Tuesday, September 9, 2014

STRACHAN, Francis Alexander Cochrane (Frank) (1895-1916)

Private Francis Alexander Cochrane Strachan, 13th Reinforcements, C Company, 
Ist Battalion, Canterbury Infantry Regiment, NZEF. WWI service no 24117
He wears the cap and collar badges of the 12th (Nelson) Infantry Regiment.

           Francis Strachan was born at a Nelson lodging house in the Wood on June 5, 1895. The midwife in attendance was Nurse Mabel Atkinson, daughter of prominent Nelson lawyer, Arthur Atkinson and his wife, Jane Maria nee Richmond.[1] After the birth, Nurse Mabel took mother and baby to stay at her home, Fairfield House, so they could recuperate before the arduous journey back to Ngatimoti. Later, at the age of 50, Mabel Atkinson would work with the St John Ambulance service in France during the First World War.

            Manawatane, Frank’s new home, was a large farm in a valley off the Thorpe-Orinoco Road. His father, Alexander (Alec) Cochrane Strachan (b. 1862) was the third son of Benjamin Strachan, a Scottish cooper, and his wife, Jean Pringle nee Cochrane, who emigrated from Roslin, near Edinburgh, to Nelson on the Admiral Grenfell in 1853, along with their son Jamie, who later died in 1861 at the age of twelve. [2] Alec had two older sisters, Mary (Molly) and Elizabeth (Lily), an older brother, Gavin, and two younger brothers, John (Jack) and Thomas (Tom). They were all born at Lodder's Lane, Riwaka, where his family first settled, later establishing a farm at Brooklyn, but in 1872 the family moved to Orinoco, where Benjamin had obtained a Crown Grant for 108 acres at the head of what would become known as Strachan Road.

           While the rest of the family travelled in a spring cart driven by a Riwaka neighbour, 10-year-old Alec and his 14-year-old brother Gavin were given the responsibility for driving the family’s milking cows from Riwaka to Orinoco, trudging along via Lower Moutere and the Waiwhero valley. Bridges were few and roads often not much more than bridle tracks through the bush, so it was slow going. Ngatimoti was not yet in sight and darkness was falling, so it was a great relief to be met by Orinoco resident John Gower, who had been looking out for the two boys and helped them the rest of the way to their new home on the hill.

           Benjamin Strachan suffered increasingly poor health, so from early on all his children, including his daughters, had to step up and shoulder a good deal of the hard work involved in breaking in a new farm mostly covered in dense bush. The hope that New Zealand’s climate would improve his crippling asthma remained unfulfilled, and Benjamin died in 1889. The four Strachan brothers formed a partnership as they grew up. As well as running the farm and adding to the family’s holdings, they worked as coopers and carpenters. They had a workshop and smithy behind the homestead where they turned out buckets, butter churns, casks and kegs for sale. Casks used to transport the raspberries harvested around Ngatimoti to the jam factory in Motueka accounted for a large part of their trade.[3]

Frank's parents, Alexander & Mary (nee Bowden) Strachan
Probably taken on their wedding day, 7 August 1894.

           One by one the Strachan brothers married and moved to farms of their own. Alec married Mary Rebecca Bowden, daughter of the Rev. Thomas Adolphus Bowden and his wife Caroline Emma (nee Treacher), who arrived in Nelson in 1855 on the ship John Phillips.  Mary's father, the Rev. Bowden, had been ordained as an Anglican minister, but contact with the Oxford Movement left him with recurring doubts about Anglican doctrine. He had a varied career in New Zealand, alternating preaching with teaching, but  spent some time as resident minister for Wakefield, Waimea West and Spring Grove after representations from the settlers there. The family’s tent was used for services until a church was built. This was St Paul’s Church, dedicated at Spring Grove in 1857, and Mary, born in 1859, was the first baby to be baptised in the new church. The  Bowdens were living in Wellington when her older sister Emily married Edward Fearon Burrell at Trentham in 1869. Edward for some time taught at the Dovedale School and had substantial holdings of land in the Orinoco/Dovedale area. Edward and Emily eventually settled at the head of the Orinoco Valley, their home, Penton, being at the foot of Jacob’s Ladder. In 1874 fifteen-year-old Mary went to live with the Burrells to help her sister, who had two young children and another one on the way, and also supported herself by teaching music to private pupils. She met Alec Strachan, who lived just down the road, and on the 7th of August, 1894, they married at St Paul's Church, Brightwater, where Mary had been christened, the Rev. William Baker officiating. [4] Thomas Bowden gifted his daughter Mary 400 acres of land adjoining Manawatane on the occasion of her marriage, swelling the home farm to 600 acres.

