Thursday, September 5, 2013

A name on a roll of honour: William Forrest

Updated 1 November 2013.

At the time of writing this, I'm working on finding out what I can about the names on the above roll of honour from the First World War, for an article in the Point Chevalier Times. This is hung up at the Pt Chevalier RSA at the moment -- I photographed it in late June this year.

So far, I know there are men named here who worked at the nearby Auckland Mental Hospital and enrolled in the army for King and Country. One chap from Waterview. Another possibly from Surrey Crescent. I'm still working my way through, and I'm only a quarter of the way -- slowed down because of "W Forrest.".

I'm using the Cenotaph database at the Auckland War Memorial Museum website as a start off for these names -- but no one named "W Forrest" on Cenotaph matches anything that could be a man included here on this board. So, I did  search for Forrest and Point Chevalier. I found one match: William Forrest, 59 years old at the start of the war. Extraordinarily, he did indeed see active front line service during the "war to end all wars".

From the Cyclopedia of New Zealand, Vol 2, p. 845 (1902):
Mr William Forrest, J.P., is District Coroner for Ohinemuri. He was born in Argyleshire, Scotland, in 1855, and educated at Carmichael Academy, Lanarkshire. After completing his apprenticeship with his father as a stonemason at Carmichael he went to Glasgow to learn the best branches of the trade. There he attended the School of Arts in Sauchiehill Street for several sessions, and studied architectural drawing. He also attended evening science classes for a year. After two years' residence in Glasgow he returned to Carmichael, where he started with his brother James, building and contracting, under the style of J and W Forrest. The firm carried out several important works, notably one section of the Lanark Water Works, Westport new schools, etc. Mr. Forrest then went to America, where he travelled through most of the Northern States and worked at his trade for some time in Denver City, Colorado, and at Lonaconing, Washington. Returning to Scotland, he married Jessie, youngest daughter of the late Mr. P. Gibson, Lanarkshire, in December, 1882, and he and his wife sailed for New Zealand in January, 1883, in the first direct steamer, the “British King.” Mr. Forrest settled in Auckland and carried on business for several years as a builder and contractor. In 1890 he removed with his family to Palmerston North and with partners carried out the drainage works of Palmerston and the Manganoho section of the North Island Trunk Railway. Mr. Forrest went to West Australia in 1895, but, disliking the climate, returned the same year. He settled at Paeroa in 1896, and began business as a timber merchant. Mr Forrest was appointed Justice of the Peace and district coroner in 1897. He is an enthusiastic and prominent Freemason, and was mainly instrumental in founding Lodge Rangitira No. 71 at Hunterville, and Lodge Ohinemuri No. 107 in Paeroa. He takes a great interest in politics and municipal matters, and is superintendent of the Presbyterian Sunday school at Paeroa. Mr. Forrest has a family of three daughters and two sons.

He had left Paeroa for Auckland in 1910, working contracts to do with the Auckland and suburban drainage scheme, according to his obituary. He was elected to the Pt Chevalier Road Board in 1912, becoming Chairman, and so served on the Drainage Board itself. In 1913, he led the road board district’s indignation regarding the isolation hospital at the tip of Point Chevalier. He was appointed treasurer of the new Pt Chevalier Bowling Club later that year. Around this time, the firm he ran with his sons entered into a contract with the Government to construct the Okahukura Tunnel on the Stratford connection in Taranaki, the project due for completion by July 1916. (AJHR 1914 D-01)

Come the war, there was no one who could have questioned Forrest's fighting spirit or patriotism.

There was a very fair attendance at a meeting held in the Point Chevalier Hall on Tuesday evening for the purpose of forming a branch of the National Reserve. Mr W Forrest presided, and all present enrolled. The following were formed into a committee: Messrs Forrest, Dignan, Mack, Collins, Arscott, and Fitton, and Mr Martin was elected secretary. It was decided to hold the first parade end meeting of the committee in the Point Chevalier Hall on Tuesday evening next.

Auckland Star 3 March 1915

According to his obituary, he tried to join the NZ army -- but was of course turned away, due to his age (60 in 1915). Undeterred, he decided to head for England, and join the army there.

