Updated: Oct 7, 2019
Hawera is unique among towns in New Zealand, with having Victoria Crosses awarded to two soldiers in World War I for outstanding gallantry. The two individuals were John Gildroy Grant and Harry John Laurent. There were only 11 Victoria Crosses awarded to New Zealanders in WW I. Only 8 were awarded in WW II and only one since 1945. So Hawera has achieved a special distinction with the award of a Victoria Cross to two of its citizens. Note: The total number of Victoria Crosses awarded to New Zealand servicemen is only 22 with the most recent being that to Willie Apiata in 2007.
The Online Cenotaph, Auckland War Memorial Museum, has this to say about John Grant and Harry Laurent:
John Grant was awarded his Victoria Cross in recognition of his "most conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty" shown on 1 September 1918, during his company's attacks on enemy positions that occupied high ground east of Bancourt, France. The platoon he was leading encountered a line of five enemy machine gun posts that formed a formidable obstacle to the advance. He initiated and led successful attacks on these positions. The citation refers to the fact that Sergeant Grant on this and two previous days "displayed coolness, determination and valour of the highest order".
Harry Laurent was awarded his Victoria Cross "for conspicuous bravery, skill and enterprise" when, during an attack at Gouzeaucourt Woods on 12 September 1918, he was in charge of an advance group, leading a party of twelve. The squad advanced quickly to attack a German support line that was being strongly held. In the initial attack and in the subsequent hand-to-hand fighting he displayed initiative and leadership, his squad killing a number of the enemy and captured an officer and 111 other ranks at the cost of just four casualties.
The official citations were published in the London Gazette.
The South Taranaki District Council and the RSA decided that there should be a commemoration ceremony in September 2018 to mark the centennial of the award of the Victoria Cross to John Grant and Harry Laurent. Harry, it should be noted, had also been a pupil at the Hawera District High School.
An excellent and comprehensive report, on the Double VC Centennial, by Jillian Williams, Convenor of the Hawera Genealogy Group, was published in the December 2018 issue of ‘The New Zealand Genealogist’. The report is reproduced below. The photograph accompanying the report has also been included.
The ‘Taranaki Star’ (formerly known as the ‘Hawera Star’), report is in the link below
There was also a comprehensive report in the 27 September 2018 issue of the ‘Opunake and Coastal News’. See the link on www.opunakecoastalnews.co.nz To access this report click on the Archives tab, at the top of the webpage and then click on the 27 September 2018 issue tab.
For coverage in the ‘New Zealand Herald’ and the ‘Wanganui Chronicle’ please click on the link below:
And in the ‘Taranaki Daily News’:
Laurent VC Street and Grant VC Street – the background
Majorie Ann Arnold (nee Laurent), in her article 'Taranaki Hero: Making History' in the publication 'New Zealand Memories' Issue 130 February / March 2018, provided interesting family background on Harry Laurent’s family: 'As a rifleman in the 2nd Battalion of the NZ Rifle Brigade, Harry arrived in France in 1916. Being consigned to fight in France was an intriguing development as his grandfather Rodolphe had been a Major in the French army and had emigrated from France to settle in New Zealand in 1857. Rodolphe married soon after arriving in New Zealand and went on to have 12 children. The fifth was Harry's father.'
PEACE CELEBRATIONS IN HAWERA
The official peace celebrations in Hawera, to mark the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on 28 June 1919, ending the state of war between Germany and the Allied Powers, were held on Saturday 19 July 1919. The events of the day were reported on pages 4 and 5 of the 21 July 1919 issue of the ‘Hawera & Normanby Star’, as follows:
The place of assembly was in front of the Winter Show Building. Tiny children gaily bedecked with colours, boy scouts, nurses bearing the emblem of mercy and sympathy, school children, motor cars covered with greens and flags, decorated bicycles, ponies wearing uncommon trappings, the two bands, people looking very "dreadful" in their wild west clothing,
representatives of friendly societies, the Fire Brigade, motor, and variously decorated vehicles with their attendants – all to form part of the procession marshalled by Major Cox.
The task of arranging the order of procession over, the long line began to move just at 1 pm and passed along Princes Street, High Street, Union Street, Glover Road, and through Collins Street, back to High Street, to the platform at the corner of Princes and High Streets. Crowds of people in the main streets watched the procession, but there was lacking that spontaneous enthusiasm which was shown on Armistice Day. The town was brightly festooned, three arches in High Street and one in Princes Street, with their flags and coloured lights, adding to the gaiety. Most of the shop windows were specially dressed for the occasion.
