a family story

John Roxborogh

HELEN DORIA (1868-1949)

Helen Muriel McKenzie was born in the beautiful old cathedral town of Elgin in the north East of Scotland, at the stroke of midnight on 4 October 1868. Roderick was present at her birth and two days later registered her as “Helen”. Presumably she was named for Roderick’s own grandmother whom he had known throughout his boyhood in Achindrean. Her second name was added by Helen some time before her marriage in 1892.

          In the week of her birth 5,000 women (“female householders”) in Manchester and over a thousand in Aberdeen attempted to gain the franchise by having their names placed on the assessor’s list of voters for the general election later that year. The sheriff discharged his duty ‘as gently as the circumstances permitted’ but disallowed their claims. In quoting the Aberdeen Journal, the Inverness Courier of October 8, 1868, stated that all the names had been set aside. The only comment was: “So we are not to have the pleasure of the ladies’ company at the poll after all.” In the editorial there was no discussion about the rights of women nor was there support for the suffrage movement and its cause. Little could this baby’s mother imagine that 25 years later, in another land, they would each have the legal right to vote and that they would be among the first women in the world to experience such power.

          It seems fitting that Helen grew to be a politically-minded lady with a strong community spirit. She was steeped in Scottish folk-lore, at one with Nature and gifted with “the Sight”. In addition of course, she was also bi-lingual. Her Gaelic heritage was very real, a touchstone of identity in her life.

          She would have had little, if any, memory of living at Longmore but the period spent on Tearie Farm near Darnaway Castle and later at Coul, would have left impressions of castles and legends and of bird and animal life. So far as is known she was Alexander and Ann’s first grandchild. It is likely that she visited Ullapool and Achindrean, as Roderick would have taken the family to visit his childhood home before leaving Scotland. There on their grandparent’s croft she and William had the opportunity to play with their cousin, Johana, not thinking that 20 years thence Johana would become William’s wife and Helen’s sister-in-law.

          Helen was five years old when she arrived in Hawkes Bay and ready for school. There was a school at Waipukurau, some distance from Mount Vernon, but it seems that although she was of school age she may not have been enrolled until the family went to live in Waipawa. From there she transferred to Takapau School soon after it was opened in 1879. She was 11 years old when she passed into Standard Two, indicating either a late start at school or perhaps some early difficulty with the English language, given that the Gaelic was her mother tongue. On the other hand her attendance may have been irregular as her mother often needed her help at home, especially as each new baby arrived.

New Zealand’s Education Act of 1877 made education free and compulsory but not all parents could comply. Childhood was not always a long and care-free time, especially for the eldest daughter in a large family in the days of New Zealand’s first major depression. Like her cousin Catherine Robertson, Helen had to be her mother’s helpmate and when circumstances dictated, leave home to enter service. No matter what her teenage dreams, at the age of 14 she had to face the reality that her employment options were as limited as they had been for her mother in Scotland. It was three generations further on before one of her descendants, a great-granddaughter, was to graduate from a university.

          Helen had been away from home for a number of years when her father died. She returned home only briefly as a long stay would have been an unaffordable luxury. Her housekeeping job took her to Porangahau where she met Birley Darlington Doria who had lived in the district since arriving from England with his widowed mother and two brothers in 1877. Birley’s father had been a Church of England vicar. There were stories locally that he was a renegade Catholic priest and a descendant of a titled Genoese family that had offended the Pope, been excommunicated and forced to leave Italy for refuge in England.     

          Helen and Birley were married in the spring of 1892 at Margaret’s home in Kaikora North. The minister who had taken the service at Roderick’s funeral officiated and Helen’s brother, Roderick, was bestman. After their marriage they set up home in Porangahau where Birley had been working as a labourer.

          Porangahau is situated close to the East Coast, just north of Cape Turnagain and about 28 miles from Waipukurau. Its lovely sounding name refers not to the size of the crayfish that are often caught there, nor to the mad winds that blow in from the Pacific Ocean but rather to an incident that occurred in pre-European days when one night, the inhabitants of Heretaunga had to retreat from their enemies to this place. Porongahau abounds in Maori legends one of which gives rise to the place-name said to be the longest in the world. The story is about Tamatea, a man with big knees who sat on a hill not far from the village. With his flute he played a lament in memory of his dead brother. “Taumata-whaka-tangihangi-koauau-o-Taumatea-turi-pukaka-piki-maunga-pokai-whenua-kitana-tahu” is the place name.

