Thursday, January 22, 2015

A Long Lost Brunning - Rifleman John William Brunning (1897-1918),

Tucked away at the bottom of a page in Motueka's weekly newspaper, the Guardian, was a small item titled "A Long Lost Brunning". It featured the mystery of a NZ WWI Certicate of Service with the NZ Expeditionary Force found in the shed of a Motueka resident, who had no idea of how it ended up there, or who it should now belong to. It had been issued in the name of Rifleman John Brunning, service no. 5422, who commenced his duty on April 30th, 1917 and died in France in 1918. Who was this forgotten young man who never lived to see his certificate?

Guardian, Wednesday 21 January, 2015, pg. 5
John William Brunning was born at Canvastown, Marlborough. Though his date of birth was in fact 4 August, 1897, he gave it as 10 February, 1897, on his NZEF attestation form, perhaps fudging to bring his age up to the minimum 20 years required for enlistment.  He was the first child of Richard Brunning and Betsy Aroa, and had eight brothers and sisters, two of them born after his death; Herbert Christopher, Frederick (Fred) Ernest, Leonard (Len) Nisbert, Lindsay George, Margaret (Mona), Noel Leslie, Ella Magdalene, Alan Cecil and Samuel Leio Steven Lionel (Steve).

His father, Dietrich Johann Christopher Bruning (known as Richard or Dick), was born in 1863 at Sarau, Upper Moutere, New Zealand, the ninth in a family of ten. Richard's parents were Johann Matthias August Heinrich Bruning (1830-1901), a shoemaker by trade, and his wife Magdalena (Lena) Catharina Maria (nee Lange). They had travelled to Hamburg from the village of Glashagen in the province of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, and from there emigrated to New Zealand on the Skiold, arriving in Nelson on the 1st of September, 1844. They first squatted on an unclaimed section in Nelson, where Matthias built a cob cottage, then moved in 1846 to the village of Schonbach, where they built a home on a smallholding of 4 acres. Nearby was Ranzau (now Hope), settled earlier by Skiold passngers.The Brunings were naturalized as British citizens on April 3, 1845.  In 1856 the family moved again after  Matthias obtained sixty acres of Crown Grant land at Upper Moutere, where a nucleus of German settlers was forming around Lutheran pastor,  Rev. Johann Heine, and his resourceful father-in-law, Cordt Bensemann, a former Hanoverian guardsman and natural leader. The new settlement was called Sarau, after a northern German village of the same name. By 1856 a school had been built, which Richard and his siblings would probably have have attended at various stages.

Matthias and Lena Bruning c. 1875

Richard Bruning had a particular aptitude for handling horses, coaches and wagons. At some point after finishing school at the age of 12 or 13, he left Sarau and his family behind and headed to Marlborough, where he found work as a groom at stables in Blenheim.  By 1890 he was working as a bushman and waggoner in Marlborough around Onamalutu, between Blenheim and Havelock, probably handling waggons carting timber or the sort of heavy horse teams used to drag logs, as pictured below. At the time the land was densely covered with lush podocarp forest  - matai, miro, kahikatea and rimu - and a hive of sawmilling activity. By 1896 Richard, at age 33 ,was listed as a residential settler at Kaituna. Around this time he met Betsy Aroa, with whom he entered into a common-law marriage. Betsy assumed the surname Brunning, but although at one stage she recorded a marriage date of May 27, 1897, it seems that there never was in fact any such marriage.

Betsy was born at Kaituna in 1878. She was just one year old when her father died at Picton Hospital, and was the last of the ten children born to James Robert Aroa (1830-1879) and Ann (nee Shaw). Her parents emigrated from Yorkshire, England on the Maori in 1855, and made their home at Tuamarina on land granted by the Crown. James Aroa sold this land in 1865 and moved to Kaituna.  Betsy's family surname was originally spelt “Airey”,  but appears to have made a change to “Aroa” somewhere along the way. It also appears in some cases as "Arrah" and "Array". James’ uncles, Isaac and Robert Aroa, travelled out on the Maori as well, and took up land at Awatere.

