a family story

John Roxborogh


In Braamfontein Cemetery, Johannesburg, South Africa, thousands of miles from Achindrean, Scotland, and Feilding., New Zealand, lies an unmarked grave, plot number 6587. Here on Saturday 1 May, 1897, Donald McKenzie was laid to rest in the presence of Lena, his second wife, Nathalie their daughter and Vernon Collins, Lena's son from a previous marriage.
A century later Braamfontein was as much a park as a cemetery. The great jacaranda trees, violet-blue in full bloom spread overhead dappling the African sky and forming a magnificent canopy. Later the flowers will drop to form the annual summer carpet. Other trees, both native and exotic, combine to make a lower tier of dark green while here and there a tropical palm or a cypress, in reaching skyward outstrips them all. At ground-level patches of thin grass in an otherwise immaculate lawn expose the warm redness of the African soil. Only the name at the entrance and the almost random placement of headstones identify this place for what it really is.
It was there in South Africa, far removed from things and people familiar that Donald's life ended. He was Alexander's third child and at the age of 32 the eldest of the family to emigrate to New Zealand. In the minds of those few relatives who as late as 1990 still remembered stories of him from their childhood days, he remained in many ways an elusive and somewhat romantic figure. Almost a century after his death an element of mystery lingers on; facts known about some aspects of his life only serving to tantalize the imagination. 
Stories woven around his death in Johannesburg have become part of the McKenzie family legend. Basic to them all is the account given by his sister Catherine who was blessed with The Sight.
          Several months after Donald and his family had departed from New Zealand in 1896 Catherine saw Donald in Feilding, walking ahead of her in the main street. She followed quickly, trying to catch up to him. When she was almost within touching distance he entered a bank ­ and vanished. It was Friday, 30 April 1897. Then, and for the rest of her life, Catherine was adamant that Donald had been murdered for the gold that she believed he was carrying at the time.   
An eerie period followed while the families in New Zealand anxiously awaited the news which they knew would be coming from South Africa. Strangely enough it was several weeks before the telegram came. Donald had died from dysentery in the Johannesburg Hospital on the very day that Catherine had seen and followed him in the streets of Feilding.        
        Several versions of the story were still being related in the Robertson households in the 1930s. And even as late as the 1990s a grand nephew who had first heard it as a toddler at Catherine's knee swore that despite a straight-forward death certificate and the absence of a coroner's report all that was seen and believed on that day in Feilding was the truth. Certainly there is enough evidence, albeit circumstantial, to leave one wondering.
Donald was born in Achindrean in 1841. It is not known for whom he was named. Strict adherence to the Scottish naming system would have had him baptised Murdoch, after his maternal grandfather but for some reason that was not the case.
 His paternal grandfather, John, was 70 years old at the time and still head of the family and the household in Achindrean. His paternal grandmother, Helen, was just 60 so in the early years of his life Donald was the youngest member of a three-generation family with known links reaching back to the previous century. John's early life had been spent on Achindrean Farm when it was leased and run along communal lines quite different from the crofting system of the 19th century. By the time Donald was 10 John had died but Helen lived until he was in his teens. However the oral history she and John no doubt passed on to him has been forgotten in the intervening years. Nevertheless an awareness of the links remains.
Boyhood days were spent in the company of his brothers, John and Roderick, attending school or helping with work on the croft; at play in the village or exploring the streams and hills nearby. Despite the hungry 40s and the troubles of the 50s Donald grew to adulthood and, by the time he was 20 years of age, was already an experienced shepherd. 
Whereas shepherds in Scotland tended to be the sons of shepherds, Donald came from a long line of crofters and tenant farmers, only his maternal grandfather, Murdoch McKenzie having been a shepherd. When a croft in the Highlands could no longer support several adult sons in the traditional manner shepherding for a large-scale sheep-farmer became an attractive alternative. Within the vicinity of Achindrean there were two such farms, Langwell and Drumrunnie. Donald may have worked on either one of these until some time after 1861 when he moved away from Lochbroom Parish.    
Many years earlier an agricultural revolution had swept through Europe and inevitably spread to England. One outcome to eventually have a profound effect on the social and economic life of farming communities in Scotland was the introduction of an improved breed of sheep. Even so it was comparatively late in the history of farming before the black-faced sheep from the Borders did reach the North-west of Scotland. It took the Highlanders some time to understand that this new sheep was very different in nature from the old Highland breed. The latter, long-since gone from the crofts and hamlets and grazing lands, had been a remnant from the sheep of Neolithic and Iron-age times. In the Highlands, where they had been kept in small numbers for domestic purposes, they had always been treated as delicate little creatures that had to be housed in sheep-cotes by night and tethered by day. They were kept for their milk as much as for their fine fleeces. In contrast the black-faced sheep was a tough, uncooperative animal, at home roaming the hills, and grazing at will, all the while protected from the vagaries of the weather by its coarse, "over-grown" fleece.   