          William Colenso spent time in the district when on a missionary journey in 1845 and Bishop Selwyn was also a visitor. Even so, it was not until sometime between 1877 and 1880 that the Anglican Church of Porongahau, Saint Michael and All Angels, was built. The township was situated on a semi-circle of low-lying land at the foot of rugged hills. A century on, there are few remaining buildings. Deserted sections mark the sites of homes and shops and businesses that flourished when Helen and Birley lived there. With hinterland farms and sheep stations there were plenty of employment opportunities and for a time Birley worked as a fencer.

          As there was no railway nearby people relied on bullock wagons and coastal vessels which anchored off shore, for the transport of goods in and out of Porangahau. Bales of wool were dispatched to Napier in this way and general supplies brought in.

          Helen and Birley had four children. Fanny was born in 1893 and three sons followed until by August 1897 they had a family of four under the age of five. Helen’s mother was a short distance away by coach and her mother-in-law a neighbour so there was plenty of family support. In addition there were other Doria relatives nearby and Helen’s sister Annie was working as a housekeeper at the vicarage.

This was a busy but happy time in Helen’s life, but in 1898 Birley suffered an attack of pneumonia. In the days before penicillin only a miracle could save a patient in such circumstances. Despite Helen’s nursing skills he died after having been ill for 10 days. He was buried in the churchyard at Saint Michael and All Angels. Although there is no headstone this is hallowed ground. Fate had struck a hard blow but necessity and Helen’s natural stoicism enabled her to carry on.

          Birley’s mother, Elizabeth, had been the first teacher appointed by the Hawkes Bay Education Board to the Porongahau School. Before coming to New Zealand she, too, (at the age of 36), had been left a widow with four young children. Now she came to the assistance of her daughter-in-law offering a home to Helen and the children. To support the family Helen took a job as cook at the local hotel and Elizabeth took care of the children.

          After seven years of widowhood Helen married for a second time. The bridegroom was Robert Pope, a bullock driver from Wimbledon. The marriage took place at the home of Robert’s sister, Mrs Alex Johnston of Wanstead. Again it was the Reverend Alexander Grant who officiated.

          Robert was born at Wanstead in 1865, the son of Edward and Janet Pope. Janet was born in Scotland and her maiden name was Douglas. Her parents had emigrated from Scotland to Australia in 1850 and then after a period of ten years the family had come to New Zealand. After a short time Janet returned to Australia to marry Edward Pope who had been the family’s coachman. The couple came back to New Zealand, settling in Wanstead.

          Before marrying Helen Robert had bought a carting business and a tiny cottage in Wimbledon, a few miles from Porangahau, and it was there that he and Helen went to live. There were just two rooms in their new house so with two adults and four children as well as a new baby within the year Helen’s homemaking skills were certainly put to the test. The memories of those friends and relatives who visited there as children, along with photographs of the house and garden, testify to her gifts in that respect. Some relief from the rather cramped conditions was enjoyed during the school week when at least two of the children, Fanny and Percy, stayed with their granny and went to Porongahau School.

          Robert and his 16-yoke bullock team were a common sight in the village and around the district. He carted wool from the sheep stations to Cape Turnagain where there was a large storage shed in which the bales were kept until the weather was suitable for the coastal vessels from Wellington or Napier to anchor offshore. The bales were rowed out in small boats and loaded on to the waiting ships. Other loads carted to the Cape included locally grown rape and cocksfoot seed. The ships brought in all sorts of supplies which were back loaded to Wimbledon, Porangahau and the surrounding districts. In many ways it was a leisurely but steady life, its pace in some ways mirrored by the speed of the bullocks.






Employees: George Neal   1 week 30 shs
  Harry Queenie 1 week 30 shs
  Eli Bond 1 week  25 shs
Cartage to the Cape: Bales of wool  2/9d per bale
  Bundles of skins 1/-  per bundle
  Empty beer barrels     2/- each
  Lemonade cases 1/- each
Cartage from the Cape: Assorted stores 1/-  per cwt
Local: Battens 12/- per 100
  Chaff   £5 per ton
  Sand  6d per bag
  Sheep-yard posts £6 per 100
  Strainers 6/- each
  Wood  18/- per cord


Five or six pounds were earned from carting on busy days, one or two on what might be termed average days, while occasionally there was no record of any job at all. When he purchased the land and cottage Bob had also acquired a metal pit and although there is no mention of this in his 1905 diary he was carting shingle for the roads as Helen’s father had done many years earlier. Overall it seems that Bob and Helen had a reasonable level of income and with her gardening and cooking skills they were able to enjoy a good standard of living although there was no money for extras.

