James Hoey McNish (Jimmy) 1882 -1968,
Founder of the Dunedin RSA Choir.

Researched and compiled by Huia Ockwell, 2014-2015.

Pre enlistment
James Hoey McNish was the first child of John McNish (born Kilmarnock, Scotland, 1842, died Dunedin 1920, aged 78), and Mary (born Glasgow, Scotland 1850, died Dunedin 1913, aged 63)..

James Hoey McNish (Jimmy) was born on 5 January 1882 in Dunedin. He had a brother Ralph born in 1883 and a sister Mary Agnes (Maggie) born in 1887.

The 'Otago Daily Times' (ODT) provides fascinating glimpses of Jimmy prior to his joining the New Zealand Expeditionary Force on 9 September 1914. His summer game was cricket. He turned out for the Opoho 1st Grade team and also played in the Wednesday Twilight Competition for the Post & Telegraph Team. His enthusiasm, however, was hardly matched by runs and wickets, as it is reported that he finished the 1913/14 season with an average of 3.3 runs per innings and took no wickets.

Jimmy played Association Football on the left wing for Mornington A in the 1st Grade competition. His winter sport was met with much brighter comments such as: '... McNish's head work was very good ... McNish played capitally ... a dashing player' etc etc. He also turned out for Dunedin Anglican Harriers.

From newspaper reports it is obvious that Jimmy McNish was a popular entertainer and singer. His name is frequently mentioned in reports of end-of-season sports' club gatherings, Orphans Club, Dunedin Choral Society, smoke concerts, and annual meetings of several clubs and societies.

It was intriguing to find Jimmy playing the role of 'Topnot' the Court Chamberlain, in the Operetta 'Princess Chrysanthemum', performed in the St Kilda Coronation Hall in July 1914.

Prior to enlistment Jimmy was employed as a traveller for Alex & John Watt cabinet makers and furniture manufacturers, of 237 George Street, Dunedin. They also had premises at 341 Princes Street. In 1914 Jimmy was a 32 year old bachelor living with his recently widowed father at 1 Chatham Avenue, Dalmore, Dunedin.

Jimmy and the New Zealand Expeditionary Force
Jimmy was attested and medically examined on 9 September 1914. Men had been pouring into Tahuna Park from all around the south of the South Island. It was reported in the ODT of 14 Aug that '... the number derived from the Otago District was in the vicinity of 2,000 (¼ of the 8,000 NZEF), including 750 mounted men. Preference is being given to Territorials 20 years of age and over, but there is excellent material outside the ranks of the Territorials, and a moments reflection will make it abundantly clear that quite a considerable number of volunteers who are not Territorials will be required'.

The Attestation for the NZEF asked volunteers: 'Have you ever served in any Military or Naval Force ?' Jimmy stated: 'Waikari Rifles, 3 years. Resigned and left district'. A check of the 'Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives' includes the Wakari Rifles as one of the 70 Volunteer Units in Otago and Southland. The Volunteer era ended in 1910 when compulsory Territorial Forces were established throughout New Zealand.

In late August Jimmy's football and cricket clubs arranged farewell functions along with the Dunedin Orphans Club. Unlike the unemployed, or day labourers, he had probably given his employers a month's notice following countrywide recruiting for the NZEF's Main Body which began on 8 August. At the Mornington Football Club farewell he 'sang for his supper' and was presented with farewell gifts of 'military brushes and a wrist watch'. The Orphans Club showed their thanks for his many performances with a 'case of smoking pipes'.

On 16 September 1914 the ODT reported that 8/1128 Pte James Hoey McNish was under training at Tahuna Park. He had been posted to 4 Coy Otago Infantry Battalion. The army issued Jimmy with hat, greatcoat, jacket, trousers, braces, boots, putties and weapons. From its depot based in the Early Settlers Hall, Queens Gardens Dunedin, the Otago Womens Patriotic Association gave Jimmy one of the 1,700 free 'kits' of shirts, underwear, sox, towels, muffler, balaclava and 'Hussif'. These items had been made by the ladies or donated by business houses in Otago and Southland. The 'Hussif' was a wallet containing needles, cotton, darning wool etc.
A fortnight after marching into Tahuna Park Camp, Jimmy and his seven tent-mates packed up and marched to the Musselburgh Railway Station and along with 1,100 non-mounted troops, boarded the train for Port Chalmers. In the late afternoon 22 September, Troopships No.5 and No.9 steamed out of Otago Harbour. They rendezvoused with the Main Body of NZEF in Wellington. On 16 October the sizable convoy including 10 troopships with 8,574 men and 3,818 horses; escorted by two cruisers and two gunboats; made its way out into Cook Strait and the Tasman Sea.

On 29 October, the convoy joined the Australian troopships at the Port of Albany, Western Australia. The entry of Turkey on the side of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire that same day, scuttled plans for the Australasian Troops to fight as part of the British Forces on the Western Front. Our troops would now help to guard the Suez Canal from the Turkish threat. The convoy entered the canal on 30 November and three days later began to disembark at Alexandria, Egypt. The Otago men, as part of the NZEF, established their base at Zeitoun camp outside of Cairo.