Many of the early shepherds working on the large sheep-farms that had been established following the clearances in the Highlands were, like their charges, incomers from the south. However, in time, it was the Highland shepherd himself who came into his own and in many ways could be said to exemplify the shepherd of Biblical times, bringing to each of his tasks great skills of observation and a sensitivity to Nature. 
In his Scottish dress with plaid and Tam-o' shanter, crook in hand, he watched over his flock, sometimes 100 or more in number. Each animal was recognised as being an individual, its appearance, state of health, and idiosyncrasies of behaviour all noted and remembered. The shepherd knew the environment intimately and understood the elements. He read the weather signs at all times by noting the sky and the wind and the behaviour of the birds. Harsh winter and spring conditions called for extra vigilance and often the willingness to take personal risks when rescuing any animal caught in a snowdrift. In the lambing season the fox presented an extra danger even although a full-time foxhunter might be employed in the district. His flock of sheep was the focus of the shepherd's life, the main topic of conversation wherever he might be.
          The state of being alone for long hours or even days at a time in the harsh but breathtakingly beautiful environment of the North-west Highlands moulded a particular character and personality. The Highland shepherd became a special breed of man, and Donald McKenzie was no exception.
However, despite the unique life-style and the philosophy it engendered there does not appear to be any significant heritage of music and ballad peculiar to the shepherd of Scotland as is the case with the drover and his cattle. Perhaps the history of the Highland shepherd was too recent to have inspired the Gaelic bard.  
In April 1871, Donald was away from home when the census was taken, but by June 1872 he had returned, perhaps just for the occasion of the marriage of his sister Catherine to Alexander Robertson. And a year later when Catherine Ann, their first child was born it was Donald who tramped over the hills to register the birth in Ullapool.
A few weeks after that event Donald left Scotland with other members of the McKenzie family on the first stage of his journey to New Zealand. With John remaining in Scotland the role of eldest son now fell to Donald who was to discharge it well for the next 20 years.
          Family tradition claims that Donald, one of only two shepherds on board the Salisbury, was in charge of the sheep on board throughout the voyage. As nothing untoward occurred after the ship left Plymouth it may be assumed that all arrived safely at their destinations. 
Along with the other members of the family who travelled on the Salisbury, Donald's first home in New Zealand was at Heaton Park
Estate near Bulls in the Rangitikei where he was employed as a shepherd. With its 30,000 acres and mixed cattle and sheep farming it was a much larger operation than he had previously experienced. While his knowledge of sheep and their management stood him in good stead a different style of shepherding was required now that he and the other shepherds were responsible for a flock approaching 14,500 in number, the largest in the Rangitikei at that time. Horses and dogs were used on a scale unknown in the North-west Highlands. 
For several years Donald worked here as a shepherd but his sights had already been set on bettering his position for after all hadn't it been the dream of owning his own piece of land that had brought him to this colony in the first place? By the 1880s he had moved on.
          The ship which brought the McKenzies to New Zealand had among its passengers 66 specially
selected immigrants destined for the new town of Feilding. Friendships formed with some of these people on the voyage out had whetted Donald's interest in acquiring land there as soon as he could afford it. By 1887 he was paying rates on no fewer than 15 town sections and running a flock of 297 sheep. His grandfather John McKenzie on his croft in Achindrean half a century earlier would have viewed with wonder such relative personal wealth and independence.
The year 1887 was significant for Donald in another way too. On 27 January he married Euphemia Walker of Upper Tutaenui. While he was of full age Euphemia was not then 20. There being no manse attached to the Presbyterian Church at Upper Tutaenui the marriage was celebrated at the home of the bride's parents, Effy and Edward Walker. Donald's brother Alexander and Euphemia's brother Edward were the two witnesses. The wedding was a great family occasion with both sets of parents present along with many relatives. The Walkers, McLeans, Robertsons and McKenzies had all been good friends from the time that they first met when some of the families moved to Upper Tuatenui. Those friendships were to remain steadfast throughout the lives of many of that generation and to be recalled by the youngest of the McLeans many years later when in her 100th year.
Donald's marriage to Euphemia brought an Irish element to this Scottish Highlander family. Edward Walker had been an early arrival in New Zealand having set foot in the Bay of Islands in 1846. Born in Ballygawley, County Tyrone, Ireland, he had enlisted as a foot soldier in the 65th (Yorkshire) Regiment in 1845. In the
1840s, Ireland, like Coigach in Scotland, was in an impoverished state following the potato famine. For young men like Edward the only options seemed to be, as someone put it, "to die of starvation and go to Heaven or to join the British Army and go to Hell." Edward decided on the latter course, if not the latter consequence!
          The 65th Regiment
