Chapter 21
Hugh and Ann’s Daughters

21.1 Janet Georgina McNair

Janet (“Jessie”) McNair [M.1], the eldest child of Hugh and Ann, married Charles Francis Edgar on 17.9.1884 in the Dundas Street Primitive Church, the McNair family church. The marriage certificate gives his occupation as clerk, hers as domestic. The certificate spells his surname Edger. It is possible that this is a mistake.

Charles and Jessie had one son, Eric. I do not know his date of birth. Jessie died 18.9.1888. This could perhaps have been in childbirth following a second pregnancy. What happened to Eric is uncertain. Newspaper cuttings kept by Dorothy Mitchell refer to the death by drowning at Piha of “well known public accountant Eric. M. Edgar”. His age is given as 49. The year of the newspaper cuttings is not recorded. It would seem to have been suicide. It would have to have been in the 1930s if this person were Jessie’s son.

Charles Francis Edgar remarried after the death of Jessie [M.1], and there were two children of this marriage, Gladys and Vernon. I do not know whether Eric Edgar was survived by children, or even whether he married.

21.2 Grace Wilkinson McNair

The second daughter and third child of Hugh and Ann McNair was Grace Wilkinson McNair [M.1]. She was born on 11.7.1867 at East Taieri, that is before Hugh and Ann came in to Dunedin to live. I know nothing of her childhood. She married Henry William Simpson Hellyer (“Harry”) in Dunedin in 1895 at the age of 27 [T.7a, 7b, 7c]. I have told their story in the chapter on the Hellyer family.

21.3 Ann McNair

Next of Hugh and Ann McNair’s children after Grace was Ann [M.1], born 22.11.1868 and named after her mother. She lived only 27 months, dying 27.2.1871.

21.4 Jane Miller McNair

Ann was the fourth child. After her came Jim, followed by four girls. The first of these was Jane Miller McNair (“Jean”), born 19.4.1871. Jean married Fred Fulton and they had three boys, Arthur, Charles and Eric. The Fultons lived initially at the foot of Pine Hill. The boys were contemporaries of Mum. Among the family, and probably well beyond, they were known as “terrors”. Jean’s sister, Mum’s Aunt Lissa, used to say, “Those boys of Jean’s will end at the gallows.” When one of her sisters visited Jean there was a terrible noise coming from within the house. “Oh,” said Jean, “It’s just Fred giving Arthur a hiding.” Fights among the boys, two lining up against the third, were common, in the kitchen as well as outdoors. On one occasion Jean was to be seen chasing them with a broom and shouting, “Out o’ this. Get out o’ this. I’ve had enough of youse. Get out o’ this.” As adults they seem to have become normal docile citizens. Fred Fulton was a tallyman for a stock agency, Lallas, and at some stage the family went to the Catlins, in South Otago, when Fred was moved there from Dunedin. I believe, too, that at some later date Jean was for a time at Ripponvale, just out of Cromwell.

21.5 Mary McNair

Figure 21.1: James (“Jim”) McNair Janet Georgina (“Jessie”) McNair


Figure 21.2: Postcard from Jim McNair, sent from Los Angeles

The seventh child of Hugh and Ann was Mum’s “Auntie Josie” [M.1]. Her given name was Mary, not even Mary Josephine; but I never heard her called anything but Josie. She was born 30.11.1873. Of all Mum’s many McNair aunts she was the humorist. With a rather dry wit, she always seemed to be able to see the funny side of any situation. Her wry, slanted smile and slightly grating voice seemed to match her tall, angular figure. Josie married George David Mitchell. A tailor by trade, he was as roundly plump and benign as Josie was spare and angular. Their only child was Dorothy Mitchell [M.1], who was a few years younger than Mum. As a young woman Dorothy was notably shy, and thus a source of much tut- tutting among the various aunts: “She’ll never marry, I fear.” She never did, and I doubt she ever had a “young man”. But as she grew older she shed some of her extreme shyness, and displayed a dry humour not unlike her mother’s. She and Mum were good friends, and she was a frequent visitor to my parents’ house. Yet I think the friendship was never really intimate. Dorothy always seemed to hold something in reserve, and in her last years (she outlived Mum) she became increasingly reclusive. While she ate many a meal at my parents’ place, Mum once remarked to me that Dorothy had never asked her to a meal. Indeed she rarely asked anyone into the house. This house, in Rona Street, Musselburgh (formerly Quarry Street), was the one her parents had lived in for many years. Dorothy had always lived with them, and she continued to live on there after they died. She died about 1987.


