John Fraser and the Archives

Genealogists and historians alike have apparently been quite excited by the public release earlier this month of the 1940 US Census, and with good reason.  There is a great deal of information available about a pivotal time in the history of the world.  Compared to the 2010 census, the 1940 might also be more revealing, as families were asked about 65 questions compared to an average of 10 questions most recently.  However, those 65 questions will probably not help me very much, as my family did not come to the United States until 1969.  Oh, it’s possible I’ll find something of interest in there when I begin to seriously look at some branches that had forays to the US prior to my own emigration, but meanwhile all the excitement seems to be passing me by.

That’s all right, however, as this month did drop a nice little present into my lap as well, so I needn’t feel completely left out.

My grandfather, John Fraser, born and died in New Zealand, was a war veteran.  While the 1940 Census may be of special interest to those researching the Second World War, John was a veteran of the First, or as it was known in his time, the Great War.  I knew this, and from family oral history I knew that he was a veteran of Gallipoli and France, and that somewhere along the way he was wounded, a wound which would give him pain for the rest of his life.  This, however, was about all I knew.  I never did get to meet my grandfather; he died five months before I was born.

Discussions with my father and my uncle have shed a little light on John’s character and history, but much about him remains unknown to me.  I know that he was born in 1894 in Tauranga on the Bay of Plenty.  I know that his father died when he was only 11, and although his father appears to have had a little money, none of it seems to have been left to the family after his death.  I know that by the age of 12 he was working to help support the family, and probably he never got much in the way of a formal education after that point.  A few years later, probably about the time he was 17, his mother emigrated to Australia, where she would spend the rest of her life, but it isn’t entirely clear if John went with her.  His two sisters both ended up living in Australia as adults, and John certainly spent some time there, but he and his older brother Robert both were back in New Zealand at least by the time war broke out in 1914.  In those few years from about 1911 to 1914 he “carried his swag” (to use my uncle’s words) around Australia and even apparently spent a little time working for a circus.  I have no documentation of these movements, however.

What is documented is that in 1914 John Fraser signed up with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.  Actually, eleven different John Frasers signed up that year, and six of them had no middle name, like my grandfather (an oddity, that, as his brother had a middle name, his father had a middle name, he gave all his children two middles names each), which doesn’t exactly make it easy to isolate which one was him.  However, of those six, only one was in the Auckland Military District (which would definitely have included Tauranga), and according to the New Zealand Army WWI Nominal Rolls, that one gave as his next of kin Mrs Annie Fraser, mother, of 99 Victoria St, Darlinghurst, Sydney.  My great-grandmother was Mrs Sarah Annie Fraser (née Cliffe), and she moved to Sydney around 1911, where she lived until her death in 1936.  By 1936 she had a different address than Victoria St, but over that space of time it’s entirely likely she moved at least once, and besides, the two addresses are an 8-minute walk from each other.  She didn’t move far.  As for calling herself by her middle name, I don’t know if that was her custom, but her mother was also Sarah so it would not be unusual for her to grow up being called by her middle name.  She called her firstborn daughter Annie, so it seems she was fond of the name, and that Annie then went on to be known by her middle name.  There seems to be some support for the notion that Sarah Annie Fraser would be known as Annie.

The evidence that this is my John Fraser seems quite strong, but it’s still not conclusive, and we still don’t know much about what he did other than sign up.

Enter Archives New Zealand, the official archival office of the New Zealand government.  The Archives holds most of the older war records (the Defence Force keeps everything more recent), and they have published an index to their holdings online.  Now, as you might imagine, there are many mentions of a John Fraser in the government archives, but most of them have nothing to do with my family.  Twenty-two of them are WWI personnel records, nine with no middle name, and most of them have only the index online.  How to find the right one?

Well, going back to the Nominal Rolls, which have been digitized on, and assuming the record I found earlier is my John, I have a critical piece of unique identifying information:  his regimental number.  If I’ve got the right man, my John Fraser was number 13/993a in the NZ Army, and that number 13/993a, appears in the Archives index.  We have a match.

Drilling into the index, I come across the statement “Access to this record has been restricted… for preservation reasons,” which means the microfilm on which the record is kept has become fragile.  They aren’t letting people handle and view the microfilm.  The restriction will next be reviewed in 2015.

For a moment I have a sinking feeling, akin to when you find a record and realize it will require a personal visit on the far side of the world to see it.  Not that I wouldn’t love to travel back to New Zealand and spend time digging around, but it’s not in the cards for this year.  Or next.