had been raised in 1756 and in the ensuing years served in many continents and in some of the hell-holes of the world. As a lad in his late teens Edward Walker may well have thought of adventure tinged with danger in distant places such as the West Indies, Cape Colony, India, Arabia or the Persian Gulf. However, for him, joining the British Army led to nearly 20 years service in New Zealand; participation in the land wars with Maori, the indigenous people, fighting battles at Rangiriri and Orakau; marriage and eventually farm-ownership in the Rangitikei. It was there that his two daughters met and married the two McKenzie brothers.
Following their marriage Donald and Euphemia settled in Duke Street, Feilding, although as a foundation member of the Feilding Special Settlement Association Donald was already looking ahead to farming on a larger scale, in Apiti. However, for the time being life was pleasant in the thriving town of Feilding. Even although the country was in the throes of a depression the McKenzies were prospering and experiencing to a degree, the good life. When their first daughter, Euphemia Anne (Pheme), was born all seemed to augur well for their future.
In 1889 Alexander's health deteriorated and in August he died. Three months later Euphemia gave birth to a second daughter but complications set in following the birth and within two weeks Donald had lost his young wife and the two little girls, their mother. Euphemia was buried in a grave just below the hill in the Feilding Cemetery. It was to be a century before it would be located and a headstone erected by her descendants.
          The baby was named, like her sister, for her mother and was given all the family names as well: Euphemia, Alexandrina, Walker, McKenzie. She was to be known, like her maternal grandmother, as Effie.
Ann McKenzie had been ill for some time and was in need of daily care so this new crisis placed further demands on Johana and other members of the extended family. Donald was now reliant upon them for support in the care of the new baby as well as Pheme who was a 15 month old toddler. Alexander and Mary were nearby neighbours and the Robertsons were just a few miles away at Awahuri. Although all helped in various ways most of the responsibility for the constant care of Effie fell to Mary and Alex whose niece she was by birth. The Walkers took Pheme to live with them although she still spent a lot of time in Feilding so that she might grow up knowing her father and her sister.
          It was only a few months later when Ann McKenzie died marking in many ways the end of an era for Donald. Shortly afterwards he reduced his farming activities in Feilding and moved to Apiti where he had previously purchased two town sections and a farm block of 100 acres. In addition he had leased a second block of similar size and may also have undertaken to manage Johana's land.
          Apiti is about 40 kilometres north-east of Feilding. It lies in part on a plateau 1500 feet above sea-level at the foot of the Ruahine Range. In the 1990s it is a pleasant and easy drive from Feilding but one hundred years earlier the way in from Kimbolton, the frontier town, was hazardous with no clearly defined route. The twisting Oroua River with its great ravines formed a daunting barrier as did the virgin bush which was of a density not encountered by Donald since he first looked at land in Rata with a view to farming there. Giant kahikatea, matai, rimu and totara trees with all their accompanying undergrowth covered the 10,000 acre block. Tangles of clawing bush-lawyer and intertwining supple-jack vines impeded progress along the only possible tracks - those made by domestic animals such as cattle, horses and pigs now running wild.
          Conditions in the bush were in fact very like those which the Robertsons had been confronted with several years earlier when for a while they had settled in Campbelltown. But whereas the land there had been flat and low-lying the land between Kimbolton and Apiti was very hilly and in places really mountain-like. Until the least difficult way in had been found travellers on foot or horseback had to ford the Oroua River many times, camping on the river-bed overnight before grappling with the next section of their journey. This entailed struggling up and down steep slopes, avoiding precipices and finding a foothold amongst the rotting debris on the forest floor. They had to by-pass great tree stumps, be alert to unexpected holes and to cope with slush as slippery as ice or thawing snow.
In addition to all these obstacles travellers had to be wary of any sudden change in the river level and to watch for quicksand when crossing. It was 1892 before drays could travel the route and 1896 before a bridge was erected across the Oroua. 
Having negotiated their way in the first settlers then had to set up their camps and get on with the task of felling bush, clearing the land, fencing and grassing and then building their first cottages. Sheep and cattle had to be bought outside the district and driven in. These early farmers of Apiti and their wives were pioneers in every sense of the word and Donald was one of them.
He was 49 years of age when he faced this challenge. By the end of May 1890 he was running a flock of 500 sheep but within a year these were sold and Donald had changed to dairying. In 1894 he advertised for a good lad to milk at 15 shillings a week. Milking was done by hand with the milker perching on a stool while steadying the bucket between his knees. The nervous and uncooperative cow was leg-roped but even so there were times when a stray kick dislodged the bucket unbalancing the milker and spreading milk everywhere. The first factory, built in 1895, produced cheese but in 1898 it was decided to change to butter production.
          Despite changing to dairying Donald in no way lost his reputation as a leading sheep man. Many years later local residents recalled his shepherding skills and general knowledge concerning sheep.         