Figure 21.3: Grace Wilkinson McNair

Uncle George and Auntie Josie (as I always heard them called) lived, in the early years of their marriage, in Wellington in Webb Street (No.10) and, later, Taft Street, Brooklyn. Dorothy was born in Webb Street, and when Margaret and I were living in Wellington while I was working for the Liquid Fuels Trust Board and Dorothy had come up from Dunedin to stay with us, we took her to re-visit Webb Street. The house she had been born in and had lived in as a small girl was still standing, to her great pleasure.

George Mitchell came from the Balclutha area. He was a tailor by trade. While the family was in Wellington he became very ill of double pneumonia. Mum’s mother, Grace, went up from Dunedin to help nurse him, and, as Mum told me, “Dad and I went to live in Grandpa and Grandma Hellyer’s big house in Hope Street”. George Mitchell may also have been out of work for a time in Wellington.

The Mitchells came back to Dunedin when Dorothy was about 14. They lived in Council Street, St Kilda. Uncle George was employed in the tailoring business of the McLean brothers. One of these brothers was the father of Fred McLean, who was my brother Gray’s closest friend. He began as a school friend, but became a friend for life, and also a good friend of all the family. Perhaps the later move to Quarry Street, Musselburgh, was so that Josie could be near her sister, Grace, while Grace’s husband, Mum’s father, my Grandpa Hellyer, was ill, dying of cancer.

Uncle George was a cheery pipe-smoker, and a good gardener. He was also very fond of a leg-pull. I remember his delight at tripping me up, a serious, shy small boy, testing out my spelling. He began by asking me to spell “fifth”, “sixth”, “eighth”, “twelfth”, then “January”, “February”. Having failed to catch me out, he changed tack, and asked me to pronounce “M-a-c-d-o-n-a-l-d”, spelling out the word; then “M-a-c-p-h-e-r-s- o-n” and so on, ending with “M-a-c-h-i-n-e-r-y”. “MacHinery”, said I, to his not unkindly laughter and my blushing embarrassment.

Some time in, I think, the early 1940s Uncle George suffered a crippling stroke. After he came out of hospital Dad went over to visit him. “Poor George,” he said on returning home, “I’m afraid it’s all up with him.” But George survived for a good many years, if housebound and with greatly impaired speech, and outlived my father.

21.6 Elizabeth Miller McNair

Next after Josie was “Lissa”, Elizabeth Miller McNair [M.1], born 16.6.1876. Lissa was my mother’s favourite aunt, and a sweeter-natured person would be hard to find. Perhaps not surprisingly there went with the sweet nature a touch of “correctness”. Of her father’s excessive conviviality she is on record as saying, “He was much in demand socially.” But when the family was young and he was seen to be weaving his way home from work or a “Burns Night”, or some other of his numerous “social engagements”, presumably drunk or nearly so, the McNair girls would disappear until well after his arrival.

Auntie Lissa married William Mount Buddle (“Bill”), a boarding-house keeper (and publican?) in 1904. Fairly early in their marriage Bill and Lissa kept a boarding house at Papatowai. This must have been about the time when Mum and Dad were courting or engaged, for there are many photographs of them and their two sets of parents taken in or around Papatowai, and I believe they were staying at the Buddles’ boarding house.

Later Uncle Bill and Auntie Lissa went to Riverton. Mum and Dad holidayed there when I was a small child, aged perhaps two. We travelled down to Invercargill by train, presumably going on to Riverton by “service car”. The train journey must have seemed a long one to a two-year old; and, because he was full of questions, no less so to his parents. “What’s ’at”, he would ask as some object raced backwards past the carriage window. “What’s ’at?” as the train raced past yet another station. Exasperated parents at last stopped trying to name each place, and answered, “Just a station”. “What station?” “Just a station. A station.” From there on I am said to have announced each wayside station that flashed by as “Hay station”. “Hay Station” became a family folk tale.


