Thursday, January 27, 2011

ANCESTORS 10 – DEATH OF A SON...TRUE OR FALSE

HOW THE ANCESTORS CAME TO OZ

I was always especially close to  Grandmother Maggie.  Delving into her past has been an eerie experience; at times I’ve felt she has been guiding my thoughts, telling me which trail to follow, what to write.  

When I started this project I had no knowledge of her early life with Grandfather, the American from Indiana with the identity problem.  She never spoke of those early years, my cousins and I knew nothing about their life together in Fiji and New Zealand. 

 I wonder now, were those years perhaps too painful to remember...

This Ancestor series, necessarily condensed into blog size chapters has been marking time recounting just the one family member, Chas/Bert’s exploits.  Now, with this final NZ chapter  even more family secrets are exposed... 

NEW ZEALAND 1904

The  Brown Parker family has grown, Charles Andrew is born in the southern island city of Christchurch.  Maggie now has three children under the age of  four and is living a transient life in New Zealand with a husband who all too frequently changes his work description.

MAGGIE - WELLINGTON NZ 1903

Sydney born William Nelson Brown Parker -NZ 1903

 
Grandfather, the American with the double identity has moved his family further south to fresher fields where he is largely unknown.  Behind him in the North Island he has left a teetering reputation that hovers between the theatre, boxing, gymnasiums and increasingly, gambling.

Maggie and the children are now frequently left behind while he tours: Parked conveniently in rented houses or with obliging friends as Chas travels from one locality to another. 

In his wake he leaves a trail of newspaper clippings,  without these footprints from the past I would never have known the many chaotic facets of Life with Charles Nelson Brown-Parker.

oOo

STARTING HIS OWN THEATRE COMPANY


 
Chas has tasted the sweet smell of showbiz success.   He has seen at close hand the clever creation of theatrical performance by the masters Harry Rickard and Percy Dix, and now he feels if they can do it, so can he. With confidence and bravado he begins to put together his own touring company.

Two important ingredients he lacks; money and credibility:  But Grandfather has chutzpah aplenty and a silver tongue to match and it doesn’t take him long to find willing creditors amongst the business community of Dunedin. We find our first hint of the Net Ball Variety Company in a July 1904 edition of the New Zealand Free Lance.

Grandfather builds his stage show around a game of Net Ball played by two ‘five a side’ teams comprising ‘attractive young ladies wearing suitably brief and becoming costumes’.  A newspaper review describes the ‘young ladies infusing great dash and animation into their play, taking frequent falls with serenity and mirth, collaring their opponents with determination; using hands and heads to great advantage in something imitating the game of Rugby.'


 
The audience enjoys the performance; but while the net ball part of the show was a first for Dunedin, the concept elsewhere was not. The format had already been used to great advantage in Wellington by the girls of the J.C. Williamson Musical Company when they played a comic cricket match to raise funds for the Elingamite ship wreck fund. Used too in 1901 in Melbourne staging a mock female challenge between New South Wales and Victoria by the well known entrepreneur Harry Rickard who even went to the trouble of copywriting the act.

Grandfather's Net Ball stage show was a great success, initially. But then on August 17, 1904 just eleven days after the opening, a brief paragraph appeared in the Otago Witness that put not only the Company’s success in doubt, but also my concept of Maggie and ChasBert’s happy marriage.

AN UNACCOUNTABLE DEATH

A news item appears in the Otago Witness on August 17th announcing the death of Mr Brown Parker’s eldest son in Fiji.  I read and reread that brief paragraph and was stunned.  The death of their eldest son?  But my Uncle Bill certainly didn’t die as a child; he lived to a ripe old age, as my cousins Leota, Gloria and Barry could testify. 




Could the reporter have made a mistake? But that hardly seemed likely, after all the reference to Levuka couldn’t be associated with anyone else.


 
This was a child Grandmother’s surviving family, including me, knew nothing about, a bombshell I could scarcely believe. 

Within the tight timeframe there were only three possible explanations to mull over.  The first that Grandfather arrived in the South Pacific with a child from a former relationship... highly unlikely.  The second, they already had a child when they married in Levuka on the 14th June 1900... possible.  

