Wellington District Police FB page – 05 Jul 2020
A mixed bag of medals, some named and some not, were recovered during a recent police operation in Lower Hutt. These were posted on the Wellington District Police website in the hope an owner would come forward to claim them. In the absence of an owner, I undertook to look for descendants of two of the First World War medals, both British War Medals, 1914/18 (the two without ribbons in the front row medal pic below), named to New Zealand Expeditionary Force soldiers Thomas PRESTON and Keith Gordon THOMSON.
MRNZ is pleased to report the descendant family of Keith Gordon Thomson has been found and that this, the second of the two medals posted on the Wellington District Police website, will be claimed by a descendant in the near future.
56380 ~ KEITH GORDON THOMSON
Francis Duncan THOMSON (1849-1948), was a Scot who originated from Jerusalem, Pencaitland in the Scottish county of East Lothian. The eldest of 11 children, eight of whom survived beyond infancy, Duncan’s father was a Coal Pit Engineman (operator of a coal pit engine that pulled the loaded trucks to the surface) at a nearby coal mine. Duncan once he left school was employed a Farm Labourer. On 27 July 1973, Duncan (25) left his home in Argyleshire and emigrated to New Zealand aboard the sailing ship Hydaspes which arrived at Auckland on 19 October. The Assisted Immigrant’s fare for Duncan was a total of £14 (NZ Pounds) or $28.00. He paid £4 in cash and another £8 in promissory notes. The Government component was £2.oo which they paid. Duncan disembarked at Wellington and soon fo8und lodgings in Te Aro. In June 1884, he married a twenty year old Scottish lass from Clyde in Lanark whom he had met in Wellington. Elizabeth “Bessie” WILKINSON (1864-1941) had immigrated with her parents and four siblings as a 10 year old, aboard the Conflict that arrived in Wellington on 3 Aug 1874, eleven months after Duncan arrived.
Duncan and Bessie initially lived in Te Aro, one of the first areas to be settled in what became Wellington City. The Te Aro Flats (flat land) were known as the ‘commercial quarter’ (the other, the Thorndon Flats was the ‘official quarter’). Te Aro occupies the southern waterfront part of the city that extends to the Mt Cook suburb in the south and fans out to the west and north-west of Te Papa Museum. This was where the Thomson’s began their family of seven. The first three children were born in Wellington were: Francis John Thomson (1886-1964), George Ronald Thomson (1888-1964), Jeannie Henderson Thomson (1890-1967), and Ruby May Thomson (1892-1969). Around 1900, Duncan moved his wife and young family north to the fertile Kapiti Coast, settling them at Otaki to begin farming. Three further children were born at Otaki – Keith Gordon Thomson (1894-1965), Elsie Margery Thomson (1897-1994) and Malcolm Graham Thomson (1902-1965).
Early days – Wellington & Manawatu
Keith Thomson was five years old when he started at the Te Aro (Infants) School in Wellington, on 14 April 1899. The first six months of school life he lived with his maternal grandfather Mr Wilkinson at 244A Willis Street, Wellington, until joining his family at Otaki in August. His primary education started at the Otaki School in Oct 1899 through to March 1907 when the land Duncan Thomson’s had leased to farm, was sold. Duncan then moved his family 80 kilometers north to Bunnythorpe in rural Manawatu, around 10 kilometers north of Palmerston North. Keith attended the Bunnythorpe School (opened 1883) from April to December 1907 before commencing his secondary education at Palmerston North High School.
Established as a co-education school in 1902, Palmerston North High School was the first secondary school in the city, later split into Palmerston North Boys’ High School [PNBHS] and Palmerston North Girls’ High School. PNBHS remained in the original high school building whilst the PNBGS was built on the other side of the city in Fitzherbert Avenue. Whilst at PNBHS, Keith and some of his brothers would possibly have undertaken compulsory military training for males that was established in most of the larger secondary schools from 1910.
Junior Cadets (12-14yrs) lasted from 1910-1912 only then abolished due to public pressure. The majority were Senior Cadets (14-18yrs) which fed into General Training Section (18-20) once boys left school, and then into the Reserve (21 to 30yrs). Senior Cadets were the mainstay of the secondary school cadet units. Some 25,332 Senior Cadets were in NZ schools as at 01 April 1914, many volunteering to serve as soon as they were of age, 20 years being the minimum age to serve overseas. Underage service, while not prolific, did occur, but most were detected and promptly returned to NZ. The youngest NZEF soldier in WW1 was just 13 years and 8 months, AND managed to remain overseas from the time he landed at Gallipoli! The school cadets system lasted until around 1970 when National Service became the forum for citizen military training, having superseded the Compulsory Military Training (CMT) system that ran from 1950-1959.
