Some random musings on sharing our social lives

Black & white wedding photo, April 28 1920. A double wedding in the Gray family. Ethel Gray (bride standing) married William O'Brien (seated to her right) and Doris Gray (seated) married Fred Wright (standing to her right).

April 28 1920, a double wedding in the Gray family. Ethel Gray (bride standing) married William O’Brien (seated to her right) and Doris Gray (seated) married Fred Wright (standing to her right). Photo courtesy of Peter Duncan.

When the Big T and I attended a wedding on New Year’s Eve, it didn’t take long before photos of the event started to appear on guests’ FaceBook and Twitter feeds — including mine.

FaceBook post documenting a wedding. Su Leslie, 2016

Covering the wedding, FaceBook-style.

At this particular wedding, there was no “official” photographer; instead guests captured the event on their smartphones or cameras, then shared widely,with much tagging, liking and commenting.

It’s an often-made criticism of social media that platforms like FaceBook, Instagram and Twitter are filled with the minutiae of people’s lives; cute pet moments, a new dress or shoes, meals and drinks — what, where and with whom. Events — from kids’ play-dates to weddings — are photographed and shared with friends, family and followers around the world.

For some, this is over-sharing. Too much content spilling, uncensored, into too many other lives. And when we compare this very public exposure of everyday life to how (and with whom) we shared memories even fifteen years ago, it does seem that social media has provided a brand new platform for the public dissemination of trivia.

But it’s not really new. Lately, I’ve been reading newspaper social columns from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. For a country with a very small population, New Zealand had a surprisingly large number of newspapers for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Many of these have been digitised as part of a project called Papers Past, managed by the National Library of New Zealand.

While social columns I’ve seen in more contemporary newspapers seem to focus on major events and on celebrities or prominent people, these earlier papers covered not only the major touchstones in people’s lives — like weddings — but also much less momentous events; parties, kitchen teas, even people visiting friends and family, or going on holiday.

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Press, Volume LXXII, Issue 21762, 20 April 1936. Found at Papers Past.

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Social column from The Press (Canterbury, NZ); 26 March 1925. Sourced from Papers Past

Accessing this very large and easily searchable archive of newspapers has proved really useful in helping me research my son’s paternal ancestry. The article below, about the marriage of two of the Gray sisters in 1920, has helped confirm familial relationships and put faces to names in the wedding photograph above.

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

But more than that, the social columns have provided insight into the millieu in which ancestors existed — much as FaceBook, Instagram etc. do today. Sports club memberships, community involvement, even golfing victories and assertions of various ancestors’ “popularity” and attractiveness were all reported  — not to mention (sometimes very detailed) descriptions of the women’s clothing.

Thus I know that the bridesmaids in the photo above were wearing dresses of “vieux rose” (a sort of dusky pink) and “heliotrope” (a pinkish-purple). FaceBook of course, would have provided me with photos, but given variation in lighting and camera quality, these may or not have represented the colours accurately.

The newspapers were also remarkably candid in reporting people’s whereabouts;  presumably with their knowledge and consent. For example …

“Mrs F. G. M. Raymond (Beverley Road) left yesterday on a visit to her mother …”

… seems to my jaded twenty-first century sensibilities practically an invitation to burglars. Most people I know are quite cautious about sharing holiday posts and photos on their social media accounts while they are still away, but perhaps folks were more honest in those days.

Perhaps the biggest difference between old and new is in who decides what is newsworthy.

While I’ve identified a number of ancestors in the Christchurch area during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, only a few families appear in the newspaper social columns. They lived in the Hororata area and would probably be termed “prominent” families.

Whether on FaceBook or in old-fashioned print, newsworthiness is socially constructed. The difference is that the social columns were created by third-parties;  journalists operating in a commercial environment, with time, space and social constraints. In the press, news is what sells papers (and advertising).

By comparison, anyone with a social media account can make their own news — and anyone whose friends or family have an account can, willingly or not, become part of that news.

Screenshot of the blogger's FaceBook profile picture.

#OMG #oneforthealbum. Is this how I’ll be seen by future family historians?

 

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Opening the door on a new journey

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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?”

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“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.

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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.”

