Five small, old sepia toned netballs used as design breaker between text

When netball historians set out to learn more about the first coach of the Silver Ferns, they didn’t even know her first name. Their journey took them from the netball courts of Wellington to the Central Otago goldfields, revealing a story of immigrant labour, poverty, marginalisation, and a young woman finding her sense of self through volunteer sport. National Correspondent Dana Johannsen and video journalist Abigail Dougherty tell the incredible story of one of netball’s earliest pioneers.

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Old sepia toned portrait photo of Mrs Muir.
Old sepia toned portrait photo of Mrs Muir coloured like it has been hand painted with ink.
Title fades in - What's in a name?

Five small, old sepia toned netballs used as design breaker between text.

It had always bugged Margaret Henley.

In the nostalgia-filled corridors of Netball NZ’s Auckland headquarters hangs an honours board commemorating the sport’s life members. Its luminaries. Its taonga. 

Third from the top, in gold block lettering demarcated with a black outline, reads the name Mrs H.D Muir. 

Mrs Muir holds an important place in New Zealand netball history. She was the first coach of the Silver Ferns, guiding the national netball side in four tests against Australia. She was also a member of the original executive that established Netball NZ (then the NZ Basketball Association) in 1924, going on to serve as president from 1932-1949. 

Yet, no one even knew her first name.

“She was always this enigma really,” says Henley, a senior tutor in media and communications at the University of Auckland, who has researched netball's role in New Zealand culture and society. 

“I remember thinking to myself ‘how sad’, you know, that you just get remembered as this set of initials, and probably her husband’s initials. So it was this sense of who is she? Because she’s not even got a name.

I said to [Netball NZ], we need to find out more about this woman. – MARGARET HENLEY
Margaret Henley, senior tutor in media and communications at the University of Auckland.

Margaret Henley, senior tutor in media and communications at the University of Auckland.

Margaret Henley, senior tutor in media and communications at the University of Auckland.

Those two depersonalised initials that struck like daggers in Henley’s feminist heart proved the leaping off point for one of the most remarkable discoveries in the history of New Zealand sport.

It would plunge researchers headfirst into a story of migrant labour, discrimination, poverty, neglect, prostitution, violence, lawlessness and manslaughter. 

A story, at its core, of a young woman who found her place in the world through sport and volunteer labour.

Mrs Muir was on the original executive that established the NZ Basketball Association in 1924, going on to serve as president for nearly two decades.

Mrs Muir was on the original executive that established the NZ Basketball Association in 1924, going on to serve as president for nearly two decades.

Mrs Muir was on the original executive that established the NZ Basketball Association in 1924, going on to serve as president for nearly two decades.

Five small, old sepia toned netballs used as design breaker between text.

There was, as Henley says, “bugger all” to go on. 

Mrs Muir died of a heart attack in 1966, aged just 65. She had no known relatives, and a surname just common enough to be unhelpful - a search of the electoral rolls in the Wellington region alone, where it was thought Mrs Muir had lived, revealed 112 Muirs. The few surviving members of the 1948 Silver Ferns team that Mrs Muir led couldn’t recall much about their former coach beyond her apparently stern manner. 

“Doing that type of research when you have very little to work with is a bit like a mystery or detective story. You’re looking for that one thread you can tug on that will unravel it all,” says Henley.

Like every good detective story, this one came with an unlikely pairing of sleuths. Henley joined forces with netball historian and statistician Todd Miller in the hunt for information about the first Silver Ferns coach. 

Netball statistician and historian Todd Miller is passionate about preserving the game’s history.

Netball statistician and historian Todd Miller is passionate about preserving the game’s history.

Netball statistician and historian Todd Miller is passionate about preserving the game’s history.

Aged in her late-60s (or in Henley’s words “a wrinkly old sheila indicating indeterminate years of steady decay”), Henley has the bounce and energy of a woman half her age. She’s prone to exuberant outbursts peppered with colourful language, and has the unmistakable twinkle in her eye of a feminist hell raiser of yesteryear.

Miller’s blunt, no-nonsense Australian sensibilities proved the perfect foil to Henley’s flights of whimsy.   

Miller was pretty much raised on the side of a netball court. As an infant, he spent his weekends parked up in the “pusher” on the side of the Edwards Park netball courts in central Adelaide, where his mother Pat was a player and coach for the Oakdale club.

By 8-years-old, Miller was umpiring games.

“One of the ladies at the club was like ‘okay let’s make use of you, we might as well teach you to umpire’,” says Miller.

Mrs Muir is buoyant about her side’s chances ahead of the historic 1938 tour to Australia. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

Mrs Muir is buoyant about her side’s chances ahead of the historic 1938 tour to Australia. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

He’s been making himself useful ever since, going on to become a bench official doing scoring and statistics at national tournaments. After a stint with the ABC in Australia, Miller moved to New Zealand following the 2007 Netball World Cup to join Sky Sport’s production crew, working across a range of sports. 

His passion, though, is preserving the history of netball. He has become Netball NZ’s unofficial keeper of records. Chances are, if the document exists, Miller will be able to find it.

Miller scoured through old minutes, tournament guides, team lists and news reports looking for any mention of the coach. Frustratingly, in all official documents she was referred to as Mrs H.D Muir.

