Children of the Chathams

January 15th, 2015 By Jocelyn Chalmers

In 1940 New Zealand was awash in events to celebrate the centenary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. One was the Centennial Competitions for Schools, organised by the Department of Internal Affairs. The brief to schools was to produce a ‘survey of their district’.

The children of Kairakau School, one of five schools on Chatham Island at the time, produced a beautiful volume, The Chatham Island by pupils of Kairakau School, Chatham Island (MSZ-1385), now held in the Alexander Turnbull Library’s Manuscripts collection.

Page from the book, describing education of Māori on the island and showing an illustration of the school as it looked in 1912.
Drawing of Te Kairakau School, page 128.

The book was judged the winner of the Primary School section with the Minister of Internal Affairs, Mr W E Parry saying it was ‘outstanding among the many meritorious entries’. The School won £10 worth of books for its effort.

Cover of the book, showing the title, date, and some flora from the island.
The cover is made of suede and the drawing of the Chatham Island forget-me-not is done in gouache.

The school teacher at Kairakau School at the time was Basil Fairbrother, who arrived on the island in 1938 with his wife Mavyis and daughter Anne. Their son Ian was born while they were on the island.

Basil Fairbrother was obviously a highly motivated teacher. Under his tutelage the 44 children produced this 279 page volume, complete with descriptions, carefully printed by hand, of various aspects of life on the island.

Table of contents for the book, showing topics covered from the Moriori to law and order.
The Chatham Island table of contents.
Map of the Chatham Island with little icons showing animals and plants.
Map of the Chatham Island.

The written descriptions are accompanied by beautifully drawn illustrations, which are sometimes coloured or painted, and maps and graphs.

Illustrative page with drawings of Moriori houses.
Page 8.
Page about shellfish, showing an illustration of a man diving to collect them.
Page 16.
Page about tree carvings, showing drawn reproductions of several.
Page 26.
Page about motor vehicles, including illustrations of a farmer and a cart, and a new motor truck.
Page 159.

A particular feature are the botanical drawings.

Coloured illustration of a thistle.
Page 218.
Coloured illustrations of several plants.
Page 228.

Towards the end of the volume a number of pages are unfinished. Anne Fairbrother (now Owen) recalls her mother Mavyis staying up late sewing the pages into the book. Despite everyone’s efforts the book was unfinished – it had to make the next sailing from the island to meet the competition’s deadline.

As the document accompanying the book explains, following the competition the book was returned to the Chathams. Mr Fairbrother intended to complete the volume and took the book back to New Zealand in his personal luggage when his posting ended in 1940. Lucky indeed as the rest of their belongings were sent home on the ‘Holmwood’ and lost at sea after the ship was sunk by a German raider. Mr Fairbrother died soon after the family’s return to New Zealand, so the volume was never completed.

It stayed in the Fairbrother family until 2005 when Anne, now Anne Owen, and Judine Fairbrother, widow of Ian, donated it to the Library. Its recent digitisation makes it possible not only for the Chatham Islanders, but everyone, to enjoy it.

Page showing illustrations of more plants.
Page 234.

Check out the volume in its entirety.

Want to see more of the Chathams? Take a look at these photos, maps, and other images of the Chatham Islands.

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20 February 2015 2:00pm

The illustrations are stunning!