JAMES BAIN PYE TORBET – Grandad’s NZEF kitbag found at Tairua is returned to grandson.


Tairua RSA President Peter Weeks phoned me after having spoken with Whitianga’s  Mercury Bay RSA Support Advisor, Roger Beasley, who had told Peter of the work MRNZ does after he had sent a set of medals to me which had been found in a Whitianga charity shop (that story will be posted shortly).

Peter advised me that Neil S. of Tairua had handed him an old canvas kit-bag that Neil had acquired many years ago which he intended to make use.  But as we all know things tend to get stored in men’s sheds with good intentions of ‘getting around to’ doing something with them but often get forgotten, and so it was.  Neil had recently come across the grubby old bag and decided to spruce it up before deciding what to do with it.  He tossed the bag into washing machine and when it came out of the wash it was not only a light coloured (once white) canvas but also had stenciled initials, name and a service number on it, not previously noticed due to the amount of aged dirt on on the bag.  Neil immediately recognized it as being an old military item (number & name) and wondered perhaps if it could be returned to the family.  So Neil discussed it with Peter who, after his chat with Roger Beasley, new just who to send it to.  The kit-bag, along with another set of medals (another post in the making here to) duly arrived at MRNZ.


The white canvas kit-bag was stenciled in black ink with the following:  J. B. P. TORBET  – No. 81854    plus other incomplete labels:   . PLATOON .    . COMPANY .   &   .TH REINF S .  .  N  fernleaf  Z

Scotsman John Torbet was born in 1840 in Govan, Larnarkshire.  In 1880 he emigrated to Auckland, New Zealand where he met and married a fellow Glaswegian Jane Stevens PYE of Anderston, Glasgow, in November 1882.  The Torbets settled in Pollok, now in the Franklin area north of Auckland near the Manukau Heads, and started a modest farm and built the family home – ‘DUNLEA’.  Four children born between 1883 and 1889 followed – John (jnr), James Bain Pye, Robert Jardine, and Elizabeth McLeish (marr CLARK).  All were engaged in developing the family farm in between schooling for most of their formative years.

81854 Pte. JBP Torbet – 1918

James Bain Pye Torbet was born at the family home at Pollok in Nov 1884.  In his mid teens James left Pollok and gravitated towards the growing city of Auckland where he secured a job, first as a “letter carrier” and then as a clerk, for the General Post Office (GPO).  In April 1914 James married Elsie LOCK and settled into their first home at No 4 Angelsea Street in Ponsonby.  

 In February 1918 81854 Private James Bain Pye Torbet was 33 years of age when he was drafted for WW1 service, initially being posted to the 41st Reinforcements.  James was was a tall, solidly built man with a commanding voice –  5 Foot 10 inches tall, brown hair, blue eyes and weighed 156 lbs.  pPrior to his enlistment James had spent a considerable period in hospital with Bronchtis and Lobar Pneumonia which had severely debilitated him and from which he never really recovered.  He also suffered from headaches which he attributed to being bought on by electric lighting.  The Medical Officer (MO) conducting his medical enlistment medical noted these issues and wrote ...”otherwise very fit in all respects.”  The MO’s concluding comment however sealed James’ fate –  “Fit, likely Category 5”  which meant he was … unfit for active service beyond the seas but fit for service of some nature in New Zealand.  Home Service meant employment in either a regular military establishment or in a territorial unit (administration, training, logistics etc).  Since the war was drawing to a close this would have little effect on the service James would perform when he went into Camp.


Private Torbet entered Featherston Military Training Camp in the Wairarapa on 23 May 1918 start his basic training as a member of the 41st Reinforcements.  A subsequent (paper) transfer to the 45th Reinforcements was shortly thereafter followed by his assignment to ‘C’  Company, 46th Reinforcements, then a move from

Featherston Military Training Camp, 1916

Featherston to Trentham, and his appointment to Temporary Corporal  (T/Cpl.) rank and allocation as a Hut NCO made 18 June 1918 a very busy ‘Red Letter’ day for Corporal Torbet – not bad going for a Cat 5 recruit who had only been in the NZEF for 25 days !  

Once appointed to NCO rank Cpl. Torbet’s mature age, tall stature and commanding voice singled him out as leadership material and so ten days later his appointment in rank was confirmed he was permanently assigned as an NCO with ‘C’ Company.  After six weeks at Trentham honing the skills and disciplines of  ‘C’ Company, the 46th Reinforcements were yet again on the move back to Featherston Camp whereupon on the following day (15 Oct 1918) the 46th was morphed with several other Reinforcement odds ‘n’ sods to form the 47th Reinforcements, the last such formation of the NZEF which remained at Featherston until demobilization. 

Cpl. James Torbet (rt) with his successive 3x Cup winners for Best & Cleanest Hut & Gear – Trentham, 1918

On 5 December 1918, the men of the 47th Reinforcements were each issued a Certificate of Leave in Lieu of Discharge which effectively was the start of their official postwar Demobilization. These certificates were issued in case they were required to be re-called for duty should hostilities re-commence.  The 47th was then sent on Leave Without Pay (LWOP) until further notice – there was no further  notice.  Thus the 47th Reinforcements service in the NZEF ceased and they were disbanded – what a war !  

Following his demobilization James (ka Jim) Torbet went home to Elsie and Auckland to resume his job with the GPO as a postal clerk. Jim and Elsie had attempted to start a family shortly after they were married but this had resulted in a still birth.  In Feb 1922, a son and heir was born at last – Donald Garth Torbet, to be their one and only surviving child.  In 1927 the Torbet family moved to No. 1 Rewi Street in Torbay, Auckland were Jim and Elsie lived until their respective deaths.  At some point during Jim’s working life (date unk) he had a life threatening accident.  He apparently was attempting to either get on or off a tram  when his clothing snagged and as the tram started again Jim’s leg was caught and he was dragged along the road for some distance before the tram stopped.  The net result was a severely injured right leg which subsequently had to be amputated.  That ended and future thoughts of military service and had long lasting effects on Jim, also largely confining him to sedentary roles and activities.

Jim and Elsie’s son Donald (ka Don) married Joy Alice Frances McNABB and a family of two sons and three daughters resulted.  Don became a qualified electrician and initially was living and working in Christchurch by 1946.  Around 1960 Don and Joy, along with their five children, returned to Auckland where they lived out their lives. 

As for their parents, Elsie passed away in 1961 aged 68 years of age.  Jim (70) re-married in 1965 to Gladys Helen BOARD,  just four years prior to his death in 1969.  Cpl. James Bain Pye Torbet and his late wife Elsie are buried together in the Hillsborough Cemetery, Auckland.

Award:  British War Medal, 1914-1918

Total NZEF Service:  196 days


‘Torbet’ thankfully has never been a particularly common name in NZ so to find a descendant sounded like a reasonably easy task.  After checking James Torbet’s military file, I found a quite detailed family tree on Ancestry which saved me much time.  Given the Torbet family descendants I was seeking had all originated from Pollok in what is now Franklin, north of Auckland, I thought there would be good chance of one connection still resident in the general area.

The White Pages revealed only two Torbets in the Auckland/Northland area – one in Devonport and the other in Whangarei.  The Devonport contact proved to be a remote descendant of the current generation’s cousins however the man who could possibly answer particular queries about the family I was tracing was out of the country.  The Whangarei listing proved to be more useful – the initials of S.J. Torbet coincided with a name on the Ancestry family tree I had, so I called – disconnected.  

Not knowing anyone in that area I could call to help, I decided to contact the Whangarei RSA office to see if there were any Torbet memberships that might tally, and if not, to see if I could enlist the help of a local member to check out the address of the disconnected number on the off chance the gentleman might still lived there or someone close by may know where he went; my agent would also be able to leave my contact details in the post box should no-one be home.  After two weeks I was getting a little concerned that I had heard nothing however I need not have.  Thanks to the very helpful  Whangarei RSA office administrator, Angela, I received a call today from Stephen John Torbet, a son of Donald and Joy, and grandson of James Bain Pye Torbet.  

Our discussion resulted in John contacting his older brother Brian Joseph Torbet, eldest son of Donald and Joy, who lives in Kaitaia.  Brian called me shortly afterwards to express his interest in his grandfather’s kit-bag, which he said he re-called seeing many years previous.  Since then Brian and I have had several conversations which has resulted in much of the information and his photographs being included herein, giving me a fairly good picture of his late grandfather.  

The kit-bag should be in Brian’s hands on Monday morning if the courier manages to find his way to Brian’s abode at a very picturesque and idyllic rural spot in coastal Northland. 


Footnote:   The reunited medal tally remains at 146.  Items of ephemera that are reunited are not included in the tally.