Often when donations are received by Whangārei Museum the stories behind the items are not always apparent, usually requiring further investigation.

However, where there is a collection of articles being gifted by the same donor, sometimes just the very nature of the assemblage tells a tale. This is the case with several artefacts donated during the 1980s which belonged to Mr G A Williams.

Consisting of riding crops, jockey's silks, trophies and large framed photographs depicting race horses, it is clearly evident the owner had an affinity of an equine nature.

A gumdigger, cook, farmer, sawmiller, kauri bushman, horse breeder, trainer and racer, George Albert 'Bert' Williams was a man of many talents.

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First digging for gum in Tokatoka with his father in the 1890s, preferring to gather gum rather than going to school, Williams became knowledgeable of the swampy graveyards of fallen kauri forests.

G A Williams c1905 (Photograph Whangārei Museum, Kiwi North 1985.957.1).
G A Williams c1905 (Photograph Whangārei Museum, Kiwi North 1985.957.1).

Before his marriage in 1921, Bert was a cook at Hautapu Military Camp and later during WWII he returned to cooking for the troops, this time for the Home Guard.

He also owned sawmills and farmed dairy herds, but it was Williams' interest in horses, reportedly spanning more than 52 years, that made his name synonymous with horse racing.

Williams' had a great knowledge of horses, competing in his younger days in shows while also being a keen huntsman in South Auckland, but it wasn't until the early 1920s that he became extensively involved with trotters.

The collection of museum artefacts is testament to this pursuit, which reached its peak during 1927 when he raced his horse 'Gold Dial' to stardom at Whangārei, Taranaki and Te Aroha.

Horse racing was a popular Northland sport, supporting several local tracks like Poroti which, in 1893, publicised a race meet where jockeys entered events titled the 'Handicap Hurdle Race', Handicap Flying Stakes' and the 'Gumdiggers Purse', a distance of three times round the course to be ridden by 'bonefide gumdiggers'.

Henry Walton, an early Whangārei settler, had a racecourse built on his farm at Maungatapere, while other courses included those at Hikurangi, Waipū, Kaurihohore, Kamo and Kensington.

Collection items donated by G A Williams.
Collection items donated by G A Williams.

An advertisement in the newspaper for 1928 announces a Trotting Carnival at Kensington Park.

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An outing for Labour Day, promising to be an outstanding success ,with a predicted record muster at the Park.

It declares the course to be in first-class order with the members' new stand being brought into commission.

Williams, who bred, owned, trained and drove several horses at such events including Gold Dial and Nellie Bramley went on to win 47 races.

Ngatira, one of his horses, was purchased for £42 as a gig horse, but turned out to be an excellent trotter, still winning races at the age of 19 and winning stakes worth £5000 during his remarkable racing career.

Yet the best buy for William's was mare Sun Dial, which an Auckland dentist sold him for £35.

From her, Williams bred the champions Bell Dial, Gold Dial, Gumdigger and Bingen Son.

Not only was Bert's name and those of his horses well known throughout the racing circuit, but also his 'colours' of purple and ruby stripes which are now housed in the museum's textile collection.

A germane reminder of a champion, excited punters and an era when crowds flocked to witness horses being raced at Kensington.

■ Natalie Brookland is collection registrar, Whangarei Museum at Kiwi North.