Somewhere between the truth and

otherwise …

Behind the name of John Douglas Stark

Lisa J Truttman
July 2016

Cover image: from Te Ara, the Encyclopedia of New Zealand (teara.govt.nz), image by Jock Phillips,
featuring the war memorial at Kaiapoi modelled on John Douglas Stark. Although Te Ara incorrectly
names him as James.

“A third local sculptor who made a notable contribution to memorial art was William Trethewey. He
was a Christchurch monumental mason, largely self-taught but with aspirations to be a sculptor in
the grand tradition. In 1920 he submitted a figure, 'The bomb-thrower', to the Christchurch Art
Society exhibition – but, despite being the talking point of the exhibition, it was deemed too realistic
for a memorial. However, it did gain Trethewey a commission for this memorial at Kaiapoi. It was
described as a digger resting after a desperate charge, the torn sleeve and wounded arm showing
what he had been through. Trethewey had modelled the figure on 'Starkie' (James Douglas Stark),
the rebellious soldier who was the subject of Robin Hyde's First World War novel Passport to hell.
Trethewey was later the sculptor for the Christchurch memorial in Cathedral Square, long regarded
as one of the finest in the country.”

-------------

A headstone at Waikumete Cemetery’s Soldiers’ Section G, Row 4, Plot 16 tells posterity that there
lies one Private J D Stark, 8/2142 NZEF, Otago Regiment, died 22 February 1942. These days, it
should be relatively easy to get the true story of this man’s life and war service, even if just from
bare bones sources such as vital records, his military service file (now helpfully digitised and online
courtesy Archives New Zealand), and what may crop up from a search at that other excellent online
repository of our nation’s historical information, both the great and the trivial – Papers Past, from
the National Library in Wellington. In the early 21st century, we are truly spoiled as far as access to
information on our heritage is concerned, compared with the hard road walked upon by our
preceding fellow researchers last century.

Yet -- the real story to John Douglas Stark (1894-1942), his background, his life and his war career,
more than any other returned serviceman at rest today at Waikumete Cemetery, is difficult to
define. What information is available will forever be tangled with (and utterly eclipsed in the
opinion of writers and others even today) by the novelisation written by Robin Hyde (the pen name
for Iris Wilkinson) called Passport to Hell (1936) and subsequent embellishments. Some historians
indeed have over time have swallowed the J D Stark myths whole, without question, critical

assessment or even fact-checking; they believe Hyde where she declared that her book was not a
fiction, 1 but miss the part where she also declared herself not to be a historian, 2 so facts really were
never as important to her as much as the story she decided should be presented in the way that she
did. Facts, though, do form a documented timeline, using reports from newspapers (mostly his
brushes with the law and appearances before the courts) and what there is available from his
military personnel file via Archives New Zealand. Against this framework, one can then consider how
well the Hyde novels were an “oral history”, as one historian called Passport to Hell, or how much of
the fiction blurred the truth.

Stark was born on 17 July 1894, 3 a date of which he would later either have no clear knowledge, or
perhaps just simply forgot. Telling Hyde that he was born in 1898 meant that she was able to readily
paint him as a teenager thrust into the nightmare of war, and any reckless and barbarous actions he
described to her were simply those of a teenager surviving in No Man’s Land. He was actually 20
when he enlisted in 1915, and 25 when he was discharged in 1920. His actions were those of a young
man, not a boy. Nor was he born in a hotel; 4 his father had lost the hotel in a bankruptcy eight years
before, 5 and was working as a labourer 6 at the time of J D Stark’s birth, a fact which may have led to
Stark’s early start towards a lengthy criminal record.

He was the fifth of five children, four of whom survived to adulthood. His father Wyald/Wyld Stark
probably recited stories about his own background to his children, the “facts” left rather muddy as
to his own origins. According to his obituary 7 (reliant, of course, on what was recalled by others of
his stories rather than definite facts, just as with those by his youngest son later) he was simply “a
man of dark complexion” and of Spanish blood, born in Florida. His father in turn was said to be a
Spanish officer, “on active service against Florida natives”. He died at the age of 78 in 1910, which
puts his year of birth at around 1832 – a bit late for any “Spanish officers” in Florida, as the territory
was ceded to America in 1821, and became a state in 1845. It could have been this discrepancy
which had J D Stark declare his father as a Delaware Indian and his mother Spanish – unfortunately

1

Hyde’s “Author’s Note”, at the beginning of the book.
Hyde defending herself to Eric Ramsden over her account of the life of Charles, Baron de Thierry, Check to
Your King: “I am not a historian, and don’t want to be one. It is the individual and the mind moving behind
queer, unreasonable actions which seem to me to produce a good deal of the fun of this old world; and I think
that any writer has the right to interpret this as best he can …” From letter dated 26 December 1936, quoted
by DIB Smith, annotated version of Passport to Hell, 2015, p. xxiv
3
J D Stark birth registration
4
Hyde, Passport to Hell (2015 edition) p. 13
5
Estate sale notice, Southland Times, 25 October 1886, p.3
6
J D Stark birth registration
7
Southland Times, 5 November 1910 p. 7
2

for that story, Florence Evan(s) was born in Staffordshire, England. 8 There doesn’t appear to be any
record of a “noted highwayman Higgins” whom Wyald Stark was said to have captured on the
Victorian goldfields in Australia, according to the obituary, which goes on to say he arrived in New
Zealand in 1856. Perhaps so – the earliest mention of him here comes from the Southland News of
23 February 1864, where he is in court for assaulting his first wife, Elizabeth née Cooper. 9 Elizabeth
died in 1883; Wyald Stark remarried in 1884. 10 He was already naturalised as a citizen of the British
Empire from 1868. 11 He was, again according to the obituary, at least until his financial enterprises
unravelled from 1886: a storekeeper, Avenal (Southland) hotelier, racehorse breeder and owner,
and a man fond of the ugly “sport” of cock-fighting, keeping the stuffed remains of a champion of his
with him until he himself died.

