Monday, January 21, 2013

A baby's life

For $2, I bought this photo from a seller at the Blockhouse Bay Antiques & Collectibles market yesterday. On the back was the reason I bought it on a whim: handwritten in old ink -- Clement Leslie Billing, age 6 months.

I wondered how much I could find out about Clement Billing's life from public records.

When was he born? It turns out he was born 14 December 1899, but the birth was registered in early 1900 (so the latter year shows up on the BDM online database). The photo therefore comes from mid 1900. His father was William Henry Billing, a bootmaker who worked in Kingsland on New North Road (No. 131), and later had a house at 14 Haultain Street, Eden Terrace. His mother's maiden name was Emily Turner. Clement was the first of at least five children in the family. Those of his siblings I found were:

Alma Agnes Maud, born 1902 (she married Lionel Richard Maynard 18 March 1922 at St Paul's Church in Auckland)
Frederick Walter, born 1905
Ruby Claretta, born 1909 (she died, aged just 4 months on 28 January 1910, and was buried in the Wesleyan division of Waikumete Cemetery)
Lillian Evelyn Ruby, born 1912

Clement attended Seddon Memorial College, where in 1916 in the Plumbing and Sanitary Engineering department exams, he passed first grade second class in English Composition and Literature, and Practical Mathematics, second class in General Elementary Science and Trade Drawing.(Auckland Star, 22 December 1916)

Electoral rolls show he was in the Eden electorate 1928-1935. In 1928 and 1931, he lived with his parents at their Haultain Street house. During this time, he had a dreadful accident in 1932.
Four people were injured in the city and suburbs yesterday. The most serious accident occurred to a motor cyclist, Mr Clement Leslie Billing, aged 32, of the Birdwood Estate, Swanson, when he was riding his motor cycle along New North Road, Mount Albert, shortly after 5 p.m. yesterday. He collided with a horse and cart and was thrown on to the roadway, receiving severe spinal and internal injuries through being trampled upon by the frightened horse. He was taken to the Auckland Hospital by the St. John Ambulance, and his condition to-day is stated to be very serious. 
 Auckland Star 30 May 1932

Clement was obviously a survivor. He pulled through, and just three months later married Edna Eileen McKinnon on 20 August 1932. The couple were living at 4 Haultain Street at the time of the 1935 election.

By 1938, the couple were living in Pt Chevalier, where Clement won £5 in an Art Union lottery draw. (Auckland Star 4 October 1938) In the 1946 Wises Directory, he's listed living at 168 Pt Chevalier Road, with the occupation of gasfitter. That year, the electoral roll shows he was back at Haultain Street, this time no. 6. By this time, his mother Emily was a widow, living at 4 Haultain Street. The family may have had a large land holding.

From 1949-1963 he was voting in the Eden electorate, and from 1969-1981 he was in the one for New Lynn, now retired and living at 75 Kay Drive, Blockhouse Bay. His Edna died in 1972, aged 76, but Clement kept on going until his own death on 27 December 1983, having remarried at some point.His second wife outlived him, possibly for four years. Just as when he was born, Clement's death was registered later, in the new year. His ashes were buried at Waikumete Cemetery on 30 December 1983.

"Such a wonderful man," said one death notice, "was the greatest of any. A great guy. So very sadly missed and always remembered."

Today, there's nothing left of the Haultain Street residences of the Billing family, all now commercial offices and light industrial facilities. The world of 1900 which the baby in the photo saw is vastly different from today. But -- the baby certainly lived his life.

The photographer, by the way, was  Frederick William Edwards, who operated from the corner of Queen and Victoria Streets from c.1898-c.1903, fitting Clement's time period well. Source: Auckland Library's Photographers Database.


  1. Putting an ordinary person's life together like that is quite fascinating but I must remember to not tell you my name.

  2. What an interesting exercise, bringing to life a photograph that most wouldn't take a second look at. Despite your skills as a researcher it was amazing to me how quickly you did it, surely an example of how much is available online if you know where to look. Quite fascinating, and thanks for the effort.

  3. Don't worry, Andrew -- you're safe across the ditch.

    Thanks, Phil. Yes, doing most of that online (on a Sunday!!) is a benefit of our times. I don't think I have any more skills than the next person, though -- I just keep asking, "Is that all?"

  4. Ahh - but the refusal to accept a tidbit, and look for a bigger story in itself is a skill my friend. Very interesting :)

  5. We all have stories to tell. It's just that - in this busy age - most do not have the time to listen. Well done, ma'am!

  6. Lovely post Lisa :) I relate so much to finding out about the ordinary persons life..and then...some turn out to have not so ordinary connections! and

    I took over 2000 photographs of headstones at Christmas in Christchurch and Auckland that i feel would offer a story somehow LOL.... i'm feeling ovewhelmed but will have some awesome stories to tell until i kark it LOL...wonder if anyone will bother about my life? I'm sure most of the people i do short bios for would never have thought in 1000 years that someone would find their life interesting :) But we all have stories to tell!



    1. That's why I'm the weirdo poking around in old postcards and photos at antiques & collectibles places. Just looking for another story ... Cheers, Sarndra! :)

  7. What a great post. The story was a really interesting read. Love the photo!

  8. Great post to go with a lovely photo. Just found it today looking for more info on current Billings in New Zealand. Clement is a distant relative of my husband. I had found all the info listed here but I had not put it together in a short story.
    Helen in Canada