John Bilton – radio pioneer

I knew my childhood neighbour John Bilton was interviewed last century (just before he died in 1993). I tried to find it online a few years ago but it was inaccessible due to the Christchurch earthquake.

I tried again a few weeks ago and found it catalogued online (description only) at Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision archives . I requested access to the the audio, and today they made it publicly available permanently online.

This is of personal interest but it also has some interesting accounts of how broadcasting and politics clashed in the 1930s, with the Government eventually buying all private stations out as they didn’t want private broadcasting with war being imminent.



John Bilton, an Otago radio pioneer is interviewed by Jim Sullivan. He recalls his interest and life in the radio sales business and also how he set up and ran his own radio station, 4ZC in Cromwell in the 1930’s.


John Bilton in his Cromwell shop with Cath McFelin

He sold radios for about 40 years and because of his own interest, he saw a need in the late 1920’s and decided to start his own business and shop. He describes his sales technique with local farmers. He chose what he considered to be better brands of radios and would install them for people in Central Otago, including an aerial so that they would get a better daytime reception.

As there were some days when there was very little business, he decided to to set up his own station, which he ran from the lounge room of the family home in Cromwell.

He broadcast for three hours a day and played gramophone records, advertised his business and would report on important local events, including local sports results and news from The Cromwell Argus newspaper.

He describes how the owners of the ‘B’ stations petitioned the government to be allowed to advertise but newspapers opposed it. They went to Parliament and met Prime Minister George Forbes, but Forbes couldn’t help because of the newspapers’ opposition.

He says Colin Scrimgeour warned the government the B stations would oppose it, if it did not help them advertise. Eventually the change of government came in 1935, but they decided to nationalise the stations.

He explains how hard it was to keep the B stations on the air without advertising. They also were threatened by record companies demanding payment for playing their products.
He was finally bought out by the Government in March 1937. He says Cromwell people petitioned Parliament to keep the station going but the government didn’t want any broadcasting to remain in private hands.

He did an outside broadcast for the opening of the Loburn Bridge, with relay equipment from Dunedin.

“Beautiful Isle of Somewhere” sung by Richard Crooks was his station’s closedown theme. A listener thought it was him singing it himself and remarked on how good his voice was. [An excerpt of this is played,]

[John Bilton died late 1993.]

I grew up next door to John. He had quite an influence on me as a child – I walked through his place on the way to the school bus, he was probably the first in the district to have television (and we seemed to be the last) so he let us go and watch it, and I did a lot of work for him on his orchard over the years and later in his Cromwell fruit stall.

I’m sure he initiated my technical interest which came to dominate my working life.

He had the best cherries around and we were allowed to help ourselves. We were supposed to scare birds away but often our mouths were too full.

In the above photo there’s a reddish record player with a dark lid – that looks a lot like one my brother bought off John through his labour.

In a Bilton cherry tree one day my brother talked my sister and I into helping him buy a record  because he couldn’t afford it. So I became quarter owner of the Beatles Revolver, but I doubt I got proportionate use.

This recording has brought back a lot of old memories.

Sweeet victory

In another rugby final today: Cromwell wins title for first time in 35 years

Not since 1981 has Cromwell rugby tasted a victory so sweet.

The premier side was crowned the Central Otago champion after an intense 21-18 victory over Maniototo at Alexandra on Saturday.

Players were overcome with emotion at the final whistle, some even shedding a tear in the moments after.

Cromwell players pose with the trophy following its win over Maniototo in the Central Otago premier rugby final at Alexandra.

Great to see this result.

I know how sweet a victory like that can be – I was playing for Cromwell when they last won in 1981.

I might try and find an old photo.



Kids still have adventures

While a lot of mollycoddling of children happens these days some kids are still allowed to have adventures.

Two boys from Cromwell got into a spot bother on a cliff face but were rescued and will have learnt from the experience.

ODT: Budding business venture on slippery slope

The first business venture for two young entrepreneurs turned into more of an adventure when they had to be rescued from a 45m cliff at Bannockburn while gathering stock for their budding business.

Cromwell Volunteer Fire Brigade’s line rescue crew lowers Carter Pearson to safety.