Then, in an old programme for the 1948 Dominion tournament, he found it. After nearly 25 years of service to the sport, Mrs Muir dispensed with formality, signing off her welcoming address as president: “Myrtle Muir”. Myrtle.

A collection of memorabilia from the Netball NZ archives.

With the information Miller had uncovered, Netball NZ was able to cobble together a basic profile of Mrs Muir for the launch of a new Silver Ferns website.

But there was still a nagging sense for Henley and Miller that it wasn’t enough. Earlier this year, they returned to that original 1924 executive. 

“We thought with the centenary coming up in 2024, we really needed to know who these women were - really were - and try to flesh them out a bit more, because they were really the women who brought netball to the fore, made it a national game, believed in it, fought for it all on their own,” says Henley.

In particular, they were determined to fill in the outline of Mrs Muir - the woman who would go on to coach the Silver Ferns. 

Miller once again pored over archive material looking for anything that might offer a lead on Mrs Muir’s upbringing and netballing background.

A search of births over the time period from the 1890s to early 1900s, based on estimates of Mrs Muir’s age, produced about four pages of baby girls born with the name Myrtle. He then cross-checked each one of those names against the marriage registry.

Then in early June, as the country was emerging out of lockdown, came another breakthrough. Marriage records showed Mrs H.D Muir was born Myrtle Violet Matilda Seque.

The programme from the 1948 Dominion Tournament, featuring Myrtle Muir’s welcome address.

Oh there was a flurry of excited texts going back and forth that day. It was a very big day to finally know her name. – MARGARET HENLEY

The unusual surname finally gave them something to work with.

Henley trawled through Papers Past - the National Library’s online resource of digitised newspapers -  and old immigration records looking for any mention of the family name. She figured it was a European name, possibly Belgian.

That was until she came across a newspaper article that made reference to a Matilda Seque and a connection with the Mong family in Dunedin.

“I thought ‘hang on, what if Seque is the anglicised version of the name? If we pronounce it ‘see-kew’, what does that make it?’. Then I did another search, and I found a Wong See Que.” 

That’s when the penny dropped. 

In the unremarkable confines of the University of Auckland’s soon to be demolished Human Sciences Building that its inhabitants describe as a tribute to communist brutalism, Henley had happened upon a dazzling discovery.

“It was just like, ‘holy s..., she’s Chinese’.”

Mrs Muir is buoyant about her side’s chances ahead of the historic 1938 tour to Australia. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

Mrs Muir is buoyant about her side’s chances ahead of the historic 1938 tour to Australia. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

Mrs Muir is buoyant about her side’s chances ahead of the historic 1938 tour to Australia. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

A collection of memorabilia from the Netball NZ archives.

A collection of memorabilia from the Netball NZ archives.

A collection of memorabilia from the Netball NZ archives.

The programme from the 1948 Dominion Tournament, featuring Myrtle Muir’s welcome address.

The programme from the 1948 Dominion Tournament, featuring Myrtle Muir’s welcome address.

The programme from the 1948 Dominion Tournament, featuring Myrtle Muir’s welcome address.

Five small, old sepia toned netballs used as design breaker between text.

From the south, as we wish
the streams of wealth appear,
To our village we return
quite certainly this year.

– CHINESE COUPLET AS TRANSLATED BY ALEXANDER DON

About a kilometre west of the tree-lined township of Lawrence along State Highway 8 - the main route between Dunedin and Queenstown - lies one of the most historically significant sites for New Zealand’s Chinese settler population. 

There’s not a lot to it now. Just an empty field and three sparsely positioned buildings. Beyond the field sits the last stretch of gravel of the Clutha Gold cycle trail. The end of the road.

One hundred and sixty years ago, however, this was the bustling centre of the Chinese gold mining community. The camp, situated at the gateway to Gabriel’s Gully and the goldfields of Central Otago, was home to 120-130 residents at its peak.

It is here, on the Tuapeka plains, framed by hills blanketed in golden tussocks that surge and swell like a restless sea, that Wong See Que landed in 1868 in search of his fortune.

See Que, or See Quee, was one of around 4000 Cantonese diggers who came to Otago during the gold rush era. The Chinese prospectors were first invited by the Otago Provincial Council in the early 1860s, eager to find a source of reliable and cost-effective labour to re-work the tailings since abandoned by the European miners.  

“The Chinese were chosen because they were thought to be hardworking, law-abiding and preferred to return home eventually,” says James Ng, a retired Dunedin doctor, who with his wife, Eva, spent nearly eight years of concentrated research to retell the story of Chinese goldseekers.

James Ng, a retired doctor and historian, bought the site of the Lawrence Chinese Camp in 2004 and set up a charitable trust to preserve its heritage.

James Ng, a retired doctor and historian, bought the site of the Lawrence Chinese Camp in 2004 and set up a charitable trust to preserve its heritage.

James Ng, a retired doctor and historian, bought the site of the Lawrence Chinese Camp in 2004 and set up a charitable trust to preserve its heritage.

