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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 7, Issue 3, 2011

A Chilling Tale Of Two Cities: Starring Herbert P. Rawson “To be or not to be ...”

page 24
The chilling instructions given to Herbert’s two older brothers, of what to do if they should be captured by “hostile natives” during the Taranki wars, as recorded by Herbert’s daughter Elsie in 1931.

The chilling instructions given to Herbert’s two older brothers, of what to do if they should be captured by “hostile natives” during the Taranki wars, as recorded by Herbert’s daughter Elsie in 1931.

page 25

A Chilling Tale Of Two Cities
Starring Herbert P. Rawson
“To be or not to be ...”

[Yes, for those that know me I am temporarily writing under my first and generally unused name – in honour of my distinguished grandfather and also as a move now encouraged by the many machine-generated advertising phone calls and official missives received in this digital age. I shall put my customary and middle name (Dick) to the side for the time being.]
“The first Taranaki War had started, and my grandfather was six, when the Provincial Government ordered all women and children to leave the province.” You will later see that I am indeed lucky to have existed at all and thus to have been able to make this contribution to the Nelson Historical Society’s fine journal in its new illustrated format. I hope by this means to discover whether there are other surviving Nelson descendants with similar stories to tell of the turbulent 1860s, a decade with such a dramatic war and refugee theme.

I have access to a painting by Henry, my grandfather’s brother, on the back of which Herbert’s daughter (my aunt Elsie) recorded a chilling story after my grandfather’s death in 1926. At an overnight stop in the 1860 two-day forced march of the Rawson family from their sacked Taranaki home, certain spine-tingling instructions were issued by my great grandfather. The two oldest boys were to shoot “Louisa and the two little ones” (my grandfather Herbert and his young brother Ernest) “in the event of falling into the hands of hostile natives”. This aunt continued: “... they were lucky as only friendly Maoris were encountered...”.

page 26
Pallisaded New Plymouth in 1860. Herbert’s brothers - Charles, Henry and Fred Rawson, with the artist John Gully, as Taranaki Volunteers helped the colonial troops defend the town. Edwin Harris painting - untitled (New Plymouth from Marshland Hill), 3 August 1860. A65.883. Collection of Puke Ariki New Plymouth.

Pallisaded New Plymouth in 1860. Herbert’s brothers - Charles, Henry and Fred Rawson, with the artist John Gully, as Taranaki Volunteers helped the colonial troops defend the town. Edwin Harris painting - untitled (New Plymouth from Marshland Hill), 3 August 1860. A65.883. Collection of Puke Ariki New Plymouth.

I have heaved many sighs of relief since reading that! Alarmingly, one of the firing squad would have been Henry, destined to become a celebrated painter etc. and citizen of Nelson, and the subject of my presentation to this Society in 2008.

The first Taranaki War had started, and my grandfather was six, when the Provincial Government ordered all women and children to leave the province. Maori warriors were about to attack New Plymouth and all men were called to arms to defend the town. Herbert’s three older brothers answered the call, with one, Fred, being the first to be severely wounded. All three and their Provincial Surgeon father were later awarded the NZ Medal.

Louisa, in 1892, recalled the chaos before the evacuation to Nelson: “... on March 28th, about midday, the signal cannon was fired; we were just sitting down to an early dinner. It was as though an electric shock had passed through us; each face was deathly-looking. Simultaneously we rose. I hurried the little ones into town. “Fly. Children, fly; don’t wait for me!” putting tiny bundles of clothes into their arms. We all, the W—’s and I, followed so soon as we could collect a few things together, hurried in all our arrangements by a messenger on horseback from the page 27 garrison. “For God’s sake, fly! The Maories are coming upon us; five murders have been committed not far from you...”.

Herbert (6), together with Ernest (5), and with sister Louisa (14) in charge, were hastily evacuated on 31 March on SS Airedale to Nelson, where they remained for over a year. Louisa was not only sister but was, of necessity, also acting the role of mother. Their own mother had died the previous year “of twins” (stillborn) at her eleventh and terminal confinement.

The Taranaki Provincial Secretary had written that free passages would be provided on the Airedale and Wonga Wonga to persons “of all conditions” with the inducement of cabin berths for those who would be supported on arrival. The “poorer members of the community” were given steerage berths. He found “... great difficulty in inducing women to leave their husbands and sons in a time of trial and the first movement was made by the educated classes...”. The voyage, which must have been chaotic, included as passengers a Mr and Mrs Sharland with eleven children.

