Sarah Ann GATTON (nee MARSH)

Nominated by: Noreen CAMPBELL (nee FOLEY)

Sarah Ann GATTON was born at Windsor on the 2nd February, 1857. She was the youngest child of William and Sarah MARSH .

During a long and eventful life Sarah lived in England, in Palmerston North and Stratford when they were pioneering towns, and in the solitude of a bush farm at Puniwhakau.

The early years of her life were spent in London where her father was a builder. Sarah attended school until her late teens studying French, music, and the handwork skills of needlework, crochet and knitting as well as other subjects. Windsor Park was quite near her home, and Sarah remembered the bands that played near the Royal Lodge. Members of the public were allowed into the park to listen, and to dance to the music. Excursions on the river Thames to Egham were other happy events of her childhood.

On the 5th June, 1876, when she was nineteen years old, Sarah married Charles Stepney GATTON at Christchurch, in Kennington. He was the son of John and Hannah GATTON of Cranleigh in Kent. Like his father he was a bootmaker, and he was eleven years older than Sarah.

A few months after their wedding, the Gatton's set out for New Zealand as passengers on the sailing vessel 'Hurunui'. Because of sickness on board, and a collision with a smaller boat the first night at sea, the 'Hurunui' had to put back to Portsmouth three times. These delays meant that the ship was two months late leaving England, and eventually arrived in Wellington five months after the Gatton's had originally embarked. They were met in Wellington by Sarah's mother and father, and her married sister and her husband, who, after the Gatton's departure had decided sell up their properties and emigrate to New Zealand as well. Because of the delays the Gatton's had suffered, they arrived in New Zealand several months before.

From Wellington, Sarah and Charles and her parents sailed up the coast to Foxton, and from there travelled to Palmerston North, were they intended to settle. Charles Gatton set up a boot factory in partnership with a Mr Svendson. At that time Palmerston North was just a pioneering town.

On 20th March, 1877, Sarah's first child, a daughter, was born. She was named Violet Ethel. During the next sixteen years that the Gatton's spent in Palmerston North, nine more children were born. Two of them died in infancy.

In 1893 an organization known as the Palmerston North Land Association was formed. An area of 52,000 acres of land in the hill country east of Stratford was granted to the association by the government, and members ballotted for sections, each of 200 acres. The districts contained in the block were Tututawa, Puniwhakau, Taurakawa, Makahu and Strathmore. The section drawn by the Gatton's was at Puniwhakau.

Later that same year, 1893, the Gatton family left Palmerston North to travel to Stratford. Charles Gatton had no farming experience, so he worked on a farm a few miles south of the town for several years, before taking up his land at Puniwhakau.

Charles and his eldest son, Fred, went out to their section some time ahead of the rest of the family. The whole area around Puniwhakau was in heavy bush, so it was necessary to clear some land where they could put up tents to live in. Sarah and her children travelled by wagon to Strathmore on Christmas Eve, 1896. They were joined there by Charles and Fred who had ridden in from the farm. The only metalled road in the district ended there, so the going from there on was by narrow bush track. Some of the family's possessions were loaded onto the two horses, and the rest was either driven along, or carried by the children or their parents. The journey took all day. The Gatton family of nine arrived at their new home at dark.

Sarah Gatton was the first woman to settle in this area. For the next two years, she and her husband, and the seven children who went with them to the farm, lived in tents, and a rough type of house with Manuka walls and a canvas roof. This house had a corrugated iron fireplace at one end where meals were cooked over the open fire. This house eventually caught fire and burnt down, taking most of the family belongings with it. After that, Charles Gatton, with the help of a neighbour set about pit-sawing enough timber to build his family a more substantial home.

Times were hard for these pioneer families. None of the rivers in the area were bridged. Some could be forded in fine weather, but one had to be crossed in a cage suspended on a wire. In winter the settlers were often cut off by the flooded rivers, and in summer their homes were sometimes threatened by bush-fires when burn-offs got out of control.

During their years at the Puniwhakau farm all the family worked very hard. The boys helped their father clear the land, and the girls helped their mother with the cooking, washing and the care of the youngest children. As the land was cleared and more cows run on the farm, the three daughters took over the milking and dairy work. In their early days at the farm Charles Gatton, with help from Sarah, had established an extensive vegetable garden and planted an orchard. These provided much of the food for the family. Charles and Sarah both enjoyed gardening and spent many hours working together weeding and hoeing. A short distance away from the vegetable garden was an area known as the park, where the permanent house had been built. Walnut trees had been planted here, and gardens of red-hot peppers bordered a path which ran from the gate up to the house. In front of the house was a round garden full of violets.

Sarah Gatton's youngest child was born at Puniwhakau on the 16th March, 1902, four days short of twenty five years after the birth of her first child, Violet. The new baby was named Dorothy. She was the only child born to the Gatton's while they lived at the farm.

Over the years, conditions for the settlers in the district gradually improved. Roads were formed and rivers bridged making access to neighbouring areas, and the town of Stratford less difficult. This also made more social life possible with dances and other functions being held in the schools and halls that were now being built. As an accomplished pianist Sarah Gatton was often called upon to help with the music.

Around the year 1905, when he was yarding cattle, Charles Gatton was thrown, and badly gored by a bull. Two of his daughters, who were milking, were able to drag him to safety, but his injuries were severe. The doctor was sent for, and Charles was taken to hospital in New Plymouth. Although he recovered, the heavy farm work was too much of a burden, and his health began to suffer. A few years before the outbreak of the First World War, Charles Gatton leased his Puniwhakau farm and bought a small property at Omata. He and Sarah lived here until his death on 23rd August, 1914. He was 69 years of age. After his death Sarah moved back to live in Stratford. At the end of the war, the three Gatton sons, who had joined the army, returned from overseas, and two of them, Fred and Bert took over the Puniwhakau farm.

In the years she lived in Stratford after the death of her husband, Sarah enjoyed travelling around the country with friends and relations, visiting places she had never seen. In the later years of her life she lived with different members of her family, many of whom still lived in Taranaki. Her health, eye-sight and hearing remained good, and she was able to continue with her handwork until near the end of her life. She also enjoyed cards, and the challenge of completing cross-word puzzles, where she was rarely stumped for a word.

Sarah Gatton died in Stratford on the 5th May, 1954, forty-seven years after the death of her husband. She was 97 years of age. Her health had been good until only a few weeks before, and at the time of her 97th birthday, in February of that same year, she had been to town to see Queen Elizabeth when she visited Stratford.

Sarah Gatton's life was one of great contrasts. It would be difficult to imagine anything more different from her comfortable childhood, and early life, when she danced to the band in Windsor Park, to the years she spent on the bush covered farm at Puniwhakau. It says much for her spirit, that she survived the hardships she experienced in raising a large family in such difficult conditions, and that in her later years she always spoke of her life in New Zealand as having been eventful and happy.