One of the things that appealed to the man and me about moving to Whangarei was its proximity to our family in Auckland.*
We wanted to be close enough to visit them and them to visit us. Easily.
So how has it worked out? The answer is exactly as we envisaged. The trip there and back can be completed comfortably in a day.
Having said this, we do tend to make it an overnight excursion. We have a lot to talk about when we meet! And we have got a wee granddaughter to keep close.
Family is important
Which brings me to the topic of family past.
We had a family mystery. Sharing my great- grandparents’, Annie (d. Sep 1941) and John Downing’s (d. April 1941) grave in London Road Cemetery, Coventry, were three other people.**
Two of these people were buried on the same day in 1952: a male, Percy, and a female, Dorothy. They didn’t share the surname of my great-grandparents, or of each other. The third person was a female, another Annie, buried 1969, and she shared the same surname as Percy.
Logically, there must be a connection. And, logically, the two who were buried on the same day probably died on the same day, you’d think?
Well, this is the premise I worked on.
Close to a year ago, I tried to solve it. I spent an inordinate amount of time going round and round in circles searching the online databases so beloved of family historians. I also tried to find the Coventry newspapers covering the relevant dates, but to no avail.
I gave up.
Last month I decided to give it another go. Within ten minutes of beginning my search, I had found the digitised copies of the Coventry Evening Telegraph covering the dates I needed, and the death notice of Percy and Dorothy.
And just like that, the mystery started unravelling.
Percy and Dorothy did not die on the same day. They died a day apart, and, their deaths were not connected. At all. Percy’s death was after a long illness. Dorothy died suddenly.
Dorothy was Percy’s sister-in-law.
Percy’s wife, Annie, turned out to be the third female in the grave.
And Dorothy and Annie (junior) were sisters
Their mother, was my great-grandmother, Annie Downing, nee Jones.
Their father, was my great-grandfather, John Downing.
Dorothy and Annie (junior) were, therefore, my great-aunts, and Percy, my great-uncle, through marriage.
Of course, I have never met any of these people. They all died, barring Annie, years before I was even born.
So does it even matter?
I think so.
After all, they are family, and, as such, are very much part of who I am.
*Being close to our Auckland friends was important too.
I have chosen my friend for the job because she has worked in this area for years and knows what’s what. She is also honest and I rate her. That is worth its weight in gold.
She, for her part, has promised to treat my ‘change of life baby’, as she cutely refers to it, with kindness and respect. Like the excellent friend she is, she doesn’t want to hurt my feelings.
She thought my baby was my cunning plan to ditch the forty hour working week and slip into semi-retirement. I have assured her that this is not the case. My escape route is much more boring than this. It’s a matter of reducing debt and living more simply to have more time to do other stuff.
And that other stuff includes creating another baby*, because regardless of whether my first effort has potential or not, I derive great pleasure from doing it.
I also want to go back to uni and do my MA in History. There, I’ve said it! I’ve even got my thesis topic sorted.
Now this isn’t the first time I have enrolled in a Masters. The first time the degree was related to my profession. I did this because I thought it would be good for my career. And it possibly would have been, but after one paper I decided that it was not what I really wanted to do. It failed to inspire me. I mothballed it.
Studying for an MA in History is another story altogether. It excites me. And it will feed my soul. I can think of no better reason to do it.
Semi-retirement can’t come soon enough. I have so much I want to do.
*Please note: the baby is a metaphorical term only. Although now possible to have babies well into old age with the help of science, it is certainly not on my ‘to do’ list!
And this is exactly what the last seven days have been for the man and me. Here are the highlights:
My work days are beginning brilliantly; I am walking to work via the clifftop path and down past the beach. Yes, the views are amazing, but there is the other big plus, it allows me time to just be. This enjoyable stroll (no speed records here) sets me up for the day.*
Being back at my home site has also confirmed for me that I made the right decision to return and not seek any further promotions. The job is an excellent fit for where I am in life and I enjoy it. I will therefore happily stay in it until I am in a position to reduce my working hours as planned.
The second thing that has happened is that I have discovered the whereabouts of my paternal great grandfather’s grave.
The cousins in Coventry, England, contacted me after reading my posts about graveyards. They were looking for the final resting place of our great grandfather to no avail. Could I help? .
For those readers who don’t know, Coventry was a major player in the English engineering industry, making among other things bicycles, motor cars, and aeroplane engines. During World War Two, its manufacturing base tooled up to produce machinery for war. These included being a big player in the making of parts for British war planes, and armoured cars. It was therefore a no brainer that the German Air Force included this city on its bombing schedule.*
Seventeen small raids took place here during the Battle of Britain (August and October 1940). However, it was on the night of 14/15 November 1940 that 449 Luftwaffe bombers executed the biggest assault on the city. Understandably, my father, who was 11 years old at the time, remembered it vividly. Called Operation Moonlight Sonata, the bombs hit numerous factories, surrounding houses, and the 14th century Coventry Cathedral. Approximately 568 people died that night, including the baby sister of a friend of my father’s who was lying in her pram when the air strike happened. In addition to the deaths, there were another 863 badly injured and 393 people who sustained lesser injuries (http://www.historiccoventry.co.uk/blitz/stats.php )
Among the wounded was my 80 year old great grandfather, John George Downing. For five months he fought for his life in the No.1 Canadian General Hospital at Marston Green, near Birmingham; a battle he finally lost on 17 April 1941.
After four weeks of trying every avenue I could, including obtaining his death certificate, using the expertise of the family history librarian and trawling through databases, I resorted to using a process of elimination i.e. writing to every likely cemetery authority I could find. This rather tedious process provided the answer: he was buried in the London Road Cemetery in Coventry. It is a fitting place for his final resting place as this was where the mass funerals took place in the days after the raid. It is also where the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Civilian Memorial is situated remembering those who perished in this air strike.