Nelson editorials show that the refugees were warmly welcomed in Nelson. The Nelson Examiner recorded the arrival of over 1,000 women and children and the Nelson Provincial Government provided rations and free accommodation. This was either in homes, the Oddfellows Hall, or in six hastily constructed buildings opposite the hospital in Waimea Road, known as the Taranaki Buildings. Others stayed privately. We read in the Examiner: “... a committee of ladies is actively exerting itself to lessen the unavoidable privations which could not fail to attend such a hurried migration. Schools for the children, both male and female, have also been set on foot...”.

Dr Sealy, with Messrs Rough, Lethwaite and Gray, was appointed to a subcommittee of the hastily formed Taranaki Aid Committee to board each shipload, and he initially took the three Rawson children under his family’s care.

Dr W B Sealy, sometimes spelt Sealey, was a medical practitioner in Hardy Street, and my further researches reveal that he had wisely left his Taranaki property for Nelson in 1859. His home and farm were near that of the Rawson family and, with some 175 others, was destined to be set on fire when overrun by the “rebels”. His advertisement in the Taranaki Herald of 25 December 1858 reminds us that transactions using the toss of a coin were as popular in Victorian times as now. It read: “Dr Sealy being about to leave the settlement is desirous of disposing of the well known bull “Samson” and cow imported direct from England by lottery”.

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Herbert’s parents - Thomas (above) and Mary (below). Mary died in 1859 of “twins” in her 11th pregnancy.

Herbert’s parents - Thomas (above) and Mary (below). Mary died in 1859 of “twins” in her 11th pregnancy.

On 4 April 1861 my great-grandfather Thomas, Herbert’s father, wrote from New Plymouth to his sister, Elizabeth, in London: “... poor Louisa and the children have now been away from us upwards of twelve months and they are sick of the long separation...”.

He also wrote: “... I am just about sending Alfred, Arthur and Tom to boarding school in Nelson and hoped to be able to exchange them for Louisa and the two little ones but General Pratt would hear of no exchange...”. Thomas also remarked that he understood that the new general, Cameron, was “disposed to relax these orders”. This indeed came to pass, as the “exchange” took place shortly afterwards, when Louisa, Herbert and Ernest returned to New Plymouth on the same ship that had transported them south 14 months earlier.

Herbert’s parents - Thomas (above) and Mary (below). Mary died in 1859 of “twins” in her 11th pregnancy.

Herbert’s parents - Thomas (above) and Mary (below). Mary died in 1859 of “twins” in her 11th pregnancy.

Their brothers, Alfred, Arthur and Tom were soon to enter Nelson College as the first ever boarders. They were referred to in the minutes of 21 November, when the Board of Governors also agreed to remit 10 pounds for each boarder from Taranaki.

After the three Rawson children’s return to New Plymouth, the family was represented in Nelson not only by the three Nelson College boarders, but also Henry, the reluctant possible comurderer of his three youngest siblings and indirectly of the writer of this article. He found better things to do, as I related to the friends of the Turnbull Library and others in 2008.

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Herbert’s two older brothers - Charles (above) and Henry (below) in later life, having avoided fraticide labels.

Herbert’s two older brothers - Charles (above) and Henry (below) in later life, having avoided fraticide labels.

Louisa returned to London, married a British diplomat and, as Louisa Rawson- Walker, sailed with him to his consular post at Manila. While there, in 1898, as an intermediary and possibly with Louisa at his side, he had the satisfaction of transmitting the Spanish surrender note to the Americans, with the result that the embryonic American-Spanish war terminated.

Ernest graduated in medicine, returned to New Zealand from England to a practice in New Plymouth and, after his father’s death, moved to Wellington about 1879. He became the “doctors’ doctor”, so we were told.

Herbert’s two older brothers - Charles (above) and Henry (below) in later life, having avoided fraticide labels.

Herbert’s two older brothers - Charles (above) and Henry (below) in later life, having avoided fraticide labels.

Herbert prospered as one of only two Wellington dentists, having taken over his mentor, Henry’s, practice in 1879. He was instrumental in getting a dental education vote through parliament, when not attending to Premier “Dick” Seddon’s teeth. My father would say: “after all Seddon did, not Seddon done (said and done)”. Herbert’s still-standing Woodward Street / Wellington Terrace heritage home is shown on page 30.

