John William Whitehead 1856-1940 and Louisa Jane Hancock 1864 – 1937 The Kiwis

Early life:

John William Whitehead was born in 1856 in Pigeon Bay near Christchurch, Canterbury in New Zealand. He was third child of James William Whitehead from Lyminge, Kent in England and Sophia Shirley of Horsington, Somerset in England.

John’s siblings were Matthew who was born and died in 1855, his twin was James Thomas who survived. Alfred born in 1858, Stephen born in 1860, Mary-Anne Elizabeth born in 1861, Emily born in 1863, Sophia born in 1866, Edward born in 1871, Richard in 1872, Amelia in 1873, and Sarah born in 1874. Even by the standards of the day, twelve children was a big family.

John William Whitehead (2)
John William Whitehead


When John was 25 years old and had been living in Waipawa for 18 months he and  a very young, Louisa Jane Hancock made their intentions known to marry.  John gave his occupation as a labourer. Louisa was working as a Domestic in the house of Sophia Whitehead at Waipawa (who happened to be John’s mother.).  At the times she was aged 17.  She had lived in the area for sixteen years.   Because of her minor status she needed her guardian to give consent for her to marry. In Louisa’s case this was Louisa Callan listed as her mother. The Minister at their wedding was Rev J.W. Worboys a Wesleyan minister.  Intention to Marry Notice. Archives NZ Ref: BDM 20/26 1881 Waipawa p.477/270.  Louisa and John married on the 24th December 1881.

Louisa early life:

Louisa was born on the 16th October 1864 in Auckland, New Zealand to Walter Hancock from Clapham, London, England and Louisa Hall also from Clapham in London.  Louisa had four known siblings. Emma Sarah b.1860, Port Elizabeth, South Africa,  Elizabeth b. 1867 Motuotaraia, New Zealand, Harriet (Annie) b. 1869 Waipawa, Hawkes Bay, William Thomas b.1870 Waipawa, Hawkes Bay.  In 1867, three year old Louisa was living with her parents and sisters Emma and Elizabeth in Waipawa.  Louisa’s father’s occupation was as a Labourer.

Family life:

John and Louisa went on to have a large family together. Emily b.1883, Agnes Elizabeth b.1884, Ernest William b. 1886, Stephen James b.1887, twins, John William and Mary Ann b. 1890, Effie Doris b.1891, Louisa Jane b.1891 (and died 1891). Katie b. 1894 (and died 1894) and Olive Anne b. 1897. Ten children in all with two dying in infancy.

I believe from stories that my grandfather (Ernest) told that one of his grandfathers brothers (and I think it was Stephen) went onto be a bit of a well known sportsman with the newly emerging motor-bikes craze in New Zealand.

The 1900 electoral rolls showed John as an Overseer and Louisa as a married woman living in the Waipawa district.  In the same year newspapers reported the marriage of John and Louisa’s daughter, Emily who went from her father’s home in Mangatera, near Dannevirke, New Zealand. At the time John was 44.  This marriage did not last long and its demise could have been impacted by the birth and death of an infant child. On the 7th March 1908, Emily remarried, again from her father’s home.  This time in Wanganui, to Edward Davies at Manawatu-Wanganui, New Zealand. Tragically this husband would die a few years later at the age of 25.

In 1904 their daughter Agnes Elizabeth Whitehead married Christoffer (the spelling varies) Kristoffer or Christopher William Henry Hegh. They would live in Dannevirke.

In the 1905-1906 electoral rolls Louisa is listed as the wife of John Whitehead, living at Trafalgar Street, Dannevirke.

In 1914 their son Stephen James Whitehead married Myrtle Gladys Wynyard in Auckland.

In 1914 their daughter Effie Doris also married. She married John Arthur Saunders who she would later divorce before marrying James Gibson in 1929.

In 1917 their son John William (who went by Jack) married Mary Ellen Pierce. They lived around Gisborne.

In 1893 John and Louisa had moved their family out to Mangatera where they were attempting to set themselves up on their own land. John posted an ad in the newspaper looking for help in clearing the land.

Prior to the turn of the century and through the next fifteen years  were very hard years for John and Louisa. John declared bankrupt in 1895. (New Zealand Bankruptcy notices 1895).  The reason for this may be better explained below or maybe  he spiralled out of control because of the deaths of his daughters Louisa and Katie between 1891 and 1894?   Either way life was unhappy and unpredictable for the Whiteheads at this time and John would eventually abandon them. The family living in Waipawa, Dannevirke. Dannevirke had been built as a town by a large settlement of immigrant Danes with Dannevirke being a translation of Danes town.

back row Mary John Louisa Emily Ernest Front row Effie Agnes Olive Stephen

The little fellow standing to the far right is Ernest Whitehead!

Whether the bankruptcy preceded the drinking or the drinking preceded the bankruptcy I’m not sure but John’s out of control behaviour would damage his relationships irrevocably with his family and end his marriage.  Finishing in an acrimonious divorce in 1915 in the Supreme Court.

Hastings Standard, 11th March 1915.

