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Monday, February 28, 2011

Restless Genes


Further to my earlier post on Blue Eyes, I was intrigued to pick up the story by Ollie Bootle below about our changing anatomy and physiognomy. Maybe the one in a million child pictured above will the founder of a whole new line or even our collective future?

‘Ever since Charles Darwin formulated his theory of evolution by natural selection 150 years ago, scientists have wondered whether the process still applies to humans. Evolution may have made us, but at some point, did we stop evolving?

There's no question that we're unique in the animal world. While a bear which found itself stranded in the arctic would, over millennia, evolve thick blubber to keep itself warm, humans could make clothes and light fires. Or we could just build a boat and leave.

And so scientists suspected that by adapting to environmental change – the driver of natural selection – using our ingenuity, we might have stopped ourselves evolving.

The late Stephen Jay Gould, one of the most respected of evolutionary biologists, once said: "There has been no biological change in humans in 40,000 or 50,000 years. Everything we call culture and civilisation we've built with the same body and brain."

It turns out that he, and many others, were wrong.

Our ability to map the human genome has revolutionised our understanding of human evolution. By comparing the DNA of thousands of people from around the world, scientists are able to see how different we all are genetically. And that means they can see if different people have evolved apart from each other – whether our species has continued to evolve.

As Dr Pardis Sabeti, a geneticist at Harvard University, puts it: "We are living records of our past, and so we can look at the DNA of individuals from today and get a sense of how they all came to be this way. It's very exciting. We are starting to piece together bits of information to get this sort of coherent picture of human evolution."

In a recent study, Dr Sabeti and her team found 250 areas of the genome that have continued to change via natural selection in the last 10,000 years or so.

Some of them, like skin colour, are obvious. But our metabolism has also changed to allow us to digest some things that we couldn't in the past; there may have been changes to our thermoregulatory capacities; high-altitude populations have evolved to allow them to cope with a lack of oxygen; and, perhaps unsurprisingly, disease has been one of the greatest drivers of our recent evolution – anyone who's lucky enough to have some sort of genetic immunity to a disease is at an immediate advantage, and their genes will prosper in future generations.

So clearly our technology and inventiveness didn't stop us evolving in the past. But the world today is very different to the world a few thousand years ago, or even last century. Nowadays, in the developed world, almost everyone has a roof over their heads and enough food to survive. It is very rare for cancer to kill anyone before they've lived long enough to have children and pass on their genes. So what is there for natural selection to act on?

As Professor Steve Jones, a geneticist at University College London, explains: "In Shakespeare's time, only about one English baby in three made it to be 21. All those deaths were raw material for national selection, many of those kids died because of the genes they carried. But now, about 99 per cent of all the babies born make it to that age."

This leaves Professor Jones in little doubt about the reality today: "Natural selection, if it hasn't stopped, has at least slowed down."

But it's important to remember, natural selection is only driven by death inasmuch as death stops people from breeding, and passing on their genes. And although in the developed world today, almost everyone lives long enough to pass on their genes, many of us choose not to. Surely that will drive natural selection in the same way as if some people died before being able to pass on their genes?

The realisation that differing fertility levels might be driving change in our species has led evolutionary biologist Stephen Stearns, from Yale University, to look at evolution in a radical way. By analysing data gathered in an otherwise unremarkable town, Framingham in Massachusetts, he can tell how the people of the town will evolve in the coming generations.

His calculations have convinced him that people are still evolving, and in a surprising direction. "What we have found with height and weight basically is that natural selection appears to be operating to reduce the height and to slightly increase their weight."

Stearns points out that this isn't just a case of people eating more: "There's no doubt that there are big cultural effects on things like weight. But we can estimate what the genetic component is of the variation in height or the variation in weight."

But Stearns believes it's unlikely that we'll head in the same direction forever. "I think what's very probably going on is that selection is moving a population up and down all the time, it goes off in a certain direction for a while and then it goes back in the other direction. It's only if you get a significant change in the environment that it will then continuously go in a new direction."

So it appears that we'll never stop evolving. As for where it will take us in the long term, it's impossible to say. All we can do is look at the likely changes to the world we live in, and speculate as to how they might affect us.

When it comes to changes in our future, it's hard to think of any that will have as much of an impact on our evolution as our ability to tamper directly with our genes.

Dr Jeff Steinberg runs The Fertility Institutes in Los Angeles, a fertility clinic that helps couples to conceive using IVF. Using a technique called Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD), embryos are screened to try to ensure they're free of genetic diseases.

During the screening process, it's obvious whether an embryo is male or female, and couples can choose the sex of the embryo to be implanted in the womb. This is illegal in the UK, but in the US, "anyone can choose. They can choose a boy, or a girl, and we've done this close to 9,000 times now," Dr Steinberg says.

But genetic diseases and the sex of the embryo aren't the only traits that Dr Steinberg's technicians can see. The clinic attracted controversy recently when it announced that it would allow parents to choose the eye and hair colour of their offspring. "We heard from a lot of people, including the Catholic Church, that had some big problems with it," says Dr Steinberg. "So we retracted it, even though we can do it, we're not doing it."

Dr Steinberg is in little doubt that PGD, and genetic engineering more broadly, will play a major role in humanity's future. "I think it will play a huge part in our evolution and I think rightfully so. We need to be cautious about it because it can go right and it can go wrong, but I think trying to remove it as part of our future evolution is just a task that's not going to be accomplished."

It turns out that our culture and technology, like genetic engineering, can change our world so much that rather than sheltering us from natural selection, it can actually drive our evolution.

As Stearns says: "We see rapid evolution when there's rapid environmental change, and the biggest part of our environment is culture, and culture is exploding. We are continuing to evolve, our biology is going to change with culture and it's just a matter of not being able to see it because we're stuck in the middle of the process right now."

It seems that the direction of our future evolution may be driven not by nature, but by us’.

Olly Bootle's Horizon film Are We Still Evolving? has been shown on BBC2 [see also: Olly Bootle, UK Independent, Monday, 28 February 2011]

Friday, February 25, 2011

Ann Bodkin - Home and Holidays


The survival of my sister-in-law Ann Bodkin crouched under her desk, entombed in the rubble of the PGC Building in Christchurch has become international news.

We are of course absolutely delighted that she was pulled safe and whole from the disaster. We have been in touch several times and are a little regretful to have to miss the joyous ongoing reunions in the South Island. Kick on guys!

The family celebrations have since uncovered a couple of gems from Ann that should be documented for posterity:

1. From one of the NSW Search and Rescue team that brought Ann out of the building -

“ You’re lucky you weren’t on the bottom floor - you’d just be a stain on the carpet!”

2. From one of Ann’s colleagues -

“ You were last out - did you turn off the lights?”

A couple of additional reflections though. First, her experience throws a whole new light on the now ubiquitous IT term ‘Desktop’. Losing your hard drive is one thing – having a hard desktop in the right circumstances is quite another!

Second, it does bring home once more how fleeting and unpredictable life can be. I checked on where Ann was last year on the 23rd of February and I am sure that she would have been absolutely staggered to have been told then that she would spend the first half of the same day in 2011 in the collapsed remnants of her office – only to be delivered into the arms of husband Graham by several burly USAR Aussies.

So where in fact was she on the 23rd February 2010? Thanks to social media I can tell you that she was on a school inspection assignment for the Education Review Office. That evening, she wrote up her Blog diary entry as follows:

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

“Sunset in Timaru. What a lovely evening here sitting outside watching the sunset! We had the most yummy feed of scallops at our favourite Timaru restaurant.

Sometimes my job is not bad!”

Shortly thereafter Ann and Graham left on their Trip of a Lifetime OE which must have involved some 60,000 km of travel, involving almost every conceivable transport medium – and including sentimental road trips across the Great Plains, jazzing it up in New Orleans, a pilgrimage to Graceland, luxury cruising in the Mediterranean, and more sedate ‘messing about on the river’ in the Norfolk Broads.

They arrived back in New Zealand in mid-August – and there are some ironies in their final entry on the Trip Blog:

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

“Well it's been a few days now, but we thought we should conclude the blog about our trip by letting people know we arrived home safely. It's good to be home, even though the weather is cold and wet.

Back to work and reality - might have to start planning our next holiday! “

Little doubt now that, despite the immediacy of their Trip of a Lifetime, they should indeed be starting to think of the next. It stands to reason surely that if you are blessed with two Lives, you should be able to enjoy two Trips?

As for what Ann was thinking during her ordeal, we can now catch up from a recent interview:


[by Derek Cheng, NZ Herald, Saturday Feb 26, 2011]

I thought to myself, over and over, 'I'm alive. I'm okay'."

That was how earthquake survivor Ann Bodkin, 54, kept up hope during her 26 hours entombed in the mangled mess of the collapsed Pyne Gould Corporation building in central Christchurch.

She was at her desk in a corner of the third floor when Tuesday's earthquake shook the building ferociously.

"I realised straight away that it was going to be a big one," Ms Bodkin told the Weekend Herald. "I thought, 'This is it'."