Several presentations were made last evening to Mr William Forrest, who recently resigned from the position of chairman of the Point Chevalier Road Board for the purpose of visiting England and offering his services in any capacity to the Home Government. At a parade of the Point Chevalier unit of the National Reserve, Mr Forrest was handed a handsome travelling rug by Captain T. Dignan. The branch refused to accept Mr Forrest's resignation, and asked him to retain his membership until the war was over. Members of the local Ratepayers' Association, who were present at the parade, asked Mr Forrest to accept a gold pendant, suitably inscribed, and the new chairman of the Road Board, Mr T Dignan, presented him with an inscribed silver cigar case. On all sides, Mr Forrest was the recipient of congratulations on his practical patriotism, and hopes were expressed that he would soon return to Point Chevalier and again resume his public duties.

NZ Herald 7 August 1915

Friends in his former hometown of Paeroa followed the news of his decision via the local newspaper.

I am going to England to offer my services in any capacity and in any place to which I may be sent," said Mr William Forrest a late resident of Paeroa, in explaining his resignation from the position of chairman of the Point Chevalier Road Board. Having had a lengthy experience in the organisation of business affairs, the direction of large numbers of men, and the control of machinery, Mr Forrest considers that scope for his efforts may be found in connection with the manufacture of munitions or in the transport and supplies department of the army. He is abandoning his business interests, being prepared to take cheerfully the wages of an artisan, and will leave Auckland on Saturday to join the Corinthic at Wellington. His wife and family will reside in Auckland until his return after the war.

Ohinemuri Gazette 6 August 1915

The following year, Paeroa readers were able to share the letter written by Forrest from "somewhere in France".

Mr W J Towers has received the following letter from Mr W J Forrest, under date 14th January, 1916 from "Somewhere in France"

Dear Mr Towers, —I have often been remembering you, and the more so because I neglected writing to congratulate you on being the first mayor of the new Borough of Paeroa. There is no doubt the town will progress now more than ever, and I shall rejoice accordingly, seeing I am still interested in the property values. I would like to write to many of my old friends, but time and opportunity is rather scarce. So I am writing you, and probably you will be kind enough to give my old friends what news I am sending of any interest to them, especially to Messrs McWatters, Balcke, Taylor and Nicholas, of the Gazette.

Now, even at this late date I congratulate you on your elevation, and I am quite sure that if industry, honesty, perseverance, and ability will advance Paeroa, that with you as its Mayor it will advance. Doubtless you are aware that I am, even at my years, a soldier, and am now at the front, and as close up as anyone wants to be. I am seeing much, and could tell interesting tales of aeroplanes, guns, trenches, etc. But silence is the rule of a soldier, especially is writing tabooed.

I am in excellent health; indeed, I am fitter now than I have been for some years, and am up to the neck in duties which occupy me from 6 am until about 8 pm. I have usually long journeys to-and-fro every day and only my legs to carry me. I am of course, not a combatant, but am in the 3rd Labour Battalion of the Royal Engineers, and my duties are quite familiar to me. I am as happy as a cricket and quite contented, and very glad that I came, because I feel I am successfully "doing my little bit." I have been drilled and trained for months, and am nearly a month out here, right in the middle of the thick of it. I am quite comfortable too, and a spice of danger is only sauce to one when danger is so common. Every Tommy is extremely cheerful, often complaining and grumbling, and always ending up with a laugh and a song. The troops are healthy, well-fed, and well provided for in every way. The way the great campaign is worked is almost marvellous, every little group busy, and all linked together, producing no chaos, which it often looks like, but a complete chain of marvellous efficiency.

I will not stop to talk much of the French peasants, we do not hold them in high esteem. They use the flail to thrash, and also the horse on the tread-mill to work the thrashing machine. They are 200 years behind England, and 300 years behind New Zealand in all that pertains to farming and farm buildings.

It is true, however, that they are very industrious, and cultivate every inch of land. The farms are owned in small areas, and are usually, I should say, from 10 to 20 acres, often only an acre, and very seldom have they any dividing fences. It has been an unusually mild winter, and I am not feeling the cold very much, but it is wetter than New Zealand, and that is our worst trouble. I have only one suit, and when it gets wet, as it almost always is ever since I came, it has to dry on our backs, which results in my case of a continual renewal of a cold I have had for three months.