Further reading, however, reveals that for a nominal fee I can ask the Archives personnel to digitize the record and make it available online.  Presto!  I quickly submit my application, pay my fee, and now I am just waiting for the result.  The details of this record should make it absolutely clear if I have the right man, since it should list details about his birth and next of kin that are known to me.  Beyond that, the record should give a history of his movements during the war, his wounds, and any medals he might have earned.

So now we wait.  While waiting, however, I decided to google a bit more using some of the other information I gleaned from John Fraser 13/993a’s record in the Nominal Rolls.  From that scant record, I know that he joined the Auckland Mounted Rifles and was part of the Third Reinforcements.  That information was enough to lead me to the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Association, an historical society dedicated to this particular subgroup of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.  The Auckland Mounted Rifles have their own page within this group, and there’s a great deal of history particular to this unit.

And just while writing this, I discovered that the digitized copy has become available.  Serendipitous timing!  Actually, it’s probably been available for some days, but I’ve been waiting for an email to tell me that, and I just happened to go back to the website and look and there it was.  Now the record is publicly available to all who are interested (and indeed, I could use some help deciphering some of the handwriting, as I’m terrible at that), but I can tell you straight off, based on the particulars in the file, that this is indeed my John Fraser.  From a quick glance I see a record of his being wounded in the Gallipoli campaign seriously enough that he was discharged as physically unfit for duty, and then not long after being returned to New Zealand he managed to enlist again, this time in an infantry battalion, and was sent off to France, where he was wounded again!  No wonder he had pain for life.  On this second deployment it appears he was promoted at least once to Lance Corporal.  It also appears that he had a period of rebelliousness, as there are some mentions of forfeiture of pay and so forth, apparently for unauthorized absences.  I’ll have to read those more carefully.  Nevertheless, this fits with what my father has previously told me about his father, that he was wounded in Gallipoli, that he was discharged for the wound, and that he then signed up again to go to France, where he was wounded a second time.

It seems it was this second wound which put him in hospital in England for a while, and the family history is that this is where he met his wife, my grandmother, while she was working there as a nurse.

But that story will have to wait for another time.



The estimate from the British National Archives came back fairly quick.  It seems the ‘pouch’ is only two pages, so that’s not much.  However, their charge to make a copy is £3.50 per page, and to have them mail it via airmail (the cheapest option) is another £11 (I have no idea why sending the equivalent of a two-page letter should cost so much).  I’ve asked for a revised estimate to have it made available for digital download instead, but I know what that will end up being:  no charge for the download, but the same per-page copying charge.

By contrast, the New Zealand Defence Force Archives sent me a file by parcel post with dozens of pages — for no charge at all.

That’s not to say that all the New Zealand archive sources are free.  The Births, Deaths, and Marriages office of the Department of Internal Affairs charges NZ$20 per registry copy, and NZ$26 for a certificate (but they don’t charge for postage, regardless of the destination).  I don’t know yet if the records from the Wellington City Archives will have a charge; they’ll let me know when they locate the record (I think I’m in a queue for that service).

ScotlandsPeople, a government office/website geared at Scottish genealogical information, has a different system.  There you purchase ‘credits’ for £7 per batch of 30.  Then it costs 1 credit to view a page of search results (this feels silly to me), and 5 credits to view and download an ‘image’ (which is essentially the document of interest).  It makes no difference how many pages comprise the document, however.  I thought this was going to be expensive, until I encountered the National Archives fee structure.  Now ScotlandsPeople feels positively cheap.

This is in contrast to online services like, which uses a flat monthly or annual membership fee.  Once the flat fee is paid, you have unlimited access to whatever they have until your membership expires.  It might seem expensive up front, at least for a ‘worldwide’ account, but pretty quickly one realizes what a great value it is.

On the other hand, is free.  They don’t have quite as much data as Ancestry, and the interface is not quite as nice, but they have different data, some of which is not available on Ancestry.  They’re especially good for UK census data.  Really, it seems that one needs to consult both.

Oh, and did I mention about the Yatman family history book?  My uncle confirmed that it was indeed the book he had referenced, and what’s more he had a spare copy to send me.  That’s $325 saved right there.  Thank you, Brian!

Of course, I’m not yet at the phase of travelling overseas for in-person research.

