The Manutuke Women’s National Reserve – “Lest We Forget”

I wanted to investigate as much as I could to see if there was a possible reason why the Manutuke Memorial Hall Association decided to invite Molly Shannon to conduct the ANZAC service at Manutuke in 1926. At this time she had been appointed the acting Presbyterian Minister for the Matawhero Presbyterian Church, replacing her father, James Shannon who had died in early January 1926. Her appointment was very unusual; women rarely held leadership roles in the Presbyterian Church at this time. It was considered a ‘no no’ for women to lead any form of religious worship service. From what I have discovered Molly Shannon appears to be the first woman to have conducted an ANZAC service up to 1926.  

This research led me to the Manutuke Women’s National Reserve. So I thought I would share with you the bits and pieces I discovered, mainly from local newspapers, in recognition of their patriotic work during WW1 for this Anzac Memorial Day during a pandemic lockdown.

Manutuke district took pride in its patriotic support during the Great War, which was reflected through the efforts of an exceptional group of women, the Manutuke Women’s National Reserve and their volunteers. Formed in December 1915 under the leadership of Edith Preston, the Reserve women were untiring in their efforts, dedicating hours and hours of time “for the welfare of the boys”.[1] They never let up lovingly knitting scarves, vests, socks, writing letters, making gift cards, baking fruit loaves and other necessary items for the soldiers’ “comfort parcels” of support. Besides these practical efforts however, the National Reserve also focussed on the general welfare and well-being of women and girls, especially the wives and mothers of soldiers afflicted by the Great War. Through these means they too could “loyally serve their country in all emergencies where patriotic services can be rendered…”. The women began classes for ambulance and nursing work, sewing classes and working bees. They assisted in recruiting and settling returned soldiers, organised entertainment to raise patriotic funds and offered their services in assisting the Red Cross and support for the Māori Pioneer Battalion. They assisted in organising a reserve list of “woman-power” ensuring training for women who filled the occupations once held by soldiers. An important feature was to organise social gatherings to bring women together, such as the garden party held at the “Acton” residence of Mrs White in 1917. Over 400 women reportedly gathered intermingling, conversing, proudly sharing the photographs of their absent sons, wandering through “the beautiful gardens” and being entertained with musical items and participating in a magnificent spread of food.[2]

Photo representing the activities of Women’s Patriotic Societies – Otago Women’s Patriotic Society.

As the war came to an end their workload did not ease. In fact 1919 had been an “extremely strenuous” year. Imaginative fund raising efforts went from one to another with little breathing space between them, a Bazaar, Street Appeal, Sports programme, socials to raise fund for the Salvation Army Crippled Soldiers Hospital, the YMCA Red Triangle Fund and the Red Jersey Fund Appeal to assist in closing the debt of the Salvation Army’s overseas war-time work and many other projects.

These patriotic fund raising activities came to an end under the “War Fund Act” of December 1919 but support for soldiers and their families continued for the long term.[3] The 1919 Flu Epidemic added pressure on their work with a call for support, as homes were offered and nursing and medical supplies sought. Farewell socials for soldiers began to be replaced by welcome home socials and a large effort of support went into the very large welcome home Hui for the return of hundreds of men from the Māori Battalion who disembarked at Gisborne. [4]

Any patriotic funds no long required by Government were set-aside for a Roll of Honour Board for Manutuke Soldiers. In 1920 with sufficient funds a Roll of Honour of polished rimu was dedicated and unveiled and hung in the Te Airai School (Manutuke).[5] It was roughly two metres square with a scroll design that recorded sixty names of past students and on “an artistic pillars on each side” was recorded the names of ten soldiers “who paid the supreme sacrifice”. Those present at the unveiling honoured the young men that “saved the prestige of the country in times of dire peril” but also expressed their deep gratitude to the women for their ‘splendid’ and dedicated sacrificial commitment to the war effort.[6] The women’s ‘strenuous activity’ was a means for mothers in particular, but also wives, grandmothers and sisters, to present a stoic front at a time when they were weeping inside. “Every day had its anxieties and every tomorrow had its fears”. With united strength these women joined hands and walked side by side achieving great things on behalf of their absent boys.

However, as the focus of the public ANZAC commemorations slowly shifted from the ‘sacrifice of home and hearth’ to the sacrifice of the soldiers in battle alone, the distinctive sacrificial role of mothers moved to the margins of ANZAC remembrance. The Women’s National Reserve’s efforts to maintain women’s place continued to depend on their maternal and domesticated role. The National Committee in 1919, recommended that  Branches care for the soldiers’ graves and “make them beautiful places”.[7] The joint Gisborne Women’s National Reserve took up this challenge assisted by the Returned Soldiers’ Association. On the first Poppy Day in 1922, the Women’s Reserve were given permission for a one day sale of Poppies after ANZAC with the proceeds going towards the upkeep of the graves and kerbing of the plot.[8]

What became a regular feature in Gisborne from 1919 was the Service at the Taruheru Cemetery Soldiers Plot arranged by the Women’s National Reserve.[9] A local minister was called to give a brief address, a hymn was sung and a prayer offered with a suitable closing musical item. The mothers, wives, grandmothers and sisters created Laurel wreaths, a symbol of triumph, and other floral tributes, laid them on each gravestone as a united “Tribute of Remembrance” for the ‘sons of the district’.

They died together, like brothers, in a desperate hail of lead.
We are the war torn mothers; think; our blood too was shed![10]

In 1926, acknowledgement of the dedication and sacrifice of the “mothers of fallen soldiers” found no mention in the “brief but impressive” address given by Rev Davies, as reported.[11] Whether by reminder of the purpose for the special Remembrance Service, the following year Rev Davies offered a more direct message:

Mothers and widows, your loved ones are near. Christ felt the injustice of your bereavement just as He did when dying of the Cross, when before thoughts of physical suffering He murmured:  ‘\Son, behold thy mother; Mother behold they Son.’When Christ died He killed death, for Christ knew to died was to pass to a world to be with him. Therefore, though this was a day of remembrance, it is also a day of pride, of inspiration and a day of joy. [12]

In a previous blog I wrote about the 1926 ANZAC Service Molly Shannon conducted to a packed audience of 400 people. 


[1] Poverty Bay Herald, 18 December 1915. The women appointed to the Committee included: Vice-President, Mrs W. Batty,Secretary and Treasurer, Mr. R. Hepburn, members Mesdames C. Gibson, R. Preston, McDowell and Figg, Misses Peryer, Gibson and Preston. Also a number of Honorary members were appointed.

[2] “Mothers of Men: Yesterday’s Garden Party”, Poverty Bay Herald, 27 April, 1917.

[3] The combined group of the Gisborne Women’s National Reserve continued their support of the wives, daughters, sisters and the returned soldiers for many years. The care of injured and psychologically ill sons and husbands fell on the shoulders of many women. Calls for clothing, food, financial and medical support, and school materials for children resulted in an Advice Centre being established. The Women’s Reserve added their voice to other organisations that sought financial assistance for families from the Government and a small means-tested Family Allowance was introduced in 1926.

[4] “Women’s National Reserve – Manutuke Branch”, Poverty Bay Herald, 28 April 1919.

[5] The Honours Board was removed to the Manutuke Memorial Hall in 1925,.

[6] “The Te Arai Honors Board: The Unveiling”, Poverty Bay Herald 17 December 1920. The Honors Board was later transferred to the Manutuke Memorial Hall in 1925. A second roll of honour was added after World War 2.

[7] “Women’s National Reserve”, Gisborne Times, 26 March 1919.

[8] Gisborne Times, 22 April 1922

[9] “A Graceful Tribute”, Poverty Bay Herald, 25 April, 1919

[10] The ANZAC Mothers by Jim Morris. Otago Daily Times, 23 April 2015. Sighted April 2020.

[11] “Service at Soldiers’ Plot”, Poverty Bay Herald, 24 April 1926.

