In the 1820’s several churches in northern New Zealand attempt to convert Māori people to Christianity, but local tribespeople force them away. In Hokianga Harbour, Māori people see the Catholic rituals of French Bishop Jean Baptiste Pompallier and are attracted to them – he successfully starts a Catholic mission. Missionaries travel across the country on foot and on horseback to preach to Māori tribes.
During the musket wars in Hokianga, Missionaries become peacemakers. But European settlers bring deadly new diseases that quickly spread amongst Māori people. Many Māoris believe their own medicines are useless to fight the new diseases so they turn to Christianity for help. As Māori Chiefs convert, their whole tribes follow suit. During the wars, captured Māori slaves are converted and when they return to their tribes they spread news of Christianity – even before the Europeans arrive. Anyone able to read is seen as having great power and many Māori people are keen to learn. The New Testament is published in Māori and sales soar – church services, baptisms and communions increase rapidly. By 1840 the Anglican Church Mission Society has 30 missionaries working across New Zealand.
The New Zealand Company plans large scale colonisation, but the Missionaries are strongly opposed to it, being more in favour of British government intervention. To protect Māori land ownership, they promote the Treaty of Waitangi and help translate it into Māori. They collect signatures for it and Māori chiefs Hōne Heke and Tāmati Wāka Nene give their Christian faith as their reason to sign the Treaty.
But the people become unsettled and racial tensions grow – political developments start to reduce the Missionaries’ influence. In 1845 mission-educated Māori people take up arms against the colonial government. European settlers increase and more Māori land is sold.
In 1847 Governor George Grey accuses the missionaries of encouraging disloyalty amongst Māori people. One missionary, Henry Williams, is accused of acquiring large areas of Māori land by dubious means. The damage to the Mission program is deep. Māori people steadily lose respect for the missionaries and within a decade the Church Missionary Society decides to phase out its funding for New Zealand missions. The Wesley Missions become the responsibility of the Australasian Methodist Church.
By 1860 almost all the mission schools are closed and many missions are deserted. Only Catholic missionary work continues, but on a smaller scale near Napier and along the Whanganui River, then in 1895 the Reverend Henry Fletcher begins a Presbyterian mission in Taupō.
The twentieth century brings a new British monarch and a sense of hope to British colonies across the globe. Although far from Britain, New Zealand celebrates the turn of the century with a strong economy. North Island cities of Auckland and Wellington grow quickly and Prime Minister Richard John Seddon promotes his government as champions of the ‘ordinary New Zealander’. The women’s suffrage movement has recently brought votes for women and social welfare measures are introduced to protect New Zealand’s most vulnerable. The Old-Age Pensions Act offers a small means-tested pension to destitute older people ‘of good character’, but Seddon excludes the ‘Chinese and other Asiatics’ as he – along with many in New Zealand’s mining community – considers the Chinese are not to be liked.
The nation must find a way to house its growing population and free up land for new settlements, so South Island landholders with large estates bear heavy taxes to encourage them to sell off parcels of their land. Māori land is obtained too – already Māori people hold less than 15% of the land they had in 1840. Māori people strongly resist this and in Taranaki, Māori leaders Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi encourage their people to dislodge “European” survey pegs and destroy roads and fences on land they consider theirs. After peaceful resistance and some arrests, Te Whiti and Tohu are imprisoned and exiled in the South Island to serve out their prison sentences.
In the South Island’s dairy farming country of Otago, at the junction of railway lines to Invercargill and Dunedin, a little township of Edendale develops. By 1901, the dairy industry has attracted 180 residents to the newly established Edendale Co-Operative Dairy Factory. There’s a railway station, post office, grain store and a saw mill. The dairy factory is a national leader in the industry and its half-ton Cheddar shaped export cheese wins first prize at the Dunedin Show and a £500 government bonus. Settled primarily by Scottish immigrants with strong Presbyterian faith, the Church is a pivot point in Edendale. Most factory workers are Scots, as are Saddler Currie, Farmer Cranstoun, Estate keeper Macdonald, Farmer Marshall and Butcher Pattinson. They are soon joined by Irishman Sutherland (a sawmiller) and Kiwi storekeepers Shennan and Mclauchlan.
