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People in our past: Resilience of mother of 10

For its 150th Anniversary this week, the Herald has invited readers to share stories of their heritage. Diane Wilson traces her descent from a strong pioneering woman and an early MP

Diane Wilson (above) with a worn-through linen baby's pillow case that belonged to her great grandmother Teresa. Diane's grandfather, Hugh Poland (right), was MP for Ohinemuri.Picture / Chris Gorman
Diane Wilson (above) with a worn-through linen baby's pillow case that belonged to her great grandmother Teresa. Diane's grandfather, Hugh Poland (right), was MP for Ohinemuri.Picture / Chris Gorman

People in our past Part four of a five-part series:

In an upstairs drawer I keep a treasured piece of linen. It is a baby's pillow case with a border of hand-knitted lace that belonged to my great grandmother, Teresa Poland.

Teresa was 26 when she and her husband John left Ireland in 1864 to migrate to New Zealand with two of their three children. They had to leave behind the oldest, Mathew, aged no more than 4. They had free passage to the other side of the world but the assisted immigration scheme did not pay for more than two children.

I am pretty sure she left Mathew with John's mother, but imagine it? As a mother myself it breaks my heart to imagine how Teresa must have suffered.

Worse was to come. The two children she was able to bring with her both died on the long voyage to Auckland.

Their sailing ship, the Ganges, became known as the death ship. Of the 474 passengers on board when she departed, 54 children and two adults died at sea, mostly from bronchitis and whooping cough.

I keep wondering how burials were handled. Teresa and John were Catholics. I know how they would have wanted it to be done.

The ship arrived at Auckland in February, 1865. The Waikato war had not long finished. The disembarking passengers had to spend six months in a barracks at Onehunga while they waited for land they had been promised under a Government scheme to establish more settlements south of Auckland.

The Waikato Immigration Scheme had been promoted in Britain, Ireland and the Cape Colony of South Africa that was struggling at the time. The scheme offered free passage and a grant of land that settlers could own after living on it for three years.

Teresa and John were allotted 20 acres (8ha) at Tuakau where they grazed some animals but it was not farming that gave them a living. John had a flax mill and Teresa set up a general store in their house, the first store in Tuakau.

Happily, there came a time when the child they had left behind in Ireland was able to join them. Mathew, now 15, had a big new family to meet.

Teresa had been pregnant when she left Ireland and gave birth to another son on the ship. In Tuakau, as well as running the store, she gave birth to seven more children.

One of them, Hugh Poland, my grandfather, became a member of Parliament.

As a young man he won a district scholarship to Auckland Grammar School where he topped the New Zealand civil service exam in his fifth year.

He also excelled at athletics and rugby, making the Grammar first XV in 1886 and playing for Auckland from 1887 to 1894.

He trained as a teacher but gave it up after two years, working in a Helensville flax mill, then as a storekeeper in Rotorua and Paeroa, where he settled. There he became a member and eventually chairman of the Ohinemuri County Council, and secretary of the Ohinemuri Jockey Club for the rest of his life.

In 1905 he was elected to Parliament for Ohinemuri as a member of the Liberal Government under Sir Joseph Ward. My father could remember the Ward family.

The Government was defeated in 1912 and the following year my grandfather took part in a famous Opposition filibuster against a bill to abolish the need for second ballots in electorates where no candidate won a majority of the vote.

The second ballot was important to the Liberals whose vote was becoming split by Labour candidates.

Hugh Poland was one of the "stonewallers", a group of MPs who spoke from midnight to dawn for days on end to delay the bill's passage by a record 56 hours. They were led by Sir Apirana Ngata and included another prominent Maori MP, Sir Peter Buck, along with a future prime minister, George Forbes.

But Ohinemuri was a mining district and my grandfather devoted most of his energy to improving miners' conditions and pensions until he lost his seat at the 1925 election.

Politics features in several generations of our family tree. Hugh's daughter, Doreen, was married to Les Shaw, later a mayor of Paeroa, and their grandson is married to one of today's Labour MPs, Sue Moroney.

In fact we have connections on both sides of the present Parliament. The Minister of Defence, Jonathan Coleman, is also married to a descendant of Teresa and John.

Like his parents, Hugh Poland and his wife Ellie had a big family. One of their 12 children was my father, Leo Mervyn Poland. He worked for the BNZ until World War II broke out when, aged 34, married with one child - me - and another due in two months, he volunteered.

The day he came home with this news I can remember hiding under the table and crying at the distress of my poor mother, seven months pregnant.

But he felt he had to go, and when he returned he could not settle back into working at a bank. The war was still on and returning soldiers had to work in an essential service such as farming. He took us to a farm at Pukekawa where our neighbours were the Demlers, would you believe. I took Jeannette Demler (later Crewe) to school on her first day. It is a small world.

After the war he bought a farm at Kaikohe where we lived until moving back to Auckland in 1950.

He had a lot of business interests, including race horses. He once took us around the world to buy a yearling stallion in Ireland.

In 1953 the family spent the year travelling around Britain and Europe in a car and caravan, which were rare there. People pointed to us as we passed.

In 1955 I married Murray Wilson and we had two daughters, Jane and Debra, and they have given us four grandchildren.

We lost Jane eight years ago. Life delivers its share of sadness. But whenever I need strength I look at the pillow case for Teresa's babies. There is a hole in the centre where the fabric has worn through.

• Diane Wilson, nee Poland, is a member of the New Zealand Society of Genealogists.

Read the first entry in this series online here: tinyurl.com/peoplepast

- NZ Herald

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