JOHN WILLIAM STEPHENS – Boer War medal reunited within the same family !


I recently received a request from William (Bill) McDonald of Rotorua for help to reunite a Boer War medal he had found in his mother’s estate belongings.  Bill, the current President of the Rotorua RSA, had never seen the medal before and did not associate it with either his mother nor his known or extended family, and so sent the medal to me to research and try to find a descendant. 

The Queen’s South Africa (QSA) medal Bill sent me was in very good condition (although completely black indicating a long period of tarnishing due to the high silver content in the metal) and was suspended by its original, if somewhat faded, ribbon.  Also attached to the medal/ribbon were two clasps: Transvaal and South Africa 1902.  The medal was correctly impressed around the edge with the following:  7702  TPR : J.W. STEPHENS. N.Z.M.R.  9th CONT

My initial review of this case proved relatively easy.  Whilst most Boer War soldier’s files have limited information in them, John Stephens’ file had sufficient for me to create a useful military and civil employment profile.


John William Stephens was a Cantabrian born in November 1880 at Gebbies Valley on the Banks Peninsula.  John’s parents and grandparents all came from County Cavan in Ulster, Ireland – his grandfather, John William Stephens, and his father Frederick George Stephens, a farming contractor were born at Rockfield, Croserlaugh, and Frederick’s wife Mary Jane VOGAN at Cornasaus, Cootehill. 

The Christchurch Electoral Rolls detailed the Stephens’ family home addresses (which were few) predominantly located in and about the suburb of Woolston in East Christchurch.  John Stephens grew up here, the second eldest of seven Stephens siblings – the remainder being all girls ! – Margaret Jane,  Madelina Francey, Mary Ann, Martha Hilda, Ellen Frances, and Christina Olive.  Once most of the children had reached adulthood Frederick and Mary moved out of the city to the peace and clean air of farm land at Motukarara, also on Banks Peninsula.  

Following his schooling in Woolston John’s first employment was labouring jobs around Christchurch and then he landed a job at the Lyttelton port working as Coal Trimmer or Trimmer  This was a position within the engineering department of a ship which involved all coal handling tasks starting with the loading of coal into the ship and ending with the delivery of the coal to the stoker.  Trimmers worked inside the coal bunkers located on top of and between the boilers.  When coals from the rail waggons were dropped or spouted into the hold of a vessel they produced a conical heap which, unless provided against, would soon block up the hatchway. To prevent this, sheets of iron were laid upon the cone as it rises which cause the coals to slide off in all directions ; these are placed by the team of trimmers, who with shovels and rakes still further distributed the coal to keep it even, or trim the cargo.  Trimmers also shoveled the coal down the coal chute to the firemen below, who then shoveled it into the furnaces. 

When there were fires on the coal bunkers trimmers were involved in extinguishing fires in the coal bunkers. Fires occurred frequently due to spontaneous combustion of the coal. The fires had to be extinguished with fire hoses and by removing the burning coal by feeding it into the furnace.  Of the engineering crew, the trimmers was one of the toughest, and the most poorly paid  – the equivalent of approximately $2.00 per week.  The working conditions of a trimmer were miserable, primarily as a result of their environment: the inside of a coal bunker was poorly lit, full of coal dust, and extremely hot due to residual heat emanating from the furnaces and boilers.

It was during one of these voyages to Dunedin’s Port Chalmers in early 1902 that John took up the opportunity to enlist for war service in South Africa and put the trimmers job behind him – is there any wonder !  


SA 7702 Trooper John William Stephens enlisted for service with the Ninth Contingent which was mostly made up of returned officers and men (had previously served in South Africa) and from 3000 surplus volunteers from the Eighth Contingent. The Ninth consisted of two regiments: the South Island Regiment (1st Regiment – A, B, C, D, Squadrons) commanded by Major Henry Jackson would depart Port Chalmers on the SS Kent on 12 March; the North Island Regiment (2nd Regiment – E, F, G and H Squadrons) commanded by Major Lucius O’Brien would depart Auckland on the SS Devon on 19 March.

Tpr. John Stephens (20) was attested for service at Dunedin on 12 March 1902 AND boarded the SS Kent with ‘C’ Squadron bound for Durban, the same day !   The North Island Regiment aboard the SS Devon ran into a fierce cyclonic storm a day out from Auckland with all but 60 men of the whole Contingent going down with sea sickness.  23 horses were killed outright or put down due to the severity of their injuries, and many others sustained other injuries.  Eight stowaways were also discovered – not an unusual occurrence for the contingent sailings – six being allowed to enlist and the other two put ashore at Sydney.

