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Quieter life beckons historian

By Don Farmer

[email protected]

The man recognised as being Wairarapa’s leading military and aviation historian is leaving the trenches and taking off his flying boots for a quieter life.

Neil Frances worked his last day at Wairarapa Archive on Friday having turned 65 and is retiring, planning to do “no planning at all” about what to do next, aside from a trip back to Belgium next year.

What began as a childhood interest in all things military developed into a passion as adulthood approached, and it has continued to grow over the years, resulting in not only archival work and countless newspaper features,

but also the authorship of several books.

Mr Frances is the son of returned World War II soldier Len Frances who kept a war diary and spoke of his experiences as a gunner in the Italian campaign, and the brother of Brian, who spent 25 years as a professional soldier, so there is a family history of shared interests.

His work with the archive began on a part-time basis in 2000, interlocked with his primary job as a librarian at the Masterton library, but morphed into a full- time job seven years later.

That was when technological changes allowed much higher quality processing of material for cataloguing which began as an expected “short term project that has never ended.”

Archive staff take in about 250 acquisitions a year ranging from a single photograph to “boxes and boxes of material” that needed to be processed.

Mr Frances said in earlier years he had been mostly interested in World War II history, but that began to change as he started researching the history of the World War I Featherston Military Camp.

This tied in with co-operating with the Wairarapa College Bring Them Back To Life project, and a trip to Belgium in 2007 with the band Wild Geese in which Mr Frances was a bass guitarist.

“The trip was for the 90th anniversary of Messines and we were invited to be part of the commemorations.

“My wife Adele and I are planning a trip back to Belgium next year for the 100th Anniversary of Messines and Passchendaele and I have volunteered to help out at the Passchendaele Memorial Museum while we are there,” he said.

Apart from that Mr Frances has no plans for the immediate future other than keeping an eye on another book he has authored which is now being edited by Ian Grant.

“It features photos either taken by or collected by World War I soldiers and should be on the shelves by Anzac Day.”

During his years at the archive Mr Frances said he had seen it grow year-on-year with himself and archivist Gareth Winter spending time not only helping others with research but also by disseminating information, especially through newspaper articles.

Emily Ireland
Emily Ireland
Emily Ireland is Wairarapa’s Local Democracy Reporter, a Public Interest Journalism role funded through NZ On Air. Emily has worked at the Wairarapa Times-Age for seven years and has a keen interest in council decision-making and transparency.

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