[12] Reported in the “Women’s World Column, Gisborne Times, 26 April, 1927.



“A Very Hot Time of it” : Settler Bush Fires around Nuhaka – Morere, 1903

Bushfires are at the forefront of our minds at present as we watch with horror the devastation they are causing thousands of our Australian neighbours. We have been made aware of them across the Tasman as our skies in Dunedin and other New Zealand locations turned an eerie yellow and orange and by mid-day evening light caused us to wonder if some strange phenomenon was about to engulf us.

east coast fire clearance

Clearance Bush Fire from Digital NZ Ministry for Culture and Heritage

New Zealand has been a land where out-of-control fires increased rapidly from the time of Pakeha settlement. Burning bush, scrub and grasses was the main tool used to clear the land as settlers turned their newly acquired asset into a means of production. The latter half of the 19th century saw an onslaught by fire of New Zealand’s luxuriant and dense forests. It is suggested in the last decade of the nineteenth century alone, 27% of New Zealand’s bush had been removed through milling and controlled and uncontrolled fire. As I researched Molly Whitelaw’s new home at Morere Springs to gain a sense of the community they settled among, out-of-control fires along with flood damage, not that any connection was made, dominated news reporting of the region.

The early settlers arrived in the Morere district in the last decade of the 19th century. The lower areas and gullies were heavily bushed with totora and beech, thinning to mānuka (teatree), ferns, toitoi and grasses higher up the steep and jagged hills. Clearing the land was the major task of early settlers. Their clearance fires denuded the forests of Nuhaka and Morere area to clothe the land in wool as sheep farming began to dominate. It left charred stumps, branches and gaunt dead trees with pasture scattered throughout. In early January 1903 the landscape altered once more. A ”fierce” fire set alight hectares of land as the wind whipped up, reportedly spreading “25 miles” (6500 hectares) from Coops to Walkers; locations known only to the locals. The fire pushed its way towards Gisborne and out towards Mahia.

New Doc 2020-01-10 10.58.30_1

Mail-coach riding through fire from New Zealand’s Burning by Rollo Arnold

It excited the nation and placed this largely unknown northern Hawkes Bay region onto the horizon of many readers. Reported in numerous newspapers throughout the country the initial stories conveyed a sense of a “primeval adventure”. The mail-coach driven by Mr. McKinley left Wairoa and had a rough time. The coach pushed through with all haste the fire being on both sides of the road. The heat was stifling and the smoke suffocating so that it was impossible to see ahead. Big trees were falling terrifying the horses, and it was only the careful driving that they were persuaded to keep on the track…It was lucky the driver rode on [through Morere to Gisborne] as the fires sprang up behind him.[1]  Reports suggest other travellers’ gigs required to be lifted over smoking branches and trees on the road. James Cooper, owner of the Hot Springs Hotel, accompanied by a party of ladies had a most thrilling experience. They had to drive through the fire and smoke for fourteen miles, and at times had to make the horses gallop. They were stopped at times by large burning trees falling across the road. [2] One reporter rather cavalierly noted, at night the sight of the burning trees is most beautiful to watch for those not interested in the land. A further report tells of a settler at Tarewa digging a hole for his wife and children to shelter while the fire raged around them. The fire left the area blackened and smoking. The settlers had a very hot time of it as they fought to save their homes. Some lost their orchards, others their animals; Mr Stewart lost 200 sheep and Mr Mayder lost his home and wool shed.[3] One of the Coop brothers had a trying experience being cut off in the bush by fires and smoke for four days.[4]

The reported experiences of J Thomson of Motu and Humphrey Bayly of Paritu, Mahia, describes what many found themselves coping with when fire confronts them. Bayly and two work mates carted water and beat flames for two days and throughout the night to safeguard his home. This reminds us of the primitive means to retain fire, still used today when water is hard to come by. Continual beating was a dangerous and generally fruitless effort. However, between the three men they succeeded in saving the home although much of the furniture they removed outside was damaged. Bayly notes they were thoroughly exhausted and were almost suffocated by the dense smoke. His eyes being so severely affected he had difficulty being able to see the road and the glare made his eyes very painful.[5] Unable to survey his property and fearing the worst he was able to confirm several days later that the property was not as damaged as he anticipated and his loss of 80 sheep was minimal.[6]

Thomson on the other hand lost his home after three days battling against the odds. It appears he had lit a fire to clear the bush felled on his property. The gale springing up set the fire towards his dwelling, and a pile of newly sawn timber in readiness for the erection of his new house. He battled hard to save the timber and whilst engaged in doing so the fire swept around the back of him and the two-roomed house, which was destroyed and all its contents. His dogs were tied up near the house and were also destroyed.[7] Names of other affected landholders listed were the Coop Bros, C. Chapman, A. Richardson, P. Walsh, A Joblin, and A Proudlock,

It was later reported that the main losses in the region were fencing and pasture. Nearly all of the settlers will have to sow their old clearings over again, as wherever a log or stump lay the grass has been burnt away for a few yards.  The iconic baths at the Hot Springs in Morere were not as damaged as first reported, much to the relief of the residents. The fire went as far as the back of the Hot Springs Hotel and caught an acre of undergrowth in the Nikau Grove. In April 1903, three months after the fire, a tourist described the surrounding bush as being preserved so the district is very attractive, and the curative and healthful properties of the Springs beyond dispute.[8]    The Morere Springs reserve became an example of native bush preservation and the regional Gisborne Chamber of Commerce encouraged Government to establish a similar reserve to protect the virgin bush around Lake Waikaremoana.   Burn-offs continued. A year on, the Poverty Bay Herald reported that good burns were obtained. Farmers are busy sowing the burnt ground for winter-feed. Should the season continue moist crops of turnips will be obtained for the hoggets in the winter.[9]

[1] Bush Advocate 10 January 1903. The ladies were his wife, Mrs Steele, the Misses Ross and Hallet.

[2] Evening Star, 9 January 1903. Poverty Bay Herald, 9 January 1903. The Wairoa reporter described the night fire as “a wonderful and awesome sight.”

[3] various newspaper reports

[4] Patea Mail, 14 January 1903

[5] Poverty Bay Herald, 12 January 1903.

[6] Gisborne Herald, quoted in the Hawera & Normanby Star, 17 January 1903.

[7] Poverty Bay Herald, 13 January 1903

[8] New Zealand Herald, 11 April 1903.

[9] Poverty Nay Herald, 16 January 1904

“There must be a story behind all that…”

Its been some time since I  wrote on this blog. I have been very engrossed in writing this biography, which is slowly, but slowly progressing. Having reached a point where a break is a good idea I thought I’d try to play detective and look at what is undoubtedly a family myth… or is it?

old edinburgh

I have visited Edinburgh four times now and each time it captures my imagination even more with its rich history and its myths and grit. Wandering around ‘old town’ Edinburgh, through its narrow and often dark wynds, into its underground vaults, exploring the Greyfrairs and Canongate cemeteries at night, and listening to the tales of witchcraft, violence, hauntings and Covenanters’ hangings in St. Giles yard, it takes little effort to step into Edinburgh’s fictional Detective Rebus’s shoes. The Scottish writer Ian Rankin, labelled as the ‘King of Tartan Noir’, describes in his Rebus novels the mysteries of the city’s underbelly and the fears and superstitions of lurking evils around every corner that questions the human psyche. Behind every facade, under every cobblestone, and every suggestive brass-plated sign signalling a significant personage, forces me to wonder what events may be inextricably hidden from sight. “There must be a story behind all that…” the line from the NZ band Muttonbird’s song The Falls as Ian Rankin referenced it in his Rebus story of the same title.