          The two eldest children, Fanny and Percy, continued at Porangahau School until they passed the proficiency examination, Fanny in 1905 and Percy in 1906. Fanny won a scholarship to Napier High School but for financial reasons her parents were unable to take advantage of it so in 1906 she was enrolled at Wimbledon School, for a Standard Seven year. A year later Percy followed suit. The two younger boys, Birley and Jack, spent all their school days at Wimbledon as did their stepbrother, Robert Edward Pope. 

    Eventually Bob established himself financially and managed to purchase a 45 acre property on the Herbertville road. This he used as grazing land for his bullocks. He and Helen added to the house to make it their dream home - not a palatial two-storeyed mansion but nevertheless a pretty place in the style of the day. And Helen planted her garden.       


Helen’s house on the road to Herbertville


          There was no local dairy company in the district so those farmers who kept a few milking cows sent the milk or cream to the town of Dannevirke, about 40 miles away. Helen and Bob had five or six cows and were able to dispose of the surplus milk in that way.

          After leaving school the three Doria boys worked as labourers and then as drivers of bullock teams and teams of horses. Eventually Percy went to work in Waipukurau and Birley to the Mangatoro Valley.

          In 1913 there was a wedding in the family when Fanny married George Gollan whose family were old settlers in the district. As Fanny was under age Helen had to give her consent to the marriage, which took place at the Church of Saint Michael and All Angels on 15 April, 1913. With her three teen-age sons and Bobby then seven to support their sister, it was a proud occasion for Helen. It was almost 40 years since she had left Scotland and here was the next generation on the threshold of adulthood.

          Fanny and George made their home up the Angora Valley, not far to the south-east of Wimbledon but access was difficult - there were 14 fords which had to be negotiated. There were many times when the water was too high for safety and the valley was cut off. Nevertheless Fanny and her mother kept in close touch. In February 1914 Helen’s first grandchild was born and named for her, thus keeping alive a link with Helen McKenzie of Achindrean, the baby’s great-great-grandmother.        

          The same year saw the outbreak of war and the advent of events that were to change all their lives. One by one the three boys enlisted and departed for overseas service. Birley was the last to leave. He became ill on the voyage and died in hospital in Devonport, England. Jack was killed in action at Messines Ridge in France six months later and Percy wrote to his mother telling her of the last time he had seen his brother. And then, four months after that, news came that he too had died of wounds in St Omer Hospital, France. In the space of ten months Helen had lost her three Doria sons.

          The influenza epidemic that raged through many parts of the country struck the Wimbledon and Porangahau districts. Putting her own grief aside Helen, who had always helped both Maori and European neighbours with general nursing and midwifery, now turned her energies to the intensive care of the influenza patients. Local people credited her with saving many lives at that critical time.

          By the end of the war Helen had five grandchildren, including one set of twins. Bobby was in his teens and ready for secondary school. With the loss of her other sons Helen became very protective of him, but it was decided he should attend boarding school in Napier. Although duly enrolled he decided education at such an institution was not for Bobby Pope. Using his initiative he sold his boots, bought food with the proceeds, and set out on the journey home, a bare-footed walk of 74 miles back to Wimbledon. No further thought was given to boarding schools in the Pope household!

          In 1919 Helen made history by becoming the first woman to be elected to the Wimbledon School Committee. This began a long association with the school where her grandchildren were to attend and her own children had been pupils. Immediate concerns in 1919 were the peace celebrations. It was a time of intense feelings of loyalty to one’s country, to Britain, and to the Empire. Patriotic sentiment was running high. The New Zealand Government decreed that three days be set aside as public holidays in celebration of victory. In fact commemorations in one form or another continued over a much longer period. The first of those to be held at Wimbledon took place on 11 July 1919, when five oak trees were planted in the school grounds in memory of each of the five ex-pupils whose lives had been sacrificed.       