She went to dive under her desk, but as she did, the ceiling collapsed and she was struck in the back of the head and on the shoulder.

"I was hit again in the back as I got under my desk and it knocked me to the floor."
The desk was crunched under the weight of the collapsing ceiling, but held up just enough to save Ms Bodkin from serious injury.

If I had been crouching under the desk I might not have survived.

"It seemed to happen very fast, a huge noise, briefly, and then total silence.

"I started calling out to see if anyone else was around, but there was only silence."

Ms Bodkin tried to reach her cellphone, but it had been on her desk and was under the rubble.

Trapped in a space about 2m long under her L-shaped desk, she forced herself to stay determined to survive.

"I could move my arms and legs, and I had a little room, and fresh air. That's when I thought, 'I'm going to get out of here alive', and I remained that way the whole time I was trapped. I had to.

"I thought to myself, over and over, 'I'm alive. I'm okay'."

Ms Bodkin started calling out, but realised she might need her voice later, so she started banging a large piece of Perspex against a nearby radiator. There was no answer. Hours passed.

"The worst thing was that the sprinklers came on three times when the rescuers were drilling.

"I was worried I would fall asleep and get too cold, so I tried to stay warm by doing exercises, rubbing my arms, moving my legs.

"I was shivering and cold. I was wet the whole time."

She thought of her husband, Graham Richardson, and clung to the memories of their four-month holiday last year to America and Europe.

"And I was thinking about all the holidays we would have in the future."

Night fell. About 10 people were pulled to safety in the first night, but Ms Bodkin was not found.

It was a change of rescue team the following day that gave her a chance to communicate with the outside world.

Just before midday, after almost 24 hours since the building collapsed, there was a lull in the noise outside. She cried out for help.

"They had turned the machines off. I called and I heard someone say, 'Is that someone calling from in there?' I called again.

"I was hugely relieved. That was the first time I cried."

Rescuers contacted Mr Richardson and he arrived soon afterwards.

It took some time to find her exact position, because the tangled debris made it difficult to establish where her voice was coming from.

Rescuers thought she was 10m from the edge of the building, but it turned out she was 20m in.

They used a stick to pass a water bottle to her, then cut a hole in the wall to free her.

She then had to inch - on her back, feet first - through the debris to the light.
Just as she was about to reach her freedom, a nasty aftershock gripped the building once more.

"We thought, 'Oh no, not now," Mr Richardson said.

"It had been a two and three-quarter hour rescue. To lose her at that stage would have been horrific.

"But the rescuers didn't budge. They looked at her and said, 'We're going to get you out'."

The aftershock subsided and she emerged just as the sun came out.

She was wrapped in a blanket, attached to the end of the fire truck ladder and lowered to the ground to medics, rescuers, and a beaming Mr Richardson.

"I remember lots of faces staring, and then getting a glimpse of my husband. That was fantastic. He said something to me, but I had a neck brace on and all I could do was giggle. I was just so happy."

Said Mr Richardson: "I told her I'd thought I'd lost her forever. And I told her I loved her. It was very emotional. Just unreal."

They thanked "everyone who was involved in the rescue".

Ms Bodkin is recovering from cracked ribs and bruises.

Mr Richardson said he was coming to terms with people being in awe of his wife for surviving her ordeal. "She doesn't think so, though. She just thinks she did everything she could do to stay alive."

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

For Christchurch


There lies our city folded in the mist
Like a great meadow in an early morn
Flinging her spears of grass up through white films,
Each with its thousand, thousand tinted globes

Above us such an air as poets dream
The clean and vast wing-winnowed clime of Heaven.

Each of her streets is closed with shining Alps,
Like Heaven at the end of long plain lives.


The city lies stripped to tightening skin
Still-born in the meadow’s dark recess
Ridging her bones among the shifting leaves
Stark-misted eyes glaze with the birth undone.

Above us such despair as nightmares bring
The empty plains sing siren-chimes of hell.

Her carers’ life-long husbandry for nought
A weeping outline left to stain the Fall.

[First stanza from Arnold Wall, 1900]

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Aotearoa New Zealand sees red - and blue and gold


Having written up my previous post about red-hair it seems appropriate to add a footnote on blue eyes and blondness. This is easily done by drawing on Steve Connor’s article of 31st January 2008 (UK Independent).

And the issue has a unique resonance in New Zealand where the blond and blue-eyed offspring of families that identify as Maori are known to sometimes face prejudice from within. In response, there is an online ‘Facebook’ site ‘Pale Maori Unite’ that offers peer support at: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?v=wall& 650174871.

A couple of illustrative entries are given below:

1. "Aww my mate's beautiful kiritea girl got told she didn't look Maori at her kura (school) the other day by some mean kids..that sucks..."

2. "My daughter is half Maori - her dad is darker than his brother and sister and he has brother who had a son who is half Pakeha and he turned out brown - so I thought my baby was going to be brown but she turned out as white as me, with hazel eyes and blondey hair but she has her dad's features (Maori nose,shape of her eyes). It is annoying though..."

So what’s the history?

Everyone with blue eyes alive today – from Angelina Jolie to Wayne Rooney – can trace their ancestry back to one person who probably lived about 10,000 years ago in the Black Sea region, a study has found. This makes it roughly contemporary with – and possibly directly linked to - the development of blond / blonde hair.

Scientists studying the genetics of eye colour have discovered that more than 99.5 per cent of blue-eyed people who volunteered to have their DNA analysed have the same tiny mutation in the gene that determines the colour of the iris.

This indicates that the mutation originated in just one person who became the ancestor of all subsequent people in the world with blue eyes, according to a study by Professor Hans Eiberg and colleagues at the University of Copenhagen.

The scientists are not sure when the mutation occurred but other evidence suggested it probably arose about 10,000 years ago when there was a rapid expansion of the human population in Europe as a result of the spread of agriculture from the Middle East.

"The mutations responsible for blue eye colour most likely originate from the north-west part of the Black Sea region, where the great agricultural migration of the northern part of Europe took place in the Neolithic periods about 6,000 to 10,000 years ago," the researchers report in the journal Human Genetics.

Professor Eiberg said that brown is the "default" colour for human eyes which results from a build-up of the dark skin pigment, melanin. However, in northern Europe a mutation arose in a gene known as OCA2 that disrupted melanin production in the iris and caused the eye colour to become blue.

"Originally, we all had brown eyes," said Professor Eiberg. "But a genetic mutation affecting the OCA2 gene in our chromosomes resulted in the creation of a 'switch' which literally turned off the ability to produce brown eyes."

Variations in the colour of people's eyes can be explained by the amount of melanin in the iris, but blue-eyed individuals only have a small degree of variation in the amount of melanin in their eyes, he said.

"From this we can conclude that all blue-eyed individuals are linked to the same ancestor. They have all inherited the same switch at exactly the same spot in their DNA," said Professor Eiberg.

Men and women with blue eyes have almost exactly the same genetic sequence in the part of the DNA responsible for eye colour. However, brown-eyed people, by contrast, have a considerable amount of individual variation in that area of DNA.

Professor Eiberg said he has analysed the DNA of about 800 people with blue eyes, ranging from fair-skinned, blond-haired Scandinavians to dark-skinned, blue-eyed people living in Turkey and Jordan.

"All of them, apart from possibly one exception, had exactly the same DNA sequence in the region of the OCA2 gene. This to me indicates very strongly that there must have been a single, common ancestor of all these people," he said.

It is not known why blue eyes spread among the population of northern Europe and southern Russia. Explanations include the suggestions that the blue eye colour either offered some advantage in the long hours of daylight in the summer, or short hours of daylight in winter, or that the trait was deemed attractive and therefore advantageous in terms of sexual selection.

As many Northern European children also have blond hair which darkens as they mature, blonde hair in girls may have become identified with youth and fertility. Its scarcity may have also bid up its social value, as may its early associations with light and gold.

In New Zealand, the admixture of Maori and Pakeha (predominantly western European) genes has created some unusual and exciting mixtures, which include people with European features and strongly tanned freckles and blue-eyed blond(e)s with Maori features.

You can check the wide variations out at: http://www.votemenot.co.nz/thread/581681/my-lil-maori-girl/

As the inclusive Maori poetess Patricia Grace has it, it is no bad thing:-

“The wail, the lament shall not have my ear. I will pay the lonely body ache no mind. Thus I go.

I stand before my dark-eyed mother, blue-eyed father, brothers and sisters, my aunts and uncles and their children and these old ones - all the dark-eyed, light-eyed minglings of this place.

We gather. We sing and dance together for my going. We laugh and cry. We touch. We mingle tears as blood”.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Red Heads from the Celtic Fringe find common cause in the Antipodes


According to Dominion Post reporter Kirsty Johnston: ‘Flame-haired Wellington Mayor Celia Wade-Brown has found a kindred Celtic spirit in Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

‘Ms Gillard was so delighted to find a fellow redhead meeting her off her flight into Wellington on the 16th February that she reached out to stroke the mayor's auburn hair during their brief chat on the airport tarmac.