Calton Jail in foreground

During my last visit I attempted to separate from my tourist-self to take a leap back to pre-and-early Victorian Edinburgh. Thanks to several old Edinburgh maps I followed the 2 km route Molly Whitelaw’s great-grandmother Agnes Duncan Renton may have taken, not always by horse-drawn cab either, from Buccleuch Place, to that notorious Calton (Bridewell) Jail. It housed hundreds of women in dingy filthy cells very often with their small children. I tried to visualise the images, smells and dangers she confronted as she carried her basket of food and her Bible to perform her God-given calls of mercy.  From the early 1820s for the next 30 years Agnes Duncan set out to improve women’s lives and prison conditions all-be-it focussed on self respect and dignity through religious teaching and conversion. It made greater sense to me as I walked around Old Edinburgh in her footsteps as to why they called her the “Elizabeth Fry of Edinburgh”. 

Now a year on from my Edinburgh journey  I was reminded of my attempts at visualisation when an unexpected reference to great-grandmother Agnes Duncan Renton popped-up once more in my research. Ironically in an address on the importance of a Christ-centred family given by Molly Whitelaw in 1960 at a women’s inter-church training school in Auckland. The theme did not surprise me considering both Molly’s and Agnes Duncan Renton’s deep religious faith. But what took me by complete surprise was a reference I had not come across before. Was the partial story she recalls, factual or was it one of those family myths passed down that we like to expatiate to titillate interest? Did Molly’s reference to Agnes Duncan Renton being caught  in a scene where she could have likely died a gruesome death at the hands of the notorious serial killers William Burke and William Hare really happen – was it even possible?

Anything of course, is possible. Agnes Duncan did move around the undesirable locations Edinburgh generally unaccompanied, according to the writer of her Memorial, visiting the poor as she carried out her philanthropic duties. No reference to this incident is alluded to in the Memorial although the author hints unease at his mother unaccompanied wanderings.

Being somewhat of a ‘whodunit’ fan, Molly’s reference intrigues me. Stories of these two unscrupulous scoundrels and their female partners have come down to us in various genre from nursery rhymes, jigsaw puzzles, museum artefacts, radio and TV series, movies, academic and fictional writing, and of course the famous exhibits in the Anatomy Museum where the skeleton of William Burke is on show. If you want to be reminded daily of these heinous crimes drinking mugs with Burke’s skeleton are available!

buke-hareOver a period of ten months during 1828, William Burke and William Hare murdered 16 people and sold the cadavers (corpses) to Dr. Robert Knox of Surgeons’ Square, the popular and enterprising lecturer on anatomy, for the handsome sum of £7 to £10 each. Generally, they looked out for the homeless poor or visitors passing though Edinburgh who stayed or were enticed to stay at the Hare’s Tanner Close boarding house in West Port. They then plied their victims with copious quantities of whiskey, and when asleep suffocated their victims and at night transporting them to Surgeons’ Square.

As time went on they appear to become more cavalier in luring their victims. Where initially they were cautious in whom they focussed on they made the mistake of choosing people familiar to locals. The cadaver of Daft Jamie, a disabled lad visible to many as he wandered the streets of Edinburgh, was supposedly recognised by a student about to dissect his body; some reports suggest he contacted the police. Shortly after this supposed report Hare’s neighbours became suspicious of the goings-on in the Tanner boarding facility concerning the disappearance of a friend Margaret Docherty. It was they who finally took their suspicions to the police resulting in Burt and Hare and their partners’ arrest. The arrest and trial with its grim details dominated the media for months if not years. Hare willingly turned against against Burke and was eventually released along with the two female partners-in-crime. Burke however, was sent to the gallows and reportedly watched by a huge crowd of 25000 was hung on 28 January 1829.

Burke and Hare is one of the ‘chilling’ tales regaled by the creative story-telling guides of the night walking tours around the city with the purpose of making your spine crawl. Mine  definitely crawls as I ponder on the possibility of Agnes Duncan Renton being confronted by Burke and Hare in carrying out their despicable moneymaking scheme.

Could she have been ‘caught up’ in their plot as Molly suggested, unlikely? She was visible in her regular travels around the city. She was well known around Old Edinburgh for her philanthropy and care of women and children. She was of a well-to-do merchant family therefore a possible target for robbery but not tempting enough to become a cadaver. A strong temperance advocate she would not readily be enticed to drink whiskey. She was we are told, of ‘determined mind and quick wit’ and therefore unlikely to fall into a situation without questioning it. It seems doubtful Burke and Hare would have attempted to trap her she did not fall into their ‘normal’ scheming.

Did either of the women cohorts consider tempting Agnes Duncan Renton into the house with some devious scheme seeking assistance? Quite possibly Agnes Duncan had visited women living in the vicinity of the boarding house during her many years supporting the poor. But unlikely but then…. we will never know. Something spurred the tale no doubt, maybe she visited or came across someone closely connected with the murders and told her their personal experience of these characters.

I hazard a guess that Molly’s reference of a tale told her in childhood may well have been romanticised through the years. True or not, the tale no doubt captured the attention of Molly’s listeners’ from the outset of her talk and reinforced the strength of Christian character Agnes Duncan Renton was reputedly recognised for and passed on to her large Christ-centre family.


Plenty of references on the web but I have mainly gained my information from  Lisa Rosner fascinating study,  The Anatomy Murders: Being the True and Spectacular History of Edinburgh’s Burke and Hare…, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010.







Travelling in the Footsteps of Molly Shannon (part 1)


Hawick, Scottish Borders

My hopes of writing a blog post while in Edinburgh did not come to fruition so now I’ll recapture some of my observations of Molly Whitelaw’s Scotland. I found my journey of discovery required some revisualisation to find where her footprints were placed as she grew to adulthood over 100 years ago.  Born at Hawick (pronounced hoyk) in the Scottish Borders in 1895, Molly and family, in December 1905, moved to Gilmore Place United Free Church parish in Edinburgh.  Her years there were interrupted by WW1; they left for New Zealand in November 1920.


Turn off onto the A7.  I was taken with the wind power generation of which there are an abundance in the UK.

I was glad we, I was travelling with my brother Don, began our journey through the Scottish Borders from the west at Carlisle, once, long ago, part of Scotland. Route A7 is marked as an historic route to Edinburgh and is definitely a captivating journey through quiet, wide valleys, open farmland, the occasional town, and small village with a church that convey a sense of being unpeopled. I felt a little like an intruder as I walked past the few homes standing flush with the narrow public footpaths.


Skippers Bridge south of Langholm over the River Esk.  Nearby on the rivers edge is the Old Whisky Distillery.  The bridge was built in 1700 and widened in 1807.

There was very little traffic compared to the English back roads. Allocated areas for parking were more frequent, some catering for ramblers, which gave us a chance to stop and admire the surrounding picturesque views. The countryside is quite beautiful. Tweed Water or the River Tweed, runs from west to east with its many tributaries and the winding road crosses them numerous times giving wonderful photographic opportunities.The subdued autumnal hues of colour and light, not as harsh as New Zealand’s light, soften the grey stone buildings; the colours were awe-inspiring. Heather


Rolling countryside near the Ewe Parish Church

now turning black after its purple summer, various shades of brown as bracken loses its greenery, cinnamon coloured thyme interspersed with shades of green and golden grasses gave the rolling hillsides a magical aura; sites where legends and ballads were made.The Scottish Border countryside with its sense of newness was also strangely familiar with its rolling hills, farmland, and meandering streams and rivers. I wondered whether Molly and her family sensed a little bit of home when they first travelled up the East coast of the North Island to Hawkes Bay in 1921


En route on Route A7

Like small leggo bricks creating pencil lines over the hillsides, the dry-stone walls conveyed a pattern of clearly defined ‘ownership’ from days past. I wondered if such quantities of rock resulted from long-ago glacial movements and marvelled at the required skills to build walls that can remain standing for centuries, enduring diverse climates and even the battles of long ago.

I learned that the Borders also had their clearances of mass numbers of people for want of commercialised farming, many emigrating to Ulster and North America. In fact, no cotters remained, unlike the Highlands with its few remaining crofters. Consequently, many villages on the borders totally disappeared and only a few stone cottages and castle ruins remain to tell the grim tale of Border warfare.


