[Based on recollections by son Neville Selwood]
Henry Thomas was born on 30 May 1874, probably at her parents Burrow Wood Farm located at Wiggaton, near Ottery St Mary, Devon. Mother Helena Jeffery was unmarried at the time. It seems little doubt that James Selwood was the father because 3 months later “James Thomas Jeffery” was baptised on 6 September 1874 at the parish of St Marys in James’s home time of Buscot, Berkshire, some 220 kilometres from Wiggaton. Helena was probably spurned by her well-to-do Jeffery faming-hotelier Devon family because of her association with James, a common farm labourer and son of a gamekeeper.
Helena and James married on 23 February 1876 and six months later they, with two year old Henry, sailed on the Oamaru sailing ship on a three month eventful non-stop journey to New Zealand (see the Voyage to New Zealand). Perhaps it was the experience of the three month trip out to New Zealand that Henry never liked the ocean and never learned how to swim.
It would have been tough in those first few months and years in New Zealand. There was a lot of illness on board ship and father James was very ill on arrival in Dunedin. Helena must also have felt the strains of the journey for just one month after arrival she gave birth to Henry’s oldest sister, Edith. The young family moved to Windley, at the junction of the Oreti River, in Southland, and where they lived for thirteen years. Windley was a camp site and farm station, part of the large Burwood run. The wagon trains used to pass through here avoiding the swamp lands on the way to and from the Te Anau and Mavora basins. It was here that Henry grew up and no doubt learnt his rabbiting and horse skills from his father.
Henry was probably home schooled at Windley. The nearest town, Mossburn, some 20 kilometres down the Oreti, had a school but this was not established until 1887. When the family moved to Lumsden Henry did have a term at the Lumsden School (entered on 2.9.1890) but left at the end of that year. By this stage he was fifteen.
As the oldest son Henry would have helped around the home at a very early age. When he was at Windley he earned money for the family by splitting native logs into posts. He, and his younger brothers and sisters, would have assisted his Dad and Mum in the chores that went into running the Royal Mail Hotel at Lumsden, the Parawa Hotel and their associated horse stables.
As a young lad Henry travelled long distances on his fixed wheeler bicycle, often riding down the bumpy railway track. He couldn’t swim but he crossed many flooded rivers by using a pole dug into the ground to hold himself against the current.
The Selwood-owned Parawa Hotel was close to the Nokomai goldfields and it was here that Henry would have heard many tales of miners seeking, and some obtaining, their fortune. One of the visitors to the hotel was George Garrett who, in 1899 married Edith, Henry’s eldest sister. George was a miner and probably encouraged Henry to go mining. Certainly, between 1900 and 1914 Henry and George were each listed as “miner Parawa” on the electoral rolls and regional directories of the time. It was also at Parawa and on the Nokomai goldfields that Henry would have met John Burke who, in 1904, married Elizabeth (Bessie), Henry’s second oldest sister. Henry and John Burke teamed up and mined their own claim at Victoria Gully near Nokomai. On the Nokomai goldfields Henry laid many miles of water races across hills and gullies using only a spirit level and he was considered a real expert in this. He was experienced in both sluicing and tunnelling involving wooden support framing.
From Victoria Gully Henry followed the gold mining trail to Waikaia, near Gore. It was no good there so he moved to Millers Flat. The Waikaia and Millers Flat operations were floated mainly by a Dunedin lawyer, Downie Stewart.
Sometimes rich, sometimes almost broke, Henry was “staked” by the storekeeper in between good and bad times. Henry didn’t continually work on the goldfields. In 1912, for instance, Henry helped assemble the coal-burning SS Earnslaw at Kingston. No doubt he would be staying at his mother’s hotel and helping with the hotel chores.
Henry first met his bride to be, Mary Jane (Jeannie) Milne when he was goldmining in the Millers Flat district.
Jeannie was a third generation Otago settler, her grandparents having come from Scotland as one of the early settlers. Her mother and father owned a small hill farm at Raes Junction. It was while she was working for her aunt Mary Stewart at the hotel at Millers Flat that Henry and Jeannie met; Henry was boarding at the hotel and goldmining for her uncle.
