24 February 2011

My Nana Johno

Marie (pronounced MAree) Gordon Welsh was born on 28 August 1905 in Christchurch, New Zealand. Her father Matthew Welsh and her mother Jane Allen Gunn had married on 17 January 1899, in the house of Jane's parents, Daniel and Jane Grey Gunn. The marriage record shows Jane's occupation as tailoress and Matthew is listed as a plumber. Matthew's parents are shown as Matthew Welsh and Catherine Thompson, and his father's occupation is listed as Carpenter. Marie was named after her father's sister, Maria, who had married George Gordon. Both families were living in the same house in Christchurch when Marie was born.

Marie (second from right) with her siblings, c.1965
The occupation of her father is listed on Marie's birth certificate as plumber, though by the time she married in 1927 he had become a farmer. At some stage, perhaps around 1920 and possibly as part of a government land settlement scheme, the whole Welsh family moved north to the small settlement of Te Hoe in the Waikato. Marie remembered the family living in very primitive conditions, with her father having to build a small cottage to house the family and the children helping to clear the land for farming. She recalled that her mother used to buy cloth by the bolt, making dresses, shirts and short trousers for all the children from the same material. And as well as helping out on the farm, the girls helped with domestic chores, like milking the house cow, churning the butter and baking the bread.

Their land was leased, not freehold, and around July 1928, according to school records for the two youngest children, the family moved from Te Hoe to live in a large old villa in Ngaruawahia. The villa has since been demolished, but daughter Shona remembered that it was on the opposite side of the road to an old Maori grave site and had at least 6 bedrooms. Shona also remembered a family story of a royal visit to the Welsh family: sometime before her birth in 1933, one of King George's brothers, a Duke and his wife, were touring New Zealand and in the course of a river journey, they stopped to picnic on the bank of the Waikato river, at a small sand beach near the Welsh homestead. Some members of the Welsh family made themselves known to the royal party, and Shona recalled seeing a photo which recorded this meeting. Unfortunately, this photo has not been located, and neither the date of the royal tour, nor its members have yet been confirmed. It could all be a family folk tale!

In Ngaruawahia Matthew Welsh started a well-boring venture, and as the workload grew, his sons joined him in the business. One son, George, later branched out on his own, and another son, Matt, joined the army at the beginning of World War II. In later life Matthew and his wife Jane moved to Auckland to live with their daughter Agnes and her husband Charlie Watt. Jane suffered badly from diabetes mellitus for the last 20 years of her life and had several toes amputated because of the disease. She passed away on 9 October 1943 in Auckland Hospital, having suffered from acute heart failure and toxaemia for one week. Matthew died six years later on 5 September 1949 of broncho-pneumonia. They were buried together in the O'Neill's Point Cemetery, in Bayswater, Auckland.'

To return to Marie's story ... sometime before the family's move from Te Hoe to Ngaruawahia, perhaps in the late 1920s, Marie moved back to the South Island. And it was when she was working as a domestic servant at the Mt Peel homestead, in South Canterbury, that she met her future husband, Colin Martin (Dick) Johnstone, a shepherd. They were married on 5 October 1927 at the Registrar's Office in Geraldine. The bride was 22, two years older than her husband. Their marriage was the reason Dick and Marie moved from Mt Peel to Alfred Howes' property, Mt Nimrod, near Cave, as a reference from their employer, Mr Pringle, indicates that there was no married accommodation available at Mt Peel at that time.

Dick Johnstone, aged about 21
Marie Welsh, also aged about 21

Two references exist for the time Dick & Marie spent working as a married couple for Alfred Howes. One refers solely to Dick's employable qualities, but the other is a reference for them both, though Mr Howes admits to not having much opportunity to judge Marie's skills, due to the recent birth of her first child (son Stuart, born in 1928):

This is to state that C M Johnstone and his wife have worked for me for some time as married couple. I have found Johnstone a first class hand with sheep a good musterer and has good dogs. Although he has not done a great deal of general farm work he has done everything he has been asked to do well. He is straightforward and trustworthy and a willing worker. Owing to Mrs Johnstone being laid up with a small baby for some time I have not had the same chance of forming an opinion of her work but can say that she has done all that has been asked of her and done it well.
     Yours etc., Alfred H Howes, Mt Nimrod, Cave, 24/5/28.