"She told me it was a good hair colour," Ms Wade-Brown said after Ms Gillard had left the military terminal. "And we agreed that Celtic heritage is an important part of Australia and New Zealand." Ms Gillard, who was born in Wales, flew into Wellington just after 5.30pm in her Australian Air Force plane, on the second leg of her trip to New Zealand.

‘She was welcomed with a brisk Wellington wind along with the mayor, reporters and an official entourage, including the Australian deputy high commissioner. "We also talked about the wind, actually," Ms Wade-Brown added, saying she had told Ms Gillard how it was a good source of renewable energy.

And, later in Parliament, as reported by Martin Kay:

‘How many Aussie Gingas does it take to make history? Two it seems – one to give the first speech by a foreign leader to Parliament and the other to dictate when it happens.

All eyes were on russet-haired Greens leader Russel Norman as Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard came into the House to deliver her historic speech. Norman, born and raised in Australia, vetoed plans for Gillard to give the speech while Parliament was formally in session, insisting it would mean any world leader could then get the same privilege.

But as Aussie's most powerful redhead entered the chamber, Norman rose with other MPs and applauded politely. He beamed as she was brought along the front benches after her speech, and greeted her with a warm "Gidday". He said later the issue of him blocking Gillard from speaking to a formal session of Parliament hadn't come up.
"They're not really bothered about it. It's just not a big deal for them."

Another redhead missed his chance to get in on the act. Labour whip Darren Hughes, who sits in the second row behind leader Phil Goff, would have normally moved into Goff's seat as he paraded Gillard down the front benches. But he was out of town on another engagement, and instead clearly delighted first-term list MP Stuart Nash, who had moved into Hughes' seat, took the opportunity to meet Gillard with gusto.

Jokes about Aussies nicking our stuff were running thick and fast throughout the day, and even Prime Minister John Key joined in, saying we considered it a mark of respect when our cousins across the ditch claimed Kiwi icons such as pavlova (a meringue dessert), Phar Lap (a famous racehorse) and Crowded House (a trans-Tasman pop group).

Yesterday, another name was added to the list when former trade minister Hugh Templeton, widely regarded as a chief architect of the Closer Economic Relations free trade deal, was formally invested with the honorary Order of Australia. In her speech to Parliament, Gillard said CER was a major step in cementing the close ties between two nations bound by shared beliefs, values and ambitions.

"Australia has many alliances and friendships around the world, economic and defence partnerships of every kind, but New Zealand alone is family.

"Here, under the Southern Cross – emblazoned on both our flags – we have created two of the most successful societies in the contemporary world. Two advanced multi-cultural democracies tied by tradition and affection to the Old World, but anchored firmly in the new. This is our time – a time for optimism, because our best days lie ahead."

Well, self-congratulation and mutual admiration aside, I find myself spurred on to add a little on the origins of Australasia’s Anglo-Celtic red-headed heritage.

I start though by paying a little personal homage to the Anzac Spirit – and WWI where the Southern Hemisphere red heads more than played their parts. And what better way here than to quote from C.J. Dennis and ‘The Moods of Ginger Mick’?:

‘A flamin' 'ero at the War, that's Mick.
An' Rose - 'is Rose, is waitin' in the Lane,
Nursin' 'er achin' 'eart, an' lookin' sick
As she crawls out to work an' 'ome again,
Givin' the bird to blokes 'oo'd be 'er "friend,"
An' prayin', wiv the rest, fer wars to end’.


Looking beyond Australia and New Zealand, Celia, Julia and Russel are in mixed company as far as their top flags are concerned. Just to recapitulate:

The Biblical figures King David, Mary Magdalene and Esau were reputedly red-headed – the latter having his entire body covered in russet fur. Judas Iscariot is also often represented with red hair. Among mythological heroes, both Achilles and Menelaus were powerful and temperamental red heads and the Norse gods of lightening and fire Thor and Loki were credited with fiery locks.

The Greek historian Dio Cassius apparently described Boudica, the famous Celtic female politician / Queen of the Iceni of eastern England who revolted against the Romans, as "tall and terrifying in appearance... with a great mass of red hair... over her shoulders." The Roman author Tacitus also commented on the "red hair and large limbs of the inhabitants of Caledonia (Scotland)".

As for female rulers, both Mary Queen of Scots and her cousin Queen Elizabeth I of England were redhead monarchs, and during the Elizabethan era in England, red hair was, not altogether surprisingly, fashionable for women. In modern times, there are plenty of famous red-heads – including actresses Lindsay Lohan, Marcia Cross and Nicole Kidman and celebrity males like Prince Harry and Ewan McGregor.

So where does the red hair originate?

Professor Walter Bodmer and his team at Oxford University are currently involved in a 3,500 sample, US $4.5 million study of the genetic make-up of the people of the British Isles, principally as an aid to identifying disease prevalence and risk markers. This ‘People of the British Isles project’ is also throwing up interesting information on the frequency of physical attributes and the probable migration pathways of ancestral lines.

Preliminary results are available for the distribution of red hair in the British Isles. Testing their white cell samples for two of the half-dozen red-hair versions of the MC1R gene, the team was able to show their frequency in each area of the British Isles. The results were intriguing.

The absolute minimum value was nil in Cumbria (with Lancashire also recording low values). Low values were also dominant in southern and eastern England with values of 0.07 for Oxfordshire and Lincolnshire, 0.11 for northeast England, 0.13 for Sussex and Kent and frequencies of 0.16 and 0.23 for Cornwall and Devon.

In Wales the figure was 0.21, and in Orkney a high 0.26. Scotland as a whole also has a high rate. But the highest was in Ireland. Using data from other research studies, the team got a figure for Ireland of 0.31, confirmation of the stereotypical image of the red-haired Irishman.

Sir Walter, the Oxford geneticist leading the project, acknowledges: “I was amazed - I didn’t expect to see something like this. The research gives us, for the first time, an insight into the startling numbers of native people who have been described as having red hair in ancient times”.

But why red hair is so common in Scotland and Ireland? The answer, says Bodmer, is that red-hair genes were common among the first Britons and that populations in the archipelago’s fringes still carry their bloodline.

The Genes for red hair first appeared in human beings about 40,000 to 50,000 years ago and these genes were then carried into the islands by the original settlers – by men and women who “would have been relatively tall, with little body fat, athletic, fair-skinned and who would have had red hair”.

Redheads therefore represent the land’s most ancient lineages. So if you want an image of how those first people appeared, don’t think of a hairy savage with a mane of thick black hair. Contemplate instead a picture of a slim, ginger-haired individual: Prince Harry, perhaps, or the actress Nicole Kidman who has Scottish and Irish descent.

Why did those early Britons have so many redheads in their midst in the first place?

Is there an evolutionary advantage to having red hair in this part of the world? The answer according to the medical scientists may be yes.

The MC1R variants that cause red hair also have an effect on the skin. As a result, redheads do not make enough of the dark pigment melanin to protect them against the sun’s powerful ultraviolet rays. Their skin rarely tans. It just burns or freckles.

In Africa, where modern humans first evolved 150,000 years ago, this would have been fatal. In northern Europe, however, melanin-free skin could have provided an advantage because we make vitamin D in our skin when sunlight shines on it.

Dark-skinned people were protected against the African sun, but their ability to make vitamin D would have been badly affected in relatively gloomy northern Europe. This could have caused rickets, resulting in weak bones and curved legs — bad news for a hunter-gatherer.

Rickets is particularly damaging for women, as it increases pelvic deformations, raising the risk of death in childbirth. So, the theory goes, we evolved white, melanin-free skin that has no dark pigment to block sunlight and cause rickets. Red hair was a side effect.

So there it is: being a redhead could mean you possess an evolutionary advantage over non-red-haired people – as long as you stay in the gloomy boreal latitudes (better news for Celia Wade-Brown than Julia Gillard here!).

The maps show the distributions of the three gene variants that are associated with red hair in the British Isles. The MC1R gene is the common version that is found across Ireland and the UK, but that are particularly associated with the ‘Celtic’ countries. There are also two rarer versions (called 150C and 161W) that are associated with the red hair found more frequently in eastern and southern England.

One particular version (M17, shown in red in the lower diagram) tells an interesting saga. This variant is found in about 20% of Norwegians and is also found in North Eastern Europe and Asia from Russia to Central Asia. It is, however, very rare in north western Europe. The exception to this is in the Orkney Islands, where about 30% of men have this version of the Y chromosome, which supports the folk history of Norse Viking men settlement.

M17, however, is not found in the area where the Danish Vikings settled (e.g. Northumberland) and is also rare in Denmark. This suggests that the Danish Vikings were different ancestries than the Norse Vikings. It is likely then that the Danish Vikings came from the same area as the Anglo-Saxons (Jutland and north western Germany), only 200 years later.