By the time the 9th Contingent arrived in Durban (Kent, 12 Apr. and Devon 28 Apr.) the mechanisms for peace talks that would end the 2nd Boer War were well advanced.  The Ninth would not see any action, much to their disappointment, but were en-trained for Newcastle to attend a decorations presentation parade and then on to Elandsfontein, a vital rail junction east of Johannesburg, where the Ninth waited for their next assignment – the ‘peace talks’.  On 10th of May the Contingent trekked to Vereeniging near the Transvaal and Orange Free State border where the peace talks were taking place.  They spent about two months in camp awaiting an outcome.  The surrender, known as the Treaty of Vereeniging, was signed on 31 May and with that the Ninth’s duty was all but done.  On 21 June the 9th Contingent returned to Elandsfontein to hand in horses and transport, and departed Durban for NZ on 13 July.  The Contingent was disbanded in New Zealand on 21 August 1902. 

Awards:   Queen’s South Africa medal with Clasps:  Transvaal, South Africa 1902

Service Overseas:   149 days

Total Service:   160 days

Lieut. Robert McKeich

Note:  One of Ninth’s officers, SA 6825 Lieutenant Robert McKeich, was the last New Zealand soldier to be killed in the Boer War.  Lt. McKeich, an Australian born former Sgt. Major of the Tuapeka Volunteer Rifles, was married and a butcher from Lawrence, Central Otago.  Lt. McKeich was shot and killed at Vereeniging during a confrontation with three Boers, four days after the official surrender had been signed on 31 May 1902.


After his return home to Woolston, John Stephens joined the New Zealand Railways (NZR) as a fireman.  The Addington railway workshops and the large rail freight yards that encompassed the workshops, the Waltham coal yards and gas works, and the Woolston-Lyttelton Port rail yards, attracted huge numbers of manpower working in the rail engineering trades, train operations, coach building, freight transfer and management, from the east and southern suburbs of the city.  John Stephens had essentially lived amongst it all his life so it was probably a natural progression for him after having had the experience as a ship’s trimmer.  John Stephens in due course become a railway engineer (engine driver), an occupation he would remain in until his retirement some 40 years later.

In 1907 John Stephens married a 20 year old Christchurch cafe waitress, Margaret Jane SWANTON.  Their family consisted of two sons, John William Stephens (jnr) born in 1909, known as Jack*, and his brother Frederick Clarence Andrew Stephens born 1911, known as Clarrie.  Jack, a one time bosun on NZ coastal ships and later harbour board employee, married and had one son, Lionel John Stephens.  Jack’s younger brother Clarrie also became a merchant seaman and later a crane driver for the Auckland Harbour Board.  Clarrie married Evelyn MONCRIEFF however no children resulted from their union.

John William Stephens was initially employed by the NZR in Christchurch before he and Margaret were moved to the Clutha district in Otago for a number of years.  The Stephens were then posted by the NZR permanently to the Auckland area in the mid 1920s where John, Margaret and the boys settled into No. 4 Waverley Street in Onehunga, their family home for the remainder of their lives. 

John Stephens took an active part in community life, was a keen member of the Onehunga Bowling Club and in July 1944 John Stephens was re-elected to the Executive of the Auckland South African War Veterans Association – the association at this time also reached a Dominion record for membership of 252 veteran members.

Margaret Stephens pre-deceased John in 1963 aged 76; John followed on 15 January 1967 aged 86 years – both are buried in Waikumete Cemetery, Auckland. 

Footnote:  * J.W. Stephens’ son 609770 T/LCpl. John William (Jack) Stephens (an accountant) served in the 2NZEF Inf. Bde. HQ in Africa during WW2 from Apr 1943.  He was made a POW for nearly four years until he returned safely to NZ.


Tracing a descendant was also relative straight forward, again due to the limited movements of John’s siblings from the general area around their Christchurch home.  All of John’s sisters married, most remaining in the Christchurch area initially, their married names being – Margaret (Maggie) HARPER,  Madelina (Ena) OZANNE, Mary (Minnie) WOOLFORD,  Martha (Hilda) HUGHES, Ellen (Nellie) LOVE, and Christina (Chrissie) GROSSMAN.

I started the search by assembling John Stephens’ family tree which proved a little tricky as there were six ‘John William Stephens’ in the picture, three born around 1880, three married in either 1907 or 1908, and three that turned out to be family !  By tracing  John’s initial post Boer War service occupations, I was able to single him out as the “Engine Driver” from which I was able to follow him and Margaret around NZ through to their deaths.  For John’s sisters I found the necessary connections up to and including their marriages using the available on-line records.  

To find a traceable descendant to return medals to, I generally go with the first family tree that I am able to complete to a level where I am able to readily identify at least two contactable descendants.  In deciding whom medals should go to, I tend to err in favour of male descendants who will carry the family name.  Once I decide to whom medals will be passed to, I step out of the frame, it then becoming a family issue to decide upon whom is the most appropriate guardian of the medals.