Tree felling in the Havelock area
Richard and Betsy moved to Canvastown, where their first child was born and registered at the Pelorus Registry Office on 9 August, 1897, under the name John William. Canvastown was a bustling settlement founded on the site of an old Maori village iduring the Wakamarina goldrush in the 1860s, and Richard took work there driving waggons carting timber for saw-mills in the area. Each heavily loaded wagon was drawn by a team of six horses and as many as eighteen waggons and over a hundred horses could be on the move at any one time, jostling dangerously for space along the narrow and deeply rutted Nelson-Blenheim road.

John William was nearly seven when his father enrolled him at Canvastown on 6 June, 1904. He attended this school for seven years, his last day there being 8 September, 1911.  He was joined by his younger brothers Frederick in 1906, Leonard in 1908 and Lindsey in 1909.  There were family connections on his mother's side in Canvastown as well - her sister Mary Jane Robinson (nee Aroa) lived there with her family and there would have been Robinson cousins at school with John and his brothers. Many children either walked long distances or rode horses to school. Outside of school there were always chores to be done; gathering and splitting firewood, hand-milking cows, feeding poultry, gathering eggs and plucking chickens for the pot. Entertainments were simple - playing blind-man's buff in the school playground, bird-nesting and gathering wild mushrooms and raspberries. As boys grew older they would go hunting for wild pigs, goats and deer. Sometimes silent movies would be screened at the school, and a fireworks display held at Havelock to celebrate the coronation of King George V on June 22, 1911, would have been a momentous occasion for local children.

 Richard Brunning continued to work with horses in some capacity, as groom, waggon-driver, teamster or stage coach driver at Canvastown until late in 1913. The family then moved to Rai Falls, not far from Canvastown, with Richard working as a stable man for the Newman brothers, Tom and Harry, who ran a tri-weekly coach service carrying passengers and freight between Nelson and Blenheim from 1887, adding a mail service in 1891. Newman Brothers had four stables along the Nelson-Blenheim Road, with a midway stopping point at the Rai Falls Accommodation house.
Newmans' Coach at Canvastown
We know that John Brunning trained with the 12th (Nelson) Regiment of the NZ Territorial Forces and that before the war he was working as a labourer for a Havelock business styled E.O. Bensemann & Co., Blacksmiths, Wheelwrights and Coachbuilders. Edmund Oliver Bensemann was yet another Upper Moutere acquaintance and had previously ran a similar business in the Takaka area  - he was born in 1881 at Sarau, where his parents, Johann (Dick) Diedrich Heinrich and Maria Johanna Katrina (nee Eggers) Bensemann, had settled. Edmund’s grandfather, Cordt Bensemann, was one of the original German pioneers who came to New Zealand on the St Pauli in 1843 and later helped establish the village of Sarau, where he built and ran what is now the Moutere Inn.

John Brunning enlisted in Blenheim on the 13th of February, 1917. Although fit, at 5ft 4½in (164 cm) he wasn't a big lad and probably only just scraped through on the height requirement of 5ft 4in (162 cm). He would then have been sent to one of the military camps at Trentham or Featherston for training. He was one of ten men from Marlborough for the 27th Reinforcements who were paraded in Market Place, Blenheim on the 1st of May, 1917, and farewelled by a large gathering, no doubt including  John's family. Speeches were the order of the day, with speakers including the Mayor, of Blenheim, Mr. J.J. Corry, the Rev. Knowles Smith of the Wellington Methodist Mission, and Mr R. McCallum, M.P. A rousing rendition of the National Anthem (at that time "God Save the King") concluded proceedings and as had become the custom, each departing man was issued with a book of tickets in the Marlborough Art Union raffle. I don't know how lucky they would have been feeling at that particular moment!