[For further information see Sir Walter Bodmer at: www.peopleofthebritishisles.org]

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Links to Australia's First Fleet & its light-fingered passengers


On 13 May 1839 Jane McManus who was 20 years old (and who had been born in Paramatta, New South Wales) married James Johnson in St John’s Church, Paramatta. James who was 26 years old had been born in England. It is probable that he arrived in Australia as a free settler in 1824 aged 12, accompanying his mother Sarah who was a servant to Thomas Clarkson. In the 1828 NSW census, he was listed as a carpenter’s apprentice.

In 1845 James and Jane moved to Auckland where he was employed as a cabinet maker by David Nathan.

The Johnsons went on to have 6 children, one of whom Lucy Catherine Johnson (1851 – 1921) married Robert Cossey Pidgeon (born 1836, Kenton, Devon – died Mangapai, NZ 1910). In the succeeding generation, Charlotte (1878 – 1914) one of the daughters of Lucy and Robert married Frank Clifford Smith (1873 – 1952) – and their daughter Mabel Eliza Smith (1906 – 1960) went on to marry Harold Thompson Joll in Northland, New Zealand in 1930. Harold and Mabel Joll are among the maternal great grandparents of my older sons Matthew and Peter Johnson.

But setting aside the regular cascade of worthy NZ ancestors from the 1850s, there is some much more interesting Australian family history associated with Jane McManus.

It starts though with Jane’s law abiding father James McManus Jr. (born Paramatta 1794) who married Lucy Bradley on 7th April 1814. James was a Police Magistrate in Bathurst where he apparently caught a highwayman / bushranger showing considerable bravery. He ultimately spent the last 10 years of his relatively short life in Paramatta Asylum but Lucy died at the age of 81 in November 1871 at Meadow Flat, NSW.

Going back a further generation things become more altogether aristocratic from an Australasian stance.

We find that James’ father James McManus Sr. narrowly avoided conviction for theft in 1790 even though he had arrived in Australia with the First Fleet on the ‘Sirius’ as a Private in the Marines. During his guard duties on board, he appears to have formed a relationship with the mother of his children Jane Poole. Jane had been convicted of stealing a silver watch and other goods valued at 15 shillings in Wells, Somerset in 1786 – and had been transported after her death sentence had been commuted.

Nor can we count Lucy Bradley’s family as aspiring angels. Both Lucy’s father James Bradley (1764 – 1838) and her mother Sarah Barnes (1775 – 1853) were also convicts. James Bradley had been convicted at the Old Bailey of stealing a handkerchief valued at 1-2 shillings around 1785.

And Sarah Barnes had been convicted in the same court in 1790, as a 14-year old, of stealing 8 quart pewter pots valued at 8 shillings and 5 pint pewter pots valued at 2 shillings from ‘The Plough’ Pub in Bloomsbury.

Drawing on the information that has been handed on to me by the Joll family, I’ll summarize what is known about the roles that the family members played in the early history of New South Wales.


James Bradley arrived as a convict on the First Fleet on the ‘Scarborough’ which carried 208 male convicts. The ship left England on 13th May 1787 and arrived at Sydney Cove eight months later on 26th January 1788. Her master was John Marshall, and the surgeon was Dennis Considen.

By the beginning of 1789 food stocks were extremely low, the first crops having failed and relief ships having foundered. Governor Phillip put the entire colony on strict rations but thefts were endemic. On 23rd April 1789 James Bradley was given 25 lashes for insolence to a sentry but, overall, he was said to have behaved in a ‘tolerably decent and orderly manner’.

James Bradley’s sentence expired in 1794 and he was granted an Absolute Pardon on 5th September 1821 by Governor Macquarie – some 33 years after his arrival in Australia. It appears that by this time he was highly regarded in the Wesleyan Church as a preacher and Sunday-School teacher – and that he fell foul of the Anglican cleric Samuel Marsden as a consequence of attracting children away from the church.

James received a land grant of 30 acres at Eastern Farms, Hunter’s Hill near Kissing Point on the Paramatta River (the area is now known as Putney) – and in 1798 he gave evidence to a Government Inquiry on the problems faced by small farmers. According to the 1800 Census, he had two and a half acres in wheat and 5 acres in maize. By the next year, he had cleared a total of 15 acres, possessed 3 hogs and had 20 bushels of maize in store – and he was recorded as still living on his farm in 1828.

James wife Sarah Barnes who had been caught red-handed at the melting down of the stolen pewter ale pots arrived in Sydney on the 9th of July 1791 after 5 months at sea on the ‘Mary Ann’, which had sailed alone just ahead of the Third Fleet. Nine of the 155 convicts on the voyage died at sea.

James and Sarah were married in 1792 and they had 10 children (James 1792-1793; James Joseph b 1795, married Amy Greenwood; Lucy b 1796 married James McManus; Sarah Elizabeth b 1799 married John Berringer; George 1801 – 1829; Thomas b 1803; John b 1806 married Charlotte Dallison; Job Joseph b 1809 married Elizabeth Downs; Rachel Rebecca b 1811 married William Lynn and Samuel Small); and Isabella b 1813 married James Wright).


Private James McManus (Marines) departed with the First Fleet on the ‘Charlotte’ but arrived on the ‘Sirius’. Two years later he was jailed for stealing a chest of personal articles from a fellow marine. He tried to kill himself on arrest but only succeeded in scarring himself.

He was subsequently formally acquitted of the charge but discharged from the Marines – and in the wake of the disgrace he took up a grant of 60 acres of land on Norfolk Island in 1790. However, he returned to Sydney and was accepted as a Private in the NSW Corps. He was granted 65 acres of land in Mulgrave Place by Governor Hunter.

Jane Poole (who married James McManus) arrived in Sydney on the ‘Charlotte’ on 26th January 1788. As already noted, it seems that she started he relationship with James on the ‘Charlotte’ – and he may even have been transferred to the ‘Sirius’ to break it up. On the 2nd January 1790, she travelled to Norfolk Island on the ‘Supply’ to work as a servant – and presumably keep company with James.

The ‘Charlotte’ was a First Fleet transport ship of 335 tons, built on the River Thames in 1784. She was a light sailer, and had to be towed down the English Channel for the first few days of the voyage. Her master was Thomas Gilbert, and her surgeon was John White, principal surgeon to the colony. She left Portsmouth on 13 May 1787, carrying 88 male and 20 female convicts.

As one of the small number of female convicts, Jane would have got to know the Cornish convict Mary Bryant (nee Broad) very well. Having been transported for highway robbery, Mary took up with another of the ‘Charlotte’s convict passengers William Bryant when they arrived in Sydney – William was also from Cornwall where he had worked as a fisherman.

On 28 March 1791, William, Mary, her children and a seven-man crew stole one of the governor's boats and after a voyage of 66 days, they successfully reached Kupang in Timor. This was a truly epic trip that involved navigating the then uncharted Great Barrier Reef and the Torres Straits.

The Bryants and their crew claimed to be shipwreck survivors but were discovered after William became drunk and confessed in the process of bragging. They were sent back to Britain by the Dutch to stand trial. Expecting to be hanged, Mary Bryant was instead imprisoned for an additional year in Newgate Prison, during which time a public outcry ensued, coupled with an onslaught of publicity by the famous Scottish writer and lawyer James Boswell.

As a result, she was pardoned in May 1793, as were the four surviving men of her crew later. Boswell (accused by wags as having designs on her) gave her an annual pension of 10 pounds - but nothing more is known of her life after her release.


Farewell to old England forever,
Farewell to my rum culls as well,
Farewell to the well–known Old Bailey
Where I used for to cut such a swell.

Singing too-ral, li-ooral, li-addity,
Singing too-ral, li-ooral, li-ay,
Singing too-ral, li-ooral, li-addity,
And we're bound for Botany Bay.

There's the captain as is our commander,
There's the bo'sun and all the ship's crew,
There's the first– and the second–class passengers,
Knows what we poor convicts go through.

'Taint leaving old England we cares about,
'Taint cos we mis-spells what we knows,
But because all we light–fingered gentry
Hops around with a log on our toes.

These seven long years I've been serving now
And seven long more have to stay,
All for bashing a bloke down our alley
And taking his ticker away.

Oh had I the wings of a turtle–dove,
I'd soar on my pinions so high,
Slap bang to the arms of my Polly love,
And in her sweet presence I'd die.

Now all my young Dookies and Dutchesses,
Take warning from what I've to say:
Mind all is your own as you toucheses
Or you'll find us in Botany Bay.

[House for sale at Delange Road, Putney/Kissing Point, Sydney for $A 1.5m ++]

Friday, February 4, 2011

Growler Joll - a clout from a bridle in Cornwall, fisticuffs at sea and heaving with the bullocks in New Plymouth


Turning away from the Cunnninghams to other NZ ancestors of my older sons Matthew and Peter, there is a comparative wealth of information.

This is particularly true with respect to the Jolls – and I hesitate somewhat against trampling on the toes of those who have gone before me in compiling family histories and genealogies. However, I will venture on, giving credit where it is due.

