Croatian > History > Family History in New Zealand > UJDUR, Simun Mijo 1881-1953

UJDUR, Simun Mijo 1881-1953

Gum-digger, Photographer, ‘Esperanto’ Tutor, Winemaker and Collector of Books


By Stephen A. Jelicich and Simun Ujdur Jnr.

Simun Mijo Ujdur was born on 10 January 1881 in Gradac, a coastal Dalmatian township in Croatia. He arrived in New Zealand in 1895, with one of the first groups to come from Gradac. He was merely 14 years of age, and as ordained the group all went north to work in gum-fields. He worked there for five years and then returned to Gradac, probably under pressure from the Austrian Consulate, which regularly demanded that those of a military age should complete that service. Sojourning via the United States of America, Ujdur spent some time in California with his relatives. Hoping to find work in the midst of a recession and severe unemployment, young Simun had no alternative but to head home to Gradac.

Upon his arrival in Gradac he was immediately conscripted to spend the next three years in the Austrian Navy. During this period he decided to learn Italian, German, and also various photographic skills. At the end of his naval service he returned to Gradac, and found economic and political conditions unbearable. Austria’s iron fist was brought down hard on any expression of Croatian national patriotism. Simun had tasted freedom in New Zealand, and found European bigotry was not for him. In 1903, at the age of 22, he opted once again for New Zealand. Briefly going back to gum digging in the Northern Wairoa region, Simun did well for himself and decided to purchase a good camera with his first earnings. One can only surmise that Simun may have been encouraged by fellow countryman Mate Kuluz, a well-established photographer in Dargaville around the same time. From 1904 through to the 1920s Ujdur traversed over the Auckland province, taking photographs inside gum camps, on gum fields, in sawmills, and at public works. In addition to this Ujdur took school photographs and documented other functions and gatherings; thus gradually building up his capital.

Upon his return to New Zealand, Ujdur also joined a movement that aimed to establish an international language – ‘Esperanto’, formulated in Poland in 1887. Although an artificial language it captured peoples’ imaginations, and inspired thoughts of the immense benefits to mankind in the early part of the 20th Century. Ujdur and many of his compatriots were receptive to the international nature of the concept. From 1904-1946 he was very much to the forefront of this movement, beginning in Dargaville, from whence he was elected as the New Zealand delegate to the first Esperanto conference, held in Auckland in 1911. In that same year he moved to Auckland, to open his photography studio in Federal Street. During this time a growing number of Croatian immigrants were settling at the foothills of Waitakere Ranges in West Auckland. Simun’s Esperanto interests continued in the area, and he represented Henderson at many annual conferences, including the Esperanto classes in the district. Similarly his photographic career continued, and it provided a ready source of income to supplement his other diverse and enterprising ventures.


In 1911 he bought a block of 30 acres in Swanson-Birdwood area, and in 1912 established a vineyard on the site. By 1914 he had produced 20 acres in vines. The First World War overtook him as he launched his vineyard, called ‘Birdwood’, nevertheless he moved on with enthusiasm and confidence. He wanted to buy more land but under the Emergency Regulations, as an ‘alien’, he was not permitted to do so. Therefore, he contrived to arrange the purchase through a nominee (James Hunter, a New Lynn resident) who held the land on his behalf until the regulations were uplifted in 1921. By now Ujdur’s Birdwood Estate had become one of the ‘Big Three’ in wine industry ranking, on par with Corbans and Vidals.

In the following year, 1922, he became a naturalised subject, under the modified name of ‘Simon Mitchell Ujdur, farmer of Henderson’. He, of course, came to be regarded as one of the founding Croatian vintners, in terms of size, production, and marketing, as well as spokesmanship on a national level. From 1926 - 1946 he served unopposed as President of ‘The Viticultural Association of New Zealand (Inc.)’.

His photography, Esperanto and Viticultural interests perhaps helped to lead him to his membership in the Masonic Lodge, attaining an order of Past Master. This was an achievement of some magnitude considering his foreign origins, level of education and recent presence in New Zealand. This is not to say that he wasn’t able or intelligent - indeed he was a remarkable man, astute, worldly and scholarly, and also friend to many whom he helped and supported - his own people particularly. The Lodge expanded his horizons and brought him into contact with numerous influential citizens on whom he could depend if troublesome circumstances arose. Exemplifying his scholastic yearnings, over the years he accumulated a personal library of some 36 000 valuable volumes, in all the languages he knew - but predominantly in English. Academics, students and people from all walks of life and geographical position came to consult his collection. It soon became known as a landmark in West Auckland. The most treasured rarity in S.M. Ujdur’s collection was an old ‘36 Line Bible’; it stood on display for everyone to see. In 1920 Ujdur sent 120 volumes of Croatian books to the library at his birthplace of Gradac, where his heart still dwelt.