Gathering Data

I keep thinking I’m just about ready to publish the next piece about Captain Fraser, that I’ve found just about all the information I’m going to find and that I just need to go with it, and then suddenly a whole new trove of data — important data — opens up for me.  Yes, yes, we now have the basic facts of his life, birth, marriage, divorce, marriage, emigration, divorce, marriage, etc.  We know where he worked and basically what he did.  But records thought lost and unreconstructable are now proving to be available in archives, or sections within those archives, formerly unknown to me.  New avenues of research are appearing before me that are not just filled with trivia, but with the details that add life to his story, color to his sketch, and that will perhaps transport us back a little ways in time to put us briefly into his shoes.  I can almost smell the cordite and fear after the torpedo hit.  I can just about feel the cold of the Russian Arctic Convoys.  I can hear the angry longshoremen striking in Auckland Harbour.  Their voices are calling to me.  I just need… a little… more…

The New Zealand Defence Force Archives have proven their worth.  Included within the folder that came by post are copies of correspondence between a young Naval Reserve Lieutenant and the Navy Board about training exercises and promotions.  Enticing details on letterheads give clues about the Reserve Officer’s civilian job and life, such as a request for compassionate leave before the birth of a child, and the names of the merchant ships to which he was then assigned.  A fourteen-year period of the young Robert Fraser’s life emerges in a little more clarity.  Still, he didn’t enlist in the Naval Reserve until 1950, and by then he had already earned his Merchant Navy Master’s Certificate and been at sea for twelve years.  We need more.  We need to know about the Union Steam Ship Company.

And a search, often conducted, finally leads us to a new source.  A discussion board for ship enthusiasts and old sailors, Ships Nostalgia, has an entire forum for the Union Company!  I posted a question there to see if perhaps anyone who sailed with my father might recall him, and within a matter of hours someone replied to tell me where I might even find a photo taken of my father upon his promotion to Master (the caption says January 1957, but I believe this is incorrect; from other sources I believe the correct date is early 1956 or even late 1955):

Wellington Maritime Museum, New Zealand Ship and Marine Society

That’s him, all right, at the age of 35.  My correspondent went on to tell me that the Wellington City Archives kept copies of all the records, including personal files, of the Union Company, because the company with its 125-year history is considered significant to the national history.  For half of its existence it was the largest private employer in all of New Zealand.  So, I wrote to the Wellington City Archives, and they have agreed to search their files for my father.  That search is still ongoing at this writing, and I’m not certain how long it may take.

Before joining the Union Company, however, as a Cadet Robert Fraser worked for the British merchant company J & C Harrison’s, serving on at least three of their ships during the early years of the war.  That record, or rather his “seaman’s pouch”, has turned up with the British National Archives (aka Public Records Office), and I am currently awaiting an estimate on the cost of copying and posting it.  Since I’m not sure just how many pages might comprise the record, I don’t yet know if it will be cheap or expensive, but I expect it will be more on the inexpensive side.

In the midst of this research, I came across one final little oddity.  The New Zealand Defence Forces, just this year, have created a new medal, retroactive, to recognize those with at least three years of service in the post-war years.  With fourteen years in the Royal New Zealand Naval Reserve, my father qualifies.  It seems he might be receiving one last medal for his service to add to his collection, the New Zealand Defence Service Medal.  When I called him up and mentioned his medals (he has six now), he nonchalantly declaimed “oh, I don’t care about medals.”  When I mentioned that it looked like he would be getting a seventh, after all these years, his response was “Really?” and he got quite excited.  Doesn’t care, eh?  It seems deep down we all like to be recognized for our achievements, even if the proper response is to act as if we don’t.  It’s ok, Dad.  You certainly earned it.

Captain Fraser 1

A good place to start is with those still around to tell us their stories, and so a week ago I sat down with my father, set my iPhone in front of him on the Voice Memos app, and asked him to talk about anything he liked.  He was uncertain at first, even said I shouldn’t have told him I was recording so that he’d be more natural, but it didn’t take long before he forgot all about the recording device and just talked, and talked, and talked.

Mostly he talked about his time at sea, as those are the stories he remembers best and most likes to tell, and of course I had heard some of them before.  In times past he would suddenly launch into a detailed rendition about some naval engagement in World War II, and I would always regret that I didn’t have a tape recorder handy.  This time, with a little prompting, he went into much more detail, and the larger story of his early life began to emerge.  Before we were done that evening, I had recorded over an hour of our conversation, which I am still transcribing.  We covered the period of his life in some detail from the age of 17 until his late 20s, which covers the war years through obtaining his Master’s Certificate as a merchant mariner.  We touched on later events in a little less detail up until the time of his emigration to the United States at the age of 48, not much older than I am now.  I expect to follow up with him when he’s ready to go back into this period (1945-1969) in more detail, and also to press on to the later years, when of course I was more present in the picture and have a few memories of my own to complement.