The third I didn’t really want to believe...and yet I had to admit, ChasBert, after all wasn’t exactly a novice at the fibbing game.

The day to day working of the Net Ball Variety Company, ChasBert’s first solo production attempt I’m sure was more difficult than he first imagined.  We know he put the company together with financial help from a local ‘syndicate of influential businessmen’ who no doubt kept a close watch on their investment.  

Grandfather wouldn’t have had the resources nor the support of a Harry Rickards or the Dix company for instance; and if takings were poor and costs high he may have been looking for ways to do a runner and avoid or deter the inevitable debt collector. 

With Maggie already in Levuka he concocts a convenient death in the family, feeds it to the newspaper and makes the move further south to Invercargill.

Despicable I agree, but, if this was the case perhaps he was surviving under the maxim ‘desperate needs need desperate deeds’.

Another brief item in the gossip columns of September 1904 just a month after the ‘death’ of his son, however, reveals another good reason for Maggie to have taken the children, the three we knew about or the four there may have been,  and hightailed it back to Fiji and the comforts of home.

oOo

 
IS GRANDFATHER STRAYING?

Ever the publicity hound, Grandfather seeks and is gratified by the amount of press coverage he receives as he struggles to succeed in this first attempt at stage production.  But I can’t help wondering how he reacted when he sighted the brief few lines presented in the New Zealand Free Lance of September 10th 1904.


 
 I was puzzled by the journalists jargon in mentioning Chas ‘straying’ around New Zealand.  The words he used had a certain suggestive almost hidden agenda to them. If Chas was literally ‘straying’ around New Zealand as the journalist suggested then his liaisons may have been a poorly kept secret...especially from his wife.

 At the time I pondered but didn’t dwell on the reporter’s choice of words until my attention was later drawn to an internet Boxing site. 

Buried in the list of contenders and their bouts was a young New Zealand featherweight featuring in United States and Canadian bouts between 1924 and 1929.  The young man’s name was Bert Brown and his birth was listed in boxing records as Palmerston North, Wellington, on the 1st of January, 1905.

Immediately two old conversations sprang to mind; my mother recalling two young men visiting her father in Sydney before the war, and the impression they were his sons from a previous marriage or liason; then later my Aunt Viti, a few years after Mother’s death, confirming the story but adding only one of the boys was Grandfather's son.

Bert Brown, the young fighter, was interviewed in 1925 prior to leaving for Australia where he hoped to ‘try his luck’.  Later in 1929 he was reported losing a match to Bobby Delaney at the Opera House venue in Palmerston, North NZ.  With the young boxer in Australia at the time the sisters were between 12 and 17, it makes Rewa and Viti’s story all the more plausible.

 If this young man was ChasBert’s illegitimate son, then the boy turned out a better boxer than his father.  Out of 34 listed bouts he won 20, lost 11 and drew 3.

oOo

I wrote the following paragraphs months before either of these events surfaced.  I’ve left the content unchanged, my thoughts at the time curiously parallel the facts and possibilities we now have difficulty verifying.

... Dunedin enjoyed the net ball show but 1905 seems to have brought Chas Bert the showman back to earth with a decisive thud.  Maggie has returned home to Levuka for the birth of their fourth child, a son Robert Alfred. 

Chas doesn’t appear to have made the trip to Fiji with his young family and the birth register is signed by Robert Foreman storekeeper of Levuka; stepfather or half brother Robert we don’t know.

Has Maggie Brown Parker had enough?  Is she fed up with their constant moving from town to town, the upheaval of babies and toddlers; is she hankering for the warmth of Fiji and the ready and willing hands of unlimited baby sitters?  Perhaps she is: who wouldn’t be.  

Or is her absence because ChasBert’s philandering ways have become more public? Six months would pass before we sight him again in Greymouth, on the opposite side of New Zealand’s South Island, with Maggie apparently still in Fiji...

KOHUKOHU

These events did mark the approaching end of my grandparents sojourn in New Zealand.  Chas takes up a position as a compositor with a newspaper in the small, very small township of Kohukohu in the far north of New Zealand’s North Island.  Newspapers couldn’t resist reporting the move with a snide hint at his ever ready fists for hire.