Figure 21.4: Elizabeth Buddle, nee McNair (“Auntie Lissa”)

Later still Uncle Bill and Auntie Lissa took a boarding house (hotel?) in Akaroa. It stood on the waterfront. Mum took us boys there as part of a long January holiday, first to Christchurch to stay with the Kinvigs (Auntie Em and Uncle Alf), then with the recently married Rennells (Alix and Bernard - Alix was a daughter of Em and Alf Kinvig), and lastly in Akaroa. What I chiefly remember of this are endless sunny hours of play on the beach below the boarding house, and the drive between Little River and Akaroa, both coming and going. We boys, Gray and I, sat on the jump seats behind the driver’s seat of the big 7-seater service car. It was a Hudson “Super Six”. I was captivated by the seemingly endless series of sweeping curves, first to left then to right, as the heavily laden car, in “passionate second gear” howled its way uphill and down, flinging out gravel from its turning, sliding wheels as they fought the unsealed roadway.


Figure 21.5: Miss Major’s Young Ladies’ Gymnastics Class. Alice McNair at top right, Nell McNair at front right

Auntie Lissa and Uncle Bill never had children. Their final move was to No.4 Cosy Dell in North Dunedin, into a large wooden house on a bush-clad section of considerable size. Again they ran a boarding house. Some years later Uncle Bill died, and, late in life, Auntie Lisa married for the second time, to Alex Sligo, a childhood sweetheart. She survived him by some years, became almost blind, and died 28.11.1965 in a small cottage in Albany Street in North Dunedin.

21.7 Agnes Miller McNair

The ninth child of Hugh and Ann was Agnes Miller McNair (“Nessie”) [M.1], born 7.2.1878. She married Robert Joseph Montague Chadwick (“Mont”) in 1907. When I knew of them they were living in Napier. They had two boys, Briton and Hawdon. Uncle Mont, “Nuka Mok” as she called him when she was a toddler beginning to talk, was without doubt Mum’s favourite uncle. She was very fond, too, of her Auntie Nessie. Auntie Nessie also seems to have been much loved by other members of the various McNair families. She visited us only once that I can remember in Dunedin. I have a clear picture of a plump, smiling figure seated at one side of the fire in our Beach Street sitting room, Mum on the other, Mum with her knitting, Auntie Nessie with a lap full of embroidery, while they talked, presumably of times past. Margaret Gowan, when we visited her, recalled her affectionately and spoke of her as a “marvellous needlewoman”.

Uncle Mont also came to Dunedin only once within my memory. He was a tall, striking, even dashing figure, I thought; and that is clearly how he struck Mum. Margaret Gowan had a less romantic view of him. “Monty always looked like someone who wasn’t making the grade. A charmer. Very smooth. He looked like a card-player on a Mississipi river- boat.” Whatever grade it was that Margaret thought he wasn’t making, he was professionally the best qualified of that generation of McNairs and their spouses. He was an Associate Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers (A.M.I.C.E.). This was a qualification not at all easy to obtain in those days when the only route to it was by part-time study during an engineering cadetship. What Uncle Mont’s early engineering experience was I do not know. At the time I am writing of he was, I believe, with C. D. Edmondson, the illuminating and lighting engineers who later became the Oxy-Acetylene Company, and eventually N. Z. Industrial Gases. He probably also held a number of secretaryships in Napier. He was in Napier at the time of the big earthquake in 1932, and Peggy Dalmer (nee Metson), one of his nieces, tells the story that he was in the street chatting with a jeweller friend, who had a shop near Uncle Mont’s office, when Napier began to rock and fall around them. They took off at a run, Monty remarking with dismay that he had just opened his safe and placed a series of piles of cheques and cash on his desk. “Well, Mont,” was the response, “Yours is only paper. Mine is jewels.” And they continued to run.

