10 October 2015

Final Resting Places: - Ronald Herbert English

Sitting high above the township on Crawford Road, just outside of the small Southland town of Mataura, sits the Mataura Cemetery. It is a very quiet place, with the only noise being the occasional passing of a car or farm tractor, or the bleating of a lamb from the surrounding paddocks.

Block 5, plot 185 in this quiet, peaceful cemetery is the final resting place for a person who long ago meant the absolute world to me. My eyes would light up when he walked into the room ….. I wanted to go everywhere with him ….. and I often waited along at the corner of our street for him to finish work so I could walk home with him. 

But all too soon this childhood love was over. I had only just turned seven when my dad, Ronald Herbert ENGLISH, died unexpectedly. My dad is now resting peacefully in block 5, plot 185 in the Mataura Cemetery, a place where I still frequently go to visit him, just to talk to him and feel close to him once again. 

My dad with his older brother Evan
(please click on image to enlarge)
Dad was born in Mataura in December 1941 and spent his whole life in the town. He was the second son of Bob and Lizzie (nee RENSHAW) ENGLISH and he had one older sibling, my uncle Evan. Dad was educated at the local primary school and then continued on to Gore High School, where upon leaving school he ventured to the local freezing works, one of the main employers in the town, to seek employment. The boss at the freezing works was a friend of my grandparents and he told my dad that he would not employ him in the freezing works as he had too good a brain for that, but instead offered him a job in the company office, which my dad accepted.

In March 1968 my dad married my mother, Maureen EGAN, the eldest daughter of Doris and Jack EGAN. My mother was a primary school teacher and her father Jack was the principal of the local primary school. In the years that followed my parents were blessed with three children; firstly Stephen, then myself, and later on Julie arrived on the scene too. And my parents were happy. 

As was the norm in the 1960’s and 70’s, Mum stayed home to look after the children while Dad continued to work at the freezing works. In his spare time Dad loved to go duck-shooting or fishing, he loved to play rugby, tennis or golf, he loved gardening and harness racing, and he particularly enjoyed spending time out on the farm of his good friend Barrie Cullen who lived just outside of Mataura on Terrace Road.

My dad with my older brother Stephen
(please click on image to enlarge)
After many years in the freezing works office Dad did finally venture into the actual processing part of the freezing works to work, and at the time of my birth his occupation is listed on my birth certificate as wool-pullers assistant. But he wasn’t content with just “working on the chain”, a term used locally to refer to those working along the production line at the freezing works. He had aspirations of going higher so went away to Lincoln College and re-trained, this time as a meat inspector. When he came back he was employed by M.A.F. (the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries) to work at the Mataura freezing works as one of their meat inspectors.

Life was once again back to normal for our family and as much as I can remember from back then, we were a normal, very happy family. But all too soon life was to change and our quiet happy life would be shattered.

My dad, Ronald Herbert ENGLISH
(please click on image to enlarge)
Dad began to experience frequent severe headaches and upon seeking medical treatment was sent for a brain scan. And when the results of the scans and the tests came back our world was turned upside down. Dad had a brain tumour !!! 

But it was soon discovered that the brain tumour was a secondary cancer and the source of the cancer was actually his kidneys. A double blow !!!  Because I was so young at the time I am a bit unsure about the exact time-frame of what happened next. All I can really remember is that Dad immediately went into Wakari Hospital in Dunedin where treatment was to happen. However, within a very short time of him being in hospital he suffered a traumatic brain haemorrhage and passed away. 

My dad was only 36 years old and within the space of a few short weeks we had gone from a normal, happy and loving family to one that was completely devastated. My mother was only 31 years old and was left to raise three young children, aged 9, 7 and 3, all on her own. And that she did, and made a wonderful job of it. My brother, sister and myself are now all grown up and if our dad had still been alive today he would find himself the proud grandfather of five beautiful grandchildren.

I missed having my dad in my life when I was a child growing up. And I miss him still, and will until the day comes that I pass from this world and get to join him in Heaven. I am especially sad that he never got to live long enough to give me away at my wedding, that he never got the chance to meet my wonderful husband, that he never got to be a part of my children’s lives and that my children never got to know him and love him too.

Block 5, plot 185, Mataura Cemetery
Ronald Herbert ENGLISH  (26 Dec 1941  -  9 July 1978)
Thirty six was too young to die. And the seven years that I got to spend with him was not enough time for me. Sometimes life just doesn't seem fair. Dad has now been gone for more years than he actually lived, and his three children are now older than he ever got to be. 

My dad is never very far from my thoughts. I will continue to visit his grave in the Mataura Cemetery for the rest of my life. I will continue to remember him and miss him, and I will continue to love him .....…… forever.

