Looking for George Wilder: New Zealand's renegade folk heroby Antonios Papaspiropoulos
On 17 May 1962, George Wilder escaped from prison. On the run for 65 days, his escapades captured the public's interest. Years later, Antonios Papaspiropoulos tried to find the notorious escapee, as he describes in this story from the North & South archives.
When Antonios Papaspiropoulos found pencil sketches by notorious prison escapee George Wilder on the walls of his cottage on the western shores of Lake Taupo, he went in search of the 60s gentleman-thief.
I’ve sent a letter to the infamous 60s prison escapee, c/o the Cape Turnagain Golf Club, 40km east of Pahiatua on the Wairarapa’s east coast. I know he spends a bit of time there improving his handicap.
I say I’m writing a book of poetry based on his life because I’m living in one of his old hideouts deep in the heart of nowhere (actually, rural Tihoi, 45 minutes’ drive from Taupo). “The George Wilder Cottage”, we dubbed it.
But there is no response.
My six-year-old son, Niko, inspired by stories I tell him about Wilder’s spectacular break-outs from prison (often involving ropes made out of sheets), writes him a letter too. Niko likes the pencil sketches George has left behind on the wardrobe wall of the old cottage. “Dear George Wilder, I hope you are okay. I didn’t know you were still alive. I thought you were dead for life. When you die, I hope you remember me.”
Niko’s letter is returned to sender from the Dannevirke Post Office.
It suggests the first letter may have made it through, but true to form, Wilder doesn’t want to communicate. Several have tried, and there are random reports over the years from various journalists who have offered money and various forms of contraband for the privilege of getting Wilder’s story from the horse’s mouth.
A Wellington journalist sends me a Facebook warning: “Be careful. He could cut up nasty if he’s confronted.”
Since he walked out of Christchurch’s Paparua Prison on June 20, 1969, few people have seen George Wilder. He disappeared into the hinterland just as he did on the three occasions he broke out of jail in 1962, 1963 and 1965. He’s now in his late 70s, and his friends at the golf club guard his privacy like the Ecuadorian Embassy does Julian Assange.
I hunt down an old boss of Wilder’s who doesn’t want to be named. “Bob”, as we shall call him, owns a big sheep station on the East Coast, but he’s not forthcoming. Wilder was a farmhand for Bob when he got out of prison and gets a glowing reference. “Yeah, I employed him. He was a great worker, a good guy. But I don’t want to talk about it. He’s a mate. I’ve got nothing bad to say about him.”
Barney Strong, who used to own the land our George Wilder Cottage sits on, remembers him: “I saw him once, about 18 years ago. He was cooking the barbecue at the local dog trials; skinny bloke, just looked like a regular guy. That was probably how he managed to have smokos with the local cops when everyone was out looking for him. No one was too sure what he looked like so he just joined in his own manhunts.”
However regular a bloke Wilder may have appeared, New Zealand’s most celebrated poet, the late James K. Baxter, recalled his “gauntness” and “smoker’s face”.
Entertainer Howard Morrison even immortalised him in song. “George, the Wild(er) New Zealand Boy” became something of a forbidden hit in 1964. Sung to the tune of the Irish-Australian ballad “The Wild Colonial Boy” and then to Pat Boone’s “Speedy Gonzales”, it begins:
“There is a wild New Zealand boy
George Wilder is his name
He robs the rich to help himself
Conversion is his game
He breaks and enters any house
To him, this brings great joy
And that is how he got his name,
The Wild New Zealand boy…”
Wilder is a New Zealand national icon, but one who doesn’t want to be remembered.
He rose to notoriety because no prison seemed able to contain him and the police could never seem to find him. He eluded tracker dogs, swam rivers, criss-crossed creeks and did a lot of cooking in other people’s kitchens – cleaning up after himself as he went. All the while, he left apologetic, endearing notes to those he robbed. There was an almost poetic touch to his approach. Kiwis liked that.
Says Strong: “He became a Robin Hood character, didn’t hurt or abuse anyone or anything. So people didn’t ‘pop him’ for taking food or whatnot. A lot of people quite liked the idea that he might come and rob them.”
Even his first arresting officer, Constable Brian Main (retired), retains a soft spot for the roustabout burglar. “He was a shy person. He couldn’t put forward his own aspirations. He stole a few cars and had them stashed all through the scrub. He used to drive them through the gorse, through the tea trees, just a young fella sowing his oats.”
The George Wilder Cottage sits on a picturesque rural backwater on the isolated western shores of Lake Taupo, New Zealand – down the end of Waihaha Rd (in Maori, “luscious water”).
I got to know Wilder through the cottage. Frazzled by the encumbrances and vicissitudes of the corporate world, I retreated last summer to the small, century-old cottage owned by a dear friend. Victoria and I enrolled the kids in the local country school while we set about doing up the old house. It had been derelict for a decade so we cleared the layers of dirt and grime that had accumulated over time.
We were eaten by fleas, pestered by flies and visited by “Hogget”, a sheep-sized rat who ventured in, intermittently, to take an inventory of the kitchen cupboards. We cleaned, polished, painted and furnished the little 3x1 with antiques, retro art and Kiwiana, things of the Wilder period. I even had a white Bakelite radio that I swear was still broadcasting from 1969.
Finished, the cottage became a home, a funky holiday “getaway” and a rustic, rattling sanctuary where the window panes pinged strange semaphores deep into the night. Not quite a lighthouse, but a house with a special light in it.
Sanctuary – yes, that was the operative word.
On one of our biweekly trips into Taupo for provisions, I would pop into the local Salvation Army store (I like the odd junk shop). The manager, John Stringfellow, a dog triallist from my rural youth, sold me an old Brother Deluxe 800T portable typewriter. I hadn’t used one since I was a young cadet journalist on the Waitomo News. I felt inspired to see what the “Old Boy” could turn out. The kids had no idea what it was.
“Makes poems,” I explained to them. “Songs without music. Words from the heart.”
I mentioned to Stringfellow that I was living in the old Wilder cottage and he gazed off into the distance. He recounted a trip in 1963 when he was coming back from the dog trials. “We got stopped at a roadblock at Whakamaru. Cops everywhere. Pitch black. Couldn’t see a thing. They said, ‘He’s just jumped, clean down the dam.’ Can you believe it? Clean down the dam!”
By now, I was starting to believe everything I had heard about Wilder.
I imagined myself as a kind of Dr Zhivago figure, tapping out poems on the old typewriter deep into the Tongariro night by candlelight. I lived a kind of half-Russian, half-hippie existence, listening to period music – Waves, Tamburlaine, Farmyard – drinking big reds, roasting wild boar, and channelling George into a 24-song poetry cycle:
Like you or I
Are just thistles with soft hearts
Growing wild in a robber’s garden
We take refuge in your hideout
Running from the law
Back of beyond….”
(From “Song for a Folk Hero”)
“He got stuck on the side of the road and started walking. The police started to follow his footprints up the road ’til one who used to go hunting said, ‘You fellas are going the wrong way. He went down the road. Look at those heel prints.’”
It’s hard to wear boots backwards (I’ve tried). The image was a funny one and became the cover illustration for my book.
I punctuated my poems with anecdotes from the “dispossessed” – the bride still angry because Wilder stole her bridegroom’s suit off the washing line on their wedding day. Old Ronald Andrews, who swears Wilder once evaded the cops by diving into a drainpipe: “Heard he came out the other side in Aussie!” The lady “JW” whose parents were burgled by him in 1962: “My mother collected those miniature bottles of alcohol. He broke in, sat down and drank them all. Clearly he was in no hurry. Then he left a little note, a sweet note, apologising for breaking in. He said he was just hungry and looking for food. But then he remembered he was thirsty.”
George was a “character”. And Kiwis love a good character.
My dear friend and fellow poet the late Graham Brazier wrote in the book’s prologue that every country has its folk heroes, those seeped in myth and legend. The English had Robin Hood, the Australians Ned Kelly, the United States had Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett.
“Here in New Zealand, we seem to enjoy our legends a trifle more real – Sir Ed Hillary, von Tempsky, Hone Heke, George Wilder. In the early 1960s, we were hungry for someone to relate to, someone who wasn’t an All Black. He was a loner, a petty thief, a gentleman rogue. Should you follow the swallow on his daily rounds, do you run with the foxes or hunt with the hounds? In some way, we are all, at times, on the run.”
I wanted to speak to George Wilder. I thought it would somehow consummate the book. But then I realised that a man’s privacy – a man’s need to lie low – is sacrosanct. I had done that myself in his old hideout. Wilder has done his time. He spent eight years in jail for a raft of misdemeanours that nowadays would be laughed at. He’s had 36 years of freedom and he deserves whatever more time he has. Freedom is everything. But, George, if you ever want a beer…
Poems from the George Wilder Cottage can be purchased from bookstores.
This article was first published in the May 2015 issue of North & South.
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