Archive for the 'Nancy Swarbrick' Category

Revealing our ancestors

The Pudney family, with cat, 1905 (click for image credit)

The Pudney family, with cat, 1905 (click for image credit)

The Biographies section of Te Ara (aka The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography or DNZB) has always held special fascination for genealogists, historians and those who are just plain nosy about other people’s lives. And one of its most fascinating aspects (for me, anyway) is the portraits that accompany the life stories. Many of these were obtained through a major image search when the DNZB first went online back in 2001. But we have continued to add to them gradually since. In the past year alone, more than 100 amazing new images have been uploaded to the site.

Some have been obtained from family members and researchers through our ‘Contribute an image‘ facility – staff member Andy Palmer deals with these offers. Recent acquisitions include beautiful photos of flax miller Alfred Seifert and his wife and children (themselves rather beautiful), interesting candid snaps of geriatrician James Lister Newman in his office, and a quirky series of images of agricultural scientist Francis William Dry, the ‘inventor’ of the Drysdale sheep breed.

Francis Dry with Drysdales (click for image credit)

Dry with Drysdales (click for image credit)

Others have been obtained by Janine Faulknor, Te Ara’s manager and leader of the Resource Team, in a concerted effort to illustrate biographies without photographs. Images come from a range of helpful libraries and museums around the country. They include the delightful studio portrait of draper and dressmaker Sophia Anstice, an interesting photo of pioneering Māori nurse Ākenehi Hei outside her tent hospital, an early image of crooked missionary-turned-trader William White, and a striking and rather poignant photo of artist Rhona Haszard taken not long before her untimely death.

I love the way these photographs give glimpses of both character and everyday life in previous centuries. Many are carefully staged portraits, but some are surprisingly informal. See for example the sleek cat wandering into the foreground of this outdoor photograph of the Pudney family of Canterbury (shown at the top of this page)

The Henderson sisters, Stella, Kathleen and Elizabeth, 1890s (click for image credit)

The Henderson sisters, Stella, Kathleen and Elizabeth, 1890s (click for image credit)

For some people we have been lucky enough to obtain more than one image, and often these trace the course of a life. Economist Bernard Ashwin, for example, is revealed as a burly rugby player, a young man deeply in love with his new wife, and finally as the suave suited bureaucrat that he became. And sisters Elizabeth McCombs and Stella Henderson are shown as lively and lovely students and then as mature women: Elizabeth after she was elected to parliament in 1933 as New Zealand’s first female MP, and Stella as a feminist journalist and the mother of four daughters.

There is no doubt that a portrait adds a new dimension to the story of a person’s life – hinting variously at surliness, sweetness or a sly sense of humour. If you have a photograph for a biography that currently lacks one, please do contact us via the ‘Contribute an image‘ feature.

Creature comforts

I’m going to be straight with you from the start – this blog is a piece of shameless self-promotion. Last week I launched my book, Creature comforts: New Zealanders and their pets – an illustrated history. You can buy it from your local book store for $55 – an ideal Christmas present!

The connection with Te Ara? Well, I got the idea for the book after writing the Te Ara story about pets a few years ago. That experience made me realise that there was a rich history to be uncovered. The positive reaction of colleagues to the topic, and in particular their delight in the wonderful images tracked down by resource researcher Marguerite Hill, also brought home to me the importance of pets to people – and indeed the book has turned out to be as much about humans as it is about animals.

But when I started out on the book project I had a guilty secret – I didn’t actually have a pet (though, like many people, I had had grown up with them, and occasionally looked after friends’ pets, including cats, guinea pigs and a rat). I lived in constant fear of being exposed as a fraud.

All that changed in late 2010, when Guido the cat turned up. Actually, I had known him since he was a kitten, living across the road with his sister Peach. Two energetic balls of black fluff, they used to visit my place on their explorations of the neighbourhood.

One day when I was gardening his owner Amanda leaned across the fence. She was looking for Guido, who had been missing for a few months. She had moved several blocks away, taking her two cats, but Guido had promptly shifted back to his old territory, showing the uncanny attachment to place that some animals have. When she retrieved him, he simply returned again, and again, crossing several busy roads in the process. I promised to keep an eye out for him and, when Amanda eventually realised that Guido wasn’t going to settle at her new home, I agreed to take responsibility for him. I was happy to, having researched the problem of strays in big cities and the suffering this causes animals.

Writing about the history of pets has given me insights into theory, but Guido has supplied my practical experience.

One of the things I have noticed is how companion animals help people to make social connections. Guido likes to keep the street under surveillance and chat up passers-by. I have had some nice conversations with cat lovers who stop to admire and pat him. A neighbour, who has two cats and a dog of his own, calls out to him when walking up the road and Guido positively bounds to the fence for a smooch. Dog walkers stop to talk too. One man apologises for his small dog that always pauses at the gate to yap ferociously while Guido looks on serenely from the porch. Another friendly woman has two little dogs that wait hopefully for Guido to come and greet them, like their cat friend at home.

