Oakeshott Family – Cherry Dingemans

Joyce Barry: Thank you for this wonderful turnout for Cherry. A lot of you will know Cherry; she’s very much a Hawke’s Bay girl … great girl, mother of four. One of those children has come with this amazing story, as well as Cherry knowing it. Everyone loves a back-story to their family as long as it doesn’t affect your own parents and it didn’t get into the front of truth; [chuckle] but nothing could have written the headlines that Cherry has to tell about her family. So welcome and over to you, Cherry.

Cherry: Thank you, Joyce. [Applause] Well, thank you to Joyce for inviting me. This is a great pleasure, and it’s lovely to see so many people that I know, including several people who did come to the Hawke’s Bay book launch of the book written about my grandparents, of that era. I’ll just do the little commercial now. This is my copy: ‘Radical Reformers and Respectable Rebels’, subtitled ‘How the Two Lives of Grace Oakeshott Defined an Era’, written by Jocelyn Robson. I’ll tell you more about Jocelyn Robson as we go along. It is available from Poppy’s Bookshop – they have copies available now.

I’m just going to start with reading you a brief obituary which was published in the Newnham College, Cambridge magazine many years ago. This was in 1892, and it reads, “Grace” … her name was Cash. “Grace Marion, née Oakeshott married 1897; educated Croydon High School and Newnham College 1892 – 1893.” Women weren’t allowed to graduate in those days so she only did two years at Cambridge. “Secretary of the Croydon High School; Secretary of the Technical Education Committee of Women’s Industrial Council; Investigator of conditions for women in skilled trades, and invited by the governors of the Borough Polytechnic to establish Trade Schools 1904; Inspector of Women’s Trade Classes under the London County Council 1905 – 1907; died 27th August” … nearly the anniversary … “1907 while swimming off the Brittany Coast.” That was published in the Newnham College Register, and there was also a death notice in The Times of London with similar information, August 1907. In October 1908 my father and a twin brother were born in Gisborne to the same woman. [Laughter]

Just to backtrack a little bit, I’m just going to tell you in the time that we’ve got, a little bit about my grandparents, but also this extraordinary story – it’s an equally extraordinary story – of how this book came to be written and about the quite amazing woman who wrote it. Jocelyn Robson has a background of academia, and some years ago she had recently retired from her teaching at university in London. But her particular interest had always been education of women and the history of education of women. And just for her own interest, she became interested in the early 20th century period when she discovered that these ‘Trade Training Schools for Girls’ as they were called, were being set up in London. And she researched this a little bit more and she found that the French were well ahead of the British in that in those days there was a lot of what they called ‘piecework’ [spells p-i-e-c-e-work] for young working-class women; things like making gloves by hand; making decorations for hats and millinery; and most of this work was done at home, often in very poor conditions with very poor lighting – candle-light very often – and not well paid at all. The French had already established these Trade Training Schools where the young working-class girls could go, learn their trade, and have better working conditions.

And Jocelyn became very interested in this period and found out that there were people in London particularly, who were behind a movement to establish something similar. And she came across the name of this woman, Grace Oakeshott; she kept coming across her name, and found that she was a member of the Fabian Socialist organisation, sort of early forerunners of the Labour Party. Her husband, Harold Oakeshott, was a very prominent member of the Fabians, and Grace and her two sisters – there were three girls in the family, one brother, Henry – they had all had tertiary education which was quite unusual in those days. They were all lower middle-class girls, [cough] but they had all had a tertiary education. Her other two sisters went on to be teachers; so they obviously had parents who believed very strongly in education of women. And as Jocelyn researched this, she became more interested in this character, Grace Oakeshott, and tried to find out as much about her as she could. She was using good old Aunty Google to find as much as possible, and suddenly one day she came across this death notice from the Times, and also these obituaries, that she had drowned while on holiday in France, in Arzon which is in the Gulf of Morbihan on the Brittany coast. And she thought, ‘Oh! That’s a shame; she died young – she was obviously a woman of great promise and strength and very interesting.” But she kept googling to find out as much about her as she could, and suddenly one day she came across a review of a play that had been written and produced and directed in New Zealand by a young woman called Sophie Dingemans, who claimed to be the great-granddaughter of Grace Oakeshott. And Jocelyn thought, “Well, if this is true”, [chuckles] “this is interesting.” And so she managed, by [cough] a lot of hard work, to get in touch with the theatre director of the company that produced the play, and got Sophie’s email; she asked him for permission to email which Sophie gave – she was very curious – and as a result she received this very long email from Jocelyn, explaining her interest and who she was and what her background was. And a few days later I got a copy of the email from my daughter who was then in Wellington, saying “OMG, Mum! You will never believe this!” [Laughter]

