A Notable New Zealander

Early Frontiersmen in New Zealand:
Ernest Gladhill d’Esterre (c1880-1954)

Possibly the most successful organising officer for New Zealand’s Frontiersmen

by Bruce G Fuller (1934-2013)

Arthur Whitehead

Arthur Whitehead (first left, front row) – said to be NZ’s first Frontiersman 1908

Ernest Gladhill d’Esterre was born in Sarzana, Italy,1880. His father was Eugene d’Esterre a mining engineer who had married a New Zealand woman Charlotte June White in Italy.

There is no doubt that d’Esterre played a leading part in the advancement of the Legion in New Zealand. He was a journalist so that would help. First he worded for the Otago Daily Times. Later he would work as editor for the Auckland Weekly News. In this paper he would run a regular column for the Legion and sign himself “Frontiersman”. He has accompanied the New Zealand Premier, Mr. Seddon, on a trip around the South Pacific Islands on the S.S. “Tutanekai” as a reporter. This was in 1900. In 1903 he wrote an article for the Otago Daily Times and Witness Newspaper Co. Ltd, Dunedin: “Its prospect and its resources., being an impression of the country known as Central Otago, with relation to its agricultural and pastoral industries, its fruit growing capabilities, its possibility for irrigation, and its scenic wealth.” [not the catchiest title!]

In 1905 he married a New Zealand lady by the name of Fanny White. He was 26 and she was 23 years old. They married in the Congregational Church at St. Clair in Dunedin. In 1906 they had their first child Evelyn; by 1909 there was a second child, Diana. Like many other Frontiersmen of his era he had a dark side. He deserted Fanny his first wife. She begged him to come home for the sake of the children but this did not happen. He was in Auckland and she in Dunedin. He gave reasons of “temperament and incompatibility” as reasons for staying absent. Finally, on the grounds that he “wrongfully refused to cohabit with her” and that she “wanted an order for restitution of conjugal rights”, the marriage ended in divorce on 29th November 1929. In 1931 he married again, this time to a Dorothy Nelson. This marriage also appears to have been plagued with problems. When he died his widow applied for Probate and stated that Ernest “died on or about 16th of August, 1955.” This suggest they were not at this time living together. There had been one child by this later marriage, Dora Irene d’Esterre who became a dental nurse. Despite his great organizational prowess it does appear he was unable to manage his own affairs very well. No will was found. There were claims against him by a John Jacob Nelson, retired gardener, for the sum of £2,000 and another from a William Fitzpatrick O’Neill Brenan for £2,000 also. As he apparently was not worth that amount it is not known if they ever did get paid.

early conference showing d'Esterre

Early conference showing d’Esterre (front row, holding a swagger stick)

Ernest tried his hand at prospecting. At the time he was living in Willerton Ave., New Lynn in Auckland. In 1936 he had a miner’s right dated 10th July 1936, No. 682. He could prospect on an area of 50 acres one side of Hardy’s Mines in Te Aroha. Again on 14th June 1937 he applied for a prospecting licence for the same area. Whether he had any success in finding precious metals is not known. Erenst was about 32 years old when he joined the Legion. This was just a few months before July 1912. His number was 6172. He had not had any military training or service abroad to qualify him for the Legion. However, rules are made to be broken or stretched a little!

On the New Zealand World War 1 Service Personnel Reserves Index [NZ Genealogical Society product] Ernest is shown as ‘Second Reserves – Classification C.’ However he did not join the military instead remaining in his job as a journalist/editor. He did however ‘stir’ a few people up through his “Frontiersman” articles in the Auckland Weekly News. On occasion Frank Morphet Twistleton, M.C. was not always pleased with the writings of d’Esterre and complained bitterly to General Godley about him. Twisleton was at the time involved in delicate negotiations with Godley. d’Esterre and written an article which conflicted with these negotiations and it annoyed both men. Frank was not a man to mess with and he let his feelings be known!

After the War had ended, the business of building up the numbers of the Legion in New Zealand continued. It was a slow process. d’Esterre was still Organising Officer – contrary to statements made in another claimed historical source, d’Esterre was never Commandant of the Legion in New Zealand; neither was Frontiersman 6568 Thomas McCarroll. This latter joined the Fijian Legion in late 1912. Later he would enlist in the Auckland Mounted Rifles while still in Fiji. First he was a Lance Corporal and then a 2nd Lieutenant. A search of correspondence covering 1918/19 reveals no evidence of McCarroll being associated with the Legion other than as a Frontiersman. There was in fact a long period of time to pass before in late 1927 Staff Officer Claude Horace Westo, DSO, MID, VD, KC became the first Commandant since the death of Frank Morphet Twisleton, M.C., in 1917. Until that time Weston was pretty busy with correspondence with the Ministry of Defence trying to get some official recognition for the Legion. It never came.

The Memorial to the 9,000 in National Park. d’Esterre was the driving force in getting this Memorial erected. Where did this figure of 9,000 come from? Nobody really knows. Considering that the numbers issued to Frontiersmen at the beginning of 1918 were only in the 14,000s, Roger Pocock in his autobiography “Chorus to Adventurers” (1931) mentions a figure of “six thousand of my comrades were destined to give their lives in battle…” However could d’Esterre have confused the fact that N.Z. had signed up the 9,000th member and this figure somehow stuck in his mind? Again we will never know – the Legion is plagued with myth and make believe. Shortly after this Memorial was completed d’Esterre took a quieter role within the Legion and virtually faded into the background. Having re-married in 1931, perhaps he just wanted a bit of family life?

(this item was first published in the New Zealand Frontiersman magazine, July 2010)

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on junkyard.blog. Author of windowsintohistory.wordpress.com. Editor of frontiersmenhistorian.info
This entry was posted in Frontiersmen, History, Legion of Frontiersmen, New Zealand and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to A Notable New Zealander

  1. Rick Squires says:

    Thank you for this extroidianry insight into my grandfather! I met him once when I was a small boy, but I don’t remember much about him. I have no memorabilia or photos of him, so this article was very well received!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dora Smith says:

    Correction: My father died at home with a heart attack and with my mother and myself both present. I was 17 at the time. Our home life was stable, and his relationship with my mother and myself both warm and happy. Dora Smith (nee D’Esterre)


    • Roger Pocock says:

      We are pleased to post your comment. Sadly we cannot refer this to the author of the piece “A Notable New Zealander” as he has since died.


    • John Clark says:

      Does the homestead known as ‘Kahurangi’ in Manuka Road, Glenfield feature in your family history at all, Dora?


      • Dora Smith says:

        John, I have no recollection of such a property, nor of yourself unfortunately. Perhaps you could enlarge on both. Dora


      • John Clark says:

        The Auckland Libraries Research Centre recently posted a picture taken in the 1930s of the ‘Kahurangi’ homestead in Manuka Road, built for Wm Dawson in the 1880s, which intrigued me as members of our family used to live in the area. Further research in PapersPast showed that E. d’Esterre (presumably Ernest Gladhill d’Esterre) was associated with this property in 1916, and was instrumental in establishing the Legion of Frontiersmen in NZ, which led me to this site. The photo of the homestead, which burnt down in 1934, can be seen at https://kura.aucklandlibraries.govt.nz/digital/api/singleitem/image/p20062coll1/29146/default.jpg


      • Dora Smith says:

        Interesting anecdote but before my time I’m afraid. My grandson is into researching early family history. If he uncovers something relevant to your query, I will get him to reply on this site. Dora.


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