a family story

John Roxborogh

Ernest (Ernie) Matthews
1878 - 1950

Leaving Devon

My grandfather, Ernest Robert German migrated to New Zealand at age 16, one of 51 passengers on board the Doric which left Plymouth 3 November 1894 and arrived in Wellington on 15th December, sailing via Tenerife, Cape Town and Hobart. He was accompanied by his brother, Richard Bertram German, who was 18. A copy of the ships log that Ernest kept on the voyage still exists, and a number of copies of the photo of him taken that year showing a young man who knew how to dress well - a trait seen in subsequent pictures throughout his life.

The German family lived at Middle Birch Farm, Bere Ferrers, in Devon and had been farmers, possibly for centuries. Their tenanted land was arable and included a number of orchards. Ernie was born on 27 February 1878, though sometimes the month was incorrectly stated as March. There had been a private Christening 13 May 1878. At different times I heard stories of the family brewing cider for Queen Victoria and later of breeding horses for Queen Mary.

When as a teenager he left home for the other side of the world, his brother Sydney, the oldest in the family, had already migrated to New Zealand, leaving Plymouth for Dunedin in 1890 when he was 20.

In 1897, two of their sisters, Minnie (1881-1970), and Florence (1974-1958), also migrated to New Zealand, followed finally by another brother, William Henry (“Uncle Will”) in 1901. Their mother, Elizabeth Jane Matthews, had died in 1882 and their father, William remarried, probably in 1885, and had three more children, Arthur, Wallace and Roland. In all, six of Elizabeth’s nine children migrated to New Zealand, though Richard later returned. Alice, Eliza and Clara remained in Devon.

The famillies kept in touch and in 1957 my mother, Cathie Roxborogh, and I stayed several times with Aunt Eliza at 39 Beaconsfield Road, Plymouth where we met other relatives and heard stories of how they slept out on the moors at night when Plymouth was being bombed during the Second War. In the city centre scars of the war were still to be seen.

In 1915, after the outbreak of the Great War in Europe, Ernest, Will and Minnie changed their name from German to Matthews, the maiden name of their late mother. When in 1920 Ernest wrote to Sydney after a long gap in correspondence, he had to remind him not to forget "I have changed my name to Matthews. It sounds better than the original."

New Zealand

In New Zealand, the German brothers and sisters settled in different parts of the country. Sydney married Edith Steel and farmed in Clinton, Otago. Their daughter Evered later became a boarding pupil at St Hilda’s, Dunedin. Minnie married James Cornwall in 1916.  Florence married Harry Roseveare (who had migrated from Bere Ferrers in the 1870s with four brothers and a sister) on 30 Jun 1897, and they also farmed near Clinton in Otago. Their farm Endsleigh is still in the family. Will never married. And in 1920 Ernest married Mary Ellen Robertson in Morrinsville in the Waikato.

My mother Cathie thought that Ernest “started as a teacher” before he left England. He would have been rather young, but a time as a pupil teacher is not impossible. After reaching New Zealand at the end of 1894 it is likely that he headed for Clinton and it is possible he got work with a builder. He was later remembered as a good carpenter, and from from 4 July 1898 to 4 January 1899 he served in the Navy on HMS Tauranga, giving his occupation as a carpenter. However he must have decided that the navy was not for him, and after only six months he was discharged while the ship was in Auckland, shortly before it was sent to Samoa to intervene on behalf of Britain in a civil war.

It may have been then that Ernest returned to farming, and got involved in dairying. Doug recalled that Ernie once worked at Churchill which is just over the Waikato river from Rangiriri where he milked cows, made cheese and learnt to row across the river in a Maori dug out canoe. It was tricky learning to paddle a canoe on one side and stay in a straight line.

By 1911 Ernest and his brother Will were able to jointly buy three farms along Wakahongi Road near Tatuanui, numbered 24, 25 and 26, later on owned respectively by Ernest, his brother-in-law Jim Cornwall, and by Jim's niece Dorothy Cornwall’s husband Arthur Harding. It is about this time that the Robertson family, including their daughter, Mary Ellen, moved to Ngarua from Taranaki, having purchased land just across the Waihou river which ran along the back of the farms and south towards Matamata.

