Credit: Original article can be found here
Roger Neilson reminisces about his time at Tiwai. He was one of the first five apprentices at the New Zealand Aluminium Smelter in 1972.
The year is 1972 and five fresh-faced lads have been called into the boardroom at the New Zealand Aluminium Smelter.
Folks in Invercargill have heard about this group of young men working at Tiwai Point and the big boss – General Manager Jim Merrett – has called them in for a cuppa and photo opportunity to explain their presence.
The five – Peter Frewen, Roger Neilson, Anders Gillies, Hohepa Bell, and Graham Lawrie – are the plant’s very first apprentice intake, beating hundreds of other applicants.
Now in their 60s, the men remember little else about the meeting, other than it being a fairly casual affair.
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The publication of the photo in The Southland Times last year set all five on a path of remembering their time in Invercargill.
Scattered across the globe, the first five agree that their apprenticeships at Tiwai were unlike anything else on offer in New Zealand at the time, crediting it as their passports to the world.
“Being the first intake, we were spoilt,” Frewen said.
He remembers supervisors and managers calling everyone by their Christian names.
“That was a nice touch,” he said.
Frewen had received a couple of apprenticeship offers, but chose Tiwai as his dad said it would be “a magnificent place to do a trade because it was all brand new, state of the art.”
FAIRFAX COLLECTION ARCHIVE/Stuff
Last year, The Southland Times asked readers to identify the men in an archival photo taken in 1972, labelled simply as “Tiwai apprentices”. They are (from left) foreman Laurie Coates, apprentice Anders Gillies, general manager Jim Merrett, apprentices Hohepa Bell, Roger Neilson, Peter Frewen and Graham Lawrie (only his cup is visible), and training officer Peter Tucker.
Flash gear and machinery aside, the five recall gaining hands-on experience from day one and drilling theories.
Gillies said it was as if management went out of their way to make sure the first batch of apprentices were well-trained.
Experts were brought into to speak on working with different materials and tools, and the group were put into a “proper training regimen.”
“The next group were just appies. We were a wee bit special,” Gillies said.
Lawrie recalled: “A lot of apprentices get stuck sweeping floors. I was straight on the shop floor,” while Bell said the opportunity to work if different departments meant picking up a variety of skills.
While health and safety protocols were always in place at the Tiwai plant, it didn’t stop the men from getting up to “shenanigans” or getting into close calls.
“A few things blew up that we know about,” Neilson said.
On one occasion, he and Frewen were working on wiring in the roof of the plant when an induction furnace, which was being water-cooled, burst.
“We just heard a popping sound,” Neilson recalled. The noise came from heated liquid aluminium that was bubbling, splashing all the way up to the soles of their shoes.
Roger Neilson still has newsletters from his time at the New Zealand Aluminium Smelter, where he was one of the first apprentices in the ‘70s.
“We got out of there fast,” he said.
Gillies said the combination of a shooting fraternity and “hillbilly engineering” led to some interesting moments. One involved fooling around with a gun barrel.
“If you look up at the wall in one of the workshops, it’s not easy to find, but there’s a bullet hole there,” he said. “That earned me a written warning.”
While most of the men remember a time of camaraderie, the apprenticeship was a somewhat alienating experience for Bell, from the North Island.
There were plenty of Māori trades people in Invercargill at the time, he said, but he only remembered one other Māori person working at Tiwai when he was there.
Those from out of town tended to stick together, Bell said, as locals weren’t all that welcoming.
“When you said hello to a Māori down there they would look at you as if to say, ‘who are you?’, he recalled.
Nevertheless, Bell, like his peers, looks back at his time at Tiwai with fond memories.
“It was the most impactful time of my life,” he said.
None of the men were too surprised to hear of smelter-owner Rio Tinto’s plan to shut the plant in the near future.
Even back when they were working there, they knew it had a limited lifespan.
“It was only supposed to last 25 years,” Neilson said, “It’s been extended so many times.”
Where are they now?
Roger Nelison says his apprenticeship at the New Zealand Aluminium Smelter was his ticket to see the world.
Roger Neilson, Invercargill, New Zealand
Roger Neilson is the only one of the five men who lives in Invercargill.
After completing his electrical apprenticeship, he headed for Australia. “It was supposed to be my OE, but I only got as far as Brisbane,” he said.
Neilson worked in mines throughout Australia, before moving to London, England, where he ended up with a chemical company that recycled coins, so to speak, for the Royal Mint.