15 August 2015

From the Newspapers: - Wedding Bells

My love for the New Zealand website ‘Papers Past’ just continues to grow. This is mainly due to the absolute wealth of family information that I am gaining from the fantastic old historic newspapers that are available to browse or search through. 

James & Hanora (nee COSGRIFF) EGAN,
married on the 6th of August 1913
(please click on image to enlarge)
On one of my recent research trips through ‘Papers Past’ I came across this wonderful article all about the wedding of my maternal great grandparents, James and Hanora (nee COSGRIFF) EGAN. They were married on the 6th of August 1913 in the small town of Nightcaps in Western Southland. 

Otautau Standard & Wallace County
Chronicle, 26 Aug 1913, pg 5
(please click on image to enlarge)
Being able to read about exactly what happened on their wedding day, and even who gave what speech, almost brings them to life for me and it allows me to imagine what it was like to actually be there. Going by what the article says, it seems that James and Hanora were a very well-liked and popular couple. It is such a shame that they got to spend less than six years together before the tragic string of events began that tore their family apart.


For more details about their short marriage and life together please follow this link

27 July 2015

What's in a name (and how I got it so, so wrong) !!!

Way back twenty or more years ago my family history research project was only just beginning to take shape. Most of my research was limited to what I could find at the local museum and research centre, or else what I could write away for. Online records as such were non-existent and my family tree was a bit small and spindly to look at with many branches either missing completely or with very little information on them.

When I got married and then came to be expecting my first child I put a lot of thought into the name I would give my child. I did not want to give them a name that was modern and trendy at the time and that every second kid in their class at school would end up with. And I did not want to give them a name that sounded like it belonged to a wee kid. I can remember my late grandmother always telling me that you name your baby son with a man’s name, not a little boy’s name. 

I wanted to give my child a name that held real meaning to me and was possibly reflective on my background and the lives of my ancestors. But twenty years ago the “old” names that are quite trendy now days such as Archie, Charlotte, Oliver, Lily, George, Isabella, Freddie, Scarlett, Charlie, Ruby, Oscar or Harriet were almost unheard of amongst anyone younger than 70 years old. I didn’t want to give my child a name that would be considered odd or unusual for the era so these old names from back in the last century weren’t even considered. Who was to know that they would ever become so popular again !!!

So when it became known that my husband and I were expecting a daughter I browsed back across my then somewhat-smaller family tree to see what names could be suitable. There was Elizabeth, Beverley, Mary, Maureen, Hanorah, Kathleen, Margaret, Helen, Mary-Jane and Janet, but none of those names appealed to me one little bit. They sounded so old-fashioned and the thought of giving one of them to my baby daughter didn’t sit well with me.

Bridget WALLIS (nee BROSNAN)

Then I came across a name on my tree that I instantly thought 'I could live with that'. And the more I thought about the name Bridget the more it appealed to me. My husband had no issues with it either and it got me out of the possibility of having to use the name that he had picked out for our precious daughter, ….. Heidi !!!   As a child I had a cat with that very name, and believe it or not it was a male cat but that’s another story for another day !!!. I’m afraid the name Heidi was a very long, long, LONG way down my list of suitable names for our daughter.

'Bridget, Bridget, Bridget', the more I said it the more I liked it. At that time I knew not very much about the Bridget on my family tree, but what I did know back then was that she was Bridget BROSNAN, born in the late 1860’s in Kerry, Ireland. I knew that as a teenager she had somehow travelled all the way across the world to New Zealand all by herself when the rest of her family went to the USA. She ended up in the small sea-side village of Riverton on the southern coast of New Zealand and there in late 1884 (approximately 18 months after she arrived in NZ) she gave birth to an illegitimate son who she named William. 

I knew little else about Bridget’s early days in New Zealand until she turned up in the small settlement of Waikaia in the late 1880’s and it was there that she eventually married and raised a family. Her daughter Mary Elizabeth WALLIS was my maternal great grandmother and I was always brought up to believe that William was Mary’s full brother. Right throughout my childhood, and even after I had started on my family history journey, despite there being older family members still alive, no one had ever told me any different about William. One day however it finally dawned on me that William was so much older than the rest of his siblings so I searched for and found his birth record in 1884 and there he was registered as William Stewart BROSNAN, illegitimate, no father listed.

'Bridget, you had a little secret' I thought to myself at the time, but then thought no more of it until many years later when I came across her name again on my family tree when I was looking to name my daughter. I guess I had less of an understanding back then as to what I do now as to how prevalent illegitimacy actually was way back in the 1800’s. At the time of finding William’s birth registration it surprised me that Bridget had actually kept him. Though looking back now at my thoughts back then I guess I’m not entirely sure what else I thought she would have done with him !!! 