Their whole aim was to come out as sojourners and earn money to take back to their villages. – JAMES NG

In Lawrence, however, something unique happened. In 1867 the borough council, in response to the rise in virulent anti-Chinese sentiment among European settlers, passed a bylaw banning Chinese from buying property or businesses within the town’s boundaries. As a sweetener, they offered the Chinese a piece of land on the outskirts of town, adjacent to the main highway.

Inside the ‘Joss House’ at the Lawrence Chinese Camp.

Inside the ‘Joss House’ at the Lawrence Chinese Camp.

Inside the ‘Joss House’ at the Lawrence Chinese Camp.

Five small, old sepia toned netballs used as design breaker between text.

The land was used to build homes and set up businesses, including two butcheries, market gardens, a gambling den, and a hotel, making it the biggest Chinese settlement in colonial New Zealand.

Ng says there was something else unique to the Lawrence camp: it was one of the few communities where European women were “openly involved” with Chinese men, with several going on to marry.

“The exact number of mixed marriages between European women and Chinese men at that time is unknown, but it was very small - around 100. Just 100 for 4000 Chinese gold miners. But the Lawrence Chinese camp had over two dozen of these mixed marriage families, so it was an important component of the population that they had,” says Ng, who bought the site of the Chinese camp in 2004 and set up a charitable trust to oversee its development.

Ng is too polite to repeat what some of the old newspapers and texts say about the European women who hung around the camp at that time. 

However, the title of Stevan Eldred-Grigg’s seminal work on the history of New Zealand gold rushes Diggers Hatters and Whores, from which Eleanor Catton’s Booker prize-winning novel The Luminaries drew its inspiration, offers a bit of a clue. The white women who wed Chinese diggers “seem often to have been thieves, streetwalkers or others of the ‘lowest class’,” Eldred-Grigg wrote.

Adrienne Shaw, a fifth-generation descendant of the Chinese camp, is a walking encyclopedia on the families that stemmed from those mixed marriages. The other thing you need to know about Shaw is her email address features the handle “onemadcow”.

Adrienne Shaw is a fifth generation descendant of Chau Chu Taai, later known as Chow Tie, who ran a butchery business at the Lawrence Chinese Camp. (PHOTO: JOE JOHNSON/STUFF)

Adrienne Shaw is a fifth generation descendant of Chau Chu Taai, later known as Chow Tie, who ran a butchery business at the Lawrence Chinese Camp. (PHOTO: JOE JOHNSON/STUFF)

Adrienne Shaw is a fifth generation descendant of Chau Chu Taai, later known as Chow Tie, who ran a butchery business at the Lawrence Chinese Camp. (PHOTO: JOE JOHNSON/STUFF)

The amateur genealogist and researcher recites the complex, and at times intertwined, lineage of the families from memory at rapidfire pace. She is spilling over with anecdotes and colourful soundbites, such as “we’re all descendants from miners and prostitutes and we’re proud of that”. 

Shaw served as chair of the Lawrence Chinese Camp Charitable Trust after Ng stepped down, leading the restoration of the ‘Joss House’ - the only major development project completed by the group to date - but resigned after a few years in the role as she says her fellow trustees couldn’t keep up with her. (For his part, the current chairman Geoff Blackmore, who showed Stuff around the Chinese camp, says Shaw “wasn’t a team player”).

For now, Shaw is tirelessly working away on the periphery to preserve and honour the history she feels so deeply connected to. She’s raising money to restore the grave sites in the Chinese section of the Lawrence Cemetery, including erecting headstones for those that rest in unmarked graves, like Wong See Que. She’s also busy organising a reunion for the descendants of the camp in October next year.

Her other major project is writing a book compiling the stories on all the families of the camp. She describes it as a bit like a Wasjig - all the pieces are lying around out there, she just has to methodically piece them together. 

“When you research someone who has passed away, you really have to get to know them. You really have to try and think like them and interpret how it would be,” says Shaw.

She speaks of the deceased as if she’s actively interacting with their spirits.

Not one dead person has blocked me except for my great, great, great grandfather, Arthur Tie, every time I try to write about him, he blocks me. It’s a weird sensation. – Adrienne Shaw

“The rest of them, they’re happy for me to dig up their lives, warts and all. Their skeletons, their crimes, their mental institution visits. Because it’s part of our social history.”

Wong See Que, says Shaw, was very open.

“I sat down and wrote about 21 pages on him. He was very good.”

Five small, old sepia toned netballs used as design breaker between text.

The story of the See Que family is one of tragedy, adversity and reinvention.

Little is known about Wong See Que’s life before arriving in New Zealand. Shaw’s research reveals he was born in Canton in 1840, and made his way to Otago in 1868, most likely via Australia.

The early life of the woman he would come to marry, Elizabeth Nesbitt, is easier to trace, due to the colourful exploits of her family. 

As far as a start in life goes, they don’t come much rougher than Elizabeth’s. She was born in a penal colony in Van Diemen’s Land, known today as Tasmania. Her father, who went by many aliases but for the purposes of this article we’ll stick with David Nesbitt, had worked as a chimney sweep in Northumberland, England, but was transported for stealing clothing and sentenced to 15 years hard labour. 

According to Shaw, after Nesbitt became a “free man” in 1860, the family booked passage on the Balmoral King, bound for Port Chalmers.

