This is William John Gempton. He came into our home via the convergence of two collecting paths – (1) my policy of rescuing handsome men from a ghastly eternity spent forgotten in a box in some secondhand shop and – (2) the very fine fretwork frame in which he lives. William (complete with frame) was found in an antique shop that used to be in Market Road, Auckland (run by the remarkable Finella now resident at Cordy’s).
William gets more attention than do most individual objects in the house by dint of the fact that he tends to slip from the frame in which his photograph is lodged and therefore requires putting back together on a pretty regular basis. Last time this happened I was reminded of his name. ‘Bill Gempton (1890-1979)’, is written in pen on the back. I decided to Google him.
Google was sure I really meant Bill Compton – the lead vampire in True Blood. So I took the image down to work, where there are people much better than most at tracking this sort of information. It took only a couple of minutes and we now have Bill’s back story.
To my total surprise Bill turned out to be a Napier boy – a saddler, whose parents lived in Hastings Street. He shipped out to World War 1 aged 28, with the 42nd Reinforcements D Company but did so relatively late in the piece in August 1918 – when the war had only a couple of months to go. This means that Bill probably saw little in the way of active service.
Bill came home to Napier and returned to the business of making saddles. His handsome good looks never seemed to find a wife – yes some people find the intensity of his eyes [a little vampire there after all] a little troubling. Bill lived on and off with a sister. Was it her that had made the frame? Was it her that labelled the back of the photograph? Did the photograph live with his sister all those years before somehow ending up in an antique shop? There seems a certain irony that Bill’s frame – so graphically illustrates a Tommy ‘sticking it to the Hun,’ when Bill arrived too late to do anything of the sort. Was he vaguely embarrassed by it as the years rolled on – or did it sit forgotten on a table in a spare bedroom.
Later in his life, when the saddler business sort of petered out, Bill became a caretaker and property manager for some of the larger houses on Napier Hill, moving residence with some frequency. So the question kind of remains of whose home was Bill the hero? I once removed Bill from his frame and replaced it with a lovely image – of much the same period – of a sweet grey Tom-cat but it just didn’t work. I returned bachelor Bill to his frame and there he remains – saddler, soldier, groundsman and the Hero of our Home.