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Pioneer Croatian settlers in New Zealand: Ujdur family story

The Ujdur family

Historian and author Kaye Dragicevich has been extensively researching the far north of New Zealand, the area where a large number of pioneering families came from Croatia in search of a better life over 100 years ago.

Her book, titled Pioneer Dalmatian Settlers of the Far North, took four years to complete and features 200 interesting stories of families who arrived in New Zealand’s gumfield area in the far north from Croatia. It also includes 900 historical photographs.

One interesting story from the book is about the family history of two brothers who became famous rugby players and played for New Zealand’s world-famous All Blacks team.

Marko Ujdur was born in Prapatnice, the son of Ante Ujdur and Mara, nee Glamuzina. They had a family of three sons – Marko, Nikola and Ivan, and one daughter, Angelia. Both Marko and Nikola felt it necessary to leave their homeland as they were reaching the age of conscription into the Austrian Army. Their destinations were settled by a toss of a coin. Marko got New Zealand and Nikola, Argentina. Their brother Ivan was serving in the King’s Guard.

In 1907, Marko, aged 19, worked his passage out to New Zealand with four friends from the Vrgorac region. Upon their arrival in Auckland, they all jumped ship and made their way to the Dargaville gumfields. Marko was naturalised in Dargaville in 1912; he subsequently worked on gumfields at Dargaville, Warkworth, and the Coromandel.

In 1914 he returned to Dalmatia with three friends. Their plan was to find wives from their villages. Unfortunately, this was a very unstable time in history and when the ship docked in Split, a man came on board to warn them not to leave the ship. If they did, they would be certainly conscripted into the Austrian Army. On hearing this news, two of Marko’s friends decided to stay, but Marko and the other man returned to New Zealand. In June of the same year, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, were assassinated in Sarajevo. This event signalled the beginning of the First World War.

Marko worked in the northern gumfields until about 1919. He was an intelligent man who was blessed with entrepreneurial skills. He had a flair for commercial enterprise, with the ability to establish a business and run it well. By 1926 he was involved in three profitable businesses at Waipukurau in the Hawkes Bay. Marko operated three businesses concurrently: a taxi business, a bus service and he was also in partnership with Jack Radonich running the Waipukurau Fish Supplies and Restaurant.

Marica Anic was born in Slivno Imotski, the daughter of Jakov Anic and Tomica, nee Lozina. Her older brother, Petar, worked as a butcher. Sadly, he died of pneumonia at the age of 23. Marica was broken hearted. Her uncle and aunt, Toma and Perica Anic, wrote to her from New Zealand. They ran a boarding house in Federal Street, Auckland and they offered Marica the opportunity to come out and work for them. They would cover the cost of her passage to New Zealand and in return, she would work in the boarding house for two years without pay. Marica agreed.

Marko and Marica met while he was visiting Auckland. He happened to stay at the Federal Street boarding house where she was working. They became engaged and in 1929, married at St Patrick’s Cathedral. Amelia Batistich, the author, was their bridesmaid.

Marko and Marica’s wedding day on 11 April 1929. The three men at the back from the left are Ivan Ujdur, Jose Djugum and Toma Radich. Front: Two bridesmaids are unidentified, Marko Ujdur, Marica Ujdur, Amelia Barbarich (became the famous author Amelia Batistich) and the last bridesmaid is unidentified.

Marica’s arrival at her husband’s home in Waipukurau came as a bit of a shock. He lived in the centre of sheep and beef raising country, and Marica was the only Dalmatian woman in the area. Their home became a gathering place for many of the central Hawkes Bay Dalmatian men working in the area. Many were northern gum diggers who had gone south in the 1930s when gum prices dropped, making it uneconomic to continue.

Some became blade shearers in high demand on the large coastal sheep stations, whilst others took up scrub cutting. On a Sunday, they came from near and far. Marica catered for up to 30 men for Sunday lunch, some of whom even arrived with a sack of dirty washing! These men enjoyed camaraderie with Marko and regarded Marica with the greatest of respect.

In 1933, when their first son Milenko was two years old, Marko and Marica sold their home and took a three-year lease in the Armidale boarding house. With her previous experience whilst working for her aunt and uncle, Marica had the skills to operate a successful boarding house. So while Marko ran the restaurant, Marica managed the boarding house, one block back from the main street. They had two more children; Ivan and Patricia. Marica worked extremely hard during those years. In 1937 they purchased a three bedroomed home at 8 Marlborough Street. Many family and visitors were warmly accommodated there over the years.

The Ujdur family: 1938 Milenko, Marko holding Patricia, Ivan in front of Marica at Waipukurau, Hawkes Bay.

The family moved south to Dannevirke in the early 1940s to run The Empire Restaurant with Marko’s cousin, Peter Vujcich. After 18 months they returned to Waipukurau and Marko bought The Oceanic Restaurant across the road from Waipukurau Fish Supplies and Restaurant.

His friend Joe Tolich, also born in Prapatnice, came to work in the area scrub cutting with other Dalmatians. The Ujdur family went out occasionally to visit him and his friends. Scrub cutters lived in simple accommodation; they worked hard and appeared content with their lot. When Joe’s working days were over, he came to live with the Ujdur family where he remained for many years. At the back of the restaurant were two large rooms and these were occupied by many who were too old to work or by those needing temporary accommodation until they moved on to Auckland. Marko felt obligated to his countrymen and consequently lodged and fed many over the years. In some cases, Waipukurau was a transient town, but there were also the stayers.

2013 The Cooper family. Back L-R: Matthew, Ana, Greg, Martin. Front: Pat and Tricia, nee Ujdur (Marko & Marica’s daughter)

Marica made a friend of Mrs. Jack Lum, a Chinese lady from the laundry. One day while she was out shopping, Mrs. Lum noticed her coming from the Co-op Store. She quickly removed her apron and waited in the laundry doorway for Marica to come by. Marica stopped and the two women chatted for 20 minutes with Mrs. Lum speaking in Chinese and Marica in Croatian. Neither understood a word of the other’s language, but in this strange new country far from their homelands, each woman understood the other’s yearning for her homeland and the need to have someone to converse with.

Marica was a wonderful wife, mother, and comfort to pioneering men and women who struggled to make their way in those early years. She led by her amazing example. She died on 9 December 1970, aged 64.

Marko was a strong and friendly man. He related to Dalmatian and Maori alike and was very sociable. If he missed his homeland, he did not brood over it, nor did he dwell on the past. He spoke to his family about present and future matters. In his last years, when his health was failing, Patricia recalls her father saying that he longed to see snow on Matokit, the mountain overlooking his village Prapatnice. He died on 22 May 1976, aged 83, six years after Marica. They are buried at Waipukurau Cemetery.

Marko and Marica’s allegiance to their fellow Dalmatians has been carried over to their daughter Patricia Ujdur and her husband Pat Cooper. They feel they are the custodians of the Dalmatians who are sleeping their final sleep in the local cemetery. The couple tended the graves regularly.

L – R Matthew Cooper born 1966, played for NZ All Blacks 1987, 92-94, 96) Greg Cooper b 1965 Played for NZ All Blacks 1986-92 (Sons of Pat Cooper and Trisha nee Ujdur)

Pat and Patricia Cooper are the parents of Greg and Matthew Cooper, both of whom have worn the rugby All Black jersey for New Zealand with distinction. Sadly Trisha Cooper passed away on 23 April 2017, she was a beautiful and wonderful lady, who provided most of the information for this story.

In 1998 Matthew Cooper represented Croatia in Rugby, scoring 28 points in his one and only appearance against Italy in Makarska.

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