The Hermits of Cooper’s Creek

Hermits 2Take a step back in time with Jo as she investigates the story of Rose and Joe Langer, the great niece and nephew of the famous composer Franz Schubert, who were driven to lead an impoverished, isolated life in a clay cottage on a bleak Oxford hillside.

In March 1936 a reporter from the Christchurch Star-Sun pushed his way through swampy scrub and bushland before climbing a roughly cleared track to a small basin on the side of Rampaddock Hill. It was here that Rose and Joe Langer had lived in almost total isolation for 40 years.

The introduction to his story about the brother and sister, which appeared in the Star-Sun a few days later, said it “lifted the veil on sixty years of tragedy”.

The Langers were by then well-known to Oxford locals as the ‘Hermits of Cooper’s Creek’. Some regarded them with ambivalence or even fear. However many others did their best to help the poverty-stricken pair – although their assistance was not always welcomed.

When the reporter arrived at the Langer’s home he was greeted by 77 year old Rose who was dressed in a sack-cloth jacket with a skirt made of corn-sack, “a withered figure crouched behind a heap of mouldy peastalks”.

She and her brother lived in a simple three bedroom home that had been built by their family almost forty years earlier out of sun-dried clay, with a thatch of rushes and straw.

There were no modern conveniences or comforts. What little possessions the Langer’s previously owned had been repeatedly snatched away, so they were conditioned to a life of doing without.

Their diet consisted of mainly black bread, and cabbages, potatoes and carrots they grew themselves, which Rose cooked on a small oven built into the back of the fire. For decades they ate meat just twice a year, apart from the odd rabbit or hare trapped by Joe. They had a cow that only occasionally supplied them with milk as it had been years since she had produced a calf.

Most of the furniture and household utensils in the home were handmade including wooden chairs the reporter described as “works of art”.

Safes and storehouses had been made by hollowing out trees and placing doors over the cavities. Light was provided by a kerosene lamp or beeswax candles made by Rose.

She was particularly proud of the lawn in front of the house that she used to cut by hand with a scythe.

“People who come here, they think I had a lawnmower. No I haven’t got no lawnmower,” she said in the Star-Sun story.

Rose proved a willing subject, happy to tell her life story and be photographed. Even the fiercely private, more reticent Joe agreed to have his picture taken.

For many years he had disappeared into the bush at the approach of strangers – said to be the result of a minor incident he mistakenly believed was a hanging offense. He put himself through “half a lifetime of mental torture” before locals gave him enough reassurance to do some casual farmwork on a neighbouring property. He later became a regular, although uncommunicative visitor to Cooper’s Creek and Oxford, riding there on the ancient bicycle he kept at the foot of the hills.

Despite their unconventional lifestyle the siblings had “old friends” in the Oxford district including veteran settler George Ryde, who along with several others in the community worked to secure naturalisation for the Langers to enable them to draw a pension.

With regular income for the first time, the elderly brother and sister were finally able to purchase a few more supplies from the local grocer and eat meat twice a month, instead of only twice a year.

A series of tragic events had led to the Langer’s sad story of hardship, deprivation and self-imposed alienation.

Their parents Johanna and Bernard Langer emigrated with their six children to New Zealand from Engelswals, Moravia – now the Czech Republic – in 1874.

Johanna Langer’s uncle was the composer Franz Shubert and the family was also very musical – bringing many instruments with them to New Zealand.

Music would remain Rose and Joe’s preferred form of recreation throughout their lives, with Rose singing and playing her old childhood accordian and Joe playing a “very old, very beautiful” violin.

The family was often described as “peasants”, or “uneducated” in old reports. However a descendant who wrote to the Oxford Museum a few years ago said they were in fact large landowners in Moravia, and that the children were all educated in Oxford where they learned to speak English.

Rosaleen (Rose) was the eldest child, born in 1859, while Joe, the youngest of six, was just a year old when the family arrived in 1874.

Because they didn’t understand English at first, the Langer family encountered many difficulties in their new country.

They purchased a barren section on Rampaddock Hill. However twice they were told their land was in the wrong place and were evicted after they had already built homes and started to work the land. Incredibly, their first home was purposefully burned to the ground and their possessions destroyed to ensure they would move on.

With just axes for tools, the family eventually built the home in the remote basin where Rose and Joe would see out their days.

By the late 1890s they were managing to eek out a reasonably happy, although tough, isolated existence. But then the Oxford Road Board decided to levy rates on the almost inaccessible property which Old Mr Langer refused to (or couldn’t) pay.

An eviction notice was made and in 1899 the family is said to have barricaded themselves inside the home. Sadly they were forced out when Mr Langer became suddenly ill and died.

The property was sold over their heads for 20 pounds because of the rates default, of which the Langers got nothing because of court costs.

Although some in the Oxford community regarded the Langer family as a “pest” their string of misfortunes engendered the sympathy of most others. A subscription list was taken around by the people of Oxford and they were able to buy the property back and present it to the family.

A later newspaper report held in the Oxford Museum said: “No one ever explained the rights and wrongs of the ownership of land in this foreign country. Injustices led to a suspicious and stubborn attitude and stubbornness led to great injustices, to disaster and to death.”

Following the death of their mother Johanna in 1907, and with their two brothers and two sisters all eventually leaving the property; Rose and Joe were left there together alone.

The reporter who first told the Langer’s story to the outside world in 1936 was astounded at their living conditions but was cut short in an attempt to provide sympathy to Rose.

“Emphatically she indicated that she was satisfied with her life and contrasted it with what she had heard of the debauchery of modern society – shameless girls who smoke and drink and exploited their men friends for everything they could get,” the story said.

Although worn down by the tragic circumstances of their lives and unceasing manual labours, both the Langers lived to old age and were said to be content with their lot.

Rose died in 1940 aged 80 and Joe in 1951 aged 78, after spending the last two years of his life at Nazareth House.

Perhaps there is something to be said for their recipe of a simple diet and hard work.

“The work is health,” Rose told the reporter when asked if she was ever sick or needed a doctor. “Give the body exercise. That is what it needs.”

Some of the Langer’s original tools, utensils and other possessions can be viewed at the Oxford Musuem.