After a short courtship Henry and Jeannie were the first to get married at the new Raes Junction Presbyterian Church. They married on Wednesday 26 May 1915 with the Reverend P.C. Derward officiating. As reported at the time “there was a very large congregation, which filled the church to overflowing, friends being present from far and wide.” His mother Helena, a widow, was living at Riverton at that time.
It was not long after they got married that they moved to Invercargill and lived initially at 80 Mary Street, a street which even had gas lights! Henry joined his younger brother, Charles, in working at the Southland Brewery, located across the road in Mary Street. Charles, his wife Kathleen, and children lived just up the road at 71 Mary Street. They were good mates.
Henry was always a hard worker. However he had a poor heart and it was this that prevented him from enrolling for the First World War. Henry soon won and took on a contract for mail delivery in the Invercargill district. He first had a two-wheeled covered spring cart, later changed to a four-wheeled covered light wagon. Henry would pick up the daily mail from the railway station on his horse and cart and deliver it to and between the local post offices. It required working long hours.
Henry needed a paddock for his two horses so he moved to 30 Elles Road Invercargill. It was at Elles Road that the family were raised. Alice was born in 1915, then Jim (1919), Margaret (1921) and then Neville (1924). With the Otepuni Stream alongside their property, a railway line, horse paddocks and Rugby Park across the way it was a hazardous situation for young children and Jeannie and Henry had to be constantly vigilant.
These were hard years. Following the Great War there was the great influenza epidemic. Many friends and neighbours died and Henry with his cart carried many bodies to the mortuaries. Then there was scarlet fever, infantile paralysis and tuberculosis that all made parenting so difficult.
In 1928 Henry had a serious accident. When hitching up Bell, a rather flighty horse, she reared up when some paper swirled past. The sharp steel-pointed shaft tip pierced Henry’s left eye. He got blood poisoning and lost the sight of his eye and spent months in Southland Hospital. Jeannie managed with the help of friends to keep Henry’s mail and delivery contract going, yet visited him daily in hospital. She would visit him along with young Neville who looked forward to sharing some of Dad’s fruit.
Then came the depression years of the early thirties. Henry lost his mail contract in 1931 when it was undercut by another. The family moved to an 80 acre run-down farm at Myross Bush, north-east of Invercargill, to eke out an existence on the land. It was an abandoned farm covered in gorse on one side and with bush and flax on the other side. Rabbits scoured the grass. As the original house was derelict, a wooden bungalow was built by the road intersecting the farm.
In the depression years the government encouraged many unemployed to try gold mining. Many hopeful prospectors sought Henry’s advice as to where to try their luck. He was always helpful to them.
On the farm the family only had candles and a lamp between 1931 and late 1943. Henry hand-milked 20 cows until his son Jim went to war, when he purchased a petrol engine-driven milking machine. Power came to their property through a timely initiative by son Neville. After he went to World War II Neville wrote to Bob Semple explaining the situation and before long electricity was brought to the farm, but they had to pay for the line installation and a hefty guarantee far in excess of actual usage. However the electricity proved a boon to the family. By this stage Henry was 68 and struggling along on the farm. Neville on reflection never really recognised when he was 18 how old his father was and if he had he could have applied to stay home to help.
Every morning Henry would take his milk to the factory by horse and cart, a trip of some 5 kilometres. Oldest son Jim would do this when he was home but often he was away thrashing oats or doing other work on farms in the district. The farm had gorse hedges. Henry slashed them back regularly, with the assistance of his sons and he dug several ditches to drain the swamp. He taught Jim and Neville to catch eels in the creek, keeping the silver-bellied ones for a treat.
Times were hard. Jeannie made bread out of nothing at all. The family ate lots of mashed potatoes in milk, and rabbits, roasted, stewed and curried. There were home raised chickens eaten, and others traded in Invercargill for fruit. Bacon and ham was cured from the occasional pig which wasn’t sold to the butcher. They pickled mutton. Jeannie made soap in the pumice copper and she made butter in season. She cut down clothes, lined trousers with bleached flour bags, also used for tea towels, reknitted wool from old jerseys, and was a good sewer with her treadle machine.