Apart from a minor role defending the canal in early February 1915, the five months prior to the Gallipoli landing could be summarised as: heat, training, flies, route-marching, hawkers, sand, beggars, brothels, bars and boredom !

Gallipoli 1915
Jimmy and his Otago Infantry Battalion cobbers embarked for the Dardanelles from Alexandria on 12 April 1915. Mid-afternoon, 25 April, the Otago Infantry were ashore on the Gallipoli peninsula. From Jimmy's Casualty Form B103 we learn that he became a casualty on 3 May: 'gunshot wound to the head (GSW head), received in action at Dardanelles'. Two days later he was admitted to 15 General Hospital in Alexandria.

Sean Brosnahan's analysis ('Otago Settlers News' March 2015, p7) starkly reveals that 97% of the 264 men in Jimmy's 4th Otago Company were killed, wounded or became sick on Gallipoli.

We know that on one of the nine evenings Jimmy spent on the Gallipoli Peninsula he heard Turkish soldiers singing. Then and there he vowed that if he survived the war he would form a soldiers choir back in his home town of Dunedin.

England 1915-1917
On 7 May 1915 Pte James Hoey McNish 4th Coy Otago Infantry Battalion was transferred to the Hospital Ship 'Lalitia' bound for England.

On 11 May the ODT printed: List No.12 Latest Wounded Released by Wellington. It recorded Jimmy's full name, unit and Next of Kin (NOK).

On 20 May 1915 Jimmy was admitted to 1st Southern General Hospital, Edgbaston. On 15 July 1915 he was transferred to the ANZAC Convalescent Depot in Weymouth. On 31 January 1916, after more than six months in Weymouth, he was sent to the New Zealand Convalescent Hospital at Hornchurch and a fortnight later was promoted to corporal.

On 31 May 1916 the ODT reported: 'From London Service News - new admissions under treatment Mt Felix Hospital' - there were 174 named, including Cpl James Hoey McNish.

By 19 July 1916 Jimmy had been posted for duty at the New Zealand No 2 General Hospital, at Walton on Thames.

On 9 September, under 'Association Football News', the ODT reported: 'J McNish who has been in an English hospital for some time is receiving treatment by an eye specialist; is expected home by an early steamer'. The prediction turned out to be 12 months premature.

With the NZEF now on the Western Front, Jimmy would have been available (considering his civilian occupation) for light clerical/storekeeping duties while receiving periodic ophthalmological treatment.

19 September 1916, Jimmy's army documentation records: 'Detailed (i.e. sent) to Command Record Office London'.

On 30 May 1917, while still serving in London, Jimmy was 'Classified unfit for further service - placed on the roll for return to NZ. Gunshot wound and loss of Right eye'. A week later he was given leave, prior to embarking for New Zealand.

Return to New Zealand
On 2 July 1917 Jimmy boarded the 'Arawa' at Plymouth. He arrived in New Zealand on 25 September. NZ Army Form BR84 granted him seven days sick leave and Form EF68 notes: 'Order for Supply of Civilian Clothing to soldier under Notice of Discharge'.

Form BRN010 was prepared for Jimmy on 22 October 1917. It contains Certificates of both Discharge and Character issued by the Commanding Officer New Zealand Military Forces. Jimmy's character is recorded as 'Very Good'. Even before his final discharge the ODT of 10 October 1917 mentioned: `... on the previous evening Brother J McNish sang at the Dunedin Orphans Club'.

In the final documentation two Next-of-Kin are shown as 'John McNish (father) c/o A & T Inglis, George Street, Dunedin and Mrs J H McNish, 12 Kings Road, Leytonstone, Essex, England'.

Formal records of discharge
8/1128 Cpl James Hoey McNish, Otago Infantry Bn.
Service in NZ: 9 September - ­15 October 1914, 37 days; 25 September - 22 October 1917, 28 days.
Foreign Service: 16 October 1914 - 24 September 1917, 2 years, 344 days.
Total service: 3 years, 44 days.
Theatres of Operation: Egyptian 1914/15. Balkan (Gallipoli) 1915.
Medals: 1914-1915 Star. British War Medal. Victory Medal.
Gallipoli Lapel Badge and Gallipoli Medallion, issued 8 May 1967; 19 months before Jimmy's death.

Cpl James Hoey McNish Married in England
From unconfirmed 'Blackman Family Tree Genealogy' by David Blackman (david@dellerfamily.com) I learnt that Lillian Dullam Blackman, daughter of George and Kate, was born at Putney, London in 1888. The 1911 Census, records Lillian as a nurse at Woodford Jubilee Hospital in London. From the England and Wales Civil Registration Indexes, Lillian and Jimmy married at Chertsey, Surrey in 1916.

