Burnetts days recalled

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Bill Robinson, left, and Kevin Prue checking out historical photographs of the days at Burnetts Transport. Both men worked at the transport company for more than 40 years. Photo Toni Williams

Retired farmer and former mechanic Les Nell started working after school for Burnetts Motors Ltd in 1952. He was 13 years old and started in the workshop of Ashburton Implement Services (AIS).

AIS was the International Harvest Company franchise taken on by Burnetts’ founder Bob Burnett in 1951. It was based at South Street.

Now in his 80s, Mr Nell was among the hundreds of former Burnetts transport and motor company staff who turned up to a catch up event at Ashburton Racecourse on Saturday.

More than 250 people, including partners, registered to attend.

Among them Adrienne Francis, the daughter of founder Bob Burnett, and Kevin Prue and Bill Robinson who both worked for the company for more than 40 years.

They both did driving duties which included carting grain, collecting steel from Christchurch, and general freight. However the company also helped shape the district with workers doing roading, kerbing and channelling work in newly created subdivisions of the time.

It was an excellent company to work for and some days were better than others, Mr Robinson said.

But even now at aged 78, he said he would do it all again tomorrow if he could.

The company was started by Bob Burnett in 1927, and was one of Mid Canterbury’s biggest employers in its time; in its heyday nearly 300 staff were employed and the company had more than 100 vehicles.

It offered a range of transport services including carting of goods, a workshop and transport depot, petrol pumps, earthmoving with bulldozers, scrapers, loaders and other heavy machinery.

Mr Burnett also owned a coal mine and a high country station. He remained a company director during several ownership changes until his retirement in 1981, at age 72.

During Mr Nell’s time at AIS, it moved to a site along East Street (around where Repco sits now).

It reinforced his appreciation of the workings of machinery, which has lasted a lifetime.

He has a love of John Deeres which spanned from his youth living along the road from the dairy factory at Staveley.

Mr Nell has since spent many years since collecting them; some restored, some not.

Among his tasks at AIS he did spare part deliveries, with some sales, and put part numbers on the bins.

He also worked the petrol pump site and helped with invoicing in the office. He was earning two pound a week.

He became an apprentice mechanic at Bailey’s in Ashburton and worked as mechanic for Burnetts Motors Autolines from 1957 until he got a “dose of fumes” and had to leave in 1959.

After leaving Burnetts, Mr Nell took jobs working on farms and also worked with an engineer who created the first hydraulic postdriver.

He eventually set up his own workshop in Hororata, aptly called Nells Workshop, and had his own farm paradise at Te Pirita before retiring to Barrhill.

-By Toni WilliamsSports brandsNike