I am only permitted to write once each week, that is why I cannot write to all my friends. Should you care to write me (and your letter would be very welcome) my address, is Sergt. W. Forrest, 124745, 3rd Labour Battalion Company, Royal Engineers, British Expeditionary Force, France. I can receive as many letters as I like, because inward letters are not censored, but outward letters are, and so to cut down the necessity for a big army of censor officers, only one letter a week is allowed. I have no knowledge of my own except what I deduce from reading and observation, but I expect peace will be declared about November next, at latest, and every one of us here would rather keep on for years than have peace (much as we desire it) until we have actually hammered the German Huns properly, and we will do it too. My kindest regards to Mrs Towers, and to yourself and family, and all old friends, including Messrs de Castro, Cassrels, Searle, Wall, D J Evans, Spry, and Mr Wilson of the Bank of New Zealand. Wishing you a happy new year, I am yours very sincerely, WILLIAM FORREST.

Ohinemuri Gazette 1 March 1916

Later that year, Forrest's confidence received a nasty blow.

Lieutenant William Forrest, Royal Fusiliers (Morningside, Auckland), is quite fit again now. He was laid-up by shell shock, followed by influenza, and was a patient at Mrs Mitchison's Hospital, The Clock House, Chelsea. Lieutenant Forrest is under orders for overseas with one of the Labour companies.

The Press (Lyttleton) 27 July 1917

The war had not yet finished with William Forrest.
Lieut. William Forrest, Royal Fusiliers (Morningside, Auckland), contracted trench fever while on service in France and is at present relegated to home duty. Lieut. Forrest suffered from shell shock last year, but returned to the front with a Labour Company.

Evening Post 7 June 1918

Lieutenant William Forrest, R.E., Auckland, has been boarded out of the Army "permanently medically unfit," and hopes to return to the Dominion in August. Lieutenant Forrest, who is 64 years of age, is a well-known contractor in Auckland. He came to England in 1915, and enlisted as a private in the Royal Engineers, being shortly afterwards promoted sergeant in the 12th Labour Battalion. Proceeding to France in December, he joined the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Engineers, and in August 1916, received his commission in the 37th Labour Battalion Royal Fusiliers, with whom he served, through the Somme. He was invalided to England with shell-shock, and remained here eleven months convalescing. On returning to France, however, he was unfortunate enough to contract trench fever, and on coming back to England was posted to the London District Labour centre.

Evening Post 7 October 1919

In all he served a total of 4½ years in service, both at the front and confined to hospitals. He was confined to yet another military hospital on his return for another 4½ months. (Ohinemuri Gazette 8 July 1921) As soon as he was released, he returned to his home on Western Springs Road, Morningside, and petitioned the Government for compensation for lost equipment from his 1913 contract for the Okahukura Tunnel which (he claimed) had been stopped by the war conditions in March-April 1915 (Forrest had apparently received smaller progress payments than had been agreed to, so work slowed down and eventually stopped, due to his financial difficulties). The tunnel contract then given to another syndicate which he had an interest in which also failed to complete the contract. Forrest’s assets and plant, including a sawmill, was taken by the government. (The tunnel was eventually completed by the government in 1920-21). He claimed £11,000 losses, but received after several petitions only around £300 in compensation (the project had cost the government a considerable amount of money over and above original budget). He described himself in the Auckland newspapers as financially ruined, and faded out from history. He retired back to Paeroa in 1925, and died 28 January 1937 at Thames Hospital, aged 82.

See also: The Ohinemuri Journal - "William Forrest" and "Family Roots

The troublesome Okahukura Tunnel, after a washout in the 1930s. 
Auckland Star, 25 March 1933.

Update 1 November 2013:
While compiling information in Papers Past on William Forrest, I came upon the following in the Evening Post which sent me slightly on the wrong path.