Of course I get to suffer the downside of pets – the projectile vomiting in the middle of the night, and the unwelcome ‘presents’ of dead or moribund mice and rats. Then there are those dreaded visits to the vet, when it is hard to know who is in greater need of sedation – animal or human.

But, like many other pet owners, I find the companionship makes it worthwhile. Being met by a cat purring a welcome as you walk home after a hard day at work is undeniably pleasant. And you can’t beat the sight of a contented feline stretched out in front of the fire on a winter’s night in Wellington, as the wind howls in the roof and the rain lashes the windows.

Remembering country schools

Lesley, Murray and Laurie Mabey riding to school on Great Barrier Island in the 1950s

Lesley, Murray and Laurie Mabey riding to school on Great Barrier Island in the 1950s

Early this year we asked people to send us their stories about that great New Zealand institution: the country school. We received a steady trickle of letters and, interestingly, they were all from older people in their 70s, 80s and 90s, remembering schools in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. Perhaps that time was the heyday of country schools? Certainly there were many more of them back then.

Those stories are now up on the Te Ara website, attached to the entry on Country Schooling, and give fascinating insights into rural education. Most accounts are written from the point of view of the pupil, but we have one from a teacher, Helen Hirst, who began her career at the tiny Manahune School in North Canterbury in 1947. Many of our contributors also sent us their precious photos for us to scan, and there are some evocative ones. My personal favourite is the photo of Waiharakeke School near Kāwhia Harbour. Eileen Shaw, who went there in the 1940s, carefully labelled the main features, including the pony paddock, the playing field, the school gardens, and even the boys’ and girls’ toilets!

One of the stand-out experiences seems to have been the journey to school – by bus, horse or pony, or on foot. Many of our writers remember an arduous and sometimes rather scary trip – for instance Leslie Rockell’s epic horseback trek to school on Great Barrier Island. And reading about the mischief that Margaret Joll got up to with her brother and sister on their way to catch the school bus in the 1950s makes you realise how much more freedom kids had then – a contrast with modern childhood.

Several of our writers recalled the apples and milk that were handed out to all school children during these years as part of a government initiative to improve child health after the depression of the 1930s. Events unique to country schools, such as calf club day, also feature in several stories. As a gardener, I was particularly interested to read about the school garden projects – Celia Geary talks of the soup children made from vegetables they grew, while Mary Murphy remembers her prize-winning gladiolus. Gardening at school is back in fashion nowadays. But the cane – one of the few painful memories in these stories – seems unlikely to make a come-back, no doubt to the relief of children everywhere.

The constant (well, fairly regular) gardener

Wellington Botanic Garden – this may or may not resemble Nancy's garden

Wellington Botanic Garden – this may or may not resemble Nancy's garden

‘Every man should have a hobby,’ the saying goes – and so should every woman in my opinion. High on my list of preferred pastimes is gardening. I spend much of my time indoors working at a computer, so it makes a nice change to put on my gumboots and stride out in the fresh air. In this choice I am not alone – gardening is one of the most popular leisure activities in New Zealand. In 2000 a whopping 60% of New Zealanders got out in the garden, and many are interested in garden design.

Unfortunately, as a resident of Wellington, I picked the wrong place to pursue my hobby. I was raised in Waikato, famous for its colourful exotic trees and lush roses. There, the main problem that gardeners face is rampant growth – plants get too big, too soon. But the possibilities for creative gardening are endless, and Hamilton Gardens showcase some of them.

Here in Wellington, the obstacles are daunting. For a start there is the clay soil – great as a building material, but not so great as a growing medium. During wet weather it turns to cold, sticky mud; in times of drought it sets solid. Then there is the notorious wind, which often rises to gale force. It tears through my garden, ripping at leaves and branches, and literally blowing seedlings out of the ground. In winter it can get so cold at times that to venture outside is to risk hypothermia – making gardening in Wellington an extreme sport comparable with mountaineering, diving or aerial recreation.

All this can be a bit discouraging, but it forces you to adapt. Some people play it safe and go for the ‘low maintenance’ garden style – tufts of mondo grass in a dreary sea of gravel. Others preach the hardy native plant gospel. While I think there is nothing more glorious than pristine New Zealand bush, too many native plants clustered together in a garden can look rather monotonous. To my mind, real gardening is about artifice – carefully mixing different and sometimes surprising elements to create a harmonious effect.

I’m currently experimenting with blending natives and exotics. The highly sculptural and very hardy New Zealand flax is one of our most distinctive and beautiful native plants. Recently I transplanted a small, self-seeded flax from my rose garden into a grey, bucket-shaped container, and dotted thrift around the edge. No, not the sort of thrift described here, but the low-growing plant also known as armeria. Its dusky pink flowerheads are an excellent foil to the reddish strap-like leaves of the flax. Emboldened by this success, I have just planted a larger grey container with a dramatic black flax (‘Black Adder’) surrounded by dianthus. This lovely little plant has blue-grey, spiky foliage and in spring it will be smothered in feathery white fragrant flowers. At least that’s the theory – wish me luck!