In the hard-bitten world of railway construction in the early 1900s, Harry Delamere Dansey was something of a Renaissance man. Educated at Auckland Grammar and Canterbury College, Harry was fluent in French and Maori and is believed to have been New Zealand’s first qualified Maori engineer.
Harry was in charge of constructing the Dunedin railway station before going to Britain in 1910 to further his studies and work on the London Underground. On his return to New Zealand, he was responsible for the design and construction of the Auckland-Pukekohe line duplication.
Harry was nearly 40 years old when war broke out in 1914 but he nevertheless volunteered with the second draft of the Maori Contingent. On arrival in Egypt, he was posted to the Otago Infantry Regiment where he endured back-breaking training.
In a letter to his fiancé Winifred Barter, Harry wrote: “Web Prince and I are the only New Zealanders in the school among four or five hundred. It is regarded as the most strenuous course in military training in the Empire and he who could slip through without coming a cropper is almost made. Officers failing are generally sent back home! Last week the Australians had six go back.”
In the reorganisation that followed the Gallipoli campaign, he was transferred to the New Zealand Pioneer Battalion. Promoted to lieutenant, he served as a Lewis machine-gun officer in France. In January 1917, Harry was appointed second-in-command of a company in the field, where his engineering skills were to prove invaluable. The following month he was placed in charge of railway construction and transport organisation for the battle area. This work was often carried out in appalling conditions.
“The roads soon get into a frightful state as traffic is abnormally heavy – one cannot avoid being wet, muddy, cold and perhaps miserable.” He was promoted to captain in April, and in January 1918 was awarded the Military Cross for “distinguished services in the field”. After the war, he returned home to New Zealand and married his fiance.
All in the Family
Harry and his brother Roger Ingram Dansey were sons of Englishman Roger Delamere Dansey, a postmaster, and his wife, Wikitoria Ngamihi Kahuao. Brother Roger was also an engineer and served in France. Their mother was the daughter of Ihakara Kahuao, leader of Ngati Rauhoto hapu of Ngati Tuwharetoa. She also had connections to Te Arawa and Ngati Raukawa. On 30 October 1919 at Auckland Harry married Winifred Patience Barter and in due course they had three sons and a daughter. Harry ran an engineering consultancy in Auckland until 1930 when he retired to Rotorua. One of his sons, named after his father, was appointed New Zealand’s second Race Relations Conciliator in 1974. In the documentary In Memory, Harry’s great-grandson Rangi Dansey is the voice behind a series of letters sent by his great-grandfather to his fiancé Winifred during the war years.