SAMUEL ALBERT McMILLAN, MM ~ Mataura River ‘gold’ is reunited after a 50 plus year unresolved mystery.

24/1439 – SAMUEL ALBERT McMILLAN, M.M. (aka William Henry McMillan)    

I was recently privileged to do some research for the descendant family of another WW1 soldier who had earned a gallantry medal during the Battle of Harvincourt, France in September 1918.

The research came about in a circuitous way which had started with a gold fob pendant/medal that had been found in the Mataura River, Eastern Southland some 50 plus years ago by a gentlemen from Dunedin.  Les Barkman had been fishing the Mataura when a glint in the riverbank mud caught his eye.  What Les recovered was a gold fob pendant or medal (fob as they were more commonly called).  Les cleaned off the mud and washed the fob to reveal a beautiful Victorian, military styled and hand engraved memento with the following inscription on the back:



>>> OF <<<


>>>>  TO  <<<<




>>>  DISTRICT  <<<


    >>>>  GREAT WAR  <<<<

   30 . 6 . 19

Les Barkman had attempted several times over the years to find either Cpl. S. McMillan or his family but without success.  After Les’s death four years ago (2014), wife Muriel and daughter Sandra Robinson came across the fob whilst sorting through Les’s keepsakes.  Muriel started the ball rolling again to try and return the fob by finding out about Cpl McMillan hoping to succeed where Les had not.  An approach was made to the Southland RSA but drew no interest, and the Riverton Museum could not help with their quest.

Since then Sandra, recognising the significance of the memento and wanting to acknowledge the memory of the person it had been presented to, she would wear the fob on a neck chain to her local ANZAC and Armistice Day services in Blenhiem, where she is a resident.  As Sandra told me:

“ The fob is so beautiful that you knew it was special and the thought of Sam losing it was so sad.  We have tried unsuccessfully several times to find the relatives of Sam as we always knew this belonged with them.  I had this in a drawer for the first couple of years but in the last two years I have actually worn this on a chain around my neck on ANZAC and Armistice day to honour Corporal McMillan.”

The fob is so beautiful and has such lovely detail that you just knew that this must of have been presented to Corporal McMillan for some outstanding service so I really wanted to find its proper home.  Over the last few years I have shown it to several people asking for suggestions on how to solve the mystery of the owner.  


 Searching for owner almost derailed …

Having received the request from Iain Davidson, I initiated my research into the McMillan family by contacting Sandra for some detail.  Sandra told me:

“ … I only became aware of the fob’s existence when we were going through my Dad’s things a few months before he died (2014).  Dad said he found the fob in the mud on the banks of the Mataura River, Southland while fishing many years ago (50-60) …  I tried to find information on the military archives I had used for my own families but could not find anything for Corporal McMillan, so came to a dead end.  In early December (2017) I was talking to my sister-in-law’s cousin (John Hastilow* of Christchurch) and asked him if he had any suggestions on how to find the rightful owner.”

* I spoke with John who is a WW1 history and militaria buff.  He recalled reading an article in the Otago Daily Times regarding Iain Davidson’s work identifying photographs of Southland Soldiers and Nurses and had contacted him for advice with identifying who exactly “S. McMillan” was.  Iain’s research stalled when he was unable to locate any military file for an S. McMillan who was both an NCO and recipient of the Military Medal.  Iain sent me the details to see if I could help to connect any of the dots.   

There are quite a number of McMillan files in Cenotaph of soldiers from Otago and Southland, including those with an “S” initial.  Iain had first focused on the inscription on the fob for clues to S. McMillan’s identity.   The inscription had referenced “… friends of Gummies and Wildbush…” and given the fob had been found in the Mataura River which is in eastern Southland, Iain (who lives in Southland) was quick on zero in on these for clues.  I had never heard of either and was thinking … perhaps nicknames?  


