House of Webb celebrates NZ journey

On 17 July 1884, Reverend Anthony Webb, with his wife Patty and their family of eleven, arrived in Napier from Stockingford, England after an eight-week voyage. Once ashore, they were greeted by Bishop Stuart of the Waiapu Diocese who offered Anthony the inaugural clergyman’s position at the Church of Epiphany, Ormondville. The ministry included performing services in poorer settlements and supporting incumbants as far afield as Te Aute, Waipawa and Wairoa. Anthony accepted.

Currently on display at MTG Hawke’s Bay is the “House of Webb: a Victorian family’s journey to Ormondville” exhibition. The Webb family story is closely connected to the Church of Epiphany and the first Christmas service held within its walls.

On Sunday 20 January 2019, the Church of Epiphany in Ormondville celebrates its 135th anniversary. Under Heritage New Zealand, the church has a Category 2 listing – signifying it’s a “historic place of historical or cultural significance or value”.

Built in totara and matai the church, when the Webb arrived the church was a modest unlined building, with plain windows and a steep roof. It had few furnishings other than eight chairs and a small table; there was no provision for lighting or heating and during high winds, for which the area was renowned, the walls moved drastically in and out. When the family arrived ‘tree trunks’ in all stages of decay, surrounded the village and church.

For both the family and church 1884 was significant: Reverend Webb performed the inaugural Christmas service within the church walls, whilst he and his family experienced a New Zealand Christmas.

As the day loomed closer Anthony, beset with homesickness and suffering from grief at the loss of his beloved son Willie earlier that year, wrote that he was “not much inclined for Xmas keeping this year it seems all so strange and unreal”.

The climate was an obvious contrast during this Yule-tide period. Patty commented in a letter to family: “I suppose you are all rejoicing in warm fires, evergreens & winter fruits – whilst we are sitting with open windows, roses & honey-suckles blooming. We are having gooseberry tarts and new potatoes & our peas and beans & all summer vegetables are just coming on”.

The day before Christmas, the family, with help from the schoolmaster’s wife, decorated the church. The windows ledges were laced with an evergreen creeper and the walls clothed with tree fern fronds in an arrangement “something like Prince of Wales feathers”.  Anthony was amazed at the size of the fronds, which reached from floor to ceiling and judged them “very handsome”. Patty made several wreathes using roses, honeysuckle and variegated foxgloves: overall the decorations were effective, simple and very pretty.  To accompany the choir, who had been practising for days, Anthony borrowed the Wesleyan Chapel’s harmonium.

On Christmas Eve, the children hung up their stockings in readiness for the morning, but as Patty regretfully revelled, “we had not much to put in them. Papa put a penny in each and a few odds and ends”.

The Christmas morning church service was very successful, with over a hundred people present. In England, it was customary for the Vicar to give gifts to the poor, however in Ormondville the reverse happened: at the end of the service a great many presents were gifted to the family including fresh vegetables, gooseberries and beautiful strawberries, “a nice mug of clotted cream” and “a large slab of butter”. When thanked, the locals replied they were “only too pleased to send them as they were so thankful to have a clergyman settled among them”.

Because it was so hot in the afternoon, a game of tennis was out of the question: instead, the family packed up a light picnic and explored the bush in search of a stream. In the coolness of the evening, a competitive game of tennis finished off what was a uniquely New Zealand Christmas.

On behalf of Laura and staff at the Museum, I wish you all a wonderful and safe Christmas and New Year.

  • Te Tiriti Ora: Our Living Treaty display opens to the public today, Saturday 22 December
  • We will be closed Christmas Day, 25 December, and re-open at 9:30am on Boxing Day, 26 December
  • Summer Cycling Carnival – The Cycle Chic Film Tour, a captivating selection of short cycling films to inspire, encourage and celebrate women who love to bike, Friday 4 January, 7:30pm. Tickets available at MTG or online at bigbikefilmnight.nz

22 Dec 2018 image

Image Caption: Christmas card in the Webb collection (date unknown)

Gail Pope, Curator – Social History, MTG
Published in the Hawke’s Bay Today, 22 December 2018

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