On a blustery Sunday lunchtime, the Piano’s auditorium was the venue for hundreds to hear of Tom Scott’s search for Charles Upham, through research, interviews and personal visits to significant locations in Italy, Germany, North Africa and Crete.
The talk began with a vivid description of Charles Upham’s piercing cold sapphire blue eyes, that “would bore a hole through steel”, and sufficiently terrified an Italian guard to the extent that he complied with Upham’s request to “hand me your knife”.
Charles Upham is a true son of Canterbury – born at 32 Gloucester St, educated at Waihi School (where he played war games as an 8 year old) and Christ College, attended Canterbury Agricultural College at Lincoln, worked as a shepherd, farmer and valuer on Canterbury farms and stations, and settled at Conway River for almost 50 years. However, it was on the battlefields of Crete and El Alamein that he exhibited the extraordinary bravery and courage that lead to him being the only combat soldier awarded two Victoria Crosses, and, according to Tom Scott, he was entitled to 8.
Charles Upham’s strong moral code may have come from his visits to the Quail Island leper colony with his uncle, the famous “Little Doctor of Lyttelton” Charles Hazlitt Upham. Charles Upham abhorred bullying in any form, and at Waihi School he had the nickname Pug (short for pugnacious). His antics continued at Lincoln, where he organised a mass playing of music records to wind up a newly appointed house master, accompanied by weaner piglets being locked into the master’s room! This hinted at Upham’s troublemaking streak, which went very close to getting him into serious peril as a prisoner of war being transported across Europe, and eventually interred at Colditz Castle, a special camp for habitual escapers.
Upham enlisted rapidly after the outbreak of war, and turned down officer training in New Zealand, as it would have meant a delay to his departure. He was well read on the situation in Europe, and was determined to do his bit to stop the “world’s biggest bully” Hitler.
Charles Upham was uncomfortable with the honours given to him, as he felt they really belonged to the men he led. He was very reluctant to sew his VC ribbon onto his tunic, and only did so when commanded to by General Freyberg. Even his own daughters did not know about his Victoria Crosses until they went to high school.
Tom Scott attempted to sum up Charles Upham by reading this sentence from one of the last pages of Searching for Charlie:
“Charlie Upham believed that all human beings were equal and defended this principle with an all-consuming passion, fury and courage on a scale that did the very thing that he hated most - it set him apart”.
- Books by Tom Scott
- Mark of the Lion (Previous biography about Charles Upham - Tom Scott told the story that this book was eagerly passed around when he was a schoolboy at Fielding Agricultural College, and that 25% of the manuscript was never published, in an effort to save paper! Tom Scott was given access to this material and incorporated some of the stories contained in these missing pages in his 2020 biography).
- Helens Blog: Remembering New Zealand's Greatest War Hero
- This is Your Life: Charles Upham
- London Gazette 1941 on Charles Upham
- London Gazette 1945 on Charles Upham
- NZ History Biography
- Te Ara Biography
More about WORD Christchurch
- WORD Christchurch website (for the full programme and info about authors)
- Our pages about WORD Christchurch and WORD Christchurch Spring Festival 2020
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