Topic: Born in the shadow of a Zeppelin: Early recollections of Ynys Fraser

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Born in the shadow of a Zeppelin: Early recollections of Ynys Fraser (née Wallis) by Alison Brown was an entry in the 2012 Memoir and Local History Competition.

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Ynys Fraser (née Wallis)’s life started in 1917 in London.

Now 95, Ynys recalls some family history: “When I was due there was a Zeppelin raid over London. While Zeppelins weren’t exactly destructive, they were a source of interest and wonder. The maternity staff were watching the Zeppelin through the window while I was entering the world, so my mother and I did it on our own!”

Ynys remembers her father chuckling over an incident that night. He was on duty at the base and his most memorable case was when a soldier injured himself as he walked backwards into a ditch.

“His eyes were on the Zeppelin, not on where he was going.”

On a serious note, Ynys remembers him commenting on the implications: “Hitherto the people had felt their peaceful England was unassailable yet, suddenly, there was the enemy hovering above them. That brought the realisation England was indeed vulnerable.”

Ynys was later told that, because he was on duty, her father wasn’t present at her birth either.

“But he came the next morning. He wasn’t allowed into my mYnys Fraser at her christening in 1917 in the church army hut in Hornchurch, the baby Ynys wears the gown her father bought in Bond Street, London. other’s room straight away so went shopping on Bond Street where he bought a christening gown. Some weeks later, in an army hut in Hornchurch I was christened in that gown, just as many members of my family have been since.”

Ynys’ father, Wilfred Stanley (Stan) Wallis graduated MB, ChB in 1915 from the University of Otago and that May married Elsie Ada Williams in Timaru. Three weeks later he left for Egypt as a member of the New Zealand Medical Corps serving with No 1 New Zealand Stationary Hospital.

By 1917 facilities at Cairo were deemed inadequate for treating the soldiers’ horrific injuries whereas Britain was considered reasonably safe. Thanks to the generosity of the local squire who gave his home and grounds to establish the unit, the hospital base was transferred to England and set up in Hornchurch, then on the outskirts of London. While Dr Wallis was based there he was also being trained in orthopaedics by Sir Robert Jones, the leading surgeon of the time.

When the Medical Corps’ Commander-in-Chief declared that married New Zealand and Australian officers could invite their wives to join them in England, Dr Wallis immediately sent for his bride. She was on the first ship possible – which was also probably the last passenger ship to sail from New Zealand as by then the seas were getting dangerous. On the trip, round the Cape of Good Hope, strict rules applied, like total black-out and no smoking on deck.

Initially Mrs Wallis lived in digs in Hornchurch but when her baby was due she moved to London’s Hyde Park for the delivery. The owner of the co-joined properties at 13 and 14 Princes Gate had loaned his home to the Council of War Relief for the Professional Classes, who used it as a maternity home for the wives of Australian and New Zealand officers. The services of a Harley Street specialist were also paid for.

The owner was in fact John Pierpont (Jack) Morgan, Jr, an American banker (J. P. Morgan & Co) and philanthropist. In 1920 he gave this 14 Princes Gate property to the US government for use as its embassy. It was subsequently home to eight US ambassadors, until it was sold in the mid-1950s.

Shortly before the war ended Dr Wallis returned to New Zealand with his wife and tiny child. He was the medical officer-in-charge on board the first ship returning wounded New Zealand soldiers to their home. The journey took them through the Panama Canal where the men were not allowed ashore because of the risk of infection. However Dr Wallis did go ashore, returning with a huge bunch of bananas for the men, which he slung over his shoulders as he climbed the rope ladder to the deck.

“Family history tells that as he reached the top some of the soldiers teasingly leaned over the rail and tugged off his bananas,” Ynys notes.

She was later told how her mother put her on deck in the centre of a ring of soldiers who kept an eye on her while also providing an audience.

“What a drama queen I became. And I never did manage to stand steadily on that rolling deck.”

Her mother brought aboard enough Robinson’s Groats to feed the nine-month Ynys throughout the voyage. The groats had to be cooked so she delivered them to the galley and the ship’s cook supplied servings as required.

Ynys Fraser. A ‘drama queen’ in infancy, by the age of 10 Ynys was already a talented ballet dancerHowever, Ynys couldn’t digest the food, couldn’t keep it down and became progressively undernourished and unwell. Later the family discovered the ship’s cook had merely stirred boiling water into the groats, rendering them indigestible. Stomach troubles beset Ynys for the next seven years and then miraculously ceased.

 Robinson’s Patent Groats

(archived by the Royal College of Nursing, extracted from The British Journal of Nursing, August 30, 1902 and posted on Google.)