Granddaughter Judith Lyon told me that Lillian nursed at the New Zealand Military Hospital at Walton on Thames. From historical research I was able to identify this description as being the New Zealand No 2 General Hospital at Walton on Thames, commonly known as Mount Felix. It is reasonable to assume that Lillian met Jimmy during his May to September 1916 posting spent at Mount Felix.

The following extract is taken from the 2014 published book, 'New Zealand and the First World War 1914-1919', written by Damien Fenton, senior historian, in association with the Ministry for Culture and Heritage: p69: 'With so many New Zealand soldiers training, recuperating and stationed in England between 1916 and 1919, it was no surprise that hundreds married local women. Whether recuperating from medical treatment or performing administrative duties, there where opportunities to form real relationships. Some of these women worked in a hospital or other war-related industries, or lived near New Zealand bases. Many men married their 'war-brides' in England and brought them home with them, while others corresponded for a year or more before the women journeyed to New Zealand to get married'. In all, Jimmy spent 25 months in England.

Following Discharge in New Zealand
By January 1918 Jimmy was 'back in harness' with many aspects of welfare and community service. He was appointed on to the Building Committee of the Dunedin Returned Soldiers Association and also joined the Property and Sports Committees.

ANZAC Day 1918 featured a Patriotic Demonstration and the ODT reported: 'One of the vocal items was contributed by Corporal McNish'. Throughout the year he sang at functions organised by the Otago Women's Patriotic Association, Dunedin Orphans Club and the Burns Club.

New Zealand celebrated three armistices - Bulgaria; Turkey and Austria-Hungary; between 29 September and 4 November 1918. News of an armistice with Germany on 8 November proved to be incorrect. News of the genuine German armistice was promulgated on 12 November New Zealand time. The spreading influenza pandemic did however cast a shadow over the flag waving and general air of excitement. Both of my parents were attending Forbury School in South Dunedin. The school was closed for three days: '... the children were entertained and given one sugar bun, two small cakes, and two pieces of cake'.

During the RSA annual meeting in April 1919 Jimmy moved that a band and orchestra be established for the returned men. At this same meeting he was appointed to the Executive.
Largely as a result of the flu and almost 7,000 deaths, the official peace celebrations did not take place until mid-winter 1919. On 14 July the ODT reported on the final rehearsal of the Peace Celebrations Choir in the Bridgeman Street Army Drill Hall, with more than 1,000 voices taking part.

Mr W Padget Gale - the first conductor of the Dunedin Soldiers' Choir - in thanking members of the Peace Celebrations Choir for their loyal support, went on to say: '... it would be a pity that such an organisation of singers should be disbanded. I do not see why there should not be developed something along the lines of the Welsh musical festivals'.

In September 1919 the ODT reported on a 'Smoke Concert' for men of the Otago Infantry Regiment, claiming it to being the: `... first gathering of its type in New Zealand'. Doubtless, Jimmy and his small band of enthusiasts used such occasions to actively seek prospective members for a soldiers' choir.

The first year of peace sees Jimmy urging the purchase of land for soldiers housing; being a delegate to the Conference of Otago and Southland RSA's; joining the Peace Celebrations Committee; on the RSA Ball Organising Committee; advocating for a Discount Society and urging better medical help for discharged men. We find him strongly advocating for billiards; debating societies; improved help with getting correct pensions; suggesting tramcar passes for limbless men; pushing for a better deal for farm land allocation for returned men and pleading for the ongoing care of soldiers' graves.

Dunedin Soldiers' Choir is formed
In the midst of a very busy life Jimmy had not forgotten the promise he had made to himself in the brief sojourn on Gallipoli five years earlier. Late in the evening, after the heavy gunfire had subsided, he had been attracted to the beautifully harmonised voices of the Turkish enemy singing not much further than a cricket pitch away. With his love of singing he had resolved that if he was ever to survive the absolute hell he had been thrust into, he would form a soldiers choir back home in Dunedin. Only nine turned up to the inaugural meeting but so great was Jimmy's enthusiasm that they mustered friends from wartime days and by the end of 1919 there were 30 in the new Dunedin Soldiers' Choir. Paget Gale, a well-known church choir conductor, was persuaded to conduct and another prominent musician, Charles Martin, became the first accompanist. The first time the choir sang in public was at the 1920 ANZAC Day service.

A short time later the Choir put on its first concert in Burns Hall. The venue was filled to overflowing with many being turned away. So the Choir repeated its performance the following evening, again to a full house. Newspaper reviews were encouraging and Jimmy could see his dream becoming an important segment in the musical life of Dunedin.

World War II
On 15 August 1940 Jimmy was Attested for a second time. He gave his trade/calling as: 'storeman'. Next of Kin: 'wife'. Address 120 Moray Place Dunedin. He was working for Whitcombe & Tombs and said he had been educated to Std 6. He served from 11 Dec 1941 to 11 September 1942.

Huia Ockwell:
'Northgate Lodge', Chatsford, Mosgiel, Otago.
29 December 2015.