Vonne is the family historian, a researcher by nature taking the time to search and follow up the family stories that enable us to understand where we have come from.
I met her once when I was eight years old. It was at one of the wonderful family parties at my grandparent’s house in Takapuna. It must have been just before she moved to Ngaruawahia where she died in 1960 and is buried. It would have been at Christmas time because she gave me a present, a copy of the fairy tale Bluebeard. I have often wondered why she chose a fairytale that depicted violence against young women. In the two photographs I have of her, she is sitting on the back steps of the house in Pupuke Road shelling peas, an old lady with white hair and arthritic fingers.
The photographs are so damaged and scratched her image is barely discernible. Uncared for and unloved. Living in a converted garage, not allowed in the house. Treated disdainfully for ‘crimes’ that were never articulated. Her whole life was shrouded in secrecy, hidden away, not discussed by the family. Her life erased.
Her name was Sarah Frances Lawrence. She immigrated to Wellington with her parents and two siblings on the Vogel scheme in 1876. She was six months old. The family were looking for a better life that never materialised. They lived in inner Wellington, just getting by on a labourer’s wage. In 1891when Sarah was 21, she married a young man who had emigrated from London twelve months before. Their daughter was born on 8 July 1891 and died less than a year later of gastroenteritis on 13 Feb 1892. Within twelve months her husband had deserted her and returned to London. Sarah then entered into a relationship with William Alfred Gardner, a retired accountant, my great-grandfather. He was a widower 34 years her senior. Within four years she had three sons, Albert, my grandfather Noel, and Alfred. She was pregnant with their fourth child when William died of peritonitis on 8 July 1898, leaving her to fend for herself, pregnant and with three boys under five.
My grandfather swore that he saw white doves flying around his father’s bed the night he died. Sarah was so poverty stricken that she had to accept charity to bury my great grandfather in an unmarked grave in Karori cemetery. Their daughter Muriel Ethel, the child she was carrying died 14 November 1898 and is buried with him.
Sarah then moved, with her three boys, to the Waikato where she found work at the health spa in Te Aroha. Fifteen years later, in 1913, she married a much younger man, Arthur Newson, not much older than my grandfather Noel. That marriage lasted thirty years ending with Arthur’s suicide in 1943. Sarah lived another seventeen years and in that time her youngest son Alfred died at Chunuk Bair, Gallipoli in 1915. Her middle son, my grandfather was wounded eight weeks later.
As the family genealogist with an interest in uncovering the truth it has been a difficult, but important, task discovering the actual facts about my great grandmother’s life. Her first marriage was hidden, four of her children were registered as illegitimate. Because of the scandal and the Victorian attitudes of the time Sarah’s life story has been obscured, the ‘stories’ told about her unreliable but secrets need to be brought into the light, the facts documented accurately so that our family histories can be accepted.
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