On Saturday I had the honour of going to the unveiling of William Lee’s headstone.
We don’t often get the chance to see the outcome of our work. What our clients do with the information we give them is up to them. And we don’t always find out if our Facebook stories have an impact.
But William Lee is the welcome exception.
When we write a Grave Story we often start with an event and find someone to write about. Which is what happened here. I was looking at the Esk Valley flood. Initially I was looking at the history of a family who was driven out of their home by a landslide when I found the little mention of William Lee who had been pinned to his bed by a beam in his house.
It started a sequence of events. The New Zealand Remembrance Army asked for what I had found on Mr Lee - I was able to provide the records, and they started the ball rolling to get a headstone.
It was also wonderful to see the family of Mr Lee was able to attend.
RIP Mr Lee. We will remember.
A lot of the time no one ever sees what we do. We value our clients' privacy. Some of what we do changes their lives forever.
So sometimes when something we do leads to change or a happy ending, we love to tell you about it.
We wrote about William Lee in an earlier story. He died from his injuries after being pinned to his bed during the Esk Valley flood.
We tracked him down to an unmarked grave at Napier’s Park Island Cemetery. But it’s not going to be unmarked for long. The New Zealand Remembrance Army checked our research and confirmed it was him.
Now he’s about to get a headstone. A ceremony will be in November and we will update you if you wish to come along.
Hawke’s Bay Today reported on it last week - here's the story:
He survived the horrors of World War I, only to die as floods and landslips hit Napier.
Now the New Zealand Remembrance Army is trying to raise funds for a proper headstone befitting the returned serviceman buried in an unmarked grave in Park Island.
There is little information about how William Lee, born in 1870 in Ireland, came to be buried so far from home.
In 1915, aged 45, he enlisted in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, where he served in the Otago Infantry Regiment with the 12th reinforcements until 1918.
He was injured in Egypt and shot in both arms, before being discharged via a medical board and sent back to New Zealand.
His next of kin was listed as Henry Lee, a butcher in Whangārei.
Despite living in Wellington, Lee was caught in the Hawke’s Bay floods in April 1938, when three days of heavy rain caused significant damage across the East Coast.
Napier recorded 274mm of rainfall during this time, 169mm of which fell over a 24-hour period.
A historical Niwa catalogue of the event states “scarcely a hill from the north of Gisborne to the south of Napier was free of slips”.
“Slipping on hillsides occurred at a spectacular scale. The majority of the slips were shallow and were the culmination of sheet erosion and heavy rainfall.”
This caused widespread damage to property and infrastructure, along with flooding, with two men drowning in Gisborne.
A newspaper clipping from the time suggests Lee was pinned to his bed by a fallen beam in a house in Northe Rd which was hit by a huge landslip.
“His plight was not discovered for some time,” the clipping reads.
“The house was moved 20 feet from its foundations and two other houses on the top of the hill were left in very precarious positions.”
A few months later, on August 4, Lee died as a result of injuries sustained in the landslip.
He was buried in an unmarked grave in the Napier’s Park Island cemetery and seemingly forgotten until his case was picked up by the New Zealand Remembrance Army this year.
The group was started about three years ago by Simon Strombom, a veteran, to restore service headstones and memorials of returned servicemen and women.
“It’s all about remembrance and respect.”
While cleaning graves, the group soon realised there were amazing stories behind them and also began raising funds to put in headstones for those buried in unmarked graves.
He said Hawke’s Bay had a rich military history, but Lee’s was a particularly “interesting story”.
“He joined quite late [in his life]. Something happened while he was [in Egypt] where he was injured quite badly. He came back and was living in a pub in Wellington. He’d gone to Napier for work and been caught up in the 1938 floods and a landslide.”
Strombom said Lee was buried without a headstone and forgotten, “just lost in time”.
The Remembrance Army has now purchased a gravestone and has been trying to contact any remaining family for a potential unveiling ceremony to be held with the Taradale Services Association this year.
“It just takes that heartache away and they can focus on celebrating their relatives,” Strombom said.
It’s been a year since we launched Genealogy Investigations and then started telling you stories.
The ones here are interesting people and facts we have come across but everyday as part of our business, we hear stories that never make it public.
So we thought we would tell you a few - carefully edited to protect the privacy of those involved.
Late last year we were able to reconstruct a whole family history - from arrival in New Zealand to nearly modern day for a client whose family had been split up and children adopted into different families. They had lost all the little things we all take for granted. We were delighted to be able to tell them that some of their ancestors were world famous in New Zealand and where they could see the portraits of their family members.
We have found the father of an adopted client - who was himself adopted - which meant quite a bit of hard research to put dates, time and places together.
We have searched for people up and down the country and overseas, putting families back in touch with each other sometimes.
We tracked down a chap in Australia, during a full lockdown, who was unable to work, and were able to put him in touch with the lawyer who was looking for him as a beneficiary of a will to give him the inheritance left to him.
We hunted for the beneficiaries of a New Zealand estate in Ireland (with some help from some new Irish friends!).
We found the heirs of a long-since deceased land owner from more than 150 years ago for a lawyer to see what they might be entitled to.
We managed to find one Smith (turned out to be spelled Smyth) out of millions.
And just last week, in the midst of a new Covid panic, we found a homeless guy who had not been in contact with his family for 25 years.
And along the way we have uncovered many stories and reunited many people.
The year has taken us places we never thought about and we are always learning new things.
We love finding people!
We would love to hear your own success stories finding your own people.
A short break from our regular stories for me to say Congratulations!
I got to watch my best friend and business partner Fran Tyler graduate with her doctorate in philosophy yesterday.
It’s sort of my fault. I recommended her for the job at Massey University teaching many years ago and all these years later this is the result. (She definitely thinks it's my fault!)
Since then we have gone through all the usual stuff, job changes, family losses, weddings and trips along with writing for an academic textbook and cooking - mostly dumplings - together.
And then last year COVID and the idea to start the business that is now Genealogy Investigations.
Most nights we have a (telephone) drink together, moan about our days, talk about triumphs and question our own sanity.
We have put families in touch with each other, traced out family histories, worked out who adopted parents are, found beneficiaries of wills and had fun hunting down the stories we tell here.
A big part of that is Fran’s determination and research skills gained the hard way, through working as a journalist, doing her own family tree and now her doctorate.
So, to Dr Fran Tyler - a huge congratulations. No matter how many times you doubted or told me you didn’t want to do this anymore, I always knew you would get there.
You can read more about Fran's research here:
We were recently interviewed by the New Zealand Law Society about what we do.
We were really excited because it gave us the opportunity to explain what our business does. They wanted to talk to us because we are one of the few companies that do this sort of work.
Read more: The Will-Finders.
For the past five years, journalists Fran Tyler and Deborah Morris have used their joint talents of mystery solving, and their extensive court reporting experience, to help both families and lawyers trace lost family members and beneficiaries of wills and estates....