When the War broke out, Ernest applied to join the Army, but was at first rejected. When he finally succeeded in being enlisted, in July 1916, he sold his share in the farms to his brother-in-law, Jim Cornwall. This was not long after Jim had married their sister Minnie that January. After his return to New Zealand, probably in 1919, Ernest repurchased the smaller block of 125 acres. Will moved to Otakairangi, inland from Kamo in Northland, where he raised pigs. He never married and when he retired he went to live with his sister Florrence near Clinton where he died in 1958. 

During the War, Ernie had been wounded during the Battle of the Somme and also at Ypres and he was then in hospital in Plymouth when the War ended. He had also been affected by gas and suffered from pneumonia. When he was discharged it was in England as he was not considered fit enough to survive the voyage back to New Zealand in a troopship. In due course he arranged his own travel and returned to New Zealand via the United States, visiting the Grand Canyon on the way, and catching up with a Matthews cousin of whom it was said that he used to drive nails through timber in pubs with the palm of his hand for a bet - at least untill one day when the nail came through his hand and had to be removed by a doctor.

Ernest's Army discharge indicates that he had also been wounded twice in his left shoulder. He was described as:

5’ 7” tall
Blue eyes
Brown hair
Complexion dark
Gunshot wound left shoulder in France 8.6.17
Gunshot wound left shoulder france 27.8.18
2 gold stripes
Conduct and character very good
Total service 2 years 282 days: 2 years 169 days overseas and 113 days at home.

Not long after his return to New Zealand and to Tatuanui to negotiate repurchasing one of the farms from Jim Cornwall, Ernest renewed what must have been an earlier aquaintance with Mary Ellen Robertson, who was still living just further up the road on the Robertson farm on the other side of the river. By then Mary was 34, and Ernest 42. On January 13th 1920 he wrote to his brother Sydney in Clinton.

Dear Sid, I suppose you will get a shock when you see who this is from after so many years of silence. I am getting married soon and will be visiting Florrie probably early in February and will also give you a call. It is over twenty years since I left Otago so I suppose I shall find a few changes there. It makes me feel old when I think of so many years.

Other than the fact of getting married, there was nothing about who Mary was, what she was like, or how they met! There was something about the weather being dry and the difficulty of getting feed for stock!

 Devon Men "thorough in all farm business"

After getting married at the Registry Office in Morrinsville on 3 March 1920, Ernest and Mary took their honeymoon as a trip south including to Dunedin and Clinton staying with his sister Florence and visiting his brother Sydney, as well as Sydney's daughter, Evered, at St Hilda's in Dunedin. Mary struck up a good relationship with Evered and appreciated hearing from her. Letters survive from their correspondence into the 1950s.

Ernest and Mary's first child, my mother, Catherine Isabel, was born 9 February 1921, named after the many Catherine's in Mary's family, as well as a great-aunt, Isabel. Ernest's father, William German, died in Bere Alston in August 1922. We now know, though Doug and Cathie never mentioned it, that their second child, a son, was still-born on 14 May, 1923. Doug was born a year later, on 25 May, in Morrinsville.

Returning to Tatuanui in 1920 from Ernest's first visit back to the South Island for twenty years, the urgent tasks were building their first house, and growing the dairy herd as work continued clearing the land of flax and laying drains, first of timber, and then of tiles.

For the first three years, the farm ran at a loss, but the size of the herd gradually built up, and the number of horses also increased. At some point it was possible to buy a tractor, and also to employ someone to help milk the cows and work the farm. Finances were an issue as Ernest had interest to pay on mortgages to Jim Cornwall and also to his brother Will. In 1937 the majority of the debt on the land was transferred to the State Advances Corporation. A family car was purchased. By the time he was twenty, the process of transferring responsibility and part ownership of the farm to Doug had begun.

Sydney German died in August 1950, and when Mary sent her condolences to  Evered on 10 December, it was also to say that Ernest was "far from well himself." As it happened Ernest passed away suddenly just two days later on 13 December with a heart attack.

In January Mary wrote again to Evered, recalling how much the brothers valued each other even though they were not always great correspondents, and noting that Doug was continuing in the family tradition. He "is a good farmer and has had the example and teaching from his Dad, and you will know how thorough these Devon men were in all farm business."