My grandfather’s letter

William Rose in his last years as groundsman/handyman, truck driver for Little Sisters of the Poor, St Joseph's home, Herne Bay.

William Rose in his last years as groundsman/handyman, truck driver for Little Sisters of the Poor, St Joseph’s home, Herne Bay.

I have had quite a long association with the Ponsonby during my time in politics, first with the Auckland Regional Council (I was first elected to the ARC ‘Auckland Central’ electorate in February 1992) and then as Auckland councillor for Waitemata & Gulf.   While I grew up in Wellington and came to Auckland aged 21, my mother was an Auckland girl and her family also had a connection with Ponsonby.   I was reminded of this recently when I came across a letter given to me by my sister Peggy who in turn was given it by our Aunt before she died. It was written by my grandfather.   My grandfather William Rose was in turn the grandson of a ‘Fencible’, James Donnelly. The ‘Royal NZ Fencible Corps’ as we know were British Army veterans (Donnelly had served in Afghanistan), many of them Irish, who were brought out by Governor Grey to defend the new colony. My grandfather’s mother, Rosanna Donnelly, later Rosanna Rose, was born at sea in the Southern Ocean in April 1852 on the sailing ship Inchinnan bound for Auckland where the family arrived in late May that year.   Rosanna, the youngest of a large family, married a William Rose in Howick in 1871 and the family went off to the Thames to work in the gold fields where my grandfather was born in in 1872. (Most Auckland families seem to have a Thames connection).

William started out as a schoolteacher but was soon working in the mines and then on the railway. In 1905 aged 33, he married an Irish girl Johanna Kavanagh who was 10 years younger and fresh from Kerry where Irish was still the first language. The couple had four children, two boys and two girls, born at railway townships up and down the Main Trunk Line. The youngest, my mother Eileen was born in Onehunga where William got a job on the wharf (unfortunately just in time for the Great Maritime Strike of 1913). Sadly William and Johanna did not enjoy a great deal of luck and by all accounts, like a lot of working class people in the early years of the 20th century their life was a constant struggle to make ends meet.   The situation was not helped by Johanna’s frail health. She eventually contracted tuberculosis and died 1918, aged 35, leaving her husband and four young children. This was a calamity that cast a long shadow over the family. My mother Eileen and her older sister Kathleen were sent to the Monte Cecelia Home (‘the Pah’) at Hillsborough where William secured a job as a groundsman to be near them. The two boys William and Laurence were brought up in the St Joseph’s orphanage at Takapuna. Kathleen (no doubt much to her father’s pride) entered the convent of the Sisters of Mercy to become Sister Mary Clare for the rest of her life (it was Sister Clare who gave my sister the letter, presumably given to her by Mother Francis). The two boys would go on to serve in the NZ Army in World War II.

In 1935, then in his early 60s, William came to work as a groundsman/handyman for the Little Sisters of the Poor at the St Joseph’s Home at Herne Bay.   He also drove the truck for Little Sisters on their begging runs down Queen Street where kindly Auckland business people would donate food and clothes for the inmates. Twenty years after the death of his wife William sat down to write this letter:

October 16th 1938.

St Joseph’s Home,

Herne Bay Ponsonby,

Shelly Beach Road.


Dear Mother M. Francis,

I cannot let this opportunity pass by, the one of your Golden Jubilee without writing to you my dear and best friend. You came to my wife and children with God’s wonderful grace and compassion at a time when we needed such a good friend as you to comfort & console us. I can never forget you dear Mother Francis for all you have done for us. You are always in my prayers. I sincerely hope you are in good health for this Glorious occasion & pray that God’s blessings may be poured down on you. I have been here a little over three years now. I had a vote here for the last two elections. I am well satisfied with the result which we were listening in to. I was up late last night, being 11 o’clock when I turned the radio off, but we heard enough today to know how the two parties stand in Parliament. I am pleased that the Labour Party were returned with such a good majority. I am feeling very well at the present, wishing you and your Good Sisters health, joy and happiness for your Golden Jubilee & that you may long be spared to us. Say a little prayer for me.

From yours faithfully,

William Rose.

Unfortunately I never knew my grandfather; (when I lived in Shelly Beach Road in 1991 I had the uncanny feeling one night, walking home from the university up College Hill, that I was walking in his footsteps]; William died seven months after he wrote the letter, in May 1939. He was buried with Johanna at Hillsborough cemetery. My mother married my father Emmett Lee exactly one year later.  I believe her middle name Frances was given in honour of Mother Francis.

Published in Ponsonby News May 2016 edition

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