Further north, in Temuka, a town in the sheep and dairy region of Canterbury, farmer and inventor Richard Pearse potters about with machines that (although they are heavier than air) seem able to take flight. In fact, in March 1903, he manages to fly and land a powered machine. Some months later, big news crosses the world when in Kitty Hawk (North Carolina, USA) Orville and Wilbur Wright launch their own fixed wing aircraft and achieve a sustained controlled flight.
Back in Dunedin, in December 1904, in a private home in Port Chalmers, 27 year old James Ross marries 21 year old Ellen Jones. He is a baker and she is a housekeeper. Soon after they wed, they relocate to Edendale, where James runs the bakery. In September 1905, their son James Alexander is born in nearby Wyndham. Presbyterians have always had a commitment to education and during this year the Church is instrumental in the establishment of New Zealand’s first university – University of Otago and Turakina Māori Girls’ School in the Rangitikei.
On 20th April 1907 when falling leaves turn Edendale golden, James and Ellen’s daughter Emily May is born. She, like baby Jimmy, is dark haired with fair skin and deep brown eyes. One day in 1909, when Jimmy is 4 and Emily is 2, Ellen and James prepare their youngsters for a family photograph. But mischievous Jimmy gets an idea that Emily’s flowing dark locks are too long and that she would be far more beautiful with short hair, so he takes to her head with some scissors. With Ellen’s back turned, Emily’s hair falls from her head in tresses … Ellen shrieks when she sees the state of her daughter’s cropped head … and Jimmy reddens with shame. The family portrait is not quite as James and Ellen had first imagined.
As the children grow, James and Ellen make the decision to move their family to Dunedin. It’s the most densely populated and fastest growing borough in New Zealand, so James will find work easily. They will also be nearer both James’ and Ellen’s broader family. James gets a position at Brown’s Bakery and the family find a house at Caversham.
In November 1909, their brother George arrives. Houses in this booming beachside suburb are small and close – settled mostly by British tradespeople. Known as “the Flat”, the area is dominated by industry – with Forbury, St Clair and Caversham quarries, a brickworks, a gas works, a tannery and a match factory. A new double-track railway tunnel connects Caversham with Green Island on the South Island Main Trunk line. The Presbyterian Church and political groups quickly establish, built on the immigrants’ strong work ethic and lifestyle founded on religion. As reward for their hours of labour, many locals enjoy the fare from the local brewery. The Ross family move to 22 Scott Street, St Kilda beach – a popular spot for Dunedin locals, who enjoy picnics along the shore and a swim at St Clair baths.
The following year, in May 1910, Emily is 3 when New Zealand hears news of the passing of King Edward VII in Britain – the second monarch to pass away within a decade. His son is to become King George V.
In early 1912, the progressing world sees the Republic of China proclaimed when Emperor Puyi abdicates and ends centuries of the Manchu Qing dynasty. In March, intrepid American Albert Berry makes the first parachute jump from a flying airplane. In April, the world is rocked again when the grand RMS Titanic, on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, strikes an iceberg and sinks with the loss of 1500 souls. Closer to home near Wellington, ships crossing Cook Strait delight at sightings of their “pilot” … dolphin Pelorus Jack, who appears in front of vessels to guide them through the strong currents and narrow channels. Jack is last seen in April 1912.
