REGINALD WILLIAM KIRK – A Wellington builder renovation leads to the discovery of a West Otago soldier’s war service medals.

29923 – REGINALD WILLIAM KIRK    

It is rare enough today to find a WW1 ‘Certificate of Services in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force’ but to see one in almost pristine condition after its discovery in a vacant garage almost 100 years since it was issued, is even more rare.  Such was the case for Tony H., a Wellington builder contracted to renovate and extend a hillside garage and basement.

The property that Tony was to work on was unoccupied at the time and the intended owners had wanted the basement garage enlarged and renovated before they took possession.  In the course of preparing the garage Tony discovered a large, grubby looking oak picture frame which had obviously lain in the garage for a considerable time.  Tony could see through the murky glass that the frame contained a barely readable certificate along with two medals embedded into a cardboard surround.

 

 

 

 

 

The framing paper on the back had also disintegrated and the tacks that had been holding the rigid cardboard backing into the frame had rusted away.  This exposed the side and one end of the contents to the open air, plus the affects of condensation, moisture damage and accumulated grit and dust under the glass was also evident.  Tony decided to hold on to his find with the thought that he would possibly try and return it to the owners family when he had the chance.  That was in 2005 and as happens life and work gets in the way and good intentions can easily be forgotten in the face of competing priorities.

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In June 2017 the value of free advertising as a result of a recent appearance on TV1’s “Good Sorts” programme hosted by Haydn Jones, came to the fore and spurred Tony into action.  Remembering his find in 2005 he contact me to identify the contents and for help to find a connection to the owners family to return the certificate and medals.

When Tony’s package at MRNZ, as I pulled it out of the packaging the backing fell away from the frame revealing a “Certificate of Services in the New Zealand Expeditionary Forces” named to 29923 L/ Sergt. Reginald William Kirk.  Also set into a custom shaped matt that surrounded the certificate I could identify a British War Medal (heavily tarnished) and Victory Medal.  The frame was suffering from obvious years of neglect and exposure in the dank conditions it was found in as was the glass which appeared to be etched by its exposure to some sort of corrosive dusting.  I carefully separated all parts of the construction and set about cleaning them, renewing the glass and reviving the frame.

The NZEF “Certificate of Services” was awarded to all WW1 servicemen and women (or their next of kin) whom had served with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force overseas.  It was awarded after the war as a token of the NZ government’s gratitude for their service, on behalf of the Crown.  The Certificate was inscribed with the persons number, rank and name, where and when they had served, and the medals they had been awarded.  The Certificate was signed by the Governor General of the day – Lord Liverpool, and the then Minister of Defence, Adelaide born Mr James Allan. 

Considering its age and the location it had been found in the contents of the frame were in remarkably good original condition, unaffected by the condensation which had occurred under the glass, and the colouring on the Certificate was still strong, no doubt also due to the milky/etched surface of the glass which had had the effect of filtering light and therefore protecting it against fade.  The medals themselves whilst both heavily tarnished had only been lightly affected by moisture around their edges but were otherwise in good order. The silken ribbon on the British War Medal had rotted at the point of suspension but was still in place.  The Victory Medal fared much better and for all intents and purpose was still sound.

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The northern end of State Highway 90 in West Otago commences at Rae’s Junction which is roughly midway between Millers Flat (south of Roxburgh) and Gabriel’s Gully.  The road runs SW along the base of the Blue Mountains and terminates at Gore.   At the point the Highway is bisected by the Pomahaka River, the surrounding land was extensively farmed by numerous immigrant residents who had tried their luck at the goldfields of Gabriels Gully, had made good or failed, and when the gold ran out turned to that which they new best – farming.  The area is punctuated with numerous Scottish Gaelic location names – Roxburgh, Balcluth, Alexandra, Kelso, Clydevale, Outram and so forth, which bears testament to the area being settled by Scottish immigrant families and whose descendants still make up a large proportion of the Otago farming communities.    

About midway along Highway 90 just south of Tapanui were the two small rural communities of Kelso and Glenkenich which had been settled by immigrants in the mid 1850s.   

‘Kirk’ is quite a common surname in those parts as were the many singular christian named Kirks making it very difficult to distinguish one family from another since sons and daughters were invariably named after parents with no other distinction, save the name of the property they lived on – if it had one.

One such Kirk was ‘William Kirk, Jnr’ (1868-1933) who had been born at Kelso and married a local Tapanui lass Jane RUSSELL (1869-1950 ) in March 1893.  Alas this ‘Jane Russell’ was not destined for the silver screen like her American namesake however Jane and William Kirk like many of their Scottish neighbours, did raise a large and successful farming family on a property called ‘The Grange’

One of William and Jane’s sons, Reginald William Kirk born on 01 October 1895 at Glenkenich, was one of the 13 Kirk children born in the region and schooled at North Glenkenich School (no longer exists) which was roughly 10 kms SE of Kelso (10 kms north of Tapanui).  Kelso was a town historically subjected to flooding and has also now completely vanished as a result of the 1978 and 1980 floods which forced the town to be abandoned.  

