Fourth generation New Zealander John Charles Thomason and his wife Shirley are looking forward to seeing Shetland for the first time when they come for the Hamefarin. John’s forebears left Fetlar more than 100 years ago and settled in the New Plymouth area, where the family is still based.
But John did not hear much about Shetland from his father or grandfather. However in 1979, inspired by a cousin who went to Shetland and gathered a terrific amount of information about the family, he and another cousin organised a family reunion which 250 descendants of the Fetlar emigrants attended.
Now, thanks to the internet, he has found out more about the isles and is looking forward to meeting long lost cousins in June.
“My great great grandfather James Ingram Thomason left Fetlar on the sailing ship Howrah with his family in 1874. He was accompanied by his wife Clementina (née Linklater) and their six children, James, Arthur, Elisa, Clementina, Mary and Robina. He came to New Zealand under a government assisted programme which meant he was bonded to work for the government for some time. He was first engaged in the building of cottages in Inglewood, a town near New Plymouth, for some time before joining the Railway Department where he remained working for 18 years until his retirement, working on bridge building, tracklaying and in the workshops.
“Their eldest son James William married Mary Ridland, whom we suspect he met on the ship. They bought a farm and farmed dairy cows. They had nine children one of whom was my grandfather, Thomas Charles Cowan, who after returning from the First World War bought his own farm. My grandmother Clara had two sons. Their second son, my father Leslie Cowan, followed in his father’s footsteps and took over the family farm when grandad retired.
“I had a 25 year career in the Correction Department, which is now called the NZ Justice Department. I was a prison officer for 25 years at the New Plymouth prison which houses 108 low to medium risk inmates. I am currently employed at our local hospital as a telecommunications technician.
“Taranaki, our province, is dominated by our picture perfect mountain, the 2,518m Mount Egmont/Taranaki. We have our own unique environment controlled by the mountain.
“The ring plain is lush, rich and fertile dairy country boosting the biggest dairy company in NZ, Fontera, producing butter, cheese and milk powder for export. We also are the ‘energy province’ of NZ with many oil and gas wells dotted throughout the area.
“The beautiful west coast beaches are rich in black iron sand and are a mecca for surfers. New Plymouth, the province’s city, was voted Top Town in NZ in 2008 by North & South magazine, one of the country’s major magazines.
“The Taranaki region is rich in history in itself. The Maori wars, historic land battles, passive resistance, pioneering industrial growth and our magnificent mountain have all contributed to modern day Taranaki, giving us a strong sense of identity.
“My wife Shirley and I live in our great house on the farm of her parents. So I still very much enjoy the country lifestyle. We have a daughter Karen married to Roger Blume, they have a son Matthew, five, and a daughter Ashleigh, three, and our son Steven John Thomason is married to Natasha Garvin. They have two sons, Cohin Matthew Thomason, 10, and Brody James Thomason, seven, so there are another two generations following me. But I’m afraid the only one in our family that can play a musical instrument is our son-in-law who learnt the violin as a youngster.
“We have never been to Shetland but are really looking forward to the Hamefarin, seeing the cousins we have never met but converse with via email and viewing the land my forebears left all those years ago. My younger sister Mary Anne is the only one of my direct family who has so far visited the land where we originated from.
“Until recent years Shetland has been a distant land far away which I knew very little about. My father and my grandfather didn’t know a lot about the old land either.
“However the marvellous invention of the computer has opened up a whole new world for us. I really enjoy Googling Shetland, viewing the place, reading the news, checking out what Up-Helly-A’ is and keeping an eye on the weather.”