It isn’t known for certain what happened during J D Stark’s childhood up to his arrest at the age of 12
in 1906, and incarceration at Burnham Industrial School, 18 miles from Christchurch. Burnham was
described in the Cyclopedia of New Zealand thus:

It is one of the three Government Industrial Schools in the colony, the others being at Auckland, and
at Caversham, near Dunedin … The farm attached to the school comprises about 1000 acres, of which
between 300 and 400 acres are sown in oats and wheat, or are utilised for the growing of vegetables.
All the work on the farm is done by the older boys, about a dozen being employed under the
supervision of two farm hands. The boys are instructed in all branches of farm work. Stock is also
kept on the farm. Dairying, too, is carried on, and some of the lads become expert dairymen. The
garden, the poultry farm, the laundry, workshop, fire brigade, band, and other aids to industry and
recreation are all conducted on the most approved principles, with a view to the well-being of the
pupils. The boys are encouraged to learn useful trades, such as carpentry, tailoring, shoemaking, and
cooking, and are given every facility in that connection. A small weekly payment is made to those
who display special diligence and aptitude. A smart cadet corps, attached to the school, is drilled by a
qualified instructor. The discipline of a military system is maintained at Burnham, and the bugle-call,
which sounds the boys to meals, to bed, and so on, is obeyed with alacrity. Representatives of the
various religious denominations frequently visit the school. 12

8

J D Stark birth registration
Lake Wakatip Mail 27 February 1864 p. 6
10
J D Stark birth registration
11
Ancestry.com database
12
Cyclopedia, 1903, via http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/
9

Stark escaped from Burnham in 1911, when he was 16 and a half, stole a suit of clothes, was caught
and convicted, but simply discharged back to Burnham, the judge “warning the lad to be careful as
to his future conduct.” 13 A warning that went unheeded. This was one of many incidents of escapes
from Burnham, his final escape happening on 4 January 1914, when he was 19 years old, shortly
after which he stole a bicycle. The deputy manager of Burnham, H J Bathgate, agreed with the
judge’s suggestion that Stark be sent to Invercargill Gaol for a year, instead of back to Burnham; that
way, at the expiration of Stark’s sentence, he would be of age and no longer the responsibility of the
industrial school authorities. He was described as an “untutored youth”. At that point, it was
reported he had family living still in Invercargill, but probably not for much longer. 14

Of some interest is that either Stark, or Robin Hyde, made up a story of Stark doing “time” in 1913
“for crowning a special that cracked my mate in the great strike. That was the time the cockies all
came to town. You wouldn’t remember, you were all wet and milky then.” 15 At the time, Stark was at
Burnham. It may have been during one of his many escapes from that institution, but he and/or
Hyde clearly mixed together the 1913 Waterfront Strike with his 1914-1915 prison term, which was
for something completely different, and less legendary.

Stark did not react well to prison. Within the first two months of his sentence, he had charges of
misconduct levelled against him, refusal to obey orders, and damaging prison property. On 27 April,
he threw a full latrine bucket at a prison guard and tried to hit the man with part of a cell stool. He
was put on bread and water for seven days and forfeited 540 marks on his record, the judge
commenting that it was fortunate Stark had not been brought up on an indictable offence. 16

As soon as he was released from Invercargill Gaol, he enlisted in the army as just Douglas Stark, 17
passed as medically fit on 9 February, and left with the Southland quota of the Fifth Reinforcements,
entering camp at Trentham on 13 February 1915. There does not seem to have been any hesitation
on the part of the military authorities during his attestation: past records were rarely checked then,
and Stark lied when asked on the form “Have you ever been sentenced to imprisonment by the Civil
power?” His answer was “No.” Another lie was likely that he was employed by a “Mr Smith of

13

Christchurch Press, 24 January 1911, p. 8
Christchurch Star, 10 February 1914, p. 4
15
Hyde, Nor the Years Condemn, pp. 128-129
16
Christchurch Star, 14 May 1914, p. 7
17
The thought does come to mind, considering his late altering of his first name, by usage, from John to James
from 1935 onward, that perhaps he didn’t like the name John. He seems to have been called Doug or Duggie in
his early years.
14

Blackmount” near Invercargill. He put “Yes” for the question as to whether he’d been enrolled in
compulsory military training, and put further that it was at Christchurch – quite possibly, he was
referring to the cadet camp at Burnham Industrial School. After training at Trentham, he departed
New Zealand on 17 April 1915, 18 as part of the Otago Regiment.
From this point on, his story is pin pointed mainly by timelining the dates that appear in his military
record, along with what dating for events as appear in the biography of Dick Travis, Travis VC, Man in
No Man’s Land by James Gasson (1966), and the Official History of the Otago Regiment NZEF in the
Great War by A E Byrne (1921). Hyde’s book can’t be completely discounted at this point, but dating
is difficult (due to it being a novelisation, rather than a biography), and some incidents appear to
have either been left out entirely, or exaggerated if included.

