By Michele Leggott
Summer 1950. Constance Weyergang, 74, is looking at the black sand and sparkling waters of Ngamotu Beach in New Plymouth. The beach is adjacent to the port that serves Taranaki and both are sheltered by a breakwater. Among the swimmers and sunbathers Constance watches could be my young parents, engaged but not yet married, taking a day off from life in inland Stratford 30 miles away. Constance begins her poem:
Ngamotu Beach –
Hot sand. Bright sky.
Prone on the beach the bathers lie
Drowsing-while energies revive
To plunge with a shout and running dive
Into the shimmering tide.
In harbour calm, the liner lies
Her smoke-stack faintly breathing
While around her little sail-boats drift
Cars line the beach. High overhead
A plane is heard to drone its way.
A Summer’s day.
Constance’s poem is double-focused. Behind the summer playground of Ngamotu lie memories of the war not long concluded, and behind those memories are traces of another past. The poem takes a plunge into history:
Cold leaden seas,
The ship at anchor rides.
On shore, with wild excited cries
The Natives dash and meet th’ incoming wave
That bears the boat-load – the adventurous brave.
They seize the craft. They bring them safe to land.
Brown smiling faces wait them on the sand.
With strange and unknown sounds they greet them.
With eager outstretched hands they meet them.
From sea-birds scream, from ocean’s roar
Land – land at last.
– By Constance Weyergang, whose Grandfather, the Rev. Thomas Gilbert landed at Ngamotu beach in 1850. He was the author during the 60’s of “New Zealand Settlers and Soldiers”.
No publication has been found for the poem which comes to us as a typescript, perhaps transcribed from the Taranaki Herald and now in the possession of the Briant family. In 1850 Ngamotu was a wild surf beach and landings were made from small boats that ferried passengers and cargo from a ship standing offshore. The welcome Constance describes was repeated many times as emigrant ships arrived in the 1840s and 1850s, those onshore (Pākehā and Māori) often carrying women and children from beaching boat to a point above the high watermark. There was no breakwater (and therefore no harbour) in New Plymouth until 1884. Thomas Gilbert and his family arrived on the Simla in 1851 but Constance opts for the symmetry of a centenary in her poem.
Minnie Constance Weyergang (1876-1971) was the daughter of Grace and George Channing Gilbert of Nelson. George, eldest son of the Nonconformist and strongly pro-Māori Reverend Thomas Gilbert, left New Plymouth for Nelson to avoid being called up to fight in the Taranaki war of 1860-61. He became a farmer and a painter, mentored by artist and fellow Taranaki refugee John Gully. Constance, growing up in Takaka and Motupipi, inherited her father’s artistic talent and the family interest in Māori life and culture. Electoral rolls show that she was living in the Waipawa (Dannevirke) district in 1905-06. In 1909 she married Havelock North orchardist Carl Hermann Alexander Weyergang, who was a nephew of Emily Harris. The Weyergangs moved to Nelson with their first daughter Margaret in 1912 when Hermann was appointed to manage the apple-growing Seaton Estate in the area that would become the town of Māpua. Two more daughters, Friedl and Faith, were born to Hermann and Constance. Māpua researcher Paul Bensemann has recently written about Constance Weyergang’s role in the settlement, highlighting her contributions to community life and connecting the Weyergangs with his own family whose time in Māpua also goes back to 1912 when Paul’s grandfather Edward Bensemann purchased part of the Seaton Estate. See ‘Madame of Māpua’ (Māpua and Ruby Bay Coastal News Oct 2021, Page 17) and ‘“Madame” and the name Māpua,’ forthcoming in the Nelson Historical Society Journal.
The Weyergang marriage appears to have fallen apart sometime in the mid-1920s. Post Office directories show Constance, a teacher of music, living in Waimea St, Nelson, in 1926. Electoral rolls for 1928 confirm her occupation and address as 176 Waimea St. Hermann turns up on the 1928 Manawatu (Wanganui) roll as a salesman living at Bonnie Glen near Marton, presumably with his sister Gretchen and brother-in-law Edgar Briant. He died in Kerikeri in 1932, aged 60. Constance was not everyone’s cup of tea. A letter to Gretchen Briant from her mother Mary Weyergang refers to tension between daughter and daughter-in-law. Mary writes from the farm at Bonnie Glen where she is living with Edgar (Ted) and Gretchen and their sons Philip and Godfrey:
June 28th 1927
My dearest Gretchen
I have been thinking that you all would like specially left to you some memo so I have made a list of some small thing for each of you. Leaving you to do as you like with the others. There are lots of things that your nieces would value that are of no value to you, and I do hope you will not let any sentiment stand in the way, always remember that those little girls are very dear to me and I think they will make their way in the world and I do hope their mother will be long spared to them for with all her faults she is a grand woman. As for poor Hermann, he will never be any different, and my heart aches for him. You will miss me very much, apart from the care you will miss the talks on the flowers we both love so much. The weekly letters when away. For Ted I have always looked on as a dear elder son and am very thankful for all his loving care of me. I hope the boys will marry, they are very dear to me.
