Saturday, September 27, 2008

A wrong step in the dark : the death of Rev. David Hamilton (c.1844-1873)

In a corner of the little graveyard beside St Ninian’s Hall (formerly the Avondale Presbyterian Church) a sturdy obelisk monument stands guarded by rusted metal railings. Once this monument was in danger of collapsing, but former Avondale resident and then-Minister of Internal Affairs, Richard F. Bollard, noticed and saw to it that the foundation around the stone was strengthened. And so, it has survived to stand today in a quiet suburban churchyard.

This is the grave, hard between the old church hall and modern playgrounds and the present-day picket fences, overlooking the Mobil Service Station, of the Rev. David Hamilton. He came from Belfast, and arrived with noted St Andrews minister the Rev. David Bruce to New Zealand on 7 February 1872. He was an enthusiastic minister of the Presbyterian Church in this country; he was well known for travelling widely to outlying areas, and preached even on the Coromandel Peninsula in late May 1872, the month after the parish at the Whau (Avondale) called for him to be their new minister.

The little country church had been without a minister of their own since 1867. Once word had reached them of this fine young enthusiastic Irishman, and Rev. Hamilton had visited them to give service at one point in the Whau and at Titirangi, the parishioners convened a meeting on 18 April 1872, and put Rev. Hamilton‘s name to a “call“ or formal request from the congregation to the Presbytery. The “call” read:

“We, the undersigned elders, other office bearers and members of the united congregation of the Whau and neighbouring districts, in the province of Auckland, being Protestants, desirous of promoting the glory of God and the good of His Church, being satisfied, by good information and our own experience of the ministerial abilities and of the suitableness to our capacities of the gifts of you (the Rev. David Hamilton) have agreed to invite, as we hereby do invite, and call you to undertake the office of pastor among us, promising you all dutiful respect, encouragement, and obedience in the Lord, and engage to pay a stipend of not less than £160 per annum, in witness whereof we have subscribed the call before the Presbytery of Auckland, on the eighteenth day of April, one thousand eight hundred and seventy-two years.” There were 141 signatures to the call.

A collection of districts contributed toward the stipend, as these were then the areas of the total parish: the Whau, £60; Riverhead, £40; Hobson’s Villa (Hobsonville) £30; Henderson’s Mill £15; Titirangi £15; Huia, £20; and Cornwallis, £7. As can be seen, this added up to £187, £27 more than the base stipend, and didn’t include contributions from the likes of districts in the Kaipara, to which the vast parish extended.

The Auckland Presbytery agreed to the call, and appointed Rev. Hamilton to the vast Whau Parish. They joined the congregation on 21 May 1872 for the formal induction service at the Whau Church.

During the remainder of his life, Rev. David Hamilton applied himself diligently to the task of supplying ministration to the outlying districts of the parish, from the Whau to Riverhead and the Manukau coastline. But as later came to light, his parishioners and friends found that he was not a good horseman, having fallen from his horse more than once along the road; he was also absent-minded and not very observant, with little “bush sense” (hardly surprising, coming directly from Belfast to the wild colonies). His health was given as good, but he was not “robust”. At the annual meeting of the congregation in July 1873, Rev. Bruce remarked on the difficult roads Rev. Hamilton travelled on his ministry, and “how fortunate [Rev. Hamilton] had been in escaping accidents so long.”

A week later, Rev. Hamilton was reported missing.

The reverend set out on Wednesday 9 July 1873 from the Whau to conduct service at the Manukau Heads, at Whatipu. He reached Huia safely that day, then headed on horseback for Robert Gibbons’ new sawmill at the Heads. The distance between Huia and Whatipu was only four miles, a relatively short distance, but it involved travelling through dense bush, in the midst of a rainy, cold West Auckland winter. When he hadn’t arrived back at the Whau on Saturday 12 July, the alarm was raised. Whau settlers James Archibald and J. Todd started out on Sunday the 13th along the route believed to have been taken by the reverend on his last journey. Six miles out, they reached Little Muddy Creek (near Laingholm), and found his tracks. They followed the creek, up over ranges to Big Muddy Creek to the southwest, finding the track about five feet wide and “a very bad one.” Following Hamilton’s trail, they arrived at Woodman’s Hotel, learning there that Hamilton had passed by on horseback. They then followed the beach track, and saw signs that Hamilton had dismounted at that point, leading his horse because of the hard, stony nature of the beach.

