Food for my spirit

Explore Your Archive is a joint campaign delivered by The National Archives and the Archives and Records Association across the UK and Ireland. It aims to showcase the unique potential of archives to excite people, bring communities together, and tell amazing stories. We’re blogging all week to show off Mary Gillham’s archive …

Annie Irving – Project volunteer (and Kiwi!)

Today, one of the Project volunteers, Annie, writes about Mary’s time spent in Annie’s h0meland.

On my very first day of volunteering on the Mary Gillham Archive Project I was reading Mary’s diaries of her time in New Zealand, my homeland, and almost immediately came across the name of someone I knew so I feel a personal, albeit very tenuous connection to Mary. She spent a year in New Zealand, arriving on board the SS Rangitoto on Saturday 22 December 1956:

The ‘long white cloud’ – Maori ‘Ao Tea Roa’ – which lies typically over N.Z. was to be seen as a long black strop with scalloped gold edge as a blazing red sun sank behind it. Beams of light radiated upwards and outwards and the sky was pink and turquoise – a sunset like no other I have seen.

If it’s true what they say about ‘red sky at night, shepherd’s delight’ then I think Mary was fated to enjoy her time in the Shaky Isles, and she certainly explored more of Aotearoa than the average New Zealander.

Though officially in New Zealand on an exchange lecturership at Massey University, Mary also used her time for field research into the country’s unique flora and fauna, in particular the bird life of the many islands dotted around New Zealand’s extremely long coastline. Within weeks of her arrival she was marvelling at a magnificent male Royal Albatross on Otago Peninsula with ranger Stanley Sharpe: ‘a lone male was sitting out on the hillside and we were able to watch it at close quarters for almost an hour – he, having no natural enemies, taking little notice of us’; and, a week later, delighting in the antics of penguins at Ringa Ringa Beach on Stewart Island: ‘[we] were entertained by a yellow crested penguin who had come inshore to moult and wasn’t going back to sea for any humans’.


Mary at Ringa Ringa Beach on Stewart Island


She marvelled at the nesting gannets at Cape Kidnappers: ‘Adults were “necking” and “billing” and holding grass in their beaks and we saw some “swallow” the chick’s head in feeding’; was unsettled by the kakas on Kapiti Island: ‘it was most disconcerting to be firing the [camera] trigger at a couple of wekas and a tui with a kaka landing plomp on my head’; and was entertained by blue penguins on The Brothers: ‘2 of them ran into a fallen Hebe bough and one got annoyed and blamed the other, leaping across his back and then slapping the bird’s sides with resounding thwacks of his flippers’.

Gannets at Cape Kidnappers by Annie Irving


Although she moved in intellectual social circles, rubbing shoulders with world-famous ecologists and meeting mayors, ministers and members of parliament, I get the impression from reading her diaries that Mary enjoyed most the many hours she spent in New Zealand’s wilder, less inhabited places.

She was delighted by the hospitality of the friendly natives during a week-long sojourn at the Maori village on Motiti Island: ‘I gathered after that this community was a very conservative one, seldom allowing pakehas [white people] within the walls and that I had been very favoured’, and revelled in the solitude of remote East Coast locations: ‘thistles grew about the hotel and the only sign of life was an odd Maori. Quiet we found it but not that dead and the setting was altogether delightful.’


Mary at Waipiro Bay, East Coast

As she wrote in her book about her experiences, A Naturalist in New Zealand (Museum Press, London and Reed Books, New Zealand, 1966), New Zealand was to her ‘a place where I could run free and find food for my spirit’.


You can read more excellent blogs by Annie HERE and HERE!


The Mary Gillham Archive Project is funded by HLF and managed by SEWBReC
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