From Cave the young family moved to Happy Valley, near Christchurch, though they only stayed there 15 months. Their second child, Colin, was born there, in 1929. Then, probably early in 1930, Dick and Marie and their two young sons moved north to Hamilton, in the North Island, possibly in search of work. They found it initially with the Holmes family, at a farm just north of Hamilton, and lived in a small worker's cottage on the Holmes's property. It was there in 1933 that their third child and only daughter, Shona, was born.

Dick, holding son Don, and son Colin
with Marie's brother Matt, c.1940
Late in 1933, when Shona was around 6 months old, they moved to a house on the Great South Road, on the northern side of the Waikato river at Ngaruawahia, and a couple of months later, in February 1934, Stuart started at Ngaruawahia School. His brother Colin joined him there in February 1935.

These were the difficult days of the Depression and work was hard to come by. In November and December 1936 Dick was working for Sampson Brothers in Ngaruawahia as a labourer. In February 1937 he may have applied for a new job somewhere, as two letters exist which appear to support an employment application.

In May 1938 Shona joined her brothers at Ngaruawahia School, and later that year her brother Donald was born. In August Dick made a successful application to NZ Railways for a job as a railway worker / shunter at Horotiu freezing works. At the end of 1941 Colin finished his primary school days and started training to be an electrician at Hamilton Technical College. His brother Stuart left school in December 1942 when his father found him work on a local farm. Shona left Ngaruawahia School in December 1946, and she also went to the Hamilton Technical College to train in business and secretarial skills.

Then, suddenly, on 2 February 1950, the lives of the Johnstone family were tragically disrupted. Dick came home early from work suffering from a severe headache, which gradually worsened as the day went on. The family doctor was called and Dick was rushed to Hamilton Hospital, but it was too late. Dick Johnstone died that night of a cerebral haemorrhage aged just 42 years old.

Shona left College and got a job to help support the now-fatherless family of five, who moved about this time to a state house. Once her youngest son Don had grown, Marie also worked. For many years she was an accounting machine operator, alongside her sister Hellen, at the NZ Co-op Dairy Company office in Hamilton, then after retiring from that job, did the office work at the Caltex Garage in Ngaruawahia. Around 1961, Marie moved from 35 Thomas Street to number 37, though number 35 stayed in the family, with her daughter Shona and son-in-law Ron Collins and their two children moving in there. 

Marie, 1953

Marie never drove, as far as I am aware, so to get from home to her job in Hamilton she used the bus. But when she worked at the Caltex Garage, she bicycled to work each day, a journey of about two miles, but along State Highway 1, through the busy township and over the perilously narrow Waikato River bridge. The ride never phased her, however, and indeed she once ran foul of the local traffic cop when she failed to stop for a young child at a pedestrian crossing in the centre of town. The traffic cop apparently told her she had been going too fast, but she told him that was rubbish, and that the child had just been mucking around at the edge of the road, and that kids often did that. Luckily the cop just gave her a warning, but from then on she could be teased with the nick-name 'Speedy Gonzales'.

Due to their close proximity, Marie spent a lot of time with her daughter and family. She would usually join them for any outings to visit relatives, or for a day at the beach, where she loved a long walk and a swim with her grandkids. I spent a lot of time with my 'Nana Johno', learning to knit, crotchet, tat and sew, as well as how to play euchre and poker! Marie would also join her sons and their families during their holidays at various beach baches around the Coromandel peninsula. The bays of the Thames coast attracted Stuart and Don and their families, and Marie also visited her son Colin and family at their bach at Whangamata. She even ventured abroad to visit Don and his family, when they lived in Fiji for a few years.

Marie (standing centre back) and her sisters on her 80th birthday
Marie was a fiercely independent woman, in part, no doubt, the result of having been widowed at a relatively young age. She was a long-time member of the New Zealand Labour Party, and the family received a letter of condolence when Marie died from then president Mike Moore. She used to attend race meetings with her sister, Hellen, and later in life operated a telephone account with the TAB for the odd bet on the horses. And she enjoyed her regular weeknights with friends at Housie and cards. She didn't particularly like cats or dogs, but for as long as I can remember, Nana Johno always had a pet budgie. They were usually called Johnny and always taught to say ‘Pretty boy, and usually a swear word or two!

In the late 1970s Marie moved from her Thomas Street home to a new one-bedroom unit in a small pensioner enclave in Ngaruawahia. But when all of her children moved away from Ngaruawahia in the late 1980s, there was no one to keep an eye on Marie, who was then nearly 86, so she moved into a retirement home in Hamilton. She died there some months later.

My Nana Johno was an amazing woman. This one's for you, Nana!