It was not long before they made themselves known around Dunedin. Shaw says Nesbitt and wife Mary were frequently in and out of jail for violence and abuse, including an incident in which Nesbitt served time for manslaughter after shooting a police officer.

At 17, Elizabeth fled to Lawrence - about 80km southwest of Dunedin, with younger sister Mary Ann. The pair found employment as servants for a European family in the township, but for reasons unclear, ended up dossing at the Chinese camp.

It was there she met See Que, a miner 12 years her senior. In 1870 the couple married, becoming just the third or fourth mixed race couple in the area to wed. Shaw says the Lawrence town registrar was known to be hard on Chinese men wishing to marry European women, so the couple hopped over the hill to Waipori to get hitched.

According to Chinese naming convention, in which the family name comes first, Wong See Que’s “clan name” was actually Wong. The couple should have been Mr and Mrs Wong, but, in a decision that would come to be of great help for researchers 150 years later, the couple were registered as Mr and Mrs See Que. The name would be anglicised to Seque within the first generation.

The couple went on to have seven children - Margaretta (born 1871), Edward (1872), Roderick (1874), Elizabeth (1877), Robert (1888), and twins Matilda and Mary Ann (1881) - but they could not find domestic harmony.

The once-bustling Chinese Empire Hotel, was said to be one of the best wayside hotels in inland Otago and catered for European and Chinese guests.

The once-bustling Chinese Empire Hotel, was said to be one of the best wayside hotels in inland Otago and catered for European and Chinese guests.

The once-bustling Chinese Empire Hotel, was said to be one of the best wayside hotels in inland Otago and catered for European and Chinese guests.

The Joss House pictured from the main road.

The Joss House pictured from the main road.

The Joss House pictured from the main road.

The Joss House in 1948.

The Joss House in 1948.

The Joss House in 1948.

After being shifted into the Lawrence township in the 1940s, the original Poon Fah Joss House was returned to its original site at the Chinese camp in 2017.

After being shifted into the Lawrence township in the 1940s, the original Poon Fah Joss House was returned to its original site at the Chinese camp in 2017.

After being shifted into the Lawrence township in the 1940s, the original Poon Fah Joss House was returned to its original site at the Chinese camp in 2017.

The interior of the Joss House has been restored to reflect the original interior.

The interior of the Joss House has been restored to reflect the original interior.

The interior of the Joss House has been restored to reflect the original interior.

A pig oven has been rebuilt on its original site at the camp.

A pig oven has been rebuilt on its original site at the camp.

A pig oven has been rebuilt on its original site at the camp.

The once-bustling Chinese Empire Hotel, was said to be one of the best wayside hotels in inland Otago and catered for European and Chinese guests.

The once-bustling Chinese Empire Hotel, was said to be one of the best wayside hotels in inland Otago and catered for European and Chinese guests.

The once-bustling Chinese Empire Hotel, was said to be one of the best wayside hotels in inland Otago and catered for European and Chinese guests.

The Joss House pictured from the main road.

The Joss House pictured from the main road.

The Joss House pictured from the main road.

The Joss House in 1948.

The Joss House in 1948.

The Joss House in 1948.

After being shifted into the Lawrence township in the 1940s, the original Poon Fah Joss House was returned to its original site at the Chinese camp in 2017.

After being shifted into the Lawrence township in the 1940s, the original Poon Fah Joss House was returned to its original site at the Chinese camp in 2017.

After being shifted into the Lawrence township in the 1940s, the original Poon Fah Joss House was returned to its original site at the Chinese camp in 2017.

The interior of the Joss House has been restored to reflect the original interior.

The interior of the Joss House has been restored to reflect the original interior.

The interior of the Joss House has been restored to reflect the original interior.

A pig oven has been rebuilt on its original site at the camp.

A pig oven has been rebuilt on its original site at the camp.

A pig oven has been rebuilt on its original site at the camp.

Five small, old sepia toned netballs used as design breaker between text.

The couple were at the centre of regular disturbances at the camp.

“Elizabeth developed a taste for alcohol and that was the end of her in a way,” say Shaw.

“She was in and out of the courts for violence and drinking and abuse and Wong See Que was chasing her to come home and look after the kids. She would often be found in the beds of other men.”

A search through the periodicals of the day chronicles Elizabeth’s unravelling, with her regular brushes with the law reported in colourful detail. Over the years Elizabeth was charged with larceny, vagrancy, prostitution, and drunkenness.

See Que took out an ad in the Tuapeka Times on July 10, 1882 warning any person “harbouring my wife after this date will be prosecuted”.

With the chaos, came tragedy. In 1883, Robert and Mary Ann died of diptheria within weeks of one another, aged four and two.

It was around this time, Elizabeth bailed for good, heading south to Round Hill, near Riverton, where there was another Chinese camp known as Canton.

According to Shaw, Elizabeth “took up with various men down there” and had a further two children, both of whom died in infancy due to neglect. She was charged with manslaughter for the death of the youngest child, Rosina, leading to a very public trial in 1888, following which she was found guilty and sentenced to four years “penal servitude”.

An agency report of the Supreme Court ruling was published in newspapers around the country, carrying headlines such as ‘A shocking case’ and ‘Inhuman mother punished - starved her child to death’.

