People like people

People, people everywhere (pic: South Canterbury Museum)

People, people everywhere (pic: South Canterbury Museum)

People like people, or at least that’s what our website traffic tells us. Since we added the Dictionary of New Zealand biography (DNZB) to Te Ara in late 2010, our biography pages have been viewed nearly 5 million times. What’s more, we have information about a lot of people.

To start with, there are over 3,000 biographies from the DNZB. As this brief background notes, this was no traditional biographical dictionary. The general editor, W. H. Oliver, ‘wanted to include people prominent in a regional, tribal, ethnic or occupational context, and set challenging targets for entries on women and Māori’.

Behind those 3,000 are many more names. There are over 1,000 people who were significant in New Zealand history but weren’t included in the Dictionary. People like Queen Victoria – important, yes, but not a New Zealander. We call these people ‘non-essay subjects’, and they provide connections between the people who are subjects of biographies. We also have a database of nearly 13,000 names, which was used for selecting the 3,000 biographies that appeared in the original print volumes of the Dictionary. Information in this database may be scant and incomplete, and in some cases it needs checking, but it’s a solid contribution of people who played some small part in our history.

So far I’ve talked only about people in relation to the Dictionary, but there are also many people on NZHistory, either as brief adaptations of Dictionary essays or as wholly new articles. Then there are the people throughout Te Ara, and the lists of suffragists and rolls of honour on NZHistory and on the Vietnam War and 28th Māori Battalion websites.

There are, in short, people everywhere.

We’re not currently making many connections among all these datasets. We provide some links between stories about the same person, and have connected NZHistory stories through keyword pages like this one for Rita Angus, but we’re yet to develop a system that makes it easy for us to connect people, and for readers to find all the information we hold about a person.

We’re hoping to change that very soon, and have started working on a project to create authority records about people. We’re beginning to build a definitive list of the people we know something about, and a system to connect mentions of those people on any of our websites. This will make it easier to see connections across our sites; it will allow our readers to follow the connections and get a richer story about each person and their relevance to our history and culture. What’s more, we’ll be able to share our list in a machine-readable form, so other websites can make connections between people on our sites and theirs, and so contribute to the opening up of government-held content.

We’re starting small, and will begin with people from the Dictionary and NZHistory, initially linking content on Te Ara and NZHistory. They’re our most heavily used and content-rich websites, so it makes most sense to connect them with each other and other websites in the cultural heritage world.

From a technical point of view we’ll be storing the information about people using the Schema.org ontology in an RDF triplestore database and publishing it to a simple stand-alone website with a page for each person. Each person in this sense becomes an entity about which we can make simple statements – their name, birth and death dates, occupation, where they were active, and so on – and record where they’re mentioned in our websites. That information can be re-used anywhere a person is mentioned, and can be harvested by other websites to make connections to their content. In this way, readers will – one day – be able to go from our biography of Rita Angus to a book plate by Rita Cook on the National Library’s website to all the information about Angus on Te Papa’s Collections Online.

From there the logical step for us is to look at other information that can easily translate to the idea of being an entity – for example, places. We’ve started thinking about that …

We’re not alone in looking at this, and we’re probably playing catch-up with other organisations, but in taking a few steps in this direction we hope to contribute something of what we know about New Zealanders back to the wider digital culture and heritage community.

Queen Victoria’s Māori godson

Diana, William, Charles and buzzy bee,1983

Diana, William, Charles and buzzy bee, 1983 (pic: New Zealand Herald)

Royal news has been abundant in recent weeks with the birth of a royal baby for Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge, and William’s brother Prince Harry visiting New Zealand. William’s visit as a toddler in 1983 and the gift he received of a buzzy bee is an iconic New Zealand image. Te Ara has an entry focusing on the royal family, which has provided New Zealand’s head of state since 1840.

A lesser-known historical link between British royalty and New Zealand is that Queen Victoria had a Māori godson. In 1863 Wesleyan lay preacher William Jenkins organised a Māori performing party to travel to England. He planned to give lectures which they would accompany with waiata and dances.

Though the party believed they would be well treated, it was not to be the case. Jenkins travelled first class, while the Māori performers lived in appalling conditions aboard the Ida Zieglar in a journey that took 100 days. The tour continued with tensions between Jenkins and the Māori group.

In July 1863 the party met with Queen Victoria, who saw that one of its members, Hariata Pōmare, was pregnant and asked to be the child’s godmother. Hariata and her husband, Hare Pōmare, agreed. On 26 October 1863 the baby  a boy  was born. He was named Albert Victor after the Queen and her deceased husband, and was presented with this cup and cutlery as a christening gift.

Hariata Pōmare, Hare Pōmare and Albert Victor Pōmare (baby)

Hariata Pōmare and Hare Pōmare with their baby, Albert Victor Pōmare (pic: Alexander Turnbull Library)

The couple then had their first-class fare to New Zealand on the Statesman paid for by Queen Victoria.  Despite his promising start in life, Albert Victor Pōmare was soon to face tragedy. His father, Hare, died in Wellington hospital soon after the return to New Zealand. A few years later, his mother also died.

Albert Victor ended up in an orphanage in Auckland. The Queen paid for his tuition at St Stephens. One story has it that he went on to go to sea, and either settled in Canada or died in California. But the truth is lost in the mists of time.