Anyway, twenty years ago my main thoughts about Bridget were that she must have been an amazingly strong woman. It was the 1880’s and she was very young and all alone in New Zealand. And for six years she raised her son William all on her own before she found someone to marry. The strength that she displayed caught my attention and I immediately felt that perhaps this was an example of family strength, courage and devotion that I could look up to.

So when our beautiful little daughter arrived in late 1996, with much happiness and without any hesitation we named her Bridget. I knew of no other Bridget’s that were babies or children at that time, only a few that were adults my age or older. So I felt quite confident that my beautiful wee Bridget with her own unique name would most likely go through her school life as perhaps the only Bridget in her class. And I felt very comfortable with that and also for the fact that I had named her after her amazingly strong ancestor. Everything was perfect. Or so we thought !!!

Bridget WALLIS, date unknown
Roll on ten or fifteen years later to a time when online research had become quite the norm with more and more records available to be searched. I feel very fortunate to live in New Zealand and have available to me to research online, completely for free, a vast array of our country’s newspapers at ‘Papers Past’. Almost all of the early history from the time of first European settlement in New Zealand is able to be browsed or searched through. And it is within these fantastic newspaper archives that over the past few years I have been able to piece together more and more of Bridget’s story. And what a story it is !!!

It turns out that Bridget WALLIS (nee BROSNAN), my great great grandmother, lead quite an eventful life. But if I started writing here about all the times I have found her mentioned in the newspapers this story would be over 20,000 words long and you would still be here reading in three or four hours time. So for now I will give just a very brief overview of what I have found, and over the next year or so I will gradually tell more and more of Bridget’s story on this blog.

Fortunately newspapers from 100 years ago recorded so much more detail than is currently allowed to be put in print, often using descriptive words that they would never get away with now days. And it is from within these articles and descriptions that a clearer picture of Bridget’s life can be built up. 

The very first time that I find Bridget appearing in a newspaper is in April 1885, six months after the birth of her son William. It is a report of a Supreme Court hearing where Bridget is complaining under the ‘Destitute Persons Act 1877’ that “William Stewart, draper, Riverton, whom she alleged to be the father, had refused to provide for the support of her child”

'Fair enough Bridget, fair call', I found myself thinking but what I found next changed my attitude completely. 
From the Southland Times, 30 June 1885

Bridget must have found herself in quite a dilemma to have even contemplated leaving her son behind and fleeing 100 miles away. Why she did it we will never know. And what became of her after her return to Riverton and then her reappearance in court for this misdemeanour I have as yet been unable to find out. 

Bridget's first son,
William Stewart BROSNAN
The next mention I find of Bridget she is living with the Chinese gold-miners at Welshman’s Gully near Waikaia in Northern Southland. During this time she gave birth to another illegitimate baby, this time a daughter named Flora who sadly died at seven months of age. 

While living with the Chinese Bridget is involved in several ‘altercations’ that require court hearings. And the misdemeanours just kept on coming. And so it continued on and on, …… court appearance after court appearance, newspaper article after newspaper article, year after year. It got to the stage that nothing that I found surprised me anymore. 

In August 1890 Bridget married Joseph Thorley WALLIS (who was at least twenty years her senior) and as well as her son William they also raised a family of one daughter and four more sons. Joseph died in 1908 and right up until the time of her own death in 1918 aged 57 years, Bridget continued to be a regular in both the courts and the newspapers.

So my beautiful daughter Bridget, it looks like I should have done quite a bit more research as I perhaps made a rather bad decision when it came to choosing a name to honour you with. Here you are now, a kind, gentle, compassionate, very hard-working young lady, honest as the day is long, currently attending university and studying extremely hard to become the lawyer you always wanted to be. 

And then there is your namesake, a woman we now know so much more about and it turns out that she was perhaps everything that you hopefully WON’T be. She was a loud, strong-willed, at times foul-mouthed woman who spent most of her life pushing the boundaries between right and wrong. Unfortunately she must also have been a bit of a slow learner too as she went on to serve time in prison on at least five separate occasions. Times back then were very tough I know, but I think that’s still no excuse for the life she choose to live. Fortunately, between her and her husband Joseph, they made a good job of raising their children to “do as I say, not as I do”. As far as I am currently aware none of them were ever in any kind of trouble with the law.

Well Bridget, your 3x great grandmother, your namesake, was indeed the “strong woman” I thought she was, just in an entirely different way than I had assumed when I named you after her. But I'm not in any way bothered by the name I gave you as it is now your name and who cares who else has had it in the past. It belongs to you now, it suits you and there is nothing else I would rather you were called. And I know one thing for sure; that you and your namesake are going to lead two very different lives on completely different sides of the law. Perhaps if you’d been around 100 years ago 'old Bridget' could have come to you for a bit of help and guidance. 

