New Zealand Law Society - Classic cars, choirs, model trains and a hole in a tin hat

Classic cars, choirs, model trains and a hole in a tin hat

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Te Awamutu lawyer Richard Swarbrick’s most vivid memory of his 10 years in England was trying to get to work minutes after the IRA bombed Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party conference in Brighton in October 1984, killing five people and injuring dozens more.

“I have very vivid memories of trying to get to work on the day they blew up the Grand Brighton Hotel at the party conference,” says Richard.

“The hotel was on the seafront within walking distance from my office. I could see a whole lot of Government ministers being ferried around in their Jaguars, escorted by harassed looking cops who were trying to disperse the cabinet. They thought there may be other attempts on ministers’ lives.”

The massive explosive device ripped through the hotel at 2:54am, aimed at killing a presumed sleeping Mrs Thatcher. She escaped but among the five people killed were Conservative MP Sir Anthony Berry.

Richard Henry (Richard) Swarbrick
Entry to law
Graduated "mediocre" LLB from Auckland University in 1974. Admitted in 1975.
Director at Swarbricks, Te Awamutu.
Speciality area
Family law and looking after an older client base.

Return to New Zealand

Richard returned to New Zealand not long after to join the family firm, having practised in the UK from 1975 to 1984, in London and Brighton.

Swarbricks began in 1893 in Hamilton when Richard’s great-grandfather Arthur went out on his own using the family name.

Arthur Swarbrick was English, from a family of railway managers, who met a Dutch girl from Rotterdam, and they decided to emigrate.

“They tried farming first, north east Hamilton, but it didn’t succeed. Arthur went into articles with one of the very early Hamilton solicitors who had been a forest ranger and made a connection with the land wars there.

Richard Swarbrick
Richard Swarbrick

“Eventually Arthur bought the practice and had a fascinating general practice. He got majorly into local body law, had a high profile and was active in local body work himself.

“He started a branch in Te Awamutu which my grandfather inherited on his return from World War 1. And we trace the direct line of the firm from there. From the end of the Victoria era we have had a continuous presence in Te Awamutu.

“My son James (33), who is a co-director of Swarbricks, is generation No.5.”

James started in the firm as a law clerk after he graduated in 2013, before being admitted in 2014.

Richard’s mother was the oldest daughter of the Court family, who owned John Court department stores in Auckland, and the Swarbricks still have a significant Auckland connection.

Richard’s wife Diane, who has a son from a previous marriage working in the UK, is a Londoner. Diane was the best friend of his managing partner’s personal assistant. Richard returned to New Zealand with Diane in 1985.

“I went to the UK because I wanted to get out of little old New Zealand. I managed to avoid the Muldoon years. I decided to make a fresh start.

“England was pretty competitive and depended on who you played golf with whether you made partner or not. I wasn’t in to that.”


“I’m into classic Jaguars. I have a white 2.4 litre Mk 2 Jaguar, manual, at the bottom end of the range. It’s a very temperamental car. I’m no mechanic so I spend a lot of money just keeping it on the road.

“You really have to join a club, particularly when not a technical person; rub shoulders and find things like spark plug, etc. The club also gives you the incentive to go out and drive the bloody thing.

“I have no sporting interests whatsoever. I can neither kick nor catch any object, whatever size or shape. I don’t watch much sport but if I had a choice I would sit down with my wife and watch Tottenham Hotspur, if they are winning. It’s her club, but we don’t take it too seriously.”

Spurs, as the club is commonly known as, had an incredible run to the final of Europe’s premier competition, the Champions League, but lost the final earlier this month to Liverpool.

Being a member of his local Lions Club for more than 30 years enables Richard to mix “with a group of guys who are quite different from lawyers, and often a bit more grounded than lawyers”.

A bass chorister in the Cathedral Singers - one of the supporting choirs at Hamilton’s Anglican Cathedral - he describes himself as “a very traditional Anglican when it comes to church music”.

“The Cathedral has a very rich tradition of traditional music, kept up to a very high standard, which is what we enjoy. Our choir was formed because the principal choir tended to be made up of parents who tended to disappear in the school holidays. We stepped in and did the school holiday services.”

He subscribes to New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, and is also on the committee of a small community group that promotes music in Te Awamutu.

“We are just about to go into our first promotion of secondary school choral music. It’s an uphill struggle getting interest, we don’t have an online presence and are competing for attention with all sports of other activities.

