a family story

John Roxborogh

ANNIE (Nan) BELL (1893-1994)

Annie, known to many as Nan, was born at Silverhope on 20 December, 1893. She herself was adamant that either the Registrar General or her own father Alexander McLean had made a mistake when her birth was registered and that the true date was that on which she always celebrated it - 4 December.

The actual year of her birth was also long in contention. Right up until 1993, when she celebrated her centenary, she had been coy about her actual age. Nieces and nephews attempted to work it out on the basis of what they knew of her siblings, but the results never tallied with her claims. Close friends were also puzzled because of her alert mind and her middle-aged rather than elderly appearance. It wasn’t too difficult for her to convince them that she was still in her eighties even when in actual fact she was approaching 100.

For many years she had admitted to being eighty-three and then much later, when in her nineties, she would tell people year after year that she was still eighty-nine but that some time in the future she expected to hear from the queen. It was a great surprise to many, and perhaps even to Nan herself, when it was made known late in November 1993 that she would be 100 years old on 20 December. When confronted with the fact she suddenly became very enthusiastic about the prospect but still insisted that the day should be 4 December. Despite the birth certificate a compromise was decided upon and it was agreed that two parties to accommodate the staff and residents as well as relatives and visitors should be held on the 3rd and 4th.

Nan was the twelfth and youngest child of a Gaelic-speaking couple who had migrated from the far North-west Highlands of Scotland. Her father, Alexander MacLean, had come to New Zealand in 1864 and her mother, Isabella McKenzie, nine years later. Alexander was born in Diabaig, a crofting and fishing village. He began his working life as a fisherman, later serving before the mast as a carpenter. Eventually he landed in Wellington. Once in New Zealand he was drawn to the goldfields on the West coast but after a time gave that up to work as a shepherd in the Rangitikei. Next he moved to Auckland where he worked as a contractor for six years before returning to the Rangitikei. It was there, at Heaton Park, that he met Isabella McKenzie. The McKenzies and the Robertsons had found employment on the same large estate. Alexander and Isabella were married on 17th December 1874.

For the next 16 years Alexander worked as a contractor in the Upper Tutaenui and Paraekaretu districts. At last, in 1890, he bought 200 acres of land in Silverhope. For a few years he ran the property as a sheep farm before changing to dairying. By the time Nan was born the family was well established. Nan was named for an older sister, Annie, who had died at the age of eight long before Nan was born.

In the early 1890s Silverhope was a small settlement of 71 people situated on the main highway three miles south of Hunterville and 13 miles from Marton. Although it boasted a school and a flag station, when the MacLeans lived there the nearest shops were at Hunterville. The main north-south road and the railway line passed through the MacLean farm cutting it into three sections. Nan often spoke of the farm and the cows and horses, of the bush and a river nearby - probably the Porewa Stream. Today only a little of the bush remains. The school and the station have gone but the old home still stands on a small hillock on the right-hand side of State Highway 1 as one travels south. Attached to a shed at the rear of the house is the original name plaque, “SILVERHOPE”, which someone salvaged when the station building was removed.

          From the time of her birth there was no lack of minders for Nan nor playmates as she grew older. As well as her siblings she had many cousins nearby - the Robertsons at Awahuri, the McKenzies at Silverhope and the Walkers at Hunterville and before she was a teenager there were nieces and nephews. To Nan it seemed that there were always young children about. She often spoke of those childhood days in Victorian times, of how she and the other children were brought up on porridge and the Bible. School and farm life filled their days. There were horses to ride and annual gymkanas to attend; there were visits by horse and gig to Awahuri and Hunterville and on foot or horse-back to the homes of school friends. All in all there were many memories of what seem to have been halcyon days.

          Each day of the week had its particular routine. Thursday was her mother’s ‘at-home’ day and that meant a great deal of baking, much of which was done by the girls to save the family pride as their mother was not the best of cooks. Saturday was the day for cleaning and it was Nan’s job to polish the brass on the kist which was kept in the hall. (The kist was a leather box which had held all her mother’s possessions on the voyage from Scotland. Later it was given away to become another family’s treasure chest.)