Bridget with eldest son William, daughter Mary & three
young sons Ben, Teddy and Joe Jnr.   Possibly taken
around 1899 as youngest son Thorley is not yet born.

What follows here is a just a small selection of actual phrases that have appeared in the newspapers with regard to Bridget and her husband Joseph. At this stage I will elaborate no further on any of these other than to say that none of these incidents (other than the couple marked *) relate to Bridget and Joseph together, they all involve someone else. I will leave you guessing and in suspense until I write again about Bridget and Joseph at a later date.
  • ….. using a choice selection of bad language
  • ….. pulled her about and slapped her in the face
  • ….. threw a whitening pot at her and otherwise assaulted her
  • ….. assault and obscene language
  • ….. a loose character, Bridget Brosnan, alias Sullivan
  • ….. a month in Invercargill Gaol
  • ….. using obscene and provoking language
  • ….. facing two charges of perjury *
  • ….. making a false declaration under the marriage act *
  • ….. Mrs Wallis was invariably the aggressor
  • ….. alleged attempt at incendiarism and dog poisoning with phosphorus
  • ….. destroyed by fire *
  • ….. robbery at Riversdale
  • ….. caught him by the throat and threw him down
  • ….. profanity in a public place
  • ….. resisting the police in the execution of their duty
  • ….. used bad language and struck the constable with a bottle
  • ….. language deployed by the defendant is unfit for publication
  • ….. threatened to knock witnesses brains out
  • ….. hit him two or three times about the face
  • ….. used bad language to her daughter
  • ….. said she would smash any policeman who came near her place
  • ….. sly grog selling
  • ….. sentenced to three months imprisonment in Invercargill
  • ….. buried in her back garden
  • ….. three months imprisonment in Dunedin Gaol
  • ….. keep such premises as a place of resort for the consumption of intoxicating liquor
  • ….. fined £20 and costs 7s
  • ….. three months imprisonment at Dunedin Gaol
  • ….. did permit her house to be used as a place of resort for consumption of liquor
  • ….. sentenced to three months imprisonment

Bridget WALLIS & her six children, taken not long after the death of her husband Joseph in 1908.
Standing: William, Mary and Joseph              Sitting: Ben, Thorley and Teddy

12 June 2015

So who really is my father ....... Bryan or Ron ???

Please don’t be shocked by the title of this story as I in no way have any doubts at all as to my true parentage. But this is the story of a small family 'incident' that I would give anything to have been around to have seen played out in real life. One can only imagine the reactions of one particular person involved in this story when they found out the truth …….

This story begins way back on the 26th of December 1941 with the birth of a tiny baby at Nithdale Hospital in Dover Street, Mataura, in the deep south of New Zealand. It had been a difficult labour lasting over 48 hours for the mother of this baby, but with the eventual arrival of her beautiful son I am sure that a lot of the pain and discomfort (and the fact she had missed out on all the Christmas festivities) had all but been forgotten.

My father, Ronald Herbert ENGLISH
1941  -  1978
This baby boy soon passed through his childhood and eventually grew into a very handsome, dark-haired young man who went on to marry and have three children of his own. But the story of his early childhood must have caused not just him, but the rest of his extended family also, and even perhaps the whole township of Mataura, quite a bit of confusion.

The baby in this story was my own very much-loved father, who was always known to me as Ronald Herbert ENGLISH. But it turns out that he hadn’t always been known as Ron and spent the first five years of his life being called Bryan.

My father was the second son born to my grandparents Robert and Elizabeth (nee RENSHAW) ENGLISH. Elizabeth’s parent’s Herbert and Bessie RENSHAW had emigrated to New Zealand from Scotland in 1926 with their three children who were aged 15, 13 and 6 at the time. But eight years later when her youngest child was almost 13 years of age Bessie surprisingly found herself expecting another baby.

Bessie gave birth to a baby son (who would have been my great uncle) on the 4th of November 1934 and he was named Bryan RENSHAW. Bryan was born several weeks early and although he was quite small he was in good health and was feeding very well. But two days later he died unexpectedly and was buried in the Mataura Cemetery.

Robert ENGLISH with his second son
Bryan ENGLISH, aged about 3 yrs
My grandmother Elizabeth, who was 21 years old at the time of her brother Bryan’s birth and death, never forgot her baby brother and throughout my childhood she would often mention him to me and told me about how much his death had affected her mother Bessie. So seven years later in 1941 when my grandmother gave birth to her second son she very proudly named him Bryan Herbert ENGLISH, named after her baby brother.

So Bryan ENGLISH grew from a baby to a toddler and then into a gorgeous mischievous little boy and before his parent’s knew it he was almost five and ready to begin school. To start school he required his birth certificate so his mother Elizabeth went down to the place where his birth had been registered to get a copy of this certificate. But no copy for Bryan’s birth could be found. They checked and then re-checked through all the records and eventually came out with a registration for a baby, born on that same date and with the same parents. But he had been registered as Ronald, not Bryan.