The Marlborough men embarked on the troopship Athenic on 16 July, 1917, arriving 16 September 1917 at Liverpool, England. They were then deployed to the Western Front, with John Brunning being posted to the 2nd Battalion, 3rd NZ (Rifles) Brigade. He came down with a bad case of German measles and was admitted to hospital at St Omer. He recovered and went back to the trenches where  he was wounded at Étaples on November 26, 1917. Upon recovery he continued fighting until July 1918, when combat stress perhaps caught up with him. He briefly went AWOL on 29th July, turning himself in to the Military Police the following day and forfeiting a day's pay in consequence. He rejoined his unit, the NZ Rifle Brigade which during August, 1918, was involved in fierce fighting to retake the German-occupied French villages of Pys and Miraumont. John was seriously wounded on the 30th of August, 1918, and died later the same day while being treated by No 3 NZ Field Ambulance.  He was buried at Grevilliers, with the Rev. T.F. Connelly conducting  the committal service. The remains of those buried at the Grevilliers cemetery, including thirty-two NZ servicemen, were later reinterred at the Adanac Military Cemetery, Miraumont, at Somme, France.

NZ transport at Miraumont , France, 27 August, 1918.
The village of Miraumont was completely destroyed
 during WWI
John’s parents were living in Blenheim, Marlborough, when the news came of their son's death so far away. The Blenheim Borough Council was moved to offer their sympathies to John Brunning's family during a meeting held on September 12, 1918: "A resolution of condolence was passed for communication to the relatives of Rifleman J.W. Brunning, who had recently made the supreme sacrifice."

Richard and Betsy's sixth son, Alan, was born in the same year John died The family stayed in Blenheim for a couple of years, shifting address twice, but had moved to the rural Spring Creek area by 1920 when young Alan contracted influenza and meningitis and within a week he was dead. Still grieving for their oldest son, this second loss was a heavy blow for both parents, but appears to have been the tipping point for Richard. He fell into a deep depression and turned to drink, becoming at times irrational. and suicidal.  He hanged himself in the cowshed of his Spring Creek home in on April 3, 1921, at the age of 59, leaving a family of seven of which the oldest child was twenty years old and the youngest eight. An inquest held the following day concluded that "Richard Brunning committed suicide by hanging himself whilst temporarily insane due to excessive indulgence in liquor".

It must have been an extremely difficult time for Betsy, who was at the time pregnant with their last child, Steve, to whom she gave birth in Nelson on 5 September, 1921, while staying with her widowed sister Matry Jane Robinson (nne Aroa), who lived at Beachville The family drifted apart, with the older children leaving home to work and Betsy, with her youngest children, employed as a cook at various sheep-stations, including the 10,000 acre Mount Gladstone Sheep Station near Molesworth Station. After 1946 she moved to the Motueka area. By then sons Herbert and Len had married and were working at Ngatimoti in the Motueka Valley, and several of her Bruning in-laws were living around  Motueka and Riwaka. Betsy worked for the Roses at Ngatimoti for a time and was living at Ngatimoti when she died of heart failure on October 8, 1950.

Canvastown Old School Boys
WWI Roll of Honour,
Canvastown memorial hall, Marlborough.

The wartime period was a difficult one for those of German descent, who often suffered abuse, bullying at school and discrimination, despite having been settled in New Zealand for many years and being naturalized British citizens. Germany as a geopolitical entity didn't even exist when the original settlers took sail for their new home. From being valued, hard-working neighbours, they suddenly became enemy aliens.

Despite this, many enlisted with the NZ Expeditionary Force, including several of John Brunning’s cousins from the Motueka area. Altogether twelve of Matthias and Lena's grandsons served during the First World War, including four of the nine sons of John's uncle, Charles Christian Bruning, who married Fanny Sarah Clarkson in 1872 and settled in Motueka. They were Maurice Henry, who served with the NZ Veterinary Corps and was wounded at Gallipoli) Henry Lionel (Harry) and Frank (who left with the Main Body on October 16, 1914 and was also wounded at Gallipoli), and Arthur Leslie, who enlisted with the Australian Imperial Army, Medical Corps, from Brisbane. He served with the 7th Field Ambulance, 6th Reinforcements, and was accidentally drowned at the Somme on 8 May, 1918,

See: The twelve grandsons of Matthias & Lena Bruning who served during WWI


John William Brunning lies beneath a headstone in the Adanac Military Cemetery, Miraumont, at Somme, France. He is commemorated at the Havelock War Memorial, in the Havelock Memorial Park, Marlborough. He is also listed on the Canvastown Old School Boys WWI Roll of Honour at the Canvastown Hall, Marlborough.


