Keepers of the gate: The restoration of Kawhia's lychgate

DENISE IRVINE
Last updated 11:49 22/04/2013
Kawhia lychgate
Peter Drury/Fairfax NZ

Kuia Horahaere calls the community up the hill to the church, after the gate is opened.

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In May 1925, Percy Ward went to the wharf at Kawhia to select the finest pieces of Australian jarrah being unloaded from a visiting ship.

Ward ran an engineering workshop in the coastal town. He was a craftsman, born in England, raised in remote Ruapuke, near Raglan, a jack-of-all- trades who had taught himself a wide range of skills.

With the arrival of the jarrah, he had a particularly important job to do.

He and brother Dick spent about two hours getting the prized hardwood off the ship and into the workshop. Ward then got to work and built a sturdy lychgate in traditional English design for All Saints' Anglican Church in Kawhia's Pouewe St. It was a memorial to the 32 young men from the Kawhia district who had been killed in World War I, who never returned to their safe harbour.

Ward wrote in his diary that his tender for the gate was £73 10s (woodwork only, no stone). It took him a month, with help from his son Robin.

His lychgate was a handsome piece of work: an interlocking and pegged construction method, where no nails were used. In modern-day parlance, you night say it was made with love.

The porch roof was shingled, its tongue-and-groove interior of native timber. The main support beam was boldly chiselled with the biblical line "Their Name Liveth for Evermore" (Ecclesiasticus 44.14).

Ward may have done the carving himself. His granddaughter, Peg Cummins, wouldn't put it past him.

"He was very versatile."

The memorial gate was blessed and opened on June 25, 1925, on a day of wind, rain and bitter cold. It was just seven years after the war. The losses would have been keenly felt by the mothers, fathers, widows, children, siblings and friends standing by the gate at the bottom of All Saints' hill.

The loss of 32 men was a huge tragedy for the isolated community. There were farms that had to be sold, youngsters who had to be raised without their fathers, marriages that never took place, dreams that were never realised and empty places at family tables.

A vibrant part of the district had been extinguished on the infamous World War I battlefields of the Gallipoli peninsula and Passchendaele, on the Belgian border.

All Saints' vicar, Reverend C W B Seton, led the original dedication ceremony. Seton had been a chaplain to the New Zealand troops in France and had won a Military Cross.

He spoke about the lost men, the "broken, battered bodies on the wire" - quoting a line from a poem by wartime padre Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy - and he hoped this great sacrifice would save people from the greed and materialism that had caused the war.

The memorial lychgate was part of early Anzac Day ceremonies in Kawhia, but over time the focus shifted elsewhere.

Age and the elements took their toll on the gate. It became shabby, its significance faded, along with its appearance, and the inscription was rendered illegible by moss and grime.

The lychgate became a footnote in history, until early this year, when a refurbishment project at All Saints uncovered its story.

Kawhia handyman Steve Morris describes it as a happy accident. As he got into the job of cleaning and scraping the gate's woodwork, he uncovered some words on the main beam. He thought to himself: We've obviously got a memorial here, something of significance that has been forgotten.

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Passers-by stopped to look at the gate and its history unfolded. Older residents remembered its original purpose. Morris learned more as he worked. At times, he felt as if he were running a public- relations exercise on the side of the road.

Like Percy Ward before him, Morris, who has long Kawhia connections, has taken huge pride in the job.

"It was an absolute joy for me."

He was amazed by Ward's meticulous construction. "I'd never seen something like it. It is a beautiful piece of work, and it speaks of great sacrifice."

With its beauty restored and its history revealed, there was one thing left to do. It needed to be honoured again.

If the memorial was dedicated on a bitter day in 1925, it seems a good omen that its new incarnation was marked on a mellow autumn afternoon this month.

It was Sunday, April 7, a little ahead of Anzac Day, and a year short of the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. The dark-stained roadside gate and quaint wooden church on the hillside above were bathed in warm sunshine. People were seated around the memorial. Old friends greeted each other, swapped hugs, stories and memories. Members of the Te Awamutu & District Memorial RSA were present.

Descendants of the lost men included members of the Langley family, as well as the Sircombes, Holmeses, Robinsons and Macalisters.

They placed Gallipoli Lone Pine wood fragments, provided by the Australian War Memorial Museum in Canberra, around the gate and scattered poppy seeds and Anzac poppies.

