Opening the door on a new journey

small merle wright

Merle Wright, c. 1916-18 Photo kindly sent to us by a descendant of friends of the Wright family.

Like me, my partner has memories of knowing three of his four grandparents. In fact, he was in his teens when all three died. Yet, as seems universal with children, he learned little about them as people. So little in fact, that when I asked him once what his (paternal) grandparents were called, his reply was “er, Nana and Pop?”


“Nana and Pop” — Merle Matilda Wright and Wallace Oliver Gray (middle and right), with my father in law Roger. c. 1956. Photo: Gray-Dove family archive.

That throwaway line was the beginning of a slow and rather tentative search. The first thing of course was to replace “Nana and Pop” with Merle Matilda Wright and Wallace Oliver Gray, who married on October 2nd, 1926 at St. John’s church Hororata, New Zealand.

The Wright and Gray families

Wallace Gray was born on 21 December 1892. He was the second child of Andrew Gray (1856? – 1915) and Emily Ann Oliver (1860?-1945).

Andrew Gray had arrived in New Zealand as a small child, aboard the ship Mataoka which docked at Lyttleton on December 2nd 1860. His parents, James Gray and Isabella Thompson travelled from England with three other children as well; the youngest only a few months old.

Emily Ann Oliver was the second child born to William Oliver and his wife Emily (maiden name unknown). Their first child, a son, was born and died aboard the ship Glentanner on the voyage from England to New Zealand. Emily Ann was the first of eight Oliver children to be born in New Zealand.

Andrew Gray and Emily Ann Oliver had seven other children together.

Newspaper report, wedding of Merle Matilda Wright and Wallace Oliver Gray, 2 October, 1926, Hororata, Canterbury, NZ. Image courtesy of Papers Past/Fairfax Media.

Newspaper report, wedding of Merle Matilda Wright and Wallace Oliver Gray, 2 October, 1926, Hororata, Canterbury, NZ. Image courtesy of Papers Past/Fairfax Media.

Robin Douglas Gray, born 1889. He married May Chapman in 1913, and died in 1967.

Winifred Olive Gray, born 1890, died 1891.

Eric Andrew Gray, born 1895. Also served with the NZ Expeditionary Force in France. He died 27 March 1918 during the Third Battle of the Somme. I’ve written about this here and here.

Doris Emily Gray, born 1897. She married Fred Nathaniel Wright (Merle Wright’s brother) in 1920.

Ethel Fyllis Gray, born 1899. She married William O’Brien in 1920, in a double wedding with her sister Doris (see clipping below.)

Aileen Annie Gray, born 1900. Married Reginald Rees in 1923.

Mavis Isobel Gray, born 1902. Married William Patterson in 1928.


Merle Matilda Laura Wright was born on 23 August 1904, to Sidney Robert Wright and Jessie Susan Harris. They married in 1890, in Timaru and had eight children together.

Both Sidney and Jessie had been born in New Zealand. I’ve written about this part of the family here. Since then I’ve learned more about the immigration of these families to New Zealand, so will cover this in a later post.

Their eldest child, Harry Marshall Wright, born 18 August 1891, was killed in action during WWI — on August 7th, 1915 in the Sari Bair offensive at Gallipoli.

Margaret Wright, born 1892, died only nine hours after her birth.

Fred Nathaniel Wright, born 13 December 1894, also served with the NZ Expeditionary Force in WWI. In 1920 he married Doris Emily Gray — a sister of his future brother-in-law, Wallace Oliver Gray.

Alice Vera Wright, born in 1896, never married. She died in Christchurch, NZ in 1954.

Sidney John Wright, born 1893. Died aged 3 days.

Clara Duffill Wright, born 1906. In 1929 she married Arthur Edward Perkins. They divorced in 1957.

Frank Robert Wright, born 1910. In April 1936 he married Joan Ellis Luxton in Christchurch. Frank died in 1992; Joan in 1996.

Like his brother Eric, and brothers-in-law Harry and Fred Wright, Wallace Gray served with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in WWI. He was wounded in France, in December 1917 and evacuated to England. While there, he contracted a serious illness and was deemed unfit for military service.

Bringing the characters to life

While it is satisfying to add names and dates to the family tree, the real pleasure in researching Merle and Wallace’s lives has come from the rich detail provided by newspaper cuttings found in New Zealand’s online newspaper archive, Papers Past.

Merle Wright and Wallace Gray lived during a time when newspapers not only flourished, but devoted considerable column inches to reporting social events — in much the same way we use social media now. Weddings, bridal showers, birthday and coming-of-age parties; all sorts of social occasions were reported — often in rather flowery detail. From these, we have added depth to my partner’s knowledge, particularly of his grandmother.

We found a number of clippings recording her involvement in organising social events in Hororata prior to her marriage, while later we find numerous references to her golfing abilities — golf tournament results obviously being a regular column.


Merle Gray, 1936. Press, 8 October 1936. Image courtesy of Fairfax Media/Papers Past.