Now I must close
My hand is tired
List of Bequests for Gretchen
Ted. Kirks book on New Zealand flora
Hermann. The ring made of N. Z. gold and news paper Scrapbook, he will remember so many of the people and places.
Gretchen. My blue emerald broach and locket
Connie. The broach made from the [sphere? shell?] of sea egg
Philip already has Otto’s album, and he may like to have the old fashioned watch key about 100 years old belonged to his Great Grandmother Sarah Harris
Godfrey. Otto’s scrapbook and old scarf pin 100, [years] old also his Great Grandmother’s
Margaret. My silver watch and chain
Friedl Mary. The bracelet, Mrs Moore gave me
Faith. A small gold locket with pink stone
I think this is all
Mary Rendel Weyergang
P.S. Grace would like work basket
Mary Weyergang was about to move to New Plymouth to live with her nieces Constance and Ruth Moore. The Moore sisters’ house at 23 Fulford St in New Plymouth became a haven for several women in the Moore Weyergang family between the 1920s and 1960s. Mary Weyergang died there in 1932. Electoral rolls show Constance living there with Ruth Moore from 1949 until the late 1950s, when Ruth’s sister Grace Hobbs moved in. We don’t know precisely what Constance did during her years in New Plymouth but it is safe to assume that she continued painting and writing. Three of her watercolour landscapes belonged to arts patron and women’s rights advocate Monica Brewster and are part of the collection at the Govett-Brewster Gallery in New Plymouth.
As we have seen she was also writing and publishing poetry that blends local atmosphere with historical events. A second poem from 1950 concerns the Taranaki land wars, again overlaying a peaceful contemporary scene with its resident ghosts.
The “morepork” signals from the distant Park,
The spire of Egmont rises cold and dark,
The dew is heavy on the grass.
The cows breathe deeply as I pass.
I wander round the hill-top green,
The twinkling lights of town are seen,
The sound of shunting trains I hear,
The roar of sea breaks on my ear.
I wander on.
Still and remote above me stands
“The soldier”—musket clasped in hands
As cold as was that other clay
Which he forsook—that by-gone day.
The names of others then I read,
Those bright young lives.
Those lives that fled.
* * *
I sank in reverie,
Oblivious to all around,
When strange and sad upon my ear
There stole a sound,
A sound not that of evening breeze
That whispers, sighing, through the trees.
But age-long voice of women morning,
Wailing voice from Maori Pah.
Wailing voice of Pakeha.
“Give us back our vanished sons,”
“Give us back our warrior—ones.”
The voices floated on the air,
Incessant, ceaseless as a prayer,
Breaking through my dream there fell
A vibrant note. A clanging bell.
Midnight hour struck loud and clear
Recalled the present to my ear.
The spell released,
The voices ceased.
The poem was published in the Taranaki Herald 18 December 1950. Fulford St is a short distance from Marsland Hill, the city’s monument to conflict since 1855 when iron military barracks were erected on the hilltop. Constance’s night walk starts with a ruru calling from Pukekura Park on the next ridge over, signalling entry to a liminal world beyond sleeping cows, the noise of railway shunting rising from the town below or the sea breaking on the rocky foreshore. The mountain stands sentinel to the south as she hears the age—old lament of mothers for their lost sons, Māori and Pākehā. She is recalled to the present only by a midnight bell, perhaps from St Mary’s at the foot of the hill where Māori and Pākehā combatants lie buried in the church grounds.
It is not possible to determine whether Constance Weyergang shared the political views of Monica Brewster and her friend Elsie Andrews who caused controversy by announcing themselves as conscientious objectors at the outset of the Second World War. But Constance’s post-war poems indicate that she was well aware of her grandfather Thomas Gilbert’s legacy of pacifism and his sympathy for Māori contesting the loss of their land. After leaving New Plymouth she lived in Wellington with her daughter, the novelist Margaret Jeffery. Mother and daughter were in New Plymouth in late 1964, Margaret examining her great aunt Emily Harris’s diaries at the Taranaki Museum, Constance making a pen and ink sketch of the old brewery that she donated to the museum. She died in Wellington at the age of 95 and is buried with other members of her family in Wakapuaka Cemetery, Nelson.
Author: Michele Leggott
Research Support: Paul Bensemann
Our thanks to Paul Bensemann for his support and for sharing his work on Constance Weyergang