No job too tough

At Ashburton Museum, when it comes to fulfilling research requests for the public, we are often just as excited as you are when we come across some interesting information about a certain person.

In a previous article, we learned from Maurice Otley’s ‘History of Medicine’ about Dr. Trevor, a prominent figure from Ashburton’s past with many talents.

Dr. Trevor, alongside numerous vocations, acted as coroner and deputy in Ashburton for many years, having left behind a storied legacy which still interests us 150 years later.

While conducting some research for a member of the public, Senior Curator Maryann Cowan discovered the exciting legacy of yet another interesting Ashburtonian – that of Mr. James Russell Richardson.

The flying teacher

J. R. Richardson signed up to train as a pilot during the First World War at age 19, travelling from the North Island to train at Sockburn.

His parents, James Russell and Frances Maud Richardson signed a consent letter to allow their son to join the Expeditionary Force on the 16th of July 1918.

According to a document from the Canterbury Aviation Co. Ltd., Richardson entered aviation school on the 24th of August 1918.

On the 11th of November 1918, Richardson left New Zealand for England as a Royal Air Force cadet on the HMNZ Transport Nos. 112, the RMS Iconic.

Surprisingly, though the war was just drawing to a close, the boat he was on did not turn around and carried on to England regardless.

Richardson arrived at the cadet distribution depot in London on the 1st of January 1919, embarked to return back to New Zealand in March, and arrived home in May.

Apparently Richardson had fallen ill for a time in England, and stayed in hospital, which explains why he did not immediately return to New Zealand.

This extended absence was noticed by his father, F. W. Richardson, who wrote a letter to the director of base records in Wellington on the 24th of April 1919 asking where his son had gone.

Eventually Richardson ended up back in Ashburton, lodging at Park House around 1928.

A year prior, Richardson sent a letter to the general secretary of the RSA asking whether he was entitled to a soldier’s medal, which he wrote on official Borough Inspector stationery.

While in Ashburton, the roles he undertook included sanitary inspector for the Borough Council, Municipal Engineer, and Health Inspector.

His run as Health Inspector lasted over fifteen years, and was recognised as a qualified sanitary inspector by the Royal Sanitary Institute, London.

Richardson also taught at Ashburton Technical School, worked at Burnetts, and also became a Borough Councillor on the back of the Ashburton Ratepayers Association.

On top of all this, he was also a founding member of the Ashburton Airport/Aero Club.

In the papers

Being able to single out a figure in our past and study their life in the public eye is a privilege we can now freely enjoy thanks to archives, and the digitisation of archives.

The National Library Paperspast website offers issues of the Ashburton Guardian and Herald up until the middle of the 21st century, which allows us to take a look at how Richardson was perceived and how his career was discussed in the local papers.

In 1945, Richardson unfortunately had to resign from his position as Borough engineer due to a policy change by government, which stated that those who held engineering positions such as Richardson’s had to be fully and officially qualified, which Richardson was not.

It was reported in 1945 that upon his resignation from the role of Borough engineer, Richardson stated that he had not received any annual leave for three years running, and it was agreed that he was to be paid three months’ salary following his resignation to make up for it.

On the eve of his retirement, Richardson was entertained at a social in the Hampstead Hall, where about sixty to seventy people attended and saw him off.

One article from August 1953 details that Richardson asked to be allowed to run for Mayor of Ashburton.

This article goes on to explain that Richardson was elected to council at a by-election in 1946, and was chairman of the by-laws committee of the council for six years, having also been a staff member at the council for 22 years at that point.

Additionally, Richardson had been borough engineer for six and a half years.

In a later article, Richardson is quoted to have said that he is “a staunch advocate of reasonable and wise spending”, and that he has a “comprehensive knowledge of local body administration.”

It is said that Richardson “saved the ratepayers thousands of pounds in strict sealing, average water extension and borough yard reconstruction.”

Remembering past figures

It is thanks to the hard work of museums and archives staff across the country that such details regarding the lives of many ordinary people have been preserved in various forms for us to discover and research.

Furthermore, the work of historians, biographers, and hobbyists is equally important in preserving past lives as evidenced by Maurice Otley’s histories, which also gave us some great insights into the life of Dr. Trevor.

Such stories help us to understand that many people can go through numerous career changes and work many different jobs during their lives, while many others are just as content sticking to one vocation.

If there is one thing that can be taken away from this, it is this:

Whether you decide to bounce from role to role, or if you are content with just one thing, you will still be remembered and you will leave your mark regardless.

By Connor Lysaght

This post was modified for this blog and was originally published in the Ashburton Guardian, 5th of May 2020.


  1. Line of dignitaries for opening of Hampstead Swimming baths, February 11th 1922, including J. R. Richardson, second in from right.
  2. The Ashburton Borough Council in 1927, including Richardson sitting just to the right of the Mayor Robert Galbraith at the head of the table.
  3. Ashburton airport, not too long after it was established. This photograph was taken a while after the airport opened, since when it opened they did not have a windsock.

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