Timaru's heroes - roadside stories

Statues in Timaru commemorate several New Zealand heroes with local connections. Bob Fitzsimmons was a world champion boxer; athletics star Jack Lovelock won Olympic gold and broke the world records for 1 mile and 1500 m. Racehorse Phar Lap had a glittering career in Australia, while inventor Richard Pearse built an early aeroplane.


Note: corrections are marked by [square brackets].

Archival audio: Harold Abrahams’ commentary of Jack Lovelock’s 1500 m win at the 1936 Olympics.

Narrator: The town of Timaru can claim a high number of New Zealand heroes, and it knows how to honour them. There are statues of Bob Fitzsimmons the boxer, Jack Lovelock the runner, and Phar Lap the champion racehorse in Timaru. Not far out of town is a model of Richard Pearse’s flying machine.

The first Timaru hero to make his mark was Bob Fitzsimmons, nicknamed ‘Ruby Robert’ or ‘the Freckled Wonder’, who was a world champion boxer. Fitzsimmons was actually born in England but he grew up in Timaru. His father was a blacksmith and Bob’s powerful arms and shoulders are said to have been developed working at the forge.

After starting his boxing career in Timaru, Fitzsimmons turned professional in Australia, where he fought for many years before heading to the United States. It was there that he fought Jack Dempsey in 1891, winning the world middleweight title. He eventually went on to claim the light-heavyweight and heavyweight titles, becoming the first boxer in history to win all three.

This Timaru sporting tradition was continued by Jack Lovelock, one of New Zealand’s most celebrated Olympians. Lovelock went to Timaru Boys’ High School, where he seems to have excelled at everything. Lovelock won scholarships to Otago University to study medicine before becoming a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. It was while in England that Lovelock began achieving international success in athletics, mostly running the mile.

At the 1936 Olympic Games, Lovelock won the 1500 m by 4 m and broke the world record by a full second. He became New Zealand’s first athletics gold medallist and was presented a small oak tree by Adolf Hitler. The oak tree, now of considerable size, can be found at Timaru Boys’ High School, close to a statue of Lovelock in full flight.

You could argue that the first flight in the world took place just north of Timaru. It [may have] occurred in March 1903, with inventor Richard Pearse behind the wheel of an aeroplane he designed and built in his shed. Pearse’s ‘flight’ was short – perhaps only 50 m – not very high off the ground, and ended when he hit a gorse hedge. Pearse himself said that this attempt could be not be considered a proper flight and that he had not beaten the Wright Brothers to their historic feat that happened later in the same year. This did not stop Timaru naming its airport after Richard Pearse.

Pearse kept inventing and devised a power cycle, a potato planter and two sorts of musical box. However, Pearse was unable to get companies to produce them, and he died in obscurity.

Perhaps the most famous of Timaru’s legends is not a person but a horse. Phar Lap was born near Timaru in 1926, but spent the majority of his amazingly successful racing career in Australia. In 1930, after a slow start, Phar Lap began his dream run. He won [32] races out of his [last] 35, including the Melbourne Cup.

In 1932, his owners took him to America, but before he could dominate the racing scene there he died unexpectedly, in extreme pain. The cause of death has never been clearly established, but it is thought that Phar Lap was fed poisoned grass. After he died, Phar Lap was claimed as a national treasure by both New Zealand and Australia and the two countries share his remains. His skeleton is on display at Te Papa in Wellington, his preserved heart is in a bottle at Canberra and his hide is at the Museum of Victoria.

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