What happened to Sarah’s children?

When she died at Te Kao in May 1883 Sarah Guinness Minchin, wife of schoolmaster Thomas Mahon Minchin, left six children aged five to 19 years, three sons Arthur, Paul and Tom and three daughters Mary Ann, Ellen and Zara. Neither they nor she could have ever imagined how different their life’s pathways would be, or the happy times and the sad times that they would experience.

Two years after Sarah died, Thomas and his family moved to Rangi Point on the northern shores of the Hokianga Harbour. The eldest son, Arthur worked as a bushman and had one acquaintance, also named Arthur – Arthur James Bertie - who became a friend of the Minchins, with far-reaching consequences.

Arthur the friend did not disclose to the family his real identity and background. To them he was another bushman and rabbiter, albeit with a reasonably cultured English accent. In fact, he was the son of Andrea Luigi the Marquis of Taliacarne, a wealthy Genoese diplomat and his wife Elizabeth Ann Dewar – daughter of a rich English family - who had met on a boat travelling from Constantinople to Genoa and fallen deeply in love. They married in 1856 and had two children – son Arthur and daughter Georgina.  With his father posted as ambassador to Portugal it seems likely that Arthur was sent to boarding school in England. Sadly, when he was just eight years old his father died.   Arthur stayed in England attending Harrow and then Trinity College Oxford where he graduated with a BA in 1880. The following year his mother died, and Arthur it seems was at a crossroads. An Italian nobleman and extremely wealthy he tired of his privileged lifestyle, dropped his title and surname and came to New Zealand simply as Arthur James Bertie and worked on the land and as a bushman.

One day Arthur Minchin took his friend to meet his family. As he neared the home Arthur met the two older Minchin girls Mary Ann and Ellen running along the beach. Like his father before him, he was immediately smitten by the beauty of tall, fair Mary Ann and they were married in Auckland a short time later. There is no certainty about when he told Mary Ann of his identity and station in life. One legend has it that when he asked for their baby daughter to be named Vincenza, an Italian name, he disclosed the full story.  Her reaction is not known and whether Arthur was prepared to go back to Europe will never be known – he died a year later.  When his family in Italy learned of his passing they asked Mary Ann to go to Italy with Vincenza and take up the position of Marchesa Taliacarne, to which she agreed. It seems the trustee who had been managing the family estates for many years had helped himself to some of the funds, but despite that there was enough for Mary to live in considerable comfort, in Levanto, south of Genoa.  In 1907 she remarried, an English naval engineer Charles de Grave Sells. They had one son who died an infant and four daughters, two of whom have descendants living in the UK.


Mary’s first daughter Vincenza married Cencio Massola and they have descendants living in Italy. She achieved a mild degree of fame, and a lot of gratitude, as a result of her actions during the Second World War. Of British stock and living in occupied Italy she somehow let it be known that she listened to the BBC, an opportunity that one German officer who lived in a lower floor of her house found too hard to resist. On another occasion she chose to help an English army officer on the run, by hiding him in a small attic behind a painting.  She remained totally calm while Germans and Italian fascists searched the home, and for the time the soldier was hiding there, the German officer was two floors below. The English soldier eventually made his way out of Italy and returned to England. He was Lord Chudleigh, of Devon, and when Vincenza died in 1966 he wrote an obituary in “The Times” of London.  Recounting his experience, he wrote “as one who assuredly owes his life to her I cannot let her sad passing go without trying to pay a small tribute, inadequate though it may be, to the kindest and bravest person I have known.”

Arthur the brother who brought his friend home to meet the family was tragically killed in a sawmill accident in 1899. Officially he was apparently trying to free a piece of wood stuck in the still moving belt. The family believed he had waited until the belt stopped running but another worker started it again not realising Arthur was still dislodging the wood.

Mary’s sister Ellen, known as Nellie, maintained a lifelong obsession over the circumstances of Mary’s marriage to Arthur Bertie. Despite all the evidence to the contrary she believed that she was the sister who should have married Arthur, though whether she ever admitted this to Mary, with whom she maintained a strong relationship, is not known.  She included a curious entry into the family genealogical chart which she drew up later in life.  For her husband she entered the King of Barataria, an entry which puzzled family members for years – she remained single for life. A little research eventually revealed that Barataria refers to one of the main characters in the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta The Gondoliers. The storyline rests on an incident early in the life of the prince of Barataria, when his nurse switched him with her own baby son. Nellie apparently saw Arthur’s mistake in marrying Mary in a similar vein, a fantasy that consumed her throughout her life.  

Sarah’s third daughter Zara became a school teacher at Mitimiti in the Hokianga. She took such care of her pupils and their families during the flu epidemic after the First World War that the local people gave her a block of land.


The other two sons – Paul and Tom – spent much time overseas before settling back in New Zealand. Paul was a carpenter but spent time as a stoker on a ship. He fought for the British forces in South Africa in the Boer War, and about that time welcomed brother Tom and his new wife Gertrude Cook-Yarborough who came to live there, their three sons being born in that country. After about ten years Tom & Gertrude and their family returned to New Zealand and he became a farmer in the Hokianga.  Paul worked on the rebuild of San Francisco after the disastrous earthquake in 1906, but later returned to South Africa where he lived until about 1915 when he came back to New Zealand. He settled in Wanganui where he married Ada Thomas in 1918. When Sarah died Paul clipped a lock of her hair which he kept for 75 years until his death in 1958 when his daughter placed it with him in his casket.  Descendants of the two brothers live in New Zealand and overseas.

Thomas Mahon Minchin outlived Sarah by 49 years. He remarried, Amy Webster, in 1891 and taught at several Northland schools. After he retired they lived in a small cottage at Mangamuka, in the Hokianga. He died in 1932 aged 94, and Amy 20 years later.  They are both buried in a wood near the ruin of their cottage.

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