Great-great-grandpa was a quack, and other stories from Papers Past

It’s Family History Month! And nothing (bar extensive genealogical work) is better for doing your family history than Papers Past.

JP Biggins, a retired Staffordshire coal miner, boarded a ship bound for New Zealand in late 1923. Since Twitter was some eighty-odd years away from invention, JP announced his arrival in Auckland with a classified advertisement in the Auckland Star seeking out friends from his old home town:

Mr. James Biggins, late of Brown Hill, England, c/o Mr. Ringham, Hamilton, would like Address of Joseph Brampton, late of Brown Hill Also, Samuel A. R. Valaster, late of Norton Caves, Cunnets, England. Auckland Star, 22 December 1923, page 1.

The Auckland Spiritualist Church also heralded JP’s presence in New Zealand, advertising an address on matters “of great interest” to their congregation:

Auckland Spiritualist Church. 175A, Symonds Street... 3pm - Mr. Biggins, Address. Mr. Biggins, who comes from England, will have something to tell us of great interest. Come and give our comrade a good welcome. Auckland Star, 1 December 1923, page 10.

The Auckland Spiritualist Church was one of a number of sects that had emerged in 1920s Auckland dedicated to spirit mediumship and psychic healing. JP seems to have been something of a cause celebre among the Auckland spiritualist churches. Advertisements for the Spiritual Scientists Church show he gave several lectures and regularly performed as a healer and “medical clairvoyant”.

Within a few years of JP’s arrival in Auckland, his reputation as a clairvoyant healer was sufficiently well-established that his wife and six youngest children could join him in New Zealand. By 1928, JP was advertising his services as a “herbalist and magnetic healer” from the family’s home in Khyber Pass Road. He also took out advertisements alongside ads for the Spiritual Scientists and Auckland Spiritualists Church, offering “non-sectarian” classes in magnetic healing.

No matter how long you have suffered, or the nature of your complaint, if you are Seeking Health, consult J. P. Biggins Herbalist and Magnetic Healer... Diagnosis free. Auckland Star, 7 January 1928, page 14.

Parish records and census returns don’t give any hints that JP was anything more than a second-generation Black Country coal miner and father of eleven, and that is why newspaper collections like Papers Past are so exciting for anyone interested in exploring their family history: our great-grandparents used their local newspaper the way we use Facebook, to advertise public events, track down old friends, gossip about the last night’s parties (whole columns of the ladies’ pages were dedicated to who wore what and who danced with whom), and even cryptically air their grievances:

Personal - If the Women do not stop their slander, I will lay an information against them. - Mrs Halverson. Auckland Star, 19 August 1895, page 1.

Because our forebears used their local newspapers to share every important announcement in their lives, those old papers reveal thousands of stories that birth certificates and shipping manifests couldn’t capture. Delving into the old newspapers on Papers Past, I discovered gentlemen, scoundrels and quacks the family never knew it had. One of my great-great-grand-uncles was, according to the Hawera & Normanby Star, embroiled in a William Williams’ attempts to swindle six Taranaki chiefs out of £5000 in 1880, and later had a brief stint as mayor of Patea and a failed bid as a Liberal MP (while his daughters and nieces made the best-dressed list of the society pages).

...troop members attended in uniform, which together with the sombre mufti of the civilians and the varied hues of the ladies' dresses made a very nice effect, the prettiest of which were as follows:- Miss C. Cowern, creme silk and lace; Mrs N. Matthews (Waverly), a handsome dress of creme satin; Miss W. Cowern looked lovely in claret velvet and Maltese lace; Mrs Major wore crimson silk veiled with black lace and exquisite jet; Miss Buchanan was dressed in creme Arabic muslin... Hawera & Normanby Star, 13 June 1896, page 2.

But it wasn’t all glamour and intrigue: court reports in the Otago Daily Times suggest one of my great-grandfathers was a juvenile delinquent, variously hauled in front of the magistrate for public drunkenness, petty vandalism, stealing a ferret, and willfully damaging a policeman’s hat. And an Auckland Star court report reveals a distant cousin sent to reformatory for car conversion and for repeatedly dressing in army fatigues while he was too young to enlist:

Likes Uniforms - Detective-Sergeant Nalder said Halverson was well known to the Court. 'He is really a nuisance to the military authorities. He likes to dress up in a uniform and that is part of the trouble,' added Mr. Nalder. 'McCormick is wanted by the military authorities for deserting. He also has a list.'... Auckland Star, 21 August 1940, page 8.

These stories, captured in court reports and society pages, business ads and “Wanted Known” notices, help to colour in the bare outlines of the family tree, and help to build a picture of the kind of people our great-great-grandparents might have been. We are lucky in New Zealand to have a tool like Papers Past at our fingertips, which makes so many historical urban and provincial newspapers available online, fully searchable and paywall-free. In those pages there are thousands of stories just waiting to be told.

By Petra Jane

Petra, previously of DigitalNZ, is a freelance librarian and a bit of a family history nerd.

Post a Comment

(will not be published) * indicates required field
Sharon August 20th at 5:04PM

Love Papers Past! Just yesterday found extensive obits. for two ancestors, information I doubt I would have found any other way.