In John Stephens case his sister Martha Hilda HUGHES (1888-1974) was at the of John’s siblings family trees to provide me with identifiable points of direct contact to the Stephens family.  Hilda as she was known, married in 1910 to Lyttleton born James Knowles HUGHES (1882-1946), a railway employee and storeman.  Researching their children, Lucy Hilda BAINES (1911-1986) and James Samuel HUGHES  (1913-2002) led me in the first instance to James and Florence (nee Carston) Hughes’s two sons, James Bruce Hughes (1938-2015) and his surviving brother, Stephen Joseph Hughes.  Steve’s wife Elizabeth (Liz), nee CATHERY (b:Australia) responded to my telephone inquiry once I had identified that Steve was the sole surviving grandson of John Stephen’s sister, Hilda Hughes.   Liz confirmed I was on the right track and had the right family.  I spoke later with Steve, a retired police officer, who confirmed the death of his older brother some 18 months prior, ergo, he was the only remaining Hughes great-nephew of John William Stephens.  They say an ‘apple never falls far from the tree’ and so it is in this case as Steve and Liz lived a mere stones throw from the Hughes’ ancestral home of Lyttelton.  It remained only for me to await documentary proof of Steve’s ancestry and therefore entitlement before I was able to deliver the medal to Stephen in person – one week later. 

Postscript …

In the course of building John Stephens’ siblings family trees I mentioned the difficulties with tracking John’s sister Nellie LOVE (nee Ellen Frances Stephens) and the lack of detail surrounding her family.  After the medal had been given to Steve Hughes, one of the burning questions in this case that I was keen to find an answer to was how Bill McDonald’s deceased mother, Marjorie McDonald, could have come to be in possession of John William Stephens’ Queen’s South Africa medal ?  Did she find it, was it given to her? – if so, where did she find it, or by whom was it given? 

The medal had all the appearances of being worn as the ribbon had a large safety pin attached presumably for (rather crudely) pinning to clothing, and the ribbon was faded – again indicating use.  I ask Bill for his mother’s maiden name details, place of birth and marriage details hoping that I might find some clue to a link with John Stephens.  Bill said he knew little of his mother’s early and family life and even less of his father.  I suspected resolving how Bill’s mother’s came to have the medal was probably going to remain unresolved.  Bill sent me the following:   

Marjorie Irene Frances McDonald (nee Love)

Address: 83 Sparks Road Hoon Hay Christchurch

Born: 25 Oct 1908 Christchurch – Died: Oct 2003 Christchurch

Second eldest of 4 daughters to Henry & Ellen Love (nee Stephens) (after second marriage, surname Collins) – 1st daughter/Ella (husband Ernie Watts) – Nelson; (2nd dau – Marjorie, ChCh)  3rd daughter/Hilda (husband Bill Stewart) – Wellington; 4th daughter/Eileen Rice husband Ronald) – Christchurch) – all now deceased.

As soon as I saw the names “Love” and “Stephens” associated with Bill’s mother the answer quickly became clear:  Henry (listed in BDM as Harry) Alfred William Whenlock LOVE, a plasterer, had married in 1906 Ellen Francey STEPHENS in Chistchurch – Ellen being the 4th sister of John W. Stephens.  Henry and Ellen Love had four daughters – 2nd daughter, Marjorie Irene Frances LOVE.  Marjorie LOVE had married Buddy William McDONALD in 1936 and subsequently moved to the Waikato area in and around Rotorua.  By following the electoral rolls I noted Marjorie had left Rotorua by 1946 and lived variously in Upper Hutt, Hokitika and finally back to where her mother Ellen Love (nee Stepehens) had originated, East Christchurch.  There had been no mention (or trace) of Ellen’s husband Henry Love after 1917 (Addington), or of Marjorie’s husband Buddy William McDonald (Bill’s dad) after 1938 (Rotorua).  


After assessing this information I came to the conclusion that Bill McDonald’s mother, Marjorie Irene Frances McDonald may possibly have inherited her uncle John William Stephens’ war medal from her mother, John’s sister Ellen.  Ellen had died in 1957 ten years prior to her brother John.  He may well have gifted his medal to his sister before her death, or perhaps directly to his niece Marjorie, a consolation for her mother’s death or perhaps because each woman in their own lives had suffered similar fates – mother and daughter had both had husbands who left them, while Ellen’s three sisters and her daughter Marjorie’s three sisters, were more fortunate in being all happily married with families.  This is conjecture of course, but possible.

This result showed that Bill McDonald was also a great-nephew of John William Stephens!  Had I known this detail before Steve was given the medal Bill could have been advised of his link and potential entitlement to hold on to the medal.  I advised Bill of this conclusion – Bill did the honourable thing and said whatever the case he was delighted to see the medal remain within the family.  In terms of family seniority, since Stephen Hughes was the grandson of Hilda, the older sister of Bill’s grandmother Ellen, technically that made him a direct descendant of John Stephens and therefore more likely to have been an entitled custodian ahead of Bill.  In these circumstances Bill was more than happy for Steve, a keen family genealogist and holder of his own father’s war medals, to take over as custodian of SA 7702 Trooper John William Stephens’ Queen’s South Africa medal.


A big thank you Bill McDonald for sending the medal to MRNZ, and for his generous gesture in passing its custody to Stephen.  The great-nephews Bill and Stephen will soon meet for the very first time and no doubt have some interesting family stories to share.

The reunited medal tally is now 158.

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