Frank as a boy in 1905 with his sister Jean holding their
baby sister Edith, dressed in her christening gown.

           Francis (known as Frank) was their firstborn and only son, a source of great pride and joy to his parents. It was a measure of the regard with which his mother's family was held within the Anglican Church that his baptism, held at Ngatimoti's St James Church on 28 July 1895, was presided over by the Rt. Rev. Charles Mules, Bishop of Nelson. A sunny-natured and dutiful child, he grew up in a devout and loving home, surrounded by a large, affectionate network of relations; grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins from both sides of the family, including Strachans, Bowdens, Burrells and Guys. Alec Strachan ended up living with his family at the original homestead, Manawatane, while his three brothers when married set up homes on farms in close proximity. Both their sisters married farmers. Mary married John Beatson who farmed near Blenheim but around 1902 moved to a farm named "Rosebank" in Stoke, and Lily married John Arliss Guy of "Sunny Brae", whose lands bounded those of Manawatane. Frank had two younger sisters; Jean Caroline, born in 1897, and Edith Mary, born 1905. From early childhood Frank was involved in fundraising for Barnado's Homes in New Zealand and exchanged correspondence with Dr Thomas Barnardo himself. Frank's mother, Mary, was a tireless worker for the cause. She helped organise the regular fundraising events held in the district on their behalf and nearly all the children in the district had their "Dr Barnardo boxes" - distributed and collected by Mrs Strachan.[5]

Frank tosses hay up to the top of the haystack, helping out at "Meadowbank", 
the farm of his uncle John (Jack) Campbell Strachan
  at the foot of Church Hill.

           Both Frank and Jean were initially taught at home, but started at Orinoco School in February, 1904. From June 1905, Frank, aged 10, spent a year as a boarder at Miss Hooper’s “Zephyr Lodge”, a preparatory school in Nile Street, Nelson.[6] He then returned to the Orinoco School before attending Nelson College as a boarder from 1909-10. He then settlied into a busy life at home. There was plenty to do on the Strachans' well-established, large mixed farm. A diary kept by Frank records full days of farm work shaped by the seasons and gives a vivid picture of a co-operative rural community dependent on neighbourly goodwill. Like others in the area, Frank often pitched in to help out on the farms of relatives and neighbours. Local men were also periodically employed to help out at more hectic times like shearing and haymaking or with fencing and building projects. There were regular attendances at Ngatimoti’s St James Anglican Church and exchanged visits with family and friends. His mother Mary was a member of the Ngatimoti Mothers' Union, and he would sometimes drive her to meetings. He was particularly close to his Guy cousins, Walter, Hector and Arthur, the sons of his Aunt Lily (nee Strachan). Both the  Guys and the Strachans had a long-standing friendship with William and Nellie de Castro, who lived at Tahunanui, and an understanding developed between Frank and their daughter, Margaret (Margie) which led to their engagement. A lot of time was also spent drilling with the Senior Cadets and later the Territorials. Frank trained as a member of the 10th (Nelson) Mounted Rifles of the NZ Territorial Force and highlights included annual camps held at George MacMahon's Tapawera farm and taking part in a military tournament held in Auckland in January 1914 to coincide with the Auckland Exhibition.

Family gathering at "Manawatane", Jan. 1st, 1909.
...  a large and affectionate network of aunts, uncles and cousins ...

           War broke out in August, 1914, and gradually cousins, neighbours and friends joined the NZ Expeditionary Force and disappeared overseas. Mary Strachan and her sister-in-law Lily Guy became active in Motueka's Red Cross Society, raising subscriptions and making care packages to be sent overseas. Lady Liverpool, the Governor's wife, spearheaded a campaign to get women and schoolchildren contributing towards such care packages, especially by knitting socks, balaclavas and scarves. This campaign was such a success that a patriotic knitting song became a very popular hit, and Pat Beatson recalled the children of Ngatimoti singing it in the playground at school.[7]

           Frank's fiancée, Margie de Castro, at left, stands next to her friend 
                 Daisy Guy (Frank's cousin), at the Guy family home, "Sunny Brae."              