Nine-year-old friends Carter Pearson and Harvey Brown cycled 7km into Bannockburn from their Cromwell homes yesterday morning on a mission to find quartz crystals to sell.

Their outing was successful when they unearthed many crystals, rocks and fossils but their day took an unexpected turn when Harvey slipped several metres down a clay bank and Carter went to his aid.

“I tried to be Superman and save him but I slipped as well,” Carter said.

Both boys ended up on a narrow ledge above a sheer drop.


“The boys were amazing really, very calm, which was good and they didn’t move at all,” she said.

Mr Pearson soon arrived.

“I climbed up above them, working out how to get to them with a rope but decided it was too risky, so rang the fire brigade,” he said.

The Cromwell Volunteer Fire Brigade responded with its eight-strong line rescue crew.

Chief Fire Officer Steve Shaw said it was a challenging rescue but all went well.

The clay bank was wet and soggy with loose soil.

“It is a free drop from the ledge down, more or less, so they were very lucky … extremely lucky,” Mr Shaw said.

“The kids stayed put and were nice and calm. They did really well, actually, because they could’ve been quite upset but they just sat there and hung in there, so it was good.”

The boys were lifted to safety, one at a time, watched by their families.

So it was a tricky situation that could have ended badly but they came out of it ok.

Carter’s mother, Theresa Pearson, said the boys were “real outdoors kids”.

The boys were excited about their expedition and carried small shovels and a container for the crystals.

“You want them to be out and about, exploring and that’s what they were doing.”

“You can’t just wrap them up in cotton wool,” Mrs Pearson said.

It’s good to see that some kids are allowed to do this sort of thing still.

It’s very similar to the childhood I had, and while Bannockburn was a bit out of my territory I have played on the clay cliffs out there, the remnants of gold sluicing. It was real cowboy-like territory.


We would walk usually, or rather roam, for hours at a time and played in some fairly precarious locations at times. And survived. And learnt from the experiences.

Extending Central Otago cycleways

The rail trail cycleway through Central Otago, from Middlemarch to Clyde, has been hugely successful, for cyclists, for tourists and for rural towns that had previously been struggling.

More trails have also been established, the Roxburgh Gorge trail south of Alexandra, the Clutha Gold trail And Queenstown trails.

The Government has just announced funding to supplement local funds that will link these trails, making an extensive cycleway network.

The most significant of these extensions will link the current rail trail terminal at Clyde via the Cromwell Gorge to Cromwell and on through the Kawarau Gorge to the Queenstown trail.

The Cromwell Gorge trail has been considered for some time. I was involved in a small way in checking it out about 1998 but it was then put in the too hard basket.

Stuff: Central Otago multi-million dollar cycle trail project gets financial backing

A $26.3 million project to connect Central Otago’s trail network and create 500 kilometres of continuous trail network will be a “game changer” for the region.

Prime Minister and Tourism Minister John Key announced at a function in Bannockburn on Sunday the Government would commit around $13 million towards the project, with the Central Lakes Trust contributing $11.15m and the Otago Community Trust contributing $2m.

“The proposal to create a 536kim continuous cycle trail network by linking four existing Central Otago Great Rides – the Queenstown Trail, the Otago Central Rail Trail, the Roxburgh Gorge Trail and the Clutha Gold Trail – is the type of enhancement to the Great Rides we want to encourage.”


This also shows a proposed trail from Cromwell to Luggate and presumably on the Wanaka and while that would be worthwhile I don’t think it will be as scenic a ride as the gorges.

Once this network is complete there will be one major missing link – Middlemarch to Dunedin. I don’t know if anything has been considered there but it would be challenging, the railway line is still used and the existing road is very up and down.


Hunting death, file photo nonsense

NZ Herald seems to often use file photos for online news items, and they are often inappropriate.

News: Man dies in hunting incident in Central Otago

An investigation has been launched after a 61-year-old man died in a hunting incident last night.

Police say emergency services were alerted to the incident in an area of the Nevis Range in Central Otago shortly before midnight.

Ambulance and police officers performed CPR on the injured man but were unable to revive him.

This is of particular interest to me as I know the area and if the dead man is a long time local I will probably known him.

Talking about the area, I’d be surprised if was on the Nevis Range. More likely the Carrick Range, which you drive over on the Nevis Road to get to the Lower Nevis Valley where the Nevis River flows.