“I used to get a change of clothes, because you’d get gold dust all over you,” he recalled.
He eventually started his own electrical business in London in 1985 and took on 11 employees, while also working as a DHL courier, hand-delivering special international parcels around the world.
A family emergency brought him back to New Zealand in 1996.
“My dad died and my mum was here, so I came home,” Neilson said.
He got a job back at the New Zealand Aluminium Smelter before he left London, as the plant was opening a fourth potline at the time and spent another 18 months there, before taking a job at Daiken, where he still works.
Some of Neilson’s fondest memories of his apprenticeship are the four days he spent in the Marlborough Sounds with the Outward Bound program, which he and his peers were sent on.
He ended up lost because “we knew everything”, but says the program changed the way he understood people and situations.
Peter Frewen was one of Tiwai’s first five apprentices. He now lives in Western Australia and recently retired from his job as the chief executive of a social charity.
Peter Frewen, Halls Creek, Australia
Peter Frewen also headed to Australia after his apprenticeship to spread his wings and spent time working on rigs, before returning to New Zealand to work as a journeyman.
He was back in Invercargill for just eight years when he decided a change was in order.
“We’d just gone through that one in 100 years flood and I thought, nah, that’s not good.”
Frewen worked as a hydroelectric technician at three different mines in Tasmania, before training as a power station manager.
“I lasted about six years, but I wasn’t happy in the role,” he said.
So he went in a completely different direction and achieved his social science degree – partly to help a community overwhelmed by addiction, but also to understand his own.
“That was a bit of naval gazing, really,” he said.
Frewen went on to become the chief executive of Jungarni-Jutiya – a charity offering social services in indigenous Australian languages – before retiring two years ago.
These days, Anders Gillies works on stainless steel for boat craft at Kustom Marine Trimming in Bromley, Christchurch.
Anders Gillies, Christchurch, New Zealand
His family ran one of the biggest iron foundries on the South Island in Oamaru, so the Tiwai apprenticeship was a good fit for Anders Gillies.
While his Grandmother lived in Gore, he’d only made fleeting visits to Invercargill before and his first impressions of the city was that it was “very flat”.
Gillies spent six years in Southland before moving to Canada. From there, he “gypsied” around Canada and North America, working at mines, engineering companies, and in the oil and gas industry.
“It was just gaining experience for the sake of gaining experience,” he said.
He returned to New Zealand to help out at the family business Gillies Foundry and Engineering Company, before starting his own in 1996.
Today, Gillies lives in Christchurch and runs Canterbury Marine Stainless, fabricating stainless steel for the boat builders.
Hohepa Bell, Te Kuiti, New Zealand
Hohepa Bell was known as Joseph when he arrived at Tiwai after already completing a course at the Māori Trade Training Centre in Auckland.
He left soon after finishing his apprenticeship, travelling to the United Kingdom where he worked on oil rigs in the North Sea.
The tradesmen he worked with encouraged him to explore, so that’s exactly what Bell did, touring Europe and Australia.
“I’ve probably seen more of the outback that most Australians,” he said.
He recalls spotting a familiar face in the crowd at a beer festival in Germany. It turned out to be Roger Neilson.
“I thought, hell, am I imagining things? I’d only had one pint at the time,” Bell said.
He returned to New Zealand in 2004. “My parent were getting old pretty quick, so I decided to come home.”
A hand injury has made it tough to find the kind of work he used to do, so these days Bell lives a quiet life in Te Kuiti, working at a nearby processing facility.
Graham Lawrie lives in South Dakota, in the United States, but visits New Zealand when he can to see his three children who still live here.
Graham Lawrie, South Dakota, United States
Lawrie trained as an auto engineer, but doesn’t remember spending too much time in the garage during his time at Tiwai. Instead, he got to work “all over the plant”.
He has fond memories of Tiwai’s chimney, where he was snapped fooling around for an engagement announcement in the Tiwai Pointer – the plant newsletter.
Lawrie went on to work for Southland Freight Haulage for a couple of years before being poached by Fulton Hogan to work as a manager in Dunedin.
Then, in 2000, a mate saw an advert looking for harvesters to work in the United States, and he reckoned it looked like a good, cheap way to see the world.
“I couldn’t settle down after that,” Lawrie said, so now he spends half the year looking after crops for a farm management company, and the other half chasing the sun.