The Old Lady in the Garden

Updated: 12 July 2014

Whenever I’m browsing the local history section of a public library I take time to look through the contents to see if there are any references to my family.  It’s one way of finding more details than just dates and places.

One day in Wellington Central Library I came across Old Christchurch in Picture and Story by Johannes C. Andersen (published by Simpson & Williams Ltd, Christchurch in 1949).  On page 360 he recounts running into my Grandad’s great-uncle Greacen Black in the late 1930’s.  The part of that acount which relates to that post is:

… I asked him where he used to live in Christchurch, or where his people lived; and he told me, on a section between Kilmore and Cashel streets.  “Then,” I said, “I have spoken to your mother.”  For, I told him, in the latest seventies and earliest eighties we lived in Barbadoes street between Kilmore and Chester streets, and all the small sections along Barbadoes street backed onto the big section which went from street to street.  We always knew the section as Black’s, and I often used to climb our fence and look into this big section whose trees and shrubberies attracted me; and one day on old lady – she seemed old to me, for her hair was white and she walked feebly – spoke to me, but I could not understand her, though she repeated her remarks more than once.  I can only remember that she walked away, and I resumed my gaze on the shrubberies and big trees, bluegums among them, round the house.  I remember watching these high trees during gales, and thinking it was the waving trees that caused the wind, not the moving wind that waved the trees.  I also remember the double-gate on the Chester street entrance; there was one the on the Kilmore entrance too but I did not see it so often; and on either side of the double-gate there was what learned later was a gorse-and bank fence.

For a short while I thought he was referring to my ggg-grandmother Rachel Greacen Mrs Black – she was Greacen’s mother after all.  But it was pointed out to me by my Jackman cousins that she was likely to have died long before this.  Since she died in 1873, it is very unlikely the old lady was her.

My Grandad (who was an engineer) was very interested in the property his family had owned.  The notes I have from him include plans and copies of title deeds.  His notes on Robert Black (Rachel’s husband and Greacen’s father) has this about the property on Kilmore Street:

On 11.6.1872 he bought a large section (Town sections 511 to 514, CT 2/85) running between Kilmore St and Chester St, just west of Barbados St corner, area 0.4 ha.

On the northern part of this land he built a house, 65 Kilmore St, financed by the un-Presbytarian act of borrowing £500 at 8 percent from the (C of E) Dean of Christchurch, which he later repaid.  Before the house was completed, Rachel’s fatal accident occurred, so she never lived in it.

George had died in 1869, Greacen had moved to Akaroa in 1871 and Robt Wm was now married.  So early in 1873 Robert moved in, presumably with Henry (20), Richard (17) and Elizabeth (16).  He lived there until his death in 1887.  After his death the 0.4 ha land was subdivided and sold in three lots, one including the house.

In 1981 this house (renumbered 214 Kilmore St) still existed and the writer has been in it.

It is a single storey timber framed weatherboard house with a slate roof.  As there is no slate in NZ, the slate would have been imported from Britain. [Deleted: With increasing availability of other materials, this practice had ceased before the end of the century, so slate roofed houses are now rare.] There is a roofed verandah across the whole front with cast iron filigree ornamentation between the posts.

It is quite a large house, about 200m2, but the interior shows signs of considerable past alterations, so how it was loud out originally remains doubtful.  In 1970 the property was compulsorily acquired by the Ministry of Works, apparently with eventual intent to erect a public building on the site.  Meanwhile it remains in use as a tenanted dwelling, but it is very dilapidated and really fit only for its prospective demolition.

The latest picture on Google Streetview is dated August 2012 (so is post earthquakes).  The building there is still the same as the one there before the earthquakes, but it’s hard to tell if this is the original house, a renovated original house or a completely new one.

So who was the old lady?

As far as I’m aware, she’s not a relative of Robert or Rachel’s.  There is no record of any of their family members coming out to New Zealand.

I know that Robert had staff in his Kilmore Street home.  For example, this ad appeared in the Star on 29 July 1881:

So the old lady may have been his housekeeper.  As for her name?  That’s a bit harder to find.  There are no NZ censuses available and women weren’t on the electoral roll until 1893.  It’s a bit of a needle in a haystack really.  The best suggestion from the helpful people on Trade Me is Robert’s will to see if he left her anything.

Archives NZ and the Mormons have a great project to digitise and index all of New Zealand’s probate records.  The images are up on FamilySearch and they’re slowly indexing them.  In the meantime, you look up the reference on Archway (Archive’s search engine) and then browse the images until you find the one you want.

And recently, the images finally included Robert Black’s probate.  Yay!  Finally!  (I did start this post over 2 years ago!)

But unfortunately, Robert doesn’t seem to leave anything to anyone other than his children.  There is one new possibility – the will is witnessed by a Harriet Westbrooke, widow, Christchurch.  So when I have some time, I might look into Harriet.

On the up side, Robert left a bequest to his missing son Richard so it’s given me a whole avenue of possibilities on that one!

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