I’m going to backtrack a little bit now. When I was 23, many years ago, I was setting off for my OE to England, as you know, we all did in those days. People still do, although I gather it’s Berlin they tend to go to. And my father suddenly sat me down a week or two before I left, and said that dreaded phrase, “I have something to tell you.” [Laughter] And I thought, “Oh my goodness”, you know, “what’s coming?” And he explained to me, in quite embarrassed tones, that he felt I ought to know that his parents had actually … he didn’t use the phrase ‘run away together’, but that’s what he meant. His parents had left England rather quietly and come to New Zealand, and my grandfather, who was also a doctor, set up practice in Gisborne. I mean it could’ve been the moon in those days, being in Gisborne – it’s far away enough now isn’t it, getting to Gisborne? [Chuckles] Yeah. And he also had to tell me, which he found very difficult, that my grandmother was already married to somebody else, and that’s why they had to leave quietly and go as far away from England as possible. He didn’t tell me very much more because it was a subject that was quite a tender subject for him, and he didn’t find it very easy to talk about. I think there were several reasons; one was that he loved and respected his parents very much, and they were wonderful people; and they were much accepted and admired in both the community in Gisborne and in Havelock North, where they subsequently moved. And he thought it would be terrible if people found out … you know, that their reputation would be tarnished. And of course the other thing that he found rather difficult was that [cough] technically, in those days, he was a little bastard. [Laughter] And so were his siblings. And so he never really talked about it; he kept it rather close to his chest. But of course knowing that I was going to England, I would be spending time with his twin brother who of course knew the story, and I may meet other family members who knew the story, he wanted to tell me first.

My mother actually told me a little bit more … she was less sensitive about the topic. And she said, “How do you feel about it?” And I said, “Oh, I think it’s so romantic!” [Laughter] And she said, “Yes, I thought you’d think like that, but”, she said, “you know, Daddy doesn’t quite feel like that; I think you could understand.” She knew a little bit more about the situation but not very much. And it confirmed to me why it had been, while we were growing up as children, we knew a lot about my mother and her growing up, and where she grew up in England and came from a family of six, and we knew a lot about her family; her aunts and uncles, and grandparents, and where they lived and … Dad never really, except for his life growing up in Gisborne and in Havelock North, he didn’t really talk about other relatives. And if we asked about them, he often said, “Oh, oh, oh … I don’t know … not sure …” you know. And that made me realise why – he didn’t know much about them; he really didn’t know.

Many, many years later, we had told our children about this, and they just thought it was a fascinating story. But we did say to them, “Look, grandfather’s a bit sensitive about it, so you know, just be careful talking about it.” When my daughter was about ten, we were talking about it together around the kitchen table as you do, and she said, “Oh, that’s such a romantic story! I’m going to write a play about that when I’m older.” [Chuckle] And I thought, “Oh, yes …” you know. Well, many years later, after [cough] trying to make up her mind what she wanted to do, she finally went to university at the age of twenty-three, and whizzed through a BA in Film & Theatre at Victoria, and then decided to go to Auckland to do her Masters. And as part of her Masters she wrote the play. And a part of that, of course – she had to do a tremendous lot of research as far as we could go, not having met Jocelyn at this stage. The play was produced at the theatre at Auckland University theatre, and then it was picked up by two professional companies, one in Auckland and one in Wellington, and put on at the Basement Theatre in Auckland which is in Aotea Square, and again at BATS … anybody been to BATS in Wellington? Little theatre about the size of a mousehole; it’s wonderful. And she got very good reviews, and she was also nominated for the Chapman Tripp Award – she got third place or something, but you know, it was a great excitement for us. And of course she based the play on what she knew but there was some artistic licence; there were some characters; she did a lot of research about the period, because my grandmother was keeping company with people like H G Wells and Bernard Shaw, and many of those sort of prominent Fabians in that early part of the 20th century. And as I read in that obituary, she established Trade Training Schools and she then became the first Inspector for the Trade Training Schools.

