The Bible that went to war …

Some of us who inherit more copies of The Bible than we’re ever likely to need, tend to store them, politely and respectfully on a bookshelf, in sentimental acknowledgment of their former owners. Collectively, they express unique aspects of those former owners’ histories:  records of achievement at Sunday School, or the day school Scripture class; departure from a congregation or community; a wedding gift; or a school-leaver’s presentation copy, complete with school crest embossed on the front cover.

There’s one particular bible which sits almost inconspicuously among just such a collection; its brown leatherette cover shows signs of wear and its size belies its significance. On the fly leaf there’s an inscription which reads, quite simply, “John Fergus Ross with love from Mother 24.6.43”. The only indication of provenance is a retailer’s sticker, “Hyndman’s, Dunedin” on the front recto endpaper.

Then, in an altogether different hand, not the exquisite fountain pen of ‘Mother’ but in post-war ballpoint, the recipient appends: “Carried by me in my battledress pocket throughout the war” followed by “William Thomas Fergus Ross, Love from Father Feb 1977”.

In these few tantalizing lines we are made aware that this small copy of the Scriptures has passed through the hands of three generations. John Fergus Ross did indeed survive the war, returned home to raise his own family and was still living in 1977. So much for the obvious. But what of that which isn’t obvious and raises more questions than there are immediate answers?

The date, 24.6.43, appears to lack any significance beyond its falling within the period of the Second World War. It was neither John Ross’s birthday (23 October), nor his wedding anniversary (1 July 1939). However, there is a letter in the family’s personal history collection, dated 1st July 1943, which offers a clue.  It’s an intensely personal and poignant letter from an adoring aunt to a special nephew, likely penned in a quiet moment of reflection after a family celebration of his wedding anniversary.

She writes: There were one or two things I wanted to say to you if there had been an opportunity – (though probably I wouldn’t have said them even if there had been!) … I know it is a satisfaction for you to go overseas & that you have to go – but you are leaving some very sad hearts behind you … There is no man in the Army, Navy or Air Force who will receive a warmer welcome on his return than you. John – you have no idea how we hate you having to go. You will always be in our thoughts. I am convinced that whatever happens to one the only thing to do is to hold on to one’s trust in God. Much love from Aunt Z.

Another letter in the family’s personal collection  – this one from Army Headquarters, Wellington – solves the date problem. On 23 December 1939, Ross, John Fergus, 611199, was commissioned in the New Zealand Scottish Regiment. The day before he resigned that commission on 25 June 1943, to join the ranks on 26 June 1943 as Private Ross in the 23rd Battalion, 2nd NZ Expeditionary Force, his mother inscribed the little bible. Her only son was off to war!

John Ross’s army serial number proved a lucky one. Or was it the bible that never left his battledress pocket, together with the wedding anniversary day letter’s entreaty to trust in God, that ensured his safe return? Not least among this soldier’s survival stories was the Battle of Monte Cassino.

By Dr Jennie Coleman

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The soldier’s watch still ticks

As we prepare to observe Anzac Day this Sunday, 25 April, I remind myself it’s time to wind up and wear the silver wrist watch my paternal grandmother, Nell (nee Eleanor Mary Emmett) Coleman, gave me when I was in my mid-teens. She had kept it safe for more than 50 years as she continued to mourn its former owner, her favourite brother, Arnold.

The watch, she told me, was presented to him at his soldier’s farewell in 1917 by the people of Shirley, then a farming district on the northern bounds of Christchurch. But Rifleman Arnold Emmett, 51831, 3rd Battalion, New Zealand Rifle Brigade, already had a wrist watch which, according to my Nana, he took with him; the fine presentation model he chose to leave behind.

Just weeks before the Armistice was declared on 11 November 1918, Arnold Emmett was at the Somme where, on 31 August, 1918, he died of wounds in one of the Gezaincourt Casualty Clearing Stations. He is buried with 180 other New Zealanders in the Bagneux British Cemetery, just south of the town of Doullens and about 20 kms north of Amiens in north-west France.

Bagneux British Cemetery, France

On the day in June 1987 when I visited that cemetery, there too were three Commonwealth War Graves Commission employees doing the work they do so well. It was an enormous privilege to thank them, in my then relatively fluent French, for their part in maintaining the dignity and respect of a family member’s final resting place. Their gracious response was to pose behind great-uncle Arnold’s headstone for this photo.

Text & photos by Dr Jennie Coleman

Lines from behind ‘The Front’

While he was on a spell from the front line at the Somme, Rifleman Arnold Emmett scribbled a couple of pages to his future brother-in-law, Harry Coleman, back in New Zealand. These pages look to have been torn from a small exercise book, are written in purple ‘ink pencil’ and signed ‘From your old cobber, A.E.’ The address from which he writes is officially vague and quite simple: ‘France, 6 June 1918’. They are all that seems to have survived this soldier’s service to his country on the battlefields of France.

Apart from not unreasonable complaints about New Zealand mails not reaching them in the Somme, Arnold Emmett reveals something of his soldier’s social life behind the line. He describes meeting up with the recipient’s brother, Gunner Tom Coleman and three other young men, Ted Treleaven, Willie McFadden and Harold Wilson –names from the greater Marshland district, north of Christchurch. Although the Coleman family had left that district in 1912 and moved to a much larger property at Ladbrooks, old friendships remained intact, not least on the battlefields of France.

McFadden & Wilson, both drivers in the 5th Reinforcements, left Wellington on 13 June 1915; Treleaven embarked with the 9th Reinforcements, Wellington Infantry Battalion (B Company), on 8 January 1916; and Tom Coleman, with the 17th Reinforcements, New Zealand Field Artillery, on 23 September 1916.

But the network is wider than is at first apparent: Sapper Dunning Nigel Treleaven – likely a close relative of Ted Treleaven – embarked with the same body and on the same day as Drivers McFadden and Wilson; another Harold (Roy) Wilson (likely a close relative of Driver Harold (Twentyman) Wilson) enlisted in Dunedin and embarked on 9 October 1915 with the Medical Corps attached to the 1st Battalion, New Zealand Rifle Brigade.

Arnold Emmett and one Joseph Edward McFadden – possibly a close relative of Driver Willie McFadden – embarked the same troopship, HMNZT 86 (Maunganui) as Riflemen in Reinforcements, H Company, of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade, on 12 June 1917. When Arnold Emmett wrote on 6 June 1918, one cannot help but wonder whether or not he knew of Rifleman McFadden’s death on 27 March 1918.

By the time his ‘old cobber’ received this letter,Rifleman Emmett had returned to the front, been wounded and subsequently died.

The Treleavens, Drivers McFadden & Wilson, and Gunner Tom Coleman all survived.

When Tom Coleman died just two months short of his 90th birthday in 1978  he was buried in the All Saints’ Anglican Church Cemetery, Prebbleton, beside his local-born wife, Nan (nee McNally). Although he gave his enlisting address as Ladbrooks, Tom Coleman’s name is included on the Prebbleton war memorial, just a few hundred metres south of his burial place.

And so fate decreed that I was deprived of one great-uncle and privileged to know another.

By Dr Jennie Coleman

An honourable hour off school in Dunedin

I  dashed out to take just a single photograph of a building – because the sun was shining so gloriously –  when I spied a more seriously worthy ‘photo-op’. One digital click later I recorded a special moment in our seasonal preparation for Anzac Day. Two very polite and well-spoken young ladies wearing the uniform of New Zealand’s oldest state secondary school for girls, Otago Girls’ High School, had exchanged their first hour in the classroom this Friday morning for the honourable title of New Zealand Returned Services Association ‘Official Collector’.

And so it was that they were ‘standing guard’ over a collection box and a tray of poppies, fulfilling a role that dates from the first ‘Poppy Day’ in 1922, six years after the establishment of the RSA in New Zealand. The first watch of the day was almost over so when the ‘relief’ arrived, I found myself in conversation with four, uniformed, young ladies.

Typically, their inherited personal histories reflected war service: one never knew a grandfather because he was killed when her father was three; another knew a grandfather who had served in the Air Force. They had studied the First World War poets as prescribed in the New Zealand secondary school English curriculum and readily volunteered their understanding of the symbolism of the poppy.

I don’t imagine for a moment they expected their photo to be taken by a random passer-by, nor to have been engaged in further conversation. And I certainly wasn’t the only one to reward their hour off school with such comments as ‘Keep up the good work’. As the first two collectors posed in the mid-morning Dunedin sun, with dignity and respect for their part in Poppy Day, I smiled through the camera. The cafe and bar, outside which they were stationed, is called “Alibi (genuine)”.

This morning, these young ladies had the most honourable alibi of all.


They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow…

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

“For the Fallen” by Laurence Binyon (1869-1943) stanzas 3 & 4

Feedback from ‘Emigrant Voices under Sail’ seminar

Here’s what the participants had to say …

“It was exciting to participate in something so new and fresh that was equally so very personal.”

“It was jam-packed full of information that was relevant to ME.”


“It opened my eyes to just what went on in 19th century emigrant voyages.”

“The diaries were made alive and real.”

“Suddenly I understood the trauma of these journeys on a different level.”

“These were my ancestors … you begin to admire them as heroes.”

“Excellent resources – imaginative and practical at the same time.

“Very professional and well-paced delivery – excellent presentation style.”

“I loved how you brought the diaries alive at significant points on the journey so that we could share them with each other.”

“It was wonderful to share and experience other people’s diaries … to learn intimately of the differing ways others approached this hugely significant piece of New Zealand history.”

In response to “What did you most appreciate?”, participants replied:

“Comfortable and relaxed atmosphere; informal, interactive presentation style; wide knowledge of the presenter; her ability to incorporate queries and discussion.”

“A first-class piece of work: an excellent day.”

“One of the best learning experiences I have had.”

‘Bursting Up’ and giving birth

There’s a case to be made for celebrating a rather different sort of birthday today, 19 April : that of the family farm. It’s an idiosyncratic element in our nation’s growth and development; one that boxed well above its weight and, in the face of some fairly hostile odds such as distance from export markets, effectively demonstrated to the ‘developed’ world what efficiency could really deliver. Or so it once was – things a have changed a bit in recent decades.

Be that as it may, recent history cannot detract from one of the most significant political events in New Zealand’s rural history – the Liberal government’s Lands for Settlement Act , 6 October 1892 – by which the vast tracts of land under the control of wealthy, and thereby powerful, individuals could be ‘burst up’ into smaller economic units. Those who would otherwise have been denied the ability to farm in their own right found more equable access to land.

The first of the great estates to be subdivided in this way was the late William (‘Ready Money’) Robinson’s 84,755 acre “Cheviot Hills” estate, in North Canterbury. Negotiations with the Robinson family began almost immediately the act became law; by January 1893 they were unofficially complete; on 19 April, 1893, negotiations were deemed officially complete. In exchange for £304,826 (currently equal to an inflation adjusted $52,926,897.22) Richard John Seddon’s Liberal government enabled the settlement of 178 families, amounting to some 900 people, on land which had formerly sustained the employment of fewer than 100 single men.

Although the formal agreement is dated 19 April 1893, the disposal and occupation of “Cheviot Hills” land extended throughout the remainder of the year and into 1894. By far the greatest proportion of the former estate was initially either leased in perpetuity or leased for grazing; relatively little was freeholded at this point. Subsequent Liberal land legislation modified and amended the terms and conditions by which land was acquired and farmed.

For those of us who are the inheritors of a now diminishing experience, ‘raised on the family farm’,  we have the Liberal leader and Premier, Richard John Seddon and his (Scots Highland) Minister of Lands, John McKenzie to thank. I have a lurking suspicion that my late grandfather, Harry Coleman, understood the politics in a particularly appreciative manner, for he inculcated my childhood with the importance of ‘King Dick’, by which the imposing figure of the Rt Hon R J Seddon was affectionately known and by which title his biography by R M Burdon was published in 1955.

In her biography ‘Ready Money’ (2006), great-granddaughter Margaret Wigley expresses William Robinson’s legacy, thus: “The sale of Cheviot Hills …  set New Zealand firmly in the direction of the small independent family farm, rather than large estates paying income to absentee owners and heirs as has happened in other parts of the world.”

This fourth generation daughter of a small independent family farm remains grateful for the bursting up of the big estates, ‘King Dick’ and an instructive grandfather.

By Dr Jennie Coleman

An unlikely combination? One impressive woman, a birthday coincidence and dogs

While searching for references to sheepdogs in our colonial history, and frustrated by less than rewarding findings, I happened upon today’s date – 14 April. It’s a date which always seems to leap out at me because it has special significance: it’s my birthday! As with most life events, there’s quite a story attached and the night of my birth is no exception. But I’m disinclined to tell it here because  I’d rather use this ‘birthday blog’ to re-tell a tale of far greater proportions . It’s about one woman’s journey which began on this day in 1861.

Mrs Henrietta Teschemaker, twice widowed, arrived in New Zealand with her sons Fred (20) and Tom (15) in 1854. Eventually, the ‘boys’ took up Haldon Station in the Mackenzie country, stocking it first with cattle and then with the sheep for which this inland region of the central South Island is now famed. Their efforts to build anything resembling a house fit for their mother to live in met with mixed fortune. Sod huts and chimney constructions notwithstanding, together with the equally immediate needs of sheep yards and woolshed, a new house was eventually started during the summer months in early 1861. Their mother ‘s arrival was imminent.

And so it was that Henrietta Techemaker, now in her sixties, left Christchurch on 14 April, 1861, for Haldon Station in the Mackenzie country. To understand the rigours of such a journey one critical aspect of Canterbury geography must be understood: braided rivers. Every one of them had to be forded and in every one of them peril lurked. In his chapter on Haldon in ‘Early South Canterbury Runs, Robert Pinney isn’t sure whether she rode – side saddle of course – or was driven in one of those small horse-drawn vehicles known as a dog cart, at least as far as ‘the Ashburton’. On the other side of the Ashburton River she was met by Baines, the mailman, and driven in his cart as far as the Rangitata. But the Rangitata was in flood – running high, as Pinney describes – so much so that the punt which normally served as a ferry had broken away.  It was four days before the river subsided its rage sufficient to allow a safe crossing.

If one river was in flood, then so too were the others.  It took a further two days to cross the Orari and Opihi rivers to get to Timaru. Here our intrepid traveller was able to rest in comfort for two nights with her friends the Le Crens, before setting out on a long day’s journey from Timaru to the Percevals at Albury Station, not arriving there until after dark.  The following day being Sunday, Mrs Teschemaker rested. On Monday she proceeded further inland, crossing Burke’s Pass and then on to  Stericker’s Sawdon Station, on the eastern side of the Tekapo River. On the morning of Tuesday 30 April, the seventeenth day of her journey, Henrietta Teschemaker set out for Haldon Station where she was reunited with her sons.

But what of the dogs, promised in the title? The Teschemakers, being Dutch, constituted an ethnic minority among the significant Scots majority of the Mackenzie country. The shepherds who kept boundary and worked on the stations in these parts were, in large number, Scottish immigrants and many had brought their dogs with them – the Border Collie ancestors of New Zealand’s current working dog population …  yet another story in our unique rural history.

By Dr Jennie Coleman