World War I medals dug out of an Auckland garden decades ago have found their way back to their original recipient's family - just in time for Anzac Day.

Arthur Stanley Smith. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Arthur Stanley Smith. Photo / Brett Phibbs

A 90-year-old niece of the late Arthur Stanley Smith, a Matakana farmer who served as a trooper with the Canterbury Mounted Rifles in the Middle East from 1916 until the end of the war, has come forward after members of another family were shocked to find two medals in their possession were his.

"It is so exciting to think the search has turned up trumps and it coincides with a special day," said Glenfield resident Margaret Kessell of the return of her favourite uncle's medals, which she will add to two awarded to her infantryman father, Michael Herbert Smith, who served in Europe.

Mangawhai surf shop owner David Glover recalls digging the medals from a vegetable garden at his family's home in Empire Rd, Epsom, when he was a boy about 30 years ago.

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His father, Victor Glover, was awarded four World War II medals as a British Army engineer in Burma and India.

He assumed the find was more evidence of his service and all six were lumped together in a drawer.

It was only when David's wife, Mariska, sent them to a medals restoration company to be mounted that the family found they belonged to a soldier from an earlier war and they set out to find his descendants.

A Herald report of the mix-up was noticed by a friend of Mrs Kessell, who contacted Mrs Glover to claim the medals on behalf of her bachelor uncle's family - as his oldest living relative.

"My other cousins have all gone and I'm next in line but I'm not ready yet," said Mrs Kessell, who has three children, five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

"He was my favourite uncle, a happy, jolly man - full of fun, full of life," she said of Arthur Smith, who was Michael's older brother and took over their father's farm at Omaha.

She confessed to having only just had her father's medals mounted, and is looking forward to representing both brothers at a gathering of descendants of veterans of the two world wars at the Warkworth RSA on Sunday.

"I have just done it this year, feeling guilty that 100 years have gone by [since Anzac troops landed at Gallipoli]."

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She revealed that the brothers were not the family's first generation of military men.

However, their grandfather Antoine Da Seymour's career came to a less reputable end when he jumped ship from the Portuguese Navy about 1840 before changing his name to Smith and marrying a Ngapuhi woman called Nellie while working in or around the old Kawau Island copper mines.

"He was so scared of being caught, and with the cat o' nine tails [the lash] looming, he changed his name."

Mrs Glover said she, her husband, and 10-year-old daughter Mackenzie - who will wear her own grandfather's decorations at an Anzac Day service tomorrow - were delighted the medals had been claimed.

"She is an amazing and wonderful 90-year-old lady and I had a lovely chat with her for an hour," she said of Mrs Kessell.

The mystery of how the medals found their way to Empire Rd also appears to have been solved.

It turns out that Mr Smith went to stay with two of his sisters living next door to Victor Glover after becoming too ill to remain on the farm.

He died in 1971, aged 84, and his ashes were interred at Waikumete.Mathew Dearnaley