            Before long, reports of deaths and injury started filtering back. William Ham's was the first death - he was wounded at the Battle of the Suez Canal and died on  February, 5th, 1915. Gallipoli took its toll, including popular 12th Company officer, Alister Forsythe, Frank Hobson from Lloyds' Valley and Alan de Castro, brother of Frank's sweetheart, MargieOne of Frank’s Bowden cousins was also killed - Keble Reginald Bowden was the son of Frank’s uncle Walter Ellis Bowden and his wife Clara, who lived in Nelson. It seems likely that he was named for one of his grandfather Thomas’ Oxford Movement heroes, John KebleHector Guy was wounded at Quinn's Post and  Cyprian Brereton, commanding officer of the 12th (Nelson) Company and Hector Guy's good friend,  suffered a serious head injusry at the "Daisy Patch" during a doomed charge at the Second Battle for the the village of Krothia. Cyprian married Hector's sister, Margaret (Daisy) Guy, while convalescing in London. Cyprian Brereton was known as  "Cousin Cyp" to the Guy and Strachan familes - his uncle, John Brereton, had married John Guy's sister, Eleanor Gertrude Guy, in 1883, making Cyprian Brereton and Daisy Guy cousins to a degree.

Cousins Frank Strachan (left) and Arthur Guy trained at Trentham Military Camp together 
and embarlked together on the Willochra, 31 May, 1916.
Frank can be seen wearing the stag's head cap and collar badges of the 
10th (Nelson) Mounted Territorials Regiment.

As an only son, whose input on the farm was significant to his family’s economic welfare, it must have been hard for Frank go, but he and his family were very conscious of doing their patriotic duty. Along with his cousin Arthur Guy, he enlisted with the NZ Expeditionary Force at Motueka in January 1916  for the Reserves, 12th (Nelson) Company of the Canterbury Infantry Battalion, and they both signed  their attestation forms at Trentham Military Camp, Wellington, on 12 January, 1916. Frank and Arthur shared a tent during training and also the measles! Sickness in camp was rife, with trainees regularly going down with a variety of infectious diseases. Frank was hospitalised twice - once with influenza and then a couple of months later with the measles on 12 March. The Reserve Company trainees spent the period between February 18 and May 12, 1916, at Featherston Camp, as Trentham had become too crowded and unhealthy.
Crowds farewell the troopship "SS Willochra"as she leaves Wellington harbour.
           After five months training, they were deemed ready to head overseas. Frank's parents and sisters Jean and Edith travelled to Wellington by coastal steamer on the 24th of May to see him off. They were able to spend some time with Frank before he and Arthur embarked with the 13th Reinforcements on 29 May, 1916 on the SS Willochra, known for for this voyage as  HMNZT. 54. An official farewell presided over by the Governor, the Earl of Liverpool, was held for the troops at Newtown Park on the morning of the 30th, and as Frank and his family returned to the ship later that day they met Walter Guy, freshly arrived in Wellington on the SS Pateena and heading for Trentham to begin his training. The ship set off at 10.30 am on the 31st May, and the Strachans were at the wharf to wave Frank and Arthur off. 

"It was  very nice you being able to get down to see us off," wrote Frank in a letter to his mother, "We could see Edith sitting on Father's shoulder waving until we got a long way out and then she got down and then I think we saw you standing on the wharf after most of the people had gone."

          The Reserve Company disembarked at Devonport in England and further training followed at Sling Camp. Frank and Arthur were happy to see a familiar face from Ngatimoti there. In a letter sent home Frank commented, "Les Green is a Staff-Sergeant-Major in this camp. I saw him last night, he looks very well; he said both Hector and Cyp are over in France". 

