Creating Context

This morning on RNZ’s First Up, I heard an interview with a woman who is systematically cleaning up the graves and headstones at the Matakana cemetery. She does not stop at clearing the sites and rejuvenating the marble and stone, she researches what she calls the “essence” of that person, and writes a vignette about them.

She is in complete contrast to another woman I happened to get into conversation with today, who believes the past is behind us, and should stay there. Her implied question: Why am I wasting my time with Polish history?

In a way, she had a point. Dwelling in the past has the potential to become detrimental, but I believe, like the Matakana angel, that the stories of ordinary people have their own place in history. They give us perspective, a grounding in the reality of most human lives. History is so full of the escapades of kings, queens, political leaders, and military victors that it is difficult for the ordinary man, woman or child who lived under their rule, to be given a thought. Those kings, queens, political leaders, and military victors did not exist in a vacuum. They always had minions to wash, cook and carry after them, whether it was in the days when their horses had to be fed and brushed, and their stables cleaned, or today when they are supported by multi-varied taxpayers.

This month I have been delving into the stories behind the Polish families who appeared in the 1876 ration book from Marsland Hill immigration barracks in New Plymouth. They were among the last large group of Poles to immigrate here under the 1870 Public Works and Immigration Act and arrived among controversy at a time when the colonial government stopped assisted immigration from continental Europe.

With most of the Polish names tortured by various officials, I appreciate being able to use lists and search methods that allow spelling flexibility. I curse the rigidity of Internal Affairs, which, by not embracing wild card technology, continues to make it difficult to trawl for official births, deaths, and marriages. The permutations of Polish surnames are endless when also accounting for spelling mistakes. This is why we have included as many variations as we have found in our new search function for early Polish settlers.  

The Myszewski family at Marsland Hill presented challenges: a man aged 41 with a 22-year-old wife, and what seemed like seven children. The ration books confirmed that at least two of the children’s ages had been mis-transcribed in some of the passenger lists. Lucia and Johanna were not toddlers of three and two, but young women of 24 and 19. They were not Jan Myszewski’s daughters, but they may have been his nieces.

According to the Pomeranian Genealogical Association, they were christened Lucianna and Joanna. Their parents were Mathias Myszewski and Katharina née Jendernalik. Mathias died aged 58 in 1868, and Katharina aged 65 in 1875. According to the PTG’s records, there had been six children in the family: Marianna, born in Pinczyn in 1847, and who died aged two; Lucianna, born in 1951 and, like the rest of her siblings, in Kokoszkowy; Paulina, born in 1853; Joanna born in 1856; and twins Adam and Eva born in 1860. Adam died aged three months and six days. I found no death records for Paulina or Eva to 1876, when Lucianna and Joanna stepped onto the Fritz Reuter, but there is a marriage record of a Paulina Myszewska marrying a Piotr Domachowski in 1876, so if Eva did live, one can build a picture of a married Paulina taking care of her younger sister. One can only surmise why the sisters left their home country. Despite the recent death of their widowed mother, it could not have been easy leaving their sisters.

For whatever reason, Lucianna and Joanna were outliers in what became one of the largest Polish families in Taranaki, known as Mischewski or Mischefski.    

The sisters did not stay long at Marsland Hill. Single women were the most sought-after immigrant, and younger ones received free passage. The new colony inhaled them for their domestic and other comforting abilities, and their maiden names were often mangled to such an extent, that they disappeared. Joanna was “engaged” on 19 August 1876—the same day as her cousin Julianna—just three days after she entered the barracks, and Lucianna three days later.

The ration book does not give employers’ names or addresses.

Joanna proved easy to follow—at first. Her name appears at the top of a page of transcriptions of Catholic marriages in New Plymouth involving Poles. (Julianna’s is immediately below hers. She married fellow Fritz Reuter passenger Franciszek Uhlenberg.)

The names were spelt incorrectly, but it is clear who the bride and groom were: Johanna Miszrenska (21) married Anton Thondrowski (25) on 30 September 1876. Anton Szczodrowski had arrived in New Zealand on the Shakespeare seven months earlier, and was the widower of Julianna née Krakowska Szczodrowska, who died in childbirth during quarantining on Matui/ Soames Island. I wrote about her in the story Who’s Behind the Name?

That marriage transcription was the last place I could confirm Joanna’s whereabouts. With her married name having more possible computations than her married one, I have been unable to find anything more concrete about her, but wonder whether she could be the Johanna Schasowske who appeared, aged 58 in Hamilton, on New Zealand’s 1917 Alien record. Or whether she is the Johanna Schdroski who lies in Hamilton West cemetery, buried in August 1923.

Lucianna was more elusive at first and when I could find no trace of her, I feared she had died soon after arriving in Taranaki.  

She left the immigration barracks the same day as Karl Schultz, his wife, Paulina, and their toddler daughter, the only ones to leave that day. I like to hope they were employed as a group, and that Lucianna was not alone.

Genealogy researcher Paul Klemick added some bricks to her wall of life: Lucianna became known as Lucy, Luccia and Lusi. She was definitely in Sydney on 1 October 1884, because she married Alexander Leis that day. She and Alexander settled in Quirindi and had three sons, in 1890, 1892 and 1894, the first and third dying as infants. Alexander died in 1904. According to the 1913 Quirindi electoral roll, she was then living with her son John Patrick. Although there are six other Leis surnames listed on the area’s 1936 electoral roll, John Patrick’s name is missing, and Lucy does not share an address with any of the others.

Lucy née Myszewski Leis died on 1 December 1940, just a week after her 89th birthday, and is buried at the Quirindi General cemetery.

I am with the woman caring for those who lie in the Matakana cemetery, and their graves. Even without fleshing out their lives, there is something satisfying about being able to give people a proper full stop.

—Barbara Scrivens

28 February 2021


The Fritz Reuter: The Human By-Catch in a Colonial Immigration Industry:

Who’s Behind the Name:

List of Early Polish Settlers:


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