Charge of the New Zealand Cavalry at the Battle of Ōrākau

Cavalry units seldom saw combat in open terrain during the New Zealand Wars of the nineteenth century. The Māori had no wish to confront the British and colonial forces in conventional European battles in open fields, but instead usually fought in the bush, the hills, or behind the ramparts of their ingenious earthwork defences. Consequently, colonial cavalry units spent much of their time employed as scouts; as escorts for pack-horses or wagons; or raising civilian morale by parading through the towns looking handsome in their dashing tunics.   The last day of the Battle of Ōrākau was a rare exception, on 2 April 1864 – 150 years ago today.

It is hard to imagine a cavalry charge in New Zealand, but that is exactly what the illustration below purports to show. It was less than a decade after one of the most well-known cavalry charges of all time – that of the Light Brigade against the Russians at Crimea.

Charge of the New Zealand Cavalry at the Battle of Orakau Lemuel Lyes Collection

Charge of the New Zealand Cavalry at the Battle of Orakau
Lemuel Lyes Collection

Like the Light Brigade’s infamous gallop, and like nearly every other cavalry charge, the truth of the military action at Ōrākau isn’t nearly as glorious as how it is portrayed in art.

It was the last day of the Battle of Ōrākau and Rewi Maniapoto’s besieged warriors, along with some women and children, were low on ammunition and supplies. The British gave the defenders a chance to surrender but were instead met with these iconic words of defiance, “E hoa, ka whawhai tonu mātou, Āke! Āke! Āke! – Friend, we will fight on forever, forever and forever!” An offer for the women and children to leave unharmed was also refused, this time by Ahumai Te Paerata, the daughter of one of the chieftains, with the words “Ki te mate ngā tāne, me mate anō ngā wāhine me ngā tamariki’ – ‘If the men die, the women and children must die also.”

Hostilities continued and in desperation Rewi’s forces, along with the women and children, boldly broke through British lines and tried to make a run for it. They had no choice – but in the open they were vulnerable and the colonial cavalry pursued with their swords extended. The defenders tried to make it to the safety of a swamp, which was impassable for the horses, but many were cut down as they emerged into the open on the other side. There is rarely any real glory in a cavalry charge and this one was certainly no exception.

The illustration of the charge in my collection was published in the Picturesque Atlas of Australasia in 1886 with the title “CHARGE OF THE NEW ZEALAND CAVALRY AT THE BATTLE OF ORAKAU”. I’ve seen a number of framed examples like my one but this is the only copy I’ve personally encountered that has been coloured – although I should point out that this would have been the work of a different artist, possibly recently. The Alexander Turnbull Library also has a copy, which they attribute to a Frank P. Malony, however upon closer examination of the print in my collection the signature is actually that of well-known Australian colonial artist Frank P. Mahony.

He earned a reputation for his choice of horses as subjects and for illustrating action scenes. You can see some of his other work here, here and here. I’d love to know what happened to the original copy used in the Australasia Atlas – if anyone has any information please get in touch.

Of course the illustration does little to convey the truth of what happened that day – but it captured my attention and encouraged me to read more about it. When I first saw it I was surprised that there had been such an action here in New Zealand. Cavalry charges were supposed to happen on the distant battlefields of Europe, or during the American Civil War, and certainly not in the paddocks of the Waikato.

There has been some criticism that the 150th anniversaries of battles such as Rangiriri and Ōrākau have gone relatively unnoticed compared to anniversaries of more recent conflicts that were fought on foreign battlegrounds. I have to say that I agree with this. I do feel that the last six months have been a missed opportunity to better remember events that occurred in our own fields, bush and swamps – events that played an undeniably important part in the formation of this country and who we are today.

There is a fictional portrayal of the battle, including the inglorious cavalry charge, in Episode Five of The Governor (1977). For a long time this epic television drama was relatively inaccessible, I considered myself extremely lucky to have been able to watch the series on VHS while working on a TVNZ documentary series, but fortunately since then the team at NZOnscreen have done a remarkable job at making this episode available for viewing online. You can watch it here, and I really recommend you do:

The Governor - The Lame Seagull (Episode Five)

(Skip to Part 3 if you just want to see the cavalry charge).