Hollows-Tower-near-Langholm-Scottish-Borders, built for defence against the Border Raiders

Somewhere in the far recesses of my mind Walter Scott’s border stories read over half a century ago came to mind as we drove along the now developed roads. The stories of the Border raiders (Reivers) romanticised and glorified by Scott, seemed out of place as we traversed the area. It was hard to visualise on this now peaceful drive, the feuding and violence of the raiders and battles and the devastation caused by 300 years of wars over kingship and kinship between the Scots lowland clans and England and Scotland, described as a ‘throbbing war zone.’ 

We came upon Hawick, the main purpose of my travels through the Border country, mid-afternoon. A misty drizzle greeted us and it was Sunday. Lack of activity in this largest town in the Borders proved a problem when the booked B&B was unattended. Our phones also decided it was an opportunity to suggest that Sunday was definitely a day of rest. Fortunately, the town’s Information Centre, the only sign of life, came to the rescue, and we were soon settled.


Albert Bridge, Bed & Breakfast is the white building on the left.  Opposite is the the Orrock halls, formerly the Orrock Place United Presbyterian Church. There appears to be a cafe but closed when we were there.

Route A7 enters Hawick following its main streets, Buccleuch and Commercial Roads crossing the River Teviot and Slitrig Water over the Albert Bridge avoiding the town centre. Our B&B sat on the very edge of the River where the Albert Bridge crosses. These waters regular flooding have caused the city authorities much angst over the years. James Shannon, Molly’s father, notes in his diary in 1895 walking into town ‘to view the river in flood.’

The Hawick Parish is first noted in 1214. It was granted a Royal Burgh in 1545 ‘by the guardians of Queen Mary’. ‘At the period of granting the charter, the town consisted of 110 houses, inclusive of the manor house, church, and mill.’ But its settlement dates back to 600AD and a Norman wooden castle with a motte was built in the 1100s.


There are a number of memorials around the town relating to the raiding eras.  The Turnbull statue depicts William of Rule ‘turning’ an angry bull to save the life of Robert the Bruce, said to have occurred in 1313.  It was  unveiled in Hawick in 2007 to mark the town’s links with the famous Borders family, the Turnbulls.

The constant disturbances through the centuries affected the population of Hawick. During the Battle of Flodden almost all men of fighting age were killed. A raiding party threatened the town a year later which brought the boys (callents) of the town out in defence, capturing the English flag in 1514. There is a modern sculpture depicting this event but sadly we have no photograph. The ‘Hawick Common Riding’ commemorates this event annually riding the marches (boundaries) of the Hawick’s historic parish district (Commons). Disapproval among some members of the town over the high-jinks that occurred was debated in the local media on a number of occasions particularly the consumption of alcohol. James Shannon was one of these who felt the goings-on were distressing for many especially the poor and women. Just what these ‘goings-on’ were are not described!

Hawick became known for its textile industry especially Wilton carpets and tweeds. During the latter part of the 1500s, a small textile industry began to develop. From the 1700s a commercial woollen and textile industry made the most of water power from the River Teviot and some 50 or more mills produced carpets, tweeds, knitwear and linen products by the mid 1800s. With steam replacing water power, an increase in the woollen industry resulted in a growing population, and increasing wealth which is evident in much of its Victorian architecture both replacing older buildings and extending into new areas, Wilton being one such area. This increase in population, approximately 3000 in a decade, placed pressure on the Churches to form new parishes.

old mill 3042382_9797c9e3

Thw Wilton Mills in Commercial Road now demolished.  On the right the the low red sandstone wall is what is left of the South Wilton UF Church. (BBC)

Molly’s father commenced a new ministry in South Wilton in 1892 in what was initially named the Ern Kirk due to it being made of corrugated iron. A newly formed parish established as an outreach mission in 1886 called its first minister in 1889. Sadly, he drowned during his summer holiday in 1891. The membership grew rapidly  under James Shannon and a new church was built to seat 650 opening in November 1894. It closed in 1987 and remained empty. Part of the front wall is all that remains having been demolished in 2002.


Remains of the front wall of the South Wilton United Free Presbyterian Church.  In 1940 it merged with St. Margaret’s under the Church of Scotland.  Demolished in 2002.


Known originally as Hawick’s Corn Exchange.  In 1910 became a theatre to show ‘moving pictures’.  It became a bar and in 1992 a fire destroyed part of the building.  What remained was restored and extended into the Archives for the Border region.

There were two of a number of significant highlights in Hawick. The first a visit to the Heritage Hub Archives, in a beautifully renovated building with the most obliging Archivists. I appreciated a tour of the ‘sacred storage’ area containing very sleek computerised shelving! To my delight I discovered photographs of James Shannon and several church groups of children and women. A comment on the rear of a portrait of James Shannon confirms the scattered comments I had found during my research. “My father spoke always with the greatest affection for this man”. He was well respected and very pastoral throughout his ministry. The second treat was attending the Harvest thanksgiving service at Roberton Church on the outskirts of Hawick followed by a community harvest meal. Wonderful.


Roberton Parish Church

Brother Don went in search of a secondhand bookshop to purchase anything on early Hawick history with success, and I walked in some of the Shannon footsteps in Hawick and Wilton; to their home and the park nearby, the remains of the church, and some of the township. We travelled the roads James Shannon regularly cycled, now very much improved, and worshipped in a church where he preached.

Leaving Hawick we travelled onto Edinburgh, spending time in Selkirk.  A truly worthwhile visit. Molly’s love for the Borders remained with her all her life and I definitely understand why.




A Hawick Word Book, by Douglas Scott 2018,

Hawick and its place among Border Mill Towns, publication of Historic Scotland

Hawick Callants Club: founded 1904,

Project Hawick, which I have found very helpful.

Photographs, non-referenced taken by Don Wilkie


P.B. Fraser, the “Biblical Recorder” & Katharine Bushnell

I recently sorted many accumulated papers that dated back to the 1980s, and one folder with some relevance to my current project, caught my attention. The contents are photocopies of various articles from a small, and dare I say, strange magazine the Biblical Recorder. Claimed as an Australasian journal, its aim was “in the Service of the Inspired Word, Evangelical Principles, and Missionary Enterprise”. Philadelphuis Bain Fraser, the ‘stormy petrel of New Zealand Presbyterianism’ as Allan Davidson describes him, was the Editor from 1914-1935. PB or Phil, as he was known, was an impetuous critic of many things. Browsing through Papers Past online you discover his prolific letter-writing regime to local newspapers, where he heavily criticises opinions and those who voice them, especially if he is in anyway involved. Fraser left a trail of controversy – an explosion with the North Otago Educational Institute over his School’s Inspectors’ Report, and the ‘modernism’ of Prof John Dickie and others at Knox Theological College, Dunedin, are two examples.

P-A71.12-34 PB FraserFraser is a curious and complex chap! Born in Lerwick, Shetland and a son of the manse he arrived in New Zealand in 1885, and from 1888 settled as a teacher at Weston in North Otago. Quickly becoming involved in the community, we see him popping up as a ‘Brother’ in the IOOF, office-bearer in the Prohibition Society and a strong advocate for Bible in Schools. He, with Rev. J. H. McKenzie, introduced the Nelson System of Bible Instruction in New Zealand State Schools. In late 1892 Fraser was accepted into training for the Presbyterian Ministry. While still teaching, he undertook a local training programme under Rev. Dr James MacGregor and the Oamaru Presbytery. He also stood for the 1893 General Election coming second, 400 votes behind the then incumbent.

Judging by the electoral reports in the North Otago newspapers he gathered a following of women. Shrewdly, in his first speech, he welcomed women to their first election (they had won the right to vote in August 1893) noting, “they had not merely doubled the numbers on the rolls, but they had introduced quite a new element into the politics of the colony – the womanhood of the land”. He assured his audience that women would take into their vote “everything good God had given them”, acknowledging they wouldn’t bring about the ‘millennium’ but they could be depended upon to work towards it.