Meanwhile, my grandfather who had been born in Canada to a missionary father, but sent off to England at the age of four to the missionary school, where they didn’t see their parents. The parents saw them ‘bout once every two years, if they made the lengthy trip from Canada to Britain to see their children. He went to Guy’s Hospital to study medicine, and by all accounts was an extremely able young doctor, and we have several testimonials that he was given before he left to go to New Zealand. And I understood from my father that if things had been different he probably would have gone on to specialise in surgery; that was his particular interest. But then – wham! He met my grandmother. [Chuckles]

Now we understand that they met through the Fabian Society, and that their families were linked by this organisation. And my grandmother was married to her husband, Harold Oakeshott, for twelve years; but during that time she met my grandfather, who was a little younger than her and extremely handsome – very dashing, very able young doctor. My mother always claimed that from what she gathered … from what she knew about Grace and her husband Harold, was that they had married for The Cause … for the Fabian Cause … and that the belief was that it was not a sexual relationship. Now who would know? We have no proof of that, [chuckles] except that they were married for twelve years and they had no children. Less than a year after running away with my grandfather she had twin sons, [chuckles] and then gave birth to a daughter. Harold then went on and remarried – bigamist! [Chuckles] And he had four children, so there seems to be some possible grain of truth in that suggestion.

So what did she do? She went on holiday to France with a group of friends, and she ‘drowned’, and a pile of clothes were found on the beach. What else we do know: Jocelyn was not able to find anything about recorded drownings on the beach in France; combed all the … you know, the old records and the old newspapers. But we do know that in the meantime they had booked a passage sailing from Marseille in France to Sydney, ‘cause you couldn’t go direct from France or England to New Zealand in those days; you had to go via Australia. And then they boarded the ship ‘Manuka’ in Sydney and sailed across to Wellington. In the meantime, my grandfather had been in touch with the right people in Wellington, so he would register to work as a doctor in New Zealand. And he received a number of very fine testimonials – I have a couple of them here. This is from W Hale White; this is from Guy’s Hospital, and he also worked at Harley Street, this chap.

“Mr Walter Reeve was my clinical assistant at Guy’s Hospital. I can say at once that I regard him as a man of exceptional ability. He is very much interested in all the branches of his profession; most thorough and careful in the performance of all his duties, and a man with whom it is extremely pleasant to work. He was often responsible for my patients in my absence and I always found he acted with exceptional judgement and tact. For all these reasons I can highly recommend him for a post in the Colonial Service, and I can only say that I should personally always be quite happy working with him, and feeling that any patients for whom I was responsible were being looked after by him in my absence.” And there are several testimonials, and I think they go a little more than just saying, you know, “He’s okay.” I think they did admire him.

So they arrived in Wellington and after a few weeks there they made their way to Gisborne, where my grandfather put up his plate, as you did in those days, and set up his practice. And of course, no car then; he went out with a horse and gig. They had a groom who looked after the horse and the gig, and off he went to see all his patients in Gisborne. And my father always talked of a very happy time in Gisborne – they lived there ’til he was ten.

Now during this time, Grace of course was not going to sit idle. Having been such a mover and shaker in England, she equally became a mover and shaker; and particularly her war work in Gisborne. And I’m not going to tell you too much about that because I hope you’ll read the book. [Chuckles] But she was awarded an MBE for her war work, and my father often used to say to us when he was reminiscing about her, “We hated the word ‘committee’ because mother was always going out to committees.” [Chuckles] We didn’t know what committees were, but they hated it.

My grandfather was very active in the community as well. In public life he was on the Cook Hospital … the Gisborne Hospital Board. And there was some terrible drama there to do with ‘The Matron’, who they had to try and get rid of, and there was a lot of medical politics around that – there’s a lot in old copies of the Gisborne Herald which has proved a very fruitful source of information.

When my father and his twin brother Colin were ten, the family decided to relocate to Havelock North, for various reasons – I think one was better access to schools and education for their children. Possibly another was that my grandmother eventually died of multiple sclerosis, and we don’t know when that was first diagnosed, but I wonder if in fact it was beginning to show up at that stage. And perhaps they felt that moving to Hawke’s Bay where there was a bigger hospital and a few more doctors – not like we have these days of course – not so far away. Because in those days, to get down to Hastings-Napier from Gisborne, you went by sea; didn’t go … well, if you overland it would take you many days, you know, with a horse-drawn cart – although my grandfather did have one of the first cars in Gisborne. He was quite ahead of his time in embracing technology.

Grace was less notable in public and community work in Hawke’s Bay, which also reinforces our belief that possibly her health was not as good as it had been. But she was still very active in the community. Interestingly enough, they were not part of the ‘Havelock Work’, which a number of you will know about and the interesting goings-on at Whare Ra. [Chuckles] And in fact, Dr Felkin of Whare Ra fame was the only doctor in Havelock North at that time. And my grandfather wrote to him out of courtesy to say he was planning to move to Havelock North, and did Dr Felkin have any objection. Dr Felkin was absolutely thrilled to bits, ‘cause apparently he just wanted to give up seeing sick people and practise his … whatevers … in the temple at Whare Ra. [Chuckles] I think he had a very few select patients who were part of the inner circle at Whare Ra, so I think it worked quite well for both of them. But my father’s attitude was just “… all those silly goings-on at Whare-Ra …”, [chuckles] and I think he probably got that from his parents. So they didn’t have any part of that, but they lived parallel lives to the people at Whare Ra. Hope I haven’t offended any descendants [laughter] of the Havelock Work and the Whare Ra people. Fascinating story.