Te Ara pays tribute to Jack Body

Jack Body (left) with gamelan teacher Joko Sutrisno, about 1988 (pic: Victoria University of Wellington, Image Services)

Jack Body (left) with gamelan teacher Joko Sutrisno, about 1988 (pic: Victoria University of Wellington, Image Services)

Those of us who work behind the scenes at Te Ara are saddened to hear of Jack Body’s death. He was a warm supporter of our project, generously supplying images and allowing one of our staff to photograph his well-known gamelan orchestra, Padhang Moncar, at St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral in Wellington back in 2004.

As one of New Zealand’s foremost composers and university teachers he naturally features in a number of our entries. His major compositions, many drawing on Eastern influences, are described in our entry on Composers, which also notes his unwavering support of other writers of music. His involvement in musical theatre composition gets a mention in Opera and musical theatre, and his composing of music for voices is referred to in Choral music and choirs. And the Media art entry describes his organisation of Sonic Circus festivals in Wellington from 1974.

My favourite reference to him comes in the Classical musicians entry. There we have a video of pianist Stephen de Pledge playing Body’s composition ‘The street where I live’ – and the composer/narrator is listening with obvious delight in the audience. This quirky, poignant piece talks about Body’s deep affection for his long-time home in Aro Valley, Wellington. It is a fitting coda to the life of a great New Zealander, and a staunch Wellingtonian.

Kia maumahara tātau

The Anzac service at Rongomaraeroa marae (pic: Rongomaraeroa marae)

The Anzac service at Rongomaraeroa marae (pic: Rongomaraeroa marae)

When a whole community turns up to support an event you know it is a big deal. Pōrangahau’s population at the last census count was just 195 but approximately 300 people turned up to our Anzac Dawn Service.

The morning started with a brisk march from the Pōrangahau war memorial hall down to the church cemetery and our cenotaph. We were led by the Queen Alexandra’s Mounted Rifles, and as we got closer the sound of karanga echoed eerily of lives lost, of a new day, of a day commemorating those who served from our small community.

Remembering those who served (pic: Rongomaraeroa marae)

Remembering those who served (pic: Rongomaraeroa marae)

It was a time of beauty as well. I te ata hāpara (at dawn) Pōrangahau was shrouded in mist. Whānau marched on to our memorial hall and onwards to our urupā, Kaiwhitikitiki. With karakia we entered, laid our wreaths and moved about to mihi to all our tīpuna. A pōwhiri followed on our marae, Rongomaraeroa. A table stood proudly on the mahau filled with whānau photographs and taonga and our wharekai was beautifully decorated with poppies made by the kura. Waiata welcomed all our whānau and guests for parakuihi (breakfast) and we settled in to hear four local families share their First World War stories.

This is the first time I’ve known an Anzac service to come to the marae – and what a privilege it was to be there.

Kia maumahara tātau – lest we forget.

The Dawn Parade

Cyril Wilton, at his sister's place in Tawa during the Second World War, left; and in London, 1944, right (Images: Private collection, Caren Wilton)

Cyril Wilton, at his sister's place in Tawa during the Second World War, left; and in London, 1944, right (Images: Private collection, Caren Wilton)

The Anzac Day I remember as a child growing up in 1960s and ‘70s Masterton involved my father getting up very early, rustling through the house in the dark to head out to the Dawn Parade. He would come back later, in his suit and tie – unusual for him, a motor trimmer – wearing a red poppy on his lapel and smelling of what I thought was aftershave, but was probably alcohol.

He was a Second World War veteran, a bomber pilot over Germany in the last 18 months or so of the war, probably trained to fly after the huge losses among New Zealanders in the RAF depleted their ranks. He was old for a pilot, born in 1913, just before the First World War. Fifty by the time I was born, he was 20 years older than my mother.

I sometimes went with my father selling Anzac poppies – red cones then, not the flat, black-centred circles they later became – door to door. We lived near the railway station, in a street of tidy, modest 1920s houses surrounded by streets of down-at-heel wooden villas with unkempt gardens, some of them converted into businesses: hairdressers, mechanics’ workshops, welders. We would walk around these streets, my father knocking on the doors and handing over the poppies, me carrying the bag into which people dropped their coins.

I never went to the Dawn Parade. It was a thing for men, for the men who hung out at the Soldiers’ Club. There were men’s worlds and women’s worlds – my mother and her friends, who stayed home with children and did housework and went to each other’s houses for coffee and talking, seemed to have little to do with my father’s life, his workplace with its big roller doors and its enticing, intoxicating smells of glue and paint, its oddly blind-looking cars with their headlights and windows masked with newspaper, its men in overalls, its tearoom with its long wooden benches and – oh joy! – crate of bottles of WACO soft drinks. Work was a men’s world, as were many of the other worlds my father inhabited – Rotary, the Savage Club, the Soldiers’ Club (for many years, I assumed that this was a casual term for the RSA, but Masterton’s beautiful 1918 clubhouse really was called the Soldiers’ Club), the Anzac celebrations. Women and children were only occasionally permitted in these male enclaves.

More than 40 years later, I’ve still never been to a Dawn Parade, though I’ve thought about it, mainly as a way of connecting with my father (now long dead), trying in a small way to share some of what he experienced. Numbers of people at Anzac celebrations have boomed in recent years, as the number of actual veterans has dwindled, and no doubt this year’s celebrations, the 100-year anniversary of the Gallipoli landing, will be huge. New Zealanders have begun wanting to remember.

My father, I think, wanted to forget. I never heard him mention the war. But every year, he quietly got up in the dark and went to the Dawn Parade.