While Iain was working on the location I found a potential candidate, one 58913 Pte. Sinclair McMillan of Dunedin who at the time had been working in the Riverton area and whose parents lived in Invercargill – however there was no reference to his being either an NCO or being a gallantry medal recipient, but there was a photograph of him.  Such details to be missing from files is not unknown as records were often poorly maintained and in some cases non-existent, so I was not overly concerned about rank or decoration at this point.  Iain in the meantime had located an article in a Nov 1918 Otago Witness newspaper that made reference to a Corporal Samuel McMillan of Invercargill who had been wounded multiple times, and had been awarded the Military Medal in 1918.  The article also included a photograph of him – the same man I had found to be Sinclair McMillan ! – who was right?  Surely this had to be Samuel but not wanting to be too quick to accept what appeared obvious without the incontrovertible proof I needed, I went to NZ Archives for an answer since there were no on-line Cenotaph files for a “Cpl. S. McMillan”.

Surely the Museum’s Cenotaph staff would not have got this it wrong?  Having found instances in the past of files of soldiers on Cenotaph being mixed together, I guessed that a photograph of a soldier named McMillan being on the wrong file was equally possible.  Ignoring the first name initial “S’ in case that also was wrong, Iain and I continued to paw over other McMillan files (and the various spelling derivatives of the name) to find a link and the all important proof. 

Iain emailed me an hour or so later saying he had located the file of one 24/1439 William Henry McMillan whose home and next of kin address was Invercargill, had been both a Corporal and awarded the Military Medal.  This was a new twist – how do we get Cpl. Samuel McMillan, MM out of Cpl. William Henry McMillan, MM ? 

Although Sinclair and William McMillan’s ages were similar, the homes of their next of kin (parents) were also relevant –  Invercargill and Riverton/Fairfax respectively, AND Sinclair had also been working in the Riverton area (using the Fairfax Post Office for mail) these few factors tended to overlap and angled me to favour him.  I had seen WH McMillan’s record in passing however gave it little attention on the basis his name in the Cenotaph page was spelt MacMillan and not McMillan, and his pre-enlistment residential address and employer had been Gamman & Co. of Ohakune, Ruapehu – a saw-milling company.   In addition, having glanced at WH McMillan’s Death Notification on his file (which did tick the boxes of rank and medal) I noted that he had died at the … “Hutt Hospital … 25 June 1974.”  Ancestry subsequently told me he had lived in Wellington at least since 1928, was a machinist, and  had been buried in the Taita Cemetery in the Hutt Valley in 1974?. (not Southland?).  On first glance it seemed to me WH McMillan was an unlikely candidate being a Southland born and bred saw-miller whose whole family spent their lives in Southland, so I would have picked a man who more likelyto have lived closer to home (particularly straight after the war); my conclusion at that point was mcMillan was more likely to be from the North Island or the top of the South and so I looke for someone who met the rank and medal criteria NOT from Southland.  

As Iain was looking through the same WH McMillan file as we continued to swap ideas and suggestions re McMillan;s identity, it was Iain who picked up the vital clue.  He noted the Death Notification which I had briefly glossed over had all of the correct details for WH McMillan – number, rank, unit, medal, place and date of death, EXCEPT, it had actually been made out in the name of Samuel Albert McMillan.  Not for a moment did I consider that one small blue document among dozens on documents on WH McMillan’s file would be named to another McMillan!  I was flabbergasted, and somewhat irked with myself for missing this crucial clue but as they say, two heads are better …Cpl. WH McMillan, MM was in fact Cpl. Samuel Albert McMillan, MM !

As it happened I discovered a second file in the NZ Archives, also named to WH McMillan.  In it I found a very interesting page – a Form of Declaration (statutory declaration, undated) which stated in part:

“I, Samuel Albert McMillan, do solemnly and sincerely declare that I attested for service in the NZEF on the 23rd August 1915, under the name of William Henry McMillan, stating the date of my birth as 12 April 1895. … My correct name is Samuel Albert McMillan and my date of birth is 9th January, 1897.  That the William Henry McMillan mentioned in … the paragraph above, and I, this declarant are one in the same person.”  

