Doreen Hector Tanner story

A reminiscence from Jennifer Lang about her grandmother Doreen Lang (nee McKenzie)

I’m the oldest daughter of an oldest daughter of an oldest daughter – at least that far back, and possibly further. For that reason, I’ve always been more interested in my distaff ancestors (there is probably a technical term for that). But when my cousin (my father’s sister’s daughter) came to visit this year, she commented that she had always been proud of coming from a long line of feisty women, I thought I should take more interest in the women on my father’s side. So, here is a little something about my father’s mother.

Edith Emily McKenzie was born in 1895 in Hora Hora in rural New Zealand (which I think is now part of Whangarei). Because she was the 7th Edith in her small rural district, and as she said “Emily was a cow’s name”, she was called Doreen all her life. That district was full of scottish immigrants, and very into patronymic nicknames, so she was called Doreen Hector Tanner most of her life, even though her official surname was McKenzie.

Her father (Hector) was a tanner (inheriting the business from his father (Tanner)), and she had one sister Marjorie. In their teens, they used to join their father during school holidays on what would now be known as business trips – riding a horse going around all the little settlements in Northland buying good skins from butchers.

Scots in those days were into education, even for women, so Doreen managed to go to Whangarei High School, with a Country Bursary of 10 pounds a year. Whangarei is now a town of about 50,000 people. At the end of her high schooling, she sat for a University Scholarship, an exam for the whole of New Zealand, to decide who got put through university by the state. That year, nine scholarships were awarded (all to boys), and she came 10th. The year before and after that, there were more scholarships awarded (also all to boys), so it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that the power that be weren’t willing to waste a scholarship on a girl. Her father, very disappointed for her, supported by two maternal aunts was prepared to support her through university anyway, as she had done so well.

Instead, she left school and went pupil teaching at her local (probably one or two room) school. The first thing she bought for herself was a piano. In those days, you could get a teaching certificate by training on the job with a high school education, and she was a qualified teacher after two years. Then she went to teach as a Junior Assistant at Hikurangi (a little mining town north of Whangerei) on 120 pounds a year. In one year, at different times, she had 38-58 pupils in her class, in Standards 1 and 2 (ages 7 and 8 roughly) in the porch of the school, as there was no proper classroom for her.

When her father died, he left his property including the tannery and a number of properties to her and her sister, so she gave up teaching to manage the tannery until they could sell off the business and the properties and pay all their debts.

She turned 20 in 1915, so World War I must have considerably disrupted her life. New Zealand lost nearly 2% of its population in that war (mostly men around my grandmothers age) so it must have been a huge blow to the social structure of the time. I don’t know if she lost anyone dear to her, but she must have lost many good friends.

She married my grandfather at the relatively advanced age of 28. They moved into an old schoolhouse on the family farm, which was 10 kilometres on bad roads from the nearest small town. It was also next to a beautiful sandy beach, which made it a beautiful, if isolated, place. Their first child, a girl, named Margaret, was born at home and died stillborn. It’s hard to imagine what that must have been like. The family story is that it was the doctor’s fault, as he was drunk.

They then had five children in seven years, and lived in what we would now think of as grinding poverty. But then, it was nothing special. They made their own soap, used sacks as pillow cases, and ate (among other things) shellfish that they had gathered from the beach.

By the time I met her, my grandfather had died, and she had moved in with one of my aunts. To me, she was a quiet matriarch sitting in the corner at Christmases. With 20 grandchildren, of whom I was one of the youngest, she certainly deserved the matriarch title. Every now and again something would flash through of the feisty woman she once was. She eventually died at 96, after 5-10 years of gradually degenerating Alzheimers. I last saw her a few years before she died, when she vaguely knew (after a reminder) that she was related to me.

When I sit back and reflect on this story, it’s amazing what a hugely different life from me my grandmother had. But if we had met at the same age in our lives, we would probably have got on well. She was a strong, smart, feisty woman and I’m proud to be descended from her.

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