Once Keith left high school, he more than likely joined his brothers on the Bunnythorpe farm. The Thomson’s remained at Bunnythorpe for about five years before moving north to another farm property that was south of Auckland at Bombay. Keith transferred his territorial interests to the 1st Auckland (Countess of Ranfurly’s Own) Battalion, one of two territorial units that formed the basis of the Auckland Regiment, the other being the Northland Regiment.
Keith and his elder brother Francis were the only two Thomson brothers to be listed for war service. Having turned 20 years of age on 12 April 1914 which was the minimum age for overseas service, Keith eagerness to go was reflected in the fact he was a volunteer. His preference was for the Medical Corps and the Field Ambulance however as happened, he wound up in the Infantry. Accordingly, he was listed on the 1916 First Division Roll meaning he would most likely be required for duty within the following 12 months. Francis on the other hand being nine years older was well age qualified (and also married). Given that the priority for service overseas was for single men, Francis had been balloted but was placed on the 1917 Reserve Roll, to be called-up if required. It was his good luck that he was not called up by the time the war ended in November 1918.
The Auckland Regiment
In the Auckland District there were in existence four Infantry Regiments: the 3rd (Auckland), 6th (Hauraki), 15th (North Auckland), and 16th (Waikato). Each of these Regiments provided a Company, and also certain specialists, to form the Battalion for service overseas. Each company retained the name and cap badge of its parent territorial regiment.
Thirteen days after Keith Thomson’s 20th birthday, the Gallipoli Landings at Anzac Cove had been launched thereby generating an automatic need for reinforcement soldiers to be trained in unprecedented numbers. Up until that time, Keith had been undertaking part-time territorial training with 3rd (Auckland) Regiment, learning the basics of military life as an Infantryman. His call-up for overseas service with New Zealand Expeditionary Force duly arrived at Bombay in late 1916.
56380 Private Keith Gordon Thomson was enlisted with the 29th Reinforcement draft of the now combined battalions of the Auckland Infantry Regiment. He reported to Trentham Camp on 22 February 1917 and was passed as physically fit in all respects, four weeks short of his 23rd birthday. The next 12 weeks were spent at the Featherston Military Training Camp that had opened in January 1916 to train all Infantry and Mounted reinforcements. Following a brief home leave at the conclusion of training, Pte. Thomson learned he was to be made a Temporary Lance Corporal which would take effect from the date of embarkation. This temporary promotion was common practice for suitable men who had demonstrated an ability to supervise men during their training. The promotion required these NCOs to be onboard supervisors of the rank and file soldiers during the troopship’s voyage to England.
L/Cpl. Thomson and the 29th Reinforcements were embarked on to HMNZT 91 Mokia at Wellington’s Queens Wharf on 13 August 1917, and set sail for Glasgow, Scotland. Because of the large number of Allied troop ships ferrying soldiers to England prior to going to France, most of the major ports in England and Scotland were used to land troops that arrived from all of the various contributing countries of the British Empire. The 29th disembarked at Glasgow and entrained to Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire in southern England. This was the location of the NZEF’s training camp depot, known as Sling Camp. Here all New Zealand soldiers would would concentrate, the Infantry to train on the Salisbury Plain while other Corps personnel such as Engineers, Artillery, Signals, Medical etc were transported to separate training depots that had been setup in British military camps around England. The training was aimed at preparing them for battle before they were deployed to France, and the front line.
Battalions to Brigades
In March 1916, the post-Gallipoli re-organisation of the New Zealand Infantry Brigade (separate from the NZ Rifle Brigade formed in 1915, but also an infantry formation), an additional battalion was added to each of the existing four Regiments. The increased numbers would allow the formation of a 3rd Infantry Brigade to be created, thus bring NZ’s troop contribution up to the strength of a Division (about 15,000). This would give commanders better options on the battlefield when combined with the two Australian Divisions. The NZ Division now looked like this: three three Infantry Brigades – the 1st and 2nd Brigades comprised a battalion from Auckland, Wellington, Canterbury and Otago, in each brigade. The 3rd Brigade was the original NZ Rifle Brigade, with its four Rifle Battalions – no change here, with the exception of a name change.