To learn more about the battle of Ōrākau, or the Waikato Campaign in general, you can head on over to NZ History or, even better, visit your local library.  To read more about the use of mounted forces during the New Zealand Wars check out this fantastic article.

© Lemuel Lyes

WW1 Postcard: The Search for Trooper Harvey

As my regular readers will already be aware, among my collection of historical ephemera, military memorabilia and postal history are several albums of postcards sent by soldiers during the First World War. This year marks the centenary of the start of that conflict, so I’ll be sharing more of these cards, and more importantly, do my best to try and tell the story behind each one.

The postcard I want to share today was sent to a woman in Otakou, a small and historic settlement on the beautiful Otago Peninsula.  I found it a number of years ago in an antique shop just across the harbour from Otakou at Port Chalmers.  It shows a scene from nearly a century ago and half a world away.

Egyptian Postcard sent to New Zealand in December 1914 Lemuel Lyes Collection

Egyptian Postcard sent to New Zealand in December 1914
Lemuel Lyes Collection

On the back of the postcard is a message from a member of the main body of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force – written just before they disembarked at Alexandria, Egypt.

Back of Postcard - Egypt, December 1914 Lemuel Lyes Collection

Back of Postcard – Egypt, December 1914
Lemuel Lyes Collection

“Dear Sylvy,

Have had a good trip. Are going into camp at Cairo. Rupert is doing fine. Had leave in Colombo for 6 hours had a good time. We lost 16 horses out of 725 on the trip. We will be disembarking at Alexandria tomorrow, it will be like parting from an old friend leaving this boat. I remain your obedient trooper.

Will Harvey”

According to the Cenotaph database there were at least sixteen William Harveys that fought for New Zealand during the First World War, however there are several clues that can help identify which of them sent this postcard.  The first clue is the date of the postmark, which indicates that the sender arrived in Egypt with the main body of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in early December 1914.  This narrows the candidates down considerably. Only two William Harveys left New Zealand in 1914, another three left in 1915, five in 1916, four in 1917 and two in 1918. Continue reading

Flag Debate: The Silver Fern

Prime Minister John Key recently reignited the debate about New Zealand’s national flag.  The same old arguments for and against any change are already being trundled out and so I thought I’d add my two pence.  I’m not yet entirely convinced that change is needed at all, but if change is inevitable then there does seem to be a strong argument for the raising of one of our most beloved icons – the silver fern.

Our current flag evolved from the Royal Navy’s blue ensign in the 1860′s, saw irregular use through the late nineteenth century and became official in 1902.  It is hard to not be attached to, or even get a little emotional about, the flag that once flew over Quinn’s Post at Gallipoli, was raised at Jack Lovelock’s medal ceremony at the 1936 Berlin Olympics or was flown at half-mast during tragedies both past and recent.  A long and proud history is part of what makes a strong flag – that sense of continuity between the past, the present and the future.

I should admit to being excessively nostalgic at times (surprise!) and can harbor discontent at any seemingly unnecessary cosmetic changes – especially when they relate to heritage.  Yet despite that, I’m open-minded to the suggestion of a flag change, that is, as long as any replacement still maintains a strong link to our past.  With that in consideration the silver fern does seem to be a potential candidate.  I looked through my personal collection of historical ephemera for the earliest example I could find of the silver fern being used as an emblem – and found this field stationary set that belonged to a New Zealand soldier in the First World War.