So going back to Jocelyn and Sophie … they made this connection, and of course Sophie gave Jocelyn my emails and we began a communication. And Jocelyn now is a New Zealander, but she has lived all her adult life in England, and she lives in London. And she comes to New Zealand quite regularly, ‘cause she has a brother in Christchurch and she has a lot of friends here, and in Hawke’s Bay. She’s a very good friend of Pat Magill, who many of you will know of, in Napier. So she said she would like to come and meet me, and I invited her to stay with us. And so she arrived on [at] the airport in Napier. And I said to her, “I thought the first thing we’d do – we’d go and look at Grace’s grave, because she’s buried in the Havelock cemetery. And of course that was quite a moment, because there on the grave where I took her to, it’s got very little on it. It’s just got ‘Joan Leslie Reeve née Knight, and the date of her death. Mmm! So this woman who drowned in France, who was Grace Marion Oakeshott née Cash, popped up in Wellington as Joan Reeve née Knight. [Chuckles] Where she got the names from … they were quite creative.

There were other interesting things that these days you would never get away with because of communication and Aunty Google and all those other things, but Jocelyn discovered in looking at various things like birth certificates and other certificates that they did have with them, they weren’t very good about covering their traces because they tended to give different bits of information. So this document, which is my father’s birth certificate, says that the mother is Joan Leslie Reeve, formerly Knight, of Hackney, Middlesex, England – which is true, she did live in Hackney at that stage. But then it says, ‘When and Where Married’ – 19th of January, Branston, Yorkshire, England. I don’t think Branston is actually in Yorkshire. [Laughter] But on another document which Jocelyn traced, they’ve given their wedding place as somewhere quite different. And also, she plays a bit fast and loose with her age as well. She was a little bit older than my grandfather and at some stages, you know, she seems a little bit older than others. So she’s not quite sure, but Jocelyn I think has probably pinned the date of birth down fairly securely. Because I say, you couldn’t do it those days; and people always ask me, “But what about passports?” But you didn’t have them in those days – you didn’t need a passport. I think you had to have some sort of a travel document- does anybody know? They probably do, but – no passports, so of course you could do those things in those days.

So Jocelyn came to see me and we talked quite a lot about what she’d found out and what I knew, and the various little bits and pieces I had in the way of photographs and memorabilia; but not much from my father, more from his sister and his brother. Interestingly, Uncle Colin, my Dad’s twin brother – he went to the UK and also went to Cambridge and then joined the Air Force during the war. And he married an Englishwoman and he never came back to New Zealand until he retired, and he suddenly said, “I’m sick of English weather – I want to go back to New Zealand.” Having lived in England for forty years, he uprooted his family and brought them here, and happily died in New Zealand after all that time. His attitude was completely different. In fact, his daughter used to say to me, “Oh, Dad dines out on that story!” [Laughter] “We’re always hearing about it” – whereas my father kept it very close to his chest. My aunt was somewhere in between; I think she could sort of see both sides, so she was able to tell me quite a bit more, but they still didn’t have a lot of information about their forebears and their family and the extended family in England, and what their mother had done. I think they just didn’t talk about it because they were very anxious they might get tracked down.