In my experience such information is so easily mislaid – and I feel reasonably confident that both future offspring and researchers will value the posting of the material online even though there may be some repetitions and overlaps.

I have acquired most of my material through Dennis (Denno) Joll of Kamo. Denno is the brother of Noeleen Cunningham (Joll). Let’s start with the Jolls and pick up later on with the Rouses - and then with some of the more remote ancestors of some of the NZ Jolls who stem from the foundation of New South Wales and some of its less than willing settlers.

My boys are descended from the Jolls through their maternal grandmother Noeleen. She is the daughter of Harold Joll (b 1902, married May Smith) and the granddaughter of Thomas Matthew Joll (b 1870, married Jessie Thompson). Thomas Matthew Joll was the son of Thomas Treliving Joll who was born in New Zealand in 1845 and who married Ann Langdon Jonas in New Plymouth in 1869. Thomas T. Joll was the fourth son of the NZ family founder Samual ‘Growler’ Joll (1805 – 1879).

Denno has supplied a Joll Family History that was prepared for the Family Reunion that was held in 1990. Its credits include mention of Esmene Chatterton (nee Joll), Phyllis Lomas (nee Joll), and of Sydney and Roy Joll who both visited the family homelands in Cornwall conducting research. I have also drawn on compilations from the same sources by Don Auckram.

At the outset it is perhaps wise to note that we are dealing here with the family of farmer Samuel ‘Growler’ Joll (1805 – 1879) and his wife Elizabeth (Vanderband Treliving, 1808 – 1882). The family originates from Calstock in Cornwall. Samuel and Elizabeth sailed on the ‘Timandra’, leaving Plymouth on the 2nd November 1841 arriving at New Plymouth, New Zealand on 24th February 1842.

The subsequent North Island family is not to be confused with that of Wesleyan Minister Digory Joll who emigrated to New Zealand from Lincolnshire on the ship Calypso sailing from London on 22nd July 1879 arriving at Dunedin on the 14th October. This family first settled in Oamaru where they started a grocery business and their many descendants now extend from Auckland to Invercargill.

As the genealogies of both families feature individuals with the markedly unusual name Digory Joll and both have links to Egloskerry in Cornwall they are almost certainly from the same original stock.


The Family History emphasizes the very long association of the Joll family with eastern Cornwall and that family members were ‘noted for their longevity and strength’. Records frequently identify family members in the vicinity of the parishes of Altarnun, Egloskerry, Lewannick, Wardstow and Calstock. It seems that, as well as being yeomen farmers, they were frequently clergymen and clerks.

According to the parochial records of the late 18th century, John Joll of Altarnun died in 1783 aged 98 years with his daughter Mary dying at 93 years old in 1826 and his daughter Honor dying at 90 in 1825. What these admirable statistics mask is that Honor died as a result of falling downstairs and that Mary died as a result of being attacked by a ram.

A fairly simple verifiable genealogy runs as follows:

• John Joll married Ann Phillip on 1 November 1714 at Egloskerry. They had eight children, including:-

• Josiah Joll, born 23 June 1723, Egloskerry, Cornwall. He married Thomasin Lean on 3 June 1753 at St Germans Church, Cornwall. Josiah, a yeoman, shifted the family to Calstock about 1780. Here he died in February 1784 and was buried at Calstock on 13 February. An extract from Josiah Jolls will reads, “I leave to my daughter Ann, wife of William Knight £10, to my daughter Sarah Joll, £20 when she attains 21. Residue unto my wife Thomzin Joll and my son Samuel Joll, my Executors.” Josiah and Thomasin Joll’s children include:-

• Samuel Joll, christened 25 April 1766, St Germans, Cornwall. Samuel married Sarah Bowhay on 5 December 1796 at Calstock, Cornwall. Samuel was a yeoman, owning Tumple farm, near Calstock, besides this he owned certain customary lands and houses, comprising quite a part of the village of Calstock. Samuel died in August 1807, leaving Sarah with three young children, and pregnant with a fourth. She was able to raise and educate her children, no doubt from the proceeds of the family properties. Oldest son, Josiah was to take over the running of the farms. Sarah died at Calstock in 1849. The children of Samuel and Sarah include:-

• Samuel “Growler” Joll, christened 10 December 1805, Calstock, Cornwall. Samuel married Elizabeth Vanderband Treliving on 16 May 1829 at Calstock, Cornwall. Listed on the Calstock tithes taken on 10 September 1839, Samuel rented a house in Calstock from brother-in-law, John Treliving, and arable land at Slades Park from Martin Rickard.

Samuel's occupation was listed in the Calstock parish register as blacksmith. Family folklore says that after a fight with his older brother Josiah, who clouted him with a bridle, Samuel decided to immigrate to New Zealand, to buy a farm from the New Zealand Land Company.

Beyond these early forbears, there more tentative links back to Thomas Joll, christened 28 March 1590, Egloskerry, Cornwall - Thomas married Jelion Pyn 28 September 1613 at Egloskerry. There are also possible links to George Joll of Artanun who married Margaret Dowrish in 1675.

This Joll was a substantial landowner who replaced his family’s old farmhouse near Calstock with a stone mansion named Harewood House. Through Margaret, this line of the family claims ancestry with the Carew, Denham, Dinan and St Leger families and further back to the Earls of Ormond and Kings Edward I and Henry III.


Samuel, Elizabeth and their five children left from Plymouth, England, on the 2 November 1841, on board the ship Timandra, bound for New Plymouth, New Zealand. The Timandra was a barque of 382 tons captained by J L Skinner with George C. Forbes as the Surgeon Superintendent.

The official account of the voyage was written up positively to encourage settlers and buoy up investment in the New Zealand Company:

“Stoutest and best-found of all the vessels sent out to New Plymouth was the barque Timandra, 382 tons, Captain Skinner, which made the passage direct in 113 days. She left Plymouth on November 2, 1841, and arrived on February 23, 1842, bringing 212 passengers, the largest number sent out in any of the six vessels.

This fine ship had a pleasant voyage out. On the way out a call was made at Cape Town, where a fortnight was spent, including Christmas Day. In marked distinction to many of the emigrant ships of the 'fifties and the 'sixties, the Timandra was a happy craft, and everyone had a good word to say for her.

Among the passengers was Mr W Devenish, who brought out with him a small flock of Southland down sheep, the first seen in New Zealand. The Timandra seems to have been in luck all the way through, for she landed her passengers and cargo without a hitch in perfect weather, during her ten days stay off New Plymouth’.

Then as now official spin doctored documents were not to be altogether trusted. The family side of the story is that as:

‘According to the diary of D.M. Weekes, who was a passenger on the ship, the voyage was not a particularly happy one and long before they reached New Zealand dissatisfaction with the conditions had reached a critical stage.

The passengers were either steerage or cabin and there was ill feeling between the two. The language of the steerage emigrants was objected to and they in turn objected to the cabin passenger’s exclusive use of the awning poop deck, and also to their pretensions of organising the schoolroom but failure to work in it.

One reason for this was the regulation of the New Zealand Company that chloride of lime be sprinkled about the emigrants berths, considered necessary for the preservation of their health.

One morning towards the end of the voyage Samuel Joll endeavoured to stop the constable, Mr. Thompson, from sprinkling the chloride in his berth while his wife lay ill. The following are entries from the Ships Log:

“Friday February 11th 1842. At 10am I went down below…the ‘tween decks with Dr Forbes to see the chloride of lime sprinkled which some of the emigrants said should not be done as it burned their clothes.

I immediately took the bucket and…commenced sprinkling it over the deck when one of the emigrants named Joll seized hold of my collar and threw me down onto deck in presence of Dr Forbes and assistant superintendant for which offence Captain Skinner had him put in irons on the poop for 24 hours as a prisoner until he thought proper to beg pardon and keep the peace for the remainder of the passage.

Saturday February 12th 1842 Samuel Joll placed in irons on the poop but by 8pm Samuel Joll begged pardon and promised to keep the peace the remainder of the passage and therefore I let him out of irons.”

From family folklore passed down says Samuel Joll’s version of events were as follows. Elizabeth was lying ill on the bed when a sailor, whose duty it was to deal with their cabin, told her to get up and when she failed to do so he went to pull the bedclothes off her. This was too much for Samuel, who being a powerful man smartly knocked the sailor down.

The sailor then brought the chief officer to the scene and when Samuel was splashed with lime, he saw red and knocked him down too. A terrific struggle with several of the crew took place before he was restrained in irons as the captain ordered.

Apparently the apology requested and given by Samuel was no more than a matter of policy for once Samuel was ashore he borrowed a canoe, paddled to the Timandra and advised the captain not to come ashore. There is no record of the captain’s reply.

In this incident Samuel “Growler’ Joll was described as a blacksmith, was a powerful man physically, and most obstinate and cross-grained in his mentality.

