The Tattersfield Family of Auckland, New Zealand

This account is written by Cunitia Evelyn Wilkinson, of Warkworth, NZ Her ancestry is Joseph 1747-1795, Joseph, Jeremiah, Frederick James, James Walker, Peter Abbott.

One of the TATTERSFIELD families in New Zealand traces its line back to JOSEPH TATTERSFIELD (1747-1795) of “The Heights”, Heckmondwike in the West Riding of Yorkshire. His eldest son, also JOSEPH (1779-1851), who married Martha Brook, is described as a clothier; in 1848 he is listed as a blanket maker. In turn, his son JEREMIAH (1812-1886) was also a blanket maker, living in Heckmondwike. He appears to have had a substantial business, as the blankets were manufactured at Kilpinhill Mills, and his business was registered as Messrs JEREMIAH TATTERSFIELD & Sons. He lived nearby at “The Hollins” with his wife Martha Hirst. (In recent years The Hollins was used as a workingmen’s club).

One of JEREMIAH’s sons was FREDERICK JAMES who worked in his father’s business as a wool buyer and valuer. He married Frances Mary Walker, and on 13 May 1877 the first two of their eight children were born – twins MARTHA AGNES and JAMES WALKER. JAMES was to become the founder of our New Zealand family.

In early life JAMES earned pocket money by keeping poultry, at first selling eggs, and then breeding and selling hens and ducks. When he was in his teens, possibly as young as 13, and already 6 feet tall, he started work at Kilpinhill Mills. In order to gain experience of the business, he worked successively in each department. He father taught him how to classify and value wool, a skill which would benefit him later in life. He also attended night school to refine his handwriting skills.

The reason for his decision to travel to New Zealand and the exact date of his arrival in the country are not know, but it seems that when JAMES turned 21 in 1898, he decided to explore prospects overseas. He travelled as a steerage passenger on the S.S. Kumara, and arrived at Auckland with £104 with which to begin his new life.

In Auckland JAMES found employment with Messrs Murgatroyd Limited, a firm of wool buyers. One of the partners, Joe Murgatroyd, took an interest in the new recruit, and he was taught the special characteristics of New Zealand wools, which were different from those he had known at home. In time he became a wool buyer for the company.

In 1904, JAMES WALKER Tattersfield married Evelyn Sophie Abbott, who was always known as “Evie”. She was the eldest of Henry Abbott’s and his wife Sophie Watson’s six children. The Abbotts were an old Debenham (Suffolk) family, whilst Sophie was a descendant of the Wentworth-Watsons who were distantly connected to the Rockingham family. A shop in Debenham was an inherited family business but Henry took little interest in it, leaving it in his wife’s capable hands, while he stayed at home, busy in his garden and greenhouse. Their eldest daughter, Evelyn, was talented and hardworking. She had been “finished” in Belgium, and on her return to England had embarked on a nursing career. When JAMES met her she was working at the prestigious Guy’s Hospital in London, where a young doctor had expressed his interest in becoming a suitor.

JAMES returned to New Zealand and wrote to Evelyn proposing marriage, sweetening the offer with a promise of being able to eat “strawberries all year round” in New Zealand. Evelyn accepted and came to Auckland where they were married on 5th December 1904. Year-round strawberries indeed! Then, as now, these fruit had a short season in her new country, and JAMES’ bride was heard to comment that he had lured her there “by false pretences”.

In the early days of their marriage, JAMES may have worked briefly in the building industry, but the couple soon set up a haberdashery shop on the ground floor of the A.B.C. (Ashley’s Busy Corner) at the intersection of Pitt Street and Karangahape Road in Central Auckland. Evelyn supervised the shop somewhat imperiously, taking over the serving of important customers from the assistants. JAMES travelled throughout the country taking orders and selling goods from the shop. The linen they imported is believed to have come from Belgium, was said to be the best quality available in the colony, and was probably supplied to Government House.

Mrs Christiana Winder and her daughter Mrs Sarah Atwood were at this time living at Titirangi, a rural settlement on the outskirts of Auckland. JAMES called on them to display his wares, as he did on his other customers of note in Auckland. Young Cunitia Atwood went to work in Evelyn’s shop briefly, probably lured by the excitement of the city compared to quiet life in the country. She could not guess that many years later her own daughter Joan Hambling would marry JAMES’ and Evelyn’s son PETER, and their first child would be named Cunitia Evelyn after her two grandmothers. (The writer of this article.)