Bryan / Ronald ENGLISH with his
grandmother Bessie RENSHAW
I would imagine by this point my grandmother would have been getting very concerned and just a wee bit annoyed with what was happening. Her beautiful little boy had not been named after her precious baby brother like she had previously thought. But who was to blame?  She didn’t have to look far for the culprit though, the person who had gone down to register Bryan’s birth. But why had he done this and why the name change?

It turns out that my grandparents had initially forgotten to register their son’s birth. When this mistake was eventually realised Bryan was almost eight months old and so my grandfather Robert went along to register the birth. Not long before this the family had been notified that my grandfather’s own brother, who was away overseas fighting in World War II, was ‘missing in action’. And the brother’s name …..… what else but Ronald ENGLISH !!! My grandfather had taken it upon himself to register his son, now eight months old, with the same name as his missing brother. But he didn’t dare tell his wife !!!!

Now five years later the truth had come out. One can only imagine the conversation (or possibly the argument) that occurred when the truth was discovered. My grandmother was heart-broken with what had happened but at the beginning of the school year in late January 1947 she took Bryan along to school, handed him over to the school mistress and told her “his name is Ron”. And from that day on my father was called Ron. Members of the wider family eventually grew accustomed to his new name but there were members of the community who still called my father Bryan right up until the day he died in 1978 aged 36 years.

My great uncle, Ronald ENGLISH
Pte 19981 2nd NZEF
1918  -  1981

As to the fate of my grandfather’s brother, it turns out that Ronald ENGLISH (Pte 19981 2nd NZEF) had been captured by the German’s in Italy in early 1942. But the family spent 18 months not knowing what had happened to him as he had simply been listed as 'missing in action'. It was late January 1944 before a capture-card was received notifying the British Army that Ronald ENGLISH (P.O.W. #140941) was being held prisoner at Stalig XIA (also know as Stalig 314) near Altengrabow, 90km south-west of Berlin. But this notification came too late for his mother Helen (nee McCALLIE) ENGLISH who died three weeks before the family received notification that Ron was still alive. She went to her grave not knowing what had happened to her son. Ron did in fact return home to New Zealand in November 1945 after the end of the war.

But back to the story of my own father, Ronald Herbert ENGLISH, also know as Bryan ENGLISH. I still struggle quite a bit with the decisions made by my grandparents way back then. Why did my grandfather go behind my grandmothers back to give their eight month old son a different name. What on earth was he thinking? And I also struggle to understand my grandmother’s decision to take her son Bryan along to school at the age of five and tell them that his name was Ron. Would it not have been far easier for her to have changed his name legally back to Bryan, the name he had grown up with and was so used to?

I often wish I could have been a fly on the wall that day way back in late 1946 when my grandmother arrived home to confront her husband about the registration of their son. My grandparents were a very kind, quiet and loving couple but I’m not so sure that Grandma would have been quite so quiet or loving that day when a simple trip along to get a birth certificate turned into a nightmare.

14 May 2015

Grandfather, what on earth were you thinking !!!

Those of you who in the past have read my blog will be well aware that I have a fascination with all things World War One and know that I love to research and try to find out as much as I can about the 20 plus family members who I have identified so far as having served during this war. Late last year during the course of my research I came across a document that stunned me and really made me sit back and think …… “golly gosh great, great grandfather, what on earth were you thinking” !!!

I was researching on www.ancestry.com, trying to locate the service records for my Scottish great great uncle Robert LINDSAY, the brother of my paternal great grandmother Elizabeth Speirs RENSHAW (nee LINDSAY). Lindsay is a fairly common surname in Scotland, and add to that the very common name of Robert, and it was like looking for a needle in a haystack. Since great, great uncle Robert had returned safely from the war there would be no record to be found for him on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, and I had not a clue as to which regiment or battalion he had served with, other than it was a Scottish one.

So I was slowly and methodically working my way down the list of service records for all the Robert LINDSAY’s from Scotland when I came across a record for a Robert LINDSAY from Blantyre, Lanarkshire. This location caught my eye as “my Lindsay’s” came from around that area. Further reading revealed that this record wasn’t for my great, great uncle Robert though, but was in fact for his father, my great, great grandfather. His next of kin was listed as his wife Bridget LINDSAY (nee MURPHY) which was indeed the name of his second wife, so this was definitely my Robert.

My great, great grandfather
Robert Speirs LINDSAY
(1868 - 1928)
Robert had enlisted exactly 100 years ago today on the 14th of May 1915 and I was thrilled to see a description for him which showed he was 5ft 4in tall, weighed 143 lbs, had a fresh complexion, brown eyes and light brown hair. “How wonderful to finally learn these details about him” I thought to myself as I read through his records, “....... but great great grandfather, you were born in 1868 so wouldn’t you be too old to be a serving soldier in world war one ?"