On the voyage Elizabeth Joll,, quite apart from being bucketed by the crew, was occupied with sewing garments for the New Zealand Company. It seems that she completed a wardrobe over the 4 month voyage consisting of 5 men’s blue shirts, 4 women’s white cotton shifts, 5 boy’s blue shirts, 4 girl’s white shifts, 4 men’s grey shirts and 4 boy’s grey shirts.

The Timandra arrived at New Plymouth, New Zealand on 25 February 1842, also on board were the family of James and Betsy Wills, of Calstock, whose eldest son, Albert, was later to marry the eldest daughter, Ann, of Samuel and Elizabeth Joll.


The family spent the first weeks in New Plymouth in a whare [house made of raupo wood] while Samuel went to Omata, where he had purchased land, to build a shelter. Later joined by Elizabeth, they were to have another five children. In the first years of the New Plymouth settlement Samuel Joll took work on as a carter, carting flour from a mill to the beach for shipping to Wellington.

Samuel Joll brought the first transport into service in New Plymouth, and it was also the most unusual. Samuel Jolls transport was described in the Taranaki Daily News as a sort of a handcart, with Samuel or one of his sons acting in the capacity of shaft horse. Two goats followed next, then two dogs, and a dog as leader, led by one of the sons. When an extra pull was required “pig, pig, pig!’ or “Sool-em-up, boys,” was shouted, with the desired effect. With this strange team many hundreds of tons were taken from the mill to the beach.

In the 1846 census for New Plymouth, Samuel Joll is listed as the proprietor and owner of one cottage. The following census in 1852 lists his household as 6 males and 4 females and that he had 10 and a half acres of land made up of; 3 acres of furrow, 3 and 3/4 acres in crop, 2 acres in wheat, half acre in potatoes, half acre in oats, half acre in other crop, and a quarter acre in garden.

During the Land Wars, which started in March 1860, in Taranaki, Samuel Joll and his family had to evacuate their farm on the Bell Block and take refuge in New Plymouth for some months. Two of his sons served with the New Zealand Colonial Forces in Taranaki. Once things settled down Samuel returned to his farm, but the war flared up again in 1863 and Samuel and Elizabeth retired to Devon Street, New Plymouth.

In later life Samuel intervened to stop a bullocky lashing his bullock team when his cart had became grounded in the mud in central New Plymouth. He rushed in to heave behind the cart and was injured as a consequence. Thence forward, crippled with pain and rheumatism, he would then sit outside his Devon Street house and pass comments to passers-by about them, the country, and life in general.

It was on this account that he was nicknamed “Growler” Joll.

Samuel died at his home on 20 June 1879 and was buried on 22 June at Te Henui Cemetery, New Plymouth. Elizabeth lived with her daughter and son in-law Elizabeth and Samuel Driller until her death on 15 July 1882. She was buried with Samuel on 16 July 1882.


To round off my posts about the family forbears of my two older sons, it seems sensible to briefly summarize here the information that I have on another of the constituent families – the Rouses of Whangarei. As previously noted, my two older boys descend from Edward (actually Edward Arthur) Cunningham and Clair Rouse (Lillian A’Clair) who married on the third of July 1929 in St Matthews Church, Hikurangi.

[And tying the relationship more deeply, Ivy Rouse, the daughter of Clair's brother James, married Dennis Joll, the brother of Noeleen Cunnigham / Joll in the 1950s]

Clair was the daughter of James Rouse (1872 – 1928) and Ethel Baylis - and the grand-daughter of the NZ founders Thomas Rouse (1834 – 1896) and Sarah Ann Kenworthy (1849 – 1934). Thomas and Sarah Ann were married at Waitangi Manse, Whangarei by the Reverend John Gorrie on 24th May 1867. A Prospectus for the Rouse Family Reunion that was held on 26th June 1982 noted 507 descendants or so at that time.

Thomas Rouse and Sarah Ann Kenworthy both left London on 28th May 1864 on the sailing ship ‘Portland’, arriving in Auckland on 28th August 1864. Thomas was in the army until his discharge in 1867 and had been born in North Hinskey, Berkshire. The birthplace of Sarah Ann Kenworthy is less certain but the likelihood is that she was born in or near Huddersfield, Yorkshire. I have posted their pictures below.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Dick Cunningham's Story - from Butcher Boy to Mine Manager

EARLY LIFE (Dick was born in 1904)

‘You ask me what it was like when we were young and had none of the things to amuse us like you have today. I had six brothers and six sisters – there were 13 of us. I was born at Marua Hill in Hikurangi, known as Gum Town.

‘We had a bush farm covered in ti tree, fern and bush, and the cows used to roam the hills – when we wanted to milk them, we had to find them first. That was a good excuse – if we didn’t want to go to school, it was easy to drive them into the bush and make sure that they didn’t come out until it was too late for school.

‘The nearest house was about 2 miles further on with gum-diggers’ shanties near the Northern Coal Mine. The shanties consisted of a framework of poles cut from bush that were laced or nailed together and covered with sacks. Sometimes the roofs would be covered with flattened tins or nikau fronds. There would only be one room with a fireplace made of stones or mud sods at one end – a bunk bed made of sacks and a table made of planks – and that was all the furniture needed,

‘In the summer, the gum-diggers used to set fire to the ti tree and fern to make it easier to get digging for hum with the result that shanties were often burned too – though it did not take long to build another.

‘There were no motor cars, wireless sets or TVs or telephones in those days. We had to walk or use horses if we wanted to go anywhere.

‘I can remember the horses working the mines and pulling the skips on the railways outside, taking the coal from the mines to the main railway. One horse called Tommy that worked on the Northern used to wait when the miners were coming out and wouldn’t let them pass until they had given him a piece of their crib (lunch).

‘There were about 50 shanties scattered around the hill and about 6 families in houses, Dobson’s ran a cookhouse where the single men could get a hot meal. I can remember some of the characters as we knew them. There was Black Sam – a big darkie – his skin used to shine in the sun and we used to think he was oiled.

‘Paddy Whisky used to get full on a Saturday but no matter how full he got, he always bought us kids a bag of boiled lollies and left them on the fence post. Also there was Mad Jack. He would be digging away and would suddenly start yelling “I’ll murder you, you red-headed bitch” and jabbing his spade in the ground. I can remember him doing this one day while digging near the house and Mum taking me and Teddy (his brother Edward Arthur) through the ti tree where he couldn’t see us when we went to Grandma’s in Waro. It was believed that he had killed a girl in England before settling in New Zealand.

‘In those days the hotel used to stay open until 10.30pm and most of the gum-diggers and miners would go to the pubs on Saturday nights. It was 3 miles from the hill to town and they would get pretty full, load up with bottles and start back to their baches (shanties). About half way, they would get in the fern on the side of the road and spend the rest of the night there.

‘On Sunday mornings we would get out of bed and ran down to where they had been sleeping – and would often find money and the pocket knives that they had used to open the bottles. I once found a good watch and my father sent me around to find the owner but no-one claimed it and they told me to keep it. My father wore it all his life and I have it now 60 years later.

‘Another time Cecil (brother Cecil George) and I were riding on the skips and I found a one pound note. The miners in those days would not take notes – they were paid in gold and silver and didn’t know what it was, but Cecil did. Again I took it around the baches but no-one claimed it and we kept it – a real fortune for us then!

‘We had 3 miles to go to school over clay roads rutted by horse and bullock teams carting out big kauri logs and mine timber from the Marua bush. I can remember Dan Murphy’s bullock team – he had at least 5 pairs of bullocks and a wagon with an extra long pole. He would allow us kids to get nicely settled on the pole for a ride home – and then he would turn and wrap the bullock whip around us – but he never hurt us. Later he gave up the bullocks and had 6 beautifully kept Clydesdale horses.

‘The gum-diggers would work all summer, spend their money in the pubs and then resort to dodges to get support during the winter like feigning a cut-throat to be out in hospital or breaking shop windows to get jailed. We used to follow where they had been digging and pick up small pieces that we could sell for 2 pence a pound. They had an understanding together that when they had a good patch and were unable to finish it, they could leave a spade standing in the middle and return to find it undisturbed.

‘When we were kids, we usually had a horse to ride and a dog at home. When we were looking for cattle we would sometimes take the horse. One time Cecil and I had gone looking for cows ‘double-banking’ together on the horse. We had seen a movie picture where Cowboys were running from Indians and a Cowboy had galloped his horse past a bank so that his mate could jump on behind as he passed. We decided to do the same and I threw my coat over the horse when Cecil came galloping up but the horse took fright, jumped over the edge of the road, threw Cecil and cleared out – we had to walk home!

‘One time Joe and Addy (brothers Joseph and Adam Edward) had been looking for the cattle and on the way home they had to pass Blacklock’s house. They were hungry so Joe said: ‘If we ask Mrs Blacklock for a drink she might give us something to eat’. When they were talking, Mrs Blaclock showed them her parrot and said it could talk. ‘Can it say “cup of tea”?’ asked Addy – and they got tea and some cake.