   Donald McKenzie  

In June 1890 Donald was suddenly called away when his brother Roderick died in Waipawa. Some time was spent with Margaret and her family and when he left it was with the knowledge that his nephew William was likely to follow him to Apiti shortly afterwards. With Johana housekeeping and William now there too Donald had a family around him although it was not complete because his own two little daughters were still back in Feilding and Upper Tuatenui. 
With the settlers having common goals in respect to the social and cultural needs of an emerging community it was not long before Apiti was established as a small town with an impressive list of clubs and organisations and amenities. Public meetings to discuss such matters as the need for a mail service were often held in Donald's woolshed. Sports days were very popular occasions even in small country districts in the early days and it was not long before Apiti people showed the same enthusiasm. The annual New Year Sports Day was held on Donald's farm where there was a nice stretch of level ground, cleared and grassed. Although he does not appear to have held office in any of the local organisations it could be said that Donald made no small contribution to the early development of the Apiti district.
The following extract from Ivan George's story of Apiti provides a good summary of this period of his life: 

The farm of this settler adjoined the little local cemetery upon its southern side. He was one of the original balloters, but did not take up permanent residence until a year or two after the settlement was opened for occupation. In build he was tall, spare and wiry; in age, fairly advanced. A veteran farmer, he knew practically all about sheep that it was possible to know; in fact he was the most experienced sheep farmer in the district at the period. After several years residence in Apiti he sold out to Mr George Prince, shortly afterwards leaving New Zealand for South Africa with his wife. Mr Willie McKenzie, late secretary of the factory was a nephew. 

