Heritage stalwart and celestial navigator calls it a day

One of Northland’s heritage stalwarts is calling it a day. 
Grainger Brown seated with book
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Grainger Brown of Kerikeri has been a foundation member of Heritage Northland Inc since its inception in 2014 and has retired after seven years with the group.  

Prior to that, Grainger had served as a member of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust Northland Branch Committee since around 1998 – along with his late wife Hazel – and has worked with Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Northland office staff on a number of projects over the years. 

“I feel it’s important that people know their history – if only to make sure that we don’t repeat the same mistakes of the past,” he says.  

“I certainly support the new emphasis on New Zealand history in the school curriculum.”  

Grainger’s volunteer work with heritage organisations in Northland over the past 23 years has combined practicality with specialist technology and knowledge according to Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Northland Manager Bill Edwards. 

“In the 1990s, Grainger and his wife Hazel travelled hundreds of kilometres around Northland and recorded the GPS location of 275 registered historic places,” he says. 

“This was at a time when GPS technology was still quite new. Not only did Grainger and Hazel do the work, Grainger was also able to advise us as an organisation on the best spheroid GPS system to use in New Zealand. The result was set of definitive data that has been invaluable for our management of the New Zealand Heritage List Rārangi Kōrero as well as councils and their district plans.” 

Grainger’s expertise in navigation also helped with a project that Heritage Northland Inc and Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga undertook as part of the 250th anniversary of Cook’s first voyage to New Zealand – a map linking the journal entries of Cook and his fellow explorers with the precise nautical location of the Endeavour during the week the ship was in the Bay of Islands.  

Grainger learnt celestial navigation on a Greek cargo ship in 1957 and had a refresher course from international ornithologist and researcher Gerry Clark – another Kerikeri resident who happened to have his boat, the Totorore, moored in the Kerikeri Inlet.  

“I met Gerry and asked him if he would refresh my celestial navigation. He said, ‘come to my house every Tuesday night for the next six weeks and I’ll teach you’,” says Grainger.  

“At the end we had Gerry and his wife Marjorie over for dinner to say thanks, and Gerry basically said to me – ‘right, you’re coming with me’. 

The result was a graduation present of sorts – a three-month voyage in Clark’s 31-foot yacht to Campbell Island as part of his research work on sub-Antarctic bird life. The confidence Grainger gained from the experience enabled he and Hazel to sail around the North Island.  

Educated at Truro School in Cornwall, Grainger remembers learning about Taranaki while studying for his Geography ‘O’ levels. With the influence of old boy John Kendall-Carpenter – a former Captain of the English rugby side – it was as if he was being groomed for life in New Zealand.  

Sure enough, in 1961 Grainger answered an ad in the British Farmers Weekly for herd testers in New Zealand.  

“I went to New Zealand House in the Haymarket in London for an interview with 23 other hopefuls, and was subsequently offered a herd testing position in Taranaki,” he says.   

“On June 29 1961 I headed out to New Zealand on the maiden voyage of the Canberra, which was great.” 

Four years of herd testing in Taranaki later – followed by some time in South America – Grainger returned to the UK where he married Hazel. After a six-month stint at the improbably named Scottish Potato Marketing Board, Grainger again felt the pull to New Zealand, and the couple settled here permanently.  

In subsequent years, Grainger’s parents followed and established themselves in Kerikeri. Sadly, though, Grainger’s father Philip passed away within a couple of months of Grainger and Hazel retiring to Kerikeri.  

Grainger’s love of the sea is almost certainly inherited from his father, a Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve Lieutenant Commander in the Second World War. Grainger proudly talks about the day his father “saved the world”, referring to Sir Winston Churchill’s war history and a note hand written by his father.  

The war history records the evening before D-Day, which had to be postponed by 24 hours due to bad weather. Churchill wrote: “Only one large convoy, comprising a hundred and thirty-eight small vessels, failed to receive the message [about the postponement], but these too were overtaken and turned round without arousing the suspicions of the enemy.” 

The task of stopping the 138-ship fleet fell to Lieutenant Commander Philip Brown. Failure to do this would mean giving the Germans a heads-up that they were about to be invaded – a potentially catastrophic situation that could have cost thousands of lives, and put the outcome of the war in jeopardy.  

Grainger’s father records in his own handwriting:  

“These small vessels were the American personnel carriers anchored in Weymouth Bay. They did not have radio instructions, and sailed on their printed sailing orders, not knowing the invasion had been cancelled. My floatilla stationed at Portland had to chase them along the coast and order every boat  back to its anchorage. This we had to do by loud hailer telling every one individually to go back.” 

“My father had command of 20 Fairmile B-type motor launches, and so his floatilla had to ensure each of the troop ships returned to port,” he says. 

“For years we had no idea about this incident because dad had been sworn to secrecy. It was only in his later years that we found out about his role leading up to D-Day.” 

The story of his father’s war record helped fuel Grainger’s interest in all things historical, and the importance of preserving and recording information about the past – an interest that he has been able to follow, sometimes with unusual reults. 

“One of the highlights of my involvement with the NZ Historic Places Trust was attending the organisation’s 50th anniversary conference in Napier in 2005. It was there that I met Sir Neil Cossons, the CEO of English Heritage,” he says.  

“English Heritage had just acquired a number of Chain Home sites – part of the radar network that had been built around the coast of Britain. I found that the then Chair of the Timaru Branch Committee had actually helped to built some of the stations, so it was great to be able to introduce the two of them who had a lot to talk about.” 

It’s this unusual blend of pragmatism, intellectual curiosity and technical aptitude in an extraordinary range of areas that has been such a boon for heritage in Northland according to Bill Edwards.  

“Grainger’s support of heritage over the years can’t be overstated. Together with Hazel, they have contributed significantly to many distinct aspects of Northland’s heritage,” he says.  

“We’re hopeful, too, that we can tap into Grainger’s expertise as we look to generate a similar document to the Cook map, but recording the locations of French explorer Marion Du Fresne in the Bay of Islands as part of initiatives to mark the 250th anniversary of Du Fresne’s arrival here in 1771. We’re hoping that Grainger might be able to come out of retirement to help us out.” 

John O'Hare