by Chris Tobin
During a recent trip to Europe, Timaru woman Gabrielle Hall made a determined effort to view a special piece of her family history.
It is a diary that had been kept by her great-grandfather, Emil Hall, which he brought from his home city, Copenhagen, when he migrated to Australia and then New Zealand in the 19th century.
The diary was written in Danish gothic script and it was not until 1969 that it was translated by a member of the Danish embassy staff in Wellington.
Members of the Hall family were then given translated versions but Ms Hall had always hankered to view the original diary.
“It’s very ordinary –
he writes about his parents
and never getting letters from home.
He says at one point, ‘I think they have forgotten me’.”
This became possible when she visited Copenhagen.
“Emil Hall was born in Copenhagen in 1823 and left as a 19-year-old for Victoria, Australia. He was a stonemason and while he went to the goldfields it was not so much to search for gold but to be a builder,” Ms Hall said.
He started keeping the diary in 1859 and it covered the next three years, including the voyage to Australia.
“It’s very ordinary – he writes about his parents and never getting letters from home. He says at one point, ‘I think they have forgotten me’.”
Young Emil tried his hand at digging for gold without success and wrote of returning home but then married an Irish woman, Mary McCarthy, and decided to try his luck on the goldfields of New Zealand’s West Coast, arriving in Hokitika in 1867.
“Things didn’t go that well there either. He worked as a gold-miner, owned a pub and became secretary of the gold-miners’ union.”
Prospects seemed better on the east coast and so, in 1878, he made the trip to Timaru, leaving Mary and his five children who would later join him.
“There was a building boom in Timaru and the idea was he’d pick up his trade.”
While Victoria and the West Coast had not lived up to his aspirations, Timaru did.
“I believe he did very well and he built quite a lot of buildings here – the Sacred Heart Convent [now demolished], Customs House, Evans mill store, the St Andrew’s Catholic Church and many houses.”
Ms Hall recently visited one of the houses her great-grandfather built in Timaru during the 1880s and was astonished when she walked in the door.
“There was a framed photograph of my great-grandfather and the family on a wall. The house is rented and the picture is part of the chattels. It has to stay there.”
Emil Hall died in Timaru in 1902 by which time his three sons had joined his building business, one of them being Ms Hall’s grandfather, W.H. Hall.
While visiting Copenhagen in 1975, W.H. Hall called in to the Royal Danish Library and asked if it was interested in holding the diary.
They were and there it has remained since, now being housed in the distinctive “Black Diamond” library extension.
“I was going to Europe this year and I decided I wanted to see that diary,” Ms Hall said.
Accompanied by her sister, Stephanie Cowan, and Xoe Hall, Emil Hall’s great-great-granddaughter, she found the diary in the manuscripts section of the library.
“We all felt a bit emotional .. It’s a lovely link to Denmark.”