‘Roy Wangford, a cousin, used to stay with us a lot and would go with me looking for the cattle. His father used to look after the mine horses and we would take them from the stables into the paddocks, so we always had a horse to ride. Roy would go to school with me. He lived in Waro and we arranged a meeting place on the Marua Road. He was supposed to put a stone on a post if he arrived first – and if I arrived first, I was supposed to knock it off. We wondered why the arrangement never seemed to work.

‘He was an expert at making excuses to the teacher if we were late. We would take a short cut as he called it, through the bush and he would pick a bunch of dog daisies to give to the teacher. One time we didn’t arrive at school until lunch-time and he told the teacher that we couldn’t cross the creek because the flood was up – it hadn’t rained for weeks but we got away with it.

‘When I was coming home from school I would meet the miners coming home from the Northern Coal Mine. They would say: ‘Hello son, whose father are you?’ I would say ‘Mr Cunningham’s’ and wonder why they laughed.


‘When I was going to school, I had a job after school delivering groceries for Bob Lomas. Then after leaving school, I worked at a butcher’s delivering meat on horseback. I would be riding all day, several days a week. I would take the meat to bush camps with a basket on my knee and pack sacks at the side. Sometimes I would lead a pack-horse also loaded with tins of tallow for greasing the skids that they used to shoot logs into the river.

‘There was always a good feed waiting at the bush cook-house. One time the cook offered me some soup – it was real good. Afterwards, I asked him what the white pieces of meat were and he told me ‘Hu Hu bugs’. Another time when I arrived, the cook was lying in his bunk. He said he was sick and got me to put some corned beef on to cook. Then he said: ‘Have some home-made beer’. He gave me several mugs full and then a bottle to take home. I didn’t know it was the real stuff so I drank the lot. George Doel took me and the horse home but the cook was less lucky – the bush men threw him in the creek.

‘One time the Reverend Connelly, a church minister and our scoutmaster said that he would like to go with me to get some pictures of the bush workings and the bullocks working. After delivering the meat I took him into the bush to watch the felling of a large kauri tree. Instead of skirting the bush above the crew, I called out to them when we were near and they went out of their way to abuse me. They always called me Maggots the Butcher Boy but this time they used all their bad language. When I introduced Reverend Connelly there were some red faces!

‘Reverend Connelly was a good scoutmaster and we had a fine troop that won many rugby, cricket and athletic competitions in the North. We would go to Russell at Xmas for a combined camp with several hundred boys, with plenty of swimming, fishing and games. Sometimes we got to go on the Cream Trip with Mr Fuller picking up cream for the butter factory. Cecil was a patrol leader and had more merit badges than anyone else but I loved football and all sports.

‘At 14 I followed my grandfather Girvan and my brothers into the coalmines. I remember my grandfather saying: ‘Get some of your Grandma’s potatoes and we’ll roast them in the fire-box of the steam boiler’. I think that those potatoes were the best that I’ve ever tasted.

‘I used to drive a horse taking the skips of coal from the bottom of Tauranga and Foote and Doel mines’ jig to tip it into the rail wagons. It was along the old Northern Coal Mines tramway. These mines also had fireclay. Before the Northern closed, they had a steam loco on the tramline. I can remember Dick Trimble and Bob Dickson driving the loco. We used to go riding on the skips with them when we had school holidays.

‘At that time there was a chap called Jimmy Hall who used to hook the skips on at the bottom of the Northern jig. Sometimes a rope or coupling would break and the skips would run away. Jimmy would have to run up a steep bank to get away from them so he decided to dig a hole in the bank and get into hat when there was a runaway. Not long after he finished the hole it happened but he forgot all about the hole and ran up the bank. They called him Little Hero from then on!

‘You asked me to tell you some of the things that happened in the mines. After working in the mines on the Marua Hill, I went to work in the Shaft Mine at Hikurangi. It was on the edge of the Hikurangi Swamp and there were two vertical shafts – an intake or haulage shaft and a return airway, The coal, men, horses etc. were hauled up and down in cages.

‘At the top and bottom of the shafts a man was stationed to ensure that the cages were properly loaded and controlled. We would often knock off early and get away from work – so to stop us, the manager told the man at the bottom not to let us up unless we had a note from the deputy. The chap on one shift couldn’t read or write so we would write a note ourselves saying ‘Jack you silly b... let them up’. He would take the note, pretend to read it and let us up.

‘we had a number of horses working in the shaft and as a cage would only hold one at a time, the horses would race each other to get up first. They would stand one behind the other, the same as the men, and go up in turn. One night ‘Snowy’ a horse that was working on the west side was coming up when he saw another horse coming up McKenzie Dip. He set off to race him to the shaft bottom.

‘The onsetter hadn’t covered the flat sheets with brattice (a wooden fence put around the machinery) and when Snowy tried to stop, he slipped and fell down into the sump at the bottom of the shaft. We had to go with ropes, hook him onto the cage and pull him up to the bottom of the shaft again. Snowy was later killed by a roof fall.


‘Joe, Addy and I were in a trucking contract. There were 18 men in the team and they were all good men. I remember one day hearing a great commotion from town when I was driving a horse on a bush tramway. Train whistles, bells ringing and horns blowing – it was 11th November 1918 – Armistice Day, the end of World War I.

‘In the early 1920s more than 300 men were employed in the mines – with many being English, Scots and Welsh miners. There were good rugby, soccer and league teams but after the mines closed, Hikurangi ebbed away.

‘One big event that we always looked forward to was Labour Day Sports. This was a big affair with chopping and sawing, cycle races, tossing the caber and catching a greasy pig. Besides these, there were decorated bicycles, prams, carts and buggies as well as events like nail driving and the King of the Mountain Race.

‘Perry’s Popular Pictures came once a week to show silent movies. One or two schoolboys would carry water from the creek to fill the cooling tank of the petrol engine that provided power for the arc light. For this job they got a free ticket to the pictures. The only other amusement was when a circus would visit us now and then. They were not very good as the best never came past Whangarei. In this case the schoolboys would provide water for the animals.

‘The railway then reached Hikurangi. When the men that worked at the open cast mine saw the train arrive with a string of wagons, they would hurry up to the mine – and by the time the train returned the would have all the empty wagons filled ready to take away.

‘I mined coal in Hikurangi and Kamo until the early 1940s when Joe and I went south to Ohura in the King Country to open and work the Tatu State Mine for a few years. Then I returned to become deputy and under manager of the Kamo Mine.

‘There I had to examine all the work places twice a day besides examining the old workings for possible gas accumulation or fires. Once we found a plaited rope used to pull men and coal up an old haulage shaft. It had lain there for 50 years but crumpled to pieces when it was exposed to the air. It also seemed uncanny when I broke into No 2 Mine, where 60 years before miners had set timber to hold the roof and work the coal – some tools and planks were still in good condition.

‘Once, a visit by a mining company director and business associate almost ended in tragedy. Brother Joe had just found a pocket of explosive gas and pipes were put in to carry it out. Then he looked up the drive to see two men coming towards us striking matches to light their way. It was a race to reah them before they got to the gas and blew us all up. Joe and I won!

‘I mined for the new Kamo Company until 1955 when Kamo No 3 flooded and closed own. When the water broke in it didn’t come with a rush but increased in volume every day until the pumps couldn’t handle it. Extra pumps were installed but the water increased and flooded the mine. An estimated 4.5 million gallons was being pumped out each day and pumping continued for a year without progress.

‘I believe that around 4 million tonnes of coal remain in the Kamo field in pillars and coal that could not be opened up. But these large reserves are often under buildings and roadways or are also submerged under water.

‘I remember arguments and strikes but no-one held grudges. Once there was a conference on wages with the Coal Mine Council when Dave Miller was Union Secretary. I was Under Manager and C.B. Benny, Under Secretary of the Mines Division was the Chairman.

‘For the entire morning Dave Miller and I called each other choice names because we were on opposite sides. Came lunch time and I asked Dave to have lunch with me. Mr Benny seemed surprised and said; ‘I thought you hated each other’. But when we told him that we were brothers-in-law and the best of friends he replied; ‘Well, you could have fooled me!’

The Cunninghams of Hikurangi - A Happy-Go-Lucky Town


For some time I have felt that there is an imbalance in the stories that I have prepared for my younger two sons Sam and Theo and my almost complete silence on the family background of my two older sons Matthew and Peter. The following stories aim to correct this omission by providing insights on their Cunningham and Joll families, both of which have been long established in northern New Zealand.

In the absence of preceding family histories based on oral history and family records, researching New Zealand families is challenging because it is not possible to search decennial census entries – either manually or online - as the records have been destroyed. This meant that I had little information about the Cunningham family readily to hand.

Fortunately, a speculative inter-library order from Whangarei has more than filled the gap, with the receipt of the fine local history by Madge Malcolm ‘Hikurangi: The Story of a Coalmining Town’ (1997).

I had known a little of the Cunninghams long association with the Hikurangi-Kamo-Whangarei area having spent a wonderful day touring the Northland family heartlands (or ‘turangawaewae’) with my father-in-law Denis back in 1981/82. As Denis was at pains to point out along the trail of Northland pubs that we visited, the family was now well represented in every field of endeavour from policing to horse breeding to other less worthy pursuits.

