12 September 2014

Family Treasures: - A tale of tragedy and strength

This very inconspicuous, old cane basket is one of my family treasures. It's a bit worn around the edges, it’s a bit grubby in places, and anyone who didn’t know it’s history would probably send it off to the dump. But my maternal great grandfather James Francis (Jim) EGAN made this basket many, many years ago. He made it totally by hand, which is a feat in itself, but the most amazing thing about it is that when it was made, Jim was totally blind.

James Francis (Jim) EGAN
James Francis (Jim) EGAN and his twin brother Michael Patrick EGAN were born on the 28th of December 1876 at Frankton, in Central Otago, New Zealand. They were the first-born children of Irish immigrants William and Mary (nee DWYER) EGAN, who had arrived in New Zealand in 1867 onboard the ship ‘Elizabeth Fleming’.

Jim's father, William EGAN, was accidentally killed while gold mining in February 1878 when Jim and his brother Michael were only 13 months old. Their family subsequently shifted south to begin a new life farming at Wrey’s Bush in Western Southland. His mother, Mary (nee DWYER) EGAN, was a very strong, determined Irish woman who ran her own farm with the help of her brother-in-law James EGAN, and later on with the help of her three growing sons; Jim, Michael and William (who was born 8 months after his father’s tragic death).

6th of August 1913, the marriage of

James Francis (Jim) EGAN was married in August 1913 to Hanora Mary COSGRIFF and before long they had a family of four beautiful young children; Jack (John Francis, my maternal grandfather, b. 1914), Molly (b. 1915), Kathleen (b. 1917) and James (b. 1918). Happiness for them was short-lived however, as Jim's beautiful young wife Hanora fell ill when their baby James was only eight months old. Hanora was admitted to hospital in the nearby town of Riverton and underwent an operation to remove a large hydatids cyst from her liver. After the operation she went into shock and the following day (the 27th of July 1919) she died, aged just 30, leaving Jim a widower with four very young children to raise on his own. His mother Mary, now 75 years old, was able to help him to a certain degree and after much discussion it was decided that the eldest child Jack (only four years old) would remain living with his father and grandmother. Toddlers Molly and Kathleen went to live with relations of their mothers Cosgriff family, and baby James went to live with a local family nearby who raised him as one of their own.

Back when Jim was in his late teens he had begun to experience problems with his eyesight and only a few years after his wife’s tragic death it had got to the stage that he was having real difficulties with everyday life on the farm due to his deteriorating sight. In February 1926 his mother Mary died aged 82, and he was left living alone with his now 12 year old son Jack, and with eyes that were failing him badly. Not long after this he underwent an operation to try and save his eyesight but it didn’t go according to plan and instead Jim was left totally blind. And so began a new phase of his life, learning to live in a world of total darkness.

After a few months of trying to return to live at home it was decided that it would be best if Jim left the family farm and moved north to Auckland, to the NZ Blind Institute, to learn the necessary skills to adjust to his new life. After a very fond farewell from the locals, Jim left Wrey’s Bush for good, and would only return periodically for visits in the years that followed. Social occasions held to farewell Jim each time he visited were often reported in the local newspapers and they provide a great insight into life at the time. 

The following is a newspaper report of his initial farewell, printed in the Otautau Standard and Wallace County Chronicle’ on the 8th of February 1927:

Complimentary Social at Wreys Bush"

"When it was made known that Mr Jas. Egan had decided to take up a course at the Auckland Institute for the Blind, the residents were unanimous in deciding he should not leave without them showing their practical sympathy in his affliction and their appreciation of his many acts of kindness and willingness to assist in any movement or gathering, for the benefit of others. Particularly has he been known as the founder and leader of “Egan’s Orchestra”, whose name throughout the District was a bye word for first class music. Mr Egan had for some years suffered from defective eyesight, and an operation became imperative. Unfortunately the result was not successful and he was totally deprived of sight. With commendable determination to be of use, he decided to go to the Institute, fully resolved to accomplish some purpose. On Tuesday evening the hall was packed to its fullest extent, visitors being present from all parts of the district. Mr John Boyle, Heddon Bush, was Chairman, and in a few appropriate remarks, explained the object of the gathering expressing pleasure at the spontaneous response of the whole neighbourhood. An enjoyable concert programme was submitted. Items were rendered by the following: Misses A Ronald, J Ronald and Matheson. Dances by Misses Caulfield and Anderson. H.E. Philip Comedian, provided a fund of humour.

Mr Jas. G Johnston, one of the oldest residents of the district, in making the Guest a present of a well-filled wallet, said he found great difficulty in making an appropriate speech. He wanted Jim to feel he had the sympathy of them all in this time of trial. He assured him of their best wishes for the accomplishment of the task that lay before him and for his ultimate success for the battle of life. “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” was heartily sung at this juncture. Mr D.J. Heenan, Beaumont, said the occasion was both uncommon and sad. He regretted the circumstances. Mr Egan had been hard against it, having lost his wife a few years ago while his family was still young. Although his fresh affliction had overtaken him, he was not downhearted, but with the heart of a lion, he was game and would not give in. He assured him of their prayers for his prosperity. Mr P Sinclair also spoke, referring to the fact that almost everyone present had at some time danced to music supplied by Mr Egan.