Fraser brought all his skill to the task of winning people over to his political point of view, especially women. Contrary to the picture I had formed from reading his aggressive confrontations with the Presbyterian Church, he reportedly ‘spoke gently’ especially to an audience of women, as well as his local school parents and children. Standing as a Liberal, the party Richard Seddon would lead, he pushed the temperance and prohibition platform and supported religious teaching in schools; policies that women reformers encouraged their supporters vote for. Fraser’s interest in politics remained. In 1931 and 1935 he supported Mrs R.S. Black as a Democratic Candidate, nominating her for the North Dunedin seat.

What took my attention, in the folder and even surprised me, was his obvious  enthusiasm for the writings of Dr. Katharine Bushnell (Kate). Fraser’s discovery of her 1921 book, God’s Word to Women, excited him no end, “it is one of the most striking and worthy books that have come under my notice”, he wrote in a review in 1923.

Bushnell’s conservative writing reassured Fraser that she was no lover of theological modernism. Kate Bushnell, he told his readers, “is worthy of admiration and gratitude … for a powerful apologetic … in helping to vindicate the Biblical record where it is powerfully attacked in the present age”. Fraser’s deep mistrust of the increasing modernism trend among his Presbyterian colleagues resulted in his aggressive responses against the Presbyterian divines at the Theological Hall, Knox College. However, Fraser applied some caution to his complete acceptance of Bushnell’s new translations and interpretations.

For six years from his first review he presented reviews and opinions from well-known scholars, both supportive and critical, analysing them in detail to reassure his readers that Bushnell was on the right track. Fraser also introduces many other forgotten women theological writers who supported Bushnell’s reinterpretations, such as Dr Lee Anna Starr, Constance Maynard, Josephine Butler, Ethel Chilvers, and Dame Christabel Pankhurst. All these writers confirmed the need to resolve the “women’s question” as one of the major issues the Church had to face.

By the time Fraser concluded the editorship of the Biblical Recorder in 1935, he firmly believed that barring women from ordination was a contradiction of the Gospel. A letter to the Otago Daily Times in 1938, titled “Women – in New Zealand”, Fraser noted the equal rights of women was “the supreme problem of the ages” and required to be resolved, especially in churches; no response from readers to this claim reached the newspaper. His criticism was no longer heeded to as changes were occurring and even the Presbyterian Church was discussing women’s entry into eldership.


Well, who is Dr Katharine C. Bushnell (1855-1943) that Fraser so warmed too? A Holiness Methodist and one of the first women medical graduates, she served as a Missionary Doctor in Shanghai for a time and then worked with Francis Willard and the WTCU as a Social Purity Evangelist. This work brought her into close contact with prostitution, firstly in American lumber camps and then in the British brothels in India and China.

The behaviours of reputable British and American men who were considered upstanding Christian citizens deeply disturbed her. The root of the problem, she concluded “is indirectly the fruit of the theology”; it lay with the mistranslation of the “cursed” biblical woman Eve, as accepted by the Christian Church over centuries of patriarchal authority. Bushnell began to examine the original Hebrew and Greek biblical texts. “The Bible is all that it claims for itself. It is inspired…infallible…and inviolable,” she wrote, but its infallibility lay with the original Hebrew and Greek texts and not the many language translations which she heavily criticised. “Theology”, she firmly believed, “shaped society”, by reinterpreting and retranslating the scriptures a new society could emerge.

Researching in libraries in England and Europe she produced a series of Bible study leaflets and correspondence courses that analysed passages dealing with the status of women. In 1921 one hundred of these studies were published in one volume. God’s Word to Women is the result of her many years of retranslating sections of the bible relating to women. It aimed to provide a new lens for women of early 20th century to reinterpret women’s relationship to God, men and the Church. Bushnell’s greatest desire had been to provide a new foundation and vision for women to enable a new and more God given relationship within their churches and communities and in an equal interaction between women and men.

Katharine bushnell biographyKate Bushnell’s writings, and there are a number, seemed to disappear off the shelves of reviewers from the mid-1930s onwards. Fraser expressed a fear that her retranslations would be lost sight of amongst the noise of the humanist liberals whose modernist thought “while professing reverence for the Word, swagger through it with an air of omniscience and the dogmatism of human authority”. Kristin Kobes Du Mez, in her excellent biography, A New Gospel for Women: Katharine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian Feminism, reminds us that so often women “who wrestled with Christian Scriptures and penned intriguing and insightful commentaries”, have found their work forgotten, “leaving each generation to begin the task anew”.

It is difficult to ascertain the breadth of, if any, influence of Kate Bushnell’s writings within New Zealand. Obviously the subscribers and readers of the Biblical Record, had some awareness of this feminist theologian and her aims, and some may have purchased her books. I find no reference to her in Molly Whitelaw’s collection and Bushnell’s writing does not appear to have found favour in the Presbyterian Outlook. Some reference could well be in the PWMU or parish women’s collections, but somehow I doubt it.

In many ways Bushnell’s God’s Word to Women, was too late; the world had changed from when she first began to produce her studies at the turn of the twentieth century. World War I had turned everything upside down and the church saw itself in crisis, the old ways were no more. Women’s rights organisations were beginning to take a change of direction as many rejected the links with religion. There were new ideas influenced by science, psychology, sociology and anthropology bringing a new understanding to human nature and sexuality. Fraser’s prophetic concerns proved to be legitimate. Is it a coincident that his own journal, Biblical Recorder also closed? Had his own personal fundamentalist campaign also fallen by the wayside?

Interestingly, there has been a rediscovery of Bushnell writings in recent decades especially among women from the evangelical conservative wing of the church as they begin to insist on equal rights of leadership in their churches.

References: The Biblical Recorder (held in the Hewitson Library, New Zealand Collection, Knox College, Dunedin

Online New Zealand Newspapers:

A New Gospel for Women: Katharine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian Feminism, by Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Oxford University Press, 2015.


Jewel Baillie’s Coronation Day Experience 2 June 1953

With scenes of Netflix’s The Crown fresh in my mind it was fun to read a ‘live’ impression of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II written in great detail by Jewel Baillie to Molly and her friend Alexa Fraser; Molly received it with the utmost excitement. Molly, our loyal, royal supporter, circulated the letter among her friends in New Zealand and it was read out to several women’s groups as well as the Johnsonville congregation. She even transcribed large chunks to be printed in the New Zealand magazine The Free Lance.  Mrs Jewel Baillie, wife of Professor John Baillie of Edinburgh University and Principal of New College Edinburgh, also the Royal Chaplain, was humbled, honoured and overwhelmed to be present among 7600 others in attendance. She described the event from beginning to end and the scene within the Abbey in great detail.The planning was obviously meticulous everything timed to perfection.

Jewel mentions that where she was seated she could to see clearly the faces of all those who processed by.

The Baillie’s left their accommodation at 5am to be at Westminster Abbey and seated by 6am. Prof John Baillie however, had to wait patiently in the Annex for up to 4 hours, as he was part of the Queen’s procession. During the long 4-hour wait until the coronation ceremony began there was never a dull moment for Jewel, as significant personages arrived in their ‘brilliant uniforms or picturesque attire – a most vivid scene and ever-moving kaleidoscope of colour and beauty’. The descriptions of each party who entered provided her with plenty to write about. The Officers who showed them to their seats from various ‘services in full dress uniform complete with swords, gold braid, epaulettes, rows of medals and white kid gloves’. Crown Princes, Sultans, Prime Ministers, representatives from 50 States, ‘and Queen Salote looking very smart…’. Then there were clergy and choristers, the orchestra and trumpeters, and the Westminster Scholars who sang ‘Viva’ as the Queen entered, all described in detail.