Stark arrived in Egypt 13 June 1915, too late to have taken part in the first Battle of the Wazzir which
is described in Hyde’s book, but others defending the account point out that Stark may have simply
told Hyde about the second battle, not the first. He joined the rest of the Otago Regiment at the
Dardanelles on 9 August, and was wounded in the left hand on 20 August, evacuated to hospital on
Malta on 31 August. Recovered, he returned to the Dardanelles 11 September, before being
admitted to hospital yet again on 30 October, with “bladder trouble”. He rejoined his unit again on 6
November, this time at Sarpi Camp on the island of Lemnos. He refused an order from an officer a
day later, and received 14 days field punishment. The regiment returned to Alexandria on 27
December 1915. 19

Hyde’s account describes Stark involved with the stealing of gold coins from the body of a dead
Australian soldier, 20 and that he was shot in the left leg, not the hand. 21 The two hospital periods
were probably telescoped into one, and his memory after time perhaps made it that the wound was
in the leg, and not where he was actually hit. No mention is made by Hyde of the field punishment
on Lemnos.

On to 1916. Still based at Egypt, Stark was absent from a defaulters roll call on 13 January, and
received 7 days field punishment. The regiment embarked for France on 6 April 1916. 22

18

Military file
Military file
20
Hyde, Passport, (2015 ed.) pp. 114-117
21
Hyde, p. 122
22
Military file
19

Hyde’s account turns one of Stark’s 14 days FP as coming from “using language to Colonel Percy, and
trying to brain him with a tent mallet” at Ismailia. 23 This isn’t reflected in his file at all.

In Armentieres, France, on 16 May, he was court martialled for creating a disturbance in the billets,
offering violence to a superior officer, and making seditious statements about the sovereign and the
army. For this, he was sentenced to five years in prison with hard labour, but the sentence was
suspended a month. On 9 June the conviction was quashed, and the sentence remitted entirely in
recognition of gallantry in the field on 13 July. 24

In Hyde’s book, Stark claimed he was drunk on absinthe supplied by a couple of Australian soldiers,
so couldn’t clearly recollect the incident in detail, but it apparently did involve use of a bayonet,
firing at an officer through a latrine door, and the seditious statements. Hyde and Stark, however,
inflated the five year sentence to 15 years, 25 then recorded it reduced to five years, then a 15 day
probation. 26 It is possible that Stark was genuinely led to believe the sentence was to be a longer
one than five years – a notation of “Penal ser. for life” on the military file page was altered with the
word “life” later scribbled out. 27

The gallantry under fire that saw his sentence quashed and then remitted entirely was apparently
the recovery of a number of wounded men during a raid. This was also the point in his story when
the myth began regarding Stark being recommended for a VC. A driver, G F Wise, wrote to his father
soon afterwards that “a young fellow named Stark, from Invercargill, who has another brother at the
front, brought in 17 wounded men under fire, a really marvellous act.” 28
In 1919, it was reported in the newspapers that “several times … [Stark] qualified for the highest
attainable decorations.” 29 An Australian newspaper in Footscray, Victoria, where Stark’s mother and
oldest brother lived, reported in 1920: “Had he accepted official recognition of his actions he would
have been fairly loaded with decorations, including the most cherished of them. But he resolutely
refused everything of this nature, being content to do what he considered his duty …” 30 The legend
was already beginning to take root in popular imagination.

23

Hyde, p. 140,
Military file.
25
Hyde, p. 163
26
Hyde, p. 164
27
Military file
28
Southland Times, 7 October 1916, p. 4
29
Southland Times, 22 January 1919, p. 4
30
Independent (Footscray), 7 February 1920, p. 1
24

By 1920, back again in court, the number of men he rescued was reduced in testimony to 14; his
counsel told the court he believed that while Stark had been recommended for a VC, this
recommendation was withdrawn after “a bout of drinking.” 31
Nothing more of this is mentioned, until Hyde’s book is published, wherein Stark said he had been
told by a Col. Chalmers that he had been recommended for the VC. 32 The time of day this Col.
Chalmers made the statement differs in the manuscripts for the book, no reference was made in the
newspapers at the time of such a recommendation, 33 and no reference is included in Stark’s military
file. As Glyn Harper and Colin Richardson wrote when discussing Stark in their book In the Face of the
Enemy: The complete history of the Victoria Cross and New Zealand (2007), 34 and repeated by Glyn
Harper in the more recent Johnny Enzed: The New Zealand Soldier in the First World War 1914-1918
(2015), “According to popular mythology, and recorded in a number of books, Stark was
recommended for the VC for his actions on the night of 11-12 July 1916.” 35 Such books, since the
publication of Hyde’s book in 1935, include one by noted military historian Jock Phillips, who
continued the spread of the “Stark VC myth” solely from reading Hyde’s book without checking
other sources, Phillips describing Passport to Hell as “a pioneering piece of oral history.” 36 Another,
unfortunately for the reference reliability of the volume, was the Oxford Companion to New Zealand
Military History, (2000) edited by Ian McGibbon, where Hyde’s Passport to Hell is used as the only
source for Stark’s entry in the book. 37 James Belich, in his book Paradise Reforged (2001), in the
reference to Stark’s deeds and misdeeds, describes him as “a real but unofficial New Zealand hero,”
but only used Hyde’s writings on Stark and no other source as a citation. 38 The portrait of Stark as
painted by Hyde with her words has loomed far larger in the pages of historical authorship reflecting
on the war and his part in it than anything documentary evidence can prove otherwise.