In Dunedin, life is changing for five year old Emily too – she starts school at Caversham Primary, where Jimmy already attends. As a Pākehā (non- Māori) child, Emily is unaware that she receives privileges others don’t enjoy. In traditional Māori society, the Tohunga (tribe leader) prepares tribal children for life and they learn in groups, but only those with chiefly lineage have access to whare wānanga (houses of learning). Government supported missions set up European style schools that provide Māori children with religious instruction, industrial training and English classes. Often, attending students board at Mission schools, far from their tribe and pa (village). School is compulsory for Māori children and so is learning English – so when they lapse into their native Māori tongue they are harshly punished. Te Aute College in Hawke’s Bay and Turakina Girls College lead the way to provide academic education for Māori students. But the schools are not well resourced, with untrained teachers and government encouragement that church schools focus on practical skills and hygiene. At Caversham School though, Emily is far more fortunate – her school is very well regarded and does well – she progresses on to Forbury School.
In July 1912, William Massey is sworn in as Prime Minister and in October the TSS Earnslaw makes her maiden voyage from Kingston to Queenstown on Lake Wakatipu.
Around Caversham, Jimmy, Emily and George have much open space. Emily gains a nickname from her older brother – he affectionately calls her “Sis”. After school, when homework and tasks are done, they build huts, play ‘Cowboys and Indians’ and run with the horses across the empty paddocks. The following year, Emily is just 6 when her sister Ellen Isabel is born – she will be known as Isobel. This is a happy and settled time for the family. Every Sunday they attend church together and all enjoy singing in the choir.
In 1913 the Presbyterian Māori Mission begins to expand into new areas and employs women for missionary work. In Nuhaka, 20 miles east of Wairoa, a Church Missionary Society Station had failed when most Māori people joined the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, but stoic Presbyterian Deaconess Sister Jessie Alexander restarts missionary work in the region. She lives two miles out of town and her kitchen provides the first church. In 1914, she is joined there by Sister Edith Walker.
The First World War strikes at the foundation of New Zealand society and Dunedin’s southern suburbs are hit hard with military enlistments. At only 7, Emily is scarcely aware of the war’s impact, except she knows things have changed. She watches her mother Ellen, talented at needlework and home-craft, as she sews, knits, embroiders and bakes for the troops. Emily’s father works to provide a supply of bread for the hard working community. New vehicles appear in Emily’s street – she already knows of horse-drawn vehicles and trams, but now people use individual transport as bicycles, motorbikes, cars and trucks take their place on the city’s dirt roads. Her father rides a bicycle to work daily – and he maintains it with meticulous care. He doesn’t want to waste a penny on its upkeep. Emily watches as he repairs punctures by hand and changes the tyres only when the last of the tread is used.
Three years later, in February 1916, her baby sister Winnifred Mabel arrives.
By 1917, sobriety is seen as a ‘patriotic duty’ and thousands petition government for shorter hotel opening hours. The government also hopes that if men get home earlier in the evenings, this will lead to improved workforce efficiency, so “6 o’clock closing” becomes a way of life.
In 1919, Emily starts Otago Girls’ High School – the first public girls’ high school in the Southern Hemisphere. It is formed after six years of determined lobbying by Miss Learmonth Whyte Dalrymple who wants an education system for girls that offers the same opportunities boys have. In her firm view, a girl deserves far more than embroidery lessons and singing tuition simply aimed at helping her attract a suitor. The Girls’ High School is set up in a block at Otago Boys’ High School – with a tall fence to keep the girls and boys hidden from each other. This is until a new school is built for the boys further up the hill in Arthur Street.
Emily’s high school days feature hours of study, but also unaccompanied madrigal choirs and Shakespeare plays. The school boasts an impressive alumni – Emily Siedeberg and Margaret Cruickshank (New Zealand’s first female medical graduates); Ethel Benjamin (first New Zealand woman to get a law degree) and Dame Silvia Cartwright (New Zealand’s first woman High Court judge and Governor General) along with several Olympians and others well known in the arts and entertainment.
