Saturday, September 27, 2008

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

Updated: 8 August 2019

In a corner of the little graveyard beside St Ninian’s Hall (formerly the Whau/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 (1844-1873). His father, also named David (c.1804-1860) came from Ballynahinch, to the south-east of Belfast in what is now Northern Ireland. In 1827, David Hamilton senior was licensed to preach at the Connor Presbyterian Church, and ended his career serving at York Street Church in Belfast from 1840. When he passed away from typhus fever, he left a widow (Eliza) and six children, including David and elder brother Thomas.

David Hamilton junior began his own career with the Presbyterian Church in Belfast in 1869 when he was licensed to preach at May Street church.

Back in 1848, the Ulster Presbyterian General Assembly set up a Colonial Mission in 1848, under the leadership of William McClure of Derry, to deal with the "religious destitution of emigrants" to the colonies. In May 1871, McClure offered a call to mission work he was organising in New Zealand, in conjunction with noted St Andrews, Auckland minister Rev David Bruce, to David Hamilton. At that point, David's brother Thomas had a position at their father's York Street church. On 3 August 1871, David Hamilton was formally ordained by the Presbytery of Belfast as a missioner to the Colonies. The York Street congregation held a farewell for Hamilton in early October, and he set off, embarking with Bruce aboard the Caduceus for Auckland.

They arrived on 2 February 1872. Hamilton proved that 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 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 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 Hamilton to the vast Whau Parish, stretching from Avondale through to Riverhead. They joined the congregation on 21 May 1872 for the formal induction service at the Whau Church.

During the remainder of his life, 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 (Constable Bullen described him as always being in a "deep study"), 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”.

In February 1873, Hamilton expressed his concerns regarding service to the mill workers in the out-districts of the Waitakere Ranges. At a meeting in Avondale that month, he said he “found it impossible to give attention to the Huia and Cornwallis Districts, and attend to the other parts of his charge at the times to which the people had been accustomed to expect him. He desired to hear if any concession could be made in this respect, so that he might be relieved of those out-districts and have more time to devote to the other portions of his large district.” The meeting moved to make the Huia & Cornwallis visits an exception to his expected ministerial work, while David Bruce said he and other brethren were inclined to offer to fill in so Hamilton could visit the out districts on a quarterly basis.

At the annual meeting of the congregation in July 1873, Bruce remarked on the difficult roads Hamilton travelled on his ministry, and “how fortunate [Hamilton] had been in escaping accidents so long.”

A week later, 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, styayed overnight, then headed on horseback for Robert Gibbons’ new sawmill at the Heads. The distance between Huia and Whatipu was said to be only four miles, a relatively short distance via the coastline and a trek along a rock-strewn path, but as it turned out Hamilton took to 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 John 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, “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, 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 as 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.

The searchers picked up Hamilton’s tracks leading south towards the Manukau Harbour, leading his horse towards the mouth of the Karamatura stream and another of Gibbons’ sawmills there. He had been expected further on at the new mill on Whatipu stream 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 Niagara Sawmill at Karamatura claimed to have seen Hamilton passing by on the afternoon of Tuesday the 15th in one report, but this was an example of the news reports at the time, provided to an increasing concerned Auckland public, becoming rather tangled in terms of details, dates and geographic locations. Hamilton passed the Niagara Sawmill around 2 pm on the afternoon of 10 July. Around 2.30 pm, “he spoke to two sawyers working a hut on a hill … He was then on a very dangerous track, where a horse might slide down for a hundred yards or more. He was inquiring about the track, and was subsequently seen by them in the distance leading his horse,” according to Constable Bullen. This was the last time Hamilton was seen alive.

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 at the back of Little Huia, at Desolation Gully, 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 15 July, over 40 men from the mills from Pararaha through to Huia 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.

A £25 reward was posted by Rev Bruce and John Buchanan for the recovery of Hamilton’s remains. Two days later the body was discovered on Sunday 20 July by three labourers (James Davis, Patrick Ready and Robert Dunn) from the Whatipu Mill. The discovery was described later by Davis, the only one of the men who testified at the inquest: “I found the body in a sitting/semi-upright position, in a waterhole near the creek. The face was downwards. A white handkerchief was tied around the head, in consequence possibly of having lost his hat, which was missing. I did not discover any marks of violence on the body. The skin of the body was sodden, as though it had been in the water, or washed by rain … It is a difficult route, almost impassable in some places for a horse … My impression is that the deceased had been walking in the night, and had fallen over a rock to the place where the body was found. I did not find the horse.” “No smell of putrefaction … I suppose life must have been extinct six, seven or eight days. I believe the body had been washed to the position in which I found it by the heavy rains which fell on the Friday night before I found it. In lifting the body I suspected that the left arm was broken. I did not discover any marks of external violence, rather than a little blood about the face.”

This was about a mile from where his horse was found, and a mile and a half from Gibbons' Whatipu Mill and his possible salvation.

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.”

A bit of a footnote to the tragic tale -- on 25 July Patrick Ready, one of the three men from Whatipu Mill who found Hamilton's body in the stream, appeared before the Auckland Police Court "charged with kicking up a row in Queen Street." He told the magistrate that he'd been one of the men who'd found Hamilton, and "it had caused him to be excited." Given that he'd have received a third share of the £25 reward posted by Rev Bruce -- and £8 or so would have bought quite a bit of alcohol from the Queen Street pubs -- it's probably no wonder he got "excited". As Ready had previous good character, and said he intended to leave Auckland "if he lived that long," he was discharged without conviction.

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