          Nan recalled the times when her mother would sew by candle-light or lantern long into the night so that she and her sisters might have new frocks and underwear for some special occasion. It was always emphasised that being poor was no excuse for looking poor - a family saying which probably stemmed from the days of hardship when the McKenzies lived on the croft in Scotland. Somehow it continued to be used long after it had lost its relevance, for this family at least. Like her sisters Nan developed a love of clothes and a flair for fashion. She learned to sew at an early age but when a new treadle machine was purchased none of the girls was allowed to touch it for years because, as they were told quite firmly, “It cost your father six pounds.”

          Pocket-money, either a penny or a thruppenny piece, was handed out by her mother each week. On the rare occasions when the children received sixpence each it was regarded as a case for riotous living.

          There were many social and family occasions when only the Gaelic was spoken. The adults loved to sit around the large kitchen table in the evening telling old horror tales and ghost stories in the Gaelic. Sometimes the children would sneak out of bed and creep close to listen. Once, John and Mary hid under the table while the story-telling was in progress. As the story reached its climax the imagery was suddenly too much to bear and they simultaneously let out a howl of fright and burst into tears. The effect on the superstitious elders may well be imagined!

          Nan’s love of a good story may well have been born out of the telling of such stories. Although not a fluent speaker of the Gaelic herself she sometimes quoted snippets, -- a bit of poetry, an old saying or a song.

          The first major change in Nan’s life occurred in 1907 when the family left Silverhope and moved to Auckland. The kist, the wicker baskets and the portmanteaux were packed and Nan, with her parents and sisters Lillie, Jessie and Katie, boarded the train at Silverhope and travelled to New Plymouth where they took a coastal boat to Onehunga. Nan never forgot that journey and the fact that they had had to take their food with them.

          The MacLean’s new home was in Rosebank Road, Avondale. It was a large, sprawling house set in five acres near the present Avondale racecourse and just along the road from St Ninians Presbyterian Church where Nan’s uncle, the Rev. Alex MacLean, was the minister at the time.

          Much of her life over the next few years was to revolve around the church as the two families were very close. Her uncle was an earnest preacher in the traditional Gaelic-speaking Presbyterian sense. In Nan’s eyes his sermons set the standard for all time, few, if any, ministers met in later life measuring up. She often claimed that there were times when she was expected to be at church five times on a Sunday. She sang in the choir and sometimes played the organ. Whenever she had any say in the matter she would choose the shortest hymns for the evening service and play them as quickly as she dared so that she and the other young girls could skedaddle down the street to meet the Methodist boys at the corner as they came out from their church.

          The parish of Avondale included a number of wide-spread preaching places in West Auckland. The minister’s horse and trap were often to be seen carrying him to one or other of them for the evening service. Taking the reins was a smartly-dressed, auburn-haired teenager.

          It was Nan’s desire to become a lawyer, a somewhat unrealistic ambition for those days and one that was unfulfilled. Following her sister Mary who was a nurse Nan began training at a private hospital in Symonds Street. However family circumstances prevented her from finishing the course.

          In 1915 her father died and before World War 1 was over three of her four brothers had been killed in action. The home in Rosebank Road was sold. By 1919 Nan and her mother had moved to a smaller home in Queen’s Ave, Balmoral, just off Dominion Road.

Donald Robertson, a cousin, returned from active service in France and came to live with Nan and her mother. Nan and Donald had been good friends from childhood days and when Donald had left New Zealand to serve overseas he had given her his motor-car. Gordon Robertson, another cousin from Ngarua, came to train as a teacher at Auckland University and Teachers College in 1919. He, too, made his home with Nan and her mother.