Our discussion naturally raised more questions and left me with some leads for further investigation.  He mentioned attending “Clifton College” or the “University of Clifton” in Bristol, England, in 1938, studying in their Department of Navigation.  So, I contacted the Assistant Keeper of the Archives for Clifton College, which is a well-regarded public school (private school to Americans), knowing that it didn’t seem the sort of institution which would be training merchant mariners.  It is really more of a university-prep high school, and indeed the Archivist confirmed that my father was not on their rolls.  He suggested, however, that I try the City College of Bristol, which does have a marine studies program today.  I am waiting to hear back from them.

My father served on ships belonging to the J & C Harrison company out of England, but J & C Harrison is now out of business after having run steamships around the world for nearly 100 years.  He then served aboard ships for the Union Steamship Company of New Zealand; they too are now defunct.

Southerly aspect from Norwich Quay. At No.4 Wh...
Union Steamship Company vessel MV Kaimiro at Lyttelton, New Zealand, in 1956

However, I have contacted Maritime New Zealand, which in the 40s and 50s was known as the Marine Department, and from them obtained a scan of handwritten entries in their register showing the dates my father’s 1st Mate‘s and then Master‘s Certificates were issued.  His received his 2nd Mate‘s Certificate in England, so they don’t have a direct record of that.  Unfortunately the actual Certificates, along with his papers detailing the ships he served aboard, have been mislaid during a house move in recent years, which is something of a tragedy.  I do hope that perhaps we will still find them among papers held in storage, but my confidence in this is not high.

I do have, however, a crew manifest from the Hartlepool upon her arrival in Astoria, Oregon, from Nagoya, Japan, in April 1939, in which my father’s name appears as a Cadet.  I also have a document from the British National Archives detailing one or more of the medals he was awarded for service aboard merchant ships during the war.  The actual medals still hang upon his wall in a frame.

Together we also applied for a copy of his service record from the New Zealand Defence Force Archives, as he was an active member and officer of the Royal New Zealand Naval Reserve.  I am still waiting to hear back, but as this is happening by regular postal mail, it may take a while.  It appears similar records may exist with the British Royal Naval Reserve and merchant service, but most of these do not appear to be available online; they will eventually require a personal visit to their offices.  Fortunately, I may be able to call upon family in England to help with that.

Slowly, piece by piece, his life is coming together as a coherent narrative.  For these early years, at least, it is a narrative of adventure, a boy running off to sea to find his future, a war shaping the boy into a man, and a man coming home only to sail over the horizon once more, commanding ships as they ply all the waters of the world.  There are torpedoes and dive bombers, cold Russian ports and warmer Pacific ones, romance across the Atlantic, and love found while far from home.

The Time Thief

Why are so many amateur genealogists retired?  Simple answer:  genealogy is time-consuming.  Don’t get me wrong, the detective work is fun, but after the initial rush when historical records just seem to fall in your lap, things really slow down and every new fact is hard-won, often involving many hours of research to locate and confirm.  For those who, like me, are still at work, weeks may pass between data points discovered.

So I find time wherever I can.  Sometimes I have twenty minutes at lunch, sometimes an hour in the evening, and like anything else, the context switch is expensive.  Computer scientists are familiar with this concept, the price (in time) paid to have a processor swap in and out of execution threads.  It works the same with people:  multitasking is expensive because of the time lost getting back up to speed on something after a context switch.  Everything is so much more efficient if one can just focus on it for several hours at a time, but those hours are necessarily taken at the expense of something else.

There is another aspect to time here, however.  Perhaps like many with this interest, I planned to research my roots “someday,” and it was only when I was laid up for a week with an injury that I felt “someday” had arrived and I began in earnest.  There is a cost to this delay:  those with direct memories of facts and events of interest are now getting on in years and may not be around later to tell what they know.  My father is now 90 years old, and his memory is not what it was even just a few years ago.  Names, dates, and places become confused, and everything must be carefully cross-checked.  He is also interested in seeing the results of my work, seeing his own links to ancestors — who knows, perhaps some famous ones? — and said to me pretty directly “You’d better hurry; I may not have much time, you know.”

So, I do feel a certain sense of urgency, and I am refocusing my research to fill in life details for more recent ancestors.  I know my father would like to know more about those a few generations back — his father never told him much about his grandfather — but his own story is so interesting that I want to make sure I get it right.  The stories of those more ancient will still be there waiting to speak to me.  Time is on their side; it is only the living who must steal it when they can.