 Robinson’s Groats, prepared from Scotch-grown grain, are also admirable for the preparation of the morning porridge, which should be a standing breakfast dish in every household. Eaten with milk it is a most pleasant, wholesome, and strengthening article of diet, provided the grain used is of good quality, and this may be ensured by the use of Robinson’s Groats.

Excellent gruel may be made from Robinson’s Groats in the course of a few minutes.

On their arrival in New Zealand Dr Wallis was posted to Burnham Military Camp and the family settled briefly in the area before moving in 1920 to Rotorua where he’d been asked to take over as medical superintendent of the King George V Military Hospital (now Rotorua Public Hospital) which at that time was a rehabilitation centre.

Rotorua resident, 93-year-old Les O’Connor remembers: “My father worked up at the King George V Hospital on the hill. Those wards seemed large to me when I was little. There were a lot of returned soldiers in the wards. Dr Wallis was himself still in uniform and he particularly wanted staff with war experience working in the wards because he knew they’d understand that many of these patients were traumatised.”

Les’ father certainly understood. He’d had a club foot and was rejected for military service. Instead he served in a non-combatant role as Red Cross personnel, at dressing stations in the field, in hospitals and on the hospital ship, the SS Mokoia.

Some years later, as the 1925 outbreak of poliomyelitis brought many victims to his hospital, Dr Wallis introduced innovative rehabilitation treatment and, as the hospital transitioned to a civilian facility, he made a point of encouraging local Maori to make use of the facilities.

Les O’Connor recalls those days. “There were three wards in the hospital. The infantile paralysis (now poliomyelitis) children were housed together in one ward. Someone commented that Dr Wallis was more like a father than their own parents to some of the children who’d spent many years in hospital.”

Because of her poor health, Ynys didn’t go to school until she was seven. But she did have a tutor who taught her to read but never did tackle maths or even times-tables.

“That was always a bugbear,” remembers Ynys. “Sums were just squiggles on a blackboard: riddles with no answer.” She adds: “I didn’t really need maths until much later when I was involved in my husband’s business – and then I learned in a hurry.”

On the other hand, when Ynys did eventually go to school her advanced reading ability meant she sailed through the primers in a week.

By early 1942 Dr Wallis was back in uniform. Promotion to Colonel gave him sufficient rank to deal with senior military officers when he was appointed superintendent of Rotorua’s new Services Convalescent Hospital. This had been commissioned by the New Zealand Government as a convalescent hospital for the repatriation of returning members of the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force.

Dr Wallis and his staff were committed to ensuring servicemen were gradually eased back into meaningful civilian life.

In 1948, as the number of military casualties dwindled, patients from the Rotorua Sanatorium and facilities from the Bath House were transferred to the hospital which ceased to function just for servicemen. Renamed the Queen Elizabeth Hospital and, until his retirement in 1957, led by Dr Wallis as its first medical superintendent, the facility specialised in the treatment of arthritis, rheumatism and associated conditions – and continued the convalescent hospital philosophy of helping people to self-manage.

“My father’s respect for the dignity of human life rubbed off on us, his family,” Ynys reckons. She believes his motivation to help individuals live their life to the best they could has been – and continues to be – a major influence on her own life.

“I’m a survivor. I made my own way into the world, thanks to the Zeppelin, and have ventured through it thanks to lessons learned from my father.”

Ynys Fraser. Married at old St Luke’s Church, Rotorua where members of St John created an archway of long splints. Guide Rangi is in the foreground.Sources:

Ynys Fraser in Remembering: a Mosaic of Memories (Alison Brown & Ynys Fraser)

Hospital on a Hotspot (Susan Butterworth)

Royal College of Nursing website



Ynys Fraser with her first born About the Author.

Alison Brown

After a decade of writing features and news stories, truncating press releases, and proofreading for a community newspaper, Alison Brown cut loose.


Now her proofreading, editing and rewriting services earn her bread’n’butter, while her cake’n’cappuccinos come from writing about older folk who modestly consider themselves 'ordinary'.


She notes: “They seldom are ‘just’ ordinary. Many have led colourful lives and are still doing extraordinary things in their golden years. I feel privileged that these ageless characters allow me to rake through their memories. I see them as colourful role models and I am honoured to be the chronicler of their tales.”



A version of this article was archived in August 2016 at Perma CC


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Born in the shadow of a Zeppelin: Early recollections of Ynys Fraser

First Names:Ynys
Last Name:Wallis
Date of Birth:3 August 1917
Place of Birth:London, England
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License
Born in the shadow of a Zeppelin: Early recollections of Ynys Fraser by Tauranga City Libraries Staff - HC is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License