Now, one of the interesting things … and I’ll get you to have a look at this photo … but one of the photos that I acquired was my … my grandparents enjoyed sailing, and this photo here is of my rather dashing, handsome grandfather wearing a little hat … looks like a pirate … and my rather pretty grandmother there. And we always used to look at this photo (that you can’t see, I realise, but I’ll pass it around) – this rather grumpy looking man in the middle who’s actually got his hand on the tiller; and we used to say, “Oh, that’s probably Harold – he looks really grumpy.” It turns out that it is. [Laughter] Apparently, you know, the three of them with other friends would go sailing quite a lot down in the south of England and on the Norfolk Broads, so I think that’s obviously where the relationship began to develop. But of course we, knowing that Harold had remarried and had four children, we thought, ‘poor old Harold; he committed bigamy unwittingly.’ Not so, according to Jocelyn. [Chuckles] She discovered, by absolute extraordinary coincidence through her digging and research, that a granddaughter of Harold’s lived very near Jocelyn in North London. Jocelyn lives in Muswell Hill. And so she contacted this woman and explained who she was and why she was interested, and thinking, ‘ooh’, you know, ‘she might not want to talk about this.’ But luckily this woman was very interested in the whole story herself, though it wasn’t her grandmother, but it was her grandfather. And having been, you know, abandoned, and … So she found a great deal out from this woman, but then discovered through talking to her and other family members, that in fact Harold did know all along, and that we suspect it was actually … the Fabian group sort of closed ranks to protect the reputation when it was obvious that Grace and Walter were going to take off together, that seemed to be the only solution – go to far away New Zealand. They’d closed ranks around them to protect the reputation of Harold; of Grace … drowning her … my grandfather, and the Fabian community generally; and that Harold probably was in on the whole plot. So, lo and behold, he committed bigamy knowingly. [Laughter] It gets more and more curious, doesn’t it? That is probably about the guts of the story. I have a few props here with me that you’re very welcome to have a little wander round, and ask me any questions.

I do want to show you this – this is one of the posters that was produced for the play, and where it’s got ‘London, 1907’ – ‘Grace was my great grandmother. She faked her own death by drowning.’ [Chuckles] And then in the longer advertisement it had, ‘What would you do for love?’ [Laughter] And though my daughter didn’t act in the play, she wrote and directed it; but that … actually she did pose for that photo. That’s my beautiful daughter’s back. [Chuckles]

Joyce: Questions, please … there must be some.

Question: Did your father know about this – was he around still?

Cherry: No, he died ten years ago. And my daughter was in the process of researching the play at that stage, and she used to have these sort of … ‘pumping him gently’ conversations with him. ‘Course he was rather flattered about this, and he would say to me, “Oh, Sophie’s very interested in, you know, my parents?” And “isn’t that nice?” [Chuckles] And eventually she told him. He said, “But why are you so interested?” And she said, “Well” … she took a deep breath … “Grandfather, I’m writing a play about them.” And he said to me one day, “Sophie’s writing a play!” And I said, “Yes, that’s lovely, isn’t it?” … thinking ooh, oh! [Chuckles] And he said, “About my parents”, and I said, “Yes, isn’t that lovely?” “Well”, he said, “Of course, my parents were married in England before I left and came to New Zealand.” [Laughter] “Come on, Dad!” [Laughter] He sort of pretended, you know, and I think he’d forgotten at that stage that he’d actually told me and I knew quite a lot about it. So I always wonder – he was very frail at that stage, and the play wasn’t produced professionally ‘til about a year later, and I always wonder – and I mean, we would’ve taken him. I just wonder what he would’ve made of it. But it was quite an interesting moment.

Joyce: Any more questions?

Question: Cherry, I haven’t read the book yet; I’m still waiting. Margaret’s read it – she can’t be here tonight – and she asked me to ask you, did you think that she really did swim out to sea in France and be picked up on [by] a boat, or did they do the more practical thing – spreading out the clothes on the beach and then disappearing?

Cherry: I don’t know. We don’t know; nobody knows. As I said, when Jocelyn did her research trip to France there was very little information, you know – there wasn’t even a … ‘Oh, you know, Terrible Drowning off the Coast of …’ I’ve been to the beach, by the way. So we don’t know that, Paddy, it’s a mystery. I would suspect maybe, that she had some spare clothes she dropped on the beach and then quietly [chuckles] drifted away into Marseille. I have swum there. We went there on holiday to France several years ago with one of my sons and his family, and when he looked up the map he said, “We’re not too far from there, Mum – shall we go and have a look?” So we drove out there, and it was a nice beach – you could see why people found it [a] good place for a holiday. So I went for a memorial swim. [Laughter] It was very cold. [Chuckles] And my son said, “Make sure you come back!” [Laughter] And about two years later Sophie, who now lives in France, was travelling through France with my brother and his wife, and they went there as well; put it on their … And so they had a little ceremony; they sat on the beach at sunset and they lit a candle and Sophie had a spare copy of her script, so they dug a hole and buried it in the sand. [Laughter] Probably got washed up at some stage, by some astounded person.

Joyce: Any more questions? They’re totally satisfied, Cherry. [Chuckle] Can’t you tell that Cherry is a speech therapist?  Beautiful diction.

Cherry: Teacher of the deaf, actually.

Joyce: I’m going to have a wonderful round of applause for Cherry. [Applause] That was fantastic; you don’t realise what talent you’ve got – well, we do.

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Landmarks Talk 9 August 2016

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