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The quest to rediscover a forgotten son of Spalding

Have you heard the one about the majestic Maori cloak and the bones of an extinct New Zealand bird in Spalding?

I certainly hadn’t...but that’s certainly the sort of intriguing premise that I can’t exactly turn down.

The answer lies among the trove of treasures in the labyrinthine rooms of the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society - and leads us to a quest to encourage the town to appreciate one of its forgotten sons.

The Maori cloak (48953252)
The Maori cloak (48953252)

Daniel Cross Bates (1868-1954) is one of those incredible characters from the past who lived the very definition of a full life - but it’s a tale that’s not as well known as it should be.

That’s something Richard Buck, curator of archaeology, is keen to put right.

Born in Spalding, as one of 13 siblings, Bates was a farmer’s son who studied at the town’s grammar school before heading off to ecclesiastical college.

He then made his way to Australia - where he met wife Abigail Lille - and went on to New Zealand.

He served as chaplain with New Zealand forces during the Boer War - but contracted a disease that robbed him of much of his ability to speak.

That made a life in the church somewhat tricky - but merely served as inspiration for the next remarkable chapter in his life in which he became one of the pioneers of modern meteorology in the country - as you do - and developed a deep understanding of the fabulous flora and fauna of the country and of its indigenous people.

A Christmas card sent - and signed - by Bates (48953269)
A Christmas card sent - and signed - by Bates (48953269)

He worked at the Colonial Museum, was active in a number of societies and helped the air force to understand how to cope with weather conditions.

After the First World War Bates, who had a Who’s Who entry, boarded the SS Port Denison with his wife - and one other passenger - and made his way back to England en route to the 1919 Paris Meteorological Conference.

While in the country he came back to his home town and it was then he forged a connection with the Spalding Gentleman’s Society.

Richard explained: “We know he was made an honorary member in 1920 - he must’ve made a good impression with members at the time to receive that.”

“He then started to become quite a prolific sender of artefacts to the museum.”

It’s here where our bones and cloak come into the story - as part of the wealth of wonders from the antipodean lands that made their way back to Spalding.

Other items included Christmas cards and post cards displaying the native peoples Bates befriended, newspaper cuttings and ethnological artefacts.

It’s all fascinating - and slightly amazing to see just around the corner from our pubs and takeaways - but the highlights are definitely the Moa bones and the cloak.

Moa bones, with a picture of a skeleton for scale. (48953263)
Moa bones, with a picture of a skeleton for scale. (48953263)

The Moa was a flightless bird endemic to New Zealand - important to the Maoris for many reasons, not least the feasts they provided.

The birds were as tall as 10 to 15 feet - and estimates of their extinction range from the time before Captain Cook’s 18th century missions through to the late 18th and early 19th century.

Wilder theories suggest that smaller Moas - that are similar in size to turkeys - could still exist, but there’s a lack of evidence for this.

Moa Bones (48953260)
Moa Bones (48953260)

Leg bones of the beast reside within the Broad Street museum’s cabinets courtesy of Bates.

I was fortunate enough to get a rare sighting of the cloak - which is held in safe keeping.

Worn by Maori men, it’s an impressive, ornate item that takes us closest into Bates’ life on the other side of the world.

There aren’t many of these outside of New Zealand - and this is in great condition, a testament to Bates’ passion for the people of his adopted home as well as a gesture to those of his actual one.

How would he have got hold of such an item, I wondered?

Richard explained: “I think Bates would’ve known Maoris, would’ve been comfortable with Maoris and would’ve even known chiefs. I am pretty sure a lot of these things were gifted to him or given to second parties.

“I like to think he was quite well known amongst Maori people and acquired them that way.”

He said that Bates’ eagerness to send items to the society showed his desire to share what he’d discovered, adding: “It made people less ignorant of the world that they are living in and gave people a chance to see things that they wouldn’t otherwise get a chance to see.

“He realised he was lucky to be able to experience this.”

He added: “I believe he’s a forgotten son of Spalding - I believe he should be recognised as much here as he is in New Zealand for his amazing life.

“He lived a full life and of course he left his own legacy to Spalding in the sense of artefacts that he sent back.”

The mission to spread the word about Bates even has a personal edge for Richard - with the curator’s grandparents once living next door to his subject’s great nephew in Hawthorn Bank.

Richard added: “When I was a child I had no idea I would end up researching his uncle!”

Much is known about Spalding’s forgotten son - but there is one big piece of the puzzle missing - and one our readers might be able to help with.

That’s the fact that there’s no known picture of the clergyman-turned-meteorologist, who still has relatives in the area who might just have one in their records.

Richard said: “We have never found a photo of Bates. Whether he was camera shy or he just never got in front of a camera we do not know.

“I would love to do a Bates exhibition - and I would love to find a photograph of Bates.”

‘A colourful personality’

A 1966 Encyclopedia of New Zealand, reproduced online, states: “Although Bates did not have the extensive technical training possessed by those meteorologists who followed him, he was a colourful personality and did much to interest other scientists and the general public in meteorological work. He also served the community in a great many ways and is probably the best remembered of New Zealand's early weathermen.”

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