War Time Intrigue in Plimmerton  

There is a Plimmerton legend that in First and Second World Wars spies were operating in the Plimmerton area.

So how has this legend developed?

On 5 August 1914 New Zealand declared war on Germany and three weeks later, 29 August 1914, New Zealand forces landed in German Samoa to take this enemy territory.[1]

The rapid military action was matched with patriotic public fervour with anti German feelings running high. In New Zealand, the fervour did not go as far as kicking Dachshunds (German sausage dogs) in the streets [2] but there were reports of German owned property having windows broken and people considered to be German hassled and assaulted.[3] The government moved quickly with the Motiu/Somes Island internment camp being set up in August 1914. Three hundred enemy aliens, those considered to be a risk to New Zealand's security, were interned including a number of men who had been living in New Zealand for years, were naturalised and had NZ born families. [4]

Even with the internments people who were considered foreign, like the Vella's from Paremata, would have been treated with suspicion.
  Vella family of Plimmerton - Mariano, wife and two eldest sons C1916 - Pataka Museum  
  Mariano Vella had arrived in NZ in 1878 from Dalmatia, at that stage Dalmatia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Mariano started life in NZ as a fisherman, then first married an English wife in 1886 and began farming Mana Island. Mariano was naturalised in 1896 and by 1909 was able to retire, returning to the home of his second wife on Lussin Island in the Adriatic Sea. The island had a predominately Italian population but was still within the then Austro-Hungarian Empire. Mariano, wife and children would not return to Plimmerton until 1915 so it was his NZ born eldest sons who remained in NZ and were farming Mana Island in 1914.[5] These two sons had been in 1904 among the founding pupils at Plimmerton's first school.[6]  
  On the outbreak of war, the German raider SMS Emden went into action and reports of her shelling Madras, 24 September 1914, and sinking ships in the Indian Ocean were widely reported in NZ papers, including the Wairarapa Daily Times.[7] The results of these actions caused the delay in the departure of the NZ Expeditionary Forces from Wellington for Europe and may have resulted in the letter written in Masterton, 31 September 1914, to the Defence Minister about an 'unfound wireless plant' that could be located on Mana Island.  
  Plimmerton - A Colourful History; Bob Maysmor (Pataka)  
  The letter also mentions the Vella family as being Austrian or German and also the very shrewd Austrian in a cottage at Plimmerton, Manuel Sarsoc, this may have been Matteo (Mike) Sarcich who was an Austrian living in Plimmerton working as a carrier.  
  Mike Sarcich, on Moana Road, February 1920. Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand Ref a.005719  

In Plimmerton - a Colourful History a 'Detective Bailey of Lambton Quay unravelled this web of intrigue to find a group of highly respected naturalised citizens going about their day to day business.'[8]

Also, in the oral history of Plimmerton, K Collinson mentions, 'During WW1, some rowdy revellers found the small shop run by two Italian women was closed. The two women had closed in panic thinking that there was an attack on Mike Sarcich, the popular Austrian carrier who lived nearby. They feared the attackers might move on to them as foreigners even though Italy was an ally in the war while Austria was the enemy.'[9]

While there were no German spies on Mana, next month we will investigate the local legend of a German sea captain and his large telescope watching the Cook Strait from 'Krithia', Karehana Bay.

Story by Allan Dodson for September 2012

[1] NZ and the First World War: NZ History Online

[2] Outbreak of War: Purnell's History of World War One

[3] Damage to property and looting: Poverty Bay Herald, 17 May 1915

[4] Somes Prisoners - Enemies Within: A Study of NZ Home Front during WW1

[5] Vella Mariano; Te Ara - Dictionary of NZ Biography

[6] 100 years, Plimmerton School 1904 - 2004

[7] 'The Cheeky Emden', Wairarapa Daily Times, 25 September 1914

[8] Plimmerton - A Colourful History; Bob Maysmor (Pataka)

[9] Plimmerton - A Colourful History; Bob Maysmor (Pataka)

Last Updated: 26/03/2015 3:41pm