Lieutenant William Forrest, R.E., Auckland, has been boarded out of the Army "permanently medically unfit," and hopes to return to the Dominion in August. Lieutenant Forrest, who is 64 years of age, is a well-known contractor in Auckland. He came to England in 1915, and enlisted as a private in the Royal Engineers, being shortly afterwards promoted sergeant in the 12th Labour Battalion. Proceeding to France in December, he joined the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Engineers, and in August 1916, received his commission in the 37th Labour Battalion Royal Fusiliers, with whom he served, through the Somme. He was invalided to England with shell-shock, and remained here eleven months convalescing. On returning to France, however, he was unfortunate enough to contract trench fever, and on coming back to England was posted to the London District Labour centre. One of Lieutenant Forrest's sons was killed in France in 1917. 

Evening Post 7 October 1919

As has been pointed out to me this week by one of William Forrest's descendants, Karl Smith -- the son of a William Forrest killed in France in 1917 (which turns out to be Hugh Alexander Forrest) wasn't one of the sons of the William Forrest who is the subject of this post. Our man had two sons, Thomas and John, and they didn't see active service.

So -- how did the Evening Post get things wrong?

The unfortunate Hugh Alexander Forrest who died  12 October 1917 was the son of William and Jessie Forrest of 31 Old Lake Road, Devonport. His parents left Devonport later that year. It's not certain whether or not Hugh's death influenced that. By coincidence, not only did this William marry another Jessie -- he was also a contractor.

The William Forrest of Pt Chevalier/Morningside/Paeroa is also said to have married a woman named Jessie, in all the outstanding biographical notes. Certainly in anything the Evening Post would have had to hand. Except for one real difference: our Mrs Forrest's name was Janet. She was probably known as Jessie to her family and friends, and that's why it was passed on into the articles (confusing yours truly!). She passed away in 1942, and her obituary is in the Auckland Star.
(O.C.) PAEROA, this day.
The death has occurred of Mrs. Janet Forrest, an old identity of the town, at the age of 85 years. Mrs. Forrest arrived in New Zealand with her husband in 1883, travelling on the first direct steamer, British King. After staying some time in Auckland, she came to Paeroa. She is survived by two sons, two daughters, 20 grandchildren and 12 great grandchildren.
Auckland Star 15 May 1942

William and Janet's children were:

Susan Barrie (b.1883). She married Charles Arthur Parker in 1915
John William (b.1885)
Thomas Ninian (b.1890)
Grace Isabella (1895). She married Robert Skilbeck Hutchinson in 1919.

Source: BDM database


  1. This comment accidentally deleted. From Simon:

    "Fascinating stuff! Would you ever be able to do a piece on the Spragg Memorial above Cornwallis. A fascinating thing out in the middle of nowhere. I know it was erected for a son who died in a plane crash during WW1 but that's about all.

    Simon "

  2. That memorial is linked to the one in the George Maxwell Memorial Cemetery, for the same young man.

  3. I know the British passed legislation that the lads had to lie in the country where they fell, preferably in a personalised grave. This was, presumably, to stop wealthy families from bringing their sons' bodies back and burying them in Britain with great honour, while working families could give nothing to their sons.

    But was that legislation applicable to New Zealand and Australian parents who lost their sons? I am asking this because honour boards as in your photo, while heart felt, could not give a private place for parents and widows to grieve and honour the soldier.

  4. I don't know. I'll put your question to a history/genealogy group to see if they know the answer.

  5. Here's one answer:

    "It was relatively early on that the decision was made not to repatriate further bodies to the UK, even if the family could afford it. I don't know if we had specific legislation in place about it down here, but really it would have been totally impractical to bring bodies all the way back here.

    "However, I do know that originally there was a charge of 3 1/2 pence per letter for an epitaph on a headstone. Two countries objected to this (due to it being unfair for families of lesser means who might not be able to afford an epitaph): Canada and New Zealand. How the governments reacted, however, was different. Canada's government funded the epitaphs whilst New Zealand's government said that if some people could not afford one, then no-one could have one. Hence, the CWGC headstones of NZ soldiers do no have epitaphs (unless they're an unknown NZ soldier, in which case they have the standard "Known unto god" epitaph written by Kipling)."

  6. William Forrest was a cousin of George Fowlds from Mt Albert, they were related through their mothers who were sisters (Craigs) from Ayrshire in Scotland, George Fowlds worked for William Forrest when he first arrived in NZ from South Africa in about 1884.