Writing biography

Farm buildings early morn

Biography is likely to become more than an exploration of one’s subject; it becomes, at every step, an exploration of the author’s self, making it a journey of self-discovery, in the company of one’s subject.’


Biographer John Ritchie’s words are so true. It took me six years to research this group biography, Sailors, Settlers & Sinners, and as I struggled to wrestle the facts and suppositions into a coherent book I came face to face with problems of evidence, ethical issues in revealing intimate personal detail of past lives, and the ongoing task of filing and organising my research. Visiting an art gallery or museum I found myself constantly measuring past images and portraits, maps and maritime paraphernalia against what I already knew or what I was discovering. The subject was a part of me and had to be reviewed against each new encounter with the remembered past. Only a fraction of the accumulations made it into the book but I hope there may be a ghostly residue of what was discarded along the way.


I was extraordinarily lucky to have primary documents to refer to – the letters, journals, diary jottings, and an almanac – which were sheer gold – making the process so much easier and more authentic, giving the true feeling of how my ancestors thought, behaved and responded to events.


If anyone reading this book has further anecdotes to relate, or connections to the Hall family, don’t hesitate to contact me on the website contact form provided. Already, the English relatives of Edward Wakefield (Chapter 9) have come forward to share their stories, and the American descendants of John (Jack) Hall (Chapter 8), who was exiled to California, wrote to me to say they were thrilled to be reading about their New Zealand forebears. The gaps in family history which haunt people can be reconstructed if you take the time. It does truly become a journey of self-discovery as Ritchie once said.


News from New Zealand is that the house where Kate Sheppard, the lead campaigner for women’s suffrage, lived in Christchurch has now been acquired and is being renovated for public viewing. Some of those who helped her, such as Sir John Hall (Chapter 10) will feature in the story told in this house. Visitors and readers in New Zealand can already visit Sir John’s homestead at Terrace Station, Hororata (www.terracestation.org.nz) on certain open days, hosted by his great granddaughter, Kate Foster, to see the garden and trees planted by Sir John and his brother George W. Hall (Chapters 2, 7 and 8), and absorb the atmosphere of the stories recounted in Sailors, Settlers & Sinners.