On one of JAMES’s trips away, the owner of a boardinghouse where he was staying asked him to obtain for her a new mattress, a request which would have far-reaching consequences. When the mattress duly arrived (ordered, it is said, from Harts of Wellington) it was felt by Evelyn to be of poor quality. “Bag of feathers” was her comment, and she suggested that they could make a better product themselves.

Accordingly the first steps were taken to set up a factory to do this: land was purchased in the Auckland suburb of Grey Lynn. Two adjacent sections – one on the corner of Sackville Street and Richmond Road and the other on Sackville Street – cost them £150. An iron shed measuring 50 feet by 25 feet was erected on the lower section and housed a gas engine bought on time payment, and a teasing machine from the Onehunga Woollen Mills. A home was built on the top section.

The first commercially manufactured mattress in New Zealand was made by JAMES in 1906, and in that same year Evelyn gave birth to their first surviving child – a son whom they named FREDERICK GUY. The following year J W Tattersfield & Company was established. The three founding partners were JAMES and Evelyn and Howard C Abbott, one of Evelyn’s brothers who had joined them in Auckland. JAMES put up the capital of £1217.8.11d. and business officially commenced on 8 August 1907 at the premises in Richmond Road. The next year they took on their first apprentice, Harry Barker. Sadly the partnership with Howard lasted only a few years.

Growth was the hallmark for both family and business in the next couple of decades. Five more sons were born at regular intervals: in 1908 JAMES NOEL, LEONARD WALKER (LEO) in 1910, then PETER ABBOTT in 1912, followed two years later by FELIX MAXWELL. The success of the business meant that Evelyn and JAMES were able to acquire a large home with spacious grounds in Mount Albert, and it was here that the last son, JOHN WATSON, was born in 1916.

The property was named “Puriri Puke”, a Maori name signifying that it was a small hill graced with beautiful puriri trees, whose berries were favoured by many native birds. It would remain the family home until JAMES’ death in 1961. The extensive grounds enabled Evelyn to follow in her father’s footsteps, and she gradually developed a gracious garden which included a rockery, vegetable garden, orchard, greenhouse, hothouse, fernery, and a large sweeping drive, as well as wonderful trees. JAMES indulged his youthful interest in poultry once again, and there was enough flat land for tennis courts and croquet, as well as FELIX’s aviary.

The boys enjoyed an unrestricted and healthy childhood outdoors and roamed around the district, making friends with nearby children and having many adventures, such as exploring the volcanic caves near the summit of the mountain. One story they told in later years relates to a small duckling which hatched on a wet and windy night. In an effort to save its life, the boys placed it in the still-warm oven and went off to bed. The next morning an unknowing parent awoke early and lit the range as usual, only to be perplexed a while later by the strange smell pervading the kitchen. Horrified young lads raced to rescue the bird, which, amazingly, survived the experience, but was for ever after ill-disposed towards people, and attacked the bare feet of the boys whenever they went to feed the ducks.

The Great War took the lives of 16,000 New Zealanders, a considerable loss to a small country. JAMES and Evelyn grieved at the loss of JAMES’ younger brother ALLAN (killed on 21 November 1917 at Ypres, Flanders. Buried at Vlamertinghe New Military Cemetery).

At the end of the war a returning troopship brought an influenza epidemic which swept the country. Hospitals overflowed and Evelyn turned their home into a small nursing home, where she could care for some of the sufferers. Fortunately, none of the family became ill, but the epidemic cost the country 6,000 lives.

Tattersfield’s mattresses sold well, and down pillows and quilts were the next items to be produced. In 1912 the business became a public company – Tattersfield Limited – the tin shed being replaced with a 4-storey building to accommodate the growing number of men and machines required. The house on the top section now became the registered office of the company. In addition to mattresses, pillows and quilts, by the 1920s the firm was manufacturing wire bases, bedsteads and underfelt. Things were looking good.

But JAMES remained a wool man at heart. He felt there must be a way to utilise the crossbred wools produced in New Zealand. His new venture would be into woollen rugs. At first, plain reversible rugs were made and proved so popular that patterned ones soon followed. A new division, Tattersfield Textiles, was started to handle the rug manufacturing. Many of the patterns were Evelyn’s original designs.

With the family growing up, Evelyn and JAMES purchased a property at French Bay on the Manukau Harbour to the west of the city. The seaside cottage was used for holidays and weekends and the boys became keen sailors. PETER for one would sometimes disappear on his yacht for the entire weekend, surviving with whatever rations he had managed to sneak out of the pantry – tins of sweetened condensed milk were favourites. Evelyn planted native trees and shrubs on the steep slope in front of the cottage, and JAMES wrote to the local authority complaining about the rough and winding gravel road in the area. For their part, members of the local council felt Mr TATTERSFIELD might be well advised to drive more slowly on it!

Regular trips back to England to visit family and friends were used by JAMES to do business. One trip must surely have been in 1924 when the British Empire Exhibition was held at Wembley, and included an exhibit of Tattersfield Limited rugs. Advertising blurbs speak of this “bold and audacious move” – boldness which paid off, for the company gained the Wembley Award of Merit (Honours), and was further honoured when Queen Mary purchased the complete set of one design of the rugs. It is believed that further awards were gained later at an exhibition in Chicago.

In August 1928 the firm celebrated its 21st birthday and an expedition to view the Arapuni Hydro Electric Scheme, which was then under construction, was arranged. Directors, employees and their families left Auckland on the 8.30 am train and didn’t arrive back until 10.30 that evening. Several days later the company paid for everyone to enjoy a more sedate trip to a picture theatre.

Despite the celebrations, the success of the firm was under threat from an economic downturn which would result in a world wide depression. JAMES battled to keep the company viable, and by February 1929 several key workers had left the firm whom it was difficult to replace. By 1930 things were so bad that the staff had their wages reduced, and many only worked alternate weeks. Vegetables were distributed from Evelyn’s large garden. Personal economies were made by the family, and the younger boys were withdrawn from the expensive King’s College where they were being educated, and enrolled at the local state establishment, Mount Albert Grammar School. But the business remained operational throughout the Depression and ultimately survived without any workers having been laid off, according to JAMES.

This feat must have been appreciated by the workers concerned. Thirty years later, a staff member commented on the fact that Tattersfield’s employees were very loyal to the firm and seldom left the company before retirement age. Staff members frequently recommended their friends and relatives for positions at the factory. Consequently, there was little need to advertise for staff when vacancies arose. Customers must have been equally loyal, for there was little advertising of the comany’s products – JAMES’ philosophy being “a good product will always sell itself”.

As the boys got older, Evelyn was able to take part in the social life of Auckland, and was an active member of the prestigious Lyceum Club. Her gardens were the scene of various garden parties, usually in aid of a good cause, and tennis parties were enjoyed by the boys and their friends. In 1920 a fete was held at Puriri Puke which was opened by the Countess of Orford, the proceeds going to the Seamen’s Mission.

Dorothy Monkman was the wife of a dyer whom Tattersfields had brought out from England to work at the factory. Throughout her stay in New Zealand she wrote to her close friend back in Britain, and these letters have now been published in a book, titled “To Win … with love”. She described her visit to Puriri Puke in 1929:

This afternoon I was invited to Mrs Tattersfield’s – always pleasurable and informal. She was busy darning and mending ready for the boys to go back to school tomorrow. They all came in one by one – first Felix, aged fourteen, Peter, sixteen, then John who is twelve. They are all free and easy, chatting away as if I really knew them well. Mrs Tattersfield has little time to bother with small details. She does a great deal of work in the garden because Yates Reliable Seeds of Auckland, London and Manchester beg her to sell them some of her seeds. Apart from which she designs all Tatts. rugs, is a director, then there is her family to look after with only daily help.

The garden is all the result of her efforts for fifteen years culminating in a wonderful selection of trees asnd plants renowned throughout Auckland.

