Five Minutes with the Wilson Sisters

Frances and Eva Wilson about 1900

by Donald Lang

Whether you are looking at photos, family trees, or other documents, every now and then you find it difficult to find a probable narrative that covers the reported facts. Somewhere there is, or was, a letter in which Dan Wilson informed Hector McKenzie that he, Hector, working as a tanner, did not meet [Dan’s] approval as his son in law. The existence of the letter was not in doubt, up to something like a century after Dan Wilson had died. Its current status is. The letter certainly survived Hector McKenzie, his wife Emily Maud, nee, Wilson, and their children. There was at least one suggestion earlier that it should be burnt. People who are impatient about motivations expressed decades previously can be intolerant later of perceived sensitivities that got written down. All of the Wilson daughters might have been well aware that William I of England was widely known as a tanner, but probably would have cared more about his illegitimate birth.

Two generations later two of Daniel’s great grand daughters when struggling with genealogy were heard occasionally to wish they had a couple of Dan’s daughters on hand for five minutes now and then to sort out nuances for them. Neither of them ever met their McKenzie Grandmother Maud, which was a pity in itself. She was apparently quite often in demand before her early death as a visitor who could brighten the day in a sick room. She reputedly belonged among those who had no medical qualifications but healed somehow by her presence. There may well be a lot of stored distaff experience that was also valuable. Somewhere too there is an exercise book which functioned for collecting autographs. After the names and addresses there was a column headed “I love” and another “I hate”. Eva, the youngest sister, admitted that she hated “being lectured at by Maud”. Their father Daniel, or maybe Hector, admitted to hating “nagging women and crying babies”

Family picture at wedding of Frances Wilson and Robert Foote 1902

There were other exercise books used as diaries. The entry for 21st September 1892 runs roughly “Got up, harnessed the gig, went to fetch the Snells and took them to the church,” followed by a list of further collections, and “got through it all somehow, went to church, changed my name, came home”.

Frances Foote was also a Wilson Sister. Much later she had Ian (Maxwell) Lang as a boarder in Auckland. One day he was scheduled to face a panel of his superiors. “If they ask you, you can tell them what a fine lot of lazy ancestors you have.” Eva thought this was unjust. Frances immediately named an older brother of Dan Wilson, “Who,” she asserted, “Leaned on Father for all he was worth.”

“Once you get north of Auckland” she said, “if you throw a stone you are bound to hit a Wilson; and in most cases this is an excellent idea”.

Eva, the youngest of the sisters, lived most of her life in homes run by the elder ones. Eva was also (sometimes) innovative. Having learned to play the piano she qualified by correspondence with a London firm to teach others. She had a framed diploma certifying her qualification. She likewise learnt to play the oboe using the oboe as available around the end of the nineteenth century. In addition she learned the skills of producing dental plates with false teeth. She naturally found it handy to base herself in “the rooms” close by the major road junction in Whangarei between Cameron Street and Bank Street. She was an obvious referral point from the local dental practice of her brother in law Arthur Pickmere. When Gilbert and Sullivan light operas were performed in Whangarei she would have been part of the required orchestra. G&S was in some sense a limit point. Real music finished as far as she was concerned round about then. She had no tolerance for “melodies’ which included in their harmonies what she would have called “wrong notes”.

Eva had a soft spot for any creature that was covered with its own feathers. Naturally, she subscribed to the New Zealand Forest and Bird Magazine. She believed in long life for hens and would mention an acquaintance ‘whose best layer was 14 years old.’ She even felt that Harrier Hawks should have a defended niche as part of the system despite their propensity for dining on unprotected hens.

For a lot of her life Eva lived with Pickmeres in Hatea Street, Whangarei. At the bottom of the slope below what once been a stable was a boat house on the river. Arthur kept a sequence of various boats there and parties went exploring from there around the Whangarei area and out into Bream Bay and beyond.. Some of the family members felt a little glee in passing on the story of a group taking the launch as far as the “Hen” island, perhaps more correctly paired these days with its other name of Taranga. People involved remembered a rather stormy ocean, and a very damp trek down the rocky slopes to return to the launch. On board there was obviously going to be a bit of a pause while everybody got dry and a warm meal could be produced. Someone with a useful memory remembered that there was a bottle of rum on board to speed the warming process and was able to reassure Eva that it had been selectively purchased as non alcoholic rum. It did in fact warm the participants.

Much later in life Eva was much pleased to find a friend who produced a tonic drink called Lemora which had a pleasing flavour and a mild, usually unspecified, alcoholic content. It was also considered to be an effective night cap.

Frances was left a widow during WWI, with seven children. All of them were built on somewhat robust lines. It was fortunate that the Foote timber interests provided adequate resources. The family was initially located in Whangarei and there is a family rumour(?) that she was a town councillor. The family attended Whangarei High School with some distinction. Geoffrey was reported to have grown some inches in height during one winter term. Later he graduated as a BA and joined the teaching profession. Some members of the extended family felt he should have continued to an MA. Instead he got married. Irwin was reported on one occasion to have won a pie eating contest. He pleaded at the prize ceremony that nobody should let the family know or he would miss out on dinner. When Irwin was working as a staff member in a bank it was remarked that, with his build, he could not buy cigarettes on Sunday. Purchase on Sunday was at the time against a commonly disregarded law. Irwin was however identified by shopkeepers on sight as a plain clothes policeman and refused that service.

Rob acquired a farm and stayed the rest of his life just north of Waipu.

The family, or possibly only Frances, acquired land at Taurikura close to Parua Bay, and a holiday house there. This was still in use when the family had moved to Auckland. Irwin would occasionally cast his mind back to loading the car at 664A. “We were all close to ready when it was time to go. Then Aunt Eva went along the passage to her room fourteen times to find items she had previously forgotten to pack.” (Numerical italics supplied in voice production.)

Mary Foote married Romeo Dunne, who in due course became editor of the Whangarei Daily newspaper with the name The Advocate, often mispronounced as The Aggrovate. Rosalie Foote did clerical work in an office in Auckland. She married Neal Moodie who worked for Corry Wright & Salmon, selling electrical items. At a later stage they transferred to Dunedin. Elizabeth Foote trained as a nurse and worked as a Plunket nurse, usually based on some township, and occasionally moving back into working in a ward. One of her bases had her visiting Waipu and giving Plunket advice to mothers who valued it. In one of her other bases the advice was offered to, and accepted by, the wife of Sir Edmund Hillary.

The youngest daughter was Doris Foote, who was in competition class as a singer. ** She married Harry Stevens and they had a daughter Dorothy before Doris died early, in 1945. Rosalie wanted to adopt Dorothy but this did not work out. Somewhere in one of the archives there is a photo of Doris travelling across the Tasman on the RMS Niagara.

Frances enjoyed cooking for a full table. Most of the extended family enjoyed among other items, her “quarter acre pie”

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