps the fireplace was a later addition, or indeed maybe the house took ten years to finish off. He built a 1500-litre water tank behind the house, which was plumbed for a cold supply. Water was heated with a succession of pot bellies or Thermette-like devices, and the bath was connected to a wetback off the fireplace. In later years Sue Keall recalls the bath being used mainly for storage. There is an inside flush lavatory connected to a home-made concrete septic tank. Ross ran short of water in summer and would go over to a water source on D’Urville to fill up when required.
His garden and orchard would also have been competing for what water could be spared. His vineyard has an irrigation system installed, but we haven’t managed to get to the bottom of it. There is a very intriguing length of polythene pipe quite a way uphill of the vineyard- nothing to do with the house supply. Ross might have been able to tap a spring, but we can’t find much evidence of one. He made wine, cider and beer. Quite a lot of the kit was still there when we arrived.
Ross grew his own camellias for tea. I believe he got the plant(s) from the agricultural research station at Riwaka (I remarked to Ross on his fine Cox’s Orange apple tree, but he swiftly corrected me that it was a closely related variety selected also by Riwaka for a drier coastal situation). A 1995 TV clip shows him picking young leaves for a brew of green tea. The waist-high shrub is shown just up from the house, but we have been wholly unsuccessful at finding it. Ross had a reasonably regimented life, there being a specific time for all things, not least morning tea. Sue Keall and Peter both recall taking tea with him. He kept the brewing tea hot in a bed of straw. Peter got a bit impatient after 20 minutes and reached for the teapot, only to have his hand slapped away and get admonished that the tea needed to brew properly. Peter did find it difficult to crack a joke or have a humorous aside with Ross. Perhaps it was the lack of much conversation in his daily life but everything was taken somewhat seriously and at face value.
Ross had electric light at the new house, from a small solar panel. When we arrived there was also a newer panel and two batteries. They staggered on long enough for us to get a bit of light while we arranged for a new system. We found no fewer than five little TVs in the shed and Ross was obviously an enthusiastic adopter of the new broadcast medium when it came to the district. Above is a plan for the diamond-shaped aerial set out on the hillside, not in Ross’ hand apart from the date annotation. Many farmers nearby would have had a similar arrangement and no doubt notes were compared as to who had the best set-up. The posts are still there but we had to remove the wires if we were to use helicopters nearby.
He also got the telephone on, I think from the mid-late 1980s when Telecom was split out of the Post Office and then privatised. As part of that the government required of the new entity that rural folk could get connected without having to pay for the installation, and then pay no more a month than their city counterparts. Don Grady and Gerard Hindmarsh wrote in 2000 and 2012 respectively that Ross would hide the telephone lest passing yachties come by and use it for free, but Ross described this claim as “bloody nonsense”. Indeed his phone had obviously only ever been in the one place, clearly visible on the wall.
Ross was also a conservationist, or at the very least an enthusiast for nature. Some of his exploits would not be approved of today. There was once a photo of a large lizard that Ross kept as a pet. He said he got it from “one of the stacks” and I presume this was a Duvaucels gecko that he got from Kuru Pongi. Latterly we reintroduced some under permit and although we can seldom find them, presume they are doing well. He also kept a sooty shearwater chick at his house for a time, feeding it on bacon scraps, but it died. He was a keen observer and in 1981 shared with the visiting Rowley Taylor what birds were present in what seasons and also noted that rabbits and pigs were on the island some time before his arrival in 1957. He tried to attract starlings with nesting boxes so they could check grass grub.
Ross was driven to distraction by the Norway rats and trapped them extensively. Arno Gasteiger visited in 1992 and Ross had marked a bullseye on the ground outside his kitchen window, with some rat bait in the centre. When a rat took the bait, he would shoot it from the window. In the 1980s Peter asked Ross if he would accept some traps and service them to protect the southern sooty colony. Ross readily agreed even if it meant lots of effort for him and not so much for the government requesters. The remnants of one trap are still there. Ross thought the sooties persisted the whole time, and he might be right, but we concluded they disappeared in the 1980s or 1990s before coming back in late 2012.
Ross helped the authorities monitor the activities of wildlife smuggler Freddie Angel. Once, he spotted Angel’s boat heading for Takapourewa to steal tuatara and was able to phone it in so the arrival on Takapourewa was not a surprise, and keep an eye on Angel’s later movements.