The boys, Briton and Hawdon [M.1], were contemporaries of Margaret Gowan and Peggy Dalmer. I never met them. Margaret judged Briton as “brilliant but wild”, Hawdon as “more solid”. Briton took a law degree at Victoria University College, as it then was. Margaret used to dance with him when she was in Wellington at that time. Briton married Annette Strickland “because he had to. She was a wild one too. They had little money, and kept on having children they couldn’t afford, as if birth control hadn’t been heard of”. As a lawyer Briton “did something shady, was tried, and went to prison”. Afterwards he went back to Hawkes Bay where he remained until he died. “He had been a secretary of a golf club, I think.” Briton was a very fine amateur actor, at one time playing Iago to Selwyn Toogood’s Othello, and this talent has emerged in his son, Robin Chadwick, who had a part in the B.B.C. television programme, “The Brothers”. Robin was the subject of a newspaper interview during a visit to New Zealand in 1983.

21.8 Helen McNair

The child of Hugh and Ann McNair after Nessie was George Smith. He was followed by another girl, Helen (“Nell”) [M.1], the eleventh child, born 3.3.1883. Nell married Basil Metson, a Methodist minister [M.1]. Basil’s father, Robert Metson, came to New Zealand from Essex, where he had been a farm labourer on an estate. The labourers were given breakfast (this account is due to Peggy Dalmer), sent out to work in the fields, and, except for a hunk of bread, were given no other food until they returned at sundown for dinner. Robert always asked for the heel of the loaf. At lunchtime he would hollow out the bread from the crust and then surreptitiously draw milk from a handy cow into the now cupped crust of the heel, and thus get a good drink of milk before finally eating the crust. In New Zealand Robert was curator of the public gardens at Temuka. His son, Basil, was born on 24.8.1879. Robert’s wife died when Basil was about eight months old, and he was brought up by an elder sister. He used to be brought to the gardens and wheeled about there in a wheelbarrow.

Basil left school from Standard Four, and went to work for a baker in Temuka. He slept at the bakery, in a loft. He would have to get up at 2 o’clock in the morning to knead the bread, and have it ready to bake at 4 a.m. He would then load the loaves into the baker’s van for delivery.

From Temuka Basil went to Dunedin to work in the bakery of Jakob Helmky. At this time he was studying for the Ministry, and he completed his exams in Dunedin. In Dunedin he married Helen (Nell) McNair [M.1], on March 3, 1909 Soon after, they went to a charge in Stratford. There were born Peggy (22.12.1909) and Margaret (Molly) (21.2.1913). They moved from Stratford to Christchurch, on Cambridge Terrace, where Helen Betty (9.5.1916) and Nancy Joan (7.5.1918) were born. Thence the family moved to Tai Tapu for five years, and then to Musselburgh, Dunedin, where Basil was minister at the Musselburgh Methodist Church. This stands on Queens Drive. The manse, a substantial two-storey brick house, is directly across the road from it, next door to the house occupied by Auntie Annie Gore in her last years. They were there for about four years, from about 1921 to about 1925. Strangely, although I remember having had the house pointed out to me as the place where Basil, Auntie Nell, and the Metson girls lived, I do not recall ever being in it. I always felt there was a stiffness about the relationship with Basil Metson, for I never heard Mum call him “Uncle Basil”

Peggy was dux of Musselburgh Primary School. She recounts that “Uncle Harry [Mum’s father - ALT], who was always very nice to me, gave me the same present he gave to Freda when she was dux - a butterfly-wing brooch and, can you believe it, a pair of long white silk stockings. I was embarrassed by these and didn’t know what to do with them, or even how to hold them up. But Freda wore long white stockings, so he was just treating me as he treated his daughter”.

Peggy went on to Otago Girls’ High School. There Mrs King, the head mistress, used to teach them English, and would often just come in and read some story to them. As she would never finish, Peggy would rush straight down to the Athenaeum (she had won a prize that gave membership to the Athenaeum Library) to get the book out before anyone else did.