Harry Richard Haycock (should have been Hancock) storekeeper of Elsthorpe. gave evidence as to the respondent leaving his sister, the petitioner. His Honour: It does not seem to be any use trying to keep the two people together after what we have with John William Whitehead on the ground of desertion. L. J. Whitehead v. J. W. Whitehead. Louisa Jane Whitehead petitioned for a dissolution of her marriage with her marriage with John William Whitehead on the ground of desertion. Mr. Dolan appeared for the petitioner.

The petitioner said she was married to the respondent on December 21th, 1881, and there were 10 children by the marriage. They lived at Tourere and Dannevirke. At Dannevirke the respondent started to drink, and used to knock her about. He also threatened their lives. For five or six years he was like that. Petitioner had to go into hospital, and when she came out respondent got notice to leave. Petitioner threatened to get a separation order, and the respondent then took out a prohibition order against himself. A little later petitioner left the respondent because she was afraid to live with him, and started a boarding-house at Gisborne. Respondent had brought in a gun, and fired it off in the yard to frighten her. He ‘had also sharpened knives over the bed’. Anabella Bell, who nursed some of the children, said the respondent never came home sober. He was a bad man — a cad. He was no fit husband for anybody. Effie Doris Saunders, daughter of the petitioner, said she had to go to work at thirteen. One Saturday night the respondent threatened to shoot the lot of them. and then fired the gun off in the yard to make out he had shot himself. When witness was in the hospital at Gisborne her mother wrote for money and the respondent replied “let the —— earn their own living.” About six years ago witness met her father, and asked him if he would not like to be back with her mother. Her father said:

“No I was never so well off in all my life.”  A decree nisi was granted, to. be made absolute in three months, with cost against respondent on the lowest scale.

The location of Louisa Whitehead’s Boarding House at 60 Peel Street Gisborne,, New Zealand, as it is today. Whether this is the same building that Louisa ran is uncertain at this time as many of the wooden buildings in the now historically recognised area of Peel St Gisborne were replaced in the early twentieth century with more solid buildings of brick.


The 1911 electoral rolls show Louisa as a married woman living at 60 Peel Street Gisborne. It would have been here that she had her boarding-house.  In the same year at the age of  55 John was recorded on the electoral rolls along with Louisa as living at Woodstock, West Clive, Hawkes Bay. John was recorded as a labourer. It was around this time that they parted ways for the final time.

In 1914 John was listed as living in  the rural small township Waerenga -O-Kuri, East Cape, Gisborne.  His occupation was given as a shepherd. This area was known for its farming of sheep. At this time John was considered to be quite older himself at 63 years.

The same year that Louisa’s divorce came through from John she re-married at the age of 51. She was likely still sour on John as when she remarried she gave her surname as  Hancock.  She married Richard Henry Edward Stilwell known as Ted at Waipawa, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand.  In 1919 Louisa and Richard  Stillwell, a ganger, were living in Ormondville.  Louisa would outlive Ted.


1916 would turn out to be a terrible year for both Louisa and John for reasons far beyond their acrimonious divorce. Their daughter Olive Annie Whitehead who was married but separated from Otto P Walter Becker (known as Walter) would suicide at the age of nineteen in far away Sydney, Australia on the 12th April, 1916.

NZ TRUTH, ISSUE 568, 6 MAY 1916 reported from the inquest. Young New Zealand Woman’s Suicide Facts Added at an Inquest in Sydney