In 1919, Sister May Gardiner arrives to start work at Nuhaka. A Bible Class is established and there is a popular weekly Social Club. After the 1918 influenza epidemic, Sister Jessie persuades the Māori Mission Committee to open a small cottage hospital in Nuhaka. Roads are atrocious across the region, with Nuhaka being totally cut off in winter. A journey to Waikaremoana is easier than one to Wairoa, so the Sisters make the 106 mile trek for supplies on horseback. In 1921, after Sister Jessie and Sister May accept an invitation from the Māori people to start missionary work there, a group of young women from John Knox Church in Rangiora (near Christchurch) raise the money to build a cottage in town. The Sisters begin work by the end of the year. On their first Sunday, 29 children attend Sunday School. At first, the local Ringatu (Māori religious faith followers) are suspicious, but they soon relax when they see the Sisters start each visit their sick with a prayer – and they are impressed that the treatments are often successful. Sister Jessie becomes a respected healer, but her own failing health leads her to resign in 1923 and Sister May becomes leader of the Mission.
Emily leaves high school in 1923 and attends Dunedin Teachers Training College. She is drawn to the guidance of others and finds teaching an ideal profession for her. She lives with her family in South Dunedin until (at 19) she gains a teaching post at Hawea Flat School and transfers 175 miles away to Wanaka, near Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu.
In 1929, in recognition of her work, Emily is made Honorary Assistant to the Māori Mission. The following year, the government decrees that free secondary education will be made available to all New Zealand children – but they acknowledge that few Māori children will have access to it. Māori Schools continue to operate and Emily is transferred to the government’s Whakaki Māori School near Wairoa, in Hawkes Bay.
In this warmer region of New Zealand, she discovers a new sense of contentment. Māori culture is far stronger here than in the South Island and Emily embraces the change wholeheartedly. She takes up residence at the Mission House and works hard. Emily learns a lot from her experienced mentor, Sister May, and she begins for form a close association with the Māori Mission.
In 1932, Emily travels to Wellington to attend her brother Jimmy’s wedding to Agnes Johnston (Nessie) Anderson. This is a happy day for Emily as it’s one of the rare occasions that her entire family are together. They celebrate the nuptials and the family reunion happily.
In 1933, Emily becomes an Aunty when Jimmy and Nessie celebrate the birth of their baby daughter, Nancye Ellen Innes in Wellington. She is a dark-haired lassie, just like her father and Aunty. Emily is blessed with a second niece when Winnifred Leslie May arrives for Jimmy and Nessie in May 1934 – she too is to be known as Winnie.
By 1935 Emily finds she is devoting all her spare time to the Mission’s work and her friendship with Sister May strengthens. In 1941, she is 34 when she feels a strong call to devote herself entirely to the Mission. She returns to Dunedin where she trains as a Presbyterian Deaconess.
On her graduation, Emily takes an assignment at the Mission House in Nuhaka, where she attends to the wellbeing of girls in need and provides all the help she can across the area. Eight Marae serve the Nuhaka communities – it is the tribal centre of the Ngāti Rakaipaaka subtribe of Ngāti Kahungunu.
Although she has a warm heart, Emily is a firm teacher … a fact the Māori children quickly learn. They misbehave and try to get the better of Sister Ross, but she won’t have it – she doesn’t hesitate to use the “strap”. But her disciplined ways are balanced with other traits the children enjoy… she loves music and sings with the children – she often conducts the choir.
In 1939, the Ross family in Wellington is dealt a tragic blow when little Nancye takes ill with diphtheria and meningitis. She becomes gravely ill very quickly and dies within days. Emily’s heart breaks for her brother, Jimmy, and his family.
In 1943, Emily serves at the Nuhaka Language School then in March 1944 she is ordained as the Deaconess of Nuhaka-Whakaki. Emily develops a strong bond with the Māori iwi (community) and through her work a great respect develops for her amongst the area’s tribal leaders.
In Māori society, the connection to extended whanau (family) and iwi (society) is strongly emphasised. This gives tribal children a clear, known identity. Often, Māori families are of several generations and include those not “blood” related.
