Repatriation case study: A soldier returned

Four years after human remains were deposited at the Te Awamutu Museum, the Museum team went about repatriating a soldier who fell at the Battle of Orākāu 158 years after his passing.

The remains of Major Walter Vernon Herford were first discovered by a staff member at the South Canterbury Museum who found a curios keepsake box on the mantelpiece of their bed and breakfast accommodation in England.

Upon enquiry, the owner of the box – whose late husband was a surgeon – said she didn’t know the origins of the box and wished for it to be returned to its family.

The box – which contained a bullet, skull fragment and nameplate with the deceased’s rank, name and cause of death – was passed onto the South Canterbury Museum's Director, Philip Howe who enlisted Social History Curator Chris Rapley to conduct provenance and significance research.

The team discovered that the soldier had fallen at the Battle of Orākāu, so hand-delivered the remains to Te Awamutu Museum.

Caring for Walter

As per the Waipā District Museums Collection Policy (2009), Te Awamutu Museum does not actively collect human remains, so they sought to repatriate Major Herford’s remains in a manner consistent with his family’s wishes.

The Museum’s repatriation efforts were supported by a new national policy (National Repatriation Policy and Associated Burial Taonga within Aotearoa [PDF; 200KB]) focused on the repatriation and care of kōiwi tangata and associated burial taonga. The policy adopted by the Museum’s Aotearoa membership in 2021 advocates for all ancestral human remains to be returned to source communities wherever possible.

The team knew that the repatriation process could take some time, so in the meantime, they created a place for Major Herford and developed their own special rituals and protocols around his safe handling.

“Unfortunately given the nature of our collection store we couldn’t create a wāhi tapu though we created another box for him and placed him in a quiet place. I was the only person accessing the collection, so we kept the box unlabelled and after handling him I ensured that I undertook a whakanoa practice with water as a way to spiritually remove any tapu restrictions. As part of my own personal practice, it was important to me to always think good thoughts while interacting with Walter so I felt safe,” says Te Awamutu Museum’s former Collection Manager, Megan Denz.

Virtual contact: reaching out across the sea

Although the curio box contained a few leads – such as Major Herford’s military title and rank – previous attempts to contact the family via had failed.

So Denz earnestly began the search for descendants by consulting a genealogist and looking across a number of sites including Ancestry, Family Search, My Heritage and Auckland Museum’s Online Cenotaph.

“I was doing a lot of cold calling and I just kept on hitting these brick walls because on these sites you can only see the profiles of those people who have passed, and these family trees don’t link to living descendants.”

The first contact came unexpectedly from a 19-year-old from England who was looking through his grandfather’s Ancestry message account in 2019.

“He wrote to us two years after the initial email because he was clearing out his grandfather’s emails who had passed away. From there I contacted his mother who is a keen historian, so although five generations had passed, the family knew a lot about Walter Vernon and his life in New Zealand.”

A final resting place

Through discussions with Major Herford’s UK family and making contact with members through genealogical sites, Denz discovered descendants from the United Kingdom, United States, and New Zealand and so began the process of bringing the family together over Zoom to discuss Major Herford’s repatriation after seeking guidance from the New Zealand Repatriation Researchers Network.

“We were conscious that we were springing this on the family and that it was important to give them time and space to digest it in their own way. For anyone undertaking a repatriation, it’s really important to give them this time and be patient along the way,” says Te Awamutu Museum Director Anne Blyth.

Vince and Annabel Neall with Waipa District Council Iwi Liasion Advisor Shane Te Ruki being led onto Holy Trinity Memorial park cemetery. Photo by Dean Taylor, Te Awamutu Courier

During this process, the museum decided to give the wider family the opportunity to set the pacing of the interment and consulted them regularly, so they could honour and grieve Major Herford in the way that felt right for them.

In letters written from Major Herford’s wife to her mother prior to his death, she expressed that it was his final wish to be buried at this particular churchyard with other fallen soldiers from the New Zealand Land Wars, so the family felt it was best to honour his wishes.

“On the zoom call, there was some discussion around separating his remains from the bullet though because this wasn’t physically possible, we came to the conclusion to inter the whole curio box at his original gravesite in Holy Trinity Memorial Park in Auckland.”

Once the site of the interment was decided upon, Denz – on the advice of a colleague – sought the expertise of a funeral director who helped to guide the process, as the burial site was a closed cemetery special exemptions were required.

In consultation with the family, she then made arrangements for the interment.

Though Denz was familiar with the process of repatriation and conscious of the repatriation work that had been undertaken at Auckland Museum – her previous employer – she was wholly unfamiliar with the work required to bring everything together, so she drew on her networks to help support her.

“I never thought I would ever do a repatriation. Typically it takes years of work from start to finish though the last 18 months have been a whirlwind. I never thought I would get so invested in one man’s life. In fact, I would joke to my colleagues that I was one of the long lost Herfords.”

The weaving of many stories

The interment ceremony was a blend of tikanga and Anglican liturgy, led by Waipā District Council Iwi Relations Adviser Shane Te Ruki (Ngāti Maniapoto) and Anglican Bishop of Auckland, Rev. Ross Bray and attended by a handful of Major Herford’s descendants and Te Awamutu Museum staff.

Walter Vernon Herford’s relatives Suezanne Neall and Katie Neall with Te Awamutu Museum Collections Manager Megan Denz. Photo by Dean Taylor, Te Awamutu Courier

“Council Iwi Relations adviser Shane – whose ancestors fought at the battle of Orākāu – brought both sides to the story 150 years later. He spoke beautifully about this physical and spiritual reconciliation and leaving the hurt where it lay,” says Blyth.

To mark the life of Major Herford and the many men who had died on the battlefield, the Herford family members who were based in New Zealand visited the battle site of Orākāu the night before and laid a flax flower from the battle site on this grave. In her speech, Walter’s nearest living descendent Annabel Neall noted the emotional impact of holding the box containing her ancestor’s remains.

“My thanks go to Megan Denz and the staff of the Te Awamutu Museum for the care and attention that they have given to WVH’s remains and the bullet that killed him. Their respect for this little box has been exemplary. I found that just holding this exhibit was a very emotional experience. The poor man must have suffered horribly in his last few weeks.”

Walter Vernon Herford’s closest living relative in New Zealand, Annabel Neall at the ceremony with her husband. Photo by Dean Taylor, Te Awamutu Courier

In an effort to preserve Major Herford’s memory, Denz was fastidious about documenting all parts of the ceremony and hired a videographer, so that the experience could be shared with family members who were miles away. Denz says this once-in-a-lifetime event is something that will always stay with her and she hopes to pass on her knowledge and experience to kaimahi embarking on a similar journey.

“I couldn’t have done it without the support of Ngākahu and the Repatriation Network, they really helped to create a place of safety for me during it all. My advice to anyone undertaking a repatriation is to draw on your networks for advice; do what you can and be patient because despite your efforts you may find yourself spinning your wheels. It’s also important to be sensitive and respectful about what you’re doing, so you can give it the reverence it deserves.”

The Ngākahu National Repatriation Partnership has supported and guided Te Awamutu Museum throughout the repatriation process, providing advice and funding for the final internment of Walter Herford. The Ngākahu Partnership between Manatū Taonga Ministry for Culture and Heritage and National Services Te Paerangi was established in 2019 to support organisations by providing expertise and funding assistance to enable the repatriation of human remains to their source communities.

‘Te Awamutu Museum staff go to extremes to find deceased soldier's family’ (NZ Herald)