[First published in the Genealogix of June 2016]
My Scottish-born gg-grandfather Robert Johnston was no stranger to the militia. He spent time working as a tailor in Shanghai. When not racing horses, he was a member of the Shanghai Volunteer Corps. He returned to Ireland in the late 1870s where he married Elizabeth Foster. The newlyweds headed to New Zealand on the Duncraig and settled in Gisborne, Poverty Bay.
It was a peaceful time in New Zealand. The New Zealand Land Wars were over. But in 1883, Māori leader Te Kooti was pardoned by the government and started travelling around New Zealand. His announcement that he would like to return to Poverty Bay was greeted with horror by the locals. They remembered the massacre of 54 settlers and Māori at Matawhero in 1868, just after Te Kooti escaped from the Chatham Islands.
The Poverty Bay area was already well served by militias. They had an artillery corps and various rifle corps to defend the locals and a “Naval Volunteer Artillery and Torpedo Corps” to defend the port. By 1887, they had decided that they were missing one thing – a cavalry.
A petition was started to ask for a cavalry – to be named the East Coast Hussars. Robert Johnston was one of the signatories. On April 7, 1887 the petition was sent to the government. It noted there were 50 signatories and likely to be 30-40 more. A further letter, the next day, adds “The movement is a genuine one each man being supplied with horse and equipment and depositing £5 towards cost of uniform”.
On May 2, 1887, the Poverty Bay Herald notes that the East Coast Hussars have been gazetted by the Governor General. It noted the entrance fee was £5 5s and the annual subscription was £1 1s.
The nominal roll shows members started being enrolled on April 27, with Robert becoming an official member on May 12. They were ably led by Captain George J Winter.
Their first parade took place on the evening of May 17. Thirty members turned out for squad drill, sword and carbine exercise. Over time, reports have that the cavalry became “an efficient unit”.
As is usual with these things, Robert, being a trooper and not an officer, got little mention in the newspaper reports of their exploits. In April 1888, he does get a mention. The Hussar’s training camp was attached by a bunch of young men. “Three or four men were wounded, the most serious case being that of Trooper Johnston. He received a charge of powder from a rifle right in the face.” (Poverty Bay Herald, April 3, 1888). He was sent home. My Grandad noted that he remembered his grandfather’s powder burns.
But what about Te Kooti? It wasn’t until February 1889 that he seriously started to head towards Poverty Bay. Reports had him at Waioeka near Opotiki with up to 250, possibly armed, followers. The locals and therefore the government were having none it. They mobilised a force which included artillery, Navals from Auckland, Ponsonby and Waitemata, Police and 65 East Coast Hussars.
The contingent, numbering around 200, marched north. If you believe the city newspapers of the time, the effort proved ridiculous. They portrayed Te Kooti as a drunk and not much of a threat. He was quickly arrested and taken to Auckland.
This was the only active service the Hussars saw.
A newspaper report on January 28, 1892 from the AGM of the Hussars noted the Defence Minister had suggested a change from a cavalry to a mounted rifles unit. Captain Winter agreed that it seemed like a good idea and wouldn’t involve much change to their drill. They decided to leave the matter for another year – “Their uniforms were not worn out yet, and the change would mean new uniforms.”
In May 1892, the East Coast Hussars successfully hosted their annual ball. It is the last heard of them. They were quietly disbanded before the end of the year.
Membership of a militia is usually one of those things that you know you know. It can be quite difficult to find out if you don’t. Newspaper articles rarely name troopers or riflemen unless they’ve been naughty or injured. However, if your family came from a small town, it’s likely someone was in the local militia.
If you know the name of the militia, have a look on Archway. Archives New Zealand hold a large array of records on militias including correspondence and nominal/capitation rolls which you can view here in Wellington. Newspapers can help you understand what they got up to once you know they were members.
Other sources include:
NZETC – New Zealand Electronic Text Collection