Mr Egan, on rising, received a great ovation. In a voice that could be distinctly heard, though deeply touched by emotion, he said words failed to come to thank them for what they had all done for him. He was overcome with gratitude for their spontaneous gift, although not so much for the gift, as the spirit which prompted it. It spoke volumes for their charity and kindness. He was not going to give in and prayed that God would bless and reward them all. “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” was again taken up by the crowd and after a few more items, the chairman called for three hearty cheers for all who had assisted in the evenings entertainment. A dance followed during which a dainty repast, provided by the ladies, was handed around.”

A report of his visit in February 1929 included the following:
“…….. during a recess Mr D Sinclair, on behalf of the company, congratulated their guest on the rapid advancement he had made in the art of basket making and his proficiency on the typewriter. The residents had had the opportunity of seeing samples of his work which he had done during his holiday and could see for themselves the fine class of work he could turn out ……….”
The ‘Otautau Standard and Wallace County Chronicle’ dated the 11th of February 1930 reported the following:
"Complimentary social was tendered to Mr James Egan in the Wrey’s Bush hall on Wednesday 5th inst., prior to his return to the Jubilee Institute for the Blind at Auckland. The hall was well filled with friends and many had come some considerable distance. Dancing was enjoyed by music supplied by Egans’ New Orchestra (4 instruments).
During supper adjournment, Mr D Sinclair expressed the pleasure of seeing their guest in his own town again and looking well and happy. They were all proud to know that despite the affliction that had overtaken him he had not lost heart, but by the excellent tuition and training he had received at the Institute, he was in the happy position of feeling himself in a large measure independent and self-reliant. Samples of his work were before them and had attracted the admiration of everyone. He had mastered the Braille and could do the bookkeeping by that system and was very proficient at the typewriter. He hoped that many of those present would write now and again to Jim and they would be surprised at the well-written reply they would receive. The speaker concluded by congratulating their guest on the success he had achieved by grit and determination and in conjunction with all those present wished him continued success and good health. “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” was heartily sung. An acceptable and suitable presentation was also made. Mr Egan on rising to reply was accorded an ovation. He thanked them sincerely for their many expressions of good will and practical sympathy and assistance. He did not like leaving again after his holiday, but realised that it was all for the best but was always glad to get back to the “Bush” again. He wished one and all Goodbye and Good Luck."

During his time living in Auckland Jim continued to enjoy his music and played the clarinet in the Blind Institute Band. On one occasion the band undertook a nationwide tour of New Zealand, including a visit to the deep south, and this allowed Jim another chance to catch up with all those at home in Wrey’s Bush and also have many friends and family come to hear his band play.

The NZ Blind Institute Band; date unknown but probably taken in the late 1930's.
My great grandfather James Francis (Jim) EGAN is second from the right in the middle row.

Basket making was one of the many new skills that Jim EGAN learnt while at the Blind Institute. From what I have been told, he was a very fast learner and picked up new skills easily. So long as he was told which colours of cane were sitting where when he started, he could turn out a beautiful basket in no time at all. I was also told that over the years most members of his wider extended family had all been given baskets made by him. But I'm afraid my basket is the only example I know of or have ever seen. It was given to me about ten years ago by a grandson of Jim’s younger brother William. There may still be other examples out there but I guess the stories of how they came to be in the family may have been lost over time and the baskets eventually disposed of.

In his later years Jim returned from the Blind Institute in Auckland and spent his last few years living with his son James and family in Invercargill. He died from cancer of the throat and oesophagus in Invercargill on the 24th of April 1947 at the age of 70. He was buried alongside his beloved wife Hanora, his mother Mary and his uncle James at the Wrey’s Bush Cemetery in Western Southland.

My great grandfather Jim EGAN had more than his fair share of tragedies in his lifetime, including the death of his father when he was only a baby, the loss of his wife after only five years of marriage, and then the subsequent loss of his young family as they were taken and raised by others. And as if that wasn't enough for any man to have to endure, he then had to spend well over half of his life living in total darkness. But he did so with dignity, with courage, with strength and determination, and without so much as a single grumble or a “why me”. He took life as it was dealt to him and made the most of the opportunities he was given.


  1. Welcome to Geneabloggers! Amazing story and the basket is a wonderful treasure to have in your family.

    1. Thanks Kathryn for dropping by, it's great to know that others are finally reading my blog.

  2. Excited to find a new blogger from downunder. Welcome to the blogisphere.

    1. Thanks Jill. Can you please post a link here to your blog so I can drop by and have a read :-)

    2. Maria, It's http://geniaus.blogspot.com