After the procession ended the Mayor (Edwin Dixon), decorated returned soldiers, veterans, and prominent citizens, with the Band, took their places on the platform, and cheers were immediately called, and heartily given, for the returned-soldiers, Mr Lloyd George, and Marshal Foch. The Mayor read the King's Proclamation of Peace, after which the ‘Citizens' Band played the National Anthem, which was followed by cheers for the Allies. A very large crowd, numbering probably between 3000 and 4000, packed the street to listen to the speeches and to witness the citizens' presentation to Lieut. Laurent.
After the speeches had finished the combined Citizens' and Salvation Army Bands then played Rule Britannia. The procession was repeated again that evening.
PRESENTATION TO V.C. HERO
The Mayor said he had a very pleasing duty to perform—to make a presentation to Lieut. Laurent, V.C., from the citizens of the town. (Applause). He congratulated Lieut. Laurent upon the distinction conferred upon him, and said Hawera was honoured in having two V.C. heroes. Amidst cheers and applause His Worship handed to Lieut. Laurent a beautiful gold watch and chain suitably inscribed. Mr G. V. Pearce, M.P., also heartily congratulated Lieut. Laurent upon the honour conferred upon him, and also the town upon having two V.C. heroes. Cheers were given for Lieut. Laurent, V.C., Lieut. Grant, V.C. (who has not yet arrived in the Dominion), and for the other decorated soldiers on the platform. This concluded the ceremony.
A large number of the public then wended their way to the tower grounds where Lieut. Laurent and the Mayor each planted a victory oak tree under the supervision of Mr Lay, custodian of the Park. Both trees were declared by the public to have been truly planted, and cheers were given for Lieut. Laurent and the Mayor.
Two days later, on 21 July 1919, Harry Laurent’s grandfather, Rodolphe Marie Martin Joseph Laurent, died at 93 years of age, and was buried in the Hawera Cemetery, as was his grandmother, Elizabeth Laurent, who died 10 June 1921 at 83 years of age. There are 10 members of the Laurent family listed in the Hawera Cemetery records, including Harry Laurent who died 9 December 1987 at 92 years of age, and his wife Ethel, who died 7 September 1986. Harry’s ashes are interred in the RSA Memorial Wall.
Marjorie Laurent, whose great grandparents were Rodolphe and Elizabeth Laurent, said that ‘Laurent V.C. Street is an enduring tribute to Harry, a modest, unassuming man with a peppy sense of humour and a twinkle in his eye'.
A Personal Perspective
Laurent VC Street has always been a special part of Hawera for the Stockwell family. Members of the family had occupied the house at 7 Laurent VC Street for 55 years, from 1945 – 2000.
This was the first house Margaret McGregor Stockwell (1913 – 2000) and Roy Stockwell (1908 – 1988) had owned and where they lived with their four children: Ian, Donald, Bruce, Mairi plus their dog Dougal and numerous cats. Roy’s father, Tom Stockwell, lived with them from 1953 until he died in 1962 at the age of 84.
The children all knew, from an early age, about the WW1 exploits of both Harry Laurent and John Grant.
Donald and Judy Stockwell (with their two daughters, Cathie and Lynne), in the 1980s bought the 5 Laurent V.C. Street property and lived there for several years. The house was owned and occupied, during the years we were pupils at Hawera Main School and Hawera High School, by Ron and Rae Lealand and their three children Diana, Jacqui and Geoff. A relative of the family in Hawera was the well-known local identity, Terry 'TP' Lealand, who operated a dental practice in the town, for over 60 years.
Geoff Lealand obtained a Master of Arts (First Class Hons), from Canterbury University, a doctorate from Ohio, and is currently a Research Associate at Waikato University for Screen and Media Studies. He is recognised throughout New Zealand for his expertise in this field. Geoff's full profile can be viewed on the Waikato University website. Geoff has registered to attend the HHS Centennial celebrations.
When we heard about the Double VC Centennial celebrations Bruce (Auckland) and Ian (Wellington), decided that they would join brother Donald in Hawera for the various activities. Mairi, who lives in South Australia with her family, was not able to be there.