Jewel Baillie had ample time to absorb the interior of the chapel, greatly altered for the occasion, with additional tiers of scaffolding ‘against ever spare available wall space, draped in grey cloth bordered with blue, the temporary staircases carpeted in the same colour and blue borders’. The guests’ chairs also upholstered in blue velvet with the cipher QEII in the corner. The spare wall space was draped ‘with lovely blue cloth brocaded in gold with lions, the Tudor rose, mitres, fleur-de-les and other heraldic devices’.   ‘The rich sky-blue and gold furnishings provided a superb backdrop for the scarlet and gold of the uniforms, the red velvet of the Peeresses trains’ that trailed yards behind them’. The one disadvantage of all this grand beauty was it dulled the sound and the 500 strong choir sounded no more than 50. The chairs, she noted, were for sale and the guests could purchase one, but Jewel Baillie felt her money would be better spent elsewhere. 

The young Queen carried herself with the ‘utmost grace and poise’, throughout the ceremony. ‘As she walked with her hands clasped in front of her, Jewel believed, ‘that here was indeed a dedicated spirit’.   She expressed what many of us must have considered while watching the Crown series, ‘from now on she must sacrifice most of her personal desires and wishes and live the lonely life of the highly placed … & what a tremendous responsibility rests on her youthful shoulders’.  But, for Jewel Baillie, the Queen Mother ‘stole much of the thunder that day’. Her procession ‘moved with exceeding slowness and stateliness…The Queen Mother looked beautiful dignified and charming, and she wore a radiant expression of triumph, as though this were indeed a day of fulfilment for her.’

Amongst all the glamour and pomp Jewel and John Baillie surreptitiously ‘munched their sandwiches and sipped their sherry’, which they were advised to take. Jewel does not go into detail as to when they partook of this ‘bread and wine’, which appears somewhat symbolic, but no doubt all those attending needed some sustenance during their 7-hour experience. She also notes the several small stumbles that were actually portrayed in the Crown episode. The Duke of Edinburgh knocked the Queen’s crown when he kissed her after paying homage to her, and that he forgot the words ‘Duke of Edinburgh’ in his vow of homage. Jewel was bemused when the ‘Peers and Peeresses popped on their coronets – it savoured so much of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe’. In all it was an occasion never to be forgotten and Molly was able to reciprocate with her detailed correspondence of the Queen’s tour of New Zealand.   In the days that followed, Scotland had its share of Coronation celebrations, which Jewel Baillie gave equally descriptive detail..

Reflecting back to the Nexflix’s production, I can’t help but marvel at the superb reproduction of the entire Coronation scene, hardly a detail missing! The reproduction of the exquisite Coronation Gown and the vast attire is an amazing feat by the producers.





In the Footsteps of the Shannon family, Morere Northern Hawkes Bay.

Morere Springs Hotel, 1927, APG-1756-1/2G Alexander Turnbull Library

With considerable anticipation I recently visited Molly Whitelaw’s first home territory of Nūhaka and Morere in Northern Hawkes Bay. I wanted to gain a little insight into the area and some appreciation of the environment that so amazed the family on their arrival in 1921.

It’s been many years since I first travelled on the Northern Hawkes Bay roads. Narrow winding roads are imprinted on my mind from childhood travelling, and this road no less then others. As a child in the mid-1950s my family travelled to the then isolated location of the Tuai Māori Mission House, 10 kilometres from beautiful Lake Waikaremoana in the Te Urewera National Park. I recall that sense of nausea one can have when squeezed into the claustrophobic environment of the back seat of a car and my father demanding quiet as he negotiated the narrow, roughly gravelled roads in our 1939 Ford Deluxe Sedan. It didn’t help on one occasion when my sister reacted with a sudden scream as a moth flew in through the open window. Father was unimpressed! All this came to mind as we drove on the now widened re-aligned, but still winding, tar sealed road from Napier to Morere. The trip today takes approximately two hours, without stopping to admire the amazing terrain and scenery. In Molly’s time, 1921, depending on the weather, the journey could require a stopover at Mohaka.

Molly described the Morere-Nūhaka Home Mission Station many years later in an address she gave to a group in Scotland in 1946:

We were in the most romantic parish among the deep valleys and razor back mountains of the great sheep-country, on the northern edge of Hawke’s Bay. Our parish extends from north and south, between 30 and 40 miles; from east and west about 30 miles. Embracing the Mahia(sic) Peninsula and Portland Island, with its lighthouse lying out to sea.

40km from Wairoa. Turn off State Highway 2 about 4km north of Nuhaka or 5km south of Morere Springs. Track 6km up a winding gravel road called the Mangaone Valley Road.

These ‘razor back mountains’ are indeed impressive. The suns slow movement as it casts its shadows is ever altering the landscape and the shape of these ‘deep valleys’ conveying little of their secrets but offering a challenge to those who settled and remain.   These mountains must have been awe-inspiring to our Scottish arrivals. But as we travelled through this amazing countryside I was made aware of how we humans impose our own design on the physical and cultural landscape. I experienced a pang of sadness as I contemplated the decimation of the native bush that once cloaked most of these mountains.

First Bath House, Morere Springs Brochure

Some physical evidence of the first human occupation by the Rakai Paaka hapu of Ngati Kahungunu and Rongomaiwahine is visible in the storage pits and the remains of the local pa. Known as Moumoukai, the Pa sat high above the district providing natural defences on three sides. The removal of native bush and other plant-life has meant erosion has disturbed much of the remains, leaving little evidence of the Pa’s existence today. Māori had known of the hot springs within the area from early on. They held and hold significance for local Māori as far north as Gisborne and south to Napier because of their healing qualities. For Pakeha settlers who discovered the springs in 1884, they became a commercial draw card. With constant pressure from the local settlers and their complaints of ‘Māori monopolising the Springs’, the Lands and Survey Department were finally persuaded, in 1895, to gazette the springs and the surrounding 300 acres as a reserve.[1] Land next to the Reserve was leased to a local settler who was to erect an accommodation house of not less than six rooms. It was built in 1898 and by 1920 the buildings could accommodate 100 people.

After a devastating fire in 1905, which destroyed much of the virgin bush within the reserve, as well as the sparse accommodation, the Department of Tourist and Health Resorts took over the Reserve under the Scenery Preservation Act of 1903, and fenced it to keep cattle out and to enable the bush to regenerate.[2] Behind this Act was the explicit drive to promote tourism and it resulted in the compulsory acquisition of scenic land as reserves. The rights of Māori to own and access scenic reserves became a point of heated friction as the Crown acquired more and more Māori land. By 1917, 63 reserves had been created from Māori land.[3] Only partial compensation for these reserves have been included in the historic claims to Māori in recent decades, being settled through the Treaty of Waitangi Land Claims.

Waikokopu Harbour, 1931. NZ Free Lance Alexander Turnbull Library, Ref. PAC-5469-053

The small community settled the area quickly despite its isolation and almost impassable access. Ambitious schemes raised the confidence of the residents; a school settled in 1897, the Church was built, a dairy factory established, although short lived, a local store, the Springs Hotel built and rebuilt, purchased and resold on a number of occasions. The Local Settlers Association pushed for improved baths and the promised purchase and development of the Waikokopu harbour, the first Whaling Station in the area. By 1910 the formation of a Port Company opened future opportunities for Morere to transport produce to Waikokopu instead of Gisborne.