But Madge’s wonderful book includes oral history interviews with two of the old-timer members of the family, Harriet and Dick and this gives me a real handle on the past. I trust that Madge (who died in 2008) would have approved of me making this material more widely available. And I have added to it from my own research.

The write up is also dedicated to Denis who died in 2005. I hope also that he would have approved. Looking at the photograph that Madge provides of Denis’ uncle Dick, I see a better likeness of Denis the man than is given by the personal photographs that I have been able to put my hands on. Both were hardworking, hard-living but generous and warm-hearted men – the very stuff of all that is best about New Zealanders.

So let’s start.

The founder of the family in New Zealand was Joseph Cunningham who was born in Jamaica in 1828 and came to New Zealand in 1844. He was obviously highly educated for the times and in 1855 he was appointed Clerk of the Magistrate’s Court at a yearly salary of two hundred and forty pounds. In 1869 he was appointed Clerk of the Petty Sessions.

His marriage is recorded as follows:

Joseph Cunningham Esq., R M C (Registered Magistrate’s Clerk) was married to Annie Elizabeth Witherden on the 11th August 1864 by the Right Reverend Bishop Pompallier, at his Chapel, Hobson Street, and by the Rev D Jones, at St Matthew’s Church. Annie Elizabeth Witherden was the daughter of the late Henry Witherden Esq., of Hythe, Kent.

My family connections are through my two elder sons Matthew and Peter Johnson through first wife Dianne Glenise Cunningham [born Whangarei 1955].

Dianne is the daughter of Denis Edward Cunningham [1930 – 2005] and Noeleen Joll. Denis was one of the four children of Edward [Adam Edward] Cunningham and Lillian A’Claire Rouse [the others being Glenise, Keith and Maxwell]. Edward who was born in 1900 was the son of Edward Arthur Cunningham [b 1872] who in turn was one of the 9 children of the original ancestors Joseph and Annie Elizabeth Cunningham.


The small town of Hikurangi is 17 km north of Whangarei nestled on the flanks of Mount Hikurangi which rises to 365m to the west of the town. The population was 1,422 in the 2006 Census, unchanged from 2001. Hikurangi is now largely a service centre for the local dairy industry and a residential outlier for commuters to Whangarei. There is also a limestone quarry that has been operating since the early 1900s.

An area of 12,000 acres (49 km2) of land at Hikurangi was purchased from local Maori by the District Commissioner of Lands, John Rogan, in 1862.

The land was considered desirable because it contained mature timber and high quality flax, and when a road south was opened in 1875 the area became a timber milling centre, with kauri gum-diggers soon following.

Coal was first discovered by Maori gum-diggers in 1863 but it was not until 1889 that the first mine was opened. By 1890, two small mines were operating and a 5-horse team was used to cart the coal to Kamo. Things changed rapidly when the railway was extended from Kamo in 1894.

Hikurangi had between 60 and 70 mines in its heyday but, as will be shown, the Great Depression, seam exhaustion and flooding gradually killed the industry. In all about 4.2 million tons of coal were extracted with the Hikurangi Coal Company, the Wilson Colliery Company and the Northern Coal Mine Company being among the biggest.

The town was held in great affection by its residents. But, as described by Dick Cunningham: ‘In the early 1920s more than 300 men were employed in the mines. There were good rugby, soccer and league teams but after the mines closed, Hikurangi ebbed away’.


Harriet Laybourn [born 1908, died 1997], who was Joseph’s grand-daughter and one of the daughters of Edward Arthur Cunningham [b 1872] told her family history in the following interview with Madge Malcolm, as written up in her book ‘Hikurangi: The Story of a Coalmining Town’ (1997):

‘My Dad Edward Arthur Cunningham [b 1872] was one of nine children and after attending business college, he became manager of the Taheke Hotel near Rawene, as well as the store and Post Office. My two eldest sisters were born there.

‘When he 22 year old Dad married my mother, 19-year old Fanny Girven. Fanny had been born in Kawakawa and had worked for the missionary Revered Williams and for the Salvation Army.

‘The family then moved to Kaihoke and again to Hukerenui before settling in Hikurangi in about 1903. Dad ran a hardware store in Hikurangi but when the local coal met fierce competition from Huntly coal, his trade contracted and he had to close the store. He then went ‘farming’ up Valley Road – but he was not a farmer – and it became basically a place to live when he was employed by the Northern Coal Company.

‘We milked about 25 cows and always had plenty of milk, cream and butter from what was left over from deliveries to the dairy factory. Altogether there were 13 children in my family (I had 7 brothers and 5 sisters). [NZ DIA Birth Records have Annie Edith 1894, Annie Evelyn 1895, Elizabeth Jane 1896, Joseph 1898, Adam Edward 1900, Cecil George 1902, Richard William 1904, Edward Arthur 1906, Harriet Rebecca 1908].

Times were hard but we never went to bed hungry – partly because throughout the year Dad used to gather kauri gum and clean it for sale.

‘With the kauri gum money he would buy us Xmas presents. However, one Xmas he was so disgusted seeing all the toys lying around the place, he said to our mother: ‘that’s the finish of buying Xmas presents – in future we’ll go to the beach in Whananaki instead’. And that is what we did. He would buy us hats etc. as Xmas presents but we really loved going to the beach. It used to take anything from 8-10 hours to get from Hikurangi to Whananaki in the old chain-driven truck. Dad built a bach there - and I have one there still and have never missed a Xmas at the beach for over 80 years!

‘Dad was pretty strict with us - his people were very strict. I remember how he would call out to us when we went to bed. There were 3 girls in our room and Dad would call out: ‘You girls said your prayers?’ ‘Yes, Dad’, we would answer as we stuck our heads under the blankets and said our prayers. Then: ‘You girls put light out?’ ‘Yes, Dad’, we would say – when we hadn’t at all – but we’d soon blow out our candle!

‘We didn’t have much with 13 kids but we had a great life really. We had a marvellous mother. She used to play the piano for us singing, and on Sundays we would have hymns. Her parents lived up at Waro where the lime-works are. Grandma Girven was the midwife at Hikurangi. She delivered a lot of babies amongst the women, including me. They used to have their babies at home in those days.

‘Himkurangi was a mining town – a happy-go-lucky town with lots of houses and kids and we had a great time. All the boys played football (Rugby). There were dances, socials, pictures on a Saturday night, and church on Sundays. All the churches were full – Anglicans, Methodists and Presbyterians. The Catholic Church wasn’t built as early as the others and the Catholics had to use the Hall. One of my friends said that for confession they had to go to the back of the stage. Then there were Scouts and Girl Guides – one of my brothers was assistant scout master.

‘I remember the pictures (movies) and how we let the poor kids in – those who couldn’t pay. There was a hole under the stage and they used to come up through that and we would let them in through the trap door.

‘After about 14 years or so, Dad left the Northern Coalmine Company – and with some mates Dick and Joe Hamilton, Tom Dunn, Jock Rogers, R. Cherrie and Jim Boyd acquired the rights to work leases abandoned by the large coalmining companies (mainly in the Marua hill area). They called themselves the Valley Syndicate. Dad also mined with some of his brothers using the opencast method. They didn’t make a fortune but they did make a living.

‘All my brothers worked as miners and all left school early, usually when they were 12 years old but one brother Cecil left school at 11 – and also stopped smoking at 11!

‘In 1928 I married Treston Laybourn who was a miner from Kiripaka. He was born in Waihi where his father was a gold-miner, We built this house here in View Road but when the mines flooded and he was out of work, we lost it because we couldn’t keep up the payments. For four months we had to live in a tent at Whananaki before we could rent a house. Eventually, some years later, we were able to buy our house back again – and here I am still living in it!

‘Treston was mine deputy at the Shaft and the Kamo Mine but later became a truck driver – and then, before he died, in the Hikurangi Dairy Factory. My sister Mabel and I started the ‘Hikurangi Caterers’ and we ran the business for 33 years. My brother Edward and his wife Clair ran another catering business ‘Cunningham Caterers’.

‘We had four children but they are not miners – the mines have been closed around here since 1937. This is still a happy town for us who were born here. We seem to be related to everyone and to know everyone. We all help each other and now that my husband has died I am never lonely as friends and family are dropping in all the time’.



You cannot say the fire is out, while there is still an ember,
And nothing can be really lost while we can still remember.
Ties are broken, and along strange paths we are led
But while a friend returns in thought, no friendship can be dead.

While the lavender of love retains a faint perfume,
While one rose of recollection from the past can bloom,
While one note can still be heard, one echo linger on,
The song is not forgotten though the singer may be gone.

Whilst the names of those whom God has called are written
In our hearts, they cannot pass, they cannot die.
Though death turns laughter into tears, and June into December
Our dear ones walk here at our sides, as long as we remember.

Anon (quoted by Madge Malcolm)