During World War I, he did become involved in the racial tension, but was dealt with somewhat less severely than the German speaking Austrians. The leadership in Auckland had passed into the hands of George L. Scansie, editor of the Croatian newspaper ‘Zora’ (‘Dawn’). However, overnight Scansie somehow became a staunch advocate of the Jugoslavism, amongst the Dalmatian community in New Zealand. Early fractures in the above mentioned communities’ united front appeared. Indecision by the New Zealand Government as to the true status of Austria’s (Croatian) subjects in this country apparently left the community in limbo. How this situation developed and was resolved is discussed elsewhere. However, S.M. Ujdur found himself in one camp as a president, while G.L. Scansie was in opposing camp as president of ‘The Jugoslav Committee of New Zealand’. The parent body of Jugoslav Committee in London pleaded with the two fractions in Auckland to bury the hatchet, so Ujdur’s camp abstained and his committee went into recess.

In the aftermath of World War One Ujdur had valid reason to cite that Scansie was a staunch supporter of ‘Greater Serbia’, to the detriment of other nationalities in the region. However, two steering committees of Dalmatian community in Auckland elected Ujdur to chair their meetings in an endeavour to bring the two camps together. Apparently this was not meant to happen, as lack of common vision, political propensity and religion has held them apart ever since.

In his post World War II years, S.M. Ujdur devoted all his time to the wine industry and his other loves; Esperanto, his library and the Masons Lodge. Not having married gave him the flexibility to move around, contribute to the industry, and give support to his fellowmen, relations and countrymen in a most generous way. Simon Mitchell Ujdur was regarded as grand patriarch of New Zealand infant wine industry. He died on 25th December 1953.

In the aftermath of his death, his library was dismembered. 1,600 volumes on ‘Free Masonry’ went to the Grand Masonic Lodge in Auckland. The Rationalist Society of Auckland came into possession of a further 6,000 volumes. Thus under the affliction of death duties, penalties, frozen assets standstill and litigation costs, the Birdwood Winery Estate went into a decline in 1969. The Estate’s entire chattels ended up under an auctioneer’s hammer on 19th February 1977. Here most of Ujdur’s written and photographic records were damaged and lost.

Waitemata County Council (today Waitakere City Council) instantly moved in to acquire the Estate’s land as a reserve, under the public works act. Firstly it was named as the ‘Glen Road Reserve’, but for some obscure and odd reason in the 1980s it was renamed ‘Te Rangi Hiroh Park’ (In Sir Peter Buck’s memory). In 1997 and after 10 years of negotiations by Simon Ujdur Jnr. (the nephew of Ujdur Snr.), it was decided that the park would eventually carry a mutually agreed-upon dual memorial. The Eastern portion of 165 acres east of Momutu’s Stream was designated to Sir Peter Buck, and the 30-acre plot west of ‘Momutu Awa Iti’ honours Simun Mijo Ujdur. Also to be remembered are Ujdur’s fellow countrymen, who helped shape West Auckland character, and contributed to the development of community’s progress.

On 28 February 1999, alongside Birdwood Winery Estate’s homestead, Sir Michael Hardie Boys (the Governor General of N.Z.) and Dame Mira Szaszy (nee Petricevich) unveiled a memorial plaque that reads, “The Union of Two People; Walk United Before God”. On the same day, a proclamation was made on site – commemorating the close bond established between the Maori and Croat-Dalmatian (Hrvati – Tarara) people. Commemorative celebrations were proudly witnessed by some 3 000 supporters, amongst whom were many Maori – Tarara offspring, of all ages.


A Memory of Simon Ujdur Snr.

My father, Jack Barbarich and Simun Ujdur were friends from the early years of the century. I have a photo of me as a baby of 4 – 5 months old taken when Simun Ujdur was visiting my friends in Dargaville, in 1915.

I remember that when the Birdwood farm was established, gifts of apples and Birdwood wine were regularly sent to our house in Green Lane, where we moved in 1926. And from that time I remember our frequent Sunday visits to the Birdwood farm. I remember Mr. Ujdur as a kindly, generous and learned man. He allowed me to go into his library and browse through his books, there must have been hundreds of books lining the walls. It seemed a sacred place to me. I had never seen a room with so many books. My youngest sister, Margery, also remembers the library and the books.

Mr. Ujdur was always interested in our schooling. I remember arguing with him on such topics as religion – he was always tolerant, and somewhat amused at my childish vehemence.

My brother Peter spent many a holiday time at “Ujdur’s”. Much later when I married my husband, Tony Batistich, I would go with my father to Birdwood. I recall there was some work my husband did there, and if memory is true it was something to do with the cellars and the “bacve”.

But for me there was always the added interest of Mr. Ujdur’s books. I think they were his most valued possession, in fact I am sure they were.


Amelia Batistich

 20 November 1990

P.S. Yes, and I remember that Mr. Ujdur was an enthusiast for Esperanto, and the benefits of a universal language to mankind.