The area is renowned for heavy rain and flooding which devastated many of the dray tracks, roads, bridges, and farm properties. The Morere Springs tourist accommodation and bath house was swept away by one of the worst floods in 1910. Winter rains frequently cut off access to both Nūhaka and Morere but hope was ever-present within the community that the Government would hear their constant angry appeals to upgrade the roads. Stories abound in newspaper reports of inaccessible roads, horses and coaches stuck in deep muddy ruts, passengers having to disembark and trudge through the mud, horses being swept away, accidents, mail delays, and milk carts stranded in attempts to reach the diary factory. The visit to the Shannon’s in April 1922, by the Rev. Dr. James Gibb, the past Home Missions Convener, had to be abandoned soon after he left Gisborne. Gibb, whose reputation as driver left much to be desired, wrote off his car. By the time Molly Shannon and her family left in August 1924, the access roads in and out of Morere had greatly improved although bridges continued to be swept away and roads washed out. For their three years in the parish, Molly and her father traversed the back regions of the parish on horseback, a new experience for the family from a middle class inner city parish in Edinburgh.

Morere and Nūhaka Home Mission Station, initially fell within the bounds of the Presbyterian Parish of Wairoa. In 1897 residents Robinson, McIntyre, and Shaw set about gathering subscriptions to build a small church in Morere.[4] According to the report substantial contributions were offered from outside the district. On Easter Sunday, 1899 Rev. William Raeburn officially opened St. John’s, their place of worship. The soiree and concert that followed on Easter Monday was a celebration for the whole community. The Church served as a school and a community centre until 1925 when a new school was built. Sadly, the Church is no longer standing. It was removed to another site, used as a barn and then destroyed by fire. I have been unable to discover the date for the building of Nūhaka Church but it appears  in the district before the formation of the Nūhaka Māori Mission in 1913.

The manse, is located at the end of the Morere stretch of road. Built in the first decade of the twentieth century it was leased to the Presbyterian Church. It is a typical, turn-of-last-century structure, a timber framed rectangle home with a veranda across the front. It was primitive by 1921 urban manse standards. There was no laundry or bathroom. Molly speaks of bathing in the Tunanui Stream, which ran close by the back entrance of the house. The stream has carried some devastating flood waters over the years the last  being in 2010. Several attempts to redirect the stream has lessened some of the flood risk. As expected, the house has been  renovated by various owners, but continues to reflect its early 20th century style.

Nuhaka Maori Mission. PCANZ Research Centre P-A36_18-084

James Shannon with his family was the last Presbyterian missionary to live in Morere. A property of 4 acres was purchased in Nūhaka eight kms south, which by 1924, was considered a more suitable centre for the Home Mission ministry. The intention was to see a closer relationship develop between the Pakeha ministry and that of the Māori Mission at Nūhaka. The Home Mission Station was reunited to the Wairoa East parish in the 1950s and is now part of the Wairoa United Parish.

There is still that sense of the romantic in Nūhaka and Morere that Molly describes. Nūhaka has suffered more than Morere as people have moved away. It is a ghost of its previous self, yet the voices of the past can be found in its atmosphere of emptiness and the people who remain. Morere continues to provide its ‘healing waters’ to locals and tourists. There is a thick cover of regenerated native bush around the Reserve 100 years on. The modern sophisticated bathhouses are a far cry from those of an earlier era.


Tunanui Stream, Morere

The ministry of James Shannon and his family while at Morere and Nūhaka, and later Matawhero (I will tell that story in the future) was a far greater adventure than they anticipated, one that would have a significant impact on the direction of Molly’s future in New Zealand.


[1] Our Picturesque Heritage, 100 years of Scenery Preservation in New Zealand, by Tony Nightingale and Paul Dingwall, NZ Department of Conservation, 2003.

[2] Morere Springs Scenic Reserve Resource Kit for Teachers Author: Elizabeth Pishief, Department of Conservation, Gisborne East Coast Hawke’s Bay Conservancy, Department of Conservation Gisborne, New Zealand, June 2002

[3] Our Picturesque Heritage, 100 years of Scenery Preservation in New Zealand, by Tony Nightingale and Paul Dingwall, NZ Department of Conservation, 2003.

[4] David Shaw Jr. was farewelled at a social gathering at Morere, in May 1901 to begin his studies for the Presbyterian Ministy. He was presented with a ‘handsome cheque’ and the social concluded ‘near the wee sma ‘oors’. Poverty Bay Herald, 4 May 1901 (Papers Past)


I was in the Presbyterian Research Centre today looking at papers in another of Molly Whitelaw’s boxes. A paragraph from a talk she gave to the Glasgow Rotary Club in October 1947, caught my eye and I realised that ANZAC Day was almost upon us. It is another of those occasions when gems can be located in archives collections.

For many New Zealanders, 1942 marked a time of ‘national peril’. The surprise and devastating attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbour, Hawaii, by the Japanese new dive bombers sent ripples of fear through the Pacific. With Australia facing a possible  direct threat from the Japanese, New Zealand authorities feared that its shores could also be in jeopardy and prepared coastal residents for the worst outcome, many experiencing genuine fear.

Molly tells her story: “In 1942 we spent a holiday, down the Marlborough Sounds. As the children played on the beach the Japanese swarmed further and further south. Had they come to N.Z. those glorious deep Sounds would have made a wonderful anchorage for their ships. Fourteen miles inland the town of Blenheim, where lies the finest airfield in NZ and the sunlit plains of Wairau, from where a would-be attack could take place on Wellington, 70 miles away, we were told. Trenches were dug, all plans made in the event of an invasion. Mothers with children were to be evacuated to the hills. We had suitcases packed in readiness. I had been ill, [Molly had had whooping cough]. It was on my mind, going alone with young children, only two and three years old. For, of course, my husband would have stayed with his ‘people’. One day in March I went out on the verandah to think things out. As I looked up to the blue sky I suddenly, “out of the blue” got the assurance that the Japanese would never get to N.Z. I never had any fear again, although the news continued for some weeks to be precarious. Later we learned that about the very time I received this assurance that gave me such peace of mind the Japanese had unaccountably ceased their southern push. It was settled later by the Battle of the Coral Sea.”

When the American air force arrived in Blenheim towards the end of 1942, Molly and Alan Whitelaw  had a constant stream of young men through the manse. With a shortage of ministers in Blenheim and its surrounding areas, the arrival of the large numbers of soldiers at Woodbourne kept them and the Blenheim congregations on their toes.  It was an exhausting time dealing with every stress from homesickness to panic attacks. They resigned from the parish at the end of 1945, to return the two children they cared for to the London.  The Government could not guarantee them a return trip for two years, so they took the opportunity for a long sabbatical.

Woodbourne Air Base 1943

For me ANZAC becomes a day to reflect on our inability to reach our greatest ideal, that of peace. The horrors of war, and the tragic loss of thousands or should I say millions and millions of lives, the break up of families, the immense fear one sees in the eyes of children, the deep sadness in the body language of adults, the devastation of food and shelter and the breakdown of communities and countries, confront us daily through our channels of news. ‘Lest we Forget’ is what ANZAC suggests. Forget what? I ask. Reputedly, Rudyard Kipling was inspired by Deuteronomy 6,12: ‘Then beware lest you forget the Lord which brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage’, in his poem ‘Recessional’, for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in 1897.

“God of our fathers, known of old
Lord of our far flung battle line
Beneath Whose awful Hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget, lest we forget!”





‘No documents – No History’ : Listening to discover women’s voice in our Church story

I’ve borrowed this title from Anke Voss-Hubbarb’s article in the American Archivist because it sums up the experience of my own frustrations over many years as Archivist for the Presbyterian Church. What you may ask was the root of this frustration? As in ‘No documents – No History’, the historian, Mary Ritter Beard, became more and more disturbed and frustrated at the lack of women’s voice in the various archival collections she was researching. From the 1920s until her death in 1958 she rigorously campaigned to gather women’s papers and records. Not only to be stored in suitable academic and archival institutions but she pressed the need for women’s voice to be integrated into university faculty programmes. A familiar and frequent cry heard from many an Archivist today. Mary Beard made a pertinent observation:  ‘without knowledge of women in history as actual history, dead women are sheer ghosts to living women—and to men’.[1]

Ann Braude forty years later again takes up Beard’s concern when researching women’s role in religious organisations and churches.   ‘We cannot understand the history of religion in [a country],’ she argues, ‘until we know at least as much about women who formed the majority of participants as we do about the male minority who stood in the pulpit.’[2] How true!

