A family history blog

A Cousin: or a tale of genealogical initiation.

Written by Alvin Smith

An article written by Alvin Smith in 1999 in which he recounts the uncovering of a family secret.

1 August 1999

I am not alas a real genealogist, I’ve never been to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, I’ve never been to the great repositories in England, in fact I’ve never even ordered an overseas certificate. And yet, in a kind of private sense, I’ve always been a genealogist, even I guess from when, as I was lifted from the pram, I was presented with that stupendous task of distinguishing the face of my mother from the faces of her sisters, as each oo-ed and aah-ed and embraced me and claimed her kinship. Everywhere, as year followed year, there were wider and wider claims for familial allegiance. Also, as I became an adult, I found that genealogy could not be confined to mere dates of birth and death, and to identified marital linkages between families. Families, I discovered, seethed with social and cultural substance, and mere dates could not be understood without being aware of that substance.

At any rate, I always seemed to be immersed in an atmosphere genealogy. For example, my father was born and raised near Leigh with sixty-one first cousins. They all grew up and married locally with the siblings of the dozen or so neighbouring families, or occasionally in Highland fashion with each other, and once even across the generational boundary, one of them marrying with the child of an older cousin. The result was that the locality, to childish perceptions, was a soup of relatives. My parents moved to Auckland, my father in search of wages. But during the school holidays, or during some familial crisis – what were these crises? a new birth? an illness? some marital quarrel? – we the children were shunted off back to the aunts and uncles and grandparents. On the wet winter afternoons, when the creeks ran with yellow water, and the cloud-base was down round the eaves, we would moon around the bookshelves, while we waited for the milking time to come around, and we would dislodge the mason-bee nests, and then try to construe the old texts, Todhunter’s Trigonometry, Smile’s Self Help, weekly instalments of Dickens’ Household Words packed in cartons under Grandma’s bed, or, feeling a new intimacy between adult and child, ask the mysterious questions – why is Aunty Kitty having a baby? how are we related to the Wyatts? Sometimes we’d be shown the very log that one of our great grandparents compiled as he skippered his migrant vessel – and a hundred relatives – on their six-months’ voyage from Nova Scotia.

Beyond the genealogy of these families was another soup, that formed by the values, the religions, and the ethical styles. The Mathesons we learnt were Presbyterians, but not peculiar Presbyterians, like our kin at Waipu. But still, in Leigh, for the Presbyterians, there was certainly no whistling on Sunday, and no baking or cooking either. Some of the Smiths appeared to be Baptists, whatever that actually meant. But the Clarkes – and the great-grandfather migrant was a cadet of a wealthy Midland family with, we were told, a ‘Hall’ and the dozen servants, and with pretensions to land and even, alas, ownership of factories – the Clarkes were of course Church of England, and Charles himself, here in New Zealand amongst the clay and tea tree and paspalum and kikuyu, managed to look upon himself as squire, and was chairman of this and secretary of that and always opened the agricultural show. The Torkingtons appeared to be religion-less, and the great-grandfather recalled seeing the Bishop’s coach pass, and the outriders whipping the faces and shoulders of the angry poor in order to clear a passage for his Lordship. So, as we youngsters were passed from household to household, the quips that one family used of another changed, and the ethical colour codes changed.

But, beneath all that variety, there were common Edwardian values. At the great communal picnics, when a hundred would gather at a beach or under the pohutukawa trees, or at a domain, with the enormous white enamel tea pots and the apple pies, across all families there was a commonality of values. The children would be firmly disciplined, and the randy young men, browned biceps bulging under ironed white shirts, who performed so well at cricket, at hockey, or wielding the axe at chopping contests, knew, when they eyed the young women and joked with them, that there were limits, and their elders aggressively rode the boundaries.

Well, sixty years later, I was at a genealogical meeting, an open day, and I worked my way round from one display to the next.

‘A computer index to the Auckland Catholic Archives: give us a name!’

I laughed. As I walked past I said, ‘The last thing any of my crew would do would be to get themselves into a Catholic Archive!’

‘Give us a name!’, the woman at the keyboard insisted.

‘Torkington.’ It’s not a common surname, all of them in New Zealand are ‘ours’, and so I knew that there would be no hits.

‘Yes, there’s a hit,’ she said. ‘William Arthur Torkington. It’s a baptism record. He had a child by Jane Waa, in 1933.’

I scribbled down the details as she dictated them to me, church, parish, year, a church near Hokianga. The father was my mother’s eldest brother. We knew the outline of his life. Born in 1905, as a young man he had worked on the family farm, here at Ti Point, but later in the thirties he found some work at a relief camp up north of Whangarei, during the depression, relief work being a version of the ‘work for the dole’ of those times. Later he lived in Waiwera, first working on the construction of the huge new wooden bridge there, about 1933, and then, entering commerce, he attempted to set up a service station there, but the venture failed. To Auckland then, working as a driver; and, living in Ponsonby, in 1938 he married. The marriage was childless. He and his wife retired to a section of family land on Ti Point.