 
Is it possible that Charles is now offering himself for sale to the highest bidder?  Has something been said during the interview to indicate the Kohukohu paper apart from needing a new man in the composing room is also in the market for a handy pair of fists?  Has ChasBert attracted a reputation around New Zealand as a ‘heavy’ who isn’t slow to hit back?

Street scene Kohukohu by Trish Fisk – building to left was once the newspaper office where Chas worked as foreman compositor.

Old photograph - Kohukohu 

This small sleepy part of New Zealand’s North Island probably wasn’t to Grandfather’s liking but I think it reminded Maggie of her home town, Levuka.  Small, but beautiful with lush foliage and a generous sweep of water.  A perfect place to rekindle a marriage.  A partnership that at that stage may have needed a great deal of rekindling.

Considering this is the first time we’ve seen ChasBert working in a normal occupation I imagine Grandmother has issued a gentle but firm ultimatum. 

My cousins, the Young family in Melbourne, provide another anecdote from their mother, Leota.  She remembers her father working in the Kohukohu newspaper and writing a column about comings and goings in the town.  According to Aunt Leota, Grandfather had her reporting back to him all the gossip she heard while attending the local school, useful grist for his mill.  A bit dodgy I would think, using a six year old as a primary source of information.

A DOWNSLIDE BEGINS

The next few years report no activity for the publicity conscious Chas.  Has he lost touch with his showbiz connections, opted instead for a quiet family life?  Another son, Bert Everett, is born in 1907 so perhaps domestic obligations have taken precedence over the glitz of the stage. 

There again, perhaps not...

Not surprisingly he does tire of life in the slow lane and the family move back to Wellington in the south.  But a return to ball punching, the occasional boxing match, a stint managing a moving picture theatre and the managing of yet another cycling troupe keeps the wolf from the door but doesn’t offer the riches and fame Grandfather really hankers after.

He makes one last attempt at running a gymnasium and athletic academy in Wanganui.  Business must have looked promising, over the next few months we find him spending a large amount of money on advertising. Grandfather has even splurged on a phone connection.  The telephone directory reads:

No. 382, Mr.C.Brown-Parker’s residence, Bell Street, Wanganui. 


 
Settled at last in a comfortable home complete with telephone, and a husband in an apparently successful business, Maggie must have felt on top of the world. 

I’m sure by now though,  she knew it couldn’t last. In most people’s lives four weeks would be of little consequence, but when it came to the highs and lows of ‘Life with Chas’ an awful lot could happen in just one month: as it did in October of 1909.


 
Leaving behind a trail of court appearances relating to gambling and non payment of debts, at  this point our treasure trove of New Zealand Papers Past news clips just about runs out.  On 4th December of 1909 Chas gives a final interview to a columnist on the New Zealand Free Lance in Wellington. 


 
The journalist conducting the interview makes a vain attempt to mimic and make fun of Charles' broad Yankee accent by way of exaggerated spelling. A crude few paragraphs, but revealing all too well my Grandfather's heavy American twang.

All in all it’s an unmemorable way for Chas to end his nearly ten years of New Zealand showbiz.
 
Chas and Maggie’s life in the Great South Land limps on for the next few months until it is finally left to a columnist in the Grey River Argus of 24th March 1910 to close the Brown-Parker’s New Zealand saga with the following press item from Australia.

Tellingly brief, it does little to explain the move, or detail their departure.

Brown Parker well known over here is now Manager of the new Brisbane Stadium.’

GOODBYE KIWI LAND HELLO OZ

My Grandmother’s patience, no doubt sorely tested in New Zealand, is about to be stretched to the limit when she experiences the highs and utter lows of ‘Life in Australia with Chas.’

New Zealanders though will have to wait five more years before they learn a few bitter home truths about the outwardly genial, but duplicitous, ball puncher and show biz entrepreneur from the United States of America, my grandfather Charles Nelson Brown Parker.


oOo

We leave the Brown Parkers in cyber space for a short while, its time now to look in on the Reluctant Travellers side of the family....

Next – A CHANGE OF PACE - THE DANISH CONNECTION

Robyn Mortimer ©2011