Dame Cath and Sir Greg of Mapua

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Dame Cath gets a right royal roasting for knighting ‘Sir Greg’

A mock knighthood of Mapua’s Greg Olsen at a historic gathering in Golden Bay to celebrate the achievements of Dutch explorer Abel Tasman resulted in a firm reprimand for then Governor-General Dame Catherine Tizard, for trivialising the significance of New Zealand’s top honour.

Sir Greg dubbing

Dubbing Sir Greg: "Rule one is common sense," said Dame Cath, "Use the flat side of the dubbing sword. Rule two: Tap, don't slice." Photo David Mitchell

However, the scolding of Dame Cath by a little-known representative of the Queen seemed to have little effect on the feisty governor-general’s rebellious style.  Nor did it deter Dame Cath from doing as much as she could to eliminate pompous and stuffy formality from New Zealand’s highest office.

Dame Cath has written candidly about some of the controversies she created as governor-general in a memoir about her career as Mayor of Auckland for seven years and her six years as governor-general.  Appropriately, the title is: ‘Cat Among the Pigeons’.

The occasion for Greg Olsen’s “knighthood” was the 350th anniversary of the arrival in Golden Bay of Dutch mariner Abel Tasman on 22nd December 1642.  To mark the achievement, a new headquarters building for the Abel Tasman National Park was to be dedicated and opened at Totaranui. Gathered there in December 1992 for the occasion was a large audience that included about 100 guests who had travelled all the way from Holland, the Dutch Ambassador to New Zealand and many Golden Bay residents.

Recalling the 1992 event, Greg said that he and seven friends wore replica uniforms of 17th century Dutch mariners as they performed a short display by presenting arms with ancient muskets and then firing ancient weapons in a ceremonial display.

It was a familiar routine for Greg, who had nearly 50 years of involvement in preparing and presenting re-enactments of historical and military events in Nelson and Marlborough.  His Mapua-based group had researched and then made Dutch naval uniforms and borrowed historic weapons for the event.  As Dame Cath arrived at the park headquarters, Greg’s team fired a ceremonial volley from replica muskets, followed by a loud  blast from a small replica signal canon – a weapon designed to let other vessels know of a ship’s presence when visibility was poor.

An impressed Dame Cath asked the group if there was anything she could do in return for them.  Greg quickly replied that she “might consider giving us a knighthood” and when she said she would, he offered her a sword, went down on one knee and was formally dubbed. A second member of the team was similarly honoured.

Sir Greg Hats of to Dame Cath

Hats off to Dame Cath: The Mapua group involved in a 17th Century naval salute - show their appreciation for Dame Cath's gesture. Photo- David Mitchell

Unbeknown to Greg, Dame Cath had earlier taken lessons in dubbing a knight and she later described the routine: “Rule one: (common-sense, she wrote, “Use the flat side of the dubbing sword.”

“Rule two: tap, don’t slice.  Less obvious is the correct way to dub the new knight first on the right shoulder, then on the left”.

She also noted that “Dames are not dubbed at all. The reasons put forward aren’t terribly convincing - ‘It has always been that way’, is the usual (explanation) - though I have made the point that all traditions have to be new at some stage.1

Later, Greg sent Dame Cath some photos of the ceremony and two replies came back from Government House on elegant stationery bearing the royal crest. One was written by Dame Cath’s executive officer and advised that “Her Excellency has asked me to thank you for your kindness and courtesy in sending photographs (of the dubbing ceremony).  These will be placed with Her Excellency’s records to remind her of a very happy and memorable occasion.  Dame Catherine has also been pleased to sign two photographs which I return with this letter and with Her Excellency’s very best wishes for Christmas and the New Year.”

However, Dame Cath had mischievously also slipped into the package a different card with a message to “Dear Sir Greg”. In humourously archaic language, Dame Cath let Greg and the Mapua group know that she had been given a right royal telling-off for mocking the important honour of a knighthood.

 “Delighted to receive thine missive - though truly, thou hadst my new Official Secretary much puzzled,” Dame Cath wrote in large handwriting.

Sir Greg Cat among the pigeons 2

The image on Dame Cath's hand-written card to 'Dear Sir Greg....'Delighted to receive thine missive...."

“ ‘Twas not the press that took me to task for my temerity in knighting thee without authority, but the New Zealand Herald (i.e. Phillip O’Sheanot the Auckland newspaper),’ she wrote. “He it is who is the guardian of anachronistic and archaic customs and rituals in Aotearoa.”2

Dame Cath concluded: “Do what you will with your title - though Honorary in swearing, it is, I am sure, Honorable in its wearing.” Her card was signed simply “Catherine”.

The critic of the knighthood had been Mr Phillip O’Shea, who was, and still is “New Zealand Herald of Arms Extraordinary”, a force in the government to be reckoned with.

Mr O’Shea had been appointed as the first and only “New Zealand Herald of Arms Extraordinary to Her Majesty the Queen” following reforms to our then largely British honours system

Greg Olsen in his workshop

Greg Olsen in his workshop. David Mitchell

For constitutional reasons, Mr O’Shea was appointed Herald following instructions from Queen Elizabeth II, as Queen of New Zealand, addressed to the Earl Marshal of England.

New Zealand-born Phillip O’Shea, was raised in Wellington with a boyhood interest in coins, medals, and heraldry that led to a career as chief adviser on matters related to our honours system. Educated at Victoria University, he had joined the public service in 1967 to work with Treasury as a librarian and became an adviser on numismatics (the study of coins, bank-notes and medals). In 1974, he was appointed adviser to the Prime Minister and Cabinet on honours and four years later became the head of the then Honours Secretariat, a  body then responsible for administering New Zealand’s honours system.  In a May 2016 New Zealand Listener article, journalist Clare de Lore said Mr O’Shea had become “the unofficial go-to man in Government circles for advice on titles, protocol and honours”.3

Mr O’Shea, as New Zealand Herald of Arms Extraordinary, advised the Government on heraldic matters, represented the College of Arms in New Zealand, was deputy in England to the Garter Principal King of Arms and was also ex-officio a member of the Royal Household and had direct access to the Queen. He was also described as “an honorary member of the New Zealand Governor-General’s household”. 

In his 2016 interview for the Listener, Mr O’Shea said that in Queen Elizabeth’s Royal Household, there were six Heralds-in-Ordinary, or full-time Heralds, five Heralds and one Pursuivant Extraordinary…There are three Kings of Arms and four Pursuivants, or Junior Heralds.”

In 1996, Mr O’Shea was appointed to the New Zealand Order of Merit, an order created in that year with the aim of superseding knighthoods and dame-ships as the top honours.

Eight years later, in 2004, Mr O’Shea retired as head of the Government’s Honours Secretariat following heart surgery. However, he retained and continues his position as the New Zealand Herald of Arms Extraordinary.

More on Dame Cath's clashes with the establishment after this incident, and the role of Philip O'Shea as Herald Extraordinary. [PDF]

 2018

Sources used in this story

  1. Tizard, Cath (2010) Cat Among the Pigeons: a memoir. Auckland, NZ : Random House p270.
  2. Card and photo in the possession of Greg Olsen, Mapua
  3. DeLore, C. (2016, March 26) I am a magpie really, a collector of things. Listener. v.253 n.3957:p.34-37

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