Back to Stark’s military file, and two more dates round out his record for the year of 1916: 10
November, when he was found guilty of being absent from roll call, and forfeited seven days’ pay,
and Boxing Day, when he was found guilty of being absent without leave from parade, and lost a
further seven days’ pay. There was probably quite a good reason for his further mis-behaviour: the

31

Mataura Ensign, 24 November 1920, p. 3
Hyde pp.173-174
33
DIB Smith’s notes, Passport, p. 296
34
Pages 128-129
35
P. 600
36
Phillips, A Man’s Country? The Image of the Pakeha Male, 1987, p. 194
37
P. 511
38
P. 106
32

death of his elder brother George at the Somme, 15 September 1916. 39 Hyde described Stark’s
discovery of the torn remains of his brother with horrific detail. Whether it was Stark who found
George or not may never be known for sure – but as they were both in the Otago Regiment, the
news alone no doubt affected Stark deeply.

The events in Hyde’s description of Stark’s 1917 year have only one firm date: 7 June, when “the
Messines business” began. 40 Unfortunately, despite all the description of that part of the Western
Front campaign that follows, there is one fact in Stark’s real life which conflicts with the novelisation.
At the time, he was already incarcerated at No 3 Military Prison, Le Havre.

On 8 January 1917, Stark, with the 1st Battalion of the Otago Regiment, relieved the 2nd Battalion at
the Cordonierre sector. 2nd Battalion included in their number the famous Dickson Cornelius Savage,
aka Richard Charles “Dick” Travis, a man awarded the Crois de Guerre and the VC for his bravery. He
would be killed in action the following year, but in early 1917 he came up against Stark, described by
Travis’ biographer James Gasson as “a swashbuckling, utterly fearless adventurer who carried off
spectacular raids on the enemy by sheer dash. He was reckless and uncontrollable out of the line and
was continually in trouble. He made several challenges to Travis to go out on patrol with him, but
Dick would not work with the wild man of the Battalion. He saw no virtue in the unplanned foray that
was carried off solely by exuberant courage. Stark was hot-blooded and reckless, Travis was the coldblooded, calculating professional. He shrugged off Stark’s challenges, but it was the youthful
Swainson, ever intolerant of criticism of his leader, who settled the matter with Stark in a couple of
fist fights.” 41

A lesser part of the Stark mythos was that he was a “friend” of Travis, something that first appeared
in the newspapers in January 1940, apparently via an interview by a reporter from the Auckland Star
with Stark, 42 and it rolled on to be repeated by the Star in that newspaper’s 1942 obituary for Stark.
43

At least, however, via Travis’ biography and Stark’s military file, we are able to partially plot Stark’s

career during 1917.

39

Hyde, p. 181
Hyde, p. 197
41
Gasson, Travis VC, p. 74
42
Auckland Star, 6 January 1940, p. 6
43
Auckland Star 23 February 1942, p. 6
40

On 5 February 1917, Stark was found absent without leave from fatigue without permission, and
received seven days field punishment. 44 On 14 February, that penalty over, the Otago Regiment
went into reserve at Nieppe for around three weeks. 45 1 March was when Stark struck Corporal J A
Pegler, Canterbury Regiment, when Pegler made enquiries as to some sort of disturbance. 46 Nine
days later, the Otago Regiment was at Messines, quartering the ground in front of the rest of the
New Zealand troops. 47 The regiment went into 10 days training, 50 miles away from the line on 16
April, then returned 3 May, constructing assembly trenches and approaches. 48

In Hyde’s book, Stark supposedly said that Pegler bore a grudge about the punch for 10 months. 49 It
was actually just over two months between act and court martial, where Stark on 8 May was
sentenced to lose 90 days’ pay, and to two years with hard labour at Le Havre. 50 Allied shooting
intensified at Messines on 21 May, 51 and perhaps Stark hoped to be able to do as he did before –
behave, act gallantly, have his sentence overturned. The loss of pay was reversed, but not the prison
sentence. He was admitted to the prison 25 May 1917. 52 Hyde erroneously inflated the sentence to
10 years, 53 and later others made it 20 years.

Sometime before 29 November, Stark deserted from a prison working party out of Le Havre, 54 and
remained at large until around 24 January 1918. According to the official history of the Otago
Regiment, the regiment was at the divisional reserve, Bac St Maur at that point, 55 and Hyde
recorded Stark as saying, "I faded away to Bac St Maur, and there ran into Col. Hardy." 56 He was
involved, unofficially, with a raiding party on the night of 19-20 February, during which Stark shot
one of six German prisoners of war taken by the raiders. 57 Hyde describes a sergeant-major
threatening to “send Stark up” for killing a man in cold blood, and Stark “harpooning” a wounded

44

Military file
Gasson, p. 75
46
Military file
47
Gasson, p. 76
48
Gasson, p. 77
49
Hyde, p. 192
50
Military file
51
Gasson, p. 77
52
Military file
53
Hyde, p. 199
54
Military file
55
A E Byrne, p. 154
56
Hyde, p. 226
57
Byrne, pp. 269-270
45

German soldier with a bayonet. 58 The remainder of his sentence was remitted on 30 July 1918. 59
Somehow, in a war where deserters were shot for their pains, his luck had held yet again. This may
have had much to do with crossing the path of a certain Member of Parliament, as will be seen later.

The rest of Stark’s military career was fairly standard. On 2 June 1918, he was wounded in the chest,
sent to hospital in England, and classified as unfit for service on 11 July. A day after the two year
sentence was lifted, on 31 July, he absented himself again until 18 August, and was docked 14 days’
pay. On 17 September he was marched from Larkhill to Sling camp, and rejoined his unit in France
on 23 September. He was wounded again, the third occasion, in the arm and elbow, on 10 October,
and was back in England, in a London Hospital, five days later. Just in time for the 1918 influenza
pandemic; he came down with the virus and was classed as seriously ill 24 October, but was
recovered sufficiently a day later for his name to be removed from the danger list. He was
transferred to Walton Hospital on 28 October, and embarked at Southampton for New Zealand on
the Marama on 19 December 1918. He returned to New Zealand 28 January 1919. 60

Before he was finally discharged from the army on 9 January 1920, Stark made an appearance in a
Dunedin court concerning a street brawl in which, oddly and most unusually for him, he neither
started nor took active part in. 61 He appears, now John Douglas Stark once again, on the 1919
Dunedin electoral roll as a soldier, living in Cumberland Street. 62 There were two further offences,
however, one on 25 April and another on Christmas Day 1919, for both of which he received
convictions, according to his lawyer at the later, 23 November 1920 court hearing.

