This month marked a milestone for our website. We have replaced our original linear list of Poles who arrived in New Zealand in the 1870s and 1880s with a new searchable database, available through our Early Settlers page.

It may not seem anything to make a big deal about—and I do not have the definitive answer to what happened to each one of those Poles—but I am immensely proud of presenting them in a way that will make finding familial connections so much easier. What their descendants described to me time and again as a “complicated” group became an image of a huge, tightly woven but dishevelled ball of coloured threads. Some threads were thick and long, some were barely visible, and some ran through at odd angles and modified their colours.

Surnames ran through the male lines but those men had wives, daughters, mothers, mothers-in-law, sisters and sisters-in-law. Daughters and sisters arrived with their maiden or married names, and sometimes with children by first husbands, or with children from their husband’s previous wives. Some families arrived with nieces or nephews that officials assumed were daughters and sons.

The numerous misspellings of the Polish names remains the most challenging aspect of the database. Original church records were in Latin or Polish. Later germanised versions created the impression in New Zealand that the Poles were Germans. In fact, the germanised spellings of Polish names came about through Poland’s partitioning by Prussians in 1795, and the eventual banning of the Polish language during the 123 years (or 146, depending from which point in history one counts) that Poland did not exist as a geographical entity. After the 1870–1871 Franco-Prussian war gave Bismarck licence to pursue his expansion of the German Empire, the Poles within Prussian-partitioned northwest Poland saw no future for themselves, and joined the masses emigrating from the area.

Some stubborn Poles responded to Bismarck’s hatred of Poles and Catholicism by refusing to send their children to German-speaking schools—the only schools—so Polish illiteracy compounded the misspellings of their names. They had to trust transcriptions by English officials, and French and Irish priests not used to the unique mixture of consonants and diacritical marks in the Polish language.

“Sz” became “Sch” or “Sh,” a suffix “cki” turned into “tzki,” “w” turned into “v,” and combinations like “Drz” stood no chance in New Zealand. Official record takers in the British colony did not seem to care how they spelt Polish settler’s names. If I had not seen it for myself, I would not have believed that one Christchurch Catholic parish could have 10 versions of the name Piekarski mere pages apart in their baptismal records.

By insisting on searches by exact names only, the New Zealand Department of Internal Affairs/ Te Tari Taiwhenua has not helped. Men and boys at least tended not to change their names, so were easier to follow than the women and girls, unless they had cousins with similar names and of similar ages. Some Franks and Marys, for instance, are scarce on detail because of this. I have more information, but cannot be certain what belongs to whom.

Too many Polish women and girls disappeared into the well of misspelt names, and I relished the few successes in finding some of them, like Julianna Szczodrowska. She arrived as a married woman on the Shakespeare, yet her husband, Anton, married in New Plymouth nine months later. The story seemed to be that Julianna was a sister who disappeared—yet why did the passenger list not list them both as single? (Go to Who’s Behind the Name? to find out what happened to her—

We like our family stories to be complete, and sometimes jump to conclusions to fill the gaps. When someone asked me about a Julianna Drozdowska, who had apparently travelled on the Shakespeare too, I immediately thought of the Julianna Szczodrowska I had just discovered, because no one else on the Shakespeare’s passenger list matched. But Julia Drozdowska married in Inglewood in 1887, when Julianna Szczodrowska was already dead. It turned out that Julianna Drozdowska had arrived not on the Shakespeare in 1876, but on the British King in 1883.

One can never do enough research on any subject, or person, or family. There is always something new to learn, but there is a time to stop and present one’s imperfect findings. I look forward to families coming forward with their questions and input, and to making more updates as more evidence is unearthed.

That woven ball of early Polish settler threads has loosened slightly, but I have no doubt there are some secrets it will keep.

—Barbara Scrivens

30 July 2020


If you would like to comment on this post, or any other story, please email