During Peggy’s third year at High School the family moved to Napier. They lived on Bluff Hill, popularly known as “Hospital Hill”, not far from the Chadwicks, so that the Metson children got to know Briton and Hawdon quite well. Peggy described the Chadwick household as “a household out of control”. The boys were boisterous and Auntie Nessie couldn’t manage them. She would “flutter around them” trying to restore order. When Uncle Mont came home from work he would stand at the top of the gully in which the boys would be playing and, opening his coat, would bang his fists on his chest. The boys would rush up the hill and jump at him and a prolonged rough and tumble would follow.

While at Napier Peggy went to Napier Girls’ High School. Margaret McNair was at Ngatawa, not far away. They sat, in the same year, the Lizzie Rathbone Scholarship, which Peggy won. Next year Peggy went on to Victoria University College. Margaret, Peggy says, also started at Victoria, but after some months “was taken by her mother to Oxford”.

From Napier the Metsons moved back to Dunedin, where Basil was again minister at the Musselburgh Methodist Church. Peggy recalled that her sister, Molly, had piano lessons from “Tops” Fulton. Tops was the wife of Arthur Fulton, and “a good teacher of the piano”. She was also at least as much of a character as the members of the Fulton family she married into. One story, recounted by Tops and recalled by Peggy, relates to a pupil whose utter lack of progress drove Tops to weekly distraction, and whose mother could never be persuaded to terminate lessons. “What comes after G?”, asked “Tops” for the umpteenth time. After a long silence came the response, “H”.

When Peggy was at Victoria, and after Margaret had left for Oxford, Margaret’s father, George McNair, took to taking Peggy out from time to time to dinner. George’s wife, Margaret’s mother stayed in England for some time. Peggy was living in a hostel (boarding house?) where the matron was a Mrs Horrocks. Uncle George would take Peggy back to the hostel in his Nash car, but would always stop some distance off under a nearby tree, where they would sit and talk for a while, before she got out and walked off to the hostel. Mrs Horrocks would question Peggy about these outings - which also included tennis outings - George was a keen tennis player and often took her to play with him. Where had she been? What had they done? And so on. And Peggy, as she said, “would, in my innocence, prattle on about our doings”. The next day, when she went in to breakfast or dinner, the older ladies would be full of nods and winks. George McNair, Peggy thinks, simply missed his daughter, and found in her, Peggy, a daughter-substitute.

Peggy recalled that when the family was at Tai Tapu, her father ordered a complete set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica from America. When it arrived in New Zealand, he had great difficulty in getting delivery of it, finally getting it only after writing to Sir Heaton Rhodes, in whose electorate Tai Tapu lay, and who was Postmaster General at the time. “It turned out to be very useful. It was there that I read all those things about sex.”

Peggy also recalled high jinks while travelling back to Wellington from a University tournament at Otago. In the train on the way to Christchurch they were in one of the old “birdcage” carriages when a pillow fight broke out between Canterbury and Victoria students. The result, while they were out of their compartment getting the usual refreshments at the cafeteria at Oamaru station, was that it was “done over” with teacups, tea and tea leaves. The culprit was identifiable, and on the only occasion that Peggy ever saw that exceptionally mild person, Clifford Collins [subsequently the Canterbury University librarian - ALT] ruffled, he charged out of the compartment raging mad and hurled a railway cup, a formidable missile, at the offender, shouting, “You rotten bastard!” Peace may have been restored, but it did not last. At a later stage in the journey Terry McCombs, in due time to become a Labour Minister of Education, was given a push that put his behind through a carriage window. When the guard next came through to collect tickets all signs of glass were gone, and the blind was carefully drawn. But by the time they had reached Christchurch, consciences had worked; they confessed their sin and paid up.

Peggy was active in student affairs, and was among the nucleus of students who set up the N.U.S., the National Union of Students, which presumably was the forerunner of the New Zealand University Students’ Association.

In Peggy’s possession is a brooch given to Ann Shearer Miller by Hugh McNair on their wedding day. It consists of three golden cairngorms in a silver setting, with a rim of green/brown stones, probably also Scottish cairngorms. It was given by Ann to Alice, her youngest daughter, who passed it to Lissa. It then passed back to Alice and thence to Peggy. Peggy also has a gold ring in which is set a jewel of similar colour to those in the brooch. It too was given by Hugh to his wife, Ann. The ring was made from gold Hugh won on the Otago goldfields. According to Peggy he spent a short time there, though when, she does not know. Possibly it was between the initial period at East Taieri and going to Dunedin to Speight’s Brewery.