While in England Frank managed to fit in quite a bit of sight-seeing while on leave - visiting Stonehenge and Salisbury Cathedral and being taken on a whistle-stop tour around all the major London landmarks by Hubert Bowden and his wife, cousins with whom he stayed for a few days. Arthur decided to transfer to the relatively new Cyclists Corps and for the first tiem since enlisting the two cousins were separated as Arthur had to stay on for further training, while Frank was deployed to France on September 1, 1916. He was happy to be transferred to Hector Guy's company early in October, Hector by this time having been promoted to Company Sergeant-Major. On the 12th of November, 1916, Frank was killed in the field during the Battle of the Somme when a hand grenade struck the parados of the trench where he was sheltering. He was 21, and not yet been directly involved in action on the battlefield. His death was very quick and several letters of condolence sent to his family commented on his peaceful appearance. "His expression was perfectly peaceful and quite natural and happy, and smiling", said one

Hector had the sad job of writing to his aunt and uncle with the grim news. “This is a very hard letter for me to write, but I must face the difficulty. Poor old Frank was killed this afternoon by a bomb bursting in the trench.  He died in about two minutes. His death was a great shock to Cyp and myself. Frank was very popular with Officers, N.C.O.s and men". [8]

           Hector Guy was himself killed in Belgium nearly a year later, and his older brother Walter in France on 27 March, 1918. Under the conditions of the 1916 Military Service Act, their father John Guy was able to get an dispensation for his last surviving son, Arthur, to be sent home early.  

Cyprian Brereton added in a separate note, "Frank died a soldier's death under the best conditions that could occur; but we feel as if we have lost a brother."

           The news of Frank's death devastated his parents, who despite their unwavering faith, struggled to come to terms with their loss. Apart from anything else, Alec Strachan was getting older and it had been understood that when Frank married he would be taking over the farm so his parents could retire. Both were involved with the Ngatimoti War Memorial project set in motion by their niece Daisy Brereton (nee Guy) and they shared their grief with the Guy family and the de Castros, who had earlier lost their son Alan at Gallipoli. The Memorial was unveiled  on Anzac Day, 1921, and gave some comfort and perhaps a sense of closure to those whose boys’ graves were so far from home. In 1923 Frank’s former fiancée Margie de Castro married Geoffrey Revell, whose father Thomas was manager of the Union Steam Ship Company in Blenheim.

Rifle volley at the unveiling of the Ngatimoti Memorial on Anzac Day 1921
At the back, a little to the right of the memorial, is Frank's mother Mary Strachan (in black) 
 supported by sister-in-law Kathleen Strachan (in white blouse) and another female relative. 
The Guy family home, 'Sunny Brae", can be seen centre rear.

           As a labour of love, his mother put together a privately printed book titled Our Boy, for distribution to family members, dedicated to Frank’s memory. It contains many happy reminiscences of her son’s life, along with some heartbreaking meditations on the aacceptance of God's will in taking him. It also includes extracts from Frank’s diary and letters exchanged between family members. After Alec Strachan died in 1929, his widow Mary donated a carved oak reredos, specially made in Christchurch, to St James Church, Ngatimoti, in memory of her husband and son. The reredos features a copy of Da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper.  Her daughters, Jean and Edith, gifted St James Church a set of four chancel windows portraying the emblems of St James - two for each side of the altar - also dedicated to the memory of their father, Alec, and brother, Frank.[9] In 1928 Jean married Ngatimoti widower William (Bill) Deverell Whelan, a cousin of Cyprian Brereton's. They had two daughters, Heather and Helen. We owe a great debt to Helen for her work in gathering up and collating the history of the Ngatimoti settlement. Edith never married but lived with her mother at Manawatane until it was sold in 1944. Edith and her mother then moved to Nelson where Mary Strachan died in 1950 at the age of 91.


                Frank's cousins Hector Guy and Cyprian Brereton made sure he had a proper funeral, which was conducted in their presence by Regimental Chaplain, Captain Charles Tobin, and attended as well by three of Frank's friends  Frank was dressed in full uniform and buried under a cross in a nearby apple and pear orchard. Today he lies beneath a headstone at Rue-Du-Bois Military Cemetery, Fleurbaix, Pas de Calais, France. He is listed on the Nelson-Tasman Roll of Honour and commemorated at the Ngatimoti War Memorial, Tasman, New Zealand.


1)    Alice Mabel Atkinson (1864-1935)

2)   Pioneers of the Valley, pg 17.  Motueka and District Historical Association (1980) Journal Vol 3. Special Edition, compiled by J.R.Canton

3) Whelan, Jean (nee Strachan) Orinoco. Personal reminscences – unpublished ms.
See also: Strachan Brothers. Cyclopedia of NZ (Nelson and Marlborough Provincial Districts) 1906. Ngatimoti, pg 139

4) Whelan, Helen. The Family Life of an Early Settler: Thomas A. Bowden,1824-1906 and his wife Caroline H.E. Bowden, nee Treacher, 1822-1914. Journal of the Nelson & Marlborough Historical Societies, Vol 1, Issue 6, September, 1986.

