And I will seek a foreign home.

Thomas Woolley

I rather thoughtfully scrawled my name on the fly leaf of this book when I was  10 although luckily it wasn’t over the original owners name.  I have no idea where it came from, I thought I had pinched it from the school library but having researched it, now I think it may have belonged a distant relative at some point.

The book, ‘The clock on the stairs’ by Alice Webber, was given to Thomas Eli Woolley for his good conduct and careful work at school in 1904, funnily enough he was almost 10  when he got the book. He was the eldest of 7 children born to Amos, a labourer, and Mary Ann and the family lived in and around Plumstead, southeast London. After he left school he became a printer, an occupation he continued with for many years.

I can’t find hide nor hair of him serving in WW1 but, as a great many service records were destroyed during bombing in WW2, it is possible there are just no surviving records for Thomas. He was of an age to go to war so it is likely he did.

Now, as the war ended, Thomas decided to do something very exciting. Just as the Roaring Twenties were beginning, 25 year old Thomas packed his bags and left behind London, setting sail for New Zealand. He might have paid for his ticket or if he was an ex-serviceman he may have been able to take advantage of a free passage. This was being offered to various groups of people to assist them to start a new life in NZ.

He sailed from Southampton on the 20th of May 1920 on board the Osterley and arrived in Auckland (via Sydney) finishing his journey on the Riverina on the 20th of July.  The passenger list gives his occupation as still being a printer although he was unable to find work in the printing industry on arrival.    He settled in Moa Street, Otahuhu and found work at the Westfield Freezing Works, which I think froze meat before it was sent to the shops.

A few months after Thomas arrived, his younger sister Elizabeth set out to join him.  Leaving Southampton in November and sailing through a terrible storm lasting several days, she arrived in Auckland on the SS Arawa on December the 28th 1920 and presumably lived with her brother while she found work.  Elizabeth was 22 years old. I wonder how their family felt, thousands of miles back home knowing they were unlikely to see Thomas and Elizabeth again.

Life in Otahuhu would have been a fair bit different from London I would imagine. The weather, the people, the housing, simply the access to the cleaner fresher coastal air would have been like nothing the pair would have known. It would have taken time for them to settle down and get used to their new life. Sadly time wasn’t something Thomas had a lot left of.

On the 13th of April 1921 Thomas was at work. He was stirring boiling tar in barrels when his apron caught light and despite the best efforts of his work colleagues to quickly put the flames out, Thomas suffered terrible burns to his arms and legs.  He was taken to hospital where for a time he rallied but after two whole weeks of suffering he passed away from septic shock on the 30th of April.

His sister placed a small notice in the newspaper. She would have had to telegram her parents back in England, who would have been unable to travel to her. The voyage out had taken 2 months. Thomas’ father Amos wrote a small obituary for his beloved and eldest son giving details of his funeral on the 2nd of May at Otahuhu public cemetery.  Not quite ten months after arriving in Auckland.

Elizabeth stayed in New Zealand, even if she had wanted to return to her family it is unlikely she would have been able to afford to.  In 1923 she married a local man and died a widow aged 93.