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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.

doris-and-ethel-gray-double-wedding-1920-papers-past

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.

Tombstone Tuesday: a small serendipity

Monument to John Lazar, Hokitika Cemetery, Westland, NZ. Photo: Su Leslie 2008.

Monument to John Lazar, Hokitika Cemetery, Westland, NZ. Photo: Su Leslie 2008.

I took this photo five years ago in the cemetery in Hokitika, on New Zealand’s West Coast. One of the Big T’s aunts had once lived in the town, and we’d gone for a little tiki tour to see if he could find her house.

Hokitika isn’t a big place, so it wasn’t long before we found ourselves on the edge of town; on a hilltop at the cemetery gates.

I love cemeteries; T hates them. So it probably tells you all you need to know about my partner that he was willing to spend the twilight of a summer’s evening in a graveyard.

I didn’t know who John Lazar was. I took the photo merely because – as we were walking back to the car – a last finger of sunlight rested briefly on his monument and it made for a nice shot.

It has taken me five years to wonder “who was John Lazar”?

The answer made me smile and think about the nature of co-incidence. John Lazar was born in Edinburgh in 1803; 158 years before I was born there. He emigrated to New Zealand in the late 1860s; my family did the same in the late 1960s. And John Lazar was a life-long Freemason – like my father.

He also sounds like an interesting character.

Born in Edinburgh, but brought up in London, he was Jewish – the son of a clothier turned stock broker and a German mother who died when John was relatively young. He worked as a commercial traveller and then a silversmith and jeweller in London before emigrating to Australia with his wife and children in 1836. Three of his ten children had died in infancy in England; three more died on the voyage. [Source: West Coast Times, June 1879]

Before moving to New Zealand he lived in South Australia where he was the the Mayor of Adelaide (1855-1858) and was an actor and impresario – owning theatres in Sydney and Adelaide. He was the first Town Clerk of Hokitika, rising also to hold the positions of County Treasurer and then Provincial Treasurer. [Source: NZ Electronic Text Collection. The History of the Jews in New Zealand, Chapter XV A Ghost Synagogue.]

John and his wife were were apparently well-known, and much loved members of the local Jewish congregation – and of the wider West Coast community. It was said of him that he “combined the rare qualities of immaculate dignity and witty joviality.” [Source: NZ Electronic Text Collection. The History of the Jews in New Zealand, Chapter XV A Ghost Synagogue.]

A report in The West Coast Times from 1873 describes him performing a comic song or two at the closing concert for the Hokitika Exhibition – in which he is described as “The Jolly Town Clerk.”

It seems that Lazar’s ties to Freemasonry were long-standing. He had held high-ranking positions in Lodges in Australia and in Otago before becoming the first District Grand Master of the District Grand Lodge in Westland. When he died in 1879, the costs of his funeral and the rather beautiful monument were met by his Masonic brethren. [Source: Lazar Lodge]

I found this wonderful photo of John Lazar at Early New Zealand Photographers. The photo itself is in the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington.

“Mr John Lazar, D.G.M. of Westland by Rudolph Haigh Reference: REF:natlib.govt.nz:tapuhi:1/4-006809\G Alexander Turnbull Library National Library of New Zealand”

I also found his obituary from the Hokitika Star which begins with the words:

“Today the remains of Mr John Lazar, the Right Worshipful District Grand Master, under the English Constitution, were interred in the cemetery with every mark of respect, and were followed by perhaps the greatest number of persons ever seen in a funeral procession in Hokitika.”

… while his obituary in the West Coast Times ends with:

“It may truly be said of him, that he was one of Nature’s gentlemen, an honest, conscientious, and noble-minded man, and one who will be missed in society for many years to come.”

If there is a point to this story – other than to celebrate a New Zealand pioneer (and that is a worthy point), it is to say thank you to the institutions and people who work tirelessly to make historical information available online; so that everyone from dedicated family historians (of which group I consider myself to belong) to the mildly curious (which is all I really was in this case) can know more about the characters who populated our past, and the events that shaped them.