Robert’s three sons (Andrew, Robert and James) were all serving soldiers at this time, aged in their mid 20’s, so the age shown on Robert’s enlistment of 38 years was a long, long way from the truth. Robert was in fact almost 47 years old but had somehow managed to convince the recruitment officers that he was only 38. He had enlisted locally at Hamilton but within one week had been assigned to the 3rd (Reserve) Battalion of the Cameron Highlanders (No. 18162) at Inverness.

Robert had been physically examined and had been found “fit for homes services only”. But he obviously had the desire to do more than just stay in Scotland on the home front as 11 months later he was requesting a transfer to the Royal Engineers. I am very fortunate to have found a copy of the hand-written letter he wrote to go with his transfer request. In this he states:

On being medically inspected I regret that I have been found fit for Home Services only. I quite agree that this is true, so far as service in the Cameron Highlanders is concerned and I beg of you to consider my transfer to the Royal Engineers as a miner, on the grounds that I have been a miner for twenty years, and would be quite fit to undertake the duties and render good service as a “Sapper” in France. I am exceedingly anxious to proceed to the “Front”, and if I am unable to do so as a Cameron Highlander, I beg of you to allow me to go as a miner. Trusting this, my requisition will meet favourable consideration. 
I am Sir, your obedient servant,

18162 R Lindsay, Pte

After quite a bit of correspondence back and forwards, as well as another medical exam to determine if Robert was in fact fit to serve in the Royal Engineers, he was officially transferred on the 10th of May 1916 and assigned to the Royal Engineers 3rd Provisional Company (No. 158271). 

On the 25th of May 1916, just over a year after he initially enlisted, Robert got his wish and embarked for France. In July 1916 the Royal Engineers 256th Tunnelling Company was formed and Robert was assigned to them and moved with them to the Vimy front in Northern France. At this time the British Army had 30 different tunnelling companies working in France and had in the previous 12 months sought the services of many experienced coal miners from back home. Because Robert was an experienced miner having spent over 20 years underground at the Bothwell Castle Colliery, this was probably the only reason he got his wish and got to see active service.

But his time in France was short-lived and just over 100 days after his arrival in France he was on his way back to England, suffering from 'sickness'. Exactly what type of sickness we will probably never be able to find out but most likely it would have been a combination of dysentry, vomiting and fever caused by the horrendous conditions the men were forced to live in and work in. It often brought down even the strongest of men and was the cause of many thousands of deaths during the war. Robert arrived home on the 4th of September 1916 and was discharged from the 256th Tunnelling Company five days later on the 9th of September under “King’s Regulations paragraph 392 XVI (no longer physically fit for war service)”. 

Whether Robert was disappointed by his short-lived stay in France we will never know. He was so keen to get over there that he lied about his age, but I personally think that upon witnessing the horrors of war he may well have been a bit relieved to actually be coming home alive. After recuperating back in England Robert was declared no longer medically fit for war service on the 24th of November 1916 and was officially discharged from the army on the 15th of December 1916.

But that isn’t the end of Robert’s story. On the 5th of June 1919, seven months after the official end of the war, Robert re-enlisted with the British Army with the 174th Company of the Labour Corps (No. 703574) and four days later was sent back to France. I have been unable to find out as yet the exact movements of this Company but I do know that it was heavily involved with “grave registration” work in France. This work involved the collecting of bodies and the locating of out-lying or previously unknown graves, and then the re-location of them into the formal cemeteries that were being developed throughout France and Belgium. This would have been an absolutely horrendous job for Robert and the other men in his Company to have done, with many of the bodies still lying in the mud or out in the open many months or even years after their deaths. It would also have been extremely dangerous work as it is estimated that nearly one quarter of all the shells fired during the war had failed to detonate but instead lay buried where they fell just beneath the surface of the ground. One can only imagine the gruesome scenes that the workers of the Labour Corp saw and the horrors they had to deal with and I’m sure that along with all the other soldiers who saw active service in World War One, they were forever scarred by their experiences.

After five months of hard work Robert came home and was yet-again officially discharged from the British Army on the 12th of November 1919 under “King’s Regulations paragraph 392 XXva (no longer required for war service, surplus to requirements)”. He wasn’t far off being 52 years old and was quite possibly one of the oldest serving regular soldiers at this time.

I mentioned at the top of this article that one document I found stunned me somewhat and I will include it here as it too is part of Robert’s story. This document followed Robert home from France when he returned home due to sickness in September 1916 and it leaves me a bit unsure of exactly how I feel about this whole scenario of Robert being so old and serving in the war. 

