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Drama weaved through history

The grave of Nellie Miller. PHOTO/WAIRARAPA ARCHIVE

Among the unobtrusive graves in Masterton is one for Nellie Miller. Australian-born, Ellen ‘Nellie’ Miller had an amazing life, filled with drama, as GARETH WINTER from the Wairarapa Archive explains

Nellie Miller died in 1949, at the residence of her daughter Minnie Iveson.

Her obituary stressed her connection to the temperance movement and the Methodist Church.

She was involved with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the League of Nations, the Rechabite Lodge and the Masterton Prohibition Party.

There was not a word about her remarkable early life in Australia.

It all started with Thomas Parkes and Margaret Southern, both born in England, convicted of relatively minor crimes, and transported to Australia.

Their second daughter Sarah married her Sydney neighbour Edward Stores and had a son Thomas.

Daniel Connolly was also transported to Australia from in 1838. He took up with Mary Healy, having four children before she died at the age of 21.

One of those children was Catherine, who in turn, had an illegitimate child to Thomas Gelling when she was 18. Nellie was that child.

Thomas Stores and Catherine Connolly married, and he took care of Ellen as though she was his own.

In 1885, Ellen married Tobias Miller, the son of a Durham miner who had brought his family to Australia in the mid-1850s.

Ellen and Tobias apparently lived in the bush for a time, before moving to the mining area of Wallsend in Newcastle, New South Wales.

Tobias Miller thought the family might be better off in New Zealand, and accordingly boarded a transtasman ship in 1894 – prophetically it was the SS Wairarapa.

Unfortunately, it was the fated last journey of the steamer, as it ran aground off Great Barrier Island, with the loss of more than 120 people.

Happily, Tobias Miller was saved and bought a block of land at Hukanui.

The family soon shifted to Masterton.

The family had grown, with four sons to follow daughter Minnie.

Two were born in Australia, and two in Masterton, including the future scholar Harold.

Tobias went into business selling herbal remedies at the Austral Botanic Dispensary, but bad luck dogged the family, with a fire in the shop, and then a spell of ill-health which led to Nellie returning to Australia to recuperate.

The ill-health may have been brought on by Tobias’ propensity for sporadic intemperance.

His behaviour was becoming more erratic – he was charged with being on licensed premises when a prohibited person in 1907.

Sadly, these were to be precursors of a much more serious incident in 1908. Tobias was no longer living with Ellen in her Perry St house and she had boarders.

Hearing a noise one night, two went out to see what the fuss was and came across a man hiding on a vacant adjoining section. He stood up and fired two shots, injuring one of the men.

Fortunately the injuries were only minor, but the shooter, Tobias Miller, was arrested, and tried in a sensational case.

In his evidence, he said he had been away from Masterton.

He became convinced that Nellie was having an affair with her boarder and determined that he would kill his wife and then shoot himself.

He said he had wandered around the town for three weeks, drunk most of the time.

The jury did not take long to decide the case – in just over an hour they found Tobias Miller guilty of attempted murder. The judge sentenced him to seven years gaol.

In 1912, Nellie divorced Tobias Miller, saying he had been more or less drunk all of their time in New Zealand. Tobias died in Wanganui in 1928. He had no will, but his estate totalled £85.

The Miller’s fourth son was to become one of New Zealand’s leading scholars. Harold Gladstone Miller was born in Masterton in 1898, and attended Masterton District High School before attending Victoria University, then taking up a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford.

On his return to New Zealand, he lectured, then was librarian at Victoria University, a role he held for 38 years. He was a renowned scholar, and shared his mother’s deep religious faith, although he moved from Methodism to Anglo-Catholicism.

Nellie Miller’s eventful life came to an end in February 1949. In her old age she had fallen prey to Alzheimer’s and was prone to passing into language that was not in accordance to her temperance beliefs but maybe reflected her Australian origins..

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