Tamahere’s Mr Shifter

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By Iris Riddell
Buzzsaws whine; hammers crash on wood. Every few seconds a penetrating wail cuts the air, made by an ‘ultrasonic’ bug deflector.

Warwick Johnson

These are the ambient sounds in Warwick Johnson’s office, and the man himself is completely oblivious to them. After 62 years working in such an aurally harsh job, that hardly comes as a surprise. Even with thousands of dollars worth of hearing aid lodged in his ear, a lifetime of hammering and sawing and driving machinery has caught up with him. Not that he seems unduly bothered.

“I’ve laughed a lot over the years. Every job has humour in it.”

At 77, it may seem the time has come for Warwick to hang up his tool belt and enjoy his sunset years, but he would be the first to disagree.

“I work eight days a week, but it’s a lot of fun. I’ve got another 50 years yet,” he says.

Warwick runs Johnson’s House Removals, based at Tamahere. He quite literally lives at his workplace. His ‘office’ is the old Environment Waikato building from Hamilton East, which he shifted himself, and has a fully operational kitchen, bathroom, living area and bedroom. The bedroom features an open fireplace, in which he burns enormous beams from demolished houses.

As he brews a pot of tea, he ferrets some old biscuits out of the larder.

“I eat mostly fruit and that sort of thing. I attribute my health and my age now to the fact that when I was younger we had all that good tucker. We lived on an acre of land in Hamilton East, and my sister and I ran the vege garden. It was a blessing, wasn’t it?”

Over the course of his career, Warwick has shifted thousands of structures, including houses, churches, coolstores, concrete buildings, as well as DC3s, helicopters, tractors and bulldozers.

“These are things I’ve done all my life, moving and shifting houses, so they are saved rather than destroyed. I can see the merit in that.”

And Warwick has saved some wonderful buildings in his time. In the early ’70s, he shifted Hamilton’s Bledisloe Hall from its site on Ward St out to Mystery Creek. It’s still there today, used as a museum and event centre.

In 1982, he relocated the St Mary’s Church in Parnell, Auckland. It weighed in at 400 tonnes and took 13 weeks to shift.

He was also partly responsible for restoring the Rangiriri, the gunboat which brought the first settlers to Hamilton. For years it sat, forgotten, in the silt of the Waikato River.

“I worked with Tom Smith of Smith Pickering Architects. He said to me, ‘do you think you can do it?’ and I said ‘well, why not? Let’s have a go’.”

Upstairs in the London Street office of Smith Pickering Architects, Tom Smith and Ros Empson remember their time spent as project managers on the Rangiriri restoration.

“Everyone reckoned it couldn’t be shifted. He had faith, and we had faith that we could do it,” Tom says.

“Warwick’s a character, a great guy to know. He’s got a heart of gold, really. He still acts as though he’s about 30 or 40. He was carrying around these great big beams for the Rangiriri, things like that.”

Ros recalls a story she heard from when Warwick moved the St Mary’s Church. Legend has it that he put a bottle of beer on a ledge, and bet he could move the church without spilling the beer. He managed it, or so the story goes.

Tom moved to Hamilton East when he was about 10, and lived just a few streets down from Warwick in the ’50s.

Warwick has many fond recollections of growing up in Hamilton East, and credits much of who he is now to the way he was brought up.

“I’m lucky, I’ve been Christian all my life. That gets you a long way.

“Plus, my best friend was my mother. I truly mean that. I tell all the guys who come here and work for me, I say, go home and love your mother. She’s been dead and gone 20 years now, but she was such a marvellous person.

“Unbeknown to me I got a civic award for my work on the Rangiriri, and my mother, she was just as proud as a chook with two feathers.”

Warwick’s life has not only revolved around shifting buildings; he was among the group of men who began the New Zealand National Agricultural Fieldays and is proud to still be associated with it.

“When I go to the Fieldays, I strut around like a turkey, I suppose. I go into the visitors’ lounge and meet people from overseas and have tears running down my face. Never, ever did we dream it would get to the magnitude it has done.”

He counts off his associates on his fingers. “Don Llewellyn from the university, Gordon Edgar from Ruakura, Vaughan Jones from Alfa Laval, Fraser Graham … they were characters who welded together to create a consortium of about 30 of us guys.

The Fieldays started its life at the Te Rapa racecourse, but it soon became clear the event needed its own patch of land.

“Me being me, and knowing this area, I said ‘out this way there’s sand, there’s a suitable piece down there’, so they all walked down there and bought the property like that.”

There is a plaque with Warwick’s name on it in the village part of Mystery Creek, near a little footbridge.

“When I’m dead and gone I want my ashes spread there.”

(Photo: Dion Mellow)

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