Participating in the parade from the RSA Memorial Arch on Princes Street was an amazing experience. The dignitaries had departed beforehand in vintage cars for the Victoria Cross Garden. The parade comprised the Pipes and Drums of the 5th / 7th Battalion, Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment, followed by members of the NZ armed forces, then members of the public, the Hawera Fire Brigade (John Grant had been a volunteer fireman), and at the rear a number of Army vehicles.
The Stockwell brothers were the only former residents of Laurent VC Street marching in the parade. We put Bruce in front, as he had had plenty of marching experience, having been lucky enough to be called up, via the birthday ballot, for CMT, after he had started work at the BNZ. If Ross Miller, a former fellow student at Hawera High School, who served in the New Zealand Army for 20 years, had been present, and participating, we would have marched behind him! Ross was at one stage Platoon Commander, Victor 3 Company, 4RAR/NZ (ANZAC) Battalion. He retired from the New Zealand Army with the rank of Lieutenant.
It was an eerie experience marching along High Street again, as the last time the three of us had done this together was in 1963 at the Anzac Day commemoration. Donald also reminded me that 57 years ago, in 1961, we had marched with our grandfather Tom Stockwell, a South Africa War veteran, and our father Roy Stockwell, a WW II veteran.
All the years of training we had done as Hawera High School army cadets suddenly came to the fore again on 15 September......the hardest and most tiring part was not the marching along High Street but the standing ‘at ease’, in front of the Victoria Cross Garden while the speeches and the unveiling of the statues took place. The sun was out too so it was rather hot, and sunburn country with no protective hats on our heads.
Afterwards there was afternoon tea, coffee and sandwiches at the RSA. And it was there we had a reminder of HHS days when we met Peter Kersey who had been a Maths teacher of mine. He taught at Hawera High School for 34 years, from 1960-1994. This is probably a record for any teacher at the school. I was pleased to see that ‘PK’ as he was known to the pupils, has registered for the HHS Centennial celebrations. And too my History and Geography teacher, Bill Lockhart, who was on the staff for 20 years, from 1957 -1977.
The organisation of the parade and the unveiling ceremony was superb on the day. The Victoria Cross Garden was designed by David Bruce, Parks Curator for the South Taranaki District Council. I was told there were 2000 members of the public present at the Victoria Cross Garden for the speeches and unveiling of the statues. This indicated the keen local interest in the double VC centenary celebrations.
The first three photographs below were taken during the parade, after the official speeches at the Victoria Cross Garden and the unveiling of the statues of John Grant and Harry Laurent.
An enjoyable celebratory dinner was held at the TSB Sports Hub in Hawera on the Saturday evening with speeches by the STDC Mayor, Ross Dunlop, representatives of the Laurent and Grant families, the RSA, and the New Zealand Army. The Guest Speaker was High Court Judge and retired Brigadier Tim Brewer. Five members of the Stockwell family attended: Donald and Judy Stockwell, Bruce and Annette Stockwell, Ian Stockwell.
The Double VC Centennial celebrations were well organised and a memorable experience for all of those involved, whether officially or as members of the public. The day and evening events were an excellent example of the South Taranaki District Council working together with the RSA (WW 1 Committee), the Hawera Genealogy Group, members of the community, the Fire Brigade, and the New Zealand Army.
For all four members of the Stockwell family who lived at 7 Laurent VC Street the links with South Taranaki remain strong starting with the great grandparents on both sides of the family, Stockwell and McGregor, 135 years ago. Donald (Chair of the Centennial Organising Committee), and his wife Judy Stockwell live in Hawera. Mairi and her brothers Ian, Donald, and Bruce have been supporters of the Lake Rotokare Scenic Trust native birds release project; and the recent Taranaki Wetlands purchase near Inglewood by the Native Forest Restoration Trust.
The Stockwell boys and their sister Mairi will be present at the Centennial events, as we were with our mother, Margaret McGregor Stockwell, at the HHS 50th and 75th Jubilee celebrations.
At the Centennial events too will be Judy Stockwell (nee Campbell), and Annette Stockwell (nee Jasper) both former pupils. And Donald and Judy’s two daughters, Cathie and Lynne, as both attended HHS. We all hope to see a good number of former classmates and sports team members at the HHS Centennial celebrations. Indeed, being realistic, for those of us 70 years and over, it is highly unlikely we will be alive to attend the 125th anniversary in 2044 !