In 1894 another major change had occurred when Donald married for a second time. He and Elsie Eleanor Dolores Collins, a widow from Melbourne, were married in Feilding on 22 August 1894. The next day the Feilding Star reported: 

The marriage is announced of Mr Donald McKenzie, an old and much respected settler in the district and at present of Apiti, to Mrs E. E. Collins, of the Argus Office, Melbourne. The happy event took place in the Presbyterian Manse, the Rev. H. M. Murray officiating. We wish the newly-married couple every success. 

Elsie's maiden name was Townsend and she was known as Lena, a shortened form of her second Christian name. She was born in England, probably in 1867, and later emigrated with her parents to Australia. Her marriage to Donald was in fact her third but all that is known of her first husband is that his name was Taylor. Her second husband was a New Zealander from Foxton, Joseph Collins, whom she married at Balranald, New South Wales, Australia in 1887 or 1888. She and Joseph had one child, Vernon, who was two years old when his father died in 1892.
What circumstances could have led to someone from the relatively sophisticated city of Melbourne meeting up with a farmer in Apiti in 1894? It is likely that she had come to Foxton to meet her mother-in-law and that she met Donald either there or in Feilding. Maybe he had advertised for a housekeeper as Johana had married William in 1893 and now had her own home. Maybe a remote pioneer settlement appealed to Lena's sense of adventure. No matter how it came about, their marriage certainly caused a flutter of excitement among the various McKenzie families. Although Pheme and Effie now had a stepmother no move was made for them to join their father in Apiti. He himself of course, was stepfather to Vernon who was about the same age as Effie.
Little is known of the family following the marriage except that Sister D. McKenzie was listed as the Vice-Templar of the Apiti Lodge of Good Templars in November, 1894. No one knows whether this was a moral stand on her part or a social opportunity. Certainly there has never been any suggestion that Donald was a great whisky drinker, unlike his brothers Alex and Roderick. 
In 1895 Donald's third daughter, Nathalie Eleanor Pearl, was born at home. Apiti continued to develop as a community, in fact it could be described as a thriving district at that time. Ten pence per pound was being paid for wool and tuppence-halfpence per gallon for milk. Not surprisingly another block, the Salisbury, was opened up for settlement. At the same time social and sporting events were taking place. A highlight in 1896 was a Leap Year Ball organised by the ladies. It is reported that dancing went on until five o'clock in the morning. The overall picture of life in Apiti in the 1890s was a happy one. Why then did Donald and Lena sell out, pack up and leave for a different life in South Africa? 
From the moment that the first gold reef was discovered in 1886 Johannesburg became a magnet for many and within a few months men had arrived on the Rand from all parts of Africa and further afield. With the proclamation of public diggings Johannesburg was born
- "a tiny huddle of tents and ox-wagons with crazy dwellings standing like packs of cards all over the veld." By the mid-1890s it was well established as a goldfields city despite the odd set-back after the initial flourish. It would be easy to assume that it was the attraction of gold that influenced Donald and Lena in their decision to emigrate whereas in fact it was the attraction of the land and the prospect of farming in the great Transvaal. Much of the countryside surrounding the city of Johannesburg was occupied by Boer landowners and small farmers and Donald set out to join them. The Boer farmers grew maize and reared cattle, employing native workers on the land and in the home. It is not known whether or not Donald had time to establish himself as a farmer under these new conditions before his death.
By the time Donald and Lena arrived Johannesburg had become a city of considerable sophistication with a population of 80,000. There were many substantial buildings, a few sealed streets and horse-drawn trams. Entertainment of many kinds was a feature of city life. There were theatres and music halls, an amphitheatre and a library. One did not have to be in London or Europe to enjoy performances at The Theatre Royal or the Globe or to attend a ball. There were promenade concerts, fireworks displays, gymkhanas and the circus; field sports and even pleasure resorts nearby. Here was a sample of the good life not experienced by Donald before and probably even then beyond his reach and not to his liking. Nevertheless the whole scene was a source of excitement for his young wife who had always claimed that as the daughter of a gentleman she was born to enjoy the better things of life.
          There were however some drawbacks to living in this city or even on its outskirts. Many services were still at a primitive stage of development and these combined with natural occurrences made daily life quite unpleasant at times. Most roads still had dirt surfaces that were either dry and dusty, or wet and slushy, making conditions very unpleasant for all who ventured out and about. Sanitation management was haphazard and disease a constant threat. From 1893 to 1896 there had been several out-breaks of smallpox. Politically it was a time of ferment in South Africa, Johannesburg itself being a hotbed of intrigue against the Boers. The year 1896 had seen the debacle of the Jamieson Raid; there had been a drought and a plague of locusts; the cattle disease Rinderpest had devastated farmer's stock and the city had been rocked by a dynamite explosion. For all of this Donald and Lena had left the peaceful green land of Apiti with its bracing climate and simple way of life. 
On 20 April, 1897, Donald was admitted to Johannesburg Hospital where he died 10 days later. Whatever his dreams of a life in South Africa they were short-lived. Was it really a dream of his own that had drawn him at the age of 55 to this vast continent? Was Lena with her supposed insatiable appetite for adventure the real driving force, or was Donald really drawn by the prospect of gold and the romance of colonisation? Or was it some deep and unfulfilled need for new experiences?    
Donald's death meant that Lena, at the age of 29, was widowed for the third time, once again after only a few years of marriage.

