I recently spent an afternoon filing letters written to my great-grandmother, Bessie Marsh, by family and friends These date from the 1870s until her death in 1907. In our age of instant messaging and emails, we don’t realise just how important these old letters are; they breathe life into everyday events in a way no other form of communication can.
William Armitage, an Albertlander – Armitage Road in Wellsford is named after the family – married Mary Jane (Minnie) Brookes, daughter of the Reverend E. S. Brookes Snr. Minniesdale Chapel, in Wharehine, is named after her. Their first child was born in Wharehine before the family moved to Christchurch where their next three children were born. About 1882, William became manager of the Port Albert Co-Op branch store at Whakapirau, or Old Wellsford, then bought 100 acres in Wellsford.
We all know how difficult pioneer life was, particularly for women. Childbearing could be a risky process at the best of times. One letter in my collection, written by Reverend Brookes, illustrates this vividly. It was 1885 and there were seven Armitage children. Minnie, aged 35, fell pregnant again and in December, she went in to labour in her seventh month. Bessie sent her daughter Ella to the Rev. Brookes, asking how Minnie was, and he wrote to her explaining that Mrs Armitage had been confined with twins. She had spent 28 painful hours in labour but Rev. Brookes said that there had been one ‘amusing’ incident. After the baby girl arrived at 9am, Mr Armitage went to the store, possibly thinking it was all over, and when he returned in the evening he was surprised to find “two nurses and two new babies”. Rev Brookes underlined these words.
He wrote that both babies were very small. The boy was born eight hours after the girl and was coming feet first so had to be turned around. Then the little fellow put his hand over his eyes and that had to be moved to his side so he could ‘see the light of a new world.’ A friend and neighbour, Mrs Hunt, acted as midwife and helped reassure Minnie when the doctor said the babies might not survive.
However, survive they did. Leonora married a Jack Smythe and I believe she died in childbirth. Whitfield, known as Bee, was killed in action at the Somme in World War I, aged about 30. Minnie had two more children after the twins, the last in 1891. She and Bessie Marsh remained great friends for the rest of their lives, keeping in touch with cards, notes and letters. How very precious these are.
A new exhibition will open at the Albertland Museum next month as part of the Auckland Council Heritage Festival. This exhibition is called Auckland – Images by Albertlanders and will display photographs primarily from the Marsh Collections but a few others as well.