Ross has often been described as a “hermit”, a term he hated. He was good friends with his neighbours, especially the Moletas at Waitai. His hospitality extended to all who treated him with respect, be it a team from DSIR Ecology Division wanting to roam all over the island, a 1996 visit from Nelson Botanical Society, extended visits by an Australian sea kayaker who described him as the grandfather figure she had never had, or most importantly being willing to engage with DOC about having his sheep shipped off during the 1999 rat eradication. He was not so friendly towards trespassers, and would often become aware of them when his sheep started charging around for no good reason. He could sneak up on the trespassers and give them a fine shock. A teenaged Lindsay Elkington was on the receiving end once, when having finished work on Tinui for the day with his dad Turi (who ran the mail boat) he went over to Ross’ beach to pick up some driftwood for a fire. Tinui does not have a good supply of driftwood because of how the currents run yet it accumulates well in Woolshed Bay on Puangiangi. Ross bellowed down from a vantage point to the effect of “what the bloody hell do you think you are doing?”, to which an unfazed Lindsay replied “do you want your mail on Tuesday or not?” Lindsay recalls that his Mum was quite concerned for Ross since he lived on his own, and the family would host Ross for Christmas dinner and the like. A reluctant Lindsay would also be put ashore from the mail boat to check up on Ross- reluctant until he discovered Ross’ vast arsenal of firearms anyway. A hint of this remains, with a tin hat from a forgotten war and a big shell casing used as storage for handy walking sticks.
As he began to step back from farming, Ross fenced off the northern and southern thirds of the island. He put the northern portion into a QE2 covenant in 1996.
Ross was an accomplished potter but his original home-made kiln eventually collapsed. He was able to take up pottery again with the purchase of a gas-fired kiln when he got the Pension, which I expect would have provided quite an income bump. The newer kiln sits under a mussel float a few metres from the earlier one. I can’t get my head around the gas-fired one; perhaps some critical parts are now missing, but at least penguins like to nest underneath it. His pottery wheel was unfortunately outside when we arrived in 2012 and was beyond saving. Inside are some nice items that he has made and inscribed. He gave a nice pot to friends, who after more than 20 years have now given it back to the island where it sits with the others. Near the kilns is a puddle mill, again housed under a mussel float, used for processing the clay he dug on the island. The shed held a hundred or more lumps of fired clay, which we think were test firings to identify the best sources. I know where one such source was. I fell into it. It took a bit to disentangle myself, the backpack sprayer I was carrying, climb out and regain dignity.
Ross wanted to make 50 years on the island, but poorer health meant he ultimately fell three years short. Perhaps Ross knew it was time to leave when mailboat operator Craig Aston started putting the weekly supplies ashore for him rather than Ross rowing out for them. He put it up for sale in 2004 at age 74, at which time he had not left the island for even a day in 18 years. There was quite the storm of media interest, even to the extent of television presenter Miriama Kamo and crew spending a few days out there. Ross was always cagey about the price of things, never disclosing what he had paid back in 1957, and sensibly keeping quiet about his selling expectations, despite being reported as having had a hundred or more lucrative offers over the years. He got a helicopter visit from island broker Farhad Vladi, owner of nearby Forsyth, but another firm got the listing. When it came time for Ross to sell the island it was interesting (and perhaps a little insightful) how he was adamant that a private sale rather than to the government was more likely to enhance the conservation values.
There was a buzz around the sale as you would expect. The Nature Heritage Fund was a willing buyer at I understand $4 million, but this was vetoed by Labour Conservation minister Chris Carter at a late stage. The Greens stuck their oar in too, demanding that the island be bought for the public estate. A group of Nelson business people with conservation in mind were said to be likely buyers. In the end though, Ross didn’t have much to choose from when tenders closed. He got a verbal offer from a pub owner in the South Island to swap the island for the pub, but a Golden Bay person became the successful tenderer. Ross foolishly left a substantial amount in as vendor finance, I guess because he didn’t have a proper cash offer.
The deposit was paid, but later instalments dried up pretty quickly. Ross restructured the loan, but again the buyer failed to make payments. The buyer spent time on the island and evidently enjoyed it, but was just dreaming. He was uncooperative when DOC approached him to to see if he was interested in hosting some threatened species. The infrastructure deteriorated and what remained of Ross’ flock was allowed back into the closed-off regenerating forest.
Ross left most of his possessions behind when he went in 2004, I presume because of the effort and expense of removing them and to show goodwill to the buyer. (Sue and I took a nice walking stick up to Auckland to give back to him in 2012, but he was definitely unimpressed!) He went to live in Nelson initially, where his landlady introduced him to a relative who became his wife in fairly short order. Ross and Jean enjoyed several lengthy overseas cruises and settled in Auckland to a happy and very different Part Two of Ross’ life. Ross became a bit of a celebrity and there are some nice newspaper articles around from this time.
