THE GENTLEMAN UNDERTAKER
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
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
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
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
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
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 œ10 and œ5
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
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
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
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
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
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 œ35/14/0 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
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 œ6 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
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
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
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
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.