“The accused drank frequently, leaving the child for long intervals without food. The medical evidence showed that death resulted from starvation,” the report read.

Shaw offers a more empathetic view of Elizabeth’s descent.

It is a very sad story. Lizzie, she never stood a chance really. – Adrienne Shaw

“She probably did well to hang on as long as she did. She married very young into a strange culture, and her mothering skills reflected her own upbringing. She had two notorious parents as role models.”

Elizabeth died in 1896 a few years after her release from prison, aged just 42. She outlived all but three of her children, with Margaretta and Elizabeth, her namesake, passing away in their early 20s of tuberculosis and gastritis.

After Elizabeth had absconded from Lawrence, it was left to Wong See Que, who by this stage was working as a market gardener, to hold the family together.

He lived out his years at the Chinese camp, passing away in 1913 at the age of 72.

The surviving See Que children moved away from the camp to Dunedin, anglicising their name to Seque - likely a deliberate act of translation and transformation, to allow them to blend into society with less scrutiny.

The oldest son, Edward, married Honora Pine, the daughter of English immigrants, and had two children: Eric Walter, and Myrtle Violet Matilda, affectionately known as Matty.

The Chinese section of the Lawrence Cemetery.

The Chinese section of the Lawrence Cemetery.

The Chinese section of the Lawrence Cemetery.

The Otago Goldfields were at the centre of the 1860s gold rush.

The Otago Goldfields were at the centre of the 1860s gold rush.

The Otago Goldfields were at the centre of the 1860s gold rush.

Original gold mining machinery is still dotted around in Gabriel’s Gully, near Lawrence.

Original gold mining machinery is still dotted around in Gabriel’s Gully, near Lawrence.

Original gold mining machinery is still dotted around in Gabriel’s Gully, near Lawrence.

An abandoned shack in Gabriel’s Gully.

An abandoned shack in Gabriel’s Gully.

An abandoned shack in Gabriel’s Gully.

Young Matty Seque went to Otago Girls High School in Dunedin.

Young Matty Seque went to Otago Girls High School in Dunedin.

Young Matty Seque went to Otago Girls High School in Dunedin.

Many descendants of the Seque family remain in Dunedin today.

Many descendants of the Seque family remain in Dunedin today.

Many descendants of the Seque family remain in Dunedin today.

The Chinese section of the Lawrence Cemetery.

The Chinese section of the Lawrence Cemetery.

The Chinese section of the Lawrence Cemetery.

The Otago Goldfields were at the centre of the 1860s gold rush.

The Otago Goldfields were at the centre of the 1860s gold rush.

The Otago Goldfields were at the centre of the 1860s gold rush.

Original gold mining machinery is still dotted around in Gabriel’s Gully, near Lawrence.

Original gold mining machinery is still dotted around in Gabriel’s Gully, near Lawrence.

Original gold mining machinery is still dotted around in Gabriel’s Gully, near Lawrence.

An abandoned shack in Gabriel’s Gully.

An abandoned shack in Gabriel’s Gully.

An abandoned shack in Gabriel’s Gully.

Young Matty Seque went to Otago Girls High School in Dunedin.

Young Matty Seque went to Otago Girls High School in Dunedin.

Young Matty Seque went to Otago Girls High School in Dunedin.

Many descendants of the Seque family remain in Dunedin today.

Many descendants of the Seque family remain in Dunedin today.

Many descendants of the Seque family remain in Dunedin today.

The silver fern was chosen as the national insignia for the New Zealand Basketball team. The sport did not become known as netball here until 1970. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

The silver fern was chosen as the national insignia for the New Zealand basketball team. The sport did not become known as netball here until 1970. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

The silver fern was chosen as the national insignia for the New Zealand Basketball team. The sport did not become known as netball here until 1970. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

A collection of old photos and documents from the Netball NZ archives.

A collection of old photos and documents from the Netball NZ archives.

A collection of old photos and documents from the Netball NZ archives.

Myrtle Muir (right) sits on the deck of the Wanganella with another Silver Ferns official as the team embark on their first tour. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

Myrtle Muir (right) sits on the deck of the Wanganella with another Silver Ferns official as the team embark on their first tour. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

Myrtle Muir (right) sits on the deck of the Wanganella with another Silver Ferns official as the team embark on their first tour. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

The 1938 Silver Ferns team, captained by Margaret Matangi (centre), ahead of their historic first tour to Australia. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

The 1938 Silver Ferns team, captained by Margaret Matangi (centre), ahead of their historic first tour to Australia. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

The 1938 Silver Ferns team, captained by Margaret Matangi (centre), ahead of their historic first tour to Australia. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

Five small, old sepia toned netballs used as design breaker between text.
The silver fern was chosen as the national insignia for the New Zealand Basketball team. The sport did not become known as netball here until 1970. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

The silver fern was chosen as the national insignia for the New Zealand Basketball team. The sport did not become known as netball here until 1970. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

T he unearthing of Mrs Muir’s Chinese ancestry is an extraordinary development.

In more than 80 years of internationals, there has never been a Silver Fern with Asian heritage. 