Peggy knew “Great Aunt Jessica” Thom(p)son [M.2], also known as “Jess”, who was a sister of Ann Shearer Miller, and the only one of the Miller and McNair families to come out to New Zealand, or even to communicate with Ann or Hugh McNair. This must have been either Janet or Jane Paterson Miller [M.2]. Peggy recalls being taken as a small child to visit Great Aunt Jessica, and having dinner at a long table, at the head of which sat this formidable figure. Peggy and her sisters had already been admonished, before setting out, to behave properly in the presence of their great-aunt. The first course was a bowl of soup, extraordinarily hot and of extraordinary amount. Peggy recalls struggling to swallow this, and being still left trying to finish it off long after the others had, before the main course could be served. At last she finished it, and at that point her mother said to Great Aunt Jessica that perhaps Peggy should not have the next course. “Bring the child some pudding,” called Great Aunt Jessica, and a large dish of rice pudding was put in front of her, a pudding that Peggy detested. But she knew she would have to eat it. The miracle she might have prayed for happened; at first taste she found she liked it.

There is a photograph of a group at a wedding reception. It is the wedding of Great Aunt Jessica’s daughter (also called “Jess”?). It is taken in a garden, presumably the Thom(p)sons’. Among the people identifiable is Mum, a young woman of perhaps 17. That would set the year as about 1913. Also identifiable, besides the bride and the bride’s mother, are several of the McNair sisters including Grace, Mum’s mother, and Uncle Mont Chadwick with Briton as a baby; possibly also Ann and Hugh McNair.

Peggy recounted a story of another family photograph, of a Metson reunion. When Basil’s father, Robert Metson in later life returned to England to visit his old mother and other relatives still living in Essex, a professional photographer was hired to record the occasion. The group was arranged. The photographer went back to his tripod and plate camera to put his head under the black cloth to check the image. Then it was noticed that Grandma Metson, that is to say Basil’s Grandma, had disappeared. She was found indoors, upstairs in her bedroom. No one, not even her son from New Zealand, could persuade her to come down and join the group. “Robert,” she said, “you know that man sees me upside down.” She finally submitted to come only after a string had been looped round the bottom of her skirt.

Peggy confirmed that Hugh McNair was “overfond of the bottle. He died of cirrhosis of the liver”. She confirmed, too, that the McNair daughters would make themselves scarce when he was seen “staggering up the street on his way home from work”. His wife Ann died of cancer. Peggy reports that Aunt Lissa spoke of Hugh as “a boon companion of Thomas Bracken”, who was also a drinker.

Peggy married Erle Dalmer, a civil engineer. They live in Christchurch. They have a son, John, and two grandsons.

Of the other Metson girls [M.1] I can write only briefly. Molly, the second eldest, married a widower, Darcy O’Toole, who had children of a previous marriage. Like Peggy and her husband they live in Christchurch. The only time I ever met Molly was at Mum’s funeral. The third sister, Betty, married Allan Dick, the son of a well-known Dunedin jeweller. Allan Dick had become a high-country sheep farmer, when he and Betty married. Betty wrote a book, “High Country Family”, which tells of her experiences as a city girl in adapting to life, including bringing up children, in the remote high-country station, “Lilybank”, which lies in the Mackenzie country, beyond the head of Lake Tekapo, the homestead standing in the fork between the Godley and Macaulay Rivers. Later in life Allan Dick became a National Party member of Parliament, representing the Waitaki electorate from 1967 to 1969 and the Oamaru seat until 1972. He was for a time the Parliamentary Undersecretary to the Minister of Agriculture. He died in 1992. Lilybank in recent years has become a hunting and safari enterprise and a deer farm, as well as continuing to run sheep and cattle.

The youngest Metson daughter, Nancy, was married to Phil Barclay, head of the Art Department at the Ardmore Teachers’ College at the time we, that is to say Margaret and I, were at Ardmore, I on the staff of the School of Engineering They had two children. Nancy died of cancer. Phil subsequently remarried.

