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Bound for Brancepeth: a governess’ journey

As 21-year-old Elizabeth Okey arrived in Wellington Harbour in winter 1903, she took notes on her first impressions of the country she would live in for the rest of her life.

Elizabeth had left her job as a teaching assistant in Southampton, England, to emigrate to New Zealand and would eventually become a governess at Brancepeth, the large sheep station at Wainuioru, east of Masterton.

Elizabeth’s grandson, Wellington author Tom McGrath, last year launched his book Wartime Secrets from the Family Home. It focuses on his family’s experiences in both World Wars, using letters, diaries and photos discovered by chance as he cleared out the old family home in Wellington five years ago.

The book touches on Elizabeth’s arrival in New Zealand and her work in Wairarapa.

“Elizabeth had previous work experience as a teaching assistant at Malvern House Preparatory School in Southampton and was an accomplished pianist,” McGrath told Midweek.

Before emigrating to New Zealand, Elizabeth had become engaged to the headmaster of Malvern House, Frank McGrath.

A booklet called “Malvern House Notes”, dated October 1903, carried some writing by Elizabeth after her ship arrived in Wellington from Sydney.

“…our first view of New Zealand was the rocky and precipitous coast on either side of Cook Strait, and that evening we reached Wellington in the North Island,” she wrote.

“Next morning a good view was to be had, and we saw the town and beyond it. Houses dotted here and there upon the mountain sides. It is always windy in Wellington and besides we arrived there in mid-winter. We visited the chief sights and the Houses of Parliament, from which we saw the ring of snow-clad mountains.”

“Elizabeth was well educated,” Tom said. “She went to Canterbury initially but found it too cold and moved back north to get the job at Brancepeth.”

Brancepeth in the early 1900s was one of the largest sheep stations in New Zealand. It employed around 300 people, and had a library with a librarian.

Frank followed Elizabeth to New Zealand in 1905 to become a teacher at Whanganui Collegiate and resume contact with his fiancée.

“My grandmother continued working in Wairarapa until she and Frank got married in 1907,” McGrath said. “It was the arrangement in those days for governesses to resign when they married.”

Elizabeth spent the rest of her life in Whanganui, was a music teacher for some years, and raised three children. Frank became a captain in the New Zealand military forces during World War I and, deemed to old to serve on the front line, took charge of training cadets at Whanganui Collegiate.

Elizabeth and Frank’s son Hugh [Tom’s father] served five years with the New Zealand army in North Africa and Italy during World War II.

“Hugh wrote over 200 letters to my grandparents during the war and also took dozens of photos. They were all stored away for years so it’s been possible to write a book about family experiences in both World Wars, with unique eyewitness commentary.

“My father had very good handwriting and even though the letters would have been written in tents or in trucks, it is very clear and easy to read.”

McGrath himself has been a polytechnic lecturer, factory inspector, union organiser and contributing author to books on employment relations and human resources management.

Tom McGrath’s book is available through the Wairarapa Library Service, or can be purchased through www.writeshillpress.co.nz

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