Topic: From Humble Beginnings by Addy Coles

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Most girls are a little more than apprehensive when meeting their prospective in-laws for the first time. My experience began when in 1966 my then boyfriend, Mark, took me to Onga Onga, Hawke’s Bay, to see his parents, Frank and Irene Coles.

Mum and Dad Coles met us outside.  I quickly felt at ease, they were so welcoming.  Dad opened the porch door, showed the way to the kitchen and pulled out the chair for me as we sat down.  This was an era of hospitality extended in order to avoid awkward moments. 

The kettle soon boiled.  We talked as we drank tea – two to three cups - along with nice morsels to eat. Discussion covered ‘backgrounds and the past.’  I got the impression they listened.  This made me warm to them, feeling they were my kind of people.

Having learnt about each other, Dad offered to show me the Coles Joinery factory.  It had been a family concern since 1877 employing carpenters, joiners, bricklayers, painters, plumbers and drainlayers, and even undertook funerals in earlier years as did most joiners in the coffin-making trade.

On my guided ‘tour’ round the factory Dad turned on a switch, setting belts in motion.  These drove pulleys that in turn activated various woodworking machines, all of which made a deafening noise.  One machine cut a log into planks, another shaped them into useful sizes and a third planed the timber as Dad fed it through.  A trolley on a short rail-track provided easy transportation to storage sheds and a dump.  Everything ran like clockwork, the surroundings showing signs of many years use and the family craftsmen’s pride in history needed no expression.

Beyond the storage sheds lay paddocks which during two World Wars and the 1930s Depression had grazed the Coles’ cow to produce milk and butter.  Dad’s Uncle George’s bees had pollinated a large vegetable garden, still in production, adjacent to the cowshed.

As we talked I reflected on the hardships this family had faced and how as early settlers they crossed rough oceans in small sailing ships before arriving in New Zealand. Eighty years later my own journey to this country seemed easy by comparison, when at age sixteen I’d sailed by steam ship from the Netherlands.  The Second World War had ravaged my family and homeland.  I, too, had longed for stability and a new start. 

As we talked about hardships and a determination to overcome, I felt a bond between us.  The thought of new family and roots struck a chord deep within, a feeling unique to those who have lost not only possessions, but family too.  Perhaps I unconsciously saw a snapshot of something that, for as long as I could remember, had never really been a reality for me.

My ‘tour’ moved on through the Onga Onga ‘village’ – the former Coles’ Hardware Store, Mum’s parents’ Draper Shop, the then still functioning Post Office, General Store and Butchery.  In the past other services - now long gone – had created a busy atmosphere.  The barber, bakehouse, boarding house, Bank of New Zealand and blacksmith had all contributed to the community.  Apart from medical advice, the village then had almost been self sufficient.

In late 1876 Dad’s grandfather, Edward Purkis Coles – a builder from Droxford, Hampshire – accepted an invitation from a former landowner to emigrate to New Zealand, an offer he hoped would give his ten children a better future. Life in rural England was tough with 140 people without means in the Droxford Union Workhouse. Edward, his wife and children arrived in Onga Onga in August 1877 following a testing 14-week sea voyage. Edward then established himself as a builder in the local community, his sons following in his footsteps.

The Coles’ family’s emigration sparked thoughts of my own forefathers who had emigrated from the Netherlands to Indonesia, my great-grandfather arriving there in 1882 in search of a better life.  Sadly many struggles and trials followed. The hardest to bear were events resulting from the Japanese invasion of much of South East Asia during World War Two.

War and stories about war to me spelled misery.  Our family suffered hard and life changing losses, having experienced first-hand Japanese prisoner of war camps.  So many of my family had died: my father, brother, grandfather and uncle.

‘Who next?’ I asked myself.

When liberation from the Japanese came in August 1945 there was no peace. Only God knows what would have happened if we hadn’t been rescued from Batavia’s frightening native uprising after the war (1940-1945). 

Thankfully, in May 1946 we were finally evacuated to the Netherlands, safe from war and fighting, but my mother lay seriously ill in hospital, the results of three years captivity and stress.  My older sister was also unwell. 

At three years of age I understood more than people gave me credit for.  The more they hid from me, the more I worried. That worry remained until Mother died in 1958 when twelve years coping with illness, worry and stress took its toll.

As we walked back up the garden path toward the Coles family home, a delightful aroma wafted toward us.  Mum’s lamb-roast!  We savoured it together with baked vegetables and silverbeet.  

I was amazed how quickly Mum rustled up a meal, even dessert!  This no doubt would have been an asset one learnt during hardships.  As we continued eating and talking that evening, more of my own memories surfaced.  Recalling the contrast between the Japanese POW camp’s meagre rations and Holland’s food supply was unbelievable.  Not wanting to dwell on the negatives and relive the past, however, I kept quiet, as had become my habit, and listened to more stories.

“Smile,” somebody once told me, and from then on I left the past behind to make way for the future. Mark was that future and I genuinely rejoiced with Dad, who was pleased Mark had chosen building as a career. He’d finished his apprenticeship, worked for other builders and looked forward to building our home. 

All I wished for was stability, peace, simple expressions of love and a secure family with a mother and father, something I hoped to provide for my children one day.

When we finally retired to bed, Mum showed me my room and did what my own mother hadn’t been able to for years.  Tears of joy welled up as she kissed me goodnight and even ‘tucked-me-in’.

These events are now 47 years past.  Today my early life experiences are still real, but have somehow become less painful. God has healed many memories and taught me a whole new way of looking at events that need to be forgiven, but not forgotten. 

That first meeting with my new family in 1966 is still a sweet memory.  Mum and Dad Coles’ tender heart-reaching love and acceptance extended toward me that day and the following years, became an example to imitate and pass on from its humble beginnings to end.


ABOUT THE WRITER: Addy Coles was born in 1942 during the Japanese invasion of Dutch Indonesia and spent three years in prisoner of war camps (1942-1945). She and her surviving family returned to The Netherlands in 1946, struggling with post-traumatic stress and illness. Following her mother’s death in 1958, she emigrated to New Zealand. 

‘From Humble Beginnings’ was written for the Memoir & Local History Competition 2011, run annually by
the New Zealand Society of Authors (Bay of Plenty Region) with support from Tauranga Writers, and was Highly Commended by judges Susan Brocker and Tommy Kapai Wilson.


The Simpson's Drapery Store, Onga Onga, with Irene Coles' parents Lawrence and Annie Simpson on the verandah - taken early 1920s.


‘Mum and Dad’ - Frank and Irene Coles - taken late 1920s. 


The old house: Edward Purkis and Clara Louise Coles' first home, built by Edward around 1880 and situated next to the Coles' Joinery factory.  Edward, Clara and some of their children stand in front of the house.


The Coles Joinery with employees - photo taken early 1900s.


This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016:

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From Humble Beginnings by Addy Coles

First Names:Addy
Last Name:Coles
Date of Birth:1942
Place of Birth:Dutch Indonesia
Mothers date of death:1958