While researching this article, I have speculated how the education of my grandfather and his two siblings and their future successes in life could have followed 14 months of terrifying nearabandonment. Their names are not in the Bishop’s School roll and I wondered where else they might have been educated. The matter became blindingly clear, when I received a phone call from Anna Wilkinson, former archivist and page 30
Herbert P. Rawson.

Herbert P. Rawson.

librarian at the Nelson Provincial Museum. She had found the following entry while scanning the Greenwood papers:

“... we are to take three of the “Taranaki refugees”, a Miss Rawson and her two little brothers, to relieve the overfull household of their present hosts Dr and Mrs Sealey”.

I have assumed that the Greenwood family would have provided home schooling of quality. John Danford Greenwood and his well educated wife and painter, Sarah, were some of the earliest European settlers, with John, an editor and teacher, becoming the first principal of Nelson College in 1863. He seems to have been an excellent and un- Victorian and un-Dickensian character for such an important appointment. An admirer wrote of him in 1851:

“... he promises to be a good musician, good navigator, good seaman, good linguist, good scholar indeed in most solid branches of education, and is the cleverest, most cheerful and co-operative young fellow... he is the most amusing companion and accompanies me to the native village... where if I don’t keep constantly reminding him to keep his “school face”, he plays with the children, torments the cats by nursing them and damages my character for gravity...”. (Greenwood papers)

Herbert’s Woodward Street house and surgery, as it is today.

Herbert’s Woodward Street house and surgery, as it is today.

There is also a possibility that the three children may have attended the special page 31 school for Taranaki refugees set up by an ex-Taranaki school teacher, R. M. Sunley. His name is worth mentioning for two reasons:

Portrait of Dr John Greenwood in 1852 by his wife Sarah. The couple helped educate the Rawson children. Alexander Turnbull Library, A-252-021.

Portrait of Dr John Greenwood in 1852 by his wife Sarah. The couple helped educate the Rawson children. Alexander Turnbull Library, A-252-021.

Firstly, for a comprehensive pupil assessment report for the Taranaki Herald which included this gem, not so different from to-day: “... the more forward children appear pleased to acquire instruction, but the majority evince the natural dislike of young children to the irksomeness of learning, and the restraint necessarily imposed by school discipline... “.

And, secondly, for a local news item on 3 September 1864:

“Birth Extraordinary. — Our readers will find amongst those interesting little announcements which are the vehicles of so much happiness as well as grief, and which our sporting contemporary, Bell’s Life in Sydney, has irreverently paraphrased as “Hatched, Matched, and Despatched,” a notification which is probably without parallel in this colony:

“On the 2nd September, at Richmond, the wife of Mr. R. M. Sunley, of a triplet, two boys and a girl.” Such a wholesale contribution to our population should, we think, be made the occasion of a special congratulation, and we would suggest that Mr. Sunley should make application for the largesse invariably granted by Her Majesty in such cases.”

page 32

Sources and acknowledgements

Personal letters, and documents, Nelson Provincial Museum staff (thanks to Dawn Smith, Anna Wilkinson and Helen Pannett); assorted email photographic attachments from Wellington Maritime and Waiouru Military Museums. Downloaded images include New Plymouth and John Greenwood. Emails from England (inscribed back of painting); plus many newspapers, mostly via www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz including the following:

Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, 3 September 1864, p. 2 (birth of triplets).

Nelson Mail, 26 July 2001, p. 14 (Greenwood family).

Taranaki Herald, 18 January 1893, p. 2 (attack on New Plymouth, quoting London Society – Louisa’s account).

Greenwood Papers, Nelson Provincial Museum.

Letter from Superintendent’s Office, New Plymouth, “deportation of families to other parts of the Colony”, 12 May 1860. National Archives, 5200–1A1 – 1860/929.

Nelson College. Minutes. Special meeting of Governors, 21 November 1861 (Rawson boarders).

Smith, Dawn. Taranaki refugees. Nelson Historical Society Journal. Vol. 6, no. 5, 2002.

New Zealand Dental Journal. Jubilee issue, 1980 (featuring Herbert Rawson as 1905 Foundation President).

Colonisation, War & Peace. DVD presentation by author to Nelson Historical Society, 2008, on Henry Freer Rawson.

Early Surgery in Nelson. Talk by author to Nelson Historical Society, 1995