On a practical level, these stories have also helped identify new family members, narrow down search dates and confirm relationships between individuals. For example, from the newspaper report above, I know that Merle’s sister Clara wasn’t married at the time of Merle’s wedding, so I could confine my search for her marriage record to later dates.

It was common to list all of the attendees at social functions, so it becomes clear that courtship very much took place within the small community — these young men and women were very likely to marry the boy or girl “next door.”


As well as members of the Wright family, this event was attended by Wallace Gray and his sister, and members of the Oliver family (cousins of the Gray’s). Image: Fairfax Media/ Papers Past.

When Wallace Gray married Merle Wright in 1926, they were already related by marriage. Wallace’s sister Doris had married Merle’s brother Fred in 1920, in a double wedding where another Gray sister, Ethel was also married.


DOUBLE WEDDING AT HORORATA: Star, Issue 19944, 10 May 1920. Image: courtesy of Fairfax Media/Papers Past.

The end of the (official) road

Merle died in 1979 and Wallace in 1981. They had raised three children together; Patricia, Shona and my father-in-law Roger. We know that Wallace ran the local garage in Hororata for many years and that during the 1950s the couple moved to Hamilton, then Auckland before finally settling in Timaru; electoral rolls and street directories help map their movements over the years.

But beyond that, public records have no more to offer.

When I set about answering that initial question about “Nana and Pop”, my partner had fairly limited interest in his family’s history. As I uncovered more and more — and particularly since finding Merle’s photograph in Papers Past — his interest and enthusiasm have grown. It is now time to visit the few remaining members of the family and ask the questions we didn’t even know we had.

It’s time to close the circle.

18 thoughts on “Opening the door on a new journey

    • Wow! I had heard of sisters getting married in a joint wedding but this was the first I’d encountered in the family. I guess your mum and her sister were pretty close. Weddings seem to be stressful at the best of times, and trying to co-ordinate the day with another bride could be a nightmare if they weren’t “on the same page” to begin with.

      T’s family really were “early settlers” to New Zealand and the more I research, the more I see the same names cropping up again and again. It looks like Merle’s mother married her twin brother’s friend, and he (the twin) married her husband’s sister. T’s starting to think of himself as the Kiwi equivalent of a Mayflower descendant 🙂

        • I can’t imagine my mother and any of her sisters having a shared wedding. It would have been a blood-bath. Lovely that your mum and aunt get on; irritations notwithstanding.

        • There are just the two of them and seven years between them. My Mum adored and helped to look after her long-awaited little sister and she in turn followed her big sister around from the start, to the point that at 3 she followed her to school and refused to leave! My sister and I are just two as well, but much closer in age so there was more sibling rivalry I think.

        • That’s interesting about how the bigger age gap tends to take away a lot of the rivalry. I have two brothers — one is two years younger, the other eight years. I was very much a second mother to the youngest one and remain much closer to him. I think in our case it was complicated by my being the eldest, but not the eldest son, in a family that doesn’t really value girls much. Some of the tensions are still there and we’re in our 50s now.

        • Yes, I would say mum was like a second mother to my aunt – and still indulges her! I don’t know what her situation would have been had she had a brother, but certainly when she had us she valued girls. She told me she would’nt have known what to do with a little boy! I suppose because of her experience “bringing up” wee sister. Though I’m sure she’d have been just as good a Mum to a boy if he’d arrived.

  1. Fascinating stuff. I recently took on my husband’s family to research and went back to his Irish convict ancestor. I think it changes everything when you learn more about your ancestors even if you thought you weren’t interested.

      • Well I thought it was exciting!! I am still working on my family tree but just have not had time to blog. 2017 will be my year! Meantime, you still inspire me with your work. Keep going 😄

  2. Glad to hear that your husband is getting hooked…there will be no stopping now! And what was it with brothers and sisters all marrying siblings from another family? I’ve seen it in my family as well, and it just seems so odd for 2016. And you know I am always delighted to see you dipping your toes back in genealogy!

    • Thanks Amy. I guess NZ was just a very small country and people didn’t travel very far from home. Most of T’s ancestors were farmers, so lived in small, rural communities. But yes, it does seem very strange compared to what we are used to.

  3. Ah, NZ is small. In the report of the coming of age party the hosts are Mr and Mrs F S Barrett. My mother’s uncle was a Mr F Barrett of Hororata. (look to the very last line for Kathleen Jessop ) She also spent time at a Barrett farm near Mayfield but I think that may have belonged to her uncle’s brother. Mrs Barrett was my grandmother’s sister. Love the descriptions of the wedding clothes.

    • It is! I’ve read the Barrett name in a few articles — which is hardly surprising.

      We’ve now tracked all of the Big T’s father’s family to the boats they arrived on — including the Cressy, which was one of the first four. The others arrived in 1852, 1857 and 1860. His mother’s side all arrived in the 1870s and 1880s, but to Port Chalmers rather than Lyttleton.

      Aren’t the articles just a abundance of riches. I love the names of all the colours, and how everything was dainty or pretty. I’m working on a post just about these little gems.

  4. Pingback: Another road leads back to Scotland – Shaking the tree

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