That time, after engaging in a drunken quarrel, Stark is said to have taken shelter under a shop
verandah in Invercargill, broken into the shop, stole items, and then attempted to set fire to the
shop. He wandered around in the general area afterwards for around an hour, within sight of the
police station immediately opposite. He received a three year prison sentence, made lighter than it
would have been because of the drunken state, and the glowing war record his lawyer described to
the court. 63

58

Hyde, p. 227
Military file
60
Military file
61
Evening Star, 6 March 1919, p. 8
62
Electoral roll p. 177
63
Mataura Ensign, 24 November 1920, p. 3
59

Stark was out on the streets again in under three years, and also in trouble again, this time in
Wellington in October 1923, where in a drunken state he created a disturbance and punched a
police officer. For that fracas, he was fined a total of £9 or, if he’d defaulted, nearly two months in
prison. 64 The following year, he was in Auckland, and causing a ruckus in Hobson Street in October,
resisting arrest and having to be handcuffed. This time, he was fined £2. 65 This was followed by
another disorderly conduct charge in early December, 66 and by March 1925 he was in Mt Eden Gaol,
serving a three month sentence. 67 There was another disorderly conduct charge in November
1926,68 and again in December. 69 This was the year he married Isabel Patterson. Isabel deserted him
before 1933, the year Stark sought a divorce. 70 The marriage was headed for the rocks well before
that though; in August 1927, he wrote to Downie Stewart: “Now about that wife of mine how I have
wished I had taken your advice and never married when I did.” 71

Stark was in Napier by 1928, found guilty in June that year in the Napier Supreme Court on a charge
of breaking into shops in Wairoa and stealing clothing. The story of Stark having saved the life of
Prime Minister Gordon Coates was made public for the first time, Stark’s counsel referring to a
telegram received from Coates by Stark. Stark’s misbehaviour was also blamed on alcohol.
Impressed by the war record as recounted in court, what the judge heard made him reduce Stark’s
intended sentence from five years to three in reformative detention (a term that could have been
reduced by “hard work and good behaviour”), but the judge did note that while Stark was then 33
years of age, he had already racked up 21 previous convictions (so what is known publicly about
Stark’s criminal career is just a fraction of his total record, and probably did not include his wartime
convictions as well). The judge pointed out that Stark “was on the way to being declared an habitual
criminal, if not already one.” 72

In Hyde’s second book based on Stark’s life, Nor The Years Condemn (1938), Prime Minister Joseph
Gordon Coates and William Downie Stewart MP are referred to as “Lonnigan” and “Conway.”
“… Good old Lonnigan, whatever some of the narks said about him. He always stood by the boys, and
you could talk to him as a human being. He barked, but he didn’t like too much oil. With Conway

64

Evening Post, 13 October 1923, p. 6
Auckland Star, 30 October 1924, p. 8
66
NZ Herald, 9 December 1924, p. 6
67
Auckland Star, 27 March 1925, p. 7
68
Auckland Star, 1 November 1926 p. 8
69
Evening Post, 6 December 1926 p. 10
70
Auckland Star, 10 November 1933, p. 3
71
Derek Challis and Gloria Rawlinson, The Book of Iris: A Life of Robin Hyde, 2002, p. 275
72
Auckland Star, 6 June 1928, p.17
65

Starkie was a little less at ease. He was sure Conway meant as well, by him and by the boys, and
when he got into a fight, or had a fine to pay, he sat down and scrawled laboriously, ‘Dear Mr
Conway, Dear Pal,’ ending up with ‘Yours truly, Doug Stark.’ Conway had fished him out of the soup
more than once. He meant as well as Lonnigan, but he wasn’t so easy to talk to. His blue eyes
sometimes looked through you, and the violin could be uncanny in that house.” 73

Apart from reports in the newspapers and other media from 1928 that Stark had saved Coates’ life
(some stories say it was Downie Stewart who had been saved), we do have the brief, rather vague
reference to this in Michael Bassett’s biography of Coates, Coates of Kaipara: where, sometime in
early 1918, perhaps the time he earned the bar to his MC at the end of May that year, “Coates did
not escape unharmed; his knee was injured when he missed his footing, and he was obliged to
relinquish command of his company for a time. He was carried from the field of action by one of his
men, ‘Darkie’ Stark, better known to everyone as Starkie. Their paths were to cross many times in
later years. Starkie would turn up at Parliament at inopportune moments asking for money; Coates
always gave it. When Coates was out of the country in 1926, Downie Stewart paid out on behalf of
his chief and even tried to find a job for Starkie. He became a nuisance, but Coates always
maintained that Starkie had saved his life.” 74 Bassett appears to have based this on a mixture of two
letters Downie Stewart wrote to Coates in November and December 1926, and recollections by
Coates’ sister and nephew. 75 The letters were written to Coates by Downie Stewart soon after the
latter had served as acting Prime Minister for Coates while Coates was in London in October 1926,
which would tally with Bassett’s description of help offered to Stark while Coates was away. 76

