ANNIE (Nan) BELL
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
had made a mistake when her birth was registered and that
the true date was that on which she always celebrated it - 4
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Owen Devery, Peter Horan,
Doug Matthews, Nancy Perrett,
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
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