“We thought there hadn’t been a coach either,” says Miller, “so for the first ever coach to have Chinese ancestry is remarkable. It is a huge discovery in the context of New Zealand sport.

“She is very likely New Zealand’s first Chinese sports administrator and coach of a national side.”

But it’s unlikely Mrs Muir’s family background would have been known to fellow netball administrators at the time. Shaw says given the intense discrimination faced by the Chinese and other minority communities, they would try to “bury their past” as much as possible.

Descendants of the Chinese camp Shaw has tracked down tell stories of how photos of their Chinese ancestors were hidden away in drawers, while photos of their Victorian grandmothers hung proudly on the walls.

“I have spoken to some of Roderick Seque’s great grandchildren, and they were told when they were growing up that they were of French descent,” she says.

“They went as far away as they could and reinvented themselves. Gave themselves new identities in a sense.”

Henley believes that drive to overcome the poverty of their childhood and change the trajectory of their lives was the legacy little Matty Seque inherited from her father.

“She was somebody who actually saw the possibilities and was always pushing to improve things,” says Henley.

“I think she was most probably a single-minded person, and a lot of what people have said about her was she had incredible vision and that she always believed that the game and the organisation of the game could be improved on.”

An old typewritten note, still intact after more than 80 years, offers an insight into the woman behind the initials. 

The one-page bio, which was prepared in advance of the New Zealand side’s historic tour to Australia in 1938, outlines Mrs Muir’s involvement in the sport over the previous two decades.

A collection of old photos and documents from the Netball NZ archives.

Reading between the lines on the sepia-tinged parchment paper, which Miller speculates was likely typed by Mrs Muir herself, it is clear she was someone willing to roll up her sleeves and get things done.

According to the note, a young Matty Seque took up netball, then a nine-a-side game, in 1915 when she was a student at Otago Girls’ High School. Her organisational nous was apparent early, when at just 19, she was appointed secretary of the Otago Union, while she was playing and captaining the YWCA Hearthfire club.  

Henley says it was likely Mrs Muir was a handy player given her role as captain, but her playing days, like most women of that era, were short-lived. She hung up her gym frock in 1922 when she married journalist Harold Douglas - or H.D, if you like - Muir. Back then, married women didn’t play netball.

But Mrs Muir remained deeply involved with the game. In an administrative and coaching career spanning four decades, she was responsible for a number of firsts.

From the outset, Mrs Muir appeared to be driven by two things: to create a consistent set of rules for the game, and to improve competitive opportunities. Her biography noted that when she first started playing, “the rules were so different, that games between even neighbouring towns could not be arranged”.

After Harold’s work took the newly married couple to Christchurch, Muir took over as secretary, then vice president, then president of the Canterbury Association. She was only there for six years before Harold’s work sent them, and their young daughter Thea, to Wellington, but she made a big impression. In the farewell speeches, Muir was described as “Canterbury Netball itself” and her leaving was “the worst thing that could happen” to the organisation.

In 1923, she organised the first representative team to travel in the Dominion, taking a Canterbury team north to Wellington. That trip likely proved the catalyst for the establishment of the first national netball federation in the world. 

The following year Muir, along with three other regional leaders came together to form the New Zealand Basketball Association (the sport didn’t become known as netball here until 1970). The group’s stated aim was to make netball a national sport for girls and young women.

“The newly created body sat down to thoroughly overhaul the existing rules which varied in interpretation and application in nearly every centre,” read a Dominion report of that time.

At that same meeting the new association made decisions on a range of other issues like the venue of AGMs, registration fees, and a national insignia. Together, the women determined that the players’ black gym frocks would be emblazoned with the silver fern.

Fourteen years later, Muir and a 10-strong group of players captained by Margaret Matangi, boarded the Wanganella bound for Sydney and Melbourne to take on Australia. It would mark the beginning of the Silver Ferns. The beginning of test netball. The beginning of one of international sport’s great rivalries.

One of the players from that tour, Jean Mitchell, compiled a photo album documenting the team’s journey. Most of the photos of Mrs Muir in the album, which was gifted to Netball NZ a few years back, are in formal group settings. She looks almost regal dressed in her best coat. 

But there’s one that was taken of her at an unguarded moment. She has plonked herself down on the deck of the ship at the feet of one the other officials, her legs outstretched in front of her. She is in profile to the camera, looking out onto the horizon. She looks happy, relaxed, at home.

Myrtle Muir (right) sits on the deck of the Wanganella with another Silver Ferns official as the team embark on their first tour. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

Myrtle Muir (right) sits on the deck of the Wanganella with another Silver Ferns official as the team embark on their first tour. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

I think she was someone who through what she did in her life and where she came from and her family background, netball was a vehicle for her to express herself, find how capable she was and find a separate identity. – Margaret Henley

“That’s what sport gave to women, and still does give to women.”

Newspaper articles of the day reveal Muir was buoyant about her side’s chances headed into the series. In an article written for the New Zealand Free Lance, the coach said she believed her team would be a “formidable fighting force”. The article also noted Matangi would be the first Māori captain of a New Zealand representative side.

Playing an unfamiliar seven-a-side game, the Silver Ferns were well-beaten by Australia in the two official test matches, but got the better of the hosts in an exhibition game of nine-a-side. 

For Muir, the result didn’t matter. In an article in the Sydney Morning Herald on August 11, 1938, she said the trip was the first step in a diplomatic mission that would lead to the unification of the rules at international level (although it was another 22 years before common ground was established among member nations).

“We are not worried about who wins or loses, but we hope to achieve uniformity as a result of this trip. We realise that New Zealand is the only country with the nine-a-side game, and that it must be the one to change. I think that we can do that without much upheaval so long as we can agree about rule differences,” she told a local reporter.

A return tour was planned for the following year, but World War II intervened. Sport took a backseat as women were thrust into roles outside their home-keeping duties to support the war effort.

It wasn’t until 1948 - 10 years after the first series - that an Australian side visited New Zealand shores. Muir again was at the helm of the Silver Ferns for their two test losses. Her zero from four record makes her the Ferns’ least successful coach, but she is, in many ways, the most significant.

After stepping down as president of the NZ Basketball Association in 1949, Muir continued to support the game locally. She was a regular fixture at the Hataitai courts in Wellington, where daughter Thea also played.

Henley knows the courts well. As a young girl growing up in the 1950s, she remembers the “bracing southerly blowing up from Scott Base” whipping through the courts on a Saturday morning. 

Henley doesn’t remember the striking woman who ensured the smooth running of the netball centre, but she likes to think at some point her path would have crossed with Muir.

The 1938 Silver Ferns team, captained by Margaret Matangi (centre), ahead of their historic first tour to Australia. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

The 1938 Silver Ferns team, captained by Margaret Matangi (centre), ahead of their historic first tour to Australia. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

Five small, old sepia toned netballs used as design breaker between text.

Muir was just ‘Gran’ to Don Roberton.

Roberton, the son of Myrtle and Harold Muir’s only child, Thea, grew up in the small farming community of Tahora, east of Stratford. He says he only visited his grandparents in Wellington “once or twice a year”, but remembers his grandmother as a “very warm, very active, very intelligent lady”.

“She was always busy with the things she was doing,” says Roberton, who now lives in Adelaide.

“She was heavily involved with The Smith Family [a children’s charity set up in the early 1930s during the Depression], working out of the office in the Town Hall in Wellington. I used to go down there when I was very young and spend the day there while she was helping other people with their needs - organising food and clothing.”

Roberton says he knew Muir had been heavily involved in netball but he didn’t consider much back then the significance of his grandmother’s role in the sport.

I guess like most of us, we just accept what is in the present. It’s more as we get a bit older we tend to look back and think that it might have been out of the ordinary. – Don Roberton
A photo of early administrators from Netball NZ’s archive. Myrtle Muir is pictured in the front row third from left.

A photo of early administrators from Netball NZ’s archive. Myrtle Muir is pictured in the front row third from left.

A photo of early administrators from Netball NZ’s archive. Myrtle Muir is pictured in the front row third from left.

He hadn’t considered much either where his grandmother’s ancestors might have hailed from.

It wasn’t until Henley got in touch with Roberton and his sister, Marcella McCarthy, in September that he learned of his Chinese ancestry.

“The name Seque always struck me as being quite an unusual name. But I never had any idea, nor did others in our family … of what the origin of that name was. It sounded vaguely French or European. We had no idea it had Chinese or a Cantonese background.

“I certainly had no knowledge of any connection to Lawrence and Otago, which is interesting because we lived in Dunedin for quite long periods of time, and travelled through Lawrence quite frequently. I knew there was a history of Chinese gold mining there, but I never realised we had a familial relationship with that whatsoever.” 

Roberton does however remember one, possibly apocryphal, family story he heard when he was young about a relative in Christchurch that had died many years beforehand. So the yarn went, the ancestor had stashed away a substantial portion of gold somewhere on the family property to keep it safe. The man passed away suddenly, and with him the knowledge of where the gold was hidden. 

“It’s never been found yet,” says Roberton.

“It might be time to start looking again.”

LEGACY title
LEGACY title
LEGACY title
Sulu Fitzpatrick of New Zealand takes a pass during game 2 of the Cadbury Netball Series between the New Zealand Silver Ferns and the England Roses at Claudelands Arena on October 30, 2020 in Hamilton, New Zealand. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Silver Fern Sulu Fitzpatrick takes a pass during a clash with the England Roses at Hamilton last month. (PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES)

LEGACY title
Sulu Fitzpatrick of New Zealand takes a pass during game 2 of the Cadbury Netball Series between the New Zealand Silver Ferns and the England Roses at Claudelands Arena on October 30, 2020 in Hamilton, New Zealand. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Silver Fern Sulu Fitzpatrick takes a pass during a clash with the England Roses at Hamilton last month. (PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES)

Five small, old sepia toned netballs used as design breaker between text.

The game of netball, at its heart, is a battle for space.

Within the confines of a 30x15m court 14 players jostle for position, as if engaged in an elaborate dance with their opponent. The attacking team is trying to create, and put their players into space. They’re trying to find ‘clear air’ where they can take and deliver unstressed ball.

Off the court, the game’s leaders have also had to battle to carve out a space of their own in the sporting landscape.