          Throughout New Zealand in tiny country districts as much as in towns and cities, money was raised to erect memorials to honour those who died and also those who served and returned. Wimbledon’s memorial was a pyramid built with specially selected stones brought from the Cape. Two slabs of white marble inserted near the top bore the names of all the men who had left from that district. From a distance it appears as a great cairn, which indeed it is. In 1926 the Deputy Prime Minister performed the unveiling ceremony and the vicar of Saint Michael and All Angels conducted the service. This memorial held deep significance for Helen as her dearest wish had been to visit and tend the two graves in France and the one in England. But that was not to be.

          In 1927, Helen presented the school with a flagpole so that the flag could be raised each Monday morning and the children observe it as they sang the National Anthem. After a fire at the school in 1933 the Country Women’s Institute ladies sewed a replacement ensign. During the Second World War the observance of the flag was given further emphasis with the reciting of the statement: “The flag stands for our country and for our people.”

          There was a large Maori population in this part of Hawkes Bay and Helen had been friends with many of the women from the time when she had first come to Porangahau. She was a welcome visitor on marae and often attended meetings there, occasionally taking Noel, her great-granddaughter, with her. Something in her Gaelic spirit found itself in tune with Maori beliefs and values. Her sense of oneness with Nature and her reverence for all growing things enabled her to readily adopt Maori laws about taking of food from the sea. Crayfish, for example, was never taken in the breeding season no matter how abundant it might be.

          In 1921 Helen was widowed for a second time when Bob died suddenly in the Waipukurau Hospital after suffering a heart attack while working with his bullock team at Akitio. It had been only a brief period since the death of Helen’s mother and now once again there was a sad journey to the Waipukurau Cemetery. Helen and Bobby returned home to the farm. The bullocks were brought back from Akitio and put out to graze for the rest of their natural lives, Helen refusing all offers to purchase them or to work them.

          The 1920s were meant to be a decade of economic and social progress and in some ways it was, although a rural community such as Wimbledon was little-touched by many of the changes except perhaps in an academic sense. In government the Liberals were replaced by the Reform party; aeroplanes were flying from city to city; electric power was becoming more accessible; car-racing was launched as a sport and the first wireless broadcast in Australasia was made from Dunedin. On another level, fashion and social activities generated a sense of reckless excitement in the cities. However for country women such as Helen, day to day life continued with barely perceptible changes. She loved to debate the current political issues and could do so whether writing business letters, doing the ironing or carrying on with some other task. Having ventured into local affairs one wonders if she ever thought of setting her sights on Wellington. Incongruous as it may seem, her name does not appear in any electoral roll.

          Perhaps Helen’s greatest contribution to the lives of the women in the community was the work she did to assist the initial meetings of the local branch of the Country Women’s Institute and the subsequent leadership given to it. The inaugural meeting was held in her corrugated-iron shed in August, 1932 and the shed became a permanent venue. Once it had been a three-roomed harness and tool shed with flooring in one room. The ladies loved it and spared no effort in making it a special place. Sixty years afterwards a passer-by may see the white narcissus at the roadside edge still flowering in the spring.

          Members came to the meetings from every direction throughout the district. Fanny came from her home up in the Angora Valley, not by car or even by horse and gig. She walked, pushing a pram in which she had carefully packed something for afternoon tea along with her competition entries - baking, knitting, sewing and floral specimens. By the time she reached the main road where a friend awaited her she had crossed the 14 fords and had just two miles of shingle road ahead of her before reaching the Institute Room or Mrs Pope’s Shed as the place was first called. Later, as the result of a visiting speaker’s malapropism, it became known as Mrs Shed’s Pope.   

          The 1930s was a difficult period economically. Secondary education was still not really accessible for some children without personal sacrifice on the part of their parents. Isolation and loneliness were the lot of many women and few were yet into careers other than nursing or teaching. The Country Women’s Institute offered informal education to rural women in an environment of warm companionship. Its motto “Each for all and all for each” was a practical ideal.

          Nor were the children forgotten, especially when it was the Institute’s birthday. On that day a party would be held and for a long, wonderful afternoon Helen’s garden became their playground. What a magic place it was, a setting for every child’s imaginative play, especially in Spring-time!