We now had incontrovertible proof of our man’s identity and owner of the fob. 


The McMillan family …

Samuel Albert McMillan was one of six boys and a sister, Ivy May, born in Invercargill (except James –  (Waingano, Canterbury) to parents Robert Quay McMILLAN (1868-1929), a Scottish immigrant and Sarah Elizabeth RICE (1870-1950) born in New Zealand.  The boys were: James Hugh (1891-1934), Charles Robert (1893- 07 Nov 1918), William Henry (1895-1986), Samuel Albert, Thomas Hopcroft (1908-1997) and Frederick Mills (1911-1960) McMILLAN, the last two born at Riverton.

McMillan family – Rear: Tui (Samuel Albert), Hughie (James Hugh), Willie (William Henry) – Front: Tom (Thomas Hopcroft), mother Sarah, Freddie (Frederick Mills), father Robert, Ivy May, and Charlie (Charles Robert) – Invercargill, Oct 1915

Originally residents of Invercargill, the McMillans lived among the Gummies Bush and Wild Bush communities from the early 1900s.  Gummies Bush and Wild Bush were small bush settlements located north of Riverton, Southland and were established to process bush timber in local sawmills for building materials and railway sleepers.  Later they expanded to provide a service hub for the farms being settled in both areas.  Sam’s father Robert worked as a saw-miller at nearby Eastern Bush while Samuel’s older brother Charlie (Charles Robert), worked as a mill-hand at both Clifden (near Tuatapere) and Riverton.  It was hardly surprising then that young Sam McMillan after a few casual farm jobs in his early teens, was drawn into mill work at Gummies Bush. 

Note: Gummies Bush is about 9-10 km north of Riverton.  Gummies Bush was allegedly named after a whaler and later pig-farmer, James Leader, who had a bush camp and was nicknamed “Gummie” because he had no teeth.  Wild Bush, its name being self-evident, is about another kilometre NW of Gummies Bush and is now called Waipango.   All together there were 18 small rural settlements that had “Bush” in their name (Gropers, Eastern, Croydon, Centre, Mabel, Ryal, Wreys, Seaward, etc).  Only Gummies Bush has had its name changed.

In 1913 the McMillan family left Gummies Bush and relocated to Invercargill.  Sam, then aged 16, went north to stay with relatives (the Rice’s – his mother Sarah’s family) in Ohakune, Ruapehu which was then a bush town whose primary industry was milling timber.  Gamman & Co. ran a large mill that produced hardwood totara railway sleepers for the main trunk line, building materials and fence posts.  It was at this mill that Sam worked as a mill hand and saw-miller.

Gamman & Co sawmill, Ohakune in 1910 – National Library of NZ photo

Whilst at Gamman & Co. Sam became much admired for his ability to mimic the native bird life, particularly the Tui.  As a result of his he was soon nicknamed “Tui”** by his work mates and forever after, became known as “Tui” McMillan by his friends, work mates and even his family. Tui loved the bird life and even into his retirement years later kept canaries.

Note: ** Tui’s eldest daughter was named Eileen Tui and, coincidentally, the McMillans lived for a large part of their married life in Tui Street, Lower Hutt.

Tui McMillan was working at Gamman’s when the First World War started in 1914 and within months recruiting offices opened countrywide to take volunteers.  Tui’s oldest brother Hughie (James) McMillan was one of the first to volunteer, certainly the first from the McMillan family – Tui being still only 16 was going nowhere.