In particular I want to acknowledge:

The District Grand Lodge of South Island whose website gave me my first glimpse into John Lazar’s life

Papers Past; a wonderful initiative of the National Library Te Puna Matauranga o Aotearoa which is working in conjunction with libraries, historical societies and others to digitise New Zealand’s newspaper archives.

New Zealand Electronic Text Collection – Te Pūhikotuhi o Aotearoa, part of Victoria University of Wellington Library. This wonderful initiative contains both digitised historical texts and born-digital materials relating to New Zealand and the Pacific Islands.

And now for something completely different … (with apologies to Monty Python)

And now for something completely different … (with apologies to Monty Python)

I’ve temporarily exhausted my supply of wedding photos, so that theme is back on the shelf for a while. Meantime, something caught my attention the other day that relates not to my family’s story but to that of the city I live in. It also speaks of the on-going story of violence against women. This is particularly in my mind at the moment, I guess mainly in light of the high-profile fatal attacks on women that have made the news lately. For each for these cases, I know there are many, many more that are not reported. Violence is endured daily by so many women in so many places – and most go un-remarked and un-reported.

Text of memorial to Emily Mary KeelingSo … A couple of days ago, I was walking in Auckland’s oldest cemetery – Symonds Street – in central Auckland, when I found a memorial headstone that caught my attention.

Sacred to the memory of Emily Mary the beloved daughter of George and Emily Keeling of Arch Hill who was shot while on her way to the Primitive Methodist Church Bible Class Alexandra Street April 2nd 1886. Aged 17 years.

Symonds Street Cemetary was in use from 1842 until around the 1930s. It contains the graves of many early European settlers to Auckland, and walking amongst the headstones is a lesson in the hardships of life in the nineteenth century, and of pioneer life in particular.

Symonds Street Cemetary; in use between 1842 and the 1930s.

Symonds Street Cemetary; in use between 1842 and the 1930s.

However, New Zealand has always had a reputation as a very safe place, so death by shooting – particularly the death of a young woman – was both deeply sad, and really intriguing. I had to know more. Was she shot accidentally? Or was it a murder?

It was a murder.

Thanks to Papers Past, an initiative of the National Library of New Zealand to digitise New Zealand’s newspaper heritage, I was able to find newspaper accounts of the death of Emily Mary Keeling, which was widely reported throughout New Zealand.

From the articles I read, it seems that Emily Keeling was fatally shot by a man who lived next door but one to her family. He claimed to have fallen in love with her, and had – two years previously – asked her father for permission to marry her. At the time of the proposal, Emily was only 15 and her father had refused permission. In the intervening two years the man, Edwin Fuller, had moved around the Auckland region working in different jobs before returning to the city to pursue Emily again. According to the newspaper reports, he wrote a letter to his family outlining his plans to kill Emily and himself.

So on a Friday evening in April, a month that in Auckland can be beautifully autumnal, Emily Keeling died a few hundred metres from her home; shot in the chest by a man who wrote to his family ‘… I am going to shoot myself tonight. I love Emily Keeling as no-one ever loved before.’

Edwin Fuller did shoot himself – a couple of streets away – having left Emily to stagger across the street to a shop, where she died within an hour.

I’ve been thinking about this story since Saturday night, and it’s affected me on all sorts of levels. Most importantly of course, I feel an overwhelming sadness at the absolute tragedy of it. A young woman walked out of her front door to go to a Friday evening class, and didn’t even get to the top of her street before being killed. Even 120 or so years later when the murder rate in New Zealand has risen alarmingly, such an event is still rare enough to be remarkable.

I am also feeling something that I’m beginning to recognise quite a lot in family history research; what drives me to do research is curiosity and the pleasure of solving puzzles, and yet it’s often the case that the information which helps to solve those puzzles is only available because the people we are searching for have experienced tragedies that brought them into the public record in some way. So my enjoyment is often tempered with sadness.

flowersEmily Keeling was one of two children. Her brother had moved to Australia and she of course didn’t live to bear children of her own. I don’t know then if there is anyone left in Auckland who remembers her – certainly her grave appears (like most of those I saw in Symonds Street cemetery) untended. Tomorrow I’ll take flowers, in memory not only of Emily Keeling, but of all the women who die violent deaths and who are forgotten like Emily.