Labour of love builds a picture of the past

20:00, Feb 21 2014
 New Zealand Society of Genealogists branch committee member Mary Skipworth
Past to present: New Zealand Society of Genealogists branch committee member Mary Skipworth, left, who has digitised Early Settlers Project information.

Six generations or so ago, non-Maori people began to arrive in Manawatu.

As Palmerston North gradually took shape, some of these settlers became public figures, well known and well documented; others lived and worked in virtual obscurity, historically speaking.

Six generations - 150 years - seems like a long time, although not in terms of genealogy, but a family's history can fade away surprisingly quickly if records are not handed down. Today, many descendants of our early local immigrants have only sketchy information about branches of their family tree.

That's why the Palmerston North Early Settlers Project began.

City researcher Noeline Penny has been quietly working away on this massive project for almost 20 years: reading, verifying facts, and cross-referencing hundreds of shipping lists, electoral rolls, rates books and birth, death, marriage, cemetery and school records, and contacting relevant individuals.

The input and encouragement of late city archivist Ian Matheson, and the work of researcher and historian Val Burr, who documented Manawatu's Scandinavian heritage, proved invaluable to the project.


A particular interest of Noeline's has been the 1893 national women's suffrage petition, signed by many Palmerston North women of the time. The talks she gives to local groups also tend to jog memories among her audiences.

So far, Noeline has compiled an index of over 3000 families. Along the way, she's had many enquiries from descendants of long-lost forebears, seeking their roots.

She tells how her unusual job came about.

"It all goes back to the early 1990s, when [teacher and historian] the late Brian Mather started a WEA class on local history in Palmerston North," Noeline explains. "It started out as just a five-week course, but Brian made it so interesting that we were all enthralled.

"The classes continued for another five years, and made us all passionate to know more about the history of our city and people."

The spinoffs were a heightened sense of heritage among local schools, the formation of the Palmerston North Historical Society (now disbanded), the advent of the Manawatu Journal of History, and a raft of published Manawatu memoirs, biographies and business histories.

When the New Zealand Society of Genealogists held a national conference in Palmerston North in 1990, the local committee realised that there were gaps in genealogical detail about this region. The society asked Noeline if she would be interested in compiling an official index of Manawatu early settlers.

"At first, I didn't really think I was the person for the job," she says. "I wasn't a Palmerstonian - I grew up on the Hauraki Plains, and I didn't know too much about Manawatu.

"But I was persuaded, and now I love what I do, especially since I can work at my own pace."

Noeline's late husband Don supported her work, supplying her with a recycled kauri bookcase for her burgeoning collection of local history books, and building a large shelved cupboard under the stairs in their home to house multiplying boxes of genealogical information.

A year ago, the society's Palmerston North branch committee member Mary Skipworth joined Noeline and began the gigantic task of sifting through these boxes to collate and digitise everything.

Mary, who managed Academic Dress Hire at Massey University for 30 years, also developed the Dress Hire computer system. The early settlers' database is, she says, "really a spinoff from that project".

The earliest entry in the index lists the 20 or so people at the 1866 opening of the Palmerston Hotel (owner Amos Burr; proprietor Robert Stanley). This was a rough-and-ready accommodation house on the site of the current Masonic Hotel in Main Street.

The newly digitised database will make the material more accessible, Mary says.

"This collection is a finding aid to people of Palmerston North. It consists of contributions of stories, photos and family trees sent in by descendants . . . to this the local group has added any references they've come across in publications or official lists.

"It is by no means complete in its coverage, and contributions are still welcome."

This local index will be published by the New Zealand Society of Genealogists later this year. It will join the society's Kiwi Index V2, with more than 200 other indexes.

The earlier V1 index contained more than 8 million New Zealand records on a single disc, "making it an incredibly powerful tool for the members.

A less comprehensive edition is marketed to libraries, so the public is not entirely excluded".

For looking up specific information, or to join the society's Palmerston North branch, email convenor Rose Rhode at or contact PO Box 1992, Palmerston North 4440.

While Noeline and Mary work mainly with facts and statistics, it's local historians like Garry O'Neill - another alumnus of the Brian Mather historical group - who flesh these out into stories.

Garry expanded and completed early Mather lecture notes into books about historic inner-city streets, and published his own popular histories of Terrace End and Hokowhitu.

"Writing local history is a very stimulating experience and rewarding," he says. "The general public have amazing life experiences, which they enjoy sharing."

Old photos, memories of social events, storms and floods, and achievements in the business world are worth recording for the future, he adds.

He recalls seeking a particular photo for the Hokowhitu book, and getting a phone call from an elderly gentleman who told him: "I have found what you want; it took me all day yesterday to find it."

That, says Garry, "is the spirit we enjoy and share with others".


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