McMillan’s at war … 

Pte. James Hugh & Dorothy McMillan, Oct 1914

6/693 Private James Hugh (Hughie) McMillan was a railway engine driver working for Stratford, Blair & Co. – Timber Merchants and Sawmillers of Greymouth when he signed up to join the Canterbury Infantry Regiment.  Hughie sailed with Main Body in Oct 1914 and became a ‘first day lander’ on the Gallipoli Peninsula on April, 25th.  He was reported missing on the 06 August however was later accounted for at a convalescent hospital where he was being treated for a “corneal ulcer” (conjunctivitis) caused by a bullet exploding very near his face.  The result was James’s evacuation to NZ and discharge from the NZEF on 25 Nov 1915 on account of his being medically unfit.  Hughie was awarded: 1914-15 Star, British War Medal, Victory Medal and the Silver War Badge (only awarded to serving soldiers who were invalided out of the NZEF).

William Henry (Willie) McMillan was desperate to follow in his brother’s footsteps and go overseas however, family folk-law tells us that Willie’s wife Janet and her family were devout Christadelphians whose beliefs do not permit military service of any country, even if commanded by the authorities – those who ignored their faith and did join were subjected to disfellowship.  As a consequence Willie appealed and did not serve – he remained a pacifist.

Private S. McMillan, May, 1918

Samuel Albert (Tui) McMillan was the next ‘cab off the rank’ but should not have been.  Barely 18 years of age (09 Jan) in 1915, enlistment should have been out of the question for him – besides, not only did he not meet the minimum age requirement (20 for overseas service) but he also failed to meet the minimum height requirement.  All volunteers had to be at least 5 foot 6 inches tall (167cms) – Samuel was just 5 foot 4 (and a ½) inches = 163cms.  Not to be deterred by these ‘short comings’ or to be done out of the ‘great adventure’ the nuggety little saw-miller hatched a plan to assume his older brother William’s identity to qualify for enlistment – he would enlist using his brother’s name and date of birth as his own which would make him 20 years of age.  The Army recruiters acceptance of age was generally based upon the scientific formulae of – “if you looked old enough, that was good enough” but with Tui being so small, he needed to cover all bases.  His amended birth date of 12 April 1895 (making him exactly 20) resulted in his height deficit being overlooked (and with a little help of newspaper packed into his boots) in favour of his excellent physique and obvious fitness which he had developed whilst working in the mill.  Who would refuse an enthusiastic and fit young saw-miller given over to voluntary war service?  No-one it seemed and so Tui sailed through the NZEF enlistment process as “William Henry McMillan”.

24/1439 Rifleman “William Henry” McMillan was enlisted at Ohakune on 23 Aug 1915 after which he proceeded to Trentham for his ten weeks basic training, medical checks and equipping prior to going overseas.  In Nov 1915 Rflm. McMillan boarded HMNZT 35 Willochra at Wellington with the 2nd Battalion, 3rd NZ Rifle Brigade – 2nd Reinforcements, and headed for Suez in Egypt where the Rifle Brigade Reinforcements would be prepared for operations in France.  On 06 April the NZRB Reinforcements departed Alexandria on HMT Dundee Castle for the Army’s Main Base Camp at Etaples, France.  By June the Reinforcements had joined their unit in the field and Rflm. McMillan was assigned to join ‘F’ Company in the 2nd Battalion.  Other than two short stints in hospital over the next few months, Rflm. McMillan’s first wake-up call came on 15 Sep 16 when he suffered gunshot and shrapnel wounds (GSW) to the left forearm, forehead and back.  Evacuated to the nearest field Casualty Clearing Station (CCS) he was subsequently transferred to the No 9 General Hospital in Rouen for specialist treatment.

Rflm. McMillan took some time to recover however by mid-October he was back in the field with his unit.  ‘Lightning’ struck yet again when he was wounded for a second time on 2nd March 1917, a GSW to his right leg.  A straight forward and uncomplicated wound, he was evacuated first to No2 Australian Casualty Clearing Station while still in the field and again transferred, this time to the coastal town of Wimereux and No14 General Hospital, a facility spread between two hotels and a casino. Once well enough to travel Rflm. McMillan when via the Hospital Ship (HS) Newhaven to England for further treatment at the major medical facility at Brockenhurst followed by a period at the Convalescent Depot, Torquay on the south coast.