By 1914 young Reg, then 19, had already made headway to established his own property south of the Pomahaka River at the southern end of Glenkenich.  Being of suitable age and ‘fighting fit’ Reg was just the sort of young man being enlisted for military service in 1915 to reinforce the NZEF ranks in Egypt following the costly Gallipoli campaign. 

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29923 Private Reginald William Kirk was drafted into the NZ Rifle Brigade and arrived at Trentham Camp in August 1916 for basic training.  On October 16, 1916 Pte. Kirk embarked with the 4th Battalion, NZRB as part of the 9th Reinforcements, for England.

Preparation for operations were made at Codford and Sling Camps until Pte Kirk deployed to Etaples, France in March 1917 and placed in the Model Platoon.  This Platoon was responsible for erecting and maintaining massive topographical models, some as big as a tennis court, of the land over which operations were to be conducted.  They were used by commanders for briefing their subordinate commanders so attention to detail was paramount to ensure they had a sound understanding of the ground formation, obstacles, threats and location of the enemy before they conducted their own reconnaissance and operations when they arrived on the battlefield.

Almost immediately after arriving Pte. Kirk was beset with sickness and hospitalised for nearly two and a half months  – mumps followed by bronchitis.  Such was his condition Pte. Kirk was evacuated to England on HMT Willochra. 

A bright note during his recovery in England was Reg’s promotion to Corporal in Nov 1917.  On Anzac Day (25 April) 1918  Cpl. Kirk finally joined his unit in the field in France.  Apart from a dose of influenza in mid May which sidelined him for a couple of weeks, Cpl. Kirk executed his duties as a Section Commander with little difficulty.  His capability for leading men was soon recognised with his promotion to Lance Sergeant on 26 August.   When engaged with the enemy on 30 Aug 1918 L/Sergt. Kirk was  wounded in action when a piece of shrapnel steel tore into his right knee.  He was evacuated to the 5th General Hospital in Rouen for three weeks and then back to England on the hospital ship HMHS Grantully Castle for admission to No. 1 NZ General Hospital, Brokenhurst at Walton-on-Thames.  A subsequent transfer to Hornchurch for rehabilitation and a period at the Convalescent Hospital at Codford ensured L/Sergt. Kirk’s knee would make a full recovery with no on-going debility.  L/Sergt. Kirk was discharged back to full duty in October 1918.

L/Sergt. Kirk must have had an enjoyable period of convalescence at Hornchurch as he had met and fallen in love with a young lass from the town of Stafford, Joyce Elizabeth HOLMES (1891-1970).  Reg and Joyve (known as Betty) decided to wed before returning to NZ  and so on 16 Dec 1918 at very historical Stafford Primitive Methodist Chapel, Reg and Betty were married.  Betty took lodgings in Seabrook Cottages on the High Street in Hornchurch where she could stay until Reg had completed his rehabilitation, and then his discharge medical and demobilization administration at Torqay.

L/Sergt. Reginald Kirk was discharged from 2NZEF in February 1919 and together with new wife Betty, the Kirks were readied for return to New Zealand on the RMS Tainui on 18 March 1919.   Once back in NZ, Reg and Betty headed back to West Otago and the Reg’s farm at Pomahaka where they resumed life and would soon start a family. 

Reg Kirk .. c1940

Reg Kirk was not finished with military service altogether – he re-enlisted for service in 1940 once WW2 had commenced and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant into 2NZEF for Home Service duties  only.  His age and prior knee wound precluded him from any further service overseas.  For his military service L/Sergt. Kirk was awarded the following:

Awards:         WW1 – British War Medal, 1914-18  and Victory Medal

                       WW2 – War Medal 1939-45, NZ War Service Medal 1939-45

Service Overseas:  2 years 198 days

Total WW1 Service:  2 years  334 days

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As I do for all items sent in for research, I first conducted a brief check of Reg Kirk’s military file and then traced his movements until his death in 1973 by using Electoral Rolls (ERs), obituaries, cemetery records and phone books.  This gave me an overall picture of Reg’s whereabouts, occupations and details of family.  The standout fact from this process was that by 1963 Reg (68) and Betty had given up their farm at Pomahaka, had moved to the Bay of Plenty and were living at Mt. Maunganui where Reg was listed as  the “Foreman Stevedore” at the Port of Tauranga.  Subsequent ERs confirmed that Reg was still working as a Stevedore in 1981 – at the age 86 !

Shortly thereafter Reg and Betty had left the Mount and re-located to Miramar, Wellington where they had retired, specifically at 74 Otaki Street, Miramar which I determined from cemetery records.  I was hoping that this would solve the question of where Tony had found the frame and so I checked it out with Google Earth.  As I looked at the house I could see that it was on a hill street and had a garage arrangement  in front that looked as if it could be extended back under the house.  My immediate thought was that this was very likely it and so went back to Tony with my findings.

