A secret history: What Alexandra Tidswell discovered about her ancestors

by Fiona Terry / 04 June, 2017
: Nelson writer Alexandra Tidswell by a sculpture on the quayside of a family of early settlers who – like her own ancestors –came to New Zealand in search of a better life.

In a colourful novel based on the story of her English ancestors, Alexandra Tidswell unravels a 200-year-old tale of intrigue and deceit.

Alexandra Tidswell was 10 years old when she made a promise that one day she’d write a book about her pioneering ancestors, who were among the first European settlers to New Zealand.

What first stirred her curiosity was a photograph in her grandmother Bella’s album. “It was of a very beautiful woman, but it struck me she looked so sad,” she says. “Bella told me there was a mystery about her and that it was believed she might be a royal’s illegitimate child.”

The picture was of Tidswell’s great-great-great-grandmother, Mary Anne Luxford, who’d been born into poverty in the English town of Willoughby to lowly parents Ebenezer and Martha Grimm. A few years later, Tidswell’s mother hired a genealogist to investigate the family’s history – and an intriguing story of crime, bigamy and abandonment unfolded.

Tidswell’s great-great-great-grandmother Mary Anne Luxford, whose mother escaped poverty in the UK to travel across the world, leaving her husband and several of her young children behind.

There the story rested for the next couple of decades, as Tidswell was distracted by a law degree and a Bachelor of Arts in Maori, followed by diplomatic service overseas. It wasn’t until she was 38 and settled back in her hometown of Nelson with husband Eric and their two children that she finally began researching her book.

With her days consumed by family and the bicultural training business Kia Maia she’d founded with a friend, Tidswell spent her evenings poring over historical documents, unravelling secrets of the past and piecing together her ancestors’ lives. She also avidly researched journals and newspapers from the 1800s.

“I basically immersed myself in details of the time, digesting and marinating them to flavour the story as I wrote,” she says. “The children became quite used to me chattering away in Warwickshire and cockney dialects as I tried out dialogue.”

Her historic novel Lewisville took six years to research, write and edit. Released late last year, it revolves around Mary Anne’s mother, Martha, whose ambitions for a better life saw her emigrate from the UK to New Zealand, but at huge sacrifice.

“It’s a hybrid of true story and fiction,” says Tidswell, who’s had the full support of her family, despite the troubled tale. “I felt a connection with the characters, all but two of whom are real, and wanted to be respectful towards them, basing the book on the shreds of evidence I had.”

Her website includes photographs and copies of original documents, such as baptism records for both Martha (1802) and Ebenezer (1803), and the marriage registry where they signed their names with a cross. Published by Makaro Press, Lewisville spent three consecutive weeks on the New Zealand fiction bestsellers list and has been reprinted after the first run of 500 sold out within three months.

Tidswell feels lucky to have been “gifted” a storyline with such great potential, and many readers have told her they’d like to see a film about it.

“I’d love to write more in this genre,” she says, “bringing history alive through telling little stories that add up to make the bigger picture of who we are.” 

Lewisville, is available to buy here from Makaro Press. 


This was published in the May 2017 issue of North & South.

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