Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Death in Queen Street - the enigma of family.

NZ Herald 13 November 1917

Just recently I signed up to an ancestor-searching website for a month (ancestor.com). For a long time I had had an itch to look back over my ancestors and discover more about them. Like most New Zealanders I faced the fracture which is emigration - a fracture so profound that the life left behind in Britain faded away into mystery, fable and - silence.
It was slightly different with my mother's family, the Northes of Napier. In my grandmother's house there was the evidence of the pre-New Zealand past - in fact her whole house was like an encyclopedia - a small watercolour of an ancestor, a silken address from Australia in the 1840s when my Northe ancestor moved on to New Zealand. There were also those gold nuggets - old letters.
It was different with my father's family. The Wells seemed deeply mysterious, or rather the silence was porous with meaning. I never knew what to make of this. Dad never ever spoke about his family. 
Much later, towards the end of my father's life, his aged older brother arrived from Melbourne. He may have been in an early stage of Alzeiheimers. But in one memorably awkward family dinner, he said that my Wells grandfather had not died of a heart attack - the one fact I did know - but rather he had killed himself. This was met by my parent's concentrated attempt to shut him up. 
It was this latter response which made me think what my uncle said might have some truth in it. If it was a complete fantasy,they could have blown it away with a laugh. Instead both of them tried to suppress the story.
Dad asked his brother to leave after that.
Anyway long story short, that was about all I knew about my Wells ancestors. Except two intriguing and disparate facts - (and often it is the contrast between 'facts' which indicate something interestingly fertile.)
My grandfather and his father were master butchers in New Zealand, largely operating in gold mining areas and becoming reasonably financially secure. But we were also descended - 'somehow' - from the dukes of Marlborough. Butchers - dukes - how much more disparate can you get than this? 
This latter fantasy or fact was based on two slim pieces of evidence. Various family members had a middle name of Churcher, or Churchill (the Marlboroughs are Churchills). The other 'fact' was when my father's oldest brother was billeted at Blenheim Palace or nearby during World War One 'he was treated as one of the family' - whatever this meant.
I used to study photographs of my uncles and the Churchills and I thought I could make out similarities between the high forehead and thin noses. There was an undeniable likeness.
Alas, or rather not alas - there appears to be no basis for this enticing rumour. (And just about every colonial family has a myth of aristocratic origins. This is maybe wish fulfilment for the often grubby attempt to make a living in difficult conditions. Or it may just be a reflection of our class-obsessed British origins. In this world of the past, only aristocrats or similar were real. Everyone else was 'nobody'.
Part of this was based on literacy. The illiterate from the past cannot, perforce, speak. They are silenced by their inability to write information which lasts into the future. Whereas the educated (well off) are endlessly gabby, in letters, diaries and those other fascinating bulletins of class and insight, like the novels of Jane Austen.
So who were the Wells? 
I was astonished at how easy it was to find out information about them once I began to use on-line tools. The Mormon online search engine, familysearch.org, is powerful, and by pressing on the parent's name of each entry, you leapfrog back into the past.
In one intoxicating morning I traced my Wells ancestors back to the time of King James Ist (the 1600s). I was absolutely astonished and amazed by all these newly found out facts.

It appeared they had lived for almost two centuries in a small village called Selborne, in Hampshire. (It was one village over from Chawton where Jane Austen actually did write many of her novels.) They were skilled artisans, small landowners and yeomen. Some had enough money to leave wills, which I am in the process of sending away to find out the contents.
In the 1820s they left Selborne forever, going to the biggest city in Hampshire - Portsmouth. By this stage two brothers were builders and lived beside each other in the same street.
Their father was wealthy. He was also a builder and I wondered if he had prospered throwing up those Georgian/Regency terrace houses which are so typical of the period. This meant they left Selborne before the village participated in the 'Swing Riots' of the 1830s. (This was when a starving group of labourers burnt down a work-house and generally terrified the landed classes that a French Revolution-type event was on their doorstep. The instigators were packed off to Australia as convicts.)
There was no evidence of any connection to the Churchills. Churcher was the maiden name of one of the Wells wives and she seemed unspectacular by background.
On line tools further enriched my research.
I went on google earth and strolled round Selborne which is one of those rare beautiful little English villages, all thatched cottages and leafy lanes. It is set in a vast national park. The next time I am in England I will make sure I go and visit.
But google earth was invaluable in another way. I wanted to go to Portsmouth to see where the family had lived. But operating the widget on google earth as I strolled down stereotypically ugly postwar development I realised I didn't need to go.
The street where the Wells lived in Portsea, in Portsmouth, had been bombed so badly in WW2 that all historical spaces had vanished.
What astonished me was the way the internet 'community' provided so much information. I began to realise that each Wells family member had on average eight to thirteen children - and each of these had a similar number of children so the internet reach of shared relations is enormous, multiplying exponentially generation by generation. This means someone you don't know on the other side of the globe shares the same ancestor and might have information on him or her.
Imagine my surprise and then excitement to find a photograph of my Wells ancestor who migrated to New Zealand. I had never had any photos of my Wells ancestors. My grandfather who died of a 'heart attack' had died in 1924. There was no photo of this mysterious man. This was a photo of his father - the somewhat grandly named Frederick Augustus Churcher Wells. Ironically it turned out this was the man who actually did die of a heart attack.