Silver Fern and Kiwi on cover of First World War stationary kit Lemuel Lyes Collection

Silver Fern and Kiwi on cover of First World War stationary kit
Lemuel Lyes Collection

Inside of New Zealand soldier's stationary kit, Xmas 1917 Lemuel Lyes Collection

Inside of New Zealand soldier’s stationary kit, Xmas 1917
Lemuel Lyes Collection

This stationary set emblazoned with the silver fern and kiwi was distributed to New Zealanders on the Western Front.  This example belonged to Hugh Anderson Thompson who embarked with the 29th Reinforcements on 13th August 1917.   At this time some military vehicles such as ambulances and staff cars were also marked with the silver fern. Continue reading

Britannia Rules the Skies – The Flight of J.J. Hammond and Esmee McLennan

This evening marks one hundred years since curious spectators in Auckland craned their necks to witness one of the first flights in New Zealand made by a Government owned aircraft.  Joseph Joel Hammond of the Royal Flying Corps was at the controls of the ‘Britannia’ and in the passenger seat, perhaps the most sought after seat in the country, was Miss Esmee McLennan, an actress.  This was the day when Auckland had its own ‘Come Josephine in my Flying Machine’ moment, only her name was Esmee, not Josephine, and the pilot was about to get into a whole heap of trouble over it.

Courtesy of Air Force Museum of New Zealand

Courtesy of Air Force Museum of New Zealand

January 28th 1914 was far from the first time that an aircraft had flown over the city.  Other aviation pioneers had put on shows over the city during the previous year including the enterprising “Wizard” Stone and Frederick Sandford who took the daughter of one of the aircraft’s co-owners up for a flight – earning her the distinction of becoming the first woman to fly in a heavier than air aircraft in New Zealand. Hammond had also taken the Britannia for a few trial flights in the preceding weeks, including a flight out over the Waitemata, tipping his wings in salute to several ships of the Royal Navy.

This was a time when aviation was new, exciting, seemingly death-defying, and it certainly captured the minds and imaginations of the public.  The dashing young pilot also attracted attention – some of which would soon cause him problems.  He had previously set aviation records in Australia, and before that had prospected for gold in Alaska and toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show.  I really like this guy!

The Britannia was a Blériot XI-2, a variant of an early monoplane that less than five years earlier had made history by becoming the first aircraft to fly across the English Channel.  I’ve been fortunate enough to see one flying myself, at the Warbirds over Wanaka air show in 2000.  It was a beautiful sight, the Bleriot flying slowly enough so that the adoring crowd could plainly see the pilot waving his gloved hand as he flew overhead.

The trial flights of the Britannia on 17th and 18th January 1914 became an event in their own right and resulted in newspaper headlines such as ‘Our Aeroplane’, ‘First Flight in Dominion’, ‘New Zealand’s Airship’ and my personal favourite, ‘Aeroplaning at Auckland’.  The Britannia was the hot topic of the month and a fantastic asset for the organisers of the Auckland Exhibition – with flights over the Exhibition grounds billed as an exciting draw-card.

Beattie, William, 1864-1931. Bleirot monoplane Britannia flying over Auckland Exhibition Grounds. Thompson, D (Mrs) fl 1975 :Postcards of New Zealand scenes. Ref: PAColl-0892-12. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Beattie, William, 1864-1931. Bleirot monoplane Britannia flying over Auckland Exhibition Grounds. Thompson, D (Mrs) fl 1975 :Postcards of New Zealand scenes. Ref: PAColl-0892-12. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

J.J. ‘Hammond may have had the best seat in the city but those on the ground also had a unique opportunity to be aviators for a moment – and even be photographed ‘flying’ over Auckland in their very own flying machine.  Exhibition visitors, presumably for a fee, could have their photograph taken in an aviation themed studio.  The resulting images, now in archives, postcard collections and family albums, survive as a unique record of this exciting time. Continue reading

2014 Historical Anniversaries

First, a quick note to my regular readers – thanks so much for all your support and encouragement over the past year.  I hope you all enjoyed the holiday season and are ready to make the most of 2014.  To get things started here is a short list of some upcoming historical anniversaries to keep an eye out for both here in New Zealand and internationally.


50 Years ago – The Beatles tour New Zealand with concerts in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin.

Ringo Starr being greeted with the hongi, Wellington. Hill, Morris James, 1929-2002 :Negatives of Wellington, and national events and personalities. Ref: 1/4-071854-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Ringo Starr being greeted with the hongi, Wellington. Hill, Morris James, 1929-2002 :Negatives of Wellington, and national events and personalities. Ref: 1/4-071854-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

100 Years ago – The Auckland Exhibition was in full swing.  It ran from 1st December 1913 through until 18th April 1914.  Crowds enjoyed cultural experiences, industry and trade exhibits, aeronautical displays and giant water chutes.  They probably had candy floss as well.