          When war was once again declared, a branch of the Red Cross was formed, its members mostly the Country Women’s Institute ladies. Naturally the meeting place was Helen’s shed. Each Tuesday afternoon the rooms resounded to the hum of voices as people worked at their sewing machines and spinning wheels and at the sorting and packing tables. Pullovers and sea-boot stockings for the merchant navy and skull caps to wear under steel helmets, were knitted from wool spun on the spot. Clothing was re-made or mended and every scrap of material put to good use. Food parcels were packed and dispatched, many no doubt containing a fruitcake specially baked for the boys overseas.

          It was a hard time for all and especially for those who still had vivid memories of the Great War. Each soldier from the district was publicly farewelled at the end of his final leave. It was Helen who was the one called upon to make the speech and presentation on those occasions. On one such the young recipient was her grandson, Douglas Gollan.

          By the time the war was over Helen was well into her seventies. She had a problem heart condition and eventually agreed to stay with Fanny who herself was unwell. Towards the end of the 1940s she moved to Waipukurau to be with Mary Urquart, a niece by marriage and a long-time friend. After just over 70 years her life had now come full circle since her arrival there in 1873. A friend visiting shortly before her death in 1949, found her ironing the white lawn nightgown which she was to wear. She died on 18 May 1949, and was buried in the Waipukurau Cemetery alongside her second husband, Bob. For the previous 10 years or so the Reverend Dan Te Hihi Kaa had been the vicar of the Waipawa Maori Pastorate and was based in Porangahau. It was Helen’s wish that he conduct her funeral service, a mark of the affinity she felt for the Maori people. Those who in later years recalled the occasion always remembered the presence of her Maori friends, a touching tribute to a remarkable lady.

          Helen was indeed a unique person. Like her aunt, Catherine Robertson, she had the gift of second sight. This was manifested once when she arrived unexpectedly at a relative’s home and spent the day sitting in a chair, not speaking or even explaining why she had come. She just waited quietly until the evening when someone brought news of a death that had occurred in the family earlier that day. Helen had “known” of this and knew that she would be needed. Along with this gift of the Sight she had an acute awareness of small events which might be about to happen. An example of this occurred once when Noel was staying with her. Noel lived up the Angora Valley and attended Wimbledon School but when floods made the creek too dangerous to ford she stayed with Helen. On this particular morning Noel was dawdling on the way to school and had stopped at the bridge about a mile along the way to watch the eels that some of the boys had caught but had not killed. The gaping mouths were fascinating. She had always wondered if eels really did have teeth and with finger poised she was about to find out. Suddenly she was grabbed from behind by a furious and puffing granny who shouted, “Don’t ever do that again!”

          Helen was sensitive to the precious and oft-times fragile nature of childhood, an awareness no doubt heightened by the loss of her own three sons at early ages. One day, having noticed a mother spank her child, she remonstrated, “Please do not bang that child. Just remember that God has only lent him to you for a little while.”

          Her profound respect for food had its source in the customs and prayers of her Gaelic heritage. One day in early spring when Noel was playing in the garden she became so enchanted with the blossom on the apricot trees that she stripped the twigs from the branches and endeavoured to drape herself with garlands. Her granny’s reaction was instant and dramatic. “That is food. You must NEVER destroy food.” The memory of that admonition remains.

          No one was ever really sure whether there were fairies in the garden. Helen certainly spoke of them just as some people in Ullapool and other parts of the North-West Highlands do to this very day.

          Although all her adult life was spent within a small geographical area it touched the lives of many people and left them the richer for the experience. They saw her as a strong lady with absolute values; kind, loyal and patriotic to the extreme. Most regarded her as a leader even when she herself dominated the scene with her own agenda, while a few saw her as an eccentric old lady with strange ideas which sometimes prompted the whispered label: “Witch”.

          The bullocks have gone from the paddocks. The house and garden remain, the latter overgrown and dotted with Scotch thistles. The Institute rooms are silent. No slightly stooped, white-haired , little old lady walks bare-footed along the river bank. But something of the magic lingers still. It is as if Helen, herself, were away for just a wee while.   



1868 - 1949

 - married (1) -

1864 - 1898




Frances Margaret

05 Mar 1893

19 Mar 1960


11 Jun 1894

16 Oct 1917

Birley Reginald

12 Jan 1896

30 Dec 1916

Leonard Jack

15 Aug 1897

08 Jun 1917


 - married (2) -

1865 - 1921

Robert Edward

03 May 1906

23 Sep 1983