Topic: New World by Janet Pates

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New World by Janet Pates was an entry in the 2012 Memoir and Local History Competition.

Archived version here.

In 1880 some of Auckland’s councillors decided that a town hall was needed; an imposing building to proclaim the status of this growing, new world city.  Needed? Or was the notion the grandiose plan of a few city leaders intent upon self promotion?  For twenty five years the question was bandied back and forth with various sites proposed and rejected. Finally, agreement was reached. The chosen site, in a prominent position at the junction of Queen and Grey streets was, ironically, the one which had been first proposed all those years previously.

A design competition for the building attracted forty- eight entries, three of which were put before a panel of experts.  First prize of £400 went to architects  J.J. and E J Clark of Melbourne for a design described as, a ‘free treatment of the classic, with facades of Oamaru limestone and a base of Melbourne bluestone’  It would be fronted with an imposing tower, housing a clock with four large dials.

There was subsequently, some discontent that the winning design had not stuck to the financial limits imposed. This, plus the purchase of extra land and the thirty year lapse from original idea to tender, saw the price creep from the initial estimate of £26,000 to £126,000. One critic also complained that the building, designed to fit the wedge shaped site, would look like ‘a deformed block of cheese or a decrepit flat iron.’ But it was deemed too late for second thoughts.  The project was sold to objectors as a welcome source of labour for the unemployed and February 1909 saw the laying of the foundation stone by the mayor, Mr Arthur Myers, who also donated the clock.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, a doctor on his afternoon rounds, took his stethoscope from his ears and said, ‘I’m pleased. The lungs are much improved.’

‘So, I can go back to work?’ asked Duncan.

The doctor laid a hand on his shoulder. ‘Ye need to keep warm. Don’t think of getting back yet.’

Duncan frowned. A wife and four little ones and no money coming in. Those were what he was thinking of. ‘Is there nothing ye can give me to help things along?’ he asked.

The doctor shook his head as he stowed his stethoscope in his bag. ‘A rest from the dust of your work and a kinder climate than our Glasgow winter.  Those are what ye need to heal the lungs.  A long sea voyage now, that would be a fine idea.’

In the background Duncan heard his wife Lizzie give a faint snort.  ‘Or a trip to the moon,’ she muttered.

Later, Duncan wondered if the Doctor had the second sight, for the mail brought a letter from his friend John.  As lads, the two had served their stone masonry apprenticeship together, but while Duncan married his darling Lizzie and produced four children, John had gone adventuring to New Zealand.

‘Dunc, you should come over here,’ he’d written.  ‘There’s grand money to be made by a fine craftsman like yourself.’

Later, with the children in bed and he and Lizzie warming their toes over the few sparse coals in the grate he handed the letter to Lizzie. She read it, passed it back without comment and went back to darning a sock.

‘So, what d’ye think?’ he asked.

‘And where’s the money to come from, for you to go gallivanting?’ asked Lizzie.

‘I could work my passage,’ said Duncan. ‘There’s others doing it. Out there I could save for you and the bairns to follow.’

Lizzie stabbed at the sock as if she would kill it. ‘And take Mother’s only grandchildren to the other side of the world?  No, I’ll not do it.’

Duncan held his tongue. He knew it was pointless arguing with Lizzie, but she was no fool. Left to her own thoughts she might yet see the sense of it.

Next day when her mother came for a visit, he took the older children for a walk. Lizzie told her mother of Duncan’s foolish idea. ‘But dinna worry,’ she said.  ‘I told him I’d have none of it.’

‘Lizzie, you’re a fool,’ her mother said. ‘Another winter of the bronchitis and like as not you’ll lose him.  Then where will you be, with four little ones and no man?’ She picked up the baby, set her on her knee and said softly, ‘I’d rather have my grandchildren  growing on the other side of the world than starving at my knee.’

So it was settled.  Before the worst of the next Glasgow winter, Duncan obtained a place as steward on a ship bound for New Zealand. He and Lizzie made their farewells in the kitchen, the children round eyed with the sense of occasion. Duncan bent and hugged them.  ‘Be good, now,’ he said then looked down at his wife, the baby in her arms, blue eyes dry of tears.  She would do her crying later, alone, so as not to upset the children. ‘A year,’ Duncan said.  ‘I’ll send for you or I’ll be back.’

Lizzie and the children moved in with her mother and maiden sister and waited.

There were letters from ports of call. The hours were long, Duncan reported, but for someone used to hefting stone, the work was not hard and his health was much improved. As they sailed up the Waitemata Harbour, a sailor told Duncan the name meant ‘sparkling waters.’ Duncan thought it fitting but wondered how long it would take his tongue to find its way round these strange, foreign names.  

On shore he was greeted by John who, after a back slapping greeting said, ‘We’ll come back for your trunk. Come away wi’ me now.’

They walked up Queen Street, Duncan feeling the pavement roll beneath his feet while John told him about the great town hall building he was working on.  The fitting of the copper dome on the clock tower was a highly skilled job which neither John nor any of the others working on the site felt able to tackle.  ‘I told them you were the man for it,’ he said. ‘The job’s waiting for you.’ So Duncan brought his old world skills to the new world.

The conversations related are of my imagining but the story is firmly based on family folk-lore. By the time of the town hall’s official opening on 14th December, 1911, Lizzie and the four children had been in New Zealand for eighteen months.  I don’t know if they were present to witness the opening ceremony. By then, another daughter had been added to the brood ( which eventually numbered seven) so perhaps, as he was inclined to do, Duncan took the older children for a day’s outing.  

I like to think he might have pointed to the building with its copper dome, not yet turned to the soft green of such features in the old world and said to his children,  ‘See there. Some day your children can stand here and say, “My grandfather had a hand in that.” ’    Over a hundred years have passed and many of his twenty six grandchildren have done so.  I am one of them.  


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