Early Memories

The Auckland Taneatua Express stopped at the Hopu Hopu Military Camp siding at about 11am on the 23rd of August 1940. A lone soldier, Sgt. Herbert (Bon) Ross of the Auckland East Coast Mounted Rifles boarded the train enroute to his brother Duncan’s wedding to be held in Tauranga. Herbert, who was called Bon or Bonny (being labelled with the insidious nickname by his parents), was to be Duncan’s Best man. The train eventually pulled into the Hamilton station and a very smart young woman boarded the train and took a seat at the end of the carriage and directly behind this lonely soldier.

To say that Bon, who had just turned 21 a couple of months before, was interested in this lady would be an understatement. Strenuous efforts to catch a glimpse of her reflection in the window every time the train passed a dark background increased Bon’s desire to make his lady’s acquaintance. But etiquette- protocol, or just good manners of the day prevented him from making a direct approach. But– a very fortunate but– in the form of a drunk Maori entered the carriage and subjected all and sundry to his tale of woe punctuated with numerous swear words. This gave Bon the opportunity to display his soldierly courage and offer to turn his seat around to face the young lady and so save her from the ranting of the drunken Maori. He even showed his courage by suggesting to the Maori man that he would be more appreciated somewhere else. The Maori went somewhere else and Bon was able to start up a conversation with the young lady. Conversation flowed freely and there was a mutual attraction. Elsie Jean Haggo was on the way to Tauranga and then by ferry to The Mount to stay with an uncle of hers. It eventually transpired that Elsie was going away for the weekend to make up her mind as to whether she would accept or refuse an offer of marriage from another man. Once again Bon resolved to save this lovely young lady from a fate that didn’t include him.

On arrival at Tauranga they went to a tearoom near the Regent Theatre to fill in time before the departure of the ferry to The Mount. This left less than an hour to try and establish the magical atmosphere that was developing but was still very fragile. Somehow Bon’s watch became 10 minutes slow and on arrival at the wharf they found that the ferry had left. This gave Bon nearly five hours until the next ferry left in which he was to establish sufficient rapport to put doubt in Elsie’s mind about accepting the proposal she had received. They walked and talked, went back to the tearooms and even to lounge of an Hotel, until they were told that it was after 6pm and as they were not guests they would have to leave.

The mutual attraction grew stronger and then both took the ferry to The Mount. Elsie Jean said that she felt that something would occur this weekend to influence her decision and meeting Bon had done just that. Bon’s first attempt to kiss Elsie was rebuffed but a further attempt was accepted and a light kiss was exchanged. Bon had no knowledge of great big open mouth gubfers that pass for kisses today. Unbeknown to him that simple innocent kiss probably sealed his fate. A gubfer would have sent Elsie running for cover and probably the other fellow. Bon went back to the farm in Omanawa and remembers telling his mother that he had found the girl he was going to marry.

Looking back it seems that life took on a deeper meaning from that day on. There was purpose, there was excitement, there was someone he intended spending the rest of his life with. Until then life had been just a matter of living one day to the next and the drudgery of farm life in those days didn’t give him any incentive to even dream of a rosy future, or any future for that matter. A very gauche Sgt. officiated as Best Man for his brother the next day but remembers very little of the occasion as his mind was somewhere else.

The following Monday saw both Elsie Jean and Bon catch the train in Tauranga for the trip back to Hamilton and Hopu Hoppu Military camp. Many a sweet kiss was exchanged in the tunnel between Waihi and Paeroa. A lot of talking confirmed that Elsie’s reply to her previous suitor would be in the negative. Three days later Bon got evening leave and went into Hamilton to see Elsie where he was warmly and lovingly received. Before long Bon asked Elsie to marry him and to his surprise she said YES.

Yes the writer is Bon. Yes my life had really started. Yes I could now look back on my life and beyond with a greater degree of interest and meaning. Yes Elsie Jean was and is the key to my life, giving it the ingredient so lacking in the past. No, life has not been easy for us but it has always been worthwhile and meaningful and it has always been Elsie Jean who has made it so.

These early memories are the ones that stick in my mind as I had a fairly lonely childhood . My two older brothers James and Duncan were sent to boarding school at the tender age of 6 and 5 respectively. First they went to Allahabad Boys High School until it was found that they had live boarders in their hair. They were then sent to Oak Grove School up in the Himalayas 1000 miles away from home and run by the East Indian Railway that employed my father. I, being 4 and 3 years younger was kept at home in Jamalpur and attended the local Railway Day school until I was 9 years old when I also went to Oak Grove school. More about this later on and back to my earlier memories that I was able to piece together. A lot of it was gleaned by listening to my parents talking.