It is a rare honour for a Pākehā to be embraced into a Māori family – and Emily is afforded this honour. In fact, with great love and respect her whanau take a significant step – they offer her two tribal children. This is whangai – where tribal children are raised by close relatives in open contact with their birth parents. Emily is 38 when, in 1945 she is “gifted” 8 year old Ron Tuhaka and baby Gwen Lewis.
Gwen is the daughter of Ratu Lewis and his wife Kui. Ratu, born in Nuhaka, is very familiar with the Mission, having once been Mormon, but converting and attending the Presbyterian Mission when it was run by Sister May’s predecessor, Sister Jessie. In fact, Ratu, now 43 and Kui (32), named their daughter Gwen Meyer Lewis – after Sister Gwendoline Meyer who was a strong influence in Ratu’s earlier life at the Mission.
In nearby Ōhope, things are developing positively. Emily attends the Māori Synod Ōhope marae where Reverend John (Hoani) Laughton visits and speaks in front of the whare. He has long wanted to establish a Presbyterian Marae here as a contact point between Māori and Pākehā. He achieves his dream when derelict stables become available in nearby Whakatāne, which he ships to Ōhope and rebuilds to become Te Maungarongo.
In 1944, Jimmy and Nessie celebrate the birth of another daughter – Carol Christina Innes, born in Wellington on New Year’s Eve.
In March 1949, Emily is 42 when she gets the tragic news that her mother Ellen has passed away during a visit to Gore – she is only 65. Emily takes the long trip south to Dunedin to pay her respects and mourn the loss of her mother. Emily then returns to the Bay of Plenty, to Ron and Gwen. She spends a year as Deaconness at Matahi near Whakatane.
In 1951, Emily and the children take a holiday to Wellington to visit with Nessie, Jimmy and the girls. They stay in a Mission House provided especially for this purpose in Karori, where five year old Gwen and 14 year old Ron meet Winnie, now a young woman of 17 and Carol (age 7) for the first time. They spend happy time together as a larger family than any of them are used to. Being a close friend of Emily’s, Sister May is also on holidays in Karori.
Three years pass and by 1952 Emily is Deaconess-in-Charge at Opotiki. The times have settled for Emily and the children and two years pass. One day in 1955, news causes Emily to think back to when she listened to Reverend Hoani Laughton at Ōhope Marae – it is now constituted as a Synod of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand. It is named Te Aka Puaho.
In 1954, Ratu Lewis is ordained as an Elder and studies at Te Wananga (Maori Theological College) in Whakatane. In 1954 he is posted to Taupo and in 1957 he is ordained as a Presbyterian Minister.
On 20 January 1959, Emily is 51 when her father, James Ross, dies in Dunedin – he is 82. Emily takes the long trip south once again to pay her respects to her father. However, on her return to Opotiki she is unsettled and feels the need for a change. She takes up the role of Deaconess-in-Charge at Wairoa for a year; then moves again to be Deaconess-in-Charge at Hastings. As part of her role, Emily becomes Factory Chaplain at Wattie’s King Street manufacturing plant and she embraces this with gusto. She happily settles in Hastings.
Ron and Gwen are now young adults and move away from home – Gwen attends Turakina Girls College and the University of Otago. During her studies in Dunedin, Gwen boards at St Kilda Beach with Emily’s sister – her Aunty Isobel. She meets fisherman Garry Edward Neave and when they marry they settle in Stewart Island. Her “brother” Ron moves to the agricultural region of Rangitikei in the mid-North Island.
In February 1961, Gwen’s father Ratu Lewis is appointed Assistant Minister of Whakatane Maori Parish and Moderator of the Maori Synod.
In Hastings, Emily’s chaplaincy at Wattie’s is mightily challenged when in 1962, the factory is significantly damaged by fire. Although no one is seriously hurt, most of the factory is destroyed and the staff are left bewildered, not knowing what will become of them. Emily’s skills at counsel, care and comfort are front and centre throughout several months of factory reconstruction before the Hastings plant is back up and running again.