In a way I am very proud of what he did, especially re-enlisting after the war to return to France to help deal with the gruesome task of locating and helping to identify bodies. But just like a previous article I have written on this blog about another part of Robert’s mysterious life, another part of me is quite confused as to what exactly his motives were.
  • Why was he so determined to go to war that he had to lie about his age ?
  • Did he genuinely have the desire to go over there to help or was he like many thousands of others who thought it would just be some great holiday or adventure ?
  • Did he feel left out being at home when his three sons were over at the front and he simply wanted to go and join them ?
  • Or was he just after the recognised pension schemes that he knew would follow after the war ?

The life of a tunneller in France during World War One was an extremely hard and very physically demanding one. As well as having to work deep underground in very confined conditions with the risk of cave-in or explosion always on the cards, there was also the real danger that your tunnel would accidentally meet an enemy tunnel and then one can only imagine the chaos that would have followed.

A preserved WW1 British tunnel on the Vimy
front. I wonder if Robert played any part in
the digging of this particular tunnel. **
It must be remembered that when the above document was written Robert was nearly 50 years old, over twice the age of many of the other tunnellers he would have been working with. I often wonder whether his superior officers ever realised that he might have perhaps been older than what he stated on his enlistment papers. If they didn't realise this then perhaps this is the reason why he is being labeled as “lazy” as there is no way a man of 50 could physically keep up with a young, fit man in his early 20’s. 

As for the comments that he was “unreliable" and "unintelligent”, I’ll just have to take these on the chin. Perhaps he was unintelligent but this certainly wasn’t his fault and it’s something I will probably never now be able to get confirmed or denied. Robert died in September 1928 aged only 59, after painfully suffering for over a year with cancer of the oesophagus. 

Robert, you are my great, great grandfather and I very proudly carry your Scottish genes. While many others chose to stay at home and do nothing when war was raging across Europe, you got out there and did your bit to help even though you really didn’t have to. And regardless of how you came across to others, I am still proud of what you did with your life and what you achieved. But once again you have left me with so many more questions than answers. I know that I will probably never find the answers I desire but I will keep searching, determined to find out all I can about what made you the person that you were. 


Please note:
The photo marked ** is not mine and was found online here during my research.

16 January 2015

Looking back: New beginnings in Gore

I recently acquired these two very old photos. The first time I glanced at them I had no idea of where they were taken or who was in them. But the more I looked at them the more familiar they seemed to me until one day the penny dropped; they were taken in the town that I am so familiar with, the town that is a part of me and where I feel most at home. 

These photos were taken in the town of Gore, and this building is in fact the beginnings of the large department store called H & J Smith’s that still today stands proudly on the Main Street.

My eyesight is no longer the best so I scanned these photos at very high resolution to see if I could bring up some of the faces to see if there was anyone familiar amongst them. And when I brought them up on my computer screen, there looking back at me was my maternal great grandfather, James (Jim) Paul SCHULTZ.

James Paul SCHULTZ
(1887 - 1973)

Jim was born in East Gore in 1887 to Polish immigrant parents, and he was a painter and paperhanger in Gore his whole working life. These are the very first photos I had seen of Jim at work, in his white painting clothes. Looking at these two photos I can only but guess that all the men in white are painters and the others probably builders or labourers. The front windows of the shop appear to be covered in white paint so obviously the shop is still in the process of being built and is not yet open.
James (Jim) SCHULTZ looking from one of the
upstairs windows that overlook Irk Street in Gore.

At this point in time I do not have an exact date for these photos. I know that in the past few years there has been a book written on the history of the H & J Smith department stores in Southland so I may have to find a copy to see when the Gore store was built. At the same time as I acquired these two photos I also acquired another photo of Jim, who appears about the same age and also taken at work painting another brand new, not quite completed local building. This other building has the date 1909 proudly across the top of the door way so I can only assume that the H & J Smith buildings were completed around that time also.

Regardless of the exact date, these wonderful old photos are still probably 100 or more years old. And the fact that I can now see my great grandfather Jim, hard at work decorating this lovely old building that still stands magnificently today in our beautiful town, makes me very proud indeed.

Obviously extended over the years and now somewhat larger, the H & J Smith's
building on the corner of Main and Irk Streets in Gore.       (Photo taken in 2012)

14 January 2015

A new year genealogy resolution

It’s been well over a month since I last posted on this blog, and despite the fact that I’ve been itching to get back to it, life in general just seems to keep getting in the way. But that’s quite okay, life’s for living and that’s what our time on this earth is all about. 