          In 1924 Nan’s sister Jessie Weeks died suddenly leaving four young children. The eldest daughter, Jean, then aged eight, came to live with Nan who from then on was to be ‘mother’ as well as aunt. Caring for Jean as well as for her own mother became a full-time occupation. Over the years nieces and nephews, great-nieces and great-nephews and generations of cousins came to visit or to stay. Compared to rural and small-town life in various parts of New Zealand life in suburban Auckland with its trams and picture theatres and wonderful children’s playgrounds seemed sophisticated indeed.

          When Jean’s father, Tom Weeks, died in 1930 her two brothers, Tom and Ken, were orphaned. Nan did what she could to help the two boys and although unable to give them a permanent home made sure that they spent school holidays with their sister as well as visiting members of the wider family such as the Robertsons at Ngarua.

          On 25th October 1936 Isabella MacLean died. Shortly afterwards Nan married Ernest Bell, a clerk, formerly of Palmerston North. The manner of their meeting was coincidental. One day when Ernest was in Queen’s Ave on business, for what was then the State Advances, and was having difficulty in locating a particular address. Nan was on her way out for the day so on seeing her at the gate he sought her help. She offered to show him the house he was looking for as she was going in that direction. They walked along the street together and two hours later they were still talking, so that was that! However marriage was not immediately possible as Ernest was actually already engaged and Nan herself could not leave her mother. It was 23rd February 1937 when they were married in the Balmoral Presbyterian Church. Gwen Bell, Ernest’s sister was bridesmaid, and Maxwell Walker, a solicitor, best man.

          In September 1939, in the week in which war was declared, there was another wedding in the same church when Jean Weeks married Paul Walker, a clerk in State Advances. “The wedding breakfast was held at the home of the bride’s aunt, Mrs E.J. Bell.   Mrs Bell received wearing a black and white patterned ninon frock and black picture hat. She carried a sheaf of daffodils.” Two of the groomsmen were subsequently killed in action. Once more a war was to touch Nan’s life.

          When Jean’s children, firstly Barbara and then David, were born, Nan and Ernest became “grandparents”. From then on they were known as “Nanny and Bo-Bo”.

          Nan and Ernest moved to 10 Manawa Road, Remuera where they enjoyed a new circle of friends while at the same time keeping in touch with those from Avondale and Balmoral days. Their home was one of the early houses in the area, an old wooden bungalow set on a large section. Throughout their lives together they were great companions enjoying long discussions and much quick-fire repartee. Both were interested in politics and supported the National Party in the Remuera electorate for many years.

          For years Nan negotiated Auckland’s back streets in her Morris-minor, delivering meals-on-wheels. She loved to dine out on hair-raising stories of some of her experiences en route. She was a great reader and used the Auckland Central Library regularly. As a girl she had enjoyed Ethel Turner’s stories about young Australians and as a young adult she had read Ethel M. Dell’s books which were then regarded as being slightly risqué. There were periods when she was a prolific letter-writer although in later years these were not completed and were never ready for posting. Cards and letters received were read over and over again and when her eyesight failed visitors were often asked to read them to her. She loved to write poetry - always rhyming and in the somewhat sentimental style of a Victorian age.

          When Ernest died in 1962 Nan busied herself with what she called her weekly programmes. Sometimes she would take in a boarder or two. One, Tony Fleet, came to dinner one evening, stayed for two months and remained a special friend for the rest of her life.

     With a group of friends from the Avondale days she formed a small club for the purpose of raising funds for cancer research. When in her late eighties and no longer able to drive she often walked uphill from her home to Victoria Ave, where she caught a bus to the city, made a connection with another bus to Avondale and then walked to the old church where the sales tables were set up. Somehow she managed to carry with her bundles of recycled clothes and other saleable goods which she had gathered together since the previous meeting. In the late 1970s I was sometimes cajoled into helping her when work permitted me to be in that area in the late afternoon.

