Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Sad Death of Maggie Jane Cowen

On the 9th of February 1880, 8-year-old Maggie Cowen died by drowning in the Oakley Creek, somewhere close to the line of the current railway. These reports came from the NZ Herald of 12 February 1880.


One of the most lamentable accidents which has taken place in the Whau district for some time past, occurred on Monday evening last, at the Whau Tannery, (Messrs. B. Gittos and Sons), by which a fine little girl, newly eight years of age, named Maggie Jane Cowen, the daughter of Mr. Francis Cowen, a workman at the tannery, lost her life by drowning, in the dam which supplies the factory with water. The circumstances under which the distressing event took place are as follows:-

On the day in question Mrs Cowen, who resides in one of the cottages erected on the estate for the accommodation of the workmen, went to town on business, leaving the eldest girl, of 9 years of age, in charge of the house. A little before 5 o’clock in the evening the girl sent Maggie Jane (the deceased) down to the tannery, about 100 yards distant across the creek, with a “billy” to her father according to her usage, for a workman named David Carr, who supplied the family with milk by return of “billy” every morning. On giving the vessel to her father he told her to get off home as soon as possible, and she left the tanyard to return across the creek the way she had come.

It was close on 5 o’clock; and was the last time at which she was seen alive. The men at the tannery left work at 5.30, and Mr Cowen proceeded homewards. On reaching home he could see no sign of his daughter, but, as she sometimes went into the house of their neighbour, he concluded that she was there;. Meanwhile Mrs Cowen had arrived from town by Quick’s 5.30 ‘bus, and as the child was invariably accustomed to meet her at the ‘bus and welcome her home, she at once noticed her absence, but accounted for the matter in the same way as her husband. After a few minutes’ delay, inquiry was made at Mrs. Brett’s, but the child had not been there, and the anxious mother at once started off to Mr. Carr’s house, in the hope that, as he had on the Sunday asked the little girl to go down to his place, she might be there. On arrival, Mrs Cowen found, to her distress, that her daughter had not been there, and a presentiment at once took possession of her mind that the child had met an untimely fate.

Returning home, she acquainted her husband with the facts. Up to this time he had not entertained any uneasiness, as one of his children a short time before had, tired out with play, fallen asleep in the paddock, and been found after some trouble and search. Mr. Cowen was now thoroughly aroused and alarmed, and at once started for the tannery, where he had parted with deceased. Information was sent to Mr. James Gittos, and he and one of his men, Mr. Chiswell, who resided near at hand, turned out and assisted in the search. They examined the scrub on the banks of the creek, the tanpits, wool-vats, and every possible nook and corner which could be thought of. It was now getting dark, and as a last resort, it was determined to drag the dam. Poles and hooks were obtained from the works, and Mr. Gittos commenced operations on the north bank, and Mr. Arthur Brett, one of the men at the tannery, on the south, while the father of the deceased held lights to enable the search to be carried on.

About 9 o’clock Mr. Brett was successful in hooking the clothes of the unfortunate child, and the body was speedily brought to the bank, and identified. An examination of the ground showed pretty conclusively how she had met her untimely fate. On leaving the tannery she had crossed the roadway at the bottom end of the dam. It is a dray road, about fourteen feet wide, and perfectly safe, the bank to the dam being formed of puddled clay, at an angle of rest. The child had evidently left the roadway on her return home, and gone down the slope to look at the fish and eels which swarm there, and are clearly visible on the yellow clay bottom near the sluice – a practice which, it transpired at the inquest, other children had been accustomed against repeated warnings to indulge in. To the left of the sluice there is a knoll about fourteen inches above the water, and it is conjectured that in looking over at the fish she over-balanced herself, and fell in head-foremost at a spot where the water is three to four feet deep. One of the men was working in the dyeing shop (the open dor of which abutted on the creek), some 60 feet distant from where she fell in, but never heard a single cry; and her father and some other men who were working in an open shed only 70 feet distant, did not hear anything either.