“We are hoping if we get into secondary school promotions we’ll get at least two parents and two grandparents to each performance, which will boost our numbers.”

His favourite composers are JS Bach and George Frederic Handel. “I was brought up on those two composers at boarding school, where we were taught to take them both seriously and get to know them.”

“I am open to modern classical music, particularly people who are writing modern church music. A lot of that I like, some I don’t.

“I do a huge amount of reading. My paternal grandmother was one of the co-founders of the local library, well before it became a local authority thing. As a result we now have an enormous library that is well supported by our council and we are very regular visitors there.

“I like all sorts of light murder and crime novels. We are both great fans of British crime writer Ann Cleeves and her Vera Stanhope character. My wife, being a Londoner, argues that sometimes there should be subtitles in the Vera TV series.

“I like David Suchet’s Poirot character but we are starting to lose patience with television and are looking for another platform.

“We used to have lots of cats but travel a bit too much to have any cats now.

“We don’t get to films as often as we should. There is a privately-owned picture theatre in Te Awamutu, and the last film I saw was the 2018 documentary on the Spitfire – released to mark the centenary of the Royal Air Force - which was very well done. I went with my wife, and she enjoyed it because her late father was regular RAF, which is very much part of her inheritance.”

The helmet with the hole

“Before our last trip we discovered that grandfather, just after he was admitted, was initially judged unfit for World War I. Like others he tended to knock about New Zealand for a few years not doing anything terribly exciting, but they must have changed the medical criteria and suddenly he was on a ship.

“He ended up in France. A gunner, and commissioned. When he came home from the war he had this helmet with a hole in it. We didn’t ask how it got the hole because they didn’t want to talk about it.

“But once they put the service records online, we were able to establish what his unit had been and when he was wounded. He was wounded outside Le Quesnoy on 3 November 1918.

“When they were starting to publicise what was going to be the 100-year anniversary of the end of the war we identified ourselves as descendants of a wounded serviceman and ended up with two allocated seats at the main ceremony on November 4, last year.

“A big party of our family were over there and that was absolutely incredible. We found out from all the records grandfather kept that they had lots of bored soldiers with nothing to do waiting on ships to come home, so the Inns of Court started delivering post-grad study for young Commonwealth and American lawyers.

“He had a certificate that he completed some post-grad work in the UK while waiting to come home, as he recovered from his head wound.

“My dinner guests would be my grandfather’s fellow officers and NCOs from his battery. Because you’ve got a group of Kiwis who have had to learn very fast about meteorology, ballistics, explosives, and veterinary science - because if they didn’t keep the horses healthy the guns didn’t go anywhere.

“These guys would have had to learn all sorts of new stuff very quickly at a young age. They would have amazing stories to tell about how they adapted from civilian life.

“I would be very conservative because they would come from meat and three vegetable homes. I would blow them away with a large selection of New Zealand wines. Because it would never have occurred to them that New Zealand would have grown grapes and become a competitive wine exporter.”

Alternative career

“There are no other lawyers in the family other than my son, who is the fifth generation in Te Awamutu.

“My other car is a Honda Accord Euro, which is overdue for replacement. Your back starts to give you trouble if you drive in that car for too long.

“If I wasn’t a lawyer I would be a historian. One of my second cousins is a professional historian.

“My grandfather has an absolute passion for the New Zealand land wars. He would have been fascinated to meet Vincent O’Malley, a co-founder of research consultancy HistoryWorks, who has written a number of major historical works on the place of the land wars in New Zealand history.

“Gallipoli matters but so do the New Zealand land wars. They have a greater impact on the New Zealand we are living in today. We are not equipping young people for the kind of debate that Māori want to have with Pākeha now.”

A train traveller as much as he can, Richard has a dedicated hobby room attached to his garage, which houses a 4ft x 8ft model railway setup, replicating the station at Fairford, in Oxfordshire, southern England.

“I did that one because it is flat. I have taken a narrow boat up the Thames into that area, so I know how flat it is. I’m not one of these people who are into creating mountains, so I grabbed a part of England that was flat.”

On a previous trip to Scotland he went to Fort William and caught The Jacobite train to Mallaig – an 84-mile round trip often described as the greatest railway journey in the world, some of which featured in the Harry Potter film series.

“It’s a brilliant journey. An Otago person would find that very much like home.”

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