Photographs of ancestors have a compelling presence. You read them in so many ways. First of all for family likeness. Then there are all the other incidentals - dress, state of wealth or poorness, ease or unease, fantasy backdrop, photographer's name and place.
This photograph of my great-grandfather was also incidentally one of his wife, my great-grandmother, a woman about whom I knew not a single fact. (Apart from her name Margaret Bryson Paul.) Here the photo is - I can just make out it was taken in Thames and from the woman's dress it appears to be between 1893-1896 (puffed mutton-sleeves were fashionable in that period.)

Alas my great-grandmother looks like she is facing a machine gun rather than a camera. She seems prim, self enclosed and thin-lipped and censorious. This is quite possibly completely wrong, as people often froze before the camera, overwhelmed with this encounter with eternity.
But my ancestor (male) has a definite presence, almost, one would risk saying, a panache.
He is in his sixties but sits erect and with a flower in his buttonhole. I can imagine him in a striped butcher's apron.
He is also, not coincidentally, very like my father in his old age. The likeness is remarkable.
I found out some fascinating facts about Frederick AC Wells. His grandfather was a wealthy property developer in Regency Portsmouth, but his grandson Fred AC Wells appeared to make a hasty marriage as 20 year old to a woman who had a son to him. Two years later, he appears to have abandoned them and migrated to New Zealand in 1864. 
Whether he was going to bring them out later, or he simply vanished, I do not know. It may be an explanation for why information on the Wells family back in Britain was so scanty. But the really interesting thing is that as a 22 year old he 'married' again - to the NZ-born woman in the photograph. If his first wife was still alive, this was a bigamous marriage - a not uncommon thing in colonial times, when migration acted as an informal act of divorce.
Amazingly an obituary turned up of him in the Ohinemuri Gazette of 1917. It had interesting details - a tent set up in Grahamstown - where is that? - as his first butcher's shop - his knowledge of the mining industry and apparent large numbers of shares in various gold mines. But the coincidence of history struck me forcibly when it said he had died of a heart attack in Fort Street, Auckland. Or rather, he had had a seizure in the street and was carried along to the Imperial Hotel, where he died.
My father, his grandson, worked in the handsome 1920s National Bank in Fort Street - it was a kind of Art Deco Assyrian temple wastefully pulled down in that nadir period for Auckland, the 1980s. But Dad also used to drink after work at the Imperial Hotel. I wondered if he had any idea that his own grandfather had expired in one of the rooms. I don't think so, because I think this fruity fact might have slipped out.
I like to think of this kind of meeting at the crossroads. The whole experience of internet searching of ancestors is like this - a meeting at a global crossroads. There is a whole world of people who lost the information of where they came from. Diasporas occurred all round the world, especially in the 19th century. This fracture is in many Pakeha family trees. Then along comes the remarkable flotsam and jetsam of information on the internet, which, to the individual concerned, is as vivid as a personal keyhole into the past.
The only problem is ancestor-hunting is of interest only to the individual involved, or at most, certain elderly members of his or her family. To everyone else it is an area of extravagant boredom. 
My partner has been kind and listened to my 'exciting' discoveries but I can tell by the lack of follow-up comments that he is only being vestigially polite. (His one response was to google how common the Wells surname was among English surnames. It came out at 147th. Since his surname is Jenkins, I didn't take this too seriously. But possibly if one multiplies the lack of interest by 147 you get the depth of boredom that 'granny-hunting' so called engenders among those simply 'not interested'.
Yet the fact is at night I can barely sleep as I think up new ways to explore the meaning of 'facts'. (I am resting in between sending my next book off to the publisher and getting it back from the editor.) 
 Now…onto looking at where Grahamstown is, and where the Taruro cemetery is - this is where the bones of my great-grandfather lie.
I forsee a visit coming up.