First World War centenary: The New Zealand and Maori soldiers who enlivened Hornchurch during the conflict
PUBLISHED: 12:30 14 May 2014
The “Great War” was one of the most turbulent periods for communities during the 20th century, with families waving goodbye to sons, brothers and fathers, and uncertainty rife about when the conflict would finally end.
But despite the tragedies of the time, joy could still be had – as the villagers of Hornchurch discovered.
In 1916, New Zealand and Maori soldiers, including a self-declared prince, arrived and formed a strong bond with residents.
The location was Grey Towers, a mansion which was transformed into a camp and chosen in January 1916 to be England’s first depot for the New Zealand contingent.
In his book Hornchurch during the Great War, published in 1920, Charles Thomas Perfect said: “There were few Hornchurch folk who did not feel honoured by the prospect of entertaining these warriors.”
The contingent embarked on their first major action on the Western Front that year, with large numbers of wounded arriving in England in April and May.
Officials soon realised the site was too small, so the decision was made to establish a Grey Towers hospital.
The New Zealand Convalescent Hospital opened in July 1916 with 1,500 beds, later extended to 2,000 and then 2,500. The first patients were transferred from a hospital in Epsom, Surrey.
The aim was to send soldiers back to the frontline in six months. If this was not possible they were sent back to New Zealand, although some did return to the Front later on.
The hospital boasted two large huts, with one sponsored by the YMCA, surgical and electro-massage departments, sports teams, swimming baths and education classes.
Among the contingent were 102 Maori soldiers from the island of Niue, in the South Pacific, who arrived in June 1916.
Charles Perfect described a performance at the Drill Hall, High Street, on March 22, 1916.
He said: “Wonderful war dance or Haka performed by Maoris who fought at Gallipoli. We were held spellbound by the fantastic movements.”
One of the group was His Highness the Prince Rangitira – also known as Prince Moki. He was a private who had fought in Egypt.
In the book My Heart is Crying a Little: Niue Island Involvement in the Great War 1914-1918, by Margaret Pointer and translated by Kalaisi Folau, it is argued Moki was not a real prince.
“Although not related to Togia the Patuiki of Niue [king], Moki was the only representative of Fatiau on the south coast of the island.
“Togia was from Tuapa. Furthermore the office was not hereditary. Moki not only gained himself the title of his highness but also the Maori title Rangitira [chief].”
Despite this, “Moki certainly has a place in Hornchurch history”.
The climate here was difficult for the Maoris to adjust to and sadly several died from pneumonia, including 21-year-old Moki.
Four were buried in St Andrew’s Church, Hornchurch, with Moki’s service on July 3, 1916.
In Hornchurch and the New Zealand Connection, by B. Mannox, the author wrote: “Many of them [already] dressed in black to mourn their own dead came to pay their last respects to a man they had come to know and like.”
The other men were privates Vasau, 22, Filitoua, 22, and Taleva, 25. Prince Moki was the last Niuean to die in Hornchurch.
In June 1919, the New Zealand contingent left Grey Towers. But their experiences would not be forgotten.
In a letter to the vicar of Hornchurch, the High Commissioner of New Zealand Thomas Mackenzie, said: “Those of our soldiers who had never seen this country before looked forward [to visiting] with pleasurable anticipation.
“Their expectations have been more than realised. The hospitality you have extended will be remembered.”
Did a member of your family serve in the First World War? Do you have stories or memories from the period that you would like to share? Have you uncovered little-known facts or researched a particular subject to do with the war?
We would love to hear from our readers to shape our coverage of the centenary year.
Get in touch through Twitter or Facebook, email reporter Beth Wyatt at email@example.com, call 020 8477 3988 or write to Beth Wyatt, Romford Recorder, 539 High Road, Ilford, IG1 1UD, to take part.