Early Manawatu settlers had quite the back story
MEMORY LANE: The glossy book cover shows a line of people in silhouette, making their way up and down a big green hill.
Inside is an extraordinary story – the saga of one family with its highs and lows, joys and sorrows, over seven generations from the late 1700s to the late 1930s. And it's all true.
The author, Judy Heaphy, born in Palmerston North, but now living in Wellington, has named her book Up and Down the Hill Side as a punning reference to this tale of her father's family, the Hills, of England and New Zealand.
It's dedicated to her father, Walter Ritson Hill, who died at the early age of 43, when Judy was nine. "How I wish I could share it with him," she says.
Heaphy has been researching the Hills' history since her early 20s – she's now in her 60s. Even as a child, she was curious about her antecedents. Her late mother once told her: "Well, your father's mother [Judy's grandmother] was born in jail, so there's not even a birth certificate for her."
Heaphy's first thought was: "What?"
As an adult, it occurred to her that if someone had been born in jail, there must be a record. There was. Her grandmother's birth had not been in prison, but when she was a small child, her mother had gone to jail several times for petty offences.
Now she says: "As family stories are passed down, parts of the truth sometimes get altered a little, albeit unintentionally." It's important, she stresses, to "check and re-check, not be judgmental, and keep the facts".
For Up and Down the Hill Side, Heaphy spent three-plus years writing, after meticulously mining birth, death and marriage certificates, cemetery, electoral, parish and census records, wills, electoral rolls and personal recollections, and visiting ancestral English home towns.
The result is a fascinating read, with an extensive index and a deft touch that turns facts and figures into absorbing tales, many of them heartbreaking reminders of the times in which the participants lived.
The story starts in a tiny village called Stoak, in the English county of Cheshire, 1680s, with the first "proven" Hill family – Thomas and Ann Hill – and weaves through the later generations.
Much later, in 1899 New Zealand, their descendant, blacksmith John Hill, and his wife Mary Jane Kear Hill, would move from Christchurch to the Manawatu town of Rongotea, where they lived until John's death 16 years later.
Their great-great granddaughter, Heaphy's niece, and her family have now settled in Rongotea as her pioneer ancestors did. Other family members arrived in Palmerston North, living on Rangitikei Line, Ada St, Church St and Stonehaven Cres.
Heaphy has visited Stoak, where the original Thomas Hill was a dairy farmer and cheesemaker, and says it still retains some of the old-world atmosphere of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when hundreds of orchard fruit trees blossomed fragrantly in spring, and no speeding cars, trucks or even trains broke the quietness. Life largely revolved around the village church.
Charles Hill and Mary Mather Hill were married in 1852, on a Tuesday. Heaphy, in one of many informational asides, notes the old rhyme: Marry on "Monday for health/Tuesday for wealth/Wednesday the best day of all/Thursday for crosses/Friday for losses/Saturday for no luck at all."
In 1855, the couple were accepted as assisted immigrants to New Zealand, but then put off their April leavetaking. When they were again ready to go, they literally missed the boat – a train mix-up made them miss their ship's departure.
Finally, on October 23, Charles and Mary, with their two little children, disembarked in Lyttelton, New Zealand, off the ship Cashmere.
The adventures and misadventures which followed the Hill families and branches in both countries are reported in detail. "I dig away and I never give up," Heaphy observes.
There was Herbert, who in the 1890s stole from his employer in England, served a year in prison and then escaped to faraway New Zealand and reinvented himself. He died a bachelor and pillar of respectability, his past still a secret.
Ann Ellen became a servant in Liverpool in 1851 after her family fell on hard times. The two old spinster sisters she looked after for 30 years died, but left her a life income in their wills. Reginald, 21, died from a head knock during a Greymouth rugby league match in 1920, attractive Clarisse was a fortune-teller in the 1930s.
Many of the numerous Hill children died young. "Consumption", or tuberculosis, the scourge of the 19th century, took others, but the Hill men who went to war came back alive. There was widowhood and runaway husbands, accidents and a suicide, children born out of wedlock, bigamy, tipplers and teetotallers, comfort and poverty, weddings and remarriages – even a manslaughter charge, which was withdrawn.
One thread runs through the narrative – strong individuals who strove to make the best of their situations.
Heaphy has written two previous books: The Point of No Return and A Dent in the Family Tree, based on her husband's Dent family line.
Only 30 copies of have been printed by the Printery, at Massey University, for family and friends, but Heaphy hopes to have the whole text reproduced via the online, fully-searchable New Zealand Electronic Text Centre.
Heaphy's family was fully involved in her project, with son Devon proofreading, daughter Jaslyn designing the cover art, son Regan providing input on some of the text, sister Gloria Galloway giving support, and, says Heaphy, her husband Phil "keeping the coffee coming and not minding how much time I spend writing".