A look at Coates’ very brief military file available via Archives New Zealand does indicate that, for
such a decorated soldier as Coates was, there is quite a bit missing from the file. What is available is
bare bones. He served as a Captain and temporary Major in the 1st Battalion of the Auckland
Regiment (not the Otago), serving overseas from 15 November 1916 until embarking for home in
May 1919. He slightly sprained his left knee on 9 April 1918 77 – this was a period in Stark’s own
career between the point where he rejoined his regiment in January 1918 after deserting from the
prison working party at Le Havre, and when the remainder of his sentence was remitted on 30 July
that year, a month after he had been wounded. Neither of the histories of the Auckland Regiment 78

73

Hyde, Nor the Years Condemn, p. 91
Bassett, p. 51
75
Bassett, notes, p. 287
76
Bassett, p. 119
77
Military file
78
O E Burton, The Auckland Regiment, 1922, pp. 208-209
74

nor the Otago Regiment 79 in describing each regiment’s movements in this period of the 1918 Battle
of the Somme, mention either regiment relieving the other, or working in conjunction with each
other but, given the general confusion of war and the front at the time, that isn’t proof that Coates’
and Stark’s paths did not cross. The incident, however, could explain why Stark’s prison sentence
was written off, as Coates went on to be celebrated for his own gallantry, coincidentally mirroring
that of Stark’s earlier 1916 effort – when Coates’ men “were killed or wounded under heavy fire, he
showed complete indifference to danger, attending to the wounded and carrying men to safety. His
willingness to sacrifice himself for others was an inspiration to all his men.” 80

Downie Stewart on the other hand was an officer in the Otago Regiment, so is more likely to have
come into contact with Stark – but he suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, serving overseas only from
January to December 1916. He was a Member of Parliament at the time, from 1914 to 1935. From
1921 he held portfolios for Internal Affairs and Customs, from 1923 Industries and Commerce, and
held the office of Attorney-General until 1926. In that year until 1928 he was Minister of Finance and
was quite influential, resuming that portfolio once the Reform Party came back into power in 1931,
until he resigned as a minister in 1933. 81 The period of any helpful influence he could have used for
Stark would therefore have been from 1921 to 1933, with a three-year gap being coincidentally
when Stark was incarcerated in Napier anyway.

Coates, an MP from 1911, rose in ascendency from 1919, given the portfolio of Justice by William
Massey. He was in charge of Public Works from 1920 (a handy portfolio for the references in Hyde’s
second book on Stark of “Lonnigan and Conway” finding him job after job with government public
work schemes), and minister of Railways as well from 1923. He was William Massey’s second
successor as Prime Minister from 1925, and remained in power until 1928. He was minister of Public
Works and Transport once again from 1931, and took over Downie Stewart’s Finance portfolio from
1933. From 1935, with the Labour Party win, Coates’ influence waned. 82

79

Byrne, pp. 285-286
Coates’ military file
81
Stephanie Dale. 'Stewart, William Downie', from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara - the
Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 26-Feb-2014
80

82

Michael Bassett. 'Coates, Joseph Gordon', from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara - the
Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 6-Jun-2013

Coates may well have given Stark a job in Wellington around 1923, “with one of the big construction
companies, building an insurance house which was going to outshine anything in Wellington.” 83
Wellington was, of course, where he punched a police officer that year. Then, he was at Mangahao
(complete by 1925), described by Hyde as his “first hydro” project job 84 but probably only for a few
months in 1924. His next work provided by Coates is said to have been at Waikaremoana, 85 where
work started on the Tuai Power Station from 1926, 86 so this would have been after his three-month
stint in Mt Eden Prison the previous year. (According to Stark, this was nine months, followed by
work at Arapuni.) 87 He married Isobel Pattersen on 16 December 1926. 88 Work at Arapuni would
have been from early 1927 89, but then he is said to have gone to Australia, working on sheep
stations in Queensland, then New South Wales where he is said to have served some time in
Narrabri gaol for selling rum to aborigines, then Long Bay Prison in Sydney, followed by Parramatta
Prison, for “creating a disturbance and assaulting several policemen”, sentenced to nine months’
hard labour. However “Starkie was turned loose in a short time,” according to Hyde, and returned to
New Zealand. She wrote that he had been away “eighteen months”. 90 This would be cutting his
timeline very fine, if true, as it was the middle of 1928 when he wound up in the Napier Court. Hyde
even claims that he returned to Napier and was in prison there in 1927, 91 which can’t be correct. I
have also yet to find reports from Australian newspapers backing up Stark’s criminal activities there.

Stark was out of Napier’s penal facilities by the middle of 1931 at the latest. At some point after this,
he met up with Ritehei/Ritahia – the spelling of her name varies from source to source. Stark shifted
to Avondale, Auckland, with her and her three children, fathered another two children with her, and
in August 1933 was in court again for stealing chickens from a neighbour. 92 Ritehei died 14
September 1934 in Auckland, and was buried at Waikumete. In October 1934 the law caught up with
Stark for breaking into a woman’s home in New Lynn to steal blinds and linoleum, apparently carried
out just before Ritehei’s death, and because Stark wanted her to have blinds and lino. The judge at
the second hearing, who sentenced him only to two years’ probation for the crime, was the same

83

Hyde, p. 83
Hyde, p. 90
85
Hyde, p. 104
86
From IPENZ website, http://www.ipenz.org.nz/
87
Hyde, p. 194
88
BDM database
89
Hyde pp. 141-153
90
Hyde p 154 fol.
91
Hyde, p. 191
92
NZ Herald, 15 August 1933, p.
84

one impressed by what was presented as Stark’s war record at Napier back in 1928. A combination
of that, together with the fact Stark was caring for five children now, swayed the judge towards
leniency. 93