By mid-August 1917, Rflm. McMillan had been cleared by a medical board as “Class A Fit” and once again re-joined his Battalion in the field, this time with ‘B’ Company.  On 18 January 1918, Samuel’s combat record states: Wounded In Action (3rd Occasion).  A GSW to his left hand had him admitted first to the No4 NZ Field Ambulance, and then to No2 Canadian CCS before being transferred to the main base camp at Etaples where he was once again taken care of by the Canadians – at the No 7 Canadian General Hospital. 

The end of March 1918 signalled Rfmn. McMillan’s fitness to return to active duty once more via a long (9 day) journey back to his unit in the field.  Two weeks leave in Paris was no doubt a welcome respite in August.  Upon his return from leave Rflm. McMillan was rewarded for his hard work and commitment to date by promotion to Lance Corporal (L/Cpl.) and the position of Section second in command (2IC) – deputy to the Corporal, Section Commander.   L/Cpl. McMillan put up his first stripe on 28 August.  As it happened this was a portent of things to come.


Bravery in the Field …

From 9-12 September 1918 the 2nd Battalion was again in the thick of the fighting during the Battle of Harvincourt.  On 12 Sep L/Cpl. McMillan found himself again being promoted.  He was given a second stripe and command of his Section after the Section Commander (Cpl. Cowles) was wounded and evacuated.

Unbeknown to Cpl. McMillan, his initiative and actions during his time as the Section 2IC during the August fighting the Battalion had been involved in – the Battle of Harvincourt – had not gone un-noticed.  The Battalion Commander received a recommendation from Cpl. McMillan’s Company Commander, for the award of a gallantry medal for his determination and courage under fire.  The award was endorsed at all levels of the NZEF command chain through to London and on 30th September 1918, NZEF Orders carried the news that Cpl. “William Henry” McMillan had been awarded the Military Medal “for acts of gallantry in the field”. 

 A former Platoon Sergeant’s letter from France to Tui’s mother … 1919

Whilst probably somewhat non-plused at his award coming out of the blue, as a brand new Corporal and Section Commander Cpl. McMillan had no time to dwell on the award – he had a section of men to look after and new responsibilities to come to grips with – and fast!  But fate stepped in again and ….. you guessed it, just four weeks later on October 8th … “Wounded In Action (4th Occasion)” – GSWs to the legs and right elbow.  No2 NZ Field Ambulance did the initial patch-up job, followed by the 4th Canadian CCS who prepared Cpl. McMillan for evacuation to the 83rd General Hospital in Boulougne.


In some ways, whilst taking gun-shots or shrapnel wounds to the extremities was bad enough, Cpl. McMillan’s fate could have been significantly different had he taken those hits to his head or vital organs – good fortune had smiled upon him.  With specialist treatment required for his latest wounds, Cpl. McMillan was released from the 83rd on 15 Oct for transfer back to England and admission to the Southwark Military Hospital (SMH) in East Dulwich, Grove, London.  Tui McMillan’s war was finally over, he would not be returning to France.

After four weeks of treatment and convalescence at SMH and No1 NZ General Hospital, Walton-on-Thames, Cpl. Tui McMillan was embarked onto the NZHS Maheno on 12 March 1919 for return to New Zealand

Awards:   Military Medal, 1914-15 Star, British War Medal, 1914-18 and Victory Medal

Service Overseas:  3 years 165 days

Total NZEF Service:  4 years 249 days

Military Medal Citation

William Henry McMillan

24/1439, Corporal, 2nd Batt, New Zealand Rifle Brigade

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in the operations near Gouzeaucourt from 9th to 12th September 1918.  He assisted his Section Commander in a Bombing attack in the early morning of the 11th against Deadman’s Corner and helped to kill the enemy garrison.  Later in the day he collected men and bombs on his own initiative and carried forward supplies to a post in the front line which was being attacked by the enemy.  Throughout the operation he has shown great bravery under heavy shell fire and trying conditions.