100 Years ago – The First World War begins.  Check out the WW100 site for ways to contribute to the commemorations here in New Zealand. There are many ways to get involved and plenty of upcoming publications to look forward to.  Here at History Geek I’ll be ramping up the amount of First World War related posts including sharing previously unpublished ephemera, photographs and correspondence from my personal collection.

150 Years ago – In 1864 the New Zealand Wars continued with major engagements in the Waikato at Paterangi and Orakau (Rewi’s Last Stand); Taranaki and Tauranga.  Last year I was disappointed at how little media attention was given to the anniversaries of significant New Zealand Wars battles, so expect some more History Geek posts on this conflict.

General Duncan Alexander Cameron with a group of soldiers of the Colonial Defence Force. Ref: 1/2-029252-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

General Duncan Alexander Cameron with a group of soldiers of the Colonial Defence Force. Ref: 1/2-029252-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

200 Years ago – Christmas Day 2014 marks the bicentenary of Samuel Marsden’s sermon at Oihi – the first Christian service to be held in New Zealand.  Wow, bicentenary.  We are getting old aren’t we?


50 Years ago – The Gulf of Tonkin Incident.

50 Years ago – The release of two of my favourite films – Zulu and Goldfinger.

100 Years ago – Charlie Chaplin makes his first appearance on the big screen.

100 Years ago – The First World War commences.  I’ll be posting updates on centennial commemorations throughout the year – there are some exciting projects going on around the world.

150 Years ago – The American Civil War continues.  Additional to bloody battles on land there is a notable world-first at sea – the H.L. Hunley becomes the first submarine to sink an enemy vessel.

200 Years ago – The ‘Burning of Washington’ by British troops followed by the Battle of Baltimore – during which the defense of a fort inspired a poet to pen some lines about the rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air.  “O say can you see by the dawn’s early light….”

200 Years ago – Napoleon is defeated by the Sixth Coalition, is forced to abdicate and takes a vacation to Elba Island.  Spoiler alert:  He gets bored and comes back for another go.

Napoleon farewells the Imperial Guard, 1814 Wikipedia Commons

Napoleon farewells the Imperial Guard, 1814
Wikipedia Commons

So what can you expect here on History Geek this year?  I’ll certainly be marking some of the anniversaries mentioned above but you can also look forward to plenty of previously unpublished content from my personal collection, perhaps a review or two, musings on heritage related topics and a collage of colourful stories from the past – there will be shipwrecks, gold rushes, crooks, cooks, captains, fancy dress balls, trenches and wenches.  Probably postage stamps too.

To make sure you don’t miss out on all the above you can follow my blog via email or Facebook by clicking the buttons over on the front page.  While you are over there also check out the recently updated blogroll – I’m thrilled to be part of a growing community of fantastic history related bloggers both here in New Zealand and overseas.  Go check out what they are doing, they are all highly recommended!  All the best for 2014 – it should be an exciting year.

© Lemuel Lyes

Merry Christmas from the World’s Southernmost Post Office

As a collector of interesting old things it is natural that Christmas related items frequently fall into my hands.  I often find examples that fit well in my collections of maritime, military and New Zealand historical ephemera, photos and postcards.  This Christmas postcard happens to also be from one of my favourite holiday retreats – Ulva Island.

Postcard of Paterson Inlet Post Office, Ulva Island - Sent Christmas 1919 Lemuel Lyes Collection

Postcard of Paterson Inlet Post Office, Ulva Island – Sent Christmas 1919
Lemuel Lyes Collection

Ulva Island is situated in the heart of Stewart Island/Rakiura’s Paterson Inlet.  Today it is a bird sanctuary but a century ago it had another claim to fame.  It was home to what was billed as the southern most post office in the world.  The Paterson Inlet post office ran from 1872 until 1923 and during this time it became a popular attraction for tourists who would eagerly send a message from the famous post office.  Not just on postcards, but also leaves!