21.9 Alice May McNair

The twelfth child of Ann and Hugh McNair [M.1], born in 1884, died at birth.

Ann and Hugh’s thirteenth and youngest child was Alice May, born June 13, 1885 - “the thirteenth child on the 13th of the month” - also known as “the delicate one” and “the beautiful one”. Delicate she may have been, but she does not look it in a 1906 photograph of “Miss Major’s Young Ladies’ Gym Class”, in which she and Nell both figure, by that date the only McNair girls still unmarried.

Alice was married in 1908 to George Densem [M.3], whom she may have met through a common membership of the Dundas Street Primitive Methodist Church, the church of the McNair family. They married in this church. Graham Densem, a grandson, recounts that George was an active harrier when young. In his eighties he told Graham that, when he was courting Alice, he used to run from Port Chalmers, where he was then living, to the McNair home in Pine Hill to visit her, and then run back after the visit - a round trip of 16 to 18 miles.

Soon after they married they moved to Wellington, where George worked as a gasfitter for the Wellington Gas Company. They lived in Brooklyn, and it was while they were there that Ernest Hugh, their only child, was born, on 8.10.1909.

By about 1912 the family had moved to Tauranga, where George had his own business as a plumber and gasfitter. “However,” Graham Densem reports, “it was not to last. A prolonged lay-off due to peritonitis ended the business. Presumably Alice, the faithful wife, was left coping with “Little Hughie” and a sick husband through that lean time.”

The family could never have been well off, and were often on the move. From Tauranga they went to Ngaruawahia. Then, when George went off to the Great War, Alice, with Hugh, went first to Mataura to stay with her unmarried brother, Bill, then to Dunedin with other McNairs. George, who served as a YMCA officer near Stafford in England, which was near the New Zealand forces in Brockton, came down with influenza in 1918 during that terrible epidemic. One of the lucky ones, he survived this to return to New Zealand in 1919.

The family now moved to Hamilton where George became a housebuilder. Here Hugh finished his primary and secondary schooling. He was a bright boy - “The McNair brains,” the various aunts would have said - and in his final year, 1925, at Hamilton Boys, High won a University Entrance Scholarship, a considerable distinction at that time. Throughout this time George would be building a house to a habitable standard, the family would then move in, the vacated house would be sold, and George would begin the next one. Hugh Densem, years later, told his son, Graham, that they had lived in “dozens of houses in Hamilton”. “We don’t hear much of Alice,” reports Graham. “Presumably, as in Tauranga, she cleaned and cooked and coped, always in unfinished surroundings.”

From Hamilton they moved to Auckland, some time between 1925 and 1927. There Hugh began work as a draughtsman with the Department of Lands and Survey, too young to start University. In l927 he enrolled at Auckland University College, passing units of a B.A. degree he never completed. He was very active in the Dominion Road Methodist Church, and it was this that presumably led him to resolve to become a missionary doctor with the intention of serving in the Solomon Islands. In 1933 he enrolled at the Medical School at Otago University. He completed his M.B., Ch.B. in 1937, serving as a house surgeon in Dunedin in 1938 and in Timaru in 1939.


Figure 21.6: Alice Densem, nee McNair

When Hugh went to Dunedin to enter the Medical School his parents also moved there, presumably to be near “their beloved only child” [G.D.]. There “George found his main living as a “supply minister” with the Methodist Church,” writes Graham Densem. “Not being ordained, he filled for small churches that couldn’t afford a full-time minister. He supplemented the family existence by buying and selling houses, cars, and any other bargain to be had in second-hand shops.” Lex Densem, Hugh’s widow, records that he was often very generous with his “bargains”, giving them to others if he thought them needy.

George served in many churches round Dunedin and also in Central Otago and Southland. The posts were poorly paid, and George, sensitive to his lack of standing in the Methodist church, resigned about 1943 to become a “home missioner” in the Presbyterian church.