My paternal grandfather Duncan Hamilton Ross was born in India, and married Mary Wilkinson aged – wait for it- 14 years. The really surprising part was that in spite of the lack of any sophisticated birth control methods; they had no children until Mary was 26 years old and then she had 8. Only 5 survived to maturity. Cecil, whom I received one of my names from, died aged 25. He had contacted Enteric, which eventually killed him. I never knew him but heard lots of stories about his feats of strength. The remaining 4 I got to know quite well, Malcolm married Teresa. He was a guard on the East Indian Railway. They had four children. Ivor, Noreen, Hector and Trevor. Next was Esther, who married George Darling. I’m not sure what he actually did, but he seemed to dabble in several things and referred to himself as an inventor. They had 2 daughters, Star and Grace. Next was Clan who married Henrietta, but she died before I was able to fit her into my memory. They had 5 children. Marie, Thelma, Theo, George and Vivian. Clan later married a French lady who was a widow. She was Mrs La Forchere. We called her Tantine. Clan was the Station Master of Howrah Railway Station. This was the main station for the Calcutta region and was a huge complex, catering for millions of travellers daily. The last member of that family was my father James George who married Gladys Winifred Brock, He was an electrical engineering charge-man working in the Jamalpur Railway workshops of the East Indian Railway.

Now back to Grandad Ross. He was an Indigo Planter somewhere out of the city of Jhansi. He was apparently quite wealthy but also addicted to drink. Army troops were commissioned to guard the crop just prior to and during harvesting. The troops were also used for guard duty during the processing and while the finished produce was transported to Calcutta by train. This was the only blue dye on the market until the German synthetic dye was produced. The availability of this new dye put Duncan Ross into bankruptcy almost overnight. He apparently had no reserves in cash having spent so much on liquor for himself and others. As he travelled back to Jhansi by train loaded with cash, in an alcoholic daze and with no guard to protect him, his money was often stolen from him. The jewellery he had bought his wife then had to be sold to keep them solvent, but that was the end of the lucrative business he had been able to run for many years. I never found out whether he had bought or leased the land he grew his crops on or what he did after his bankruptcy. However he died some time later in 1909 I am not aware of the time frame of the indigo planting venture. I seem to remember my grandmother Mary always living with us in Jamalpur and she died in 1926 when I was 7 years old. It seemed to me that she was always a semi-invalid and my parents would take her out for walks while she sat in a bathchair. This was a large basket type affair with a padded seat set on a three-wheeled frame, the front wheel being steered by the person in the chair by means of a long steel rod with a knob on the end. On occasions I was permitted to sit on the floor of the chair at my grandma’s feet.

One story my father often told about his father was concerning the rules at meal times. The whole family had to be seated at the table when the head of the house came to the table. Then all the children would have to stand while he took off his large belt and put it over the back of the chair. He then sat down and the children were permitted to do the same. Any member who came for the meal after this ritual had to go without the meal. Whether that person had to sit at the table and watch the others eat or go to another room was never explained. Neither was the reason for the removal of the belt explained. One can only guess that it was to allow for a greater consumption of food or as a threat to deter any misbehaviour. Grandma was the only blood grand parent I knew and I was never close to her nor do I remember any affection from her. She was always stern and often in bed. One incident I do remember was when we had a meal that Grandma found particularly tasty she would slip her false teeth into her handkerchief saying that she could taste the meal much better without her teeth. She died in 1926, and I was sent to Cudettis for the day. I was not told what all the fuss was about or why I had to go to someone else’s house. They had no young children at this place and I was left on my own. Becoming confused as to why I was there, I decided to walk home . When nearly there I was spotted by my father who took me to our neighbours the Gurnetts for the night. This was considered in my best interests as children had to be sheltered from the mysteries of death. I was taken home after the funeral and told that Grandma had gone to Heaven.

On my mother’s side records go back to 1821 when Charlotte Summers was born. Her parents were John Summers a Sgt. in the Artillery who married Elizabeth (no surname given). Charlotte was married in 1837 to Benjamin Brock when she was 16 years old. This couple had 6 children, three boys and three girls. Walter Harold Brock was the middle boy. He married Harriet Henrietta Wainwright. They had three children. Harold Edwin, Gladys Winifred, who was my mother, and Dorothy May who died aged seven months shortly after her father was killed by a tiger when he was only thirty seven years old. My mother was about two and a half years old at the time of the tragedy. Her mother Harriet remarried Herbert Tilsley a few years later and they had two children Bob and Evelyn. Harriet died when my mother was fifteen years old. My mother then had the responsibility of bringing up her half sister and brother who were then only three and four years old. My mother married my father when she was nineteen years old and my father was twenty five years old, in 1914.

– Bon Ross. 

This content has been reproduced from a document shared on email by Margaret Mohamed on March 09, 2015.


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