Problem was when I asked Tony if he could recall the address where he had found the frame.  Too long ago and too many similar jobs said Tony  – he could not recall ever doing a job at that address.   As he had completed several similar contracts around Wellington all he could do for me was to tie down a period of time during which he had (possibly?) found the frame – between 2005 and 2008.  Tony went back through his records for this period and came up with a short list of five addresses where he had done garage/basement jobs scattered throughout Wellington.  One of these he said, might be where the frame had come from.  The addresses ranged from Owhiro Bay on Cook Strait in the south, to Tawa in the north – one of the addresses however was in Miramar !

Unfortunately 74 Otaki Street, Miramar was not on the list.  However I did note that Otaki Street was only two streets away from an address on the top of Tony’s list – 160 Totara Street.  I took a look at the house and those at the other addresses with Google Earth – predictably they all had under-house basement/garage extension setups and therefore all had the potential to be the address where Tony found the frame, so no real answers at that point. 

It was back to drawing board  – what I needed was a Reg Kirk family tree which would hopefully give me a clue to either finding a living descendant, preferably a child or grand child, (if indeed they had had any) and/or a link to Wellington, their last place of residence before passing away.  Of course it was always possible the frame had been owned by someone totally unconnected – maybe a 2nd hand shop purchase, or perhaps Reg, or wife Joyce, may have even have given the frame away by the time the Otaki Street house was vacated ?

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After I have completed the initial check of a soldier’s military file for basic details of a case, if no obvious surviving family connections are to be found I then start my in-depth study of a case by building a rudimentary family tree.  If I am lucky much time can be saved if there is an existing tree or trees to be found on-line, usually in Ancestry/Wiki or the like.  If not then I have to build one from scratch to ensure that the medals go to the correct descendants.  In Reg Kirk’s case there were no trees that contained him, Betty or any of his known family (which is fairly unusual).

My next check was the Electoral Rolls which initially appeared problematic as there were dozens of Kirks in West Otago who had the same or similar first names and whom had been engaged in farming from the 1860s through to the present – I was somewhat daunted by this prospect.  Fortunately I discovered Reg’s parents had remained on their Kelso farm,  ‘The Grange’ , all of their married lives.  Reg had recorded his father William as his next of kin. and ‘The Grange’ as his home address, on his enlistment application so at least I knew I had the correct Kirk family, albeit only his parents.  Given the duplication of first names and the number of Kirk farmers, farm labourers, and Kirk spinsters listed in the ERs it became impossible for me to tell who belonged to which family.

.. ready for re-assembly ..

To find out whether Reg and Betty had any children I first checked the Internal Affairs BDM records – there were no Kirk children recorded to these parents!  Back to the ERs – by following all entries that listed Reg and Betty’ I was eventually able to find one man living with them for a short period who proved to be a son – Renwick Reginald Kirk born in 1920, however no other records or names of children appeared, or even a marriage of their son Renwick was found. 

In preparing material in advance for each written post I write for the MRNZ website, I like to show a photograph of the subject person to give the reader someone to actually relate to.  For a photograph of Reg I turned to a Southland pictorial military history guru. Iain Davidson who owns the website: ‘WW1 Soldiers and Nurses of Southland’ and  ‘Unknown Soldiers of the NZEF’, to see if he could help with one.  Yes he could, a photograph and another breakthrough – his photographic database also contained a brief biography of each person – Reginald Kirk had a family ! 

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The bio showed Reg and Betty Kirk had had three children at Pomahaka/Kelso – Renwick Reginald (1920-2016), Noeline Elizabeth (1923-2000) and Russell Holmes (1925-1989).  The ERs also showed the boys had remained in the farmng industry – Renwick (ka Ren) a stock agent, and Russell a farmer labourer, carpenter and shearer.  Noeline Kirk had married Clifford Stuart CRAKER, a ship’s Superintendent/Purser with the Union Steam Ship Company.  Stuart was based in Wellington and after their marriage in 1955 Noeline and Stewart returned to Wellington where they bought a house together.  Their first and only home was – 160 Totara Road, Miramar !

Another breakthrough –  Noeline Elizabeth CRAKER, nee Kirk, Reg and Betty’s only daughter, had been living less than half a kilometer from her parents home in Otaki Street – it was now obvious that it must have been Noeline who had inherited the framed certificate and medals after Reg, Betty (or both) had died. 

Stuart Craker had pre-deceased Noeline; she had remained at 160 Totara Road until her death in 2000.  The house was then sold.  The frame sitting in the garage had clearly been overlooked when the house and contents were cleared after Noeline’s death and so had remained untouched …. until found by Tony in 2005.

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With details of Reg’s three children now in hand, it was a relatively short exercise to find direct Kirk descendant – I located Reg’s grandson, Ronald Boyd Kirk, the only child and son of Renwick Reginald Kirk.  Ron and Heather Kirk own and operate a joinery business in Mosgiel, Dunedin and when I called Ron to introduce myself and break the news of Tony’s find to him, to say Ron was lost for words would be an understatement.

.. refurbished,reassembled & ready to go ..

The framed  NZEF Certificate of Services and medals have now been couriered safely into Ron’s hands.

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A very well done to Tony H. for having the foresight to safeguard the frame and medals – thank you.  My thanks also to Iain and Allan for your assistance with photographs and their identification.

The reunited medal tally is now 138.

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