Researchers find unknown stories

By Roger Moroney

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HISTORIC:  Ancestry Australia and New Zealand content director Ben Mercer enthralled yesterday's commemorative earthquake gatherings with findings and stories unearthed.  PHOTO/Warren Buckland
HISTORIC: Ancestry Australia and New Zealand content director Ben Mercer enthralled yesterday's commemorative earthquake gatherings with findings and stories unearthed. PHOTO/Warren Buckland

For ancestral researchers like Ben Mercer the stories from history were often in constant evolution as new information came to the surface.

And sometimes history was very subjective at times, and much of it came down to definition.

Mr Mercer, who is based in Sydney and who works with Ancestry, was in Napier yesterday to speak at two public meetings about how the quest for a comprehensive list of 1931 Hawke's Bay earthquake victims, now listed as 253, was carried out.

But that figure could still be under consideration after one of the 40 people who attended, Napier man Tony Chittenden, spoke up.

On the Ancestry list the name of 5-year-old Napier boy Clive Chittenden does not appear - although it had on other lists.

Mr Mercer said it had been taken off as the official death certificate stated he died some time later of "intestinal obstruction".

Tony Chittenden introduced himself and said Clive was his uncle.

"We heard he had been sitting on a letterbox when the earthquake happened and that he fell off and landed on a spike - it got him in the stomach."

He had been sent away to hospital and later died, with Mr Chittenden believing the "intestinal obstruction" may have been the result of the injury he received in the earthquake.

Christine Clement, a local researcher for Ancestry, said there was no mention of the earthquake on the youngster's death certificate.

Mr Mercer said one of the aims of yesterday's gatherings was to find unknown stories.

The new fatalities list stood out as every person who had died in the great quake had now been identified.

Up until as recently as 1995 there were still 21 unidentified victims, although by end of the '90s more had been identified through the work of the New Zealand Society of Genealogists.

But many still remained un-named, until Ancestry stepped in with a "comprehensive" research programme which was sparked up about two years ago.

Several unrecorded names were uncovered, and some of the stories behind them enthralled the gathering - which fell silent to remember those affected.

Like Michael Baker, a young Englishman who was holidaying in New Zealand and had been staying at the Masonic Hotel when the earthquake struck.

From that time his letters home stopped, and his concerned parents began placing notices in newspapers across the country seeking sightings of him.

He had been listed as a missing person, but Ancestry researchers uncovered one of the police records and it stated he had been killed in an earthquake.

And young Lorna Williamson whose father died as he tried to protect her and her sister from falling masonry.

"Her sister was killed and she was left paralysed and 14 years later she died as a result of that - it is a long time but we feel she should be included as a victim of the earthquake," Mr Mercer said.

When the previously unlisted name of Henry Skelton was mentioned one woman said he had been a witness at a family wedding.

"This is a treasure trove," Mr Mercer responded.

"These are family stories - the stories of people."

Other previously unrecorded names included Marguerite Sewell, Frederick Bowen, Thomas Golhooly, Thomas Prater and Stephen Burkin.

Mrs Clement then told of the story of a little boy who was buried at the Park Island Cemetery and whose name is on the earthquake list there - except that he had died on February 2, the day before the earthquake.

He had been placed in the hospital morgue and after the earthquake was buried, along with victims from it - but was wrongly listed as one.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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