Topic: Nellie the Duchess by Maureen Griffin

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Nellie the Duchess is a 2012 Memoir and Local History Competition entry by Maureen Griffin

Archived version here.

Nellie the Duchess by Maureen Griffin

The Army and Navy tavern in Rainham in Kent was the home of the owners, Annie Wyles and her daughter Sarah. Many sailors were the patrons of the establishment and it was a sea captain from the Isle of Wight who had his way with young Sarah and left her in the family way.

On 24th November 1894 a daughter, Nellie, was born to Sarah, who with her mother did all that was possible to make up for her lack of a father figure. Nellie became the sweetheart of the house and, though forbidden entry to the bar room, often hid under the long cloth on the tables, especially when the local constable was doing his rounds, afraid of being caught.

Nellie never went to school without a penny in her pocket. Sunday school outings to Chatham and Gillingham were the highlights of her young days, dressed beautifully in lace collars and cuffed velvet frocks and bright-shining black shoes.

Sarah met and married Thomas Tassell, a carrier, and together they produced another two daughters. Thomas adopted Nellie, giving her a family name. When she finished school at Standard 4, Nellie was put to work to train as a parlour maid for Lady Cavendish in London. From then on she was known to her family as The Duchess.

The family then decided to emigrate to Australia. Late in 1909, while waiting on the docks at Tilbury, word came that their ship has sunk in the harbour mouth and the long wait began for another sailing. The SS Papanui, a ship of 6300 tonnes bound for New Zealand, was their next option.

Nellie could not remember much of the six-week long voyage as most of her time was spent in the lower decks being a nursemaid to her younger siblings. On arrival in Wellington in 1910 they boarded a train travelling over the Rimatuka Ranges to Cross Creek. As the train grumbled and ground its way up the five mile ascent, the children chanted ‘Damn and bugger the Rimatukas” to the rhythm of the wheels. This portrayed their feelings.

Cross Creek, now only a memory, was ten miles south of Featherston and acted as the service depot for the four fell engines and marshalling yards for the goods trains that plied the route between the west and east coasts of the lower North Island.

Being a young woman with previous experience of parlour work, Nellie joined the staff Mount Vernon in Waipukarau, Hawkes Bay, with the Williams family. This was first time that Nellie had seen a Maori, the girl who was set to work along with her; that was something different for that fair young English maiden.

Her greatest ambition was to learn to ride a bicycle owned by one of the maids. She was helped on to the saddle and rode down the long, sloping drive - and, airborne, fell into the rose garden.

Naturally there was a good-looking gardener, Clarence, to rescue Nellie, picking her the thorns out of the rose bush. There followed a romantic courtship. This blossoming English rose was only five feet two, with hazel eyes, light brown hair and a voluptuous figure.

A ring set with three garnet stones and double diamonds between each was the engagement ring Clarence gave to Nellie.

Before the wedding could take place her fiancé was enlisted into the army. He was killed in 1917 in France during World War I.

A distressed and broken-hearted Nellie returned to the bosom of her family, who were now living in the Rangitikei farming centre at Marton, where her father owned a carrier business with several horses and drays. Stables were built on the site in Blackwell Street adjoining the old family home.

Working first in the Tipperary Tearooms and then in the local shoe store, Nellie found another Clarence, the boot and shoe repairer, who not only mended footwear but also Nellie’s heart. Courting was strictly chaperoned as Sarah was well aware of her own experience. Family gatherings around the piano and Sunday dinners were all very correct.

Nellie and Clarence’s new home built in Harris Street was an accomplishment for a young couple. They married in the Marton Methodist Church on January 10th 1923. The bridal gown was ankle length, lace over satin, and a flowing veil and bouquet of roses completed her ensemble. A sister and a friend from work were her bridesmaids.

Nellie took great pride in her home and her cooking, and her table settings were much admired. In November 1924 after a long and difficult confinement her 10-pound son was born, and named Raymond after Rainham in Kent and Clarence after his father.

Life for Nellie was almost complete, except for being unable to have a sister or brother for Raymond. This state of well-being exploded when her father Thomas was dying. Taking her hand he told her he had always treated her the same as her sisters. Not understanding the inference, Nellie asked her mother what he had meant and was told he was not her father, but had adopted her.

This undermined her self-confidence and explained the scorn of her sisters. A division between the girls lasted for several years.

During World War II Raymond volunteered for the air force. Though Nellie signed the papers as he was under age, she was distraught at the thought of her boy going off to war. While waiting for letters and news from him in Canada, where he was stationed, she formed a group of other mothers to knit socks, scarves and balaclava for servicemen.

In 1953 Raymond married and his wife became the daughter Nellie and Clarence had always longed for. She also produced the five grandchildren whom they loved and were loved by in return.

In 1968 after many years of illness, Clarence departed this life. The family cared for Nellie, even giving up their own home for her. She passed away in her 92nd year after a brief illness.

After being at odds with her maker, she said at the last, “O God, I am yours. Please take me.”


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