In the thirties the family often travelled to visit others by horse and cart. Henry often visited his sisters Edie and Bessie quite a bit. Although Henry didn’t like the sea he would often take his children to the beach; to Oreti, Invercargill, and Awarua Bay near the Garrett’s place.
Henry really enjoyed his cards; euchre, 500, and crib. He was also good at draughts. Many a night the family had an enjoyable evening at our place with friends or at neighbours’ places.
Henry was a great story teller, thrilling his children, grandchildren, and friends. Henry loved the violin (fiddle as he called it) to his children. He never danced but had as a single man often played the violin at country dances around the mines. Many a Sunday night was spent as a family gathered singing around the piano, played by Alice or Margaret, with Henry playing “by ear” the violin and accordion, as he didn’t read music. The gramophone was also in regular use. The children loved hearing “The Laughing Policeman” and “When father Painted the Ceiling”. Henry was a non-drinker.
He, Jeannie and family went to church regularly at Myross Bush. He became a Presbyterian after his marriage and he would walk regularly the mile up the road to the church. He kept his Anglican Prayer Book and eventually gave it to Neville.
In about 1937 the family got its first battery radio, and enjoyed such programmes as Dad and Dave, Ebb and Zeb, and the various radio plays like Singapore Spy and Khyber and Beyond.
Throughout his married life Henry was a member of Manchester Unity Independent Order of Odd fellows Lodges. Amongst the benefits of membership was assistance with Doctors’ expenses.
Henry loved his cars. He had two model T Fords. His first model T was a very early model with kerosine lamps. The second one had battery lighting which he converted to a small truck in about 1937-38. This was a good example of his handyman skills. He was also very good at making furniture and toys. Henry sold his Model T truck in 1939 and purchased a 1929 Overland sedan. The family enjoyed the occasional trip to Apirima, some 40 miles away to visit Jeannie’s brother Jack and his family farming there. They also made one trip on the Overland train to Mossburn where Alice worked.
Unfortunately by this stage Henry’s eyesight was deteriorating and he gave up driving before son Neville joined the Air Force. Henry sold his vehicle and reverted to his horse and cart again. Jeannie never learnt to drive.
Henry loved his old horse, Dolly, which was retired to the farm after years on mail delivery. He also loved his very loyal fox terrier, a great helper at digging out rabbits. Rabbits were everywhere but carcasses were exported through Borthwicks. The lorry would come regularly to pick them up at the farm. The carcasses were good substitute income, as were skins when Borthwicks were not operating. Trapping and ferreting were also regularly used to control the spread of rabbits, but Henry’s sight made rifle shooting difficult and he never had a shotgun.
Henry and Jeannie missed their family very much during the Second World War. Jim was away during 1940-45, Neville away 1942-45, Margaret working at Milford Sound and Alice on a farm housekeeping some miles beyond Mossburn.
Henry and Jeannie laboured on without complaint. They looked forward to letters from the family, regularly corresponded and they sent off food parcels to their boys and others overseas.
They shifted back to Invercargill, and purchased a property at 189 Conyers Street in 1947. They had an extra section next door for several years, which provided extra garden vegetables. Henry was a very good gardener.
Henry didn’t really retire, working to the end. He didn’t draw a pension till his seventies and leaving the farm.
His heart gave him lots of trouble and family members would sometimes have to revive him, but he never stopped working. He was a very even-tempered, good-natured, humble man and a fine husband, father and grandfather.
He died before seeing any television, but he did enjoy the radio. Poor eyesight in his one “good” eye restricted his reading, but he kept up to date with the daily newspaper. Henry died 15 May 1962 at the age of 88 (or thereabouts). Henry and Jeannie had been married for almost 47 years. Henry was cremated in Dunedin and his ashes are scattered on the Selwood family plot at Lumsden Cemetery. His wife Jeannie had an even stronger constitution and lived until she was 101 years old, dying on 5 October 1991. She is buried in Invercargill with his name being engraved on the tombstone beneath the names of James and Helena, his parents.
Henry and Jeannie” family in 1940: James (Jim), Margaret, Jeannie, Neville, Henry, and Alice
Based on reminiscences and notes by son Neville Selwood
Typed by Grahame Walton June 2017