The Bishop of Waikato and Taranaki, Philip Richardson, also Anglican Archbishop-elect, came to rededicate the gate.

Moya Shaw, of Kawhia, sat in the front row at the ceremony, and it is thanks to her and her family that this event took place. They funded the restoration and Moya's daughter, Virginia Shaw, played a large part in the wider All Saints refurbishment project.

Moya's two uncles, Hugh and Robert Langley, were among the Kawhia dead. They were killed at the Battle of Passchendaele, among two sets of Kawhia brothers to be cut down in three weeks. Five sets of Kiwi brothers died in this disastrous battle. It seems particularly cruel that two came from such a small community.

The other Kawhia pair were Claude and Oswald Robinson, whose parents, Anne and Dan, lived on the ridge by All Saints' Church and would have watched the gate commemorating their sons being built.

Local farming brothers Robert and Bert Macalister also fought at Passchendaele. Robert was killed at the end of the engagement, but Bert survived and returned to the family farm, giving support to Robert's widow and three young children.

Moya Shaw was born in 1930, long after the death of uncles Robert and Hugh.

In the 1970s, she visited their graves at the vast Tyne Cot war cemetery in Belgium. "It was overwhelming, so moving, " she says, describing the gravestones row upon row.

From her harbourside home, Moya looks down the hill to the place where Robert and Hugh grew up. They were the only boys in the family (they had four sisters) and the Langley surname was in danger of being lost with Robert and Hugh.

But echoing the inscription on the gate, their name lives on. The family began a tradition of using Langley as a first name down the generations.

Moya has a son named Langley, and seated next to her at the ceremony was her nephew Langley Cavers. He, too, has a son named Langley, and his father is Langley. Other members of the family have been called Robert and Hugh.

Other families tell of similar traditions. The Macalister family has several sons named Robert, after their fallen soldier. Oswald Robinson's name also has been passed on, as has William Holmes'.

Virginia Shaw thinks the restored gate will long continue to be a symbol of what happened to the men and those left to carry on. It is important to honour it. "It's part of the history of the community, a traumatic part. But families are still bearing the same names, the men are still talked about. They are part of the fabric of the community."

The rededication ceremony is as warm and sweet as the weather. Kawhia elder Jack Cunningham does the mihi, speaking of the gate being built by comrades of the men who died.

"Some of us are Maori, some are European and some, like me, are a combination of both, " he says.

"It is in memory of all of them. Today is about our ancestors and their legacy."

Historian William Smith plays a significant part in the service. He came to New Zealand 50 years ago from Carlisle, on the Scottish border, and now lives in Kawhia. He is a student of World War I. His father served at Gallipoli and Europe with the Royal Artillery. His mother nursed troops in France.

He traces the history of the gate and of some of the men, detailing the huge losses among the New Zealand forces. He mentions Dick Sircombe, whose family ran the Kawhia store. Sircombe was killed by a Turkish sniper in a Gallipoli gully on April 25, 1915. "Total war experience: six hours. Came ashore at midday, dead by late afternoon."

Smith's speech is interspersed with popular World War I songs. These are accompanied on the harmonica by Frenchwoman Christelle Berthon, who touchingly gives thanks to the Allies "for keeping my country free".

Other musicians at the event are John Thomson and gate-restorer Steve Morris, both on acoustic guitar.

The dedication and homily are performed by Bishop Richardson, who describes war as the consequence of human failure, the failure to resolve conflict in another way. "We honour the men, look not just to the past and their sacrifice, but we rededicate ourselves to the cause of peace, to reconciliation, the process of conflict resolution that does not resort to the loss of lives, tens of thousands of lives. Peace must be found before war, we must never forget."

The bishop says if you stand at Gallipoli or in the fields of France on a summer's day with no breath of wind, "you can hear the cries of those who fought and died there".

On an autumn Sunday in April without a breath of wind, Bishop Richardson opens the 88-year-old lychgate, kuia call from the church above, and Maori elder John Puke leads Moya Shaw, Jack Cunningham, the bishop and everyone else up the grassy slope to the church. You cannot hear the cries of Kawhia's dead, but you can feel the spirit of a community that has come together to honour them.

Their names are spoken. They really do live for evermore.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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