Back at Leigh and Ti Point, I blurted out the find to my astounded cousins, and we discussed it endlessly. Someone, herself a Maori, recalled that Uncle Arthur, now an old man, had confided in her that as a young man he had once fallen in love with a beautiful Maori lass, that gentle assured quietness. And the child, born in 1933: that child would now be sixty-six, if still living. Where was she? She’s our cousin, they all reminded me, and you’ve got genealogical pretensions, you find her! Waa is a very rare Maori name. I searched the birth fiche for an index-entry to the birth, but found no Waa born in 1933. I searched for her mother’s marriage, or for her death, scanning many decades around the likely date, and scanning both Maori and non-Maori indexes. I meticulously recorded every Waa entry I encountered, some forty or so of them, with given names and localities, and entered them in a spreadsheet, thinking that some day I might attempt to reconstruct some families. There was, for example, a cluster of them at Pipiwai, a tiny location in the middle of the rough country between Whangarei and Kaikohe. I turned to the electoral rolls, and found only one Jane Waa, and that in only one roll, her residence being given as Dargaville Hospital. Our speculations back at Leigh seemed endless, and we traversed all the likely and unlikely possibilities. How was it conceivable that we the youngsters had not heard of this liaison and this birth, from the adults, or even overheard it. But had our oldies even known? Or had the mother or the child, for example, gone to Australia? When people go to Australia, why don’t they think forward and leave a note for their yet-to-born genealogists? All that generation have now died, and Arthur the father died in 1981. I discussed the quandary we were in with other genealogists. ‘Well of course the first thing is, have you yourself inspected the actual baptism entry?’ I hadn’t.

I wrote to Diane Wilson, the genealogist who designed and manages the Catholic database – it’s still being compiled – and back came the printout of the baptism record. I now found that the baptism had taken place on 21 July 1956, when the ‘child’ was twenty-four years old! She had given her name as Elizabeth, and had given her surname not as Waa (after her mother) but as Torkington, after her natural father.

I talked with Maori friends. ‘No, you’re unlikely to get help at a marae. For many elders, genealogy is a taonga, it’s not even written down, and only shared, after long friendship, with those whom they’re sure they can trust.’ I went back to the genealogical experts. ‘It should be obvious to you by this time. Look for her now under the name Elizabeth Torkington, in the rolls and in the indexes, and then look for her as a bride.’ There was an Elizabeth Torkington in the Northern Maori roll (Te Tai Tokerau), and of course a street address. But I quickly discovered that this was a false scent. My elderly informant’s voice was lowered, ‘She’s an “ex”, she’s separated from my son’. I then turned to the indexes of marriages, beginning when the woman was sixteen, and scanning forward year by year, and I was prepared to scan to the final fiche, which I think was 1990. And there, in 1956, was an entry for an Elizabeth Torkington! Yes, in 1956, the same year as her baptism! I didn’t need coaching now! I wrote to the Registrar for a copy of the certificate, and yes the marriage had taken place on the same day as the baptism, the bridegroom’s surname being Dunn.

In an electoral roll I found wife and husband living at the same address, but only in the roll for that one year. The husband was always on successive rolls, up till ten years ago, but the woman of that address, year by year, was not Elizabeth.

Back at Leigh the clan were becoming restless. ‘Have you found her yet? What! You can’t even find your own cousin!’ But I was sure I was getting close. Had Elizabeth herself had a child? Would she have had the child baptised in a Catholic church? Their computerised database was rapid and efficient. I had read James Joyce, and had closely studied the elegant and meticulous Cardinal Newman: once a Catholic always a Catholic, they all said, and Elizabeth was likely to have baptised her children in the Catholic faith. So I wrote a further letter to Diane Wilson, asking her to look for either Elizabeth Torkington as a mother, or Elizabeth Dunn, or Elizabeth Waa. Yes, came the response, Elizabeth Rose Dunn had had a son baptised on 9 November 1957. Elizabeth Rose! That was one of the names I’d noted months before, on my spreadsheet, as living at Pipiwai! I looked her up in the current phone book, and there was a phone number!

