Story written by Jennifer Lang
The Aunts were my father’s Aunts on his father’s side. My grandfather was the third child of eight; six girls and two boys. When he was thirteen, in 1904, his father died, leaving my great grandmother with eight children aged from 18 down to 3 and the family sheep farm.
The six girls, in order, were Elsie, who at 18, was already learning to be a nurse in Whangerei (about 50 km away), Annie, 17, Lottie, 12, Myra, 11, Kathy, 9, Hilda, 7, and then there was Bill (my 13 year old grandfather) and Ian the baby, who was just 3. Of the Aunts, only one (Hilda) used the name on her birth certificate, those Scots did love a nickname!
After my grandfather left school, to farm (with his Uncle Davy, his father’s brother, who I imagine at the beginning was probably managing it), all of the younger children were eventually educated in Auckland, at Auckland Grammar. That must have been a significant impost on the family finances, Lottie, Myra and Ian won scholarships, which probably helped, which is quite impressive from a one teacher school in the middle of nowhere. Myra won a maths prize after she had been there a year.
After school, the younger ones all went on to get a profession of some kind. Kathy, Lottie and Myra all went to the teacher training collegee. Lottie and Kathy and Hilda married. Annie seems to have been designated companion to her mother (a family story says that Annie wanted to be a nurse too but by the time she could be spared from home she was told she was too old – a blow to her), and Elsie and Myra never married.
Family report says that Myra was close to engaged to a friend of Bill’s who died on the Western Front in WW1. New Zealand lost a lot of its young men in that war – despite it being on the other side of the world, 1% of the population died, mostly young men.
Once the family had been educated, they mostly left my grandfather behind on the farm and decamped to a rented house in Auckland until the big adventure (more below).
I’ve been trying to piece together the story of the Elsie and Myra, later joined by Hilda, of them in their heyday and their big adventure overseas.
In 1924, Myra and Elsie decided to go off to the United States. They were in their 30s, and had been working long enough to save up. Plus they each borrowed 120 pounds from a family friend (as their advance share of their inheritance from their father, which wasn’t able to be paid until two years later when the estate was finally settled), and decided to spend it on a big adventure.
Myra was a teacher, and Elsie was a nurse (and what was then called a masseur – now a physiotherapist), and Myra was (according to family report) following a man over there. Sadly when she got there, it turned out he was already married, so they stayed for a while, working and visiting around. We have a record from the Census of Myra living in Buffalo New York in 1930. She was living in a flat, by herself (she is described as “head of house”). Elsie wasn’t with her, but they must have been in touch.
From the connections they managed to create and recreate, while they were away, they managed to get back to Nova Scotia, to St Anns in Cape Breton, where 100 years before, many of their forebears had emigrated from Scotland. They still had relatives there, who took them in with open arms, and made them very welcome. I have tantalising hints of that visit (or visits?) from Myra’s letters to my dad. For example “Once, on my way back from Nova Scotia to Utica N.Y., I stayed at the historic Parker House,
Boston…We had fun! We were young!”
After quite a while, they decided it was time to come back, and were in Chicago, ready to catch the train back to (I assume) the west coast, and find a ship to take them back. Unfortunately Elsie was run down by a taxi, and left in the street with a broken leg. Myra was so busy looking after her, trying to flag down help, that she was unable to stop someone stealing Elsie’s handbag, which soured both of them on Americans.
Elsie was quite badly hurt, badly enough that Hilda (who had married, and then divorced, after losing a baby and nearly dying from complications of the pregnancy, back in New Zealand) decided to come over the New Zealand and help out. Given the only way of coming was shipping, it would have taken at best a month to get from Auckland to Chicago (probably via Fiji, Samoa and San Francisco), which hopefully meant that by the time they got there, Elsie was better and they could have fun again.
They were still on their way home, so after the three of them together and Elsie was well enough, they resumed travelling, going home the long way around, via Scotland. Myra and Elsie, at least, arrived in Southampton from Quebec in 1932. They then went up to Scotland and visited some more distant relatives and the places where their ancestors had come from 100 years before.
I suspect that this was how, 40 years later, there was a relative in Scotland for my parents to visit (in Plockton, near the ferry to Skye).
From talking to people who knew them, Aunty Myra was the family historian. She was on the 1953 Centennial committee and in about 1951 started the work of writing to all the descendants asking for their family trees and then collating them into the six ships. This was ready for the ’53 celebrations and the original papers are held in the archive room at the museum. Her niece remembers “all of those papers, permanently spread out on the table at the southern end of the veranda, all hand written on foolscap in those days and all the letters from people. We were allowed to look but not touch or move anything. Of course Aunty Myra never so much as boiled an egg if she didn’t have to but I used to go and stay with her in Auckland when she would apartment sit for various friends and she could cope with cooking so as not to starve”.
Whereas every cousin I’ve talked to remembers Hilda’s cooking – mostly the delicious cakes for visitors. Which is probably lucky given they all lived together in later life and Myra certainly wouldn’t cook much!
Elsie loved purple – for clothing and her table napkin. She had beautiful white hair. And compared with her (somewhat disapproving) sisters she was very left wing. And she was also fascinating by the family history, showing relatives around the local museum and completely ignoring all the ‘do not touch’ signs at the House of Memories as she picked up exhibits and told the stories about which relative or family friend had owned them.
When I first met the Aunts 50 years later, they lived in what was affectionately known (by us at least) as The Auntheap, not quite the original family house in Langs beach, pictured here around 1925.
For me and all of my cousins who visited they were a fixture. I only remember meeting the adventurers – Elsie (who died in 1976), Myra (1982) and Hilda (1985). They were in their 80s by then, and I don’t remember much of them, since I spent my days at the beach if I had the choice, rather than visiting elderly relatives. There were always cakes and cats when we visited.
In many ways their lives were ordinary ones of the times. The women, particularly the unmarried women, often don’t get remembered properly. So I’ve written as much of their story as I know, in the hope that my cousins will remember more. And to remember them when as Myra said,
“We had fun! We were young!”