By the mid 1930s the worst was over, and JAMES and Evelyn left on the Rangitikei for an extended visit to England. Evelyn spent time with her sister Trixie (Beatrix) in Suffolk and visited another sister, Olive, who lived in Paris. It is possible that she and JAMES had intended to remain permanently in Britain, as they purchased a home there – Glebe House, once a parsonage, in the village of Stratford St Mary near Colchester. However, the call of the family, home and business drew them back to New Zealand in 1938.

By now, the boys had all finished school and were working, the three eldest being married. GUY, LEO and PETER worked at Tattersfields; NOEL, a qualified solicitor, was with the company’s law firm Duthie Whyte & Co. FELIX was in a bank and had completed his banking diploma. JOHN was in the town of Hamilton in the Waikato region, working at South British, an insurance company.

When war broke out in 1939 the two youngest, unmarried sons, FELIX and JOHN went to England and enlisted in the Royal Navy. FELIX served on an E-boat and JOHN served as a radio operator on a Corvette. JAMES and Evelyn left for England again to be close to the boys, and GUY and LEO were left in charge of things in New Zealand. GUY and NOEL were in the Coastguard and PETER was in Civil Reserve of the RNZAF. While in England JAMES became an air raid warden.

Michael Abbott, son of Evelyn’s youngest brother Duncan, tells of an occurrence at Glebe House, when he called there on his way home from leave from his RAF posting. On this occasion he found JAMES alone at home. Earlier in the evening news had been received that a German prisoner-of-war had escaped from a nearby hospital after threatening the nurses with a knife. A New Zealand navigator staying at Glebe House had immediately rushed off into the night to hunt the escapee. JAMES then had to inform the relevant authorities that there were now two dangerous armed men roaming around the area instead of just one! However, despite this excitement, Michael found JAMES to be very unhappy, probably due to the recent news that FELIX was missing. He would later be confirmed lost at sea.

JOHN survived the conflict and was mentioned in despatches. (More details of the war record of JOHN, and his mention in despatches, are to be found in the section “Tattersfields in the Military”, on this Website.

Life was different when JAMES and Evelyn returned to New Zealand at the end of the war. Baby grandchildren had grown into toddlers, new ones had arrived and more were on the way – there would be 17 in all. As the years passed it became a family tradition to join together at Puriri Puke a few days before Christmas for a festive lunch. The large table in the dining room would seat 14 at a pinch and the children ate at a smaller table in the window annexe. After lunch the adults retired to the drawing room for coffee and liqueurs while the children played hide-and-seek and other rowdy games outside in the sunshine. One year a bold granddaughter discovered where the drinks were stored in a spare bedroom and led her more naive cousins astray, assuring them that Creme de Menthe was not alcoholic! Each Christmas every family received a large tin of ginger nut biscuits and a crate of L & P – a soft drink unique to New Zealand and officially named Lemon & Paeroa water. Grandma gave the children books – sometimes the Little Grey Rabbit series and others written or illustrated by Margaret Tempest, who it is thought was a friend or acquaintance of hers.

Over the year the firm changed. GUY left and lived in Christchurch for a while before returning to Auckland and setting up his own business. NOEL joined Tattersfields; LEO became an independent wool buyer and moved to Wellington, but retained his links with the company. PETER worked at the factory and was joined by JOHN who did not consider his prospects at South British very good.

Encouraged by the rug-making success, a carpet manufacturing plant in nearby Livingstone Street was started, and two underfelt plants were set up in Christchurch and Woodville. In 1947 Axminster body carpet was produced for the first time. New methods of mattress-making were adopted, one being a spring assembly; knitting wool with the brand name Victory was a new product. Waste wool was sold to New Zealand Railways for stuffing boxes and axles. The scouring plant operated 24 hours a day, six days a week, but plans for a maquette factory did not eventuate.

In the late 40s Evelyn’s health began to deteriorate. On a trip to Britain she underwent a mastectomy operation, and she needed to be vigilant about her diabetic condition. From a rather buxom figure she lost condition and became somewhat frail and slight. JAMES became increasingly protective of her. She had to take life more quietly and did much tapestry work. Each of her sons’ families received a glass-topped occasional table featuring her tapestry work, which have become treasured family possessions. As convenor of the Lycum Club’s garden circle, she was in charge of making an enormous floral carpet which covered the ground floor of the Auckland Town Hall. Her garden continued to be a great love and she watered it every Sunday evening. In later life, Evelyn still did the occasion rug design and could sometimes be found with a huge sheet of draft paper spread over the smaller of the two tables in the dining room with brushes and saucers of paint nearby. At least one young granddaughter found it fascinating to watch her filling the tiny squares with colour.