Nothing seems to have been heard of her and the children for the next five or six years and then, in 1903 Donald's name appeared in an official list of New Zealand intestates. The Public Trustee took over the administration of his affairs and a notice to that effect was published in the local Manawatu paper. Lena returned to New Zealand for a short time, looking, it was said, not for one, but for two fortunes. By the end of that year she was back in the Transvaal and no one knows anything about a fortune.
          On 27 January 1904 an urgent telegram was sent to the Master of the Supreme Court in Pretoria seeking permission for the surviving spouse of Donald McKenzie to remarry. On the following day, in St Peters Church, Klerksdorp, Lena married Arthur Joseph Holton, hotelkeeper and an ex-member of the South African Constabulary.    At the age of 36 she was marrying for the 4th time.
And there the trail seems to have come to an end except of course that family tales and gossip could not let it rest. It was said that some years later she returned once more to New Zealand, for a while living in poor circumstances in Ponsonby. When evicted for non-payment of the rent she is supposed to have sat on the footpath with her worldly possessions in a heap beside her. If that were so where were her in-laws, either the Collins or the McKenzies, when she needed them? Despite this seeming neglect Lena was remembered in the naming of at least three children in the next generation.
          Did she and Nathalie and Vernon move to Australia or to England or did they remain in South Africa? It is not known whether Nathalie married or if she left any descendants. Nan McLean believes that she died when a young adult. No matter what befell her, her name survives in other branches of the family a century after her birth in Apiti, New Zealand.
Of his generation of McKenzies, Donald was the first to have his name on the electoral roll; to be listed in the Appendices to the Journal of the House of Representatives; to own land; to be a registered sheep-farmer and to be mentioned in a local newspaper. His is the story of the crofter's son who, reared in times of deprivation became a landowner; of the shepherd who became a sheep farmer. It is the story of a pioneer who contributed to the development of a new settlement in his adopted country, and of a brother and uncle who was so often there when help was needed. But it is also the story of an emigrant who, having achieved material and social success died intestate; a father who perhaps inexplicably left his young daughters to the care of others; a man who in his mid-50s and with an assured and even rosy future suddenly disposed of his property and following some magnet as it were, left the extended family which had meant so much to him and departed for a far-away continent and an early grave. 

Donald's Family

Donald McKenzie =
Euphemia Walker (1867- 25 Nov 1889)

Euphemia Anne (22 Aug 1888 to 5 Mar 1924)

Euphemia Alexandrina Walker (13 Nov 1889 to 30 Sep 1955)

Donald McKenzie =
Elsie Eleanor Dolores Collins (c.1867 - )

Nathalie Eleanor Pearl (22 Jul 1895 - )