This isolated location seems an odd place to act as a communications hub but the rational was sound.  When the mail bags arrived a flag was raised up a pole on the highest point of the island, alerting settlers all around the inlet who would then row over to collect their mail and packages.  I imagine this was a journey that might have been particularly depressing for those who seldom received any correspondence.  For some, the sting of having received no Christmas cards must have been further exasperated by the long lonely row back across the inlet.

The original postmaster led an interesting life.  Charles Traill was born in Orkney in 1826, studied at the University of Edinburgh to become a lawyer before seeking adventure overseas, first as a sheep farmer in Australia and then in California during the gold rush before establishing a mercantile firm in Oamaru.  Having traveled the world he seemingly decided to settle on the edge of it, opening a store and then a post office on the remote Ulva Island in 1872.  Shortly after arriving there he married a local woman, Henrietta Jessie Bucholz, who tragically died only a few years later.

Charles was a pioneering botanist, sea shell collector and naturalist, and thanks to his efforts the future of the island as a nature sanctuary were already in motion before his death in 1891.  His story reminds me a little of that of Felix Arthur Cox, another adventurer and pioneering botanist who also lived on a remote New Zealand island.  I’ve previously blogged about Cox and a remarkable photograph he took of three waterspouts.  Sure enough, according to this article published in the New Zealand Botanical Society the two island dwelling naturalists seem to have been buddies.  I’m not too surprised.

In the 1890′s and early 1900′s increasing numbers of tourists visited Traill’s picturesque island in Paterson Inlet.  At this time, tourism in New Zealand was an industry still in its infancy but steamship tours of Stewart Island and Fiordland were billed as an experience to rival the thermal wonderlands of the north.  Ulva Island’s natural beauty and its quaint post office were a highlight for many of these southern tourists, some of whom were greeted by Charles’ brother Walter, who had inherited the responsibility of running the store and post office.

Paterson Inlet Post Office, Ulva Island Lemuel Lyes Collection

Paterson Inlet Post Office, Ulva Island
Lemuel Lyes Collection

This previously unpublished photograph of the Paterson Inlet post office is from my personal collection.  I’m not sure who the woman next to the doorway is, perhaps a tourist posing for the photographer, but I wonder if the gentleman patting the dog might be Walter.

“Ulva is interesting not only because it contains the most southerly post office and store in the world; nor because it is inhabited by one man – Mr Walter Traill – who lives there Robinson Crusoe-like with his dogs and the birds in the bush; but also because there the bush can be seen and enjoyed in all its virgin beauty”

‘Solitude and Stewart Island’, Otago Daily Times, 19th April 1913 Continue reading

Some Vintage Christmas Postcards

It is that silly time of year again, so I thought I’d do my bit to spread a little Christmas cheer courtesy of some vintage postcards from my collection.  I’ve uploaded these images at a higher resolution than usual on the off-chance that anyone wants to use them for E-Cards, or print them out to make a customized gift label.  It is interesting to see what images and messages people sent with their festive wishes back before it was a holiday dominated by a jolly man in red.

Lemuel Lyes Collection

Lemuel Lyes Collection

In case there weren’t enough kittens already on the internet I thought I’d start with this adorable image.  I love how it wishes “Good Luck for Christmas”, which seems appropriate considering the level of mayhem that the season can bring.

The kitten adorned postcard was sent across Auckland on 22nd December 1926.  Well wishers had to plan months ahead to send Christmas cards and gifts overseas (some wartime examples I’ve seen were sent as early as September to make sure they arrived in New Zealand by Christmas), but for those wanting to send something across town they enjoyed a postal service that in some instances offered more regular deliveries than it does today.

I’m usually more of a dog person than a cat person – so as cute as those kittens in the boot are I feel I should counter it with a Christmas puppy.

Lemuel Lyes Collection

Lemuel Lyes Collection

Sadly this postcard has no message on the back and was never sent.  I imagine it may have remained hidden and unused in a Great Aunt’s stationary box for several generations before finding itself in the hands of a postcard collector.  It was published by London based Aristophot Co. who operated from 1902 – 1910. Continue reading