There’s a Nevis Range in Scotland.  In New Zealand  Ben Nevis is a peak in the Hector Mountains, which runs alongside the Nevis Valley, which is named after a river, not a range.

I’d be surprised if you can get an ambulance on to Ben Nevis.

Talking of ambulances, the Herald includes a file photo:

That ambulance is likely to have never been anywhere near the Nevis Range, or the Nevis Road. Why include something that’s irrelevant to the story?

They might as well have shown a file photo of the Nevis Range from Scotland, that also has nothing to do with the story.

UPDATE: The ODT has a bit more detail in Man dies in Central Otago hunting incident:

Police say emergency services were alerted to an incident in an area of the Nevis Range near Duffers Saddle shortly before midnight.

UPDATE: The ODT has amended their online story.

Duffers Saddle is the highest point (1300 metres, 4265 feet) ) on the Nevis Road going over the Carrick Range.

Duffers Saddle (Dangerous Roads)

Hole in one at 95

A nice story from Cromwell – 95 year old Tom Landreth started playing golf when he was about 40. Last Saturday, 55 five years later, he hit his first hole in one.

The Otago Daily Times reported Perfect shot from 95-year-old

The ultimate shot took Tom Landreth 55 years to perfect.

The 95-year-old golfer was still buzzing about his hole in one at the Cromwell Golf Course several days later but modestly pointed out: ”It’s taken me quite a long time to get one.”

Mr Landreth plays off a 37 handicap these days and said his round of golf on Saturday had been unremarkable until the perfect shot on the 14th hole, which he made using a 3-wood.

”I don’t hit them as far as I used to … I watched it and at first the ball hit the ground and then rolled along and I looked away. Next thing the guy I was playing with said ‘it’s gone in the hole!’, and sure enough, it had. ”

There were congratulations, the club ”shouted” for the golfers in the clubroom that day and there was ”a bit of cheek” delivered in his direction, he admits.

The 14th hole at Cromwell is Dunes, a 149 metre par 3.

Central Otago Golf Green

I played and caddied that course in my youth when it was 9 holes, and like many locals did a bit to help develop the additional 9 holes on a virtual desert.

My last round of golf there was on Boxing Day 1996. It was far too crowded for hackers, as the women I hit between the eyes with a slice found out. I walked off and never played again – at age 40, the age that Tom started playing. He’s doing very will at 95.

He plays at least three times a week – 18 holes on Saturday, the same on Wednesday and then: ” a bit of a knock-around on Friday with the oldies that do nine holes”.

This particular ”oldie” makes no concession to advancing years.

He usually walks the course – all 5km of it – rather than using a golf cart.

”There’s no hills, just a few rises so it’s not that hard going.”

He loves golf for the exercise and the challenge involved.

His aim is to keep playing ”as long as the frame holds out”.

It’s great to see that Tom can still get out there and enjoy himself at 95. He would have been born about 1920 – that seems a long time ago but he’s just a couple of years older than my father who was also a keen golfer and played many rounds at Cromwell.

I remember caddying for him once in an RSA tournament. It was in the winter, the ground was covered on frost and the fog had come in off the Clutha, so it was a challenge seeing where the balls went.

The players had refreshments available at about every second hole but young caddies had to wait for a lemonade back at the 19th.

Tom would have enjoyed the 19th hole last Saturday.

The Southland Times/Stuff did a profile of Tom last year: Meet Cromwell’s oldest golfer

Cromwell’s oldest active golfer reckons good genes and good luck allows him to play 18-holes on a regular basis, as well as compete in tournaments – and win.

The 94-year-old won the Cromwell Club Tournament this month with the top score of 43 – playing seven strokes better than his handicap.

Good on him.

School reunion

I’m at a 150th school reunion for the weekend, in Cromwell where I went to Primary School and most of high school (I went to boarding school for the sixth form).

It’s really good to catch up with people, especially from my class, many of whom I haven’t seen since leaving school. Others I haven’t seen since the 125th in 1990.

It was a bit embarrassing when the first person I met I didn’t recognise and had to read her name tag. There’s a few like that, others are still easily recognisable.

I’ve started collating information and old photos – if anyone’s interested see