“I Am Better Dead” The suicide of an unfortunate young woman, Olive Annie Becker, scarcely nineteen years of age, who, finding herself in a hopeless financial and physical condition, chose to- end her sea of troubles by poison— Agonising yet brief —was inquired into by the City Coroner at Sydney, a couple of weeks back. The victim was a young woman of no means and no occupation, as far as can be ascertained, and with no relations who cared for her nearer than New Zealand. Alvenia Howard, an elderly woman, of Klien-Road, North Parramatta, said she was the mother of Olive’s husband, Otto Peter Walter Becker, a plumber, whom Olive would not stay with. She was “too fond of other men”. She was only nineteen years old, and was born at Dannevirke, New Zealand, where her parents still resided. About two years ago, at Auburn, the girl attempted to commit suicide by drinking a concoction of “rough on rats” poison. Marie Patrick, a slender young girl, and married to a soldier, said her correct name was Brogden, and she lived at 126 Commonwealth-street She first became acquainted with Olive Becker about six weeks ago, being introduced to her in George Street. Olive asked her if she would like to live with her, and she signifying her willingness, they occupied rooms at different places for a night or two and then found a room vacant at 126 Commonwealth-street. Here they remained four weeks, her companion being ill nearly the whole time. A week before she died she went to the Women’s Hospital at Paddington, and was there given an. order to go to Prince Alfred Hospital. She accompanied deceased to the Prince Alfred Hospital on April 10, but there the superintendent said “there was no room” and gave her a prescription and an order for a lotion. On the way back from the hospital deceased collapsed in the tram, and was then conveyed by the Civil Ambulance to the Women’s Hospital, where she was, admitted and kept there until next day. On Wednesday morning the young woman returned to her room, saying that she was incurable, and would like to go home to her mother to die. About 1 pm she left deceased in the room, and went out for luncheon, and on returning a little after two o’clock she discovered that the girl had poisoned herself. Deceased sometimes partook of liquor, but was withal temperate, and many a time had been heard to wish herself dead. Alfred G. Sayera, a cleaner at Her Majesty’s Theatre living in Commonwealth Street, said that deceased and tho young woman Patrick had rented a front room downstairs at his house for the past month. He recollected that deceased was away getting hospital attention for a week, and returned on April 11. However, he did not see her that day until he discovered her, about two o’clock, lying on the floor of the dining room, evidently very ill. She murmured, “Mamma”, and begged for a drink of water. When he found she had taken poison, he gave her an emetic of salt and water, which caused a her to vomit greatly. He telephoned for Dr. Slattery, who came quickly, but the young woman was dead ere he reached the house. In deceased’s room was found a tumbler on the floor, with some white sediment adhering to the inside, 1 and also a packet labelled “poison salts of lemon”. Sergeant Young came and took charge of the body and the poison. Sergeant David Young said he reached the house at a quarter-past 2 pan. on April 12, and found Sayers and Patrick standing near the body of the girl, which was lying on the dining-room floor. Besides the poison he found a letter addressed to Marie Patrick, reading: Wednesday. Dear Little Pal,— l am sorry that you did not keep my secret, but I suppose you meant good, dear. There is only one thing left to me now. That is death. I am dreadfully sorry I have caused you and everybody so much trouble. I hope you will forgive me, Marie. I will not find it hard to die. Good-bye, dear little pal Your used to be friend. Olive. On the other side was written:L Stillwell, Ormondville,, New Zealand, Send fare at once. — Olive, 126 Commonwealth Street, Sydney.” From this it looked as though deceased had first thought of wiring to her mother for the necessary moneyt to take her across, but had changed her mind immediately afterward. Another letter addressed to Mrs. Stillwell, Ormondville, New Zealand, ran: Good-bye, Mumsie, darling. Forgive me for taking my own life; but I am better dead. — Olive Dr. M. Slattery of College-street, said the girl was dead on his reaching the house, and in his opinion, she died from poisoning. The Coroner found that Olive Annie Becker had died from, poisoning. Administered by herself.


14 April 1916. BECKER.— The. Funeral of the late Olive Annie Becker will take place this day Friday and will leave our Mortuary Chambers at 1 p.m., for the Church of England Cemetery, Rookwood. Mrs. P. KIRBY and. SON, Ltd. ,Funeral Directors, 7 Elizabeth Street, Sydney

Olive had married Otto in 1914 as a seventeen year old in Parrammatta, New South Wales Australia. (Registration number 7719). Registration number for death 5057.

Louisa married for the third and final time in 1932 at the age of 68.  She married Richard Edward Alexander Lean, known as Dick.  This time Louisa gave her name as Stillwell when she remarried. Louisa and Richard (Dick) Lean lived at 42 Barbour Street, Christchurch East in 1935.

undefined This house is no longer here and has been replaced by units. (photo Google 2012)

 Dick’s occupation was listed as a Chef. Louisa had married into a well-respected family and the Lean’s had through their progenitor (Alexander Lean) had much to do with establishing Christchurch. In 1935,  John and Louisa’s son Ernest was killed by a falling tree accident in Australia.  Dick outlived Louisa who died at the age of 73 in on the 1st November, 1936.

Press Newspaper, 2 November 1936 , Lean- On November 1st, at her residence, 45 Bury Street, Sumner, Louisa Jane, dearly beloved wife of Richard Lean. Aged 72 years.

19 August, 1940 at the age of 88 John died at Gisborne Memorial Home having lived his entire life in New Zealand. .  From looking at the Gisborne District Council records; I think  John was buried on the 19th August 1940 at Taruheru Cemetery, block 13, plot 82. No headstone. His last known address is listed as unknown. He had an obituary recorded in the Gisborne Herald that read,

Mr. J. W. Whitehead, The death of Mr. John William Whitehead at the Memorial Home today at the age of 88 years removes one who was born in New Zealand in the early pioneering days. Born in Lower Hutt in 1852, a time when the country was in a very unsettled state, Mr. Whitehead saw the rapid expansions of settlement, and came to Gisborne 30 years ago, living here ever since. He is survived by three sons, Mr. John Whitehead, Gisborne, Mr. Stephen Whitehead, Wairoa, and Mr. Ernest Whitehead, Hobart (this was not correct as Ernest had been killed in a tree felling incident in 1935 in Nowra, NSW, Australia. Ernest’s wife had been from Tasmania originally. It would appear that there was little contact with the Australian contingency of Whitehead’s otherwise the reporter would have known this important fact). There is also a brother, Mr. Stephen Whitehead, Gisborne. The interment will take place at the Taruheru cemetery on Monday, leaving Cochrane’s private chapel, Williams Street at 11am.

As an afterthought. I did find it unusual that none of John’s daughters were mentioned in the obituary notices.

There is another John William Whitehead floating around NZ at the same time as our John (a baker) so periodically it is easy to get them mixed but I’ve endeavoured to steer away from this.

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