Summer on the farm: shifting sheep
Besides the very busy Christmas period that I’ve no doubt we all experience, life on the farm has also been so busy, busy, busy lately. Whenever I think that I’m about to get a free hour or two so I can head into the office to do a wee bit more research or scan a few more old photos, I get called upon to help shift cattle, or draft sheep, or weigh lambs, or something similar. In past years the kids have helped out on the farm and have done a lot of this work over the busy summer period. But as some of you reading this will already know, life for our family has changed recently with both of our kids finishing their high school careers and moving on to the next stage in their lives. They are both now working full time (one in a permanent job, and the other full-time at the moment raising funds to begin university next month), so that means they aren’t here to help out anymore, so more of it is falling back on me. And with that I find my time for my research, and my scrapbooking, and my writing, and all the other things that I love to do, have all taken a back seat. But that’s quite okay, I don’t mind helping my husband out with these jobs and I know that in a few months time when the busy summer period on the farm is over, and when my daughter is away at university, I will get some of my free time back.

Summer on the farm: making baleage
So with that in mind I thought that I would begin the new year by explaining how I am attempting to come at my research from a bit of a different direction this year and to hopefully do my bit to preserve my family history research for future generations. 

The number one thing on my genealogy “to do” list for this year is to continue with my project to get my family history research sorted and do something more meaningful with it. Creating this blog was the first big step in the process of making my research more accessible to other extended family members. I have been chasing ancestors and their descendants for almost thirty years now and all that I really have to show for it is boxes and boxes of old documents and photos (only partially sorted), and a huge, huge database of facts and figures in the family tree programme on my computer. Don’t get me wrong, there is an absolute wealth of information contained within these records, but unless you are someone who is very much “into” genealogy, browsing through someone else’s computer database just isn’t that interesting and it makes our family history very difficult to share with anyone. 

And if I were to drop dead tomorrow, I am sure there wouldn’t be anyone in my family that I can currently think of that would jump up and exclaim “she has all our family history on her computer; let me at it, I want it”. I would imagine one of my kids would probably claim my beloved computer, and it would then be used for gaming or ‘Facebook’ or such-like, and the family history contained on it would just sit there in the background until such time as they needed more room on the hard-drive, and then with the tap of just a few buttons it would be erased, just like that, and be gone forever.

My new shelves in my office. Still at least ten
more binders needed to complete my collection.
My aim for this year (and continuing right into the future) is to get more of the story of our family history actually written down to be shared. Last month I bought myself a new bookcase for my office and have started creating what I hope will become my family history legacy and my gift to future generations. I want to get back to basics and start recording more about the actual lives of those family members most closely related to me and my actual direct ancestors. My database currently contains thousands upon thousands upon thousands of names of those who can all be linked back to myself in one way or another throughout history. But many of these people are just so far removed from my main ancestral branches that I thought it was time to put a stop at present to just the collecting of more and more names and dates, and instead focus a bit closer to home on just the main ancestral branches and their families. (I will in time get back to these more removed branches as I do also like to follow branches right down to the present day if I can; but that’s another project for another year).

It took me many, many weeks of thinking about this before I decided exactly how I wanted to attack this project, but what I have come up with I am very happy about. It may not be the best system out there but it is one I feel very comfortable about and look forward immensely to getting on with it. I have begun to purchase 3-ring binders and hope to have one binder for each set of direct ancestral grandparents, right back as far as I can go. And within these binders I want to record everything I know or have found out about that particular couple’s life. The binders will also contain individual tabs for each of this main couple’s children, with another tab directly behind each child for that of the child’s descendants (their children and grandchildren). If the child is one of my direct ancestors that I descend from I will only have minimal data for them in their parents folder but will instead make a reference to them having their own folder.

I hope I aren’t confusing anyone and you are still following what I am attempting to do. To put it in slightly plainer terms, I want to only concentrate on those I directly descend from (and also include their children and grandchildren). And at this point in time I will go no further down any particular branch than that. There are many siblings of my direct ancestors that I have no knowledge of as yet, and it is the filling in of all these gaps that are “closer to home” that I want to concentrate on.

A work in progress; a close-up of some of my new binders
You might say I could have saved myself a lot of the money I have spent on binders etc and still do this using just my family tree programme on my computer. But as I explained above, that defeats the purpose of what I am attempting to do. I want to share what I have and what I find, and what better way is there to do it than to pull out a particular binder and let the person you are wanting to share it with actually see for themselves the photos, and read for themselves the stories that relate to their family too. There is nothing like holding a real actual book (or binder) and reading it for oneself to be able to better understand and feel more connected to those from whom we descend. And when the time comes that I breathe on this earth for the final time, I hope that these stories in these binders can then be more easily passed on and more easily shared with future generations. 

So many genealogists nowadays are trying to go all digital in the hope of simplifying their lives and their research. I myself will never do this as a physical book is so much more likely to be kept and cherished and passed on than a collection of digital files, that with the push of just one little button could all be gone FOREVER !!!