Plant People: Springheel Jack

When a place of settlement experiences a period of rapid and prolonged growth – as Tauranga has done since about 1990 – folk memory can be pushed to one side and, worse, lost.

The names of people and exploits from the past mean nothing to newcomers who are busy trying to establish themselves in their new home, and with the passing of the generations the stories vanish.

I had heard mention of Springheel Jack (1902-65), but no more than that and it wasn’t until researching the life of Frank Sydenham that I traced more of the story of Michael Hodgkins, nephew of the artist Frances Hodgkins, who lived much of his life in Tauranga.

People who knew Frank said Hodgkins called around from time to time to read his books but wasn’t allowed in the house because of his smell – I heard from a long-time Tauranga resident last week that Frank called on his mother occasionally but she wouldn’t let him smoke his pipe in the house because of the smell!

“Unwashed, clad in ragged clothes, with unkempt shoulder-length hair, ‘sun-blackened skin’ and piercing blue eyes, [Hodgkins] walked great distances in search of botanical specimens, once going to the top of the Kaimai range to see a flower bud open as the sun rose. He said he did not like treading on plants and that he could hear weeds scream as they were pulled out.”

The quote is from an entry for Springheel Jack in The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, which appears on Te Ara, The Encyclopedia of New Zealand. The entry was written by Alister Matheson, who himself had a fascinating life story tied up with a family garden, and historian Jinty Rorke. Hodgkins was, by all accounts, a talented artist himself although seemingly only made pencil drawings and sketches.

“Specimens held by the Auckland Institute and Museum and the DSIR’s Botany Division herbarium in Christchurch show that Hodgkins collaborated closely over a long period with these institutions and with Canterbury Agricultural College. He identified plants for the Department of Agriculture, assisted the police to identify the first Cannabis sativa plants in the Tauranga area and had a good knowledge of New Zealand orchids. As well as writing newspaper articles on botany, he gave radio talks in his ‘mild, patient and cultivated voice’.”

Reading elsewhere, it seems that although Hodgkins was a generous teacher, his outbursts at the children who baited him resulted in him being banned from visiting schools.

Artist John McLean has painted a series called The Springheel Jack, see one of the paintings here.  “… the series is based on an eccentric, ascetic figure from McLean’s Tauranga boyhood … Renowned as a naturalist, he was a distinctive character with long grey hair – in an era of short back and sides – invariably shirtless in an old pinstripe suit, with horny toenails protruding from his sand shoes. He shared his knowledge with interested children and dispensed nature specimens from a sack.”

After his death it was discovered that Hodgkins had several of his aunt’s works in his hut by a salt marsh!

His small headstone, placed by the Tauranga Historical Society in 2009, describes him as “Solitary Gentleman, Botanist and Lover of Nature, Helpful to Young and Old”.