Gives back: Wading through the letters of history

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Give back. Bay of Plenty Times reporter John Cousins
Give back. Bay of Plenty Times reporter John Cousins

Delving into ancient letters written by an English father to his missionary son sounded right up my alley when I opted to give back a day of my working life to The Elms.

After all, how hard could it be to transcribe 185-year-old letters if you've tackled novels by Charles Dickens and the Brontes. And surely it was more interesting than weeding, even although the gardens lend a special beauty to one of New Zealand's most historic places.

I joined a once-thriving group of volunteers that, by a variety of circumstances, had dwindled to one stalwart Dorna Crowther - a treasure trove of information about The Elms.

Armed with enthusiasm and curiosity, my first assignment and practice run was a short letter written in 1829 by Joseph Brown of Colchester to his son the Reverend AN (Alfred) Brown and young wife Charlotte. When the letter reached the couple 14 months later, they were in the Bay of Islands spreading the Gospel.

I quickly became bogged down in odd spellings, unclear writing, no paragraphs and a complete absence of capital letters and full stops to start and end sentences. Puzzled by the contradiction of eloquence and shoddy writing structures, I put it down to the letter having been dashed off quickly to not miss a sailing.

To cut a long story short, it took a lot longer than I expected to produce a transcript of Joseph's 1829 letter that, once all the lavish Christian sentiments were put aside, dealt with the family's wayward son Augustus falling into the company of thieves and ending up in jail. Surely an anxious time for Alfred to be so far removed from the crisis swirling around his brother. After I cut my teeth on this letter, Dorna assured me it would get better as I grew more accustomed to the way Joseph Brown wrote. She then introduced me to a few style basics, offered helpful hints, and introduced me to the workings of The Elms transcribers and how they had barely scratched the surface of an enormous task involving hundreds of letters focused on the early years of Tauranga's pioneering missionary settlement.

I literally gulped at my next assignment, a scanned copy of another letter from Joseph, written in August 1830 when Alfred and Charlotte had been in New Zealand for eight months and were still years away from the Church Missionary Society, venturing south to Tauranga.

It was a very long letter and the variable quality and fading ink made it a bit of a brain bender. I realised that Joseph's unstructured flow of writing was not a one-off - it was simply the way he wrote.

In a perverse way, I enjoyed the challenge because I was transcribing a letter that would make the job of future researchers a lot simpler - I was contributing something tangible for my "gives back" day. Many head-scratching hours later, I emailed the transcribed letter back to Dorna, who I silently thanked for giving me the chance at some tricky stuff.

A few words were utterly perplexing. The best I could do was an educated guess and to alert Dorna with a question mark beside the word to see if she was able to make more sense of it. One word clearly needed research and I was finally able to drill down to an Old English spelling of "mistress", where I discovered that a letter that resembled an "f" was in fact a shorthand for a double "s".

The Elms, Mission House.
The Elms, Mission House.

The letter contained some fascinating tidbits about life in and around Colchester, including an obviously well-respected professional man who left for the island of Guernsey to restore his health, but never returned, to the "surprise and grief" of all Colchester.

"You can forme[sic] no conception wat[sic] a confusion it made all over the place no one could give any reason for such a suden[sic] way of leving[sic] us & without saying the reason or taking leves[sic] of his friends".

Later, Joseph updated Alfred on the progress back to a lawful lifestyle of his brother.

"Augustus is a great trouble to me but he is greatly alterd[sic] for the better he has put himself to learn to be a Shoemaker & is this Day mending shoese[sic] for the family I am in hope he will take care of himself as he is very desirouse[sic] of surporting[sic] himself".

Brown's Letters

In the early 1970s, the Brown family correspondence was sorted and catalogued by New Zealand Historic Places Trust and the Alexander Turnbull Library. The letters were placed into folders according to their intended recipient, such as family and business letters to Brown, letters to his wives Charlotte and Christina from family and other missionaries' wives, and letters to Brown from missionaries.
The letters were then microfilmed but the technology meant the quality was sometimes very poor, making them difficult to read. The condition of the original letters varied, with some faded, eaten by insects or missing pages. However, most were in good condition considering their age.
The Elms volunteers are working their way through the folders to provide a transcription of each letter and store it electronically. David Rorke was scanning the letters so the transcribers did not need to handle the originals.
The main focus so far had been on folders containing copies and drafts of letters written by Alfred Brown and, lately, letters that pertained to the Battle of Gate Pa. The copies and drafts of letters were a mixture of private and business letters written to a variety of people including friends back in England, the Church Missionary Society and the Bishop in Auckland. Some are challenging to read, especially the drafts which often contained crossed out words and paragraphs, inserted sentences, and altered words. In his drafts and copies, Brown used a number of abbreviations, some of which were obscure and archaic symbols. He also abbreviated words, sometimes drastically, so "journey" became "j'y".
These drafts and copies were only intended for his own record for the future, not for someone to puzzle over 170 years later. Some were written during a crisis or stressful point in the life of the family and were quite moving.
One of Brown's letters was to the Bishop of Auckland, dated March 6, 1865, and informed him of the violent death of Rev Carl Volkner in Opotiki and the possible threat to the settlements of Maketu and Tauranga.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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