The Whalebone Walking Stick
(Uncle Bill Cole version)
In the year of 1855 my Irish grandfather Henry Coates was farming a property called Clontivern a few miles from Portaferry in Northern Ireland. One fine August morning he and his men were harvesting a field of hay when they noticed rain clouds developing. A young boy named John Grant, who had wandered ashore from a visiting ship, happened to be walking by in the lane and was invited to help. He willingly scrambled over the stone wall and joined in with a will and was soon absorbed in the bustle to get the hay stacked before the rain began. When at last the job was completed Henry, who was on top of the hay stack and could see down to the harbour, called down to the boy and asked, "What is the name of your ship, lad ?" and on being told said, " Well she has just sailed." The boy began to blub because he knew he would be arrested and punished with flogging. However he was assured by Henry Coates who knew the captain, that he could stay with them for a month when the ship would call again. During this month John Grant, this Scot, stayed at Clontivern and was treated as one of the family. While there, he got to know John Cole, my Grandfather who was at that time courting Jane Coates and was a frequent visitor at Clontivern. When the boat came back to Portaferry the lad was escorted by Henry Coates and Jane with an explanation of the circumstances. The Captain assured them that the boy would not be punished. After farewells John grant left promising to come again to see them when next his ship called. However he was never seen again by Henry and Jane Coates.
Jane Coates and John Cole were married 17th February 1857. On 13th August 1861 the third son was born Robert Bell Cole, my father. In 1879 a request was made by Thomas Ritchie, (who was a second cousin and at that time owned a fair portion of the Chatham Islands ) for one of the sons to come out to him as a cadet to learn sheep farming. Robert, my father was sent out, reaching New Zealand after a voyage of 93 days in the sailing ship Lurline of 700 tons.
During my father's stay on the Chathams an American whaling ship called for firewood and potatoes. This vessel, the Splendid, was anchored off shore and my father and another young man rowed out to find out the latest news and secure papers if possible as at times they heard nothing from the outside for long periods. On reaching the ship a rope ladder was thrown out to them and as they reached the fo'c'sle head, two men were sitting in chains. As Dad was passing he remarked, "The top of the morning to you," one of the men said. "I've heard that voice before." Dad answering: "And yours comes from Scotland." The sailor said, "What may your name be?" "Robert Cole," said my father. The sailor then exclaimed, "You couldn't be the son of Jane Coates and John Cole?" My father replied, "I am that very man." The sailor John Grant said , "Down in my cabin I have a whalebone walking stick which I have been working on for years as a wedding present to your mother and father who were so kind to me during my stay at Clontivern. Will you send it to them as I may never get back." Dad thanked him and accepted the stick which was duly taken home by Graeme Cole, my father's brother and presented to Jane and John Cole about 1890 or perhaps earlier. Dad enquired from the Captain as to why John Grant was in chains. He and his companion in distress had been fighting on the high seas, the punishment being 14 days in irons.
The stick is made of whalebone fashioned from a rib with primitive tools. The handle is in the form of a human hand holding a round ball with the staff inlaid with paua shell. The stick was sent back out to New Zealand through the kind generosity of James McMurray Cole a chemist at the Belfast Infirmary who thought it should be returned to the eldest living son who was Robert Cole, my father and was delivered by David McMurray of Auckland in about 1927.
I have told this story as far as I can remember in my father's own words.
Signed: William Newell Cole.
Michael Cole Recollections
(based on what I remember from my father's repeated telling of the story)
(The Mac Cole version)
John Grant was on his first sea voyage aboard his uncle's coastal trading ship and it was presumed that the ships hasty departure from Portaferry was to beat the same worsening weather the haymakers were concerned about. It was strongly emphasised that Jane took special care of the boy, treating him like a son. The Ritchie farm was a cattle farm. Several farm workers, including Robert, were organised aboard to help work - the ship being short handed due to some of the crew being in irons where they would remain until the ship reached its home port where they would be tried. What was their crime - It was during a break in the work ,when the older men were invited below for a drink, that Robert chanced on John Grant who he described as being an old man. (If Grant was 12 years old, say, when in Ireland, he would have been 34 when Robert met him in the Chathams and could well have looked much older as the result of what was no doubt a most rigorous life at sea.)
The verbatim conversation is more in Bill's manner of speaking than that of his father's which was much more lyrical. John Grant's first words were: "By the sound of the tongue in your head lad, you'd be from the north of Ireland." And when Robert confirmed this, he went on to say, "I only called there once and that was at a wee place called Portaferry," and the tale unfolded from there. Robert had to go below to the crew's quarters in the fo'c'sle to fetch the stick - the crew would not have had cabins as such.
The part of the stick formed as a hand is carved from the tooth of sperm whale and the core of the tooth is discernible. The darker inlay is tortoise shell. Lottie's husband, Harry Middelton replaced some of the missing paua shell inlay. While R.B. Cole lived in the cottage adjacent to my parents home at 22 Tammadge Street in TeKuiti, the walking stick hung beside his bed - his most treasured possession.
After he died it was in Mac's care for many years until, at a family reunion he gave it to Bill who was Robert Cole's oldest son. Bill handed it over to me on his stated assumption that, of all the nephews, I displayed the most interest in family history.
R.B. Cole told the story starting from the circumstances in the Chathams of his going aboard the whaling ship and the chance meeting with John Grant; the next part being "of course, Grants telling of his adventures.
It is about 115 years ago that the stick was first given to Robert Cole.
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