What a researcher will discover when first confronted with the Presbyterian Church official collection is the gender-blind, hierarchical and pietistic nature of the church’s historical past. Researchers will find women’s voices are silenced within the dominant historical narrative, which categorised all people as one under the notion of ‘man’. Even though the General Assembly gave its blessing to the formation of a Deaconess Order in 1906, and in 1916, accepted women onto several General Assembly Committees to give advice, with no voting rights, and gave grudging approval for women to serve as Home Missionaries from 1920, their voices remained securely locked on the margins.

It is not that women’s records are lacking in the overall Presbyterian collections, far from it in fact. There is a parallel collection to the Church’s official documents that date back 120 years, located at the congregational and women’s organisational level. During these 120 years, resourceful women sought their own sacred spaces, formed communities, and began to express a gendered spirituality. From that time women’s agency became increasingly more visible and their space more gendered, but at the same time their exclusion from ordained ministries more dogmatically denied them.

In these extensive collections researchers will find women teaching in Sunday Schools, even doctrine to the horror of some critics, leading youth groups, writing hymns and prayers, compiling missionary talks and studies, yes even speaking from the pulpit, leading study groups, and creative means of promoting, supporting and raising money for the Church’s mission schemes. They were called to clean and polish the church, wash the communion linen, arrange the flowers, serve tea, organise fair stalls, raise funds for furnishings and so it goes on.

There are tantalising anecdotes given in newspaper reports of women in large numbers attending theological lectures, following Evangelists from meeting to meeting, weeping as they farewell them at the railway station, and being rebuked for displaying their disapproval by shuffling their feet and shaking their handbags.

But the voices that tell of the callings, faith journeys, beliefs, recollections and memoirs from this vast and diverse multitude of women rarely are heard within the Archives and are therefore omitted from our church and religious histories.

The APW has made valiant attempts in the last two decades to correct this imbalance by capturing women’s voices, literally, through their oral history project ‘Women’s Stories’ and under Nan Burgess’s editorship, four biographical publications, A Braided River of Faith, have reached our shelves, significant, but underused resources.

Is the paucity of documented women’s papers due to women perceiving their experience within the institutional church as falling outside the narrative of what counts as a ‘serious’ church history’? The ‘fathers and brethren’ accepted the women’s organisations as auxiliaries to their more important activities within the church structure. It was taken for granted by the fathers of the Church that women’s work was a ‘service of mission’; it held no recognised status or standing within the male-centred Church’s definition of ‘ministry’[4] The women, were there to serve the Church and its decision making processes.

I was always surprised the number of times my request for any archival records from women active in the spiritual journeys of their congregations and organisations was by and large rejected. Oh there is nothing worthwhile in my papers! ‘No one wants to know about me’! ‘I didn’t do much to make an impression’; even though this woman had 65 years in two congregations and almost 50 active years in the PWMU. Perhaps it is this next response though, that sums up the rejections in general.   ‘We kept dad’s sermons but we didn’t really believe mum’s papers had much in them’!, Do these responses reflect how deeply embedded the prescribed divisions of gender in society and church over many centuries have shaped women’s past lives? How sad for women to consider their experiences as less important and therefore, contribute little to the overall historical narrative and its analysis. The reluctance of women to acknowledge the significance of their voices results in only half of the Church’s story ever being recorded.

‘No documents-No history’ is a slogan we could well use.[5] We cannot tell our story as a Church unless we know who the characters are. I continue to be stunned at the depth of Molly Whitelaw’s remarkable collection. It is a fine example of how the accumulation of women’s stories and voices would recover the many invisible women and place them with pride in the Church’s historical narrative. To voice Psalm 68:11: ‘The Lord gave the word, great was the women who published it’.


[1] “No Documents—No History”: Mary Ritter Beard and the Early History of Women’s Archives ANKE VOSS-HUBBARD American Archivist, Vol58, Winter 1995, p. 19

[2] Ann Braude, ‘Women’s History is American History’, in Religion in America: A Reader, ed David G. Hackett, pp161-

[4] In Good Company: Women in the Ministry edited by Lesley Orr Macdonald, p12

[5] See footnote 1.


A Feast of Music – Mozart Festival – Glyndebourne 1935

Writing back to the Te Awamutu Congregation in June 1935 Molly Whitelaw delighted them with her description of the Mozart Festival held at the Glyndebourne Festival Opera Garden in Lewes, Sussex. Her excitement oozes through every line. Music on this scale she missed hugely since her arrival in New Zealand in 1921. First introduced to Mozart opera while she was attending school in Konigsberg, a welcome change from the regular diet of Wagnerian opera, she became a lover of Mozart’s music; ‘so calming, so melodious, so ‘entūzken’ [full of delight]. Under what she describes as ‘the most superb conditions’, Glyndebourne fulfilled Molly’s ‘feeling-good’ middle-class desires and aspirations in every way.

Besides the sight of the enchanting Sussex village of Glyndebourne, the grand old Tudor Manor house, which carried the name of the village, the gardens were exquisite. Molly had inherited her love of gardening from her father in particular. In each parish they served, Molly left a well developed garden, so the lily pond, the flagged paths with borders of blue and yellow irises, hedged gardens with flowers of numerous colour, large yew trees, velvety lawns, the roses and shrubbery bordering the river at the rear of Glyndebourne Manor filled her heart with great admiration. ‘Wherever you walk’, she wrote, ‘it is beautiful with that rich, tranquil, luscious beauty that one associates with the very name of England.’

As is normal with Molly, she is very aware of those she mingles with; the people attending were ‘in keeping with their surroundings’ she notes.   Good looking, well groomed men in evening dress with ‘white coats and ties’ and women, taller then she remembered from the past, in ‘backless dresses’, beautifully groomed hair something ‘most regal to observe’. She had never entertained such a standard in New Zealand. ‘There is something so distinguished about the appearance a certain type of well-born, well-breed men and women, which nothing but birth and breeding can give’… There is something indescribable which as long as the world will last money will never be able to buy’, she informed her rural church parishioners, many who may well not fully comprehend her enthusiastic observation of a class of people rarely found in New Zealand.

Although the tickets were expensive, Molly was prepared to squander her ‘last shilling on such a feast’. Words failed her when attempting to describe Cosi Fan Tutte and the conducting of Dr Fritz Busch, which was ‘par excellence’. She adored the character portrayal of the fascinating ‘Despina’ sung by the Czechoslovakian, Irene Eisinger, and the beauty of the Austrian, Luise Helletsgruber, who played Dorabella, she described as a ‘daughter of the gods’. Never she believed would she be satisfied with future productions. The production, staging, music, singing, and performance ‘combined [an] effort of unsurpassable completeness and beauty’.

Glyndebourne Festival Opera began in 1934, so Molly was attending its second season. The festival continues to be held annually to this day. Mr John Christie, an English businessman, contributed thousands of pounds to create his home into the beauty of ‘something of that “fellowship of all artists” which Wagner foresaw’. Besides the large garden, he built an Opera House that seated 300, and ‘barn like dining rooms paved with brick, and as Molly describes them ‘delightful in their combination of comfort, good service and rural simplicity.’ Food was served between the second and third acts where you could either have ‘a ‘table d’hôtel’ dinner, a cold supper or even take your own ‘provender’ and have your own servants wait upon you.’

The renowned Music Director Dr. Fritz Busch was appointed in 1934 after his politically motivated dismissal from his position at the Dresden State Opera in 1933. He remained with the Glyndebourne Opera until the outbreak of World War II; there were no performances through those years and he returned to Buenos Aires. After the war he conducted the New York Metropolitan Opera and the Chicago Symphony. Busch returned to Glyndebourne for two further seasons in 1950. He died September 1951.