In 1954 Evelyn and JAMES left on another trip to England. Evelyn collapsed and died on board ship and was buried at sea. JOHN flew to join JAMES at the nearest port and they continued on to England, but it was the last trip JAMES was to make.

On his return to New Zealand a housekeeper was engaged to care for JAMES. Each day he spent the morning at the factory and in the afternoons he pottered in the glasshouse with his orchids and fed the poultry. The family visited frequently, especially at weekends, and once a week he dined at his club. JAMES was an avid reader with a substantial library. The grandchildren were fascinated by the fact that his large wing chair was carefully positioned with its back to the television set, which he steadfastly ignored throughout his lifetime.

But without Evelyn his life was not the same. He used to say that he could never have done as well as he did if he had not come to New Zealand, and that he would never have done all he did without Evelyn beside him. His memory and health both declined, although his 80th birthday was a happy occasion and is recorded in a photograph of the family gathered together in Evelyn’s beautiful garden, where his funeral service would be conducted four years later, in 1961.

Tattersfield Limited continued under able leadership, with NOEL and JOHN heading the bedding and carpet divisions respectively. Economic conditions were changing rapidly and in 1960 the carpet division amalgamated with a British company, Brintons. There was great pride in the factory when Queen Elizabeth II visited the carpet division in 1963. In 1967 Feltex Limited made a takeover bid for Tattersfield’s which was accepted by shareholders on the Board’s recommendation.

Almost 40 years after JAMES, Evelyn and Howard had founded the enterprise, Tattersfield’s ceased to exist as a trading company, although the name Tattersfield has been retained until the present for a popular brand of mattress.

More than 40 years after JAMES’ death, all his sons have also passed away. Fifteen of his seventeen grandchildren are still living, many being grandparents themselves. It would seem that there will be TATTERSFIELDs in New Zealand for many generations to come.

Auckland Family Reunion.

This account was written by Jocelyn Tattersfield, younger sister of Cunitia Wilkinson.

In Feb 2002, 13 grandchildren of JAMES and Evelyn Tattersfield-together with partners/spouses, children, children-in-law and grandchildren-gathered at French Bay, a small sheltered beach on Auckland’s Manukau Harbour. It was here about 75 years ago that the Tattersfield bach (holiday home) was situated, and JAMES’ and Evelyn’s six sons spent their youthful summers learning to sail. A keen gardener, Evelyn planted the clay slope below the bach with a fine selection of native plants. This delightful area was later gifted by JAMES to the Waitemata County Council, and remains as a public reserve for all to enjoy.

Around the beginning of the 20th Century, JAMES’ brother CLIFFORD had also left Yorkshire for the milder climes of New Zealand, establishing himself as a farmer on the East Coast of the North Island. His daughter-in-law and three grandchildren-along with most of their families-travelled north to join JAMES’ descendants. This was much appreciated as there had not been much contact between the two branches of the family in recent years.

The tables groaned with delicious food contributed by those present, but of greater interest were the family photographs and momentos on display. Anecdotes were related and childhood memories relived.

The reunion was unanimously judged a success, and another is planned for 2004. This time the venue will be the lovely old house which was JAMES’ and Evelyn’s family home in Grey Lynn around the time of the Great War. Later it served as the office for Tattersfield Limited, and eventually JOHN (JAMES’ and Evelyn’s youngest son) had it moved on to his beautiful rural property at Makarau, north-west of Auckland. JAMES Junior (elder son of JOHN) and his partner Jill now live there, with their two children, and are caring for the home.

We are hoping for another good attendance at the next “meeting”, and any overseas Tattersfields who may be visiting New Zealand will be warmly welcomed.

Header Image:  A post card from about the year 1909, depicting the store-front of Tattersfield Ltd., on the corner of Pitt Street and Karangahape Road, in Auckland, New Zealand. Public domain.