Finally, however, in April 1935, along came Frederick Knight Hunt (1868-1945), noted Auckland
stipendiary magistrate and city coroner. Despite the two years’ probation imposed by the previous
magistrate, Stark got himself into trouble again, this time for fighting with another man over a
woman until both he and his opponent were crawling around bleeding in the street. His defence
brought up the usual two claims for leniency: Stark’s heroic “he should have got the VC at least” war
record, and that he was a widower with five young children. Hunt however, known in Auckland at
the time for “discarding the non-essentials surrounding even the most ticklish case,” 94 told Stark and
his counsel that Stark had traded “far too long on that war record of his,” and the attending police
officer agreed. “This man has been spoiled by praise.” The only reason why Stark did not receive a
prison sentence was because of the children, in Hunt’s view, although whether Stark would be seen
today as a fit caregiver while going out in the early hours of the morning to parties and assaulting
others over women is highly debateable.

Two convictions before the war, numerous convictions during the war, and 28 from 1919 to 1935,
probably not counting what did or didn’t happen in Australia. These were statistics revealed at that
final court hearing. It was clear that Stark’s questionable character if he had further trouble would
rely even more heavily for any redemption on what people believed had happened to him and what
he claimed he had done during the war.

Fortunately for Stark at that point, Robin Hyde had come along and started to work on her books
based on his exploits.
According to Hyde’s biography The Book of Iris, the process of putting his stories to the written word
began nearly a decade before. Stark was persuaded in 1926 by Downie Stewart “that it might be a
profitable venture to write an account of his wear experiences for publication.” This was the origin of
a surviving text entitled “When The World Seen Red,” with Stark appearing as a character named
Lucky. But Stark lacked a writer’s skills, and this attempt went nowhere. 95 While serving time in

93

Auckland Star, 15 October 1934, p. 9
Obituary, NZ Herald 17 April 1945 p. 4
95
Challis and Rawlinson, p. 275
94

Napier in 1929, 96 it appears that Stark then met up with another prisoner named Murphy, who set
to with an exercise book, possibly two, and began an intended publication entitled Doug Stark,
Bomber. Murphy hoped that Stark’s influence with Coates would see it being published, with
royalties split between them; Stark duly wrote to Downie Stewart about the book, sending him and
Coates the two exercise books, in the hope that they might edit it and find a publisher. The
manuscript however simply remained in the private papers of either Coates or Downie Stewart – a
note in Hyde’s biography says that it was eventually found in the General Assembly Library and
transferred to the Alexander Turnbull Library, where the Murphy manuscript still exists as one
exercise book in that collection, 97 the other possibly still with the family collection of Challis. Hyde
didn’t appear to use it in writing Passport to Hell, according to Smith in his later introduction to the
book. But both differences and similarities between how events were related between the Murphy
manuscript, notes taken down by Hyde, even those in Stark’s handwriting, and Hyde’s published
work are there. As Smith put it though: “Starkie changed his story to suit his hearer.” 98 And, indeed,
to try to improve his personal circumstances.

In the summer of 1931 (whether at the beginning or the end of the year isn’t stated, but possibly the
former), Rev George Edgar Moreton first met up with Stark, when the latter reported in to his
probation officer’s rooms in Auckland. He recorded (in his “biography of the first tense”, similar to
parts of Hyde’s Passport to Hell, written in his case by Melville Harcourt who listened to him, taking
notes) that Stark used the office phone that day to call Gordon Coates to ask for money. 99 The
following year, while Hyde, working for the New Zealand Observer newspaper, was interviewing
Moreton for an article on him, he showed her letter from ex-prisoners requesting help. From this,
she wrote of Stark for the first time, calling him “Sammy”, describing how he saved Downie
Stewart’s life not Coates’ from a “bombed dug-out”, but how Stark would send telegrams to Coates,
asking for money to fend off “ten wolves at the door.”

100

Moreton claimed that in the winter of 1935 he handed over to Hyde Stark’s “diary”, and this had
sparked off her interest in the project which became Passport to Hell. 101 It’s a recollection that gives
a nice inspiration story for the book, and it has been repeated often. But Stark would havehad no
96

Challis and Rawlinson, p. 273. Smith in his introduction to Passport to Hell puts the date of the meeting
between Murphy and Stark as 1925, during the briefer Mt Eden prison term.
97
MSX-8201, National Library catalogue. “An account recorded by C Murphy while both were inmates of Mt
Eden prison. Only one of two probable volumes of this record are held in this collection.”
98
Smith, pp.xi-xxii
99
Harcourt, A Parson In Prison, 1942, pp. 222-223
100
Smith, pp. viii-ix, quoting from NZ Observer, 13 October 1932.
101
Harcourt, pp 222-223

such war diary – this may well have been the other of Murphy’s exercise books, if anything. But how
it came into Moreton’s possession is anyone’s guess, if the incident happened at all. At least part of
this exercise book manuscript was possibly in her son’s collection as at 1985. 102 Besides, by winter
1935 things were already well underway. According to Hyde’s biography, Stark himself visited the
office of the Observer, desperate for finances in the wake of Ritehei’s death in 1934, spoke to Eric
Blomfield, and was introduced to Robin Hyde as a writer who would help him bring his published life
story to fruition. 103 Hyde began to interview Stark at his Greys Avenue home in Auckland in February
1935. 104 By coincidence, the following letter appeared in the press a month before that:

WAR BRAVERY
The discovery of the identity of that brave soldier known until recently as "Dick Travis" calls to my
mind the bravery of another soldier, John Stark. I think I am about the last living witness of this brave
man's deed; the doctor alongside me, I believe, was afterwards killed. It was during Otago's
disastrous raid in 1916, and some of us 1st Wellington Infantry were sent up to assist in case the raid
met with disaster, our instructions being to remain in Otago's second line until the raiders, 200 or
more, moved well out into No Man's Land. Right up to schedule we moved up towards Otago's front
line, but we were amazed to find the remnants of the raiding party, which had been shelled and torn
to pieces. When we were preparing ourselves to go out into No Man's Land to assist with the badly
wounded, I was requested by Otago's Battalion doctor to assist him to set a broken leg of one man,
and it was then that I witnessed this remarkable exhibition of bravery, which seems incomparable in
a way. Again and again one of the raiders turned round into the machine gun and shrapnel fire,
brought man after man in and laid them down as if they were babies at our feet. We were, of course,
too busy to count them, but someone said the total was eleven, and that the man's name was John
Stark. Personally I would not know the man if I met him again, for his face was blackened. J.H. 105

By April 1935, Stark had apparently developed a romantic interest in Hyde, proposing marriage,
writing passionate letters, and as Hyde wrote in her journal “worrying me terribly – not by wanting
money … but by wanting all the desperate faraway things people do seem to want … Of course he’s
trying to attach himself to me …” 106 Stark apparently received the lion’s share of the royalties from

102

Smith, p. xi
Challis and Rawlinson, p. 277
104
Smith, p. ix
105
Auckland Star, 10 January 1935, p. 13
106
Alex Calder, The Settler’s Plot: How Stories Take Place in New Zealand, 2011, p. 213
103

Passport to Hell, 107 so for a time it certainly provided him with the income he had been after from
the mid 1920s.

Passport to Hell was published in 1936, and its “sequel”, Nor the Years Condemn, came along in
1938. The second book, more focussed on the social fabric of interwar New Zealand, wasn’t as
successful with readers as the first, and even some reviews in England regarded it as a novel, rather
than a biography. For a while, for years beyond both Hyde’s and Stark’s deaths, Passport to Hell
made John Douglas Stark a household name. Although with a slight name change from 1936 onward
to James Douglas Stark, the name Hyde called him in the book, and so it was passed on to his burial
record at Waikumete Cemetery. Auckland Museum’s Cenotaph database, at least, have him as
Douglas Stark, the name he used on enlistment, but also continued on the error from the Hyde book
of his birth year being 1898 instead of 1894.

Even Downie Stewart and John A Lee were aware of the factual errors in Passport to Hell, but to be
fair at the time it was seen to be what it is – a novelisation of the brutality of war, a painting
constructed with words, a work of literature using a man’s life as a very broad and in many places
indistinct framework. In one instance, where Hyde included an event said to have been related to
her by Stark of his father Wyald chaining his son to the doorstep of a school on three days, this was
removed from further editions of the Passport to Hell book after complaints from the school’s
headmaster concerned, Hyde stating in a subsequent explanatory note that “I was misled.” 108
Others since, however, have taken Passport as a war history and a biography, and have not gone the
extra, less romantic distance, making checks to see just what path it was that Stark actually trod
during his controversial life, and where what may or may not be truthful recollections in a couple of
novels fit in reality.

The books came just before World War II, of course, and New Zealand was back in wartime patriotic
mood from late 1939. Perhaps Stark, in a way, became what we would today call “a poster boy for
the era.” Here was a returned serviceman with a heroic legend … who came back into prominence in
the newspapers in early 1940 when it was reported that he had received two white feathers, the
symbol for cowardice, in the mail. 109 Soon after this it was reported in the Christchurch Press that
Stark had found a job with the Public Works Department at the Waiouru Camp, despite the loss of

107

Challis and Rawlinson, p. 422
Smith, p. xvii
109
Auckland Star, 6 January 1940, p. 6
108

fingers to one hand 110 (some reports say this happened when Stark tried for a compensation injury
years before). He married again, this time to Peggy Christina Linton in 1941, then died in February
1942, his true age reduced in reports by three years, said to have been “born in Madrid,” receiving
“many wounds” in the Great War, and leaving behind him his widow and two remaining children, 111
Josephine Florence, later married name Rewi-Wetini (12 July 1931-2000) and Douglas Stark (15 April
1933 – 1998).

As a postscript to Stark’s life, his daughter Florence wrote to the Ministry of Defence in May 1968,
seeking information on her father’s war record. The only information she had to hand, sadly, came
from the book Passport to Hell and she wanted to know if there was confirmation as to Stark’s
service in Gallipoli. The Ministry responded with general information from the military file, excluding
any of the court martials, fines, punishments etc., but including the correct information as to which
part of the NZEF he served in, almost his correct date of birth (off by a day), a run-down on his
service and where he had been wounded, and the medals he received: the 1914-15 Star, British War
Medal and Victory Medal. As the Gallipoli Medallion was just being instituted, the Ministry had one
engraved for him, and kindly sent this to Florence as his next of kin.

“The records which have been retained by the Army for individual services in World War I are now
very meagre and relate only to essential details. Although I am aware of your father’s colourful war
service there is very little specific information left in official records of his exploits.” 112

It is partly because of that “very little specific information”, and the strong urge by many article
writers, authors and others to this day to treat Passport to Hell as a biography … that today it is as
the old proverb goes:

“Falsehood would run a mile while Truth is putting on his boots.”

My thanks to the Friends of Waikumete Cemetery for funding the research that led to this paper.

110

Press, 23 July 1940, p. 14
NZ Herald, 24 February 1942, p. 6
112
Ministry’s response, 14 June 1968, Douglas Stark military file
111