Jacob Joshua Langley Sulzberger
My mother, Johanna Langley (always known as Cissie) was one of the 11 children of David and Agnes Langley of Dunedin. I think that Grandfather Langley died before I was born. Certainly, I have no memory of him ever being around. I have had to rely on what I suspect is a fair amount of myth as well as fact in an effort to get a picture of him
The original family name was Ottolangui, anglicised to Langley because that was convenient. There is a story that it originated in Portugal and that somewhere in Portugal, or in the London Silver Vaults in Chancery Lane, there is a fortune awaiting the Langley who can put the right pieces together. Cousins David and Marcus apparently tried but got nowhere.
Grandfather Langley wasn’t a very big man. The only photographs of him I remember were taken in macabre circumstances. He was in his coffin. From that, the family, with the help of an understanding photographer, managed to produce the obligatory family likeness to be hung on family walls as a reminder that if you refuse to be photographed when you are alive, then there are ways around it when you are dead.
He was Jewish and a regular attendee at the Dunedin synagogue. Grandmother was Anglican and they had a tidy arrangement whereby the girls were brought up as Christians and the boys as Jews. It seemed to work though there was never bacon or pork in our home.
Although my mother always denied it, I was once told on what I thought was pretty good authority that he spoke English with a strong Yiddish accent.
When or why he came to New Zealand is unknown to me and I don’t think members of his family troubled to find out. But he was apparently no hero. One story suggests he arrived in the 1860s when the Maori Wars were making life uncomfortable for pakehas [white New Zealanders as opposed to the native Maoris BL] in the North. He found himself in disputed territory and didn’t like it. He had no stomach for whatever struggle or violence was going on. As a man of peace, and apparently with a healthy desire to remain healthy, he had himself nailed into a packing case – or was it a barrel – and shipped off to the South Island. This could have some bearing on later Sulzberger characteristics!
In Dunedin he established a crockery importing firm and introduced “Poppy Ware,” a range of table crockery that carried the Langley name and became popular in the South. He consistently managed to convince everyone, including his wife and family, that things were worse than they were. The family lived in McLagan street, hardly one of Dunedin’s more desirable addresses, and each week he would give grandmother money to pay the rent. It wasn’t until after his death that Grandmother discovered that in all those years, the rent-money was being paid into Grandfather’s account. Not only did he own the house they lived in, but a whole string of other houses as well. When the safe was opened, among the stocks, bonds and other investment documents that tumbled out were substantial holdings in the Auckland Tramway Company and J. C. Williamson Theatres. Hard times were over for Grandma.
She bought a large house at St Kilda, a few doors down from Onslow house, the residence of the then Governor General when he descended on the South. When I spent school holidays with my grandmother it always seemed easy, and a bit frightening to get lost in the place. I was used to a tiny cottage. The Langleys had come up in the world.
Grandmother ruled and her word was law. I think I was terrified of her. She wasn’t very tall, but she was of what was then called “ample proportions.” Looking back, it seemed that I got more comfort from Jeannie Lang, the housekeeper, and from an assorted clutch of aunts.
But in those school holidays I did have a lot of freedom and spent most of it on the Dunedin wharves. In those days Dunedin was a busy port and there was always the scent of adventure in foreign-going ships. But it was always back to St Kilda, the big house with its three pianos and its new-fangled wireless which had three sensitive tuning dials and a horn speaker. It was totally verboten to small boys.
There was no joy in the Langley household when Cissie mentioned that she had met a man, Ed Sulzberger, and was romantically involved. After all, she had been married already to a Drainage Board engineer named Tibeaudo and had a child named Lannie. That marriage ended tragically when her husband died within a couple of years of their being together. He was apparently an Australian and it was essential for Cissie to travel there to establish her legal claim to her husband’s estate. That was all bad news. The necessary papers were stolen, and she returned to New Zealand penniless.
The Sulzbergers in Tasmania weren’t enthused either about what was going on, which could explain why Grandfather Gottlieb didn’t include Cissie in his will. But there was no stopping Ed and Cissie. She simply ran away from home and they were married. Edgar and Cissie set up home in Kaitangata where Ed worked in the coal mine. He was not well received by the miners. He was over six feet tall and the miners in that no-licence area, where sly-grogging was a way of life, suspected he was an undercover policeman sent to spoil their fun.
Whatever follows about him must be suspect, often speculative and largely biased. Most of it came from conversations with my Mum who was always emotive and totally subjective whenever she spoke of him.