In mid-July the same year, Gwen’s father Ratu dies in Whakatane after a lengthy illness. Although she is delighted to see her daughter back in the area, when Gwen returns to mourn her father, Emily greets her with a heavy heart, knowing she will feel his loss deeply.
In 1965, Emily retires from the Deaconry and settles in a small home at her adored Ōhope Beach, near Whakatane. Although formally retired, she is still keen to be involved in the community and works keenly where she can. A year later, her brother George is skating on ice at Lake Alexandra in Otago when he falls through thin ice and drowns. He is 59. Once again, she heads to Dunedin for his funeral and to grieve with her brother and sisters. Upon her return to the Bay of Plenty, Emily becomes active once again and works with Reverend Warren Foster in Rotorua.
She continues to live in Ohope and in 1971 she is delighted when the Ōhope marae – now too small for the community, becomes destined for expansion when a new whare whakairo is planned.
Four years later in 1975, Emily’s sister Isobel passes away in Dunedin, she is 68. Emily takes the long trip south once again … this time joined by Gwen who knows Isobel from her University boarding days. Not long after this, Emily’s youngest sister Winnie, now married to Les Walker and living in Invercargill, suffers a stroke. Emily is devastated at the news that her sister’s physical mobility is significantly impaired. She supports Winnie as much as she can. She is mystified when she discovers that, though physically unable to speak, her sister can readily form words and sing to communicate with others.
In July 1977, Emily’s dear brother Jimmy dies in Wellington after a brave battle with cancer. He is 72. Within weeks, her sister Winnie dies in Invercargill – she is 61. Once back in the Bay of Plenty, 71 year old Emily finds it hard to settle. Without her brothers and sisters and with her children far away in southern parts of New Zealand, she is noticing the solitude of her life. A year later, in 1979, the new whare whakairo, to be called Te Maungarongo, opens at Ohope.
Emily’s health starts to fail and she decides to move south to be with Ron, in Marton in the Rangitikei. Ron works as Nurse Aid at Lake Alice Psychiatric Hospital. Emily settles here with Ron, but within two years, in late June 1981 Emily passes away. She is 74.
On a beautiful June day, Emily’s funeral service is held at the Presbyterian Māori Synod Marae at Ōhope. At the tangi at Te Moungarongo, she is called onto the marae by her very close friends from her early mission days. The sad wails of the old folk float on the air as they call …. “Return to us in spirit, O mother of us all. Return to your marae, to your people”.
The Māori elders remember Emily with their words …
“You came to us a total stranger. You ought to understand my people, and they fed you from the basket of knowledge. You understood.”
“Sister Ross was a stranger to us – white but tattooed in the heart”
Two years later, in October 1983, a memorial hall named Sister Emily Ross Youth Hall is opened on the Ōhope marae.
Born in April 1907 and died in June 1981, Sister Emily May Ross is my maternal Great Aunt.
- Signing of the Treaty of Waitangi: http://www.teara.govt.nz/files/27660-atl.jpg
- Edendale location: https://www.bing.com/maps?q=edendale+new+zealand&mkt=en&FORM=HDRSC4
- Botanical Gardens: http://thumbs4.ebaystatic.com/d/l800/pict/381753735296_1.jpg
- Otago Girls High School: http://www.otagogirls.school.nz/about/our-history/pupils-through-the-ages
- Dunedin 1920’s: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_q_WGHXnqn-Q/TTEc0NdpGgI/AAAAAAAABm8/uwRb-CvQnPo/s320/Dunedin1920s.jpg
- Ohope Marae: http://www.teara.govt.nz/files/31083-pc.jpg
- Nuhaka location map: http://www.hawkesbaynz.com/images/uploads/gallery_images/Hb_Region_POI_Map.jpg
- Pine Taihapa – https://uk.pinterest.com/pin/404620347753024735/