From the position in which the body was found, it is presumed that she never rose to the surface, but got stuck in the mud, as had she given the slightest alarm, it would have been heard by the men working adjacent, who were within easy reach, and would have been in time to save her. It was remembered afterwards by the tannery workmen, in the light of the sad event, that at a quarter past five o’clock, the tannery watchdog, posted about 100 feet up that cliff on the south side of the creek, jumped upon his kennel, and straining on the collar, commenced to bark furiously. As it was his custom to do so whenever anyone not connected with the works passed by, the circumstances did not attract any special notice, but there is little reason now to doubt that the dog (a Newfoundland) saw the child fall in, and was endeavouring to get off the chain to rescue her. Mr. and Mrs. Cowen lost a child four months old about a fortnight ago by sickness, and a very general sympathy is felt by the residents of the Whau district for them in their fresh affliction and bereavement.


The inquest was held yesterday, at Mr. Palmer’s hotel, Whau, before Dr. Philson, Coroner, and a respectable jury, of which Mr. James Owen was chosen foreman, to inquire into the circumstances attendant upon the drowning of the deceased Maggie Jane Cowen. Mounted Constable Bullen conducted the proceedings for the police. The evidence of Messrs. Arthur Brett, Francis Cowen, and James Gittos was taken. The Coroner, in his address to the jury, said, as it had been deposed to in evidence that the dam and approaches were on private property, and perfectly safe for the workmen employed thereof, and that a standing order had been issued by the proprietors of the tannery, prohibiting children from entering upon the works, no blame could attach to the Messrs. Gittos. The jury then returned a verdict of “Accidentally drowned.”

NZ Herald, Thursday 12 February 1880, p. 5, col. 3

A curious incident came out at the inquest held at the Whau yesterday, which goes far to show that the old exploded idea, that no one may touch or remove a dead body before the arrival of the police, has not wholly died out. The messenger sent from the Whau on Monday night to acquaint the police with the intelligence of the drowning of the child at the Whau tannery dam returned with a message that the child was not to be removed or touched until the arrival of the police. It is probable that the man misunderstood the instructions given to him, as it is scarcely possible that any intelligent police officer could have issued such instructions. Anyway, the body of the child was kept on a piece of bagging on the margin of the creek until the return of the messenger from Auckland, but the common sense of the father revolted against the new injunction, and, in accordance with his instincts as a parent, he removed the body of his child to his home. The Coroner, Dr. Philson. Pointed out to the jury yesterday, that the idea that a dead body may not be touched or removed before the arrival of the police or jury was a complete fallacy, and had no foundation in law. The probability was that the false impression created arose purely out of a misunderstanding.

It will be remembered that some time ago a constable in a rural district, who was made acquainted with the fact that a woman had committed suicide, by hanging, in the settlement, would not cut her down or permit anyone else to do so, pending an inquest, and was promptly dismissed the service for his simplicity. At Wellington a worse case occurred a year or two back. A child had fallen into the sea, and was drowning. It did not appear to be dead, as some convulsive motion was apparent, and a man went into the water to bring the body out, when a yell arose from the crowd, warning him not to touch it till the arrival of the police. The man hesitated and retired. It seems scarcely credible that such slavish superstition could exist in the nineteenth century, in an Anglo-Saxon community. In the face of these things, it is not to be wondered at that some ill-informed persons should permit themselves to be deterred from acting as their judgement and common sense would alike dictate. It cannot be to widely known that any one is at perfect liberty to use means to restore those apparently dead, or t0o remove the body to the nearest suitable dwelling. It is scarcely fair to the police to slavishly leave every responsibility on their shoulders, instead of cultivating habits of self-reliance. Some one, referring to this trait in an English community, wittily remarks, “that if the average Englishman met the devil, the first thing he would do would be to write a letter to the Times about it, and the next to send for a policeman!”
NZ Herald, Thursday 12 February 1880, p. 4, col. 5

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