East Coast Hussars

[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”.

Robert’s signature is just under the crease!  Held at Archives New Zealand, Wellington

Petition 2

Letter 7-4-1887
Letter accompanying the Petition. Held at Archives New Zealand, Wellington

Letter 8-4-1887 1

Letter 8-4-1887 2
Following letter on April 8 1887. Held at Archives New Zealand, Wellington

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.

Hussars accepted - The Gazette 29-04-1887 - cropped
The Gazette – 29 April 1887

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.

Powder burns - Poverty Bay Herald - 3-4-1888
Poverty Bay Herald – 3 April 1888

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



The Faces of War

Photo of entrance to Gallipoli: The scale of our war
Photo of the entrance to “Gallipoli: The scale of our war” at Te Papa, Wellington until 2018

There has been quite a lot of press in the last two years about World War I (WWI) due to the centenary of events that occurred.  One recurring theme seems to be that everyone (male) went to war and most of them died or were tragically injured either mentally or physically.

That’s not quite true.

Which is good news for people like me who don’t really feel connected to WWI.  My grandfather did get there for the last 3 weeks (I’m not kidding) but he was married to his first wife then and it seems like it’s part of their history, not mine.

I did a quick presentation for the Kilbirnie branch of the NZSG on my Gran’s 5 maternal uncles and their war experiences in WWI.  Here’s the edited condensed version with some links.

The O’Callaghan Brothers

My gg-grandparents Jasper Pyne O’Callaghan and Winifred Alice Baker had 9 children.  Four girls including my g-grandmother Greta followed by 5 boys.  This post is the story of those brothers.  I’m going to do them in order of length of military service, rather than chronological age.

Jasper Warner O’Callaghan 1880-1933 – military service 4 years 112 days

Jasper Warner O'Callaghan - military uniform - cropped

Jasper, the second son, joined up in August 1914, less than a month after war had been declared.  He was a chemist living in Dunedin at the time.  By the beginning of December he was a Lance Corporal in the Otago Mounted Rifles and in Egypt.  He soon ended up in the NZ Medical Corps.

On May 20, 1915 he left Alexandria for the Dardenelles aka Gallipoli.  He was part of the Field Ambulance at Anzac Cove.

Jasper followed the war to France in 1916.  On 30 June, 1917, he was awarded the Military Medalion for acts of Gallantry in the field.  I haven’t managed to find any online detail of his actions.

To understand his war, you should read his service record in conjunction with the New Zealand Medical Service in the Great War 1914-1918.

In February 1918, Jasper was made a Sergeant.  On 13 December, 1918 he was officially discharged back in New Zealand.

In 1926 he married Alexis Allardyce and had two children before dying prematurely in 1933 of appendicitis (pre-antibiotics).

Thomas Robert O’Callaghan 1879-1944 – military service 2 years 129 days

Winifred and Thomas Robert O'Callaghan 1930s - cropped

Thomas and his wife Winifred in the 1930s

Thomas left his wife Winifred and three children to enlist in June 1916 – just before the Military Service Act 1916 was enacted allowing conscription.

When you read Thomas’ medical report on enlistment, you get the impression that given the choice, the Army would have said no due to eye problems.  But in 1916 they were so desperate for men they said yes and Thomas was in England for Christmas on the way to France.

But first, in January, Thomas spent time in hospital with conjunctivitis.  One of the amusing parts of his service record is the letter pointing out that he was in a Military Hospital at this point, not a Venereal Disease Hospital!  The stigma of a Venereal Disease Hospital was very great!

He joined up with the NZ Rifle Brigade in France.  To understand his war, you should read his service record in conjunction with the Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade.

In April 1918, Thomas was admitted to hospital with diarrhea and this heralded the end of his war.  In August he was on the Ionic heading back to New Zealand.  His continuing eye problems had given him a medical discharge.

Gerald Charles O’Callaghan 1882-1947 – military service ? days
Gordon Harcourt O’Callaghan 1884-1953 –military service 318 days

Photo of Gordon and Gerald O'Callaghan

Gordon & Gerald

Gerald and Gordon are known to their mother’s side of the family as “Winifred’s bad boys”.  I’m putting them together because their military experience was very similar.  In 1916, both were drafted.  Like around half of draftees, they appealed their drafts.

Gerald was living in Strathmore in Taranaki.  His appeal was reported in the Hawera & Normanby Star on 2 February, 1917:

Gerald Charles O’Callaghan, settler, Strathmore, appealed on the ground of undue hardship and religious objections, and asked for three months’ exemption. There was no appearance of-appellant, and the appeal was therefore dismissed.

Records after that are very thin on the ground. For a while I couldn’t find anything and thought maybe he had just gone bush – his occupation on the electoral roll at that time being bushman.  And then on Archive NZ’s Archway appeared his ballot, attestation and medical papers – in Christchurch, 22 May, 1917.

Gordon was clerk at Akaroa County Council.  His appeal was reported in the Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertiser on 17 April, 1917.  The chair of the military board was not impressed with Gordon and the Council asking for 3 months to get affairs in order before he went off to service:

Mr Bishop said it was a much fairer thing to the Empire that they should take over such men to help them in the field. He alluded to the need of men which was pressing and even greater than the need for food. The Acting Prime Minister was urging the Board to send more men and it was his clear duty to send as many as possible.

Gordon was attested on 18 May, 1917 – four days before his brother.

Both were classed C2 – not suitable for active service overseas, but suitable for home service.  The reason given was their health – VDH.

VDH is Valvular Disease of the Heart.  It results from contracting rheumatic fever as a child, and is usually associated today with poverty and living in cramped conditions.  Given their father died when they were 13 and 11 respectively leaving 9 children, this was not unexpected.

For Gerald, this appears to be the end of his war.  He has no further records.

Gordon was given “leave without pay” until 14 January 1918 (9 months!), when he was expected to turn up for service.  He served until 30 November, 1918 when he was given a “Certificate of Leave in lieu of Discharge”.  He started out as a Private and ended up as a T/Cpl (Transport Corporal?)

Gerald and Gordon became “billiard hall proprietors” together in the 1930s.  Neither married nor had any (known) children.

William Bell O’Callaghan 1885-1960 – military service 0 days

William did no military service at all.  Like many others, he was given a Reservist classification in the draft.  In his case “Class C – Reservists who have two children”.

The O’Callaghan casualties

Winifred was lucky – she ended the war with all her sons still alive.  Her sisters-in-law were not so lucky.  The O’Callaghan brothers lost 2 of their cousins in the war:

Lest we forget.