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Henry William Insley

Brothers Allan Edward Insley (23704) (left) and Henry William Insley (23705) (right).

Image provided by the Passau family.No known copyright restrictions.

Libby Passau shares her memories of her grandfather Henry William Insley.

Henry William Insley, my maternal grandfather, was born in Dunedin, New Zealand on the 10th March 1896. His parents were Henry Ingram and Agnes Insley. Along with their children, Allan, Henry, Charles and Ada they moved from the south in 1904 to take over the boarding house and farm at Cowes Bay on the eastern side of Waiheke Island. Henry and Agnes worked hard and turned the boarding house into the go-to destination for Aucklanders, either for holidays or just a day out for a family or company picnic. Hospitality and providing a wonderful experience for the guests were an important part of the Insley family ethos. 

A New Zealand Herald advertisement from 1909 read:

Seaside resort: The place to spend your Summer Holidays, Cowes Bay, Waiheke

Two and a half hours trip in smooth water; boating and bathing in sheltered bay; splendid fishing, tennis, croquet; dancing hall; boat swing for children; beautiful bush scenery; first class table; oil launch and boats for free use of visitors. Steamers tri-weekly. Ring up Cowes bureau for tariff. H. I. Insley, Proprietor.

The boarding house could eventually accommodate 100 guests and was open throughout the summer, employing a chef, house maids, waitresses and a gardener.

Cowes Bay, Waiheke Island in the 1930s.

PH-NEG-4328. No known copyright restrictions.

Henry, along with his siblings, helped on the farm and walked for miles year-round to go to school at Man o’War Bay. They would have had responsibilities on the farm and at the boarding house but they would have had lots of fun as well and plenty of company with all the guests and visitors. They enjoyed competing in the dinghy races, participating in the fancy dress parties and fishing on the ‘Sunbeam’ launch. Then there were the usual childhood activities of swimming and climbing around the rocks and up through the bush.

Henry and his younger brother went to the First World War in 1916, with Allan falsifying his age so they went as the Insley twins. Henry was a sapper in the Expeditionary Forces and served in the army from 8 February 1916 until 24 June 1919. He then joined the Union Steamship Company and rose to the post of Chief Engineer. He travelled extensively in that role, mostly to India and around the Pacific.

Henry married Dorothy Margaret Davis in 1924, at age 27. Their daughter Patricia (my mother) was born in 1926 and they rented in various places in Mt Eden before buying a bungalow in Pencarrow Avenue. Because Grandpa was away at sea for long periods, my Nana and Mum spent a lot of time at Cowes Bay. They stayed with family or slept in a tent under the pine trees on the shore, until Grandpa and a local builder, Eric Connell, built a small cottage in the corner of the bay in 1936. This fibrolite cottage is still in the family and our children are the fifth generation in the bay.

Number 1 Section, 13th New Zealand Field Engineers. Henry William Insley is third from right in the middle row.

Image provided by the Passau family. No known copyright restrictions.

My Grandpa taught us kids a lot during our holidays at Cowes Bay. We learned how to fish, how to row the dinghy and how never to come home empty-handed from a walk along the beach. We always returned home with armfuls of driftwood or pinecones for the fire. He also taught us how to play card games. He especially loved ‘Crib’, which he had played for years with the crew on the ships. Each holiday we would play to be the "Champion of the South Pacific" crib player. He really enjoyed the banter and fun we had playing cards in the evenings.

Another thing he taught us was never to throw anything away because, as he said, "you never know when it might come in handy". So, the under-house of the cottage at Cowes Bay and the garage at his house in Mt Eden were full of stuff—bits of wire and copper, nails and screws and lengths of wood, spare rowlocks for the dinghy and replacement rings for the coal range. And it was true that, as he anticipated, there were many times when he would find something to fix a problem or repair the breakdown of some piece of machinery. He was a very practical and capable man and was a master of the ‘Number Eight Wire’ mentality.

Grandpa just loved fishing and would go out for hours in his little dinghy. He would come back sunburnt and stiff from sitting in the boat but pretty much always returned with a good catch. He and my Mum would skin and fillet the fish on the grass bank in front of the cottage and he would give extra fish to neighbours or family. We often had fish for breakfast as well as for dinner. Providing for the family and sharing with others were important values for him. He loved the sea and respected it.

We lived next door to Nana and Grandpa in Mt Eden and whenever he cooked rice pudding, he would phone me to come and have some with him. Even if I didn’t really feel like it, I always went over as I knew that he loved the company. Grandpa was a good gardener and had a marvellous vegetable garden and shared the produce with us and his next-door neighbours, which showed his generosity and care for others.

When we won prizes at school or did well at sports or music, we would rush over to tell him the news. He’d never say much, just a low-key "well done". However as soon as we left, he’d be on the phone to tell our aunties and his friends of our achievements. We knew he was very proud of us even if he couldn’t always express it in words.

Portrait of the Insley Family. Back row (l to r): Allan E, Henry W, James E. Front row (l to r): Agnes, Ada, Henry I, Charles Insley.

Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 31-WP7235. No known copyright restrictions.

My Nana had dementia for many of the last years of her life and was in hospital in the ex-WWII army barracks in Cornwall Park. Grandpa would get the bus and visit her every day before he went to play bowls at the Mt Eden Bowling Club. This demonstrated his loyalty and love for his wife who was not able to communicate with him or recognise him for several years.

Henry William Insley played a big part in my life and that of my extended family. He taught us to be resourceful, independent and methodical. He had many admirable qualities and was an example to me of the importance of kindness and sharing, of hard work and application, of respect for all people and respect for nature — but mostly the utmost importance of support and responsibility for family and friends.

His memory remains strong in my heart and I say hello to him every time I go to the cottage where his ashes and those of my mother are scattered under the nikau palm in the bush next to the cottage at Cowes Bay.


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Cite this article

Passau, Libby. Henry William Insley. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 13 August 2019. Updated: 21 August 2019.
URL: www.aucklandmuseum.com/war-memorial/online-cenotaph/features/henry-william-insley