A cousin here in Leigh, one with ambassadorial skills – for who could know how Elizabeth would now view her father’s relatives, a father who had failed to marry her mother and support her, and who of course had failed to support Elizabeth herself when she was a child – this cousin here in Leigh rang Elizabeth’s phone number. A matronly Maori voice, with some care and dignity: ‘Kia ora. Yes, I’ve sometimes wondered whether you people were relatives of my father’s.’ A few weeks later he drove up, off the main road north of Whangarei, a twisting hour-long drive winding into inner Northland. An old car in the drive, a couple of youths working on it (they were a son and a grandchild living in the house), a thin Maori woman on the veranda, a formal embrace, and cups of tea. My cousin offered some mementoes of her father, newly scanned photos, a beer-mug that Arthur’d filched from a Ponsonby pub, the Gluepot, and I’d sent a well-made kauri trinket box he’d made that had come my way. She herself had no memories of her father, had never seen a photo of him, though her mother had often spoken of him with much affection. Her mother told her that she Elizabeth was born in Waiwera. Elizabeth had worked in Auckland, and as her father had done she had lived in Ponsonby. In fact, she’d drunk at that same pub, the Gluepot, and father and daughter, unknown to each other, almost certainly drank in the same pub together.

Elizabeth’s sister had had a bad experience in approaching her own father, that man angrily rejecting her. After that, Elizabeth put out of mind any question of seeking out her father. But she’d occasionally hear of the Torkington name in Northland, and wonder whether they were relatives of hers.

Elizabeth feels, from remarks of her mother’s, that her parents’ relationship ended because of antagonism from her mother’s brothers. But, on the other side, I had known Arthur’s parents well, I think, grandparents whom I delighted to stay with, warm, endlessly entertaining, delightful in so many ways, a remembered joy. Yet life wasn’t merely one big joke. The poverty of the thirties, three nubile daughters to shepherd into marriage, with suitors and pseudo-suitors loitering around the farm gates, on horse, even later in cars. And I later recall these now elderly aunts of mine pointing out to me some of the strictures that were placed on what, nowadays, we would recognise as their social freedoms, even their social obligations – fifty years later they had not forgotten.

There were also four young sons in the family. None of the sons married while their father was alive. The father was I think not incapable of forbidding his son from embarking on what he would see as a marital extravagance. But even if his eldest son had not confided in his father, the son may well have adjudged that bringing home a pregnant Maori woman to the household – three more mouths to feed in a frantically impoverished household – would not have been the most welcome thing to do.

After three or more hours of talk there in Pipiwai, Elizabeth glancing again and again at one photo in which her father was laughing with a young nephew, and fingering the texture of the kauri box, my cousin then rose to leave and begin the long trip back to Leigh. From Elizabeth a deep and warm embrace, claiming kinship and giving it, and lingering, and my cousin was overwhelmed by the substance of the claim. Later, that night I enter the facts in the genealogical database. But who will dare to set the margins to genealogy? Beyond the computer screen lay the additional insights into the predicaments of our families, and into their values, and their striving for relationship, and their suffering when relationship was broken. And, having suffered, their extraordinary need to wrap the narrative so effectively in secrecy, and, ultimately, almost to erase it. For the genealogist, the establishment of dates is the beginning. We cannot I think avoid going further and respond to the human faces beyond those dates.

A note on some sources

I must first acknowledge extensive help from my cousins in Leigh, and elsewhere. Several people have tried to help me towards an understanding of Maori views – Noelene Steward, Viola Hutcheson, and Terry Healy. Noelene and Viola were both former fellow-students of mine from the fifties, Noelene from an Hauraki hapu and Viola a Ngapui. Terry lives nearby at Goat Island. There is manuscript material on the Mathesons, the Torkingtons, and the Clarkes in the archives of the museum at Warkworth. Jessica Morrison has prepared a 150-page manuscript biography of the first Smith immigrants of 1841 – Benjamin and his wife Martha – I’ve a copy of it. The social status of the Clarkes shows clearly both in the early volumes of the ms diary of Charles Clarke, now in the Warkworth museum, and also in what must be a very rare book, a subscription volume written and compiled by Catherine Hutton Beale, Catherine Hutton and her Friends, 1895, my grandmother having given me her copy of this book. Anthony Camp’s lecture on the servant class, given at Whangarei at the NZSG Conference at Whangarei on 7th June 1999, was important in raising for me the question of the material and purposes and boundaries of genealogy. Unaccountably, this lecture has not been printed in the Conference Proceedings. Discussions of genealogy merge into those of family history and local history, and there seems to be a lively debate overseas on the place of ‘history from below’ in the study of history generally. I’ve enjoyed dipping into a few pages of some of the books on the topic; for example J D Marshall’s Tyranny of the Discrete is good. Diane Wilson is the convenor of the NZSG group who are working on the index to the Auckland Catholic Archives. She can be reached at 150 St Johns Road, St Johns, Auckland.

Alvin Smith, Ti Point

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