Monday, March 12, 2012

Ancestor stories

I'm a bit obsessed right now with delving into old newspapers to find ancestor stories. Motivated largely by that old saying,''those who forget history are doomed to repeat it', I've been searching for tales from yesterday that still speak to us today. Reason: I love talking to crowds and it's great to find real, entertaining stories about real people who've gone before us.
Their DNA is inside us, after all. Well, not actual DNA, as in being flesh-and-blood descendants of people who lived in earlier times, but story DNA...the tales that tell us how things got done.
All around us is the evidence of things our forbears put together - roads, buildings, artworks, hospitals, houses and all the rest. We rarely think about the people who put sweat and energy into the communities we live in today, even though our own efforts are also going into leaving behind places that succeeding generations will inhabit.
We owe it to ancestors to know at least a little about what they did in their short time on earth, and to keep our ears pricked for things they did that might inspire us. And teach us useful lessons.
Lately, I've learnt about Ewen and Alex Alison, brothers who started ferry services on Auckland harbour back in 1881.
Ewen was the boss. He fought off the effects of a worldwide recession and beat off stiff competition from an undercutting rival to reign supreme with his paddle steamers. He ran his company for 53 years (!), was the first mayor of Takapuna and set aside reserves and parklands for people to enjoy more than a century later.
I've done this little Animoto movie about my love for old stories. Halfway through it, you'll spot one of Ewen's elegant steamers, named the Britannia. It carried 800 passengers and could run at 12 knots.
What a fine ride it must have been on the Queen Street to Devonport route. The lowest return fare Ewen ever set was two pennies or 'tuppence' as they said then. It was set in a price war with his rival, one George Quick.
The moral of the story (still relevant today): Don't ever go into a price war without first ensuring you have the biggest war chest.
PS Most of the photos in this video are from the Auckland City Libraries Sir George Grey collection. The sketches are from a lively 1880s newspaper, The Observer, accessed via - a fabulous resource for researchers.
PPS The man who wrote the quote about being doomed to repeat history was George Santayana, a Spanish-born American author of the late 19th/early 20th centuries. He put it in a book called Life of Reason. Clever chap.

No comments: