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The gentleman undertaker from Gravesend was an intriguing man.


Not that he ever described himself as a gentleman and an undertaker at the same time.


And he wasn't, strictly speaking, from Gravesend, but he did live for a time at its suburb Milton-next-Gravesend.


Joseph John POPPLEWELL was fourth in a line of Josephs. There was Joseph the defrocked Congregationalist minister and Joseph the Yorkshire tradesman and Joseph the London coal merchant and publican, but they all have their own stories to tell.


Then came Joseph John.


Born at York Place in Lambeth, London, on August 22, 1827, where his father owned a coal business, Joseph John was on September 9 taken for baptism not to St Mary's, the parish church of Lambeth, but to St Margaret's in Westminster, across the Thames, and in the shadow of Parliament and Westminster Abbey. This is the parish church of members of the House of Commons, but it was more likely practicality than a desire to mix with the rulers of the land that led the Popplewells to St Margarets. It was closer to York Place than St Marys, and Joseph's father had an interest in a coal merchant's business at St Peter's Wharf on Millbank Street, just up-river from Parliament.


Joseph John grew up familiar with those Westminster buildings which are at the core of British history. By the time he was three his father was wharfinger of St Peter's Wharf and the family had moved to live there. St Peter's Wharf was a busy place, receiving coal by barges and lighters which had unloaded coastal colliers in the Pool of London, below London Bridge, and supplying it to households, businesses and the several gas works which had sprung up in Westminster.


The wharf was almost right next to Parliament, separated only by Abingdon Wharf, which had been the site of the Abbot's mill, now named to commemorate the residence in the area of the Earl of Abingdon. St Peter's Wharf doubtless received its name from the Monastery of St Peter, which Westminster Abbey was part of until the reformation.


The family was still living at St Peter's Wharf in 1834 when a piece of bureaucratic nonsense caused the destruction of Parliament. Until it was abolished in 1826, the Court of the Exchequer had kept its records on a system of tallies and foils - notched elm sticks split in half, one half being kept by the court, the other being a receipt for payments made to the court. In 1834 it was decided to dispose of these sticks. Instead of allowing the "miserable people" who lived in the neighbourhood to take them away as firewood, it was decided they should be burned in a big furnace beneath the House of Lords chamber. By early the next morning almost the entire Palace of Westminster was in ruins.


It is tempting to imagine the Popplewell family watching the fire from the safety of their nearby wharf. While three regiments of the Guards and an attachment of Cavalry vainly helped fight the fire, the public cheered and clapped as the roofs fell in. Were the neighbouring Popplewells among them.


Certainly young Joseph must have been familiar with the construction of the new Parliament Buildings, which began in 1837, when he was 10. They were built well out into the river, and their completion led some years later to the closure of the warren of wharfs upstream of the new edifice. Victoria Tower gardens, on reclaimed land, now occupy the site of these wharfs, including St Peter's Wharf.


We lose sight of the family for a time, from 1839 when they were still at St Peters' Wharf until January 12, 1848, when Joseph John, now aged 20, married Susannah Elizabeth SINGLETON in the parish church of Holy Trinity at Milton-next-Gravesend. Susanah was the daughter of Susanna (nee OGILVIE) and Joseph SINGLETON, a barge master on the Thames.


Joseph John described himself as an accountant at the time of his marriage, and his father as a coal merchant. However shortly afterwards his father re-appears in London as the landlord of The Rose and Thistle in, Westminster. By 1851 he had moved to the Flying Horse in Stangate, Lambeth, where he died in 1852 of a diseased liver.


Joseph John and Susannah lived with her parents at 4 Milton Place, Milton. Their first child, Joseph Singleton POPPLEWELL was born on January 26, 1849, and the second, Cecelia Maria POPPLEWELL, on October 12, 1850. When she registered the births, Susannah described Joseph John as a gentleman, which could have meant anything from a well-to-do accountant to unemployed.


Susannah's father died of fever on September 6, 1848, aged 53, and her mother turned the family home into a lodging house, where the young POPPLEWELL family continued to live, along with the other lodgers, including a 57-year-old superannuitant and his wife of the same age who was an excise clerk.


In 1851, on August 14, the POPPLEWELLs boarded the 580 ton barque Cornwall, the 18th vessel of the Canterbury Association, at Gravesend. At 1.30 am the following day the ship weighed anchor, anchoring of Ramsgate at 2 pm with the wind and tide against it.


The next night came the first excitement. The chaplain, Rev Josiah TWIGGER, bolted from his cabin saying the captain and passengers were trying to murder him, and that would swim to shore and shoot the first person who tried to stop him. The surgeon, John Roy PHILIP, and others overpowered him and locked him in his cabin. A few days sea-sickness seem to have cured him as he was soon celebrating Divine Service whenever the weather was good.


Joseph John acted as assistant surgeon to Philip on the voyage, and Susannah as matron. What their qualifications were is unknown, except perhaps that were already among the steerage passengers, a place where Philip was in all likelihood reluctant to spend too long. They were paid 10 and 5 respectively for their services on the voyage, Joseph signing both receipts in a very neat fashion.


They arrived at Lyttelton on December 10. The raw young settlement, not quite a year old, was still finding its feet. Two days after they arrived the first Canterbury anniversary was celebrated.


What caused them to leave home and family and travel to a virtually unknown land?


The Canterbury Association was actively recruiting workers for its Canterbury settlement in 1851. Joseph John appears to have lost contact with his parents, and Susannah's father had died. Possibly her mother had also. Possibly Joseph's changed status from "accountant" to "gentleman" had meant a change of employment situation for him. All topics for further research, and all other stories.


Whatever caused the change, after almost four months at sea they eventually set up house in Lyttelton, after Joseph John and Susannah had spent a few nights in room A1 of the Lyttelton barracks. The register does not mention where the two children stayed.


We don't know if the family visited the new town of Christchurch, which would have meant a risky trip by small boat down the harbour and across the Sumner bar, or a lengthy trudge across the Bridle Track over the Port Hills.


We do know that Joseph John eventually found work with a Mr Taylor, a builder and undertaker in Oxford Street, Lyttelton. By 1857 he was a partner in the firm of Taylor and Popplewell, and was describing himself as a carpenter. They advertised "doors, sashes, shop fronts &c. made to order. Funerals furnished and conducted". The undertaking side of the business appears to have been a sideline, and may have been Taylor's speciality, but today the sight of the cemetery high on the hill above the town causes thoughts of Joseph John leading funerals there.


Several more children were born in Lyttelton; Frederic William who died aged three weeks in May 1853; Charles Alfred, who was born on July 26, 1854; Francis Ogilvie, born about 1856 and Arthur Clarke, 19 May 1857. They all have their own stories to tell.


By 1858 the family faced further change.


Something caused them to move south. Possibly Joseph John felt he had trained sufficiently as a carpenter to set up in business on his own account, and heard of opportunities in the rapidly expanding south of the Canterbury province.


This was 20 years before a railway was put through from Christchurch to the south. Travel was on foot or by bullock dray. Roads were dirt tracks, river crossings were hazardous, with punts available at some crossings. Lack of water was a problem crossing the dry plains in the area where Ashburton would one day be established. The Royal Mail service by packhorse from Christchurch to Timaru took three days


In view of these difficulties the family of five travelled south on a small coastal schooner. They had cause to regret their decision. Years later Cecilia Maria's husband, John Rainbow STANSELL, wrote in his memoirs "When my wife came with her parents from Christchurch to Timaru in 1857 the schooner was three weeks before it arrived in the Timaru Roadstead. Of course, being an open roadstead in those days, when the sea was rough they had to slip their anchors and go to sea, and it was six weeks before the same schooner anchored off Timaru - thus making nine week between Lyttelton and Timaru." Perhaps the overland route would have been easier after all.


The family settled at Arowhenua, and Joseph John set up as a carpenter in the Temuka area. Their second daughter, Ellen Amelia, was born at Arowhenua on July 26, 1862. Then, disaster struck. On September 16 1863, Susannah Elizabeth died at Arowhenua of "low fever", leaving Joseph John with six young children. He was then aged 36, and the children were Joseph Singleton, 14, Cecilia Maria, 12, Charles Alfred, 9, Francis Ogilvie about 6; Arthur Clarke 5 and Ellen Amelia, 1.


More people with their own stories to tell.


About this time the family moved a short distance to Epworth, and to help with the children Joseph John employed a housekeeper, Catherine Clara LAVERY. She was aged somewhere between 17 and 20 at the time - every time she was required to give her age officially it varied greatly.


Almost two years later, on August 2, 1865, Joseph John and Catherine's first child, Alice Sibylla, arrived. Sixteen-year-old Joseph Singleton registered the birth, signing with his mark, being unable to write. On March 19, 1867 Thomas Alexander was born, followed on June 17, 1868 by Anne Caroline, and on 19 February 1870 by Mary Agnes. More with their own stories.


Then Joseph John and Catherine Clara married, on October 25 1870, in the Catholic Chapel, Timaru. The reason for the delay is uncertain. On all birth certificates Catherine Clara is described as "POPPLEWELL, formerly LAVERY". Possibly they had married in a civil ceremony earlier, although no record has been found. Catherine Clara was a Catholic, and at that time the Timaru parish had just been set up. Up till then Catholics throughout rural Canterbury relied on a French priest, Fr Jean Claude Chervier, travelling occasionally on foot from his base at New Headford, near Lincoln. His early registers, now at the Christchurch Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, contain the baptisms of several of the family. He mis-spelt the name POPPEREANY - an English accent, probably still with more than a trace of Yorkshire in it, must have been difficult for a Maori speaking Frenchman to follow.


Catherine Clara had a reputation for meanness - perhaps not totally deserved as she was bringing up a large family in difficult times. Her grandson, Frank POPPLEWELL, son of Francis, told me that his father used to say she could start the week with one pound of butter and end it with two, she was so mean.


By this time the family had started to leave home. Cecilia Maria married mail contractor John Rainbow STANSELL at Geraldine on 16 January, 1868, and in 1867 Charles Alfred, then aged 12, went to work for a Mr BINLEY in Temuka.


His story we will tell.


On St Patrick's Day 1869 Joseph John appeared in the Timaru Resident Magistrate's Court suing BINLEY on behalf of Charles Alfred for 35/14/0 in unpaid wages. The magistrate ruled that a father could not sue on behalf of his son, and that Charles Alfred could sue his employer himself. However, Charles Alfred told a very different story to the one his father had intended telling.


He said when he had gone to work for BINLEY in 1867 he had been turned out of his father's house. He had been paid 5 shillings a week, rising later to 10 shillings, whenever he asked for money, and lived with Mr BINLEY, who also supplied him with clothes and was very kind to him. When BINLEY received Joseph John's account for wages, Charles Alfred had received just over 6 in back wages. His father had tried to obtain his wages several times, and he had given him some. His father had brought the action against BINLEY without his consent.


The magistrate found for BINLEY and Joseph John not only failed to obtain his son's wages, but he had to pay one guinea counsel's fees.


Eighteen-months later, on 21 September 1870, Charles Alfred died in Timaru Hospital of gastric fever, just two weeks after his sixteenth birthday, and one month before his father married Catherine Clara.


The family continued to grow after the marriage. Clara Josephine arrived on July 18, 1871; George Sebastian on 15 May, 1873; Charlotte Magdalene on 29 June, 1875; Louisa Catherine on 10 July, 1877; Andrew Bartholomew on 23 April, 1880 and James Laurence on 18 March, 1882.


More individual stories


Older family members also continued to leave home. Joseph Singleton had worked at St Leonards in the Amuri and bought land at Rotherham in 1880. He married Mary Jane SHERROCK at the Stone Hut at Culverden in 1878, divorced her in a much publicised case in 1883 and later that year married Mary Jane EMMANUEL at Waiau - her third husband.


Ellen Amelia married Thomas Albert THORP at Auckland in 1882. Francis Ogilvie married Cecilia McBETH in Timaru in 1891 and Mary Agnes, now known as Agnes Mary, married Alfred SHADBOLT of Duvauchelle in Linwood also in 1891, saying she was 23 instead of 21. Arthur Clarke married Catherine KERR.


On June 8, 1887 George Sebastian, then aged 14, was working for the Temuka Linseed Company in the local flax mill. While it was stated he had no reason for being near the tow teaser, or devil, he managed to get his right hand caught in it. He was rushed to Dr CAMPBELL, and then to Timaru Hospital where his hand was amputated that night. He survived to farm at Raincliff and later at Achray in the Amuri. He married Jane SMALL at Christchurch in 1901.


Joseph John continued to describe himself as a carpenter until, in 1877, this changed briefly to clerk - he was builder again in 1880 at the age of 54. Why this brief change? It seems to mark the beginning of a period of turmoil in his life, and also coincides with the start of the great 13 year depression New Zealand suffered from the late 1870s.


In December 1879 Joseph John applied to the Roads Board for work. The board instructed its surveyor to employ him if work was available. The next month he was employed to examine and audit the board's rate and deposit accounts in time for the Annual Meeting, more evidence he was for a time a clerk.


By February 1882 he filed a statement in the District Court of Timaru and Oamaru saying he was unable to meet his engagements with his creditors, and was declared bankrupt.


By December 12 the same year he was back in court, this time in the Resident Magistrates Court at Temuka. He had been employed, along with William CAMERON, as a bailiff by James BLYTH and George BOLTON, trustees of the estate of a bankrupt, David LEACH, to enter land at Arowhenua formerly occupied by LEACH, now occupied by William McCANN, and remove livestock to satisfy a debt.


McCANN, a cattle dealer, understandably took exception to this action and the trustees and bailiffs were charged with entering a portion of the Maori reserve at Arowhenua lately occupied by LEACH, now in the possession of McCANN, "with a strong hand".


The account reads like something out of a Western. The four accused, along with three others, two on horseback and one with a fast wagon, entered the property and told McCANN they had come to drive cattle away. He refused to allow this, but they rounded up some cattle and went to take them out a gate onto the Epworth road, being prevented by William McCALLUM. The four accused then started to head back to Temuka, but on the way rounded up some young cattle and got them out onto the Main South Road. They drove them as far as the Temuka bridge before McCANN caught them and took the cattle from them.


Two hours later the four accused returned with 9 or 10 Maori and succeeded in rounding up more cattle, breaking down a gate to get them out. After much legal argument the case was dismissed because McCANN was not able to produce title to the land.


The depression continued to bite hard, and in April 1883 Joseph John found himself having to wait on the roads board to make an offer for rental on the cottage he occupied. The board accepted his offer. The same month daughter Clara was in trouble for not attending school. Her name appeared on a list of 23 children not attending regularly, and the Sergeant of Police was asked to serve notice on the parents if the situation did not improve. Her name was not on the next list.


By December the same year the Temuka Roads Board had appointed Joseph John as Inspector of Nuisances, as out of six applicants he was "Most in need of a billet". He appears to have held the position for a year and reported regularly to the board, but was not reappointed in 1884.


Things went quiet for a year or so until in October 1886, Joseph John, now aged 59 but described as "an elderly man" found himself back in court charged with "Threatening to commit suicide". The case caused some excitement in the district, and became known in the newspapers as "The Popplewell Episode".


On October 21, he went to bed as usual with Catherine, but woke about 1.30 am and said he could stand it no longer. He said goodbye to his wife and family, saying that he was going to put an end to himself and his troubles, "summarily and simultaneously". He left the house, wearing only a short shirt, and headed towards the brewery creek.


Catherine roused the neighbours, and one of them rushed off to inform Constable MORTON, who began to drag the creek furiously, looking for the "slovenly, unhandsome corpse". After some time, during which the constable found "nothing more important than a battered billy and a defunct dog," a man was sent to fetch a longer rope. Who should he meet but Joseph John taking the early morning air in the middle of the road. He was seized and locked up in the police station until 10 am when he appeared before the justices, charged with attempting to commit suicide. Nothing could be proved against him, "other than that he was taking a stroll in a somewhat unusual costume and at a somewhat unusual hour," so he was discharged with a severe reprimand.


The next day, Francis FRANKS, owner of the Eclipse Brewery, was furious. In an angry letter to the editor, he called the allegation that there were battered billies and dead dogs in the brewery stream "utterly false, and therefore filthy". The editor was unrepentant. He told Mr FRANKS that he should be thankful the police did not rake up POPPLEWELL in his stream.


In January 1887 Joseph John was again in employment, presumably as a builder. He advertised tenders for a residence for Mr Wm. STEWART, plans and specifications to be seen at his residence. By this time the depression was easing a little.


Again the trail goes cold - no more court appearances, no more children, no more public financial problems. In fact, Joseph John's next appearance on the record that has been found is his last. He died 16 years later in Christchurch Hospital of cardiac disease on 4 April, 1902, aged 75. He was described as a labourer, but the record at Sydenham Cemetery, where he was buried four days later, still describes him as a builder.


However, it appears they were in Christchurch as early as 1893 as that year the Women's Suffrage Petition was signed by Charlotte POPPLEWELL, Alice POPPLEWELL, Catherine POPPLEWELL, all of Christchurch and C. POPPLEWELL (Clara?), of Avonside. An Annie POPPLEWELL was living in Wellington.


Catherine Clara survived Joseph John by some years. She lived at 148 Peterborough Street in Christchurch, and died there in July 1916, aged 75. She is buried at Linwood.