An Amazing find in our Special Collections

Put yourself for a moment in Maurice York's shoes. You and your family have spent the last 30 years researching your family history. You have had many sucesses but there have been brick walls along the way that seemed impossible to clamber through. You've travelled from Sydney for a holiday in Europe and here you are in the Lower Library at the SoG. The good news is there's an absolute trove of treasure available on your family in our Special Collections. The less good news is that there are 11 boxes full to brimming with 'stuff' and you have just one day.

Within the first hour, there's an amazing moment. You open a folder holding lots of yellowing papers and a small brown Kodak envelope drops out. It’s been tucked away, undisturbed, for 15 years. It’s marked with the name of an ancestor whose photo you have never seen before. Inside is a smaller white envelope. You carefully extract some slides – photos of your 4 x great-grandfather, your 4 x great-grandmother, and your 3 x great-grandmother. They are high resolution colour slides that no one has seen for many years, and there are no other known copies.

Maurice has an extensive family tree, with ancestors moving across Britain, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. With other family members, he is still researching. To explain the amazing moment that happened in our Lower Library though, we need to go back to Scotland and the end of the 18th century.

In 1799, Robert White, from Linlithgow, married Christian Sim, from Kincardine. They had 8 children, although Maurice doesn’t have full details on each one. Maurice’s direct ancestor is David, their fourth child. The ‘Scotland, Select Births and Baptisms’ give his baptism date as 14 October, 1804.

David’s parents, Robert and Christian, died towards the end of 1815. Maurice has found death certificates for both of them, stating that the cause of death was ‘recurring fever’. So at 11 years of age, their young son, David, was an orphan. He and his surviving siblings seemed to have an uncertain future. Fast forward to the 1840s, and Maurice finds records showing that David is a substantial landowner in New Zealand, with a wife and 6 children.

Maurice and his family have a number of questions. When did the family arrive in New Zealand? How did an orphan in Scotland in the early 1800s get the money to buy land anywhere? What made David decide to emigrate from Scotland to New Zealand? What happened to them after they arrived in New Zealand?

It was quite easy to find out when the family arrived in New Zealand. Maurice finds records, held by the New Zealand Society of Genealogists, that tell him this. He discovers that David White had married Isabella Wilson in Edinburgh in December, 1834. The couple left London in 1841, with Robert (5 years), Catherine (2 years ) and Christian (1 month), on the barque, Gertrude. The ship’s documents also show that David brought a lot of agricultural implements with him. They arrived at Port Nicholson, Wellington’s harbour, on 30 October, 1841.

It can’t have been easy or even pleasant to leave Edinburgh and arrive in Wellington. In late 1841, when David landed, New Zealand had been a British colony for just over a year. It could be a wild, lawless place. Wellington was still just a settlement. Migrants from Britain were beginning to arrive but in small numbers. Some people lived within a missionary or church settlement. Other people, like David, had already bought land from British companies before they left Britain. These people usually had a trade or a profession or access to investment money, making them slightly different from the poorer agricultural labourers that would be attracted to New Zealand in the coming decades. In fact, the Gertrude was specially chartered by the New Zealand Company to bring paid-up migrants to New Zealand. The New Zealand Company was an English company, with English investors, formed to attract migrants that would help to build a new, model English society in the southern hemisphere.

Maurice and his family find the records extremely useful and complete a basic family tree. But they still have a lot of unanswered questions. In an attempt to move forward, Maurice decides to take a DNA test. The matching process provides a link to a second cousin once removed: Nancy Buckman. There is enough detail on the family tree to connect Nancy and Maurice. Nancy is a Member of the New Zealand Society of Genealogists and is very experienced at tracking down land transactions. She can fill in more of David’s story.

Nancy explains how David could afford to buy land in New Zealand. Although he and his siblings were orphans after their parents died, they were all cared for, educated and given a start in life by other wealthy family members. David had built a successful business before he migrated and had the income to to buy land in New Zealand before he left. The land purchase records are held in the archives at the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington. They show that ‘David White and Henry Charles Lawlor both of Edinburgh’ bought land in Auckland from the New Zealand, Manukau and Waitemata Company in 1840.

The role of the New Zealand, Manukau and Waitemata Company in David’s story gives us some clues about his decision to emigrate to New Zealand. This was a Scottish company created to help Scottish migrants. It had bought and acquired land in the Auckland area. Then, in Scotland, it advertised the plots of land, the new town of Auckland and the idea of migrating for a better life. No doubt this image appealed to David and Isabella. He was obviously a careful man. He not only bought land; he shipped agricultural equipment as well so he could get to work on his new homestead.

