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Remembering the Barbers: From the War to Wilson Street

Matthew Nickless
Collection Technician - Research Support

‘When you came in the front door, to the right was what would have been the main lounge, but Aunty Nel and Uncle Jim had that as their bedroom. And then you went along the hallway towards the kitchen, and there was a living and dining room. There was the big table where they all played cards around on a Friday night. And then I remember the china cabinet with the medal citation and the hand grenade on it, and Granny Barber’s rocking chair.’ 

Photograph of John (standing, far right) and Elizabeth Barber (front, second from right) and family, c. 1920. Image kindly provided by family.

Photograph of John (standing, far right) and Elizabeth Barber (front, second from right) and family, c. 1920. Image kindly provided by family.

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John Barberis was born on Hydra, a Greek island in the Aegean Sea that was famed for its maritime tradition. In the 1870s, after immigrating to New Zealand and anglicising his name to Barber, he met Elizabeth Donnelly, another recent immigrant to Wellington. She had been born in Scotland, where her family had moved in the years following the Great Famine in Ireland. They were married, had six sons and three daughters, and in later years would be known as Granny and Grandad Barber. John Barber was naturalised in 1901, and when war came in 1914, four of their sons and their eldest daughter’s husband would serve in the First New Zealand Expeditionary Force. 

The Barbers were my grandmother’s great-grandparents, and the description at the top of this piece is her memory of the house at 14 Wilson Street in Newtown, Wellington, where they lived in 1914. The house was a communal space for a tight knit immigrant family, and when war broke out it was given as the address for two of their sons and their son-in-law. By the interwar years it had become a home to four generations of the Barbers and their extended family, including my grandmother and her sisters, who were frequent visitors. Consequently, it was also a place steeped in memory: both of those who remained, and those who were gone. 

Sergeant Frank Barber, MM, New Zealand Medical Corps., April 1918, Wellington, by Berry \u0026 Co. Purchased 1998 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds.

Sergeant Frank Barber, MM, New Zealand Medical Corps., April 1918, Wellington, by Berry & Co. Purchased 1998 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds.

Te Papa (B.047124).

The First World War would leave the Barbers marked in a number of ways, just as it did many New Zealand families. The four sons who served were Lance Corporal George Barber (born 1885), Sergeant James Barber (b. 1889), Sergeant Frank Barber (n. 1891), and Private Michael Barber (b. 1895), and with the exception of George, they enlisted and embarked in order of age. The stories of their experiences in the war were remembered by the family in various ways, and despite their accounts differing from the official ones at times, the recorded and oral histories largely follow the same course.  

When war broke out, citizens of Germany and the other Central Powers residing in New Zealand found themselves under suspicion, and many were interred for the duration of the war to prevent possible espionage. Among them, according to family legend, was Grandad Barber.

This is how the story goes: Early in the war, a local with a grievance against him had told the authorities that the naturalised John Barber was actually a Greek. Greece was officially neutral, but internally divided, as the monarchy and parliament differed on the stance that Greece should take in the war. Grandad Barber was arrested and interred on Somes (Matiu/Somes) Island in Wellington Harbour, where he remained until 1916. His release, the story continues, came when it was realised that one of his sons was a fallen war hero, while two more still served, and a fourth was enlisted. However, the bitterness at being interred never left him, and for the rest of his life he refused to use English, speaking only in his native Greek. I don’t know how much of the story is real, but at Wilson Street it had become truth, and was retold for years to come. 

When my grandmother tells the stories of the Barbers, she says that her grandfather, George, only enlisted because they received word that James had died, and he felt that it was his duty to his brother to go. James had been killed in a training accident at a grenade school, where he was the instructor.

Part of a letter to the Auckland Star from Arthur Astin (10/2517) describing the final days at Gallipoli.  Image kindly provided by Papers Past, \u003ca href=\"https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/AS19391202.2.156.25\" target=\"_blank\"\u003eAuckland Star, Volume LXX, Issue 285, 2 December 1939, Page 5 (Supplement)\u003c/a\u003e

Part of a letter to the Auckland Star from Arthur Astin (10/2517) describing the final days at Gallipoli. Image kindly provided by Papers Past, Auckland Star, Volume LXX, Issue 285, 2 December 1939, Page 5 (Supplement)

© Stuff Ltd Creative Commons BY-NC

In later years, James wasn’t talked about often, but he was far from forgotten. He had served at Gallipoli, being referred to by the newspapers after his death as ‘one of the Suvla Bay heroes’, while in later years his name would be recalled as one of the party who closed ‘the barbed-wire gates’ at Gallipoli. As well as his family, James left a fiancée, Annie Baxter, who died in 1918 and is buried in the family plot. Granny Barber kept a photograph of James on her china cabinet, and next to it, James’ medal citation along with a hand grenade of the type which killed him. Every Anzac Day, when George would march down Lambton Quay with the other veterans, he wore James’ medals alongside his own.  