5)  Fundraiser held at Ngatimoti for Barnardo's Homes organised in 1917 by Frank's mother, Mary, and sister, Jean.
Colonist, 21 December, 1917. Country News: Ngatimoti.

6) Our Boy: Francis Alexander Cochrane Strachan. His Letters and Diaries, with a short record of his life, pp14-15. A private publication compiled by Frank's mother, Mary Strachan, and printed  in 1920, by L.T. Watkins, Wellington.

7) Beatson, C.B. (Pat). The River, Stump and Raspberry Garden: Ngatimoti as I Remember. (1992), Nelson, NZ: Nikau Press. pg 38.

"Knitting, knitting, knitting
 With the khaki wool and grey;
 Mufflers, socks and balaclava caps.
They are knitting day by day.
 Knitting, knitting, knitting   
 With a prayer in every row,  
 That the ones they hold in their hearts so dear
 May be guarded as they go."
 Chorus, WWI Knitting Song

8) Our Boy, pp 212-213

 9) Beatson, Kath and Whelan,Helen, The River Flows On: Ngatimoti Through Flood and Fortune, 2nd ed., 2003.  Pub. Buddens Bookshop, Motueka, pg 103

Further Sources

Oxford Movement –Encyclopedia Britannica. A 19th century religious movement emanating from Oxford University which aimed at bringing the practices of the Church of England closer to those of the Roman Catholic Church. Leaders of the movement were Edward Pusey, John Keble, John Henry Newman and Richard Froude.

Miss Hooper’s  Zephyr Lodge School Nelson  - advertisement
Nelson Evening Mail, 15 September, 1910

Colonist, 23 February, 1915

NZ History (NZ Ministry of Heritage and Culture)  

Lawon, Will. Historic Trentham, 1914-1917: The Story of a New Zealand Military Training Camp. NZETC.
The Battle of the Somme. NZ History website, NZ Ministry of Heritage and Culture.

Tasman Roll of Honour. Kete Tasman: Francis Alexander Cochrane Strachan

Note: There are many variations when it comes to the pronunciation of the Scottish surname "Strachan". "Strawn" was the one most commonly used for the Strachans of Ngatimoti.

Photo credits

1) Portrait of Frank in military uniform from "Our Boy: Francis Alexander Cochrane Strachan. His Letters and Diaries, with a short record of his life, courtesy of Miss G. Guy.

2) Frank's parents, Alexander & Mary (nee Bowden) Strachan, probably btaken on their wedding day.
Nelson Provincial Museum/Tyree Studio Collection, ref. 45943

3) Frank as a boy with his sisters Jean and Edith, 1905, Photographer Frank's cousin, Walter Guy.
Guy Collection/Nelson Provincial Museum Permanent Collection, ref. 315286

4) Hay making at "Meadowbank" home of Frank's aunt & uncle, Jack & Kathleen (nee Robinson) Strachan, at the foot of Chuch Hill.  

5) Nelson Provincial Museum/Guy Collection, ref. 315056

6) Strachan family at "Manawatane", New Year's Day, 1909. Photographer Walter Guy.
Guy Collection/Nelson Provincial Museum Permanent Collection, ref. 315175
7) Margaret Helen (Margie) de Castro, left, next to Frank's cousin, Margaret Irene (Daisy) Guy.
             Photographer Daisy's brother Walter A.C. Guy.

Guy Collection, Nelson Provincial Museum Permanent Collection, ref. 315167

8) Frank and his cousin Arthur Guy, taken before they embarked for the war. Frank and Arthur trained at Trentham Military Camp together and embarked together on the Willochra, 31 May, 1916.
Guy Collection/Nelson Provincial Museum Permanent Collection, ref. 89476

9) Troopship HMNZT 21 (SS Willochra) sailing from Wellington. Dickie, John, 1869-1942 :Collection of postcards, prints and negatives.
Ref: 1/2-014602-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

10) Rifle volley at the unveiling of the Ngatimoti Memorial on 25 April 1921
Courtesy of Kate Speer nee Strachan.

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