Photographs show a handsome, well-groomed man fashionably dressed and with a glint in his eye. Some of his parental farming background must have rubbed off on him. He kept a pig, and had chooks, bees and fruit trees. He also took part in sport. One photo shows him, sleeves rolled, arms folded and moustache curled as a member of a tug o’ war team. Perhaps the upward curl of that moustache says something! Another blurred snapshot showed him with shotgun and dog out duckshooting.
I think it must have been a happy marriage, but tragedy struck when Cissie’s son Lannie by her first marriage had a convulsive fit and died in her arms. It took her a long time to get over that. (Dad appears to be a bit confused here, because Lannie had died (1906), long before Cissie had even met and married Edgar Sulzberger in 1913).
Whether or not Ed intended to stay in Kaitangata I don’t know, but I think not. In 1914, war broke out and mining was an essential industry. He didn’t volunteer – Cissie would never have let him anyway. In any case the war hadn’t been going long before she was pregnant. They bought a neat little cottage in Branksea St., opposite the school for 200 pounds and made the best of it. It was to remain Cissie’s home for the remainder of her long life.
Edgar, whatever his other shortcomings, added to them by suffering from an urge to write doggerel poetry, make home-brew in modest quantities and he possessed a .22 pistol.
His poems dealt with the world around him. I remember the first few lines of one of them:
“Away down the mine where the men get all black,
There’s a man by the name of McGhie,
He’s as grey as a badger and gruff as a bear
And any new trucker he’ll give him a scare………………….”
And the poem goes on at length to laugh at the Establishment, petty tyrants and McGhie in particular, before cutting them all down to size.
Three years after their marriage, on April 22, 1915, their first child was born – Agnes Lucy, named after the maternal grandmother and Ed’s favourite sister who married a Lynch and operated a hospital in Lilydale. Agnes was an attractive girl, much taken with boys other than her younger brother. She won medals for Highland dancing and played the piano rather badly. Three years after her birth, on March 22, 1918, I appeared on the scene. It was a year of tragedy, quite apart from my arrival. Ed was trapped in a roof collapse in a mine tunnel and his back was broken. It was also the year of the great influenza pandemic. He died November 11, 1918. I was eight months old. I have no recollection whatsoever of him. I have always been sorry about that.
My mother never ever recovered from the trauma of that year. Nor did she receive any accident compensation. Things were difficult in those days and in any case there were suspicions that the killer ‘flu might have been a factor in my father’s death, even though my mother always disputed it.
Cissie was left with her grief and two small children. She refused to move from her freehold cottage. It was her only security. In the years that followed I don’t recall any great warmth of love but rather a philosophy of enforced obedience, duty and respect for authority. In her latter years there was a mellowing. There was also a vigorous atmosphere of anti-Catholic bigotry. I could never understand why but I think my father, who was brought up a Catholic, had something to do with it.
She struggled on for the next six years doing her best for her children according to her own values. In 1926 she at last consented to marry a long-term suitor, miner Archibald Steele Dobbie. It was not a love match. I think my mother always regarded it more as a business proposition to provide her children with some sort of anchor.
She was a proud woman and I always had the impression that she felt she had come down in the world.
Archie Dobbie didn’t exert any noticeable influence on our lives. By and large, I think he was good to my mother given the values of that predominantly Scottish mining community, and I guess was good to us too, though I never really got close to him. He never interfered with the manner in which we brought up. There was no depth of communication of thought or feeling. We were together and we were also apart. We were also in the throes of the Great Depression, or “The Slump” as it was always called. They weren’t good years and I don’t think that bad times brought us closer. We knew our place and duty seemed to count for more than love.
In those years, the hills behind the house on the edge of town and the pine plantation beside the school were my playgrounds. I learned some wood handling skills from my stepfather and most of all, I recall, I learned something about mechanical processes and how things work from experimenting with my Meccano set. That stood me in good stead throughout my life.
My sister married Harry Young, son of a Roxburgh orchardist, at the age of 17. I left home at about the same age with my pack on my back. I think I had set out to find my fortune but as things turned out I got lost. In any case, the home regime had become narrow and intellectually restricting. As in many families at the time it wasn’t acceptable for kids to step out of line – or to hold views in conflict with their parents. What has changed?
There were good times and bad in the years just ahead and four years of war in the Middle East and Italy. I took part in a few advances, lots of retreats and when eventually they sent me home our side started to win.