Netball is often viewed as a conservative institution. Netball NZ chief executive Jennie Wyllie sees it otherwise. She says the game has always been led by quite radical, progressive, forward-thinking women.

Netball NZ chief executive Jennie Wyllie says the game’s early pioneers created a legacy of rolling up your sleeves and getting on with it.

Netball NZ chief executive Jennie Wyllie says the game’s early pioneers created a legacy of rolling up your sleeves and getting on with it.

Netball NZ chief executive Jennie Wyllie says the game’s early pioneers created a legacy of rolling up your sleeves and getting on with it.

What I think is so fascinating, is that while netball has a long history, we have continued to evolve. We have not stood still. We’ve needed to, we’ve needed to fight for the space and the air that we hold. – Jennie Wyllie

“Through each era of the game there have been bold women who have seen the opportunities to move the game forward, and that goes right back to that first executive in 1924.”

Today, Netball NZ has 140,000 registered members, and around 350,000 participants when you throw in social and indoor leagues. The Silver Ferns - the national side Muir established all those years ago - has 2.2 million fans, according to research undertaken by Gemba Sports.

The Silver Ferns squad are now regarded as full time professionals, while 60 players nationwide earn an income from the sport.

Netball still has its challenges. The shift from traditionally male dominated sports like rugby, cricket and football to up their investment in their women’s programmes has been posed as an existential threat for netball. And like other sports, it faces a battle to stay relevant in an era where participation among young people is declining.

New Zealand’s population is changing too. Wyllie says Netball NZ recognises the need to promote their game to more diverse communities.  

“What we need to understand is how do we make sure that netball resonates as part of their DNA? Because we can’t rely on our traditional codes being something that kids have just grown up with.”

To know where you’re going, you need to know where you’ve come from. 

So, Henley and Miller will continue in their quest to piece together more of the sport’s history.

Henley says there is a staggering dearth of information in the national libraries about the early days of the sport. Footage from the first televised games seems to have disappeared.

“The agenda for what gets archived and what gets saved and now what gets digitised is very gendered, so a lot of women’s history, women’s social history and women’s sports history was never considered to be worth preserving, so it was never there, it never made it to the archives,” says Henley.

Silver Ferns captain Ameliaranne Ekenasio offers words of encouragement to her team. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES.

Silver Ferns captain Ameliaranne Ekenasio offers words of encouragement to her team. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES.

Silver Ferns captain Ameliaranne Ekenasio offers words of encouragement to her team. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES.

Five small, old sepia toned netballs used as design breaker between text.

Miller is helping to restore some of these gaps. He started out by collating information on every player to wear the black dress, and introducing capping numbers. Over the years, the project has evolved to interviewing former players, coaches and administrators to preserve their stories.

“They never really had records, they never really celebrated milestones. Everyone was so busy getting on and running the game they didn’t really focus on that side of things,” he says.

“We started to realise people aren’t going to be around forever and we started shooting content and interviews so we actually had captured the history of the sport. There was an oral history done by the [Alexander] Turnbull Library in consultation with Netball NZ, but nothing really on-camera.”

It’s a bit like an archaeological dig, with Miller unearthing new treasures and memorabilia with each new person he talks to. 

Some of these families of former players could have whole treasure troves of information and resources in a dusty garage somewhere, so that’s why we need to speak to them. – Todd Miller

A particularly precious piece of footage was recovered a few years back. 

Netball officials had been vaguely aware of an old film from the 1932 Dominion Tournament in Invercargill that had been in circulation through the middle of the 20th century. It was thought the footage was shot for the purposes of supporting some of the smaller provinces to establish the game in their regions, and ensure consistency in the rules across the country.

“Somewhere along the line it had gone missing. We knew the vision existed, people had seen it. So for years I just kept asking everyone I got in touch with if they knew where it might be.”

Then one day Miller got a call from former Silver Ferns coach Yvonne Willering - another of the game’s life members. 

“She said ‘oh I’ve just been doing a clean-out and I’ve got some stuff you might be interested in’,” recalls Miller.

He dutifully went out to collect the box of treasures from Willering, and discovered amongst the memorabilia an old film canister, containing the missing footage of the 1932 tournament, shot on 16mm film. 

The film was sent down to a preservationist in Christchurch, who was able to save the footage and convert it into a digital file.

“It is remarkable vision, just an incredible record of netball in New Zealand in those early years with the nine-a-side game,” Miller says.

“I was very stoked that we were able to find it.”

Miller suggested Stuff might like to use some of the historic footage for this project. 

Before sending it through, he decided to sit down and watch it back once more. It had been a while since he’d watched it, and he’s always marvelled at the speed and aggression with which the game was played, even back then.

About 23 minutes into the 25 minute recording his heart skipped a beat.

He’d never noticed it the first time around, but this time, it was unmistakable.

As the congregation prepares to depart Winton following an exhibition game, the camera pans across the throng of assembled officials.

There, for about five seconds a beaming Myrtle Muir fills the frame, finally in focus after all these years.

Five small, old sepia toned netballs used as design breaker between text.

Words
DANA JOHANNSEN

Visuals
ABIGAIL DOUGHERTY

Design
KATHRYN GEORGE

Editor
JOHN HARTEVELT


Thanks to Netball NZ for archival material

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