The cousins will visit the grave shortly and we will in August 2016, which is a nice segue into the next momentous thing that happened this week.
The man turns 60 next year. To celebrate this auspicious occasion, he wanted to go to Alaska. This week we purchased airline tickets to Canada and the UK. Details are a work in progress for this six week trip. The sojourn to England will include catching up with family, both dead and alive, and friends (all breathing).
Now confession time: we have totally lost the plot regarding getting the yacht ready to sell. Weather has played a part in this, but the main reason it has taken a back seat is we have been busy doing other things including taking moulds off the Albatross, the man’s sea kayak design. This is for a collaborative business venture, but that is another story.
We are also getting ready for a family wedding for which we both needed new shoes: the man has held true to our commitment to buy NZ made, and is now the proud owner of a pair of McKinlays. And as for me? Well, I spotted some shoes that met my brief. Two pairs only left, with one in my size. They will look corker on my feet at the wedding. It was meant to be.
Life is good. The man and I are making the most of it. Isn’t that what it’s all about?
*From next week, with changes in hours, I’ll walk home most evenings too.
***There was further bombing of the city in over the nights of 8/9 April 1941. This resulted in 451 dead and 700 seriously injured. The final bombing was 3 August 1942, in which 6 people perished.
The man and I have been away on a short break to the Bay of Plenty. We have visited the place often. The man spent the first seven years of his life here and has the finely tuned instincts of a homing pigeon. Fortunately, I enjoy the area too.
This time round we stayed at Omokoroa, a laid back beach community, which is about 14 kilometres from downtown Tauranga. Like all good holidays, the days were spent doing what we wanted, when we wanted. Perfect.
As part of this trip, the man and I decided to visit the The Elms in Tauranga. It was our first to this home and we were mightily impressed. Originally called Te Papa Mission House, it was built for the Church Missionary Society (CMS) over an eight year period. On its completion in 1847, Archdeacon Alfred Nesbit Brown, his wife, Charlotte, and their two children, Alfred Grant and Marianne Celia, swapped years of living in a basic raupo dwelling for life in this substantial kauri residence, considered by many to be New Zealand’s finest late Georgian house.
In 1873 the Archdeacon and his second wife, Christina, purchased the home, various outbuildings and 17 acres from the CMS and renamed it ‘The Elms’. Alfred predeceased his wife and on her death, the property bypassed the Archdeacon’s only living child, Marianne Celia*, being left instead to Christina’s nieces. Unusually, the house remained in this family until 1999, when it was sold to the Elms Foundation, a charitable trust.
On the day we visited, the grounds were stunning. Now considerably smaller than the original 17 acres, it is planted with old fashioned English flower beds, beautiful English trees and New Zealand natives in sympathy with the age of the house.
After wandering around the garden and looking through the windows of an assortment of outbuildings including the library, which is reputed to be the oldest in New Zealand, bake house, dairy, and a rebuilt chapel, we opted for a guided tour. The man and I consider this well spent money: a good guide we have found will add breadth and depth to a visitor’s experience far in excess of either the most comprehensive guide book or audio tour. In this case, the tour was on demand – yes, folks, the man and I had our own escort and she knew her history.
By using both pictorial records and expert input, the house is being faithfully restored to original by the trust. Unlike many historic homes, the furniture in situ belonged to the family – this is thanks, in part, to the cavernous cellar under the house, which although designed as a hideaway for the occupants in case of attack became a default storage facility for the family’s discarded chattels in later years.
The room that brought the history of the place alive to the man and me was the dining room. Sporting a huge, sectional, mahogany table which had been brought out from England by the Archdeacon, this was the room where the English officers who were to engage in the Battle of Gate Pa the following day (29 April 1864) dined with Brown and his family. Christina played the piano, prayers were said, and, according to records, a jolly good night was had by all. By nightfall the following day, all the military men who had been present at the dinner had lost their lives in the conflict, bar one.**
The Mission graveyard is a short walk away from The Elms and buried between the graves of Brown, his family, and other civilians are the mortal remains of all the soldiers and sailors who died in the Battle of Gate Pa, and in the later skirmish at Te Ranga. This is also the final resting place for some of the Maori warriors who perished in the same conflicts. ***
Like all good tours, we left feeling that we had gained an understanding of life at that time in history and a need for further information. To this end, we drove to Gate Pa. One hundred and fifty odd years later, there is little evidence of a bloody encounter being fought here. Dotted along the concrete path, however, are storyboards of the battle. One board mentions that in the tree filled gully bordering the site the remains of fallen warriors killed that day lie in unmarked graves. A poignant reminder that a ‘to the death’ fight had taken place in this now tranquil park.
During the drive back to Omokoroa, the man and I discussed The Elms and Gate Pa. We had enjoyed dipping our toes into the history of the area. The guide had done a superb job: she had told the story of the house and the times. She had whetted our appetite for more information. She had also, unknowingly, provided us both with a kernel of an idea.
You see, in our reconstructed life, the man and I want to give back. I should say give back again – we have been involved with volunteering before, but we got too busy and forgot to factor it into our lives anymore.
The problem we were facing was we didn’t know where we wanted to put our energies. Volunteering in a historic home is, we think, the answer. I can see myself being a guide. The man fancies helping with maintenance. It is doable.
By giving back, we are contributing something worthwhile to society. For us, it is an important part of living a balanced lifestyle. It will go on the list.
*Marianne Celia Brown, known as Celia by family, married Rev Dr. John Kinder.