          Paul Walker had moved from Wellington to Tauranga after the death of Jean in 1977. By the 1980s changes were taking place in Manawa Road as people sold their homes and long-time neighbours shifted to other suburbs. Somehow it seemed logical for Nan to move to Tauranga to be near Paul. In 1983 the decision was made. She sold her house and purchased a new property in Shaw Place, Matua. Nan loved her new home and enjoyed showing it to friends and relatives who visited from time to time. She gardened a little, went to Care and Craft and enjoyed small outings. When mobility became increasingly difficult she had to rely on meals-on-wheels and on services such as the district nurse scheme. It was while living here that Nan met several nieces and nephews whom she had not seen since they were babies, if ever.

     In 1993 she had a fall which resulted in a broken arm and hospitalisation. Nan realised that her next move would have to be to a home where she would receive total care and Elmswood in Tauranga was a happy choice.

     She soon became a favourite with staff and residents alike. Her sense of humour and love of a good story were much appreciated as were her frequent expressions of gratitude to those who cared for her. She had a passion for chocolate but the rate at which her store dwindled was puzzling until Cathie Roxborogh discovered that she was supplying the night staff.

          On the last day of November, 1993, Nan suddenly announced that she would be having a party in a few days’ time. Over a period of two days, 3rd and 4th December, 1993, she celebrated her 100th birthday in style. There were last-minute messages from many friends and relatives but of particular interest were those from Buckingham Palace, Government House, the Prime Minister’s office and from the local Member of Parliament. (Nan always referred to him as “my Mr Peters’). As far as is known Nan was the only descendant of both sets of grandparents, Alexander and Ann McKenzie and Roderick and Ann MacLean, to reach that age.

          Nan got to saying “I think that the Lord has forgotten me” and “I don’t think God knows where I am”, but on Monday 21 November, 1994, she suffered a heart attack and died three days later. Two of her nieces, Bub Horan and Bobbie Taylor, and first cousins once-removed, Barbara McKee and Cathie Roxborogh, were with her during her last few days.

          Nan’s service was held at St Columba Presbyterian Church on Monday, 28 November. Officiating were Bob Maslin and John Roxborogh. The readings were given by Neil Robertson and eulogies by Barbara Robertson, Grace du Faur and Vivienne Stefadouros. The Pallbearers were Owen Devery, Peter Horan, Doug Matthews, Nancy Perrett,   Barbara Robertson, and David Walker.

Others at the service were: Cathy Bleakley, Penny Haslett, Richard Haslett, Campbell Walker, Desma and Glen Craw, Cathie Roxborogh, Isabel George, Trish Brosnan, Ana Olsen, Lynette Jack-Kino, Sylvia Fichtl, Bobbie Taylor, Joan Buckthought, Michael Haslett, Sharman Walker, Kasana Walker, Bub Horan, Tony Fleet, Barbara McKee, Elsie MacMillan and Leasa, Melissa, Jason and Logan Craw.  

Nan was remembered for her grasp of the English language and special “turn of phrase”, her enjoyment of repartee, letter-writing, crossword puzzles and poetry and for her love of singing. (Even in her latter years her rendition of “Danny Boy” was haunting.) She loved Christmas - the carols and all the trappings. She was fiercely independent, with a wicked sense of humour (at John and Jenny Roxborogh’s wedding in 1969 there was a loud “It’s not too late John” clearly heard around St Stephen’s Ponsonby as we waited for the bride), but glimpses of Victorian values showed at times. Whether it was just for the sake of argument or because it was how she really saw the world, she tended to see things as either black or white; with few grey areas and little room for compromise. Yet she had an ability to “read” others; make astute comments about the state of society and see through the motives of politicians. She liked organising other people, which was not always what other people, including Cathie Roxborogh wanted however devoted Cathie was to Nan. Nan could be somewhat forbidding at times and the fierce persona was always there when needed. Of course the bark was worse than the bite and she was also generous to a fault. People remembered her willingness when it came to minding young nieces and nephews and later, the neighbour’s children, when living in Manawa Road. She loved animals, especially dogs and had a fine taste in antiques.