Ngā Kōrero Tuku Iho
The following article has been submitted by Ian McLaren. It is about his father, Robert Archibald McLaren (Archie) son of Heni Titi (Jeannie) Mahuika and Daniel McLaren. Despite his disability, he showed remarkable resilience and strength throughout his life. He was very much loved and admired by all his whānau on the coast and beyond.
Robert Archibald McLaren was born on the 16th of June 1900 in Westport.
Dad lived at the Mahuika family home near the domain and close to the Kawatiri (Buller) River where he played and swam. At the age of 7, while playing on the banks of the Buller River, he had sand thrown into his eyes. This was the beginning of him going blind. By the age of 9 years old, he was taken out of school because his sight had markedly deteriorated.
In May 1910, Mr JH Greenwood, the Mayor of Westport, wrote to the Jubilee Institute for the Blind regarding Dad’s condition after a report from Dr Fergusson of Dunedin. He said that nothing could be done and that eventually Dad would be totally blind.
Dad was accepted and enrolled into the Institute on the 14th June 1911. He left Westport on the 23rd August 1911 on board the ship ‘Navua’ bound for Auckland much to the sadness of my grandmother and the family. He travelled alone and one of the ships stewards looked after him on the journey.
On the 28th of August 1911, Dad started his education as a blind person at the Blind Institute in Parnell, Auckland, which lasted 8 years. Over that time, Dad was trained as a tuner and repairer of pianos. In addition to his normal education, he learnt not only to read in braille but to type on a normal typewriter. He could type a letter without making one mistake!
On the 11th of December 1919, the Minister of Education wrote a letter, it said;
‘I am satisfied that such child has reached a standard of education that makes it unnecessary that such instruction should be continued. He is also proficient in a handcraft which will enable him to maintain himself by his own labour.’ Signed Francis Henry Dillon Bell, Minister of Education.
Dad returned home to Westport at Christmas in 1919. Once settled, Dad started his own business as a piano tuner and repairer. He was granted £100 by the government to purchase a car so that he could travel the West Coast. He bought a Model T Ford, I would think he was the only blind man on the West Coast to own a car. Of course, he must have had someone to drive for him.
However, bad luck in the form of the Murchison earthquake on the 17th June 1929 made it impossible for him to make a living due to the damage to the West Coast towns and roads. Dad then returned to the Blind Institute. He lived at the Institute at Pearson House where he worked in the blind workshops as a wicker worker. He was an accomplished musician and was able to play most instruments in later life, however, he preferred the banjo, piano and drums. He was a member of the Blind Institute Military Band and toured New Zealand with the band several times over the years. He was an extra good sportsman. He was in the Blind Athletic Team, played cricket, hockey and learnt jujitsu and wrestling. One year, he won the Blind NZ Singles Indoor Bowling competition.
In 1935 Dad married Elsa Norton and lived with the Norton family. I was born in 1936 and my sister, Hazel Rata, was born in 1937 but only lived for 3 weeks. We moved back to Westport and lived in the Mahuika Homestead near the Buller River. My sister Jeanie was born in Westport. We then moved back to Auckland. Soon after, Dad returned to work at the Blind Institute workshops and was able to rent a house from the Institute. It was at 2 George St, in the same area as the Institute. My sister Ona was born in 1945.
Dad still tuned pianos and formed a blind dance band consisting of four of his blind friends. They played at the Devonport RSA on a Saturday night and sometimes at weddings.
The band made several trips to Westport and played at dances in Granity, Karamea and Westport. Dads brother, Uncle Dan and sisters Aunty Milly and Aunty Hinemoa would organise the halls, ticket sales and tea and cakes for supper. I was 13 years old when the band made their first trip to Westport. It took three days to get there, overnight on the train from Auckland to Wellington, leaving Wellington in the evening to catch the interisland ferry to Lyttleton, staying a night in Christchurch then on the railcar to Westport. I was their guide. 5 blind men and one 13 year old boy.
It must have looked unusual, 5 men in a line, one hand on the shoulder of the person in front leading them, all were carrying their instrument cases. Poor Dad had to carry the Bass Drum. Charlie Dennis who was the piano player carried the suitcase with all their clothes and such.
The band stayed at the bottom hotel in Westport, I think it was called the Ayrs Hotel. I stayed with Aunty Milly at the Mahuika homestead which, at that time, had two houses on the section (site of ‘Te Taha o te Awa’). Uncle Dan and his family lived in the other house.
Ayrs Hotel did a big trade when the blind band stayed there. Many people would turn up to see Dad and the rest of the band. I didn’t know how popular my father was until that day.
In August 1958 Dad entered a Talkathon contest in Dunedin organised by Joe Brown who also organised the Miss New Zealand contests. He talked for 76 ½ hours, short of the 98 hours required to break the record. The organisers stopped him at 76 ½ hours after he showed signs of extreme fatigue and a very hoarse voice, despite his protests that he was quite capable of carrying on. He won £100 plus £30 in wagers with some of the proceeds going to the Blind Institute and the rest going towards my sister’s High School education.
I never heard my father speak Māori but I know that he understood the language. As a little boy, I would sit with Dad while he listened to the Māori news on the radio and he would tell me what was being said. I was also present when a friend spoke to him in Māori, and he would answer back in english.
He passed away on the 11th of April 1974 at the age of 74.
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