At Mill Bay, south along the coast at Huia, three miles from Woodman’s Inn, the two searchers were advised by the workers at the mill there that Hamilton had passed safely by. His footsteps were traced two miles further on, to Kakamatua Stream and the site of the Cornwallis Sawmill. At that point, the reverend was remembered has having passed, “all right, and well”, as far as the workers recalled. From Kakamatua Stream, he travelled west to “Big Huia”, or the Huia Stream, and Mrs. Bates’ hostel. He’d remained there the night of 9 July, in good health and holding a service there that evening. Reports said he was heading for Onehunga, but this is odd, as why would he have been heading for Onehunga when he was supposed to be visiting the mills at Huia and the Manukau Heads?

The searchers picked up Hamilton’s tracks leading towards the Manukau Harbour, leading his horse through dense bush, towards Karamatura and Gibbons’ Sawmill there. He had been expected there on for divine services on Thursday 10th July but hadn’t arrived. The countryside in the area was described in 1873 as being “rugged and broken, nothing but barren rocks and bleak cliffs; a dense bush and dangerous sidelings running along the edge of the Manukau Heads. Precipices from 400 ft to 500 ft abound …”

The manager at Gibbon’s Sawmill at Huia claimed to have seen Hamilton passing by on the afternoon of Tuesday the 15th in one report. If so, that is odd as well. The reverend may have been wandering around in the bush, disorientated -- but why didn’t the sawmill manager help him as he would clearly have been seen to be in distress by that stage? It is doubtful that this report was correct.

After two and a half miles from Huia Stream and the first Gibbon’s mill, the tracks stopped. With the help of the men from the Karamatura mill, Archibald and Todd found a fresh set of tracks leading to a log where the reverend apparently sat down to rest, possibly as night was closing in on him, and tried feeding himself on the inside of nikau ferns. His horse was located 400-500 yards from the log and the reverend’s last known footprints, tangled up in supplejack, starved, and obviously stuck there for some time before the searchers found it.

On Tuesday 15th July, over 40 men from the mills engaged in the search for the missing man. John Bollard, Hepburn and Harper from the Whau joined the search parties the next day. On Thursday, the search continued along the coast, between where the horse was found and the log, and then from the coast back to the mill. Local Maori reported that they’d heard “cries in the bush” on Thursday the 10th, and thought they were the call of an “atuati” (the report may have meant “atua” or spirit) so would not go out to investigate, though their dogs barked loudly.

The reverend’s body was discovered on Sunday 20 July, face-down in a waterhole in Foote’s Creek, Destruction Gully, near Whatipu beach, about a mile from where his horse was found. He was fully clothed, but minus his hat, and a white handkerchief was tied around his head. It was theorised that he wandered about for a while near where he had left his horse, then decided to follow the creek to the sea, but had missed his step in the dark, fallen, and drowned. His skin was reported as sodden, so he had been in the water for some time. At first, it was intended that the body be taken to Onehunga, and then overland to the city, but the sawmill workers took it upon themselves to carry the body overland by way of the ranges themselves. They reached the Whau on the evening of 22 July, and were met with warm gratitude and refreshments. A coffin was prepared and the body conveyed to St Andrews Church for inquest the next day, followed by the sombre journey back out to the Whau and the little church at the five roads intersection. The hearse, decorated with black plumes, was followed by around a dozen carriages. Several shops closed along the route from the city, and extra mourners joined he procession as it passed. “These,” said one report, “as the destination was neared, numbered close upon 50, and assumed the appearance of an attendant escort of cavalry.” By the time they reached the Whau township at 3 pm, the procession stretched for nearly a quarter of a mile, numbering 200-300 people. “A number of foot passengers had come out to meet the funeral, and remained ranged on either side of the road with raised hats as it passed … Every shop [in the township] was closely shut, and business was suspended in sympathy with the solemn occasion.”

The words around the four stone sides directly beneath the obelisk, now faded and damaged by time and perhaps vandals, reads:

“Rev. David Hamilton B.A., Clergyman of the parish, who after a pastorate of 15 months, died from exposure in the Manukau Forest, in the month of July 1873, a. 29. ‘To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.’ The above words, which aptly describe his career, are those from which he last preached the gospel to his people. He left his home on 9th July for Huia, to conduct Divine service, and proceeded on the 10th for Manukau Heads, but missed his way in the darkness. His body was found on the 20th and interred here on 23 July 1873.

“Erected by his parishioners and friends, in affectionate remembrance of his goodness as a man and his devotedness as a Christian minister.”

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