Nancy can also tell Maurice what happened to David when he arrived in New Zealand. The Gertrude landed the family in Wellington. Their land was in the Auckland area, about 300 miles away. Travelling was difficult and sometimes dangerous. It must have seemed almost impossible to David and Isabella with three very small children. It’s highly possible that they travelled by ship, with all their agricultural implements. Finally, when they arrive, they find …almost nothing. Although Auckland had just been named the capital of New Zealand, it was not a cohesive small town, not even a village, at most a scattering of settlements. The local Maori had built huts for people that had arrived the year before and that was the main accommodation. Then, like most of the migrants arriving, David discovered that the land he thought he owned was under dispute. Did it cross their minds to just give up and go home? In recompense for the lost land, David is given land in Mt Wellington – an area in south-east Auckland. Many settlers wrote to newspapers and in letters home complaining that the land was bad, hilly and infertile. But David White and Isabella worked hard, made other careful land purchases and helped to create a city. They are considered to be one of the founding families of Auckland.

The White family are neighbours to General William Taylor and his family, from British India. In 1861, Catherine White, the little girl that had travelled all the way from Scotland, married the boy next door, David Taylor, born in India.

Nancy Buckman has a lot more information for Maurice. She tells him about another new cousin, Monica Carolan. Monica is well known to many people at the SoG, and in collaboration with Nancy and many others, Monica had begun to write a White family story. Nancy has a draft of this story which she shares with Maurice. Monica also had photos of members of the family. When Monica died in 2002, all her research came to the SoG for safe keeping. Maurice decides to spend one day of his holiday finding out what the SoG holds from Monica Carolan. Nancy and he both agree that any original photos have probably been destroyed but he's hoping that copies might have been stored with other papers. Maurice contacts our Head of Archive and Library Services, Francisca Mkandawire, and discovers that the SoG has Monica's papers in the Carolan Special Collection. There are 11 boxes.

Maurice arrives early for his day at the SoG. Special Collections are indexed, so he can see a brief summary of what the folders in each box hold. He identifies the most likely folders and gets started. And that's when everyone in the Lower Library shares that amazing moment with him. Maurice has found the following slides:

  • two of David White, his 4 x great-grandfather
  • one of Isabella White, his 4 x great-grandmother
  • one of David and Isabella's daughter, Catherine, his 3 x great-grandmother
  • two of David and Isabella's home in Auckland, where they lived in retirement.

Plus, two more photos glued by Monica on to a family tree report. Underneath one of the photos Monica has written: 'Catherine White born in 1839’.





























The images suggest that they were originally portraits in frames, either on furniture or on a wall, maybe 5 in by 7 in. The frames are embossed and look slightly damaged. They all have very similar styles, frames and settings, although the one of Catherine is slightly different. They were probably printed from glass negatives. Each print has been placed on a background and photographed with a colour slide camera at an unknown date. It’s possible that Monica had the slides taken. The images have not faded at all because they have been stored away from light.

The two glued photos are important because they establish that all the photos are from the same family and the same time frame, evidenced by Monica. Other material in the boxes include interviews Monica had done with family members and correspondence between them. This includes gems like the explanation for a previously unexplained omission from a will ‘disinherited for marrying a papist’ and ‘he was not the paragon we supposed, identifying others named in a will as probable offspring’. It’s all wonderful background for Maurice's family tree.

In addition to the photographs, the folders contain many key genealogy proof items, such as certificates and register prints, all gathered before the internet age of instant access. It’s pretty clear that Monica never, ever threw anything away; and often re-used paper – printing on the back of things with no relevance to the other side!


Is Maurice finished now? No, of course not. Before he went back to being a tourist, he took an extra day to copy yet more material from the boxes at the SoG. He has a further challenge: to definitively date the slides. For this he will need help from an expert in costume history perhaps. And there’s a photo he would love to find - he still doesn’t have one of his 3 x great-grandfather, George Chambers Taylor. He thinks there must have been a wedding photo when George married Catherine in 1861 at the White’s house. Anyone have any ideas – please let us know. It could be yet more great material for a book that Maurice’s extended family are writing for publication next year.

This story is a testament to many things: to people like Maurice and his family who keep going until they find the facts and the evidence; to genealogists like Nancy Buckman and Monica Carolan, who carefully store and annotate their information and records; to the SoG, who stores and indexes family stories and documents from all over the UK and aims to keep it safe and make it as available as possible to everyone.

Let’s give Maurice the final words: ‘Almost all the amazing moments of our family history journey – and there are many – have come about because fellow researchers keep detail, research thoroughly and above all, are prepared to share and work together collaboratively to pass on a great legacy to our children. Thank you all.’

- Sherryl Abrahart

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