George was a strong personality, with a reputation, Graham reports, for building up struggling congregations. Alice, though not aggressive, was also a strong character. Lex Densem recalls her as “quiet, but with a wicked sense of humour. She had a twinkle in her eye, yet a calmness to match George’s fieriness.” She was a clever mimic and had musical talent, playing the organ for George’s country services.

During their Otago days the Densems spent several summers fossicking for gold at a claim they had on the Clutha River near Cromwell. A photograph of George Mitchell, Josie McNair’s husband, shows him alongside a gold “cradle” in Central Otago. This may well have been on the Densems’ claim.

It was while George Densem was at Maori Hill Church that Hugh met “Lex” Armit [M.3]. Lex and her sister, Jean, sang in a church quartet. “Hugh was roped in,” writes Graham, “when the previous tenor left.” Hugh and Lex subsequently sang together often, in duets as well as in quartets. They were married 17.2.1940. They then went to Runanga on the West Coast, just out of Greymouth. There Hugh was doctor for the Miners’ Cooperative. In 1941 they moved to Timaru where Hugh set up in general practice. From 1943 to 1945 Hugh served with the N.Z. Army Medical Corps, in New Zealand and Fiji. After the war he returned to general practice in Timaru, but later moved to Kingseat Hospital. He was well known and well respected for his work there. He died 29.9.73 while on a visit to Dunedin. One of Hugh and Lex Densem’s children, John, became well known as a designer and musician. His talents spanned jazz, the theatre and opera. He died in 1989 aged only 47.

My own recollections of George and Alice Densem are few. My most vivid memory is of a brief visit by George to his Warrington “crib” (“bach” in North Island language) where we, that is to say Mum, Gray, Yolande and I, along with Vera Gore, were staying during a school term holiday. I do not recall whether Alice was with him. I think she was. Clearer in my memory was the teen-age girl who also came. It was a nice day, and there was a move to come out from the cramped interior of the crib and sit outside on the verandah. That was pretty cramped too, for it was half- covered by a pile of timber, presumably stacked awaiting some future carpentry George would have in mind. There being, as I judged, little room for the girl to sit down, I attempted to move it. Naturally the stack fell over. Naturally there was a resounding crash; which, as it seemed to me, went on practically for ever. I blushed a fiery red, ineffectual in my first ever gesture of gallantry towards a young woman. The girl was equally embarrassed. Naturally she sat elsewhere. Why George paid this visit I have no idea - perhaps to collect some rent?

Graham’s notes are interesting on this crib. “Between 1933 and 1946,” he writes, “Alice or George owned about seven or eight properties in Dunedin or Otago that I am aware of. Often they were bought and sold within a few months, but the land transfer titles show they kept the one on the Evansdale-Warrington road from 1933 until 1938. In the circumstances it may have been less an indulgence and more a base or anchor in such a mobile existence. Or maybe he just couldn’t find a buyer for that one!”

Among the other McNair aunts, George was the cause of much eyebrow raising. The lasting impression I gained was of someone often on the move from one church to another, never well off, a compulsive haunter of auction rooms who couldn’t resist snapping up a “bargain”. The notes that Graham has now so kindly sent me (Sept 1991) make clear how that impression arose. The raised eyebrows, the ironic smiles, the down-turned mouths, the sideways remarks behind a hand seem now less understanding than perhaps George deserved. “Poor Alice,” was the inevitable phrase whenever a new Uncle George episode was recounted. Yet they could at least afford a crib, which was more than we could, with my father out of work for several years of the Great Depression and my mother struggling with mounting and seemingly permanent debts to grocer and butcher.

I can recall meeting Hugh only once, when he came to visit us at St Clair, during the time he was at the Medical School. Mum was very fond of this young cousin, and her fondness extended to Lex when she and Hugh married. Until I met Lex in 1991 I knew her only from photographs.

Alice died 24.6.1949 [M.3] in Timaru hospital after a painful illness, aged 64. She was cremated at Andersons Bay Cemetery and her ashes were placed behind a plaque in a wall. Unfortunately the plaque has since disappeared during alterations. Though he never knew her, Graham pays her a warm tribute. “I am convinced,” he writes, “that her spirit of calm, her sense of humour and her musicality have affected her son and her grandchildren deeply”.