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Thursday, 1 January 2015

Myrtle and her mandolin

In the prompt photograph above of some camp attendees with their musical instruments, the mandolin player reclining in the front of the group brought to mind the following photograph of my grandmother Myrtle May Byles and her mandolin.  One of her three sisters, either Nellie, Kate or Olive, is sitting next to her with some instrument or implement in her hand, perhaps a baton or a drumstick. It seems likely that this was a snippet of a larger photograph of a group of musicians, but it was all my aunt had when I visited her last year. Just in case you are wondering, what looks like part of a flower in the top right hand corner is simply a decoration on the photo frame, not part of the photo.  

Myrtle was born on 12 December 1893 in Wellington New Zealand and was 27 when she married my grandfather Oliver Desmond Cruickshank at the Trinity Methodist Church in Newtown, Wellington in 1921. Myrtle and her sister could well have been members of a church band. Methodism was quite a popular movement in New Zealand in the late 19th and early 20th century and its young people from Sunday School age onwards were encouraged to join a temperance group called the Band of Hope. This was not a musical band as such, but there could well have been one attached to it. Its members certainly enjoyed musical evenings, as shown in a number of articles I have recently discovered on the NZ historical web site Paperspast. Here is one example, from the Evening Post of 12 April 1912.

I can't be certain, but I think it is very likely that the Miss Byles who gave a mandolin solo here was my grandmother Myrtle, who would then have been aged 19.  Another article reports that the Misses Byles performed a mandolin and piano duet, and others refer to Church meetings where Miss Byles gave a mandolin solo with piano accompaniment, so it would seem that Myrtle must have been quite a good player. 

These articles were all  dated pre-1920. According to my aunt, Myrtle's elder sister Ellen Mary, known to all as Nellie, died of a broken heart in 1920, after her fiance was killed in World War 1. He was apparently a good friend of Oliver Cruickshank, Myrtle's future husband. Sister Kate Evelyn Byles was two years younger than Myrtle. It's less likely to be Olive, because she was seven years younger than Myrtle, but I definitely need to check with my aunt as to which sister this is. My aunt Nella is named after her aunt Nellie, whom she never knew, Nellie having died some years before she was born.

Here is a photograph of a inspiringly decorated Band of Hope pledge card:

'Band of Hope no-alcohol pledge card', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 8-Jul-2013

Coincidentally my late father-in-law Bob Featherston was also bought up a Methodist, and he signed a similar temperance pledge in 1927 when he was aged 10, but I can't say that he totally abstained in his ater life. 

Nella has also told me that as a young boy her inquisitive, scientifically minded brother/my father Ian apparently hid behind the couch and mischievously took his mother's mandolin apart to see how it worked but was not able to put it back together again, so perhaps that was the end of Myrtle's mandolin playing. Ian didn't inherit any musical ability from Myrtle and sorry to say, neither did I.

 I never really knew my grandmother Myrtle, as we left NZ in 1956 when I was only three and before we were able to return for a visit she had passed away in 1959.  Young Myrtle Cruickshank nee Byles would recently have celebrated her 121st birthday. I'll finish with this family portrait c. 1905, showing Myrtle, front left, with her parents Thomas and Mary Ann, sisters Nellie (behind Myrtle), Olive and Kate, and  their brother Jim sitting on his mother's knee. A second son and brother was born in 1908. 

Happy 2015!    For more Sepia Saturday blogs that might  involve mandolins or other instruments, bicycles, camping, men in bonnets or anything else that possibly connects to the wide-ranging prompt photo for this week, just click here

Postscript; My aunt Nella now tells me she doesn't think the girl in the band next to Myrtle was Nellie, but in fact was someone called Miss Bray, which is a shame, because it means I have no photographs of  Nellie. I'm not totally conviced however, and am hoping for more positive identification in the near future.
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