Thus, the original Auckland Battalion that arrived at Gallipoli, had now been split in two – the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the Auckland Infantry Regiment (expressed as 1/AIR and 2/AIR). When referred to collectively, the Auckland battalions comprised the Auckland Infantry Regiment. Similar re-organisations occurred with the Wellington, Canterbury and Otago battalions.
On 28 October 1917, the 29th Reinforcements embarked for the NZ Base Depot at the Etaples in France. Two weeks later on 11 November, L/Cpl. Thomson had been allocated to the 2nd Battalion (2/AIR) and joined his unit in the Field. Somewhat unusually he retained his temporary rank of L/Cpl. It was usual for NCOs who were appointed for supervisory duties during the voyage to England, and possibly for the period of training at Sling, to relinquish that rank on arrival or prior to going to the front as they generally did not have the necessary training or experience required for the battlefield. L/Cpl. Thomson must have proven himself in some essential respects as he retained the rank indefinitely. This was perhaps also understandable given the urgency of need for reinforcements with very little time available for selection and training of NCO’s before deployment. Formalised training for NCOs was attended as and when time permitted. In the case of the 29th Reinforcements, what would normally have been anything from 8-12 weeks of training at Sling Camp, had been slashed to barely six weeks before these men would be required at the front line.
L/Cpl. Thomson joined his unit, the 2nd Battalion AIR in the field on 11 Nov 1917. The NZ Brigade at this time was in the Fleurbaix sector. The cold was intense, and the enemy only moderately quiet. The main occupation was shooting hares, a sport which was enthusiastically pursued at considerable risk, not only to the hares, but also to anyone that happened to be within a few hundred yards. Rifle bullets ricocheted off the frozen ground in all directions. Fleurbaix itself had for a very long not had any attention from f the enemy artillery, although early on in the war considerable damage had been done. Towards the end of January, Fleurbaix once more became a target of interest with regular shelling, the fear among the Allies that the Germans were about to hit them with gas.
Back to the ranks
The difference between the responsibilities of an NCO in a peacetime or training environment, and those for an NCO on the battlefield, are poles apart and a burden many newly appointed NCOs struggled handle. Why exactly L/Cpl. Thomson relinquished his rank (at his own request) is unclear – he reverted to being a Private riflemen back in the ranks. History tells us this was not an unusual situation. NCO’s at all rank levels frequently found themselves out of their depth both in battlefield situations either from a lack of experience, training or sheer fear. Everyone’s experience was different so the effect on any given soldier was unpredictable. Whilst a number of new NCOs had the benefit of training at one of the NCO training schools in France, a proportion did not, and more so as the tempo of the war increased. There was also the distinct possibility that an NCO could alienate his colleagues, even be be reviled and/or isolated because of either a heavy handed approach, or equally as bad, an indecisive one when the shells were flying. These perceptions often caused an NCO to opt for a return to being a private soldier rather getting off-side with their mates. Conversely, some NCOs found they would rather have the camaraderie of their mates, doing what they were rather than having to tell them what to do. Besides, all a man had to do was do what he was told – all care and no responsibility being their particular comfort zone.
Pte. Thomson remained with 2/AIR throughout 1918. As he settled into his work during this next phase of the war, his experience of managing horse teams at Bunnythorpe stood Pte. Thomson in good stead for a move to the Battalion’s Transport Section mid year. Here he also gained useful experience driving motorised supply vehicles (terrain permitting). The winters proved to be particularly treacherous for vehicles as well as horse drawn traffic, mud and shell holes being a constant source of danger for rollovers of vehicles, or animals becoming stuck or swallowed by the mud of shell holes.
After the Armistice came in to effect from 11 Nov 1918, the operational pace slowed although there was a massive amount still to do, particularly for those in the transport and logistics fields. While Pte. Thomson had relinquished his previous rank for whatever reason, he was amenable to his promotion to a full Corporal (Cpl.) on 15 Jan 1919. In March, Cpl. Thomson was afflicted was admitted to the 18th Stationary Hospital in Rouen for treatment and tests for another unspecified ailment. Transferred to England, Cpl. Thomson was admitted to Warlington Military Hospital where he remained until the end of May. Discharged from Warlington on 28 May, he was dispatched to NZ Discharge Depot at Torquay (southern English coast) preparation to return home and to enjoy some well earned Rest & Recuperation time.
Return to NZ
The SS Cordoba left Plymouth on 18 July for Auckland, but not without a number of evolving cases of “Spanish Influenza.” Thousands of others around the world had been bought down by this world-wide pandemic virus during the winter of 1918 resulting in the deaths of many thousands. Fortunately, Cpl.Thomson’s bout of the flu was not severe and he was released from the ship’s hospital after two weeks of confinement. The Cordoba arrived at Auckland on the 2nd of October, Keith giving his parent’s home address at 67 Epsom Avenue, Mt Eden as his intended destination after the war. It would take another four weeks of administration, final medical clearances and the return of those Army issued items he was permitted to keep for the voyage only, before Keith was officially discharged from NZEF on 29 October, 1919.
Keith Thomson was home for Christmas 1919 which must have been a great relief to him and his parents. He did not waste any time in finding a wife it would seem, marrying in Auckland just 12 months later, to 24 year old Edith Constance CRAFT (1895-1935). Edith was an English girl from Pimlico in London who had emigrated to Auckland on the RMS Athenic on 27 Sep 1920.
Keith and Edith moved to Palmerston North staying initially with Keith’s spinster sister Elsie at 102 Rangitikei Street. Keith settled into work as a Storekeeper (warehouse) and secured their own place two doors down from Elsie, at 98 Rangitikei Street by 1925. Keith had also quit his storekeeper’s job in favour of a driving job. Moving to Shannon briefly, Edith gave birth their only child and son, Basil Gordon Thomson while in Shannon. Nicknamed “Spuddy”, the wee lad was just six years old when he contracted pneumonia and pleurisy. He died at Palmerston North Hospital in October 1927.
Keith and Elsie had returned to Palmerston North, again staying with Keith’s sister Elsie, when Spuddy had been hospitalised. After Spuddy’s death, Edith was understandably distraught and so he decided to give away the driving job and seek work closer to home. Keith’s sister Elsie, a clerk for an insurance firm in Palmerston North, had sown the seeds of a possible career alternative which gave Keith pause for thought over his future. Elsie worked for the Australian Mutual Provident Society (AMP) in Palmerston North. Readers may recall the iconic tower building in Palmerston North’s Square, with its stepped top and the large “T & G” letters in black painted on it, dominating the Broadway Ave, N-E corner of the Square. Flanked by the Australasian Bank on the Square side and the Australian Mutual Provident (Insurance) Society (AMP) building on the Broadway Ave side, the T & G tower remains a landmark building to this day. Elsie’s connections ‘oiled the wheels’ which led to a job offer for Keith with AMP. The Thomson’s moved to 156 Broadway Avenue as Keith familiarised himself with insurance work.
In 1931, Keith was offered a position in Timaru so he and Edith moved to their new home at 52 Sefton Street. Insurance work seemed to suit Keith’s abilities and it wasn’t long before he was made Superintendent of the Timaru office. Following another localised move to 30 Craigie Street, Edith at this time began to experiencing shortness of breath and developed a chesty cough. Over the next couple of years Edith’s condition did not improve significantly as she was diagnosed with symptoms of “consumption” as it was then known, or Tuberculosis (TB) as the disease is now known. It was a common affliction during the years of the Great Depression (1929-1935) due in part to substandard housing insulation, community spread and less than ideal nutrition, making some personal constitutions more vulnerable than others. In the last 18 months of her illness, Edith’s health declined rapidly and she became confined to her bed. Terminal Pulmonary Tuberculosis sadly resulted in her death in September 1935 at the age of 40.
Posted & promoted
Keith Thomson must have been shattered having lost both of his immediate family members in the space of seven years. He stayed with AMP in Timaru after Edith’s death for about another three years, during which time he met Sadie NICHOLAS (1907-1992), one of the four daughters and two sons of Ashburton Bootmaker (and later Auctioneer), John James Trehair Nicholas and Sadie’s mother, Sarah. Sadie was a buyer for a drapery store who happened to be living in the same street as Keith at the time, he 186 Wai-iti Road and Sadie at the opposite end at No.1. Not long after their meeting, Keith was offered a position in Wellington together with a promotion to Insurance Inspector, which he accepted. Sadie also went to Wellington with Keith and were married at Island Bay on 25 May 1938. They initial lived at the Rutland Hotel until a house became available at 35 Puriri Steet in Miramar, their first home.
Once World War 2 ended, Keith was offered the Superintendent’s appointment of the AMP office at Wanganui which he accepted. Moving first to No.3 Line in S-E Wanganui, a couple of temporary moves while in Wanganui eventually saw them settle at 23 Peat Street, their home for the remainder of Keith’s career. Keith retired from the insurance industry around 1960 at the age of 65.
Keith Gordon Thomson died of heart failure on 30 October 1965, at the age of 71 years. He was cremated, his ashes scattered and commemorated only with a Rose bush in the Wanganui Public Cemetery. Ironically his youngest brother Malcolm died two weeks after Keith as a result of the same heart related problems Keith had been beset with. Sadie did not re-marry, preferring to remain a widow on her own for the next 27 years at the same address until residential care became necessary. Sadie Thomson died in Wanganui on 18 April 1992 at the grand old age of 97 years.
Medals: British War Medal, 1914/18 and Victory Medal
Service Overseas: 2 years 50 days
Total NZEF Service: 2 years 250 days
Thomson ancestral trail
My search for Keith Thomson’s descendants began with an Ancestry tree which appeared to offer credible evidence of accuracy and so I sent my query to the author. The Thomson family tree I had located that contained Keith Thomson was quite extensive however to isolate the living it was necessary to gets some personal direction. Colleen Hira was the tree’s author whose great-grandfather Thomas Dodds THOMSON (1861-1933) of Hawera, was the brother of Keith Thomson’s father Francis Duncan Thomson. To my great delight Colleen was also a mine of information and photographs. Not only had she studied the Thomson family in considerable depth but she and her cousin Deb Lindsay have written an extensive history of the Thomson family, calling their book “Builders, Bakers and Lawbreakers.” Colleen most generously sent me a descendant report of Keith Thomson’s family from his father Francis Duncan, onwards. Colleen also provided the text from their book that related to Keith Thomson which I have paraphrased and integrated with the text of this post. The excellent photographs of Keith in this post were also provided by Colleen. Finally, Colleen was also able to provide me with a directional steer towards a living descendant in Christchurch her cousin had been in semi-regular contact with some years ago.
Helen Hamlin (nee Geddes) was also a tree author of one of my queries. Recently retired, Helen has since ‘discovered’ genealogy and spends a good deal of time on hers so was quite current with the living family members. Fortunately for me Helen turned out to be the first cousin, once removed, of Jean Mary GRETTON, the wife of John Raymond Thomson (NZ Clay Target shooting champion 1963-1990, and Hall of Famer 2009). John was Keith Thomson’s nephew and son of his eldest brother, John Francis Thomson. Helen recalled fond memories of visiting her uncle John R. Thomson’s farm in the holidays. She had lost touch with that side of the family however was in touch with her cousin, Leigh Gretton, who had been in regular contact with a Christchurch descendant, Keith’s nephew and son of his eldest brother, John Raymond Thomson – Daryll Thomson. Helen would try and locate his contact details for me.
With both Collen and Helen’s information to work from I was able to trace Daryll, a retired computer programmer, myself by locating the FaceBook page of his wife, Dr. Barbara M. Thomson (nee Oulaghan), a retired ESR scientist. I contacted Daryll and once he was able to confirm his ancestral connection to the Thomson family, the wheels were placed in motion for him to claim the medal of his late uncle, Cpl. Keith Gordon Thomson.
Thanks to all those FB readers of the Medals Reunited NZ FaceBook page who alerted me to the medals posted on the Wellington District Police webpage. Your help is always appreciated as it is impossible for me to be across every webpage that contains medals that need to be reunited with families.
My particular thanks to Collen Hira for her generosity in making available the text from her and cousin Deb Lindsay’s book, and for copies of photographs of Keith that appear above. Photos of the subject are usually the hardest of references to obtain as so few exist in many cases. Helen Hamlin’s assistance and offer of contact information together with a copy of her family’s webpage was also most useful in isolating the available descendant lines I needed to follow, and for those I am most grateful to Helen.
The reunited medal tally is now 415.