Ross and Jean returned to the island in 2009, looking for the buyer and the money. Jean said Ross spent a pretty miserable day outside the locked-up house and was especially unhappy about how his orchard had deteriorated. Of course new owners can do what they like and it is nothing to do with a previous owner, but it was a sad day. He would have been equally unhappy with us going in and poisoning his pines and macrocarpas. Ross also thought that his bath being taken outside for a starlight bathing experience was a pretty stupid thing to have done. We thought it was rather good. This was the day when Jean, who was inexperienced with lizards, saw a “green” one. Sue and I quizzed her on this, as to what sort of green it was, and rather than go with a duller colour that the common gecko might have, she confidently pointed out a box of tissues with an apple-green colour on it. This could only be a Marlborough green gecko, a species we have not yet confirmed and which must be a candidate for a future introduction if we can’t find a population in the meantime.
Ross had had enough and being unable to find the “buyer” put a Notice of Substituted Service in the New Zealand Herald, then in 2012 at age 82 put the island up for mortgagee sale. Once we had discovered that it was really Ross who was the vendor, it became a tricky matter to set the price. It was in the aftermath of the global meltdown which began in 2007-8, and the basement would have been the limit when dealing to a property-developer-type vendor, but with Ross needing to finally retire with dignity we needed to weigh carefully what he would need to get after having secured the deposit at least from his first sale attempt and with us having a duty not to unnecessarily waste the funds of our Charitable Trust. Peter approached Ross on our behalf and gave us a character reference, which was quite important given what had gone on with the 2004 sale.
Anyway, the sale went through on 1 May 2012 and Ross was able to get on and buy a house in Auckland with Jean, another for Jean’s family back in the Philippines, and to enjoy life. We visited them in May that year and Ross told us they were receiving regular abusive calls from a real estate agent who was always claiming to have that lucrative overseas buyer just around the corner. I wish I know who the agent was for sure.
Ross took to city life well enough, helped no doubt by settling in with Jean. She said that he did struggle on busy Queen Street a bit but otherwise coped well. A Takapourewa ranger told me that he (the ranger) had to go to Wellington on business after being on Takapourewa for only 18 months. He couldn’t deal with the Lambton Quay crowds and had to hide in the back of a shop, so imagine what dislocation Ross must have felt. When Sue and I visited in 2012 Ross was not very mobile, but did not want to show it. As Peter shot the remaining sheep progressively, he selected a nice bit of lamb and we sent it up to Ross, unwittingly making more work for Jean who doesn’t like lamb and eats pork for preference. We sent up some censored photos of our activities on the island, showing the spruce-up inside, some of his apple trees, our new ones, the regeneration of the former pasturelands, but leaving out the poisoned shelterbelt. Eventually Ross had to go into care and it was especially difficult for Ross and Jean to be separated in the final time by Covid restrictions, but they did their best with phone and video calls. Ross’ ashes are in the church cemetery at Torbay.
Thanks to: Jean Webber, Peter Gaze, Sue Keall, Lindsay Elkington, Aly Jennings, Arno Gasteiger. Jean, I especially appreciate your willingness to share Ross’ old photos so soon after he died. They made a major difference to this article and answered a lot of questions for me. I hope this aligns with what you know of Ross’ earlier life and that it will round out the period for you somewhat. This article is intended to be a “living document” so if readers can add further insights I would love to hear from you with a view to incorporating them into later revisions.
Other Sources and Further Reading:
https://www.ngataonga.org.nz/collections/search?locale=en&page=1&text=ross+webber. Link accessed 2 April 2022. This shows that a 1985 radio interview with Ross and two significant TV items, 1995 and 2004, are in the Nga Taonga archives. I bought the TV clips from TVNZ but can’t show them here as TVNZ thinks it has perpetual copyright over a publicly broadcast item made with taxpayer funding. Nga Taonga hasn’t put them on their website for you because of some lame excuse that they are doing something else more important. Complain.
Andrew Macalister and Gerard Hindmarsh, “D’Urville’s Forgotten Island” in New Zealand Geographic, 1992, 16, 18-46.
Gerard Hindmarsh, “Island Squire: Ross Webber” in “Outsiders”, Craig Potton Publishing, Nelson, 2012, pp 83-97.
Don Grady, “Cook Strait Island’s Sole Inhabitant: Ross Webber” in “Grady’s People: Unforgettable Characters in the Top of the South Island”, Nikau Press, Nelson, 2000, pp 33-48.
http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/7993059/Island-dweller-left-for-wife-and-city-life. Link accessed 5 April 2022.
R H Taylor, “A Vertebrate Survey of Some Outer Islands of the Marlborough Sounds, 26-30 January 1981”, DSIR Ecology Division Report 4/15/13, March 1981 (a bird list related by Ross, and stating that pigs and rabbits were present some time before 1957).