Interestingly, despite my grandmother remembering a medal citation at Wilson Street, James was never awarded any medals beyond the regular service medals. What she saw on Granny Barber’s china cabinet was one of the memorial scrolls distributed to the next of kin of all Commonwealth soldiers who were killed in action. I told her this, and she was certain it was for gallantry and a medal, but when I read the text that was printed on the memorial scrolls, ‘...and finally passed out of the sight of men by the path of duty and self-sacrifice...’ her hand shot up in recognition. Gail Romano, Associate Curator of War History, says that many families didn’t like to keep these scrolls, as they were a reminder of what was lost. Granny Barber though, displayed it proudly in the main room of the house, creating a shrine of sorts for their son which remained until she died. 


Photograph of James Barber in uniform, a copy of the one that Granny Barber had in her living room. At right, the text of a memorial scroll as received by the families of Commonwealth service people who were killed in action during World War I. Images kindly provided by family and Auckland Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira.

Photograph of James Barber in uniform, a copy of the one that Granny Barber had in her living room. At right, the text of a memorial scroll as received by the families of Commonwealth service people who were killed in action during World War I. Images kindly provided by family and Auckland Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira.

Collection of Auckland Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira, W1339.2, W0300.

While the Barbers had only lost one son to the war itself, they lost another in the years after. Michael, the youngest of the brothers who served, had returned to Wilson Street with his own troubles. In 1919, months after the war had ended, Michael had been court-martialled for desertion. Michael testified that having been granted leave he had gone drinking, and had reached a point where he did not know what day it was, or that he was now considered AWOL (absent without official leave). 

Photograph of Michael Barber in uniform. Image kindly provided by Papers Past, \u003ca href=\"https://bit.ly/3FFM48b\"\u003eOtago Witness, Issue 3256, 9 August 1916, Page 38 (Supplement)\u003c/a\u003e.

Photograph of Michael Barber in uniform. Image kindly provided by Papers Past, Otago Witness, Issue 3256, 9 August 1916, Page 38 (Supplement).

He argued as well that he was not the sort to desert, pointing to his lengthy period of engagement and the several injuries he had taken in service of his country. He was found not guilty of desertion, but still sentenced to sixty days detention for the absence - a punishment that caused resentment in the family.

When he returned to New Zealand, he stayed with the family for a time. However, his experiences in the war had left him wounded and haunted, and he returned to alcohol to cope. At some point he left Wilson Street and moved north to Whanganui where he lived with Granny Barber’s younger sister. Michael wasn’t spoken of often – his exile, self-imposed or otherwise, was a shadow over the family. However, he wasn’t abandoned by them. His brother Frank would leave town for a weekend every month, when he would go visit Whanganui. Michael died in 1942, never having returned to Wellington. 

My grandmother remembers visiting Wilson Street, not just to visit Granny Barber and her aunts, but also the other family members who lived there or were passing through. Frank Barber, the second son, had a child, Ron, who Granny Barber fostered after his mother ran away during the war, leaving him behind. She cared for him for the rest of his childhood, and at one time took in my grandmother’s sister too. My grandmother lived with Frank, a huge man she described as having ‘a sense of humour that had everyone rolling in laughter.’ She didn’t know about his Military Medal when I told her, but on reflection, she said that Frank was the sort of person who would have put it in a drawer and left it alone.  

George and Mary Barber, c.1940. Image kindly provided by family.

George and Mary Barber, c.1940. Image kindly provided by family.

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If Frank Barber was the funniest man she knew, then her grandfather George was the kindest. He was the eldest Barber child, and when he went to war he already had a young family. His two children were not yet five when he left, and he returned with wounds that would affect him for a lifetime. Despite this, he and his wife were doting parents and grandparents. My grandmother said that he was not only kindhearted, but good tempered, and she only saw him angry on one occasion.

One morning in early 1940, while she and her sisters sat in the kitchen eating breakfast, George’s son Jim and nephew Ron had returned from a night out drinking with the news that they had enlisted in the army. George was furious my grandmother said, ‘laying into Jim, telling him what he really thought of him’ before finishing up with the words ‘You’ll get no bloody thanks for fighting for the bastards!’  

The outburst captured a sentiment that was illustrative of the family’s ordeals in the years since the First World War. One brother killed, another’s marriage broken, another lost to drink. Their father interred in an alien camp. Though they marched on Anzac Day, and they commemorated their brother, the effects of war had been keenly felt for twenty years. Now, the next generation was embarking on the same path.

Photograph of Jim, Elizabeth (Granny Barber), Ron, and George Barber at St Anne\u0027s School Hall, May 1940. Image kindly provided by family.

Photograph of Jim, Elizabeth (Granny Barber), Ron, and George Barber at St Anne's School Hall, May 1940. Image kindly provided by family.

No known copyright restrictions.

In May 1940, Granny Barber, age 80, hosted her last family gathering at St Anne’s School Hall in Newtown, a stone's throw from Wilson Street. It was a going away party for her two grandsons, bound for Europe with the Second Echelon. A photograph was snapped of Granny Barber, flanked by the cousins in their uniforms, and George at Ron's side. They all smile into the camera, and the argument from the morning of their enlistment is seemingly forgotten. 

Cite this article

Nickless, Matthew. Remembering the Barbers: From the War to Wilson Street. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 19 December 2022. Updated: 23 January 2023.
URL: www.aucklandmuseum.com/war-memorial/online-cenotaph/features/barber