Note: the family surname is more properly spelt "Bruning" (in German "Brüning"), but Richard and his family appear to have become "Brunnings". Well before the First World War, many of the German settlers and their children chose, like Richard (who was christened Dietrich) to anglicize their christian names so as to fit better into their new, predominantly British communities. He may have deliberately changed his surname to the more English spelling "Brunning", or maybe he just gave up trying to correct it.  Certainly his son John William signed his name "Brunning" on his attestation form.

And a happy ending -  with the help of Bruning family researchers Maureen & Norman Bruning, it looks as if the long-lost John William Brunning may soon be reconnected with family, and perhaps his Great War Certificate of Service will find a new home.

Guardian, Motueka, Wednesday, 4 February, 2015.


German immigrants -  Nelson Settlements
Neuseeland, Bensemann family website.

Prow website

NZ Electoral Roll (Wairau) 1890 & !896

McMurtry, George. A Versatile Community: The History of the Settlers of Central Moutere (1992)
Pub. R.G.C. McMurtry, Nelson, NZ. Ch. 4. Hewetson Family & Ch. 11 English-German Marriage.

Rai Valley: Cyclopedia of New Zealand (1906) [Nelson, Marlborough and Westland Provincial Districts]

Auckland War Memorial Museum Database record: John William Brunning

NZ Archives, Archway military personnel record: John William Brunning.

Maureen Brunning,  To Seek My Fortune; Bruning Family History. From Mecklenburg to Moutere.(2014) Pub. Maureen & Norman Bruning, Tauranga:NZ.
A comprehensive history of Matthias and Lena Bruning, their ten children and descendants.

Sample NZEF attestation form. One of these forms had to be completed by everyone who enlisted during WWI, whether volunteer or conscript.
NZ Army website.

The Reinforcements: Marlborough Draft Farewelled

Marlborough Express, 2 May, 1917.
Note: this article incorrectly describes the men as leaving with the 29th Reinforcements  - it was in fact the 27th Reinforcements. 

Casualty List. NZ Forces: Canterbury Military District
The Colonist, 11 September, 1918.

Minutes of the Blenheim Borough Council, 12 September, 1918
Marlborough Express, 1 September, 1918, pg 4

Ashburton Guardian, 4 April, 1921 Labourer's Suicide.
"Blenheim, This Day. Richard Brunning, aged 59, agricutural labourer, committed suicide at Spring Creek by hanging. He leaves a wife and seven children. He had been drinking".

In Memoriam: J.W. Brunning
Marlborough Express, 30 August, 1919, pg. 4

Photo credits

John William Brunning
Auckland Cenotaph Database personnel record

Studio portrait of Matthias and Lena Bruning, taken in November, 1875.
(Incorrectly labelled "Mr and Mrs Martin Bruning")
W.E. Brown Collection/Nelson Provincial Museum Permanent Collection, ref: 12590

Timber felling in the Havelock area
Havelock Museum
Ref: HM1053

A Newman coach at Canvastown, near Havelock
Alexander Turnbull Library, Tyree Studio Collection (PAColl-3064)  
Reference: 10x8-0444; G  

NZ transport at Miraumont, France, during World War I
 Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013551-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Canvastown Old School Boys WWI Roll of Honour, Canvastown memorial hall, Marlborough.

NZ History website, nZ Ministry of Heritage & Culture
Photographer: John Halpin, 2006

Havelock War Memorial
Nz History website, NZ Ministry of Culture & Heritage.

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