L.G. 11 February 1919,  p2144,  Rec No 2513


Home again …

Back in Invercargill, Gummies Bush, Wild Bush, Riverton and Dunedin the news of 22 year old, 5 foot 4 (and ½) inch Tui McMillan’s gallantry  and woundings had preceded him via the newspapers.  Everyone was very proud when Tui did eventually arrive home.  He was immediately placed on leave with his family pending his demobilization which would occur over the following months, concluding in his final discharge from the NZEF at Dunedin on the 28th of April, 1920. 

In early 1920 both Invercargill and Dunedin were all abuzz with planning and making preparations for the arrival of His Royal Highness, Prince Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David, Prince of Wales, who was about to embark on a nation-wide tour from April to June.  Prince Edward was making a world-wide tour of the Empire’s commonwealth countries on behalf of his father King George VI, to thank the citizens and soldiers for their loyalty and sacrifice for King and Empire during the last war.  The Prince was met with public ceremonies of welcome held at Forbury Park in Dunedin and at the Invercargill Racecourse in late May 1920.  During these ceremonies Prince Edward took the opportunity to meet veterans of all wars )NZ Wars, Boer,War and WW1 and to also present gallantry and meritorious service decorations to those returned soldiers who had earned them.

As Tui’s great-nephew, Geoff McMillan told me:

“Family folklore has it Tui left the army totally disenchanted, refused to join the RSA until much later in life, and regretted his youthful enthusiasm to volunteer. He also refused to attend the presentation ceremony (at Invercargill)… to receive his Military Medal from the Prince of Wales, Prince George ..”

Such was Tui’s depth of ill-feeling toward his war experience, grand-daughter Laurel tells us.. “My grandmother (Ellen Eileen [Nell] McMillan – Tui’s wife) told me that he would not go to receive his medal so he sent his mother instead.”

Tui however still had plenty of time for his old school friends and workmates from Gummies and Wildbush.  They were all so proud of Tui and his war exploits, and a small statement in the Western Star on 27 May 1919, announced a ‘Welcome Home Social & Presentation’ was to be held in the Gummies-Wild Bush Hall on Friday 30 May for the recently returned “Sgt” S. McMillan, MM and two other veterans, (Ptes. S. Barron and J. Wilson).  It was at this social that all three soldiers received the gift of a Fob Pendant commemorating their service and safe return from the Great War.

Gummies-WildBush Hall : Roll of Honour





Original Fob box – WJ Wesney, Manufacturing Jeweller – Otautau

Note: “Sgt” was an error on the newspapers part 





Designed and made locally …

This fob pendant/medal made in 15 Carat gold was designed and manufactured in 1916 by Mr William James Wesney, a talented young Jeweller of Otautau, Southland who had a shop in Main Street, and also one in Palmerston Street, Riverton. 

It is unknown how many fobs were made but other Southland communities are known to have presented these as a “welcome home” present to “their boys”.  There is an example in Te Papa of a fob presented to Private JG Campbell (Houipapa, the Catlins).   The Riverton Western Star ran the following on 8th September 1916:

‘Mr W.J. Wesney … has designed a most appropriate and very handsome gold medal to the order of the Otautau Patriotic Committee.  These are to be presented to all returned soldiers who at the time of enlistment had been resident 12 months in Otautau, and to the parents of those who have died in the service of their country.  The medal can be worn on the watch-chain or breast as desired.  On the obverse there are crossed rifles surmounting a crown, beneath which is the monogram NZ in bold letters ornamented at the base with two fern leaves.  On the reverse is the name and particulars of the recipient … Mr Wesney has registered the design so that it cannot be copied, and any [patriotic] committees wishing information should correspond with him.’    Text courtesy of Te Papa

Since the publication of this story in the national newspapers two identical fobs held by Southland  families have been made known to us.

Footnote: A sad end for a talented artisan – Mr WJ Wesney, the designer of this handsome fob pendant/medal, and his wife Mrs GL Wesney, died together in a motor accident at “Heenan’s Corner” on the Hundred Line on 30th November 1964, aged 76 and 64 years respectively.  Both were interred in the Otautau Cemetery.


Tui’s wife Ellen Eileen McMillan (‘Nell’), nee Keenan – c1944

Tui McMillan did not stay long in Invercargill.  Within six months of arriving home Tui had met a young lady from Dunedin, Ellen Eileen KEENAN (known as Nell) whom he married in 1920.  Shortly after their marriage Tui and Nell left Southland and took up residence in Karori, Wellington.  Tui went to work as a machinist, better known as a “saw doctor” for the Odlins timber mill in Petone being responsible for sharpening and maintaining all of the mill saws and associated machinery.  Tui commuted daily from Wellington city (first from Karori and then Island Bay near the airport) until the family made their only other move, to a house in Lower Hutt in the early 1950s which was much nearer Tui’s workplace at Odlins – it must have been fate that placed the McMillans into the house at number 26 Tui Street !

Tui and Nell McMillan had two daughters – Eileen Tui (1922-2014) and Audrey Violet (1924-1952).  Eileen (also known as Tui) married an American serviceman after the war and emigrated to live in Florida, USA where she died in 2014, aged 93.  Younger sister Audrey sadly passed away much sooner at just 28 years from Tuberculosis (TB) but not before her marriage to Basil Crawford CURRIE and the birth of their two daughters Laurel Ellen (1945-) and Sandra Joy (1946-1949).  Tragedy however was not new to the Currie family – youngest daughter Sandra died at the age of three, just a few years before Audrey’s death. 


Apart from his work at Odlins, Tui McMillan settled into the classic ‘kiwi bloke’ routine which largely favoured his passions for rugby, horse racing and the odd beer at the local RSA (which he had relented to join much later life).  Aside from this Tui also enjoyed wood turning – he cut the knots off NZ Beech trees and turned them into bowls which revealed beautiful grains and colour, most of  these he gave away to family and friends.  Tui and Nell made only a very occasional journey back to Southland during their life time, usually for funerals or a wedding, or the horse races.  By 1965, Tui had retired from Odlins to the quiet life in their Tui Street, Lower Hutt. 

24/1439 Corporal Samuel Albert “Tui” (alias William Henry) McMillan, Military Medal passed away peacefully at home on 25 June 1974 at the age of 77.  Tui is buried in the Serviceman’s Section of the Taita Cemetery in Lower Hutt.  Nell McMillan died on 4 December 1991, aged 93.


Reunited with Tui’s family at last !

Whatever the reason, to see the fob reunited with a member of Tui’s descendant family is a tremendous result.

As Sandra said just prior to going to Wellington to hand over the fob to Tui’s grand-daughter, Laurel Johnson:

“My family and I are all thrilled to see this fob/medal returned to Corporal McMillan’s family. It has always been our goal to find its rightful owner and I just wished this could have happened years ago …”

Sandra with Tui’s grand-daughter Laurel and the fob from the “Gummies & Wildbush Residents” – Dennis Robinson collection, Jan 2018

How did the fob get into the Mataura River?

Speculation of how the fob could have got into an eastern Southland river over 50 years ago, has been on-going however it is unlikely we will ever know the actual circumstances and answer to this mystery as all of those involved in the fob’s loss and recovery (with the exception of Sandra) have now passed away.  But, here are a few possibilities from the research and consultations to date:

  • We know the fob was presented to Tui at the welcome home presentation at Gummies on 30 May 1919 – he may have lost it in the location it was found whilst fishing, crossing the river, or just dabbling on the water’s edge at any point in time and whilst at the river for any number of reasons, either before his and Nell’s departure for Wellington, or during a subsequent visit?  Given the Fob’s size and weight (15 Ct gold) it is unlikely to have travelled far along the river bed.
  • Tui may at some time given the fob to his mother Sarah, sister Ivy, or father Robert by Tui (or another) and equally may have been lost from a neck chain (mother or sister?), whilst swimming, or from a pocket watch/waistcoat ornament/key ring (father) whilst at the river.
  • Soldiers have been known to throw away their war medals in anger or disgust after such traumas (Siegfried Sassoon, CBE, MC, the English poet (wrote many WW1 poems), writer, and British Army officer was known to have thrown away his Military Cross).  Given Tui’s depth of feeling and disenchantment with the Army and war experiences after he returned, throwing his fob away would possibly not have been out of the question – after all, his experiences including the death of his brother Charlie in England, and his elder brother’s eye injuries could possibly explain such an action – perhaps also the reason that Tui’s and his brother’s medals have never been found?  

Geoff McMillan is Tui’s great-nephew (son of Tui’s second younger brother, Thomas Hopcroft McMillan) and provides his perspective on a possible answer:

“The real mystery to me is how the fob got into the Mataura River in Eastern Southland.   There is always the possibility that he gave it to his wife Nell (or his sister Ivy) because fobs for men would be going out of fashion in the 1920’s.  Prior to Tui’s wedding to Nell, he may have gone to Southland to catch up with family, or his parents came to the wedding in Dunedin and passed over the fob to a family member?

We lived in Invercargill in those days and I can recall Tui and Aunty Nell coming down … to his mother’s funeral in 1950 … they also went to the Riverton Races in 1966 (coincidentally, this would have been roughly when Sandra’s father Les found the fob while fishing?) … their visit also took him to Gummies Bush (near Riverton) to visit his brother Willie (William Henry) … Willie had a farm at Gummies Bush – Willie, a pacifist, with his name (WH McMillan) engraved on Tui’s medals!  (had he given Willie the fob?)

The year (1966) can be pinpointed, as all he (Tui) could talk about was “Great Sensation” having just won three successive Wellington Cups.  This is in Western Southland….the Mataura River flows down Eastern Southland.  It is a relatively fast flowing river with lots of stones and gravel.  The fob must have been found on one of the rare mud-banks.  You would think that in the fullness of time, floods would have taken the fob out to sea?

Maybe Tui did a ‘grand tour’ of Southland (at this, or some other time) … my father (Tui’s brother Tom) probably drove Tui around.  As I recall, one of his favourite trips was a circuit starting in Western Southland and proceeding back to Invercargill via Gore in Eastern Southland ... the would possibly visited his sister Ivy’s son Murray Milne at Riversdale which is quite close to the Mataura.  When travelling, we always had picnics on river banks – very possible?

The inferences from Geoff are that Tui and Nell spent most of their time her for either a specific family event or the races.  Most of these were in western Southland so realistically the only way the fob could have ended up in an eastern Southland river would have been by the ‘owner’ actually being there [picnic, fishing etc] with the fob entering the river roughly where it was found, be it by accidental loss, neglect or wilful disposal.  Exactly when, how and by whom the fob got into the river will likely remain an unresolved mystery unless Laurel and Geoff are able to uncover any other details.

Laurel Johnson with Tui’s great-nephew Geoff McMillan, meet after the return of the fob to discuss its history – Geoff McMillan collection, Jan 2018


PRESS coverage:

The Otago Daily Times and the Marlborough Express recently carried successively progress articles on the history and return of the fob from the perspective firstly of Iain Davidson’s involvement in Southland, and second from Sandra Robinson and MRNZ’s viewpoints prior to Sandra reuniting the fob with Tui’s grand-daughter, Laurel Johnson in Wellington.  They can be read